Word of Wisdom/History and implementation

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The history and implementation of the Word of Wisdom

Revelations in Context: "Nevertheless, it required time to wind down practices that were so deeply ingrained in family tradition and culture"

"The Word of Wisdom: D&C 89," Revelations in Context on history.lds.org (11 June 2013):

Nevertheless, it required time to wind down practices that were so deeply ingrained in family tradition and culture, especially when fermented beverages of all kinds were frequently used for medicinal purposes. The term “strong drink” certainly included distilled spirits like whiskey, which hereafter the Latter-day Saints generally shunned. They took a more moderate approach to milder alcoholic beverages like beer and “pure wine of the grape of the vine of your own make” (see D&C 89:6). For the next two generations, Latter-day Saint leaders taught the Word of Wisdom as a command from God, but they tolerated a variety of viewpoints on how strictly the commandment should be observed. This incubation period gave the Saints time to develop their own tradition of abstinence from habit-forming substances. By the early twentieth century, when scientific medicines were more widely available and temple attendance had become a more regular feature of Latter-day Saint worship, the Church was ready to accept a more exacting standard of observance that would eliminate problems like alcoholism from among the obedient. In 1921, the Lord inspired Church president Heber J. Grant to call on all Saints to live the Word of Wisdom to the letter by completely abstaining from all alcohol, coffee, tea, and tobacco. Today Church members are expected to live this higher standard.[1]

Question: Has the implementation and enforcement of the Word of Wisdom changed over time?

Early Latter-day Saints were not under the same requirements for the Word of Wisdom as today's Saints are

Observance of the Word of Wisdom has changed over time, due to on-going revelation from modern-day prophets, who put greater emphasis on certain elements of the revelation originally given to Joseph Smith. Early Latter-day Saints were not under the same requirements as today's Saints are. Latter-Day Saints believe that the Lord reveals his will to men "line upon line, precept upon precept," (Isaiah 28:10-13 and others) and that revelation continues as circumstances change.

"Strong drink" was initially interpreted as hard liquor, and did not include beer or lightly fermented wine

The text of the Word of Wisdom forbids "strong drink" (D&C 89:5, 7), which was initially interpreted as distilled beverages (hard liquor). Beer, unfermented or lightly fermented wine, and cider were considered "mild drinks" (D&C 89:17) and therefore acceptable (note that verse 17 specifically permits "barley...for mild drinks"). The complete prohibition of alcoholic drinks of any kind only became part of the Word of Wisdom following the temperance movement of the late 19th and early 20th centuries; Presidents Joseph F. Smith and Heber J. Grant supported the movement and Grant made complete abstention from alcohol in any form a requirement for a temple recommend in the early 1920s.

Consider also that drinking water in Joseph Smith's day (or during Biblical times) was a gamble because water purity was always questionable; a little alcohol in a beverage ensured that it was free of viruses and bacteria. The development of germ theory in the late 19th century lead to chemical treatments to ensure a safe supply of public drinking water. A strict ban of all alcohol in Joseph Smith's time would have been a death sentence for many Latter-day Saints—especially during the 1832–1833 cholera pandemic, which spread its disease by water.

Tobacco, coffee and tea were not initially prohibited, but instead their use was discouraged

The same sort of "ramping up" of requirements occurred with regard to tobacco, coffee and tea. While use of these items was often discouraged by Church leaders, enforcement was usually light and confined to people who were severe abusers. For example, Brigham Young made the following remarks in April 1870 General Conference:

On Sunday, after meeting, going through the gallery which had been occupied by those claiming, no doubt, to be gentlemen, and perhaps, brethren, you might have supposed that cattle had been standing around there and dropping their nuisances. Here and there were great quids of tobacco, and places a foot or two feet square smeared with tobacco juice. I wish the door-keepers, when, in the future, they observe any persons besmearing the seats and floor in this way to request them to leave the house; and, if they refuse and will not stop spitting about and besmearing their neighbors, just take them and lead them out carefully and kindly. It is an imposition for those claiming to be gentlemen to spit tobacco juice for ladies to draw their clothes through and besmear them, or to leave their dirt in the house. We request all addicted to this practice, to omit it while in this house. Elders of Israel, if you must chew tobacco, omit it while in meeting, and when you leave, you can take a double portion, if you wish to. [2]

Question: How was enforcement of the Word of Wisdom phased in over time?

Brigham Young declined to make the Word of Wisdom a "test of fellowship"

Said Brigham Young in 1861:

Some of the brethren are very strenuous upon the "Word of Wisdom", and would like to have me preach upon it, and urge it upon the brethren, and make it a test of fellowship. I do not think I shall do so. I have never done so. [3]

Ezra T. Benson notes that observing the Word of Wisdom would be "pleasing" to our Heavenly Father

In 1867, Ezra T. Benson exhorted the Saints to live the law, but seemed to realize that not all the Saints of the time had the capacity:

Supposing he had given the Word of Wisdom as a command, how many of us would have been here? I do not know; but he gave this without command or constraint, observing that it would be pleasing in His sight for His people to obey its precepts. Ought we not to try to please our Heavenly Father? [4]

In 1870, Brigham Young left the compliance with the Word of Wisdom up to the individual

In 1870, Brigham Young again emphasized that this was a commandment of God, but that following was left, to an extent, with the people:

The observance of the Word of Wisdom, or interpretation of God's requirements on this subject, must be left, partially, with the people. We cannot make laws like the Medes and Persians. We cannot say you shall never drink a cup of tea, or you shall never taste of this, or you shall never taste of that....[5]

In 1898, the First Presidency noted that bishops should not withhold temple recommends based upon the Word of Wisdom

Just before the turn of the century, in 1898, the First Presidency and Council of the Twelve discussed the Word of Wisdom:

President Woodruff said he regarded the Word of Wisdom in its entirety as given of the Lord for the Latter-day Saints to observe, but he did not think that Bishops should withhold recommends from persons who did not adhere strictly to it. [6]

So, even by this date keeping the Word of Wisdom was not a “point of fellowship”—you could still have a temple recommend if you didn’t obey, though the leaders remained clear that it was a true doctrine from the Lord.

By 1902, temple recommends were beginning to be denied to those who did not follow the Word of Wisdom

By 1902, the Church leaders were strongly encouraging the members to keep the law, and were even beginning to deny temple recommends to those who would not. They were, however, still merciful and patient with the older members who had not been born into the system, and for whom change was presumably quite difficult:

[In 1902] Joseph F. Smith urged stake presidents and others to refuse recommends to flagrant violators but to be somewhat liberal with old men who used tobacco and old ladies who drank tea. Habitual drunkards, however, were to be denied temple recommends. [7]

By 1905, the Council of the Twelve were actively preaching that no man should hold a leadership position if he would not obey the Word of Wisdom. [8] On 5 July 1906, the First Presidency and Council of the Twelve began using water instead of wine for their sacrament meetings. [9] By 1915, President Joseph F. Smith instructed that no one was to be ordained to the priesthood or given temple recommends without adherence. [10] Heber J. Grant became President of the Church in 1918, and he continued the policy of Word of Wisdom observance; after that time temple attendance or priesthood ordination required obedience to the principle. Thus, the Church membership had eighty-five years to adapt and prepare for the full implementation of this revelation. [11] By 1933, the General Handbook of Instructions listed the Word of Wisdom as a requirement for temple worship, exactly 100 years after the receipt of the revelation by Joseph Smith. [12]

Joseph F. Smith reasoned that the long period of implementation was needed to allow people to overcome addictions

According to Joseph F. Smith, this long period of patience on the part of the Lord was necessary for all—from the newest member to even the leaders:

The reason undoubtedly why the Word of Wisdom was given—as not by 'commandment or restraint' was that at that time, at least, if it had been given as a commandment it would have brought every man, addicted to the use of these noxious things, under condemnation; so the Lord was merciful and gave them a chance to overcome, before He brought them under the law. [13]

Thus, we should not expect perfect observance of the Word of Wisdom (especially in its modern application) from early members or leaders. The Lord and the Church did not expect it of them—though the principle was taught and emphasized.

Question: How is the Word of Wisdom observed in the modern Church?

In more recent times, apostles and prophets have added the use of illegal drugs and misuse of prescription medications to the list of prohibitions

In more recent times, apostles and prophets have added the use of illegal drugs and misuse of prescription medications to the list of prohibitions. [14] The term "hot drinks" is currently officially applied to tea and coffee. [15] Since coffee and tea both contain the stimulant caffeine, a question that sometimes is asked is whether or not the Word of Wisdom prohibits cola drinks. There is no specific prohibition on cola drinks, and this issue is left to an individual's own discretion.

The Word of Wisdom is a fulfillment of prophecy

The Word of Wisdom states that it is given in part because of the "evils and designs which do and will exist in the hearts of conspiring men in the last days" (DC 89:4). Modern developments have vindicated this prophetic warning.

The Word of Wisdom is a principle of obedience and unity

Furthermore, the Word of Wisdom is a principle of unity, according to Brigham Young:

So we see that almost the very first teachings the first Elders of this Church received were as to what to eat, what to drink, and how to order their natural lives, that they might be united temporally as well as spiritually. This is the great purpose which God has in view in sending to the world, by His servants, the gospel of life and salvation. It will teach us how to deal, how to act in all things, and how to live with each other to become one in the Lord. [16]

Throughout history God’s covenant people have frequently had indicators, or identity markers, which have separated them from the rest of the world

Outward signs are often used to single out God’s covenant people. Such signs have included:

circumcision (Gen. 17:2–14), the Sabbath day (Ex. 31:12–17), endogamy or prohibitions on marriage outside the group (Ezra 10:3), greetings (D&C 88:131-133), and dietary proscriptions, such as the food taboos of Leviticus or the latter-day health code of the Word of Wisdom. [17]

Adherence to the Word of Wisdom is often a mark of a committed Latter-day Saint and is an outward sign of their separation from the world and their participation in the fellowship of God’s covenant people. Non-observance or observance of the Word of Wisdom often reflects one’s commitment (or lack thereof) to their covenants with God as well as a possible indicator as to how one might approach other commandments.

One author noted this tendency when he recalled:

the general perception among young men when I went to high school was that if a girl smoked, she was also more likely to engage in premarital sex. While this was certainly not true in all instances, I know that from the bragging of some misguided boys, the precept was generally accurate. Likewise, those who congregate to consume alcohol, whether at frat parties or bars, are more likely to engage in immoral, illegal, or in general non-typical LDS behavior, than the Church member who doesn’t drink or join others at the bar or party. Many high-school counselors are keenly aware, for instance, that those kids who frequently skip school are more likely to get involved in alcohol, drugs, shop-lifting, and teen pregnancy, and they are more likely not to graduate. It’s a type of group mind-set and approach to life. As the saying goes, “It’s hard to wrestle with pigs, without getting dirty.” The Word of Wisdom helps keep our spiritual and physical bodies unspotted from the filth around us. [18]

To see citations to the critical sources for these claims, click here


  1. "The Word of Wisdom: D&C 89," Revelations in Context on history.lds.org (11 June 2013)
  2. Deseret News (11 May 1870): 160; reprinted in Brigham Young, "Fortieth Annual Conference of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints," Millennial Star 32 no. 22 (31 May 1870), 346. See discussion of the history in Robert J. McCue, "Did the Word of Wisdom Become a Commandment in 1851?," Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought 14 no. 3 (Autumn 1981), 66–77. off-site
  3. Brigham Young, Journal of Discourses 9:35.
  4. Ezra T. Benson, Journal of Discourses 11:367.
  5. Brigham Young, Journal of Discourses 14:20.
  6. Minutes of First Presidency and Council of Twelve Meeting, Journal History of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints,” May 5, 1898, LDS Church Archives; cited in Thomas G. Alexander, "The Word of Wisdom: From Principle to Requirement," Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought 14 no. 3 (Autumn 1981), 78–88. off-site
  7. Alexander, "Principle to Requirement," 79.
  8. Alexander, "Principle to Requirement," 79.
  9. This exception had been permitted by the Word of Wisdom from the beginning (see DC 89:5-6), though it was also clear that what one used for the sacramental emblems was not of primary doctrinal importance (see DC 27:).
  10. Alexander, "Principle to Requirement," 82.
  11. See discussion in Joseph Fielding McConkie and Craig J. Ostler, Revelations of the Restoration: A Commentary on the Doctrine and Covenants and Other Modern Revelations (Salt Lake: Deseret Book, 1964), Doctrine and Covenants 89:2.
  12. McConkie and Ostler, ibid.
  13. Joseph F. Smith, Conference Report (October 1913), 14.
  14. Gordon B. Hinckley, "The Scourge of Illicit Drugs," Ensign (November 1989), 48. off-site; James E. Faust, "The Enemy Within," Ensign (November 2000), 44. off-site
  15. See, for example, Robert L. Simpson, Conference Report (April 1963), 53.;Boyd K. Packer, Conference Report (April 1963), 107. Early statements available in John A. Widtsoe and Leah D. Widtsoe, The Word Of Wisdom: A Modern Interpretation (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Company, 1937), 28 and Roy W. Doxey, The Word of Wisdom Today (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Company, 1975),10–13.
  16. Brigham Young, Journal of Discourses 12:157-158. (italics added)
  17. Wouter Van Beek, "Covenants," in Encyclopedia of Mormonism, 4 vols., edited by Daniel H. Ludlow, (New York, Macmillan Publishing, 1992), 1:333.
  18. Mike Ash, FAIR e-mail list, 3 September 2006 (cited with permission).
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