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Word of Wisdom

Section 89 of the Doctrine&Covenants is more commonly known as the Word of Wisdom and contains the dietary restrictions and health code followed by faithful members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Some parts of the Word of Wisdom are clearly stated in the text and lived as written. Other portions are sometimes seen as ambiguous and have been clarified by the General Authorities of the Church over the years. Some edicts in the text are not widely followed and are not considered by the majority of members to be of importance.

Overview of LDS position

In the modern day, faithful LDS understand the Word of Wisdom to be direction from God, and to contain the following dietary restrictions and practices: No coffee, tea, alcohol, tobacco, and drugs. The Word of Wisdom also contains advice to eat meat sparingly, that fruits and vegetables are to be used with prudence and thanksgiving, and that grains are the staff of life. To those who keep the Word of Wisdom, the Lord promises health, wisdom, knowledge and that "the destroying angel shall pass by them, as the children of Israel, and not slay them."[1]

Overview of Critics' position

The Word of Wisdom is selectively adhered to by the majority of LDS faithful, for example eating meat sparingly, in times of famine and winter is rarely followed.[2] Meat is served at nearly every church function regardless of season. Some of the advice has not been shown by science to be of any type of health benefit, while others have been disproven. As a health code, the Word of Wisdom is incomplete and does not address most good practices one must follow in order to maintain a healthy body, and is even at odds with modern science when it comes to drinking wine in moderation.[3] Joseph Smith himself did not always keep the Word of Wisdom,[4] nor did a majority of the church members at the time Joseph Smith was alive. The Word of Wisdom has been repeatedly interpreted in different ways since it was first introduced to the body of the church, leading to a great deal of confusion among the members. For example, the text specifically forbids "hot drinks" and yet only certain hot drinks are disallowed. In a similar fashion, most of the tenets contained in the Word of Wisdom are unclear, leaving the members to speculate and debate the finer points of the law. Also, those elements of the WOW that are true, were known long before Joseph received the WOW revelation.


  1. D&C 89:18-21 Link is here.
  2. D&C 89:12-13 Link is here.
  3. "Red wine and resveratrol: Good for your heart?" Mayo Clinic Link is here.
  4. "Some desultory talk was now had in which the following truths were told: Joseph Smith tried the faith of the Saints many times by his peculiarities. At one time he had preached a powerful sermon on the Word of Wisdom, and immediately thereafter he rode through the streets of Nauvoo smoking a cigar." An Apostle's Record, The Journals of Abraham H. Cannon, Link is here.


Contents for this page


Essay by Jim Whitefield

Editor's comments


Introduction - by Jim Whitefield

The following essay is reprinted (with permission of the author) in it's entirety from Jim Whitefield. The MormonThink writers have found this essay to be a very informative and interesting view on some of the details regarding the Word of Wisdom that most Latter-day Saints may not be aware of. Our usual editor's commentary on this subject is at the end.

Jim Whitefield has written several interesting and informative books on Mormonism that can be found on his website: The Mormon Delusion

10. The Word of Wisdom and Fasting

What you do speaks so loud
that I cannot hear what you say.
Ralph Waldo Emerson. 1803 - 1882

As with most things concerning the Mormon Church, where nothing is as it first seems; the Word of Wisdom was no magnificent and awe inspiring revelation from God. It was simply Smith's answer to his wife's latest problems with some of the men; inspired by a simple joke between the Elders and Emma and some of the other women. Smith simply satisfied all parties by obtaining a ‘revelation' prohibiting everything they had joked about.

 In the Mormon Church, the ‘Word of Wisdom' is seen as the modern day equivalent of the ancient laws concerning what is appropriate to consume. Every dispensation has had its own ‘Word of Wisdom' or ‘health code', revealed by the Lord, according to the Church.

 Today's Word of Wisdom is seen as a ‘law of obedience' for members. Once accepted as advice from God, it is now considered a commandment. Members also ‘fast' once a month, which although not directly connected with the Word of Wisdom, is considered a healthy as well as spiritual observation. Mormon fasting is consistent to a large degree with many other Christian denominations as well as non Christian religions. For Mormons, fasting means forgoing all food and drink for twenty four hours (missing two meals). For those who dig deeper into what is expected, it actually requires ‘no bodily gratification' during that period which actually means no sex either, so members remain in a spiritual rather than carnal frame of mind. Very few members seem aware of that aspect. The cost of the food saved (or many times that amount) should be donated to the ‘fast offering' fund in order for the fast to be complete. These funds support the poor and needy. (See Ch. 17: Lies, Damn Lies and Statistics).

 Currently, the fast is observed from Saturday to Sunday on the first Sunday of each month (years ago it was on a week day), allowing members to be ‘in tune' with the spirit at their ‘fast and testimony meeting' where they may stand and bear testimony ‘as the spirit directs', on an impromptu basis. In large units of the Church, people may have to line up, or they stand in their place and a Deacon (12-13 year old boy) will bring a microphone to them, while in smaller units there may be periods of embarrassing silence when no one feels ready to stand. These are referred to as moments for reflection to be cherished and no one should feel embarrassed, but of course if they have not yet taken the opportunity to stand up and speak, some people feel extremely awkward. Often in those circumstances someone will eventually get up and everyone breathes a sigh of relief until they say ‘I don't like to see time go to waste so…' and off they go with a testimony, sometimes chastising those who have not yet stood up; and then the next person will get up and say how wonderful the times of silent reflection are and it is never time wasted… and so it goes on.

 Many forms of religious observance include fasting in one form or another, and either abstinence from or a sacrifice regarding what is eaten; at least at certain times if not continuously. ‘Kashrut' is the law concerning what foods Jews can and cannot eat and importantly for them, how foodstuff is prepared. More commonly referred to as ‘kosher' (clean); foods such as shellfish and pork are not kosher (unclean). It is a code stemming from biblical times but many of the laws of kashrut have no connection at all with health and may have originated in environmental considerations. Islam has ‘halal' (things that are permitted) and ‘haram' (those that are not); for example alcohol, pork and bread containing dried yeast. Hindus do not eat meat from animals and avoid food that may have caused pain to animals in the making. Most Buddhists are vegetarian.

 Roman Catholics have for centuries observed a code regarding food. Fasting is observed on specific days of the year and can also be used as a form of penance. It means reducing food to just one meal in a day. Fasting and abstinence from meat on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday as well as all Fridays during Lent, led to Friday being a popular day for fish. For centuries meat was banned every Friday, right through to the 1960's. The forty days of Lent, during which something especially enjoyed (such as chocolate or alcohol) is completely abstained from, are also observed by Catholics and many Protestants alike. Other religions both inside and outside Christianity have their own rules and observations that are related to what and when members eat. Fasting; from Muslim Ramadan (fasting every day during sunlight hours for the month) to Jewish (Yom Kippur) etc., from Hindu (Shivarati) etc., to the Baha'i fast during Ala, from Catholic Lent to the Mormon ‘Fast Sunday', there are many codes of conduct that have developed and evolved across the whole spectrum of belief systems which concern the supernatural; that is, a God or gods of some description whom the followers appease or worship through their personal sacrifice.

 Mormons therefore, are no different regarding the idea of fasting; and development of their Word of Wisdom is only to be expected, judging by other faith systems. However, what is comical; although equally disturbing; is the discovery (which members generally, as usual, have no idea about) that it all started simply because of a joke which led to a lot more than those who were involved in it had bargained on at the time.

 The situation that arose to evoke the revelation started with a combination of the efforts of the Kirtland Temperance Society (founded in 1830 and predominantly non Mormon), who were opposed to alcohol, tobacco and eating too much meat; and Smith training men in his ‘School of Elders' every day, meeting in a small smoke filled room above Emma's kitchen, with tobacco juice being spit all over the floor. Emma had the job of cleaning up following the meetings. The situation and results are available from several sources. This is just one:

Thus Emma, faced almost daily with “having to clean so filthy a floor” as was left by the men chewing tobacco, spoke to Joseph about the matter. Davis Whitmer's account supports Brigham Young's description. “Some of the men were excessive chewers of the filthy weed, and their disgusting slobbering and spitting caused Mrs. Smith … to make the ironical remark that ‘It would be a good thing if a revelation could be had declaring the use of tobacco a sin, and commanding it's suppression.' The matter was taken up and joked about, one of the brethren suggested that the revelation should also provide for a total abstinence from tea and coffee drinking, intending this as a counter ‘dig' at the sisters.” Sure enough the subject was afterward taken up in dead earnest, and the ‘Word of Wisdom' was the result. (David Whitmer). (Des Moines Daily News, 16 Oct 1886:20 c. in: Newell & Avery 1994:47, also c: An Historical Analysis of the Word of Wisdom, Paul H. Peterson - Masters Thesis, [no location provided]; Also: c. in Tanner 1987:406. See also Tanner 1987: Ch. 26 for excellent coverage). (Emphasis added).

 Section 89 of the D&C is one of many sections written to appear, not just as inspired words but rather, as if it was direct from the mouth of the Lord, as verse 4 includes “…thus saith the Lord unto you…” It prohibits the use of “wine” and “strong drinks”, “tobacco” and “hot drinks”. It also states that meat should only be eaten sparingly, “in times of winter, orof cold, or famine”. Good things are herbs, fruit and grain. It did not include beer, which continued to be used. Did Smith bring God in on the joke or did he simply make up a revelation to keep everyone quiet and happy? It is very hard to accommodate the idea that God coincidentally wanted the saints to comply with all aspects of discussions that were in reality, no more than a joke at the time. As with everything connected with religion though, it gave Smith more control over people and bound them more into the web of Mormonism. It was more new revelation and something the saints could do to show obedience to their God.

 Smith often seems to have picked up on what was popular in his day (such as the ideas in View of the Hebrews for his Book of Mormon) and he may have seen the 25 August 1830 edition of the Journal of Health published in Philadelphia. It had been running a series of articles written strongly against the use of spirits, alcohol, tobacco, tea and coffee; plus it advised substitution of vegetables for animal products. D&C 89, reflecting all of the above ideas, was dated 27 Feb 1833. Smith was not out of harmony with current health issues.

 I always thought that the revelation was originally given as advice only, becoming a commandment later, in the early twentieth century, but records indicate that initially it was a commandment which, being very unpopular quickly devolved into a mater of choice.
[Footnote: The Word of Wisdom--Section 89 of the Doctrine and Covenants (D&C 89)--as given in the spring of 1833 commanded that the Saints totally abstain from the use of alcohol, tobacco, and hot drinks (tea and coffee). However, because of wide-spread use of and deep-seated attachment to these substances by members, this revelation, by 1834, was changed from a direct commandment to general advise only. Even so, zealous leaders and members pressed for compliance with the original meaning of the revelation, and in early December 1836, a unanimous vote of the Saints in Kirtland supported the complete abstinence of "all liquors from the Church in Sickness & in health except wine at the Sacraments & for external washing" (Journal of Wilford Woodruff, 4 December 1836).] (Kirtland Elders' Quorum Record: 15 Oct 1837). (Emphasis added).

 This indicates that God commanded abstinence, yet the idea was quickly diluted; so what did God have to do with it? Evidence that Smith did not take his Word of Wisdom revelation too seriously himself, is firmly established by the following quote about the day he rode through town on a horse smoking a cigar. He drank beer of course and although apparently moderately, also wine, up until (and including) the very day that he was killed.
Joseph Smith tried the faith of the saints many times by his peculiarities. At one time he had preached a powerful sermon on the Word of Wisdom and immediately thereafter, he rode through the streets of Nauvoo smoking a cigar. Some of the brethren were tried as was Abraham of old. (Tanner 1987:6 c: Joseph Smith as an Administrator, Gary Dean Guthrie, M.A. thesis, Brigham Young University, May 1969:161, in turn c: the diary of Apostle Abraham H. Cannon. V.19. 1 Oct 1895. Special Collections Dept. BYU Library). (Emphasis added).

 There are various references to Smith also being fond of a drink:
Called at the office and drank a glass of wine with Sister Jenetta Richards, made by her mother in England, and reviewed a portion of the conference minutes. (HC V.5:380. Incident date: 2 May 1843). (Emphasis added).
 He was partial to a well supplied table and he did not always refuse the wine that ‘maketh the heart glad.' (Tanner 1987:407 c: A letter by Benjamin F. Johnson to Elder George S. Gibbs, 1903, printed in The Testimony of Joseph Smith's Best Friend, p 4). (Emphasis added).

We then partook of some refreshments, and our hearts were made glad with the fruit of the vine. (HC V.2:369. Incident date: January 1836; Also c. in Tanner 1987:407). (Emphasis added).

 The Word of Wisdom was ultimately then, not confirmed a commandment, but rather as advice and there was no actual obligation to obey; it was a matter of individual choice. Neither Joseph nor Emma appeared to completely adhere to it but it did keep the room used for the School of Elders free from smoke and tobacco spit and that would have kept Emma happy at least.

Whilst today, complete observance of the Word of Wisdom is an absolute requirement if members expect to hold Church ‘callings' (offices) or go to the temple, it is never a consideration for potential loss of their membership. Any member can safely break the Word of Wisdom all they like and no actual disciplinary action would likely follow. They would just not be called to any positions until they stop. In Smith's day it was (supposedly) even more optional. At least it was for him but not always it seems for others. Given “not by commandment or constraint” but as a “principle with a promise” and “for the weakest of saints”, Smith's D&C Section 89 was supposedly then a matter of personal choice. However, history confirms that this was not always the case in practice. Some members were disciplined for not obeying it and meanwhile, senior leaders (in addition to Smith) took little or no notice of it themselves.

 The Kirtland High Council Minute Book for 20 February 1834 confirms:
The council then proceeded to try the question, whether disobedience to the Word of Wisdom was a transgression sufficient to deprive an official member from holding an office in the Church, after having it sufficiently taught him … the President [Joseph Smith] proceeded to give a decision ‘That no official member in this Church is worthy to hold an office after having the Words of Wisdom properly taught to him, and he, the official member, neglecting to comply with, or obey them.' (Collier & Harwell 2002:33).

 The Tanner's provide evidence of the Church falsifying history to make it appear as though Joseph Smith did not do some of the things that he did regarding the Word of Wisdom. They provide copies of some original wording alongside falsified documents in their book, Mormonism - Shadow or Reality? Pp. 6-7 and Chapter 26 confirm the falsifications:

The Mormon leaders have made three important changes concerning the Word of Wisdom in Joseph Smith's History of the Church. In one instance, Joseph Smith asked “Brother Markam” to get “a pipe and some tobacco” for the Apostle Willard Richards. These words have been replaced with the word “medicine” in recent editions of the History of the Church. At another time Joseph Smith related that he gave some of the “brethren” a “couple of dollars, with directions to replenish” their supply of “whisky.” In modern editions of the History of the Church, 23 words have been deleted from this reference to cover up the fact that Joseph Smith encouraged the "brethren" to disobey the Word of Wisdom. In the third instance, Joseph Smith frankly admitted that he had “drank a glass of beer at moessers.” These words have been omitted in recent editions of the History of the Church.

The Mormon Church forbids the use of tea, but according to Joseph Smith's Diary, March 11, 1843, Smith was fond of strong tea: “…in the office Joseph said he had tea with his breakfast. his wife asked him if [it] was good. he said if it was a little stronger he should like it better, when Mother Granger remarked, ‘It is so strong, and good, I should think it would answer Both for drink, and food.'” This was entirely omitted in the History of the Church (see Vol. 5, page 302).

 The fact that these items have been wilfully and deliberately falsified in Church history underlines the level of integrity inherent in the leadership of the Church. The fact that modern day leaders are fully aware of these and many other evidenced falsifications and that they do nothing to correct matters, tells us that nothing has changed. There is no integrity, just deceit and lies on a continuing, and at times, even an evolving basis. Does it actually matter what Smith did regarding the WoW if it was just advice. An embarrassing example?

 On the day that Joseph Smith died, he and his companions drank wine to revive their spirits:

Sometime after dinner we sent for some wine. It has been reported by some that this was taken as a sacrament. It was no such thing; our spirits were generally dull and heavy, and it was sent for to revive us. I think it was Captain Jones who went after it, but they would not suffer him to return. I believe we all drank of the wine, and gave some to one or two of the prison guards. (John Taylor). (HC V.7:101).

 John Taylor became the third prophet and President of the Church. The Tanners take up Taylor's later attitude towards alcohol, which remained liberal:

It is interesting to note that the Apostle John Taylor continued to use alcoholic beverages after Joseph Smith's death. Hosea Stout recorded the following in his diary on June 3, 1847: While I was explaining this prests O. Hyde P. P. Pratt and John Taylor also came in so I stoped saying I had been catched twice. Elder Taylor replied to go on and not stop for them. I told him it was nothing but a police meeting and not interesting to them. ‘Never mind says he we are police men too.' Says I. ‘I hope you will all conform to the rules of the police then.' ‘Certainly' says Taylor ‘Bring on the jug' says I at which they were presented with a large jug of whiskey. This was such an unexpected turn that it was only answered by a peal of laughter & they all paid due respect to the jug... After drinking says Parley ‘I have traveled these streets all times of the night & never before have I saw a police man but now I know where to find them hereafter' alluding to the jug.‘Parley' says I ‘do you not know that some things in this kingdom are only spiritually discerned & so with the police.' (Tanner 1987:407 c: On the Mormon Frontier, The Diary of Hosea Stout, 1844-1861, V.1:259. For more references, see Tanner 1987: Ch 26).

 It may or may not surprise some readers to learn that Joseph Smith (Mayor of Nauvoo, with a licence to dispense liquor) installed a bar in his ‘Nauvoo Mansion' which was used as a hotel. Emma returned home to find it there, with Porter Rockwell tending the bar. Emma eventually summoned Joseph to the room and told him that either the bar went or she and the children would. It did not take Smith long to consider the ultimatum. Emma won the day and out went the bar. (The Saints' Herald V.80 Jan 1935:110, c. in: Tanner 1987:408).

Although it is clear that Joseph Smith did not himself observe his Word of Wisdom, the fact that it was not a commandment seems to have been forgotten in respect of others who were actually disciplined for disobedience. Hypocrisy? Or am I missing something? For example, the Kirtland High Council Minute Book records that on 6 June 1835:

< Elder Aaron Smith preferred a charge against Elder Milo Hays for not obeying the Word of Wisdom and covenant breaking. Both charges were amply sustained by testimony and the council unanimously decided that the said Hays be excluded from the Church. (Collier & Harwell 2002:117).

 This was quite a severe punishment, considering that sometimes men who committed fornication were able to retain their membership through making an immediate confession and a promise not to repeat it. According to the Nauvoo High Council Minute Book for 26 January 1841:

We prefer a charge against Elder Theodore Turley.
1.For unchristian conduct while on the sea, for romping and kissing the females and  dancing.

2.For sleeping with two females coming up the Lakes and on the road to Dixon's  ferry.

3.For not settling with the brethren for what money he received of them, and taking the lumber from the boat without leave.

4.For threatening the brethren that Brother Joseph would not hear any thing – that they would not tell him about him - for he was of the same spirit and signified the same Priesthood - signifying [that] if they told him he would not hear them.
 The defendant pled not guilty … The charges were sustained. After which the President decided that he, the defendant, in order to retain his fellowship, should acknowledge, both before the Council, and also, to a public congregation, that he had acted unwisely, unjustly, imprudently, and unbecoming, and that he had set a bad example before his brethren and sisters as he was coming over from Europe. The council sanctioned the President's decision. Elder Theodore Turley then made a confession to the satisfaction of the council, and stated that he would rejoice in the opportunity of making the like confession before the public. (Collier 2005:29-30).

 It's a good job Turley didn't go for a crafty drink or a smoke while he was at sea or it may have proved his undoing. Sex with two girls appears more forgivable than breaking the Word of Wisdom. Some who broke the Word of Wisdom however, did manage to get let off with a warning.

 The Kirtland High Council Minute Book for 19 Aug 1835 records:
Elder Babbitt was called upon to speak for himself. He said he had taken the liberty to break the Word of Wisdom from the example of President Joseph Smith Junior & others, but acknowledged that it was wrong… (Emphasis added). (Collier & Harwell. 2002:130).

 Babbitt fared a lot better than Hays and for that (and presuming to ‘dictate' to Elder J. B. Smith in his preaching) he got ‘reproved', receiving a mild telling off and some instruction. He was probably perplexed as to why Smith did not need to live by the same rules that he did.

 Sometimes, bad behaviour was completely overlooked, despite a whole congregation objecting. Such was the case following a General Conference in April 1841. The Nauvoo High Council met and part of the business was to “approve or disapprove of certain men who had been objected, as unfit for the offices hereafter named, by the Quorums of the General Conference”. Despite congregational quorum votes, the High Council had the final say. These days, voting is almost a formality but should a person be put forward for sustaining vote to an office such as Bishop; and a member vote against because they know he gets drunk and then involved in immoral habits; as you might imagine, he would not only not be called, but he would face disciplinary action for the offences and also for lying in his pre-call interview. It was not always like that. According to the Nauvoo High Council Minute Book, on 6 Apr 1841, when Bishop Alanson Ripley was taken into consideration…

 Objections were made to him for his drinking and immoral habits which necessarily follows and abusing his brethren while under the influence of Liquor. His situation and character was discussed at considerable length. After which he was approved by a majority. (Emphasis added). (Collier 2005:32).

 Despite there being no evidence offered to refute the allegations, which seem to have generally been accepted and presumably admitted; and the fact that the congregation had then correctly voted against his call, the High Council sustained Bishop Ripley anyway. Notably, not all the High Council agreed on that; he was approved only “by a majority”. In some other recorded instances, members committing similar offences were excommunicated, when not just their calling was considered but their very membership. There was no consistency. As an aside, it is not generally known that several senior officers were often not approved of by the congregation at conferences and many votes were cast against people. Once, when Joseph Smith started having problems with Sidney Rigdon and he tried to release him from the First Presidency, the congregation voted against his release. Smith had to keep him. Members believed they should choose their own leaders, hence the voting. The High Council had the final say on most matters.

 On this occasion the High Council considered ‘…certain men who had been objected, as unfit for the offices hereafter named, by the Quorums of the General Conference'. The rejected men now considered by the High Council, (along with the results) were: John A. Hicks (President of the Elders Quorum), approved by a majority; John E. Page (Quorum of Twelve Apostles), approved unanimously; Noah Packard Sr., (Counsellor to the President of High Priests) was approved; James Foster (one of the Seven Presidents of the Seventy) was unanimously disapproved; Newel K. Whitney (Bishop) unanimously approved. All but one of the men who had been disapproved by the congregation, were subsequently approved by the High Council – including an apostle. It would be interesting to know why conference voted against an apostle.

 Today it would be unthinkable that anyone (other than perhaps an attending apostate) would ever vote against an apostle or one of the Presidents of the Seventy, who on this occasion was subsequently also disapproved by the High Council, confirming the previous vote at the conference. In those days, these men were not exactly living to the same standards that are expected of Church leaders today. But then of course they had Joseph Smith as their example.

 Emma Smith apparently also did not always observe the Word of Wisdom:

 I know persons who apostatized because they supposed they had reasons; for instance, a certain family, after having traveled a long journey, arrived in Kirtland, and the prophet asked them to stop with him until they could find a place. Sister Emma, in the mean time, asked the old lady if she would have a cup of tea to refresh her after the fatigues of the journey, or a cup of coffee. This whole family apostatized because they were invited to take a cup of tea or coffee, after the Word of Wisdom was given. (JD V.2:240. George A. Smith 18 Mar 1855).

 On 9 September 1851, Brigham Young had a Church Conference covenant to accept and obey the Word of Wisdom as a commandment (and also to accept excommunication for non-payment of tithing). (Quinn 1997:749). It does not appear to have been enforced.

 The concept of the Word of Wisdom, as it applied in the mid eighteen hundreds, is evidence of yet another evolving, rather than specific, principle which is here expressed differently to that which is accepted today. Early saints considered hot chocolate, cocoa, hot soup and pig's meat included in the list of proscribed items. Nothing anywhere explains why they are now acceptable.

We are told, and very plainly too, that hot drinks - tea, coffee, chocolate, cocoa and all drinks of this kind are not good for man. We are also told that alcoholic drinks are not good, and that tobacco when either smoked or chewed is an evil. We are told that swine's flesh is not good, and that we should dispense with it; and we are told that flesh of any kind is not suitable to man in the summer time, and ought to be eaten sparingly in the winter…

…we must feed our children properly.... We must not permit them to drink liquor or hot drinks, or hot soups or to use tobacco or other articles that are injurious. (JD. V.12:221&223. George Q. Cannon 7 Apr 1868).
 Later examples, of which there are many, concerning a complete disregard for the code by those who one would expect to be seen to exemplify the idea, include the following:
I was quite restless all night. Felt chilly. Took a little Brandy sling and a cup of coffee, and slept some before daylight and until 9 am… (Wilford Woodruff Journal, 9 Jun 1897).

 Woodruff had been the Prophet and President of the Church for several years (1889-1898) when he wrote that note in his journal.

 When you consider that the tenth Prophet, Joseph Fielding Smith, declared the habit of drinking tea, coffee or smoking can ‘bar' a person from the ‘celestial kingdom of God' it appears that not so many of the early members and almost none of their leaders will make it there after all as they took little, if any notice of the Word of Wisdom. (See: Tanner 1987:406 c: Smith, Joseph Fielding 1954: Vol. 2:16; also c: Stewart 1966, who claimed Joseph Smith “carefully observed the Word of Wisdom”). The Tanner's thus identified that you cannot believe much of anything you read without checking the facts for yourself.But then Smith never said anything about it being mandatory, or of disobedience having an eternal effect; so Joseph F. Smith was just using fear to keep members in line, while Smith Jr. was originally just keeping his wife happy. It is inconceivable that any God would bar some people from heaven for drinking tea and allow his own prophet, who ‘revealed' the idea (yet still drank it), to enter. As previously stated, times change but God is not supposed to.

In the same way, when Brigham made whiskey, the whiskey was sanctified. Joseph Smith gave a “revelation” which he called “The Word of Wisdom,” enjoining those who among the Saints would be most saintly, never to touch any kind of strong drink; not even tea or coffee, or anything warm. This revelation, as I before mentioned, we ourselves followed while on mission, as, in fact, did all the members of the Church in Europe. It was only when we saw the American Apostles and Elders - more fond of creature comforts than obeying the commands of the Prophet - that we thought it was needless for us to abstain any longer; and accordingly followed their example, and ceased to deny ourselves many of those things which are generally considered to be among the necessaries of life. The Saints in Europe were not backward in imitating the Apostolic example; and thus the “Word of Wisdom” has fallen into disuse. (Stenhouse, F. 1874: Ch. XXXV).

 Brigham Young was generally involved in any project where money was to be made. He owned his own distillery which the Salt Lake City Council rented from him for $2000 a year from 1861 to 1867. After that time the city bought liquor from the Howard Distillery, which was jointly owned by Brigham Young and Daniel H. Wells. That Young was a member of the City Council from 1872-1877 and Wells was Mayor from 1866-1876 should come as no surprise. On 3 June 1876, the Deseret News published a Grand Jury audit of the Salt Lake Corporation's financial records which included substantial purchases of liquor. City funds paid for liquor for Pioneer Day and also for a party of veterans of the Mormon Battalion. The Deseret News report stated: “After completion of the railroad, the city continued to buy liquor from Brigham Young at $4.00 per gallon, although they could have gotten better ‘States' liquor at $1.25 per gallon.”

In 1867, Brigham Young stated that most of the Bishops did not observe the Word of Wisdom: “You go through the wards in the city, and then through the wards in the country, and ask the Bishops--'Do you keep the Word of Wisdom?' The reply will be 'Yes; no, not exactly.' 'Do you drink tea?' 'No.' 'Coffee?' 'No.' 'Do you drink whisky?' 'No.' Well, then, why do you not observe the Word of Wisdom?' 'Well, this tobacco, I cannot give it up.' And in this he sets an example to every man, and to every boy over ten years of age, in his ward, to nibble at and chew tobacco. You go to another ward, and perhaps the Bishop does not chew tobacco, nor drink tea nor coffee, but once in a while he takes a little spirits, and keeps whiskey in his house, in which he will occasionally indulge-- Go to another ward, and perhaps the Bishop does not drink whisky nor chew tobacco, but he 'cannot give up his tea and coffee.' And so it goes through the whole church. Not every Bishop indulges in one or more of these habits, but most of them do. I recollect being at a trial not long since where quite a number of Bishops had been called in as witnesses, but I could not learn that there was one who did not drink whiskey, and I think that most of them drank tea and coffee. I think that we have some bishops in this city who do not chew tobacco, nor drink liquor nor tea nor coffee to excess.... If a person is weary, worn out, cast down, fainting, or dying, a brandy sling, a little wine, or a cup of tea is good to revive them. Do not throw these things away, and say they must never be used; they are good to be used with judgment, prudence, and discretion. Ask our bishops if they drink tea every day, and in most cases they will tell you they do if they can get it.” (JD V. 12:27-28 misprinted as pp 402-403) (Additional Emphasis added).

A letter dated 8 Apr 1849 from Louisa Beaman (a wife of Brigham Young) to Marinda Hyde, confirms the normality of drinking tea and coffee as she describes their conditions:

…sister P mentioned in her letter she drank a cup of tea occasionly for me I am quite glad she does for it is very seldom that I get the chance to drink a cup for myself, tea and, coffee, and shugar is verry scarse with us… (Compton 1997:66).

 The following evidence, again included by the Tanners, gives a clear picture of the situation, twenty four years after Louisa's letter:

Heber C. Kimball, who was a member of the First Presidency, once stated that “virtuous Saints,... will not sell whiskey, and stick up grogeries, and establish distilleries,...” (JD. V.2:161) This statement seems very strange when we learn that Joseph Smith sold whiskey in Nauvoo, and that Brigham Young built a distillery and sold alcoholic beverages in Utah. Even the Mormon-owned Zions Cooperative Mercantile Institution (now known as ZCMI) sold the items forbidden by the Word of Wisdom. On Oct. 7, 1873, George A. Smith, a member of the First Presidency, made this statement: “We are doing a great business in tea, coffee, and tobacco in the Cooperative Store.” (JD. V.16:238). (Tanner 1987:412).

 There was always a problem with men chewing tobacco and there appears to have been a sort of unwritten ‘cut-off' point when men below a certain age were expected not to use it. This remark by Apostle Smith made in 1857 sheds some further light on that idea.
I consider it a disgrace to any young man under thirty-five years of age to use tobacco. (Voice: Forty is the age.) That is my age: I was thinking I was thirty-five. (Apostle George A. Smith, Bowery, 2 Aug, 1857. JD V.5:101).  

The Word of Wisdom seems to have been lived by a minority of the saints rather than the majority by all accounts. On 5 May 1870, in a testimony meeting in the Tabernacle, Brigham Young requested that mother's leave children at home if possible so as not to disturb the meeting; and also “that Gentlemen will desist besmearing the floors with tobacco spittle &c. Tabernacle installs dozens of tobacco spittoons.” (Quinn 1997:766).
28 Sept 1883. “A number” of First Presidency and apostles “confessed to breaking the Word of Wisdom” and vote to obey it. However, this vote does not apply to wine which members of School of Prophets drink by glassful at their meeting on 12 Oct. (Quinn 1997:782).

 The Church eventually became embarrassed by the amount of wine making and drinking that was going on, not to mention drunkenness in the Church. The difficulty was that the tithing office was not exactly setting the example, as it also made wine; and lots of it. The Church was actually the biggest single producer of wine and when they finally decided that this should stop, the tithing office was faced with the task of disposing of six thousand gallons of wine “as best it could”. How it had come to this, considering that the word ‘wine' specifically appears in the original revelation as something against the Word of Wisdom; a revelation given on a “Thus saith the Lord” basis; we can only speculate. It was certainly not something taken too seriously by the Church leaders any more than the general membership, several decades later.

7 October 1894. Wilford Woodruff instructs conference priesthood meeting that all presiding officers should live Word of Wisdom, and he threatens to drop Presiding Patriarch John Smith from office if he continues using tobacco and alcohol. (Quinn 1997:796).

 And yet Woodruff drank brandy and coffee himself in 1897 (see p.161) as recorded in his very own journal. Even after the turn of the century, the First Presidency and Twelve were facing dilemmas concerning what to include in the Word of Wisdom. On 1 February 1901, the first Presidency decided to suspend a ten-year policy allowing the sale of alcohol at Saltair (a church owned amusement park and resort). (Quinn 1997:803). During a meeting on 11 July 1901, consideration was given as to whether they should continue to sell beer at Saltair or whether stopping would invade the rights of the old saints who would go there and smoke their pipes and drink alcohol.

 They talked of the revelation speaking of barley for mild drinks and considered whether beer that was intoxicating would be considered a mild drink. They felt it needed serious thought and wondered if they had an extreme view of the word of the Lord. They considered German beer very light and mild, which would not intoxicate, whereas American beer was much stronger and would cause drunkenness. Eventually, they agreed Danish beer was not harmful or in violation of the Word of Wisdom and released an official statement to that effect. No revelation appears to have sought in clarification of the Lord's desires for His people. They just chose what it meant to them at that time. On 14 April 1904, the First Presidency and apostles also decided to resume the sale of liquor at Saltair due to the need for non-Mormon patronage.

 Within the twelve there was still dissention, well into the twentieth century. On 2 April 1932, Heber J. Grant launched a campaign again the use of tobacco as part of his emphasis on the Word of Wisdom. Early the following month, Apostle Stephen L. Richards stated (to the First Presidency and Quorum of Twelve Apostles) that he would resign rather than apologise for a general conference talk in which he claimed the church was putting too much emphasis on the Word of Wisdom. Before the end of the month, Richards had ‘confessed his error' and thus retained his position. (Quinn 1997:822).

 Some things Smith included (from the Lord Himself) within the revelation are strange. Tobacco is only for use in treating bruises and to heal sick cattle, if ever anyone can discover how that works. Barley is for mild drinks, which then meant beer, which was not against the Word of Wisdom and consumed without concern. For my family, it meant (previously forbidden) hot drinks, such as Barley Cup or Caro (Pero in some countries) and Postum, all made from barley and rye (some include chicory) and tasting similar to a mild coffee, available from grocery stores (heath food shops in the U.K). They are pleasant drinks and caffeine free. However, they are taken hot. Once again, times change and so do doctrines along with them. Why did God change His mind, having earlier declared “thus saith the Lord” that beer was suitable to drink? D&C 89 affirms strong drinks not for drinking but for the washing of your bodies”. Perhaps that is why whisky was added to fragrance baths in which members were originally immersed during their washing and anointing (initiatory) ceremony in early Temples; another eternal unchangeable principle which has continually changed until it has in fact completely disappeared, the remaining ordinance being entirely symbolic. (See TMD Volume 3, Section 3, Temple Ceremonies).

 Today, the Church completely ignores any aspects of the revelation in relation to meat which is freely eaten and never gets mentioned. We may wonder why the Mormon God bothered to mention it at all.

 In the real world, a glass of red wine each day is considered healthy. It contains resveratrol which is a strong antioxidant and is heart-healthy and twenty-four ounces of coffee a day; shown to reduce liver cancer and effective with, or with symptoms of, Alzheimer's and Parkinson's diseases; is also considered healthy.

 Emma's original problem with tobacco seems to be the only part of the Word of Wisdom that Smith actually got right. Smoking clearly is not such a good idea. Tobacco has recently been used in experiments regarding cancer treatment, so; who knows, perhaps a good use for it may yet surface. Just not the ones Joseph Smith claimed it should be used for. Smith's revelation stated and Brigham Young affirmed that tobacco was to be used for bruises and sick cattle. To this day, no one has a clue as to what use regarding sick cattle tobacco should be put. How it should be administered to cattle, in what dosage, internally or externally and for what actual sickness, remains a mystery. [MormonThink editor comment: tobacco has at times been used to treat intestinal worms in cattle ]

 Over the years, as with everything Mormon, the Word of Wisdom has evolved beyond recognition. Today, members abstain from tea, coffee, alcohol and tobacco. That now means all types of alcohol. In later years, some years after I joined the Church, all forms of ‘cola' drinks were ‘advised' against. No specific reason was officially given. As chocolate also contains caffeine, I always thought it may be the phosphoric acid that was most harmful in cola drinks but then later, articles started to appear in Church youth magazines that referred to caffeine. I never did understand this idea, but when ‘revealed', my family and I faithfully abstained from cola drinks. The Word of Wisdom was after all, a “law of obedience” so we dutifully obeyed.


Editor's Comments

The Word of Wisdom is sometimes heralded by LDS members as a divine straight-forward principle and even as evidence that the LDS Church is true, since the LDS Church is apparently the only organization that has this knowledge and how could Joseph have known these things before modern science proved them true.

Generally what is taught is that the WOW commandment was given as a direct revelation from God in response to Emma's complaining about the men using chewing tobacco and messing up the floors. It's usually taught that the commandment was then immediately implemented and followed by the members, especially the leaders of the church. And of course no mention is made of Joseph or other church leaders using tobacco or drinking alcohol in any form after the revelation was given. Also, no mention is made that the Church used to produce alcohol, sell alcohol and profit by it for many decades after the WOW revelation was given.

The WOW in general has some things we admire and agree with. None of us finds any redeeming value in tobacco and would just as soon see it removed from society. Although most of us don't drink alcohol, we don't find fault in others that do drink as long as it doesn't adversely affect their lives or other's lives.

Were the Word of Wisdom concepts known before Joseph's revelation?

President Hinckley proclaimed in the December 2005 Ensign (emphasis added):

The code of health followed by Latter-day Saints, which is so widely praised in these days of cancer and heart research, is in reality a revelation given to Joseph Smith in 1833 as "a Word of Wisdom" from the Lord (see D&C 89:1). In no conceivable way could it have come of the dietary literature of the time nor from the mind of the man who announced it. Today, in terms of medical research, it is a miracle whose observance has saved incalculable suffering and premature death for uncounted tens of thousands.

Here is what doctors were saying about health in 1806. It comes from the book MEANS OF PRESERVING HEALTH, AND PREVENTING DISEASES, Dr. Shadrach Ricketson, Printed by Collins, Perkins, and Co, New York, 1806

Ricketson gives his own thoughts on various health issues and quotes several of the well-know physicians of the time: Percival, J. Fothergill, Leake, Willich, Cullen and Rush. We've listed the page numbers for reference. The early 19th century physicians knew a lot more than we give them credit for. The WOW essentially mirrors early 19th century dietary and medical recommendations. Notice how it even specifically uses the terms "hot drinks" and details the reasoning for the whole "eat meat only in winter" idea:


31 Wine...when drunk frequently and copiously, it generally, sooner or later, injures the constitution, or renders it subject to inflammatory diseases. It is a powerful stimulant, the long continued use of which, rarely fails to induce debility. Hence, great wine-drinkers, somewhat advanced in life, are generally low-spirited, and often afflicted with a long train of hypochondrical symptoms and incurable diseases...

34 [Concerning distilled spirits] their frequent and excessive use is not only unnecessary, but highly injurious; and has destroyed thousands; perhaps more than either pestilence, famine, or the sword. I need not, therefore, take much pains to show their evil consequences, either in a medical, political, moral, or religious point of view;


92 It is supposed, that tea contains a volatile, cordial, or reviving principle; which, if admitted is nothing in favour of its wholesomeness for constant use; for powers of a stimulant nature, when long continued, are sure to be followed by an atonic or debilitated state of the stomach; and, finally, of the whole constitution. Many cheaper and more innocent substitutes may be found in our own country; which, if prepared in a similar manner, should be used rather cool than hot.

99 It is rare to see great and constant drinkers of strong tea and coffee, somewhat advanced in life, who have not some symptoms of weakness, tremors, or indigestion: wherefore, it is judged, that the great number and increase of paralytic, nervous, and hypochondriac diseases are, in part, to be attributed to the frequent and excessive use of those articles, drunk in a hot and strong state.

Did women know the train of diseases induced by debility, and how disagreeable these diseases render them to the other sex, they would shun tea as the most deadly poison. No man can love a woman eaten up with vapours...Avoid, likewise, the excessive use of hot drinks, such as coffee, chocolate, and tea, particularly the last, in which the inhabitants of this country indulge more than any other beverage


226 In no one view, is it possible to contemplate the creature man in a more absurd and ridiculous light; than in his attachment to tobacco. This weed is of a stimulating nature, whether it be used in smoking, chewing, or in snuff...

The progress of habit in the use of tobacco is exactly the same as in the use of spirituous liquors. The slaves of it begin by using it only after dinner; then during the whole afternoon and evening; afterwards, before dinner; then before breakfast; and, finally, during the whole night.

The oil of tobacco is of so active and virulent a nature, that a few drops of it have proven fatal.

This plant is possessed of narcotic properties, by which it produces, in those who first begin to smoke it, giddiness, cold sweats, vomiting, purging;


108 A reason for avoiding much animal food, especially in cities, and during the summer season, is, that a great part of the fresh meat brought to market, becomes overheated and feverish by long keeping...and some, perhaps, has already undergone the incipient stage of putrefaction before it is cooked...It is therefore, recommended to all in hot seasons and climates, to abstain from much animal food...

119 ...although animal food may be admissible by the human economy...for the most part, a small portion of it only is necessary; that the very temperate and sparing use of it is the surest means of preserving health, and obtaining long life; whilst the large use of it tends to the production of diseases...

114 Melted fat, or the drippings of baked and roasted meat, are equally, if not more, pernicious to the stomach than even stale butter, and both ought to be used only for greasing cart-wheels, and not for injuring human organs.

That was just one example of many publications that represented some educated thinking of Joseph's day prior to Joseph receiving the WOW revelation. Another example is from the Journal of Health, published in Philadelphia in 1830 which condemned the use of the alcohol, tobacco, coffee, and tea as well as advising against excessive meat eating.

Although believing members herald the WOW as modern revelation unique to Latter-day Saints, the disdain for alcohol by many religious groups preceded the WOW so the LDS church cannot take credit for bringing forth anything unique. Although the WOW has some good advice, the church cannot claim these are revolutionary ideas never known before Joseph presented them before the church. Various temperance organizations were formed before the church adopted the WOW as discussed here:

Temperance Movement - wikipedia

The Cold Water Army

Ohio History


Anti-smoking sentiment had been around long before the WOW such as this tirade by King James 6 in 1604:

A Counterblaste to Tobacco

Hot Drinks

The term ‘hot drinks' in the WOW perhaps betrays the revelation as not really coming from God as it is subject to different interpretations and therefore not that useful. Also, unfortunately, shortly after this revelation was given, many Latter-Day Saints took the advice literally. They would not boil water which was to be used by humans. You often read of the horrible bouts of dysentery and cholera running rampant through various Mormon settlements after 1830; now you know the reason.

Similarly, we wonder how many saints fall asleep at the wheel on a long trip as they are afraid to take a sip of coffee or take a caffeine ‘stay alert' pill to avoid falling asleep.

Abstaining from Meat

The abstaining from eating meat except in times of famine part of the WOW also detracts from the value of the revelation as it is largely ignored by the church members. In my ward, we have an annual ‘steak fry' which flies in the face of that part of the WOW.

Also, the LDS church owns the largest cattle ranch in the USA, Deseret Cattle Ranch in Orlando, Florida.That seems in direct contradiction to the edict to only eat meat sparingly.
Link is here.
Link is here.

Benefits of not following the WOW

Although church members often show the benefits of following the WOW, they usually ignore the evidence that shows the benefits of violating the WOW such as studies that show how drinking a small quantity of wine has been shown to improve health. Also, there are as many studies that show beneficial aspects of drinking tea and coffee as there are studies that condemn drinking tea and coffee. Link is here. And this study that shows that heavy drinkers actually outlive non-drinkers.

Not strict until 20th century

The LDS Church didn‘t adopt a strict adherence to the Word of Wisdom until well into the 20th century. Consider this statement from John Taylor in 1886: ―The Word of Wisdom as originally given was sent not by commandment or constraint, but … for the temporal salvation of all Saints in these days … [N]o rule has been formulated, nor law proclaimed, nor counsel given since that time which makes its strict observance necessary to receive ordinances … in the temples. (The Development of LDS Temple Worship, Devery Anderson, pg 61)

Divine promise

The Word of Wisdom states that it comprises a "principle with promise". The promise given to those who followed the advice of the word of wisdom is as follows:

And all saints who remember to keep and do these sayings, walking in obedience to the commandments, shall receive health in their navel and marrow to their bones; and shall find wisdom and great treasures of knowledge, even hidden treasures; and shall run and not be weary, and shall walk and not faint. And I, the Lord, give unto them a promise, that the destroying angel shall pass by them, as the children of Israel, and not slay them.

Obviously there are many good members of the church (especially children) that follow the WOW faithfully and still develop health problems. The promise is hollow.

Jesus and wine

Another myth not addressed above is the common assertion often told in church to explain the scriptures where Jesus drank wine which violates the WOW. The response given in the LDS church (and often by other Christian churches) is that the wine Jesus drank was simply grape juice and not regular fermented alcoholic wine. That's simply a fairy tale made up to discourage people from drinking any alcohol or even to show that the WOW is real revelation. The first miracle that Jesus performed was to turn water into wine. There's no evidence to show that he turned water into only grape juice. Also, why would he turn water into wine if he thought drinking wine was evil? Even this pastor says to suggest that the wine Jesus drank was grape juice is insulting to your intelligence:

Link is here.

The Bible and Alcohol:
Link is here.

This isn't to say that we think Jesus got drunk but it seems extremely likely he did drink some alcohol as it was simply the custom of the peoples in which he lived – much like many European countries where wine is still drank with most meals today.

What the Word of Wisdom really needed

Perhaps one of the best rebuttals to these "miracle" claims about the Word of Wisdom is to point out that many more lives would have been saved (including especially children), if God could have revealed to Joseph that the people should boil their water before drinking it and thereby avoid contracting the water-borne diseases that killed so many in those days. That would have been truly a marvelous and amazing revelation in those times. Instead, all Joseph got was a rehashing of popular health guidelines that had been published and preached in various forms by various people before the WOW was revealed.


The WOW in general has some things we admire and agree with. In general, people are healthier following its advice. But the way in which it came about does not seem so miraculous. Everything given in the WOW was published years before by early 19th century medical practitioners and advocated by many temperance societies. Also, the church has covered up the fact that in the 1800s, the highest-ranking members of the church frequently violated the WOW including Joseph Smith and Brigham Young. Also, never discussed is how the church produced and sold alcohol for decades after the WOW was given. The WOW may have evolved into something almost divine but the origins and early practices of it seem to indicate that it perhaps came from man and not really from Deity.


Supporting the critics:

The Mormon Delusion, Jim Whitefield's website

Mormonism: Shadow or Reality?, Chapter 26, Jerald and Sandra Tanner

Link is here.

Supporting the church:

Rebuttal of the Tanner's book by LDS apologists:

Link is here.


Link is here.


Mormon Expression: Episode 27 The Word of Wisdom for Dummies