Mormon Health Laws
The Word of Wisdom
In 1833, Joseph Smith, the founding prophet of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, received a revelation from God which prescribed certain rules for healthy and righteous living, particularly as regards the use of food and other substances that are not suited to the body. This revelation was officially announced to the Church on 27 February 1833 as the “Word of Wisdom,” which can now be found in the 89th section of the Doctrine and Covenants – one of the standard works of the Mormon Church.
The Word of Wisdom stipulates that Latter-day Saints abstain from eating or taking any substance that is unfit for the body. This includes coffee, tea, alcoholic drinks, cigarettes, harmful drugs, and other substances that are addictive in nature. The Lord does not want His children to use, let alone abuse, these substances because of their harmful effects to the body.
Aside from health-related reasons, Latter-day Saints are required to live the Word of Wisdom by reason of its spiritual significance, because God’s commandments are spiritual; not temporal or natural, neither carnal nor sensual. (See Doctrine and Covenants 29:35.)
An Ancient Principle
Like other revelations that have been introduced to the Mormon Church in the present dispensation (e.g. the Law of Tithing, the Law of Chastity, etc.), the Word of Wisdom is not a new commandment. According to James E. Talmage, a Mormon theologian and former high official of the Church, the Word of Wisdom is as old as the human race. The Word of Wisdom is actually one of the first commandments revealed by the Lord to Adam, and all the essential principles contained in it were made known unto him while he was still in his immortal state in the Garden of Eden. To Adam the Lord said:
“Of every tree of the garden thou mayest freely eat: But of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, thou shalt not eat of it: for in the day that thou eatest thereof thou shalt surely die” (Genesis 2:16-17).
God has given Adam many good fruits to be plucked and eaten, and to be enjoyed. However, he was strictly cautioned to not eat of the fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil, because if he did so, his body would be corrupted, and his life would be shortened. When Adam did partake of the fruit the Lord told him not to eat, his body underwent a process of physical degeneration and lost its power to live forever. Consequently, he became vulnerable to pain, sicknesses, and death – the natural consequences of mortality.
In giving the Word of Wisdom to the Church, the Lord is teaching the Saints the same principles he revealed to Adam concerning his will in the temporal and spiritual salvation of His children. He pointed out that while there are many foods to be enjoyed at hand, Church members (and non-members as well) should not touch and take into their bodies certain things that would harm them.
A Brief History of the Word of Wisdom
In the early days of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Joseph Smith organized a School of the Prophets to train elders of the Church on both theological and secular matters. The first meetings of the school were held in Kirtland, Ohio, in a small room of a home-based store owned by Newel K. Whitney, which was also the place of residence of the Prophet and his family. When the elders of the Church assembled together in this small room after breakfast, the first thing they did was to light their pipes, and while smoking, talk about the great things of the Kingdom, and spit all over the floor.
Too often, when Joseph Smith entered the room to give instructions, he would find himself in a thick cloud of tobacco smoke. This concerned the Prophet and his wife, Emma, who was having a hard time cleaning so filthy a floor. Troubled about the conduct of the elders with regard to the use of tobacco, Joseph Smith inquired of the Lord concerning the matter. In response to his inquiry, the revelation known as the Word of Wisdom was given.
At first, the Word of Wisdom was given to the Church by “greeting” or invitation and “not by commandment or constraint” (Doctrine and Covenants 89:2), because smoking and drinking wine were common practices in the American society in the early 1800s. Yet, for some members of the Church, the revelation was a new thought, and sooner or later, they would be required to undergo an uncomfortable change of behavior in order to live it. However, the Lord indicated that the Word of Wisdom was “given for a principle with promise, adapted to the capacity of the weak and the weakest of all saints, who are or can be called saints.” (See Doctrine and Covenants 89:3.)
At a Church General Conference held on September 9, 1851, Brigham Young, then prophet of the Mormon Church, called for a sustaining vote to make the revelation binding on every Latter-day Saint, to which the conference concurred unanimously. Since that time, the revelation became a commandment, which particularly forbade the use of alcohol, tobacco, coffee, and tea throughout the Church.
However, throughout the 1860s and 1870s, the Word of Wisdom had not been fully observed by many Church members, even after the death of Brigham Young. In the early 1800s, several Church leaders led by President John Taylor started reforms and made campaigns to increase adherence to this commandment. Truly, keeping the word of wisdom had been a real test of faith for many Latter-day Saints. Even so, leaders of the Church continued to encourage them to be faithful, pointing out the strictness of God’s commandments. In 1894, Wilford Woodruff, the fourth president of the Mormon Church, delivered a powerful statement, where he addressed Church leaders on the importance of strict adherence to the Word of Wisdom. He said:
“The Word of Wisdom applies to Wilford Woodruff, the President of the Church, and it applies to all the leaders of Israel as well as to the members of the Church; and if there are any of these leading men who cannot refrain from using tobacco or liquor in violation of the Word of Wisdom, let them resign, and others take their places. As leaders of Israel, we have no business to indulge in these things. There may be things contrary to the Word of Wisdom that we indulge in, and that we think we cannot live without; if we cannot, let us die.”
By the end of the 19th century, the Word of Wisdom was becoming a widely accepted and a practical observance of the Church in general. Since then, the Word of Wisdom has become closely associated with Mormonism.
The Word of Wisdom in the Modern Church
The Word of Wisdom contains principles of healthy living that were far beyond the scientific knowledge of the time when it was revealed. It was given to the Church through Joseph Smith long before the hazards of tobacco became known to the world. Nowadays, when someone introduces himself as a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, he is usually reputed as someone who neither smokes nor drinks. Strict adherence to the Word of Wisdom is something that separates Latter-day Saints from those who belong to other religious organizations.
Provisions of the Word of Wisdom have been explained clearly to the Church to make sure that each one is well understood and observed. Based on the revelation given to Joseph Smith, Latter-day Saints are advised against the use of strong drinks (i.e., alcoholic drinks and other harmful beverages), tobacco, and “hot drinks.” While the original revelation offered no specific definition for hot drinks, Joseph Smith explained what the Lord meant when He said it. Joseph Smith said:
“I understand that some of the people are excusing themselves in using tea and coffee, because the Lord only said ‘hot drinks’ in the revelation of the Word of Wisdom. Tea and coffee are what the Lord meant when he said ‘hot drinks’.”
In addition to the provisions already mentioned, the Word of Wisdom prohibits the use of harmful drugs, and promotes certain foods which are good for man – wholesome herbs, grain, and fruits that are in season. Meat is also ordained of God for man’s consumption. However, it should be used sparingly and in the spirit of thanksgiving. The fundamental principle behind the Word of Wisdom is that all healthy foods should be used in moderation, and unhealthy foods should be avoided.
Does the Word of Wisdom prohibit caffeine?
The Mormon Church does not have an official stand with regard to consumption of caffeine found in many beverages including cola and chocolate. However, the Lord has specifically advised the saints against the use of coffee and tea, both of which contain caffeine, though it may not be the exact reason for such proscription, as the Lord did not specify which chemicals in tea and coffee He is more concerned with. In addition, alcoholic drinks and beverages that contain harmful habit-forming drugs are also prohibited.
While the Word of Wisdom was given for the temporal salvation of the saints in the last days, abiding by the principles of this commandment has spiritual and eternal significance. The Lord promised that those who walk in obedience to this commandment “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” (Doctrine and Covenants 89:18-20).
Mormons who do not keep the Word of Wisdom will lose the spirit of the Lord, for the Spirit does not dwell in unholy temples. Also, they will not be allowed to enter the holy Mormon Temples or participate in sacred ordinances in the Church. Those who do, on the other hand, are blessed with healthy minds and bodies which are necessary for them to be fruitful and receive more revelation from God. For how can someone who is under the influence of drugs or alcohol hear the silent whisper of the still small voice?
Truly, the Word of Wisdom was revealed by the Savior for the furtherance of His work in bringing to pass the immortality and eternal life of man. It was given by God for the temporal and spiritual benefit of His children. Since it is a principle with promise, those who obey it will receive the promised blessings.
Jesus the Christ by James E. Talmage