Hey guys, so we’re talking about the Word of Wisdom today. If you’re not familiar with what that is, it’s essentially a basic dietary or health code for members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. It’s most notably the reason why we don’t chew or smoke tobacco or drink alcohol, tea, or coffee. The Word of Wisdom was a revelation received by Joseph Smith in 1833 and is recorded in Doctrine and Covenants Section 89.
But when you read this section, you’ll notice that the revelation does not specifically mention the words tea, or coffee. Instead, the revelation uses the phrase, “hot drinks.” Many people understandably wonder why we view this as a reference to tea and coffee but not also a reference to hot chocolate, hot apple cider, etc. It’s a fair question, so let’s talk about it.
Alright, so before we get into this I want to be clear — in this episode, we are not going to be speculating about the dietary merits of coffee and tea or whether it’s the temperature or the caffeine that has caused them to be prohibited. We’re just looking at why the Church interprets “hot drinks” in D&C 89 as a reference to only coffee and tea.
And the short answer to this question is this: When we look into the history of the Church, this is simply how “hot drinks” has always been interpreted. In an 1842 discourse in Nauvoo, Hyrum Smith taught, “…’hot drinks are not for the body, or belly;’ there are many who wonder what this can mean; whether it does refer to tea, or coffee, or not. I say it does refer to tea and coffee.”
There’s one source that ties this interpretation back to Joseph Smith himself. I’m inclined to believe it’s accurate, based on what Hyrum is teaching, but it’s a later recollection, so do with it what you will. This is what Joel H. Johnson wrote in 1881:
“I well remember that soon after the publication of the Word of Wisdom, the same excuse was made, by some of the people, for drinking tea and coffee that is now made— that hot drinks did not mean tea and coffee. On a Sabbath day, in the July following the giving of the revelation, when both Joseph and Hyrum Smith were in the stand, the Prophet said to the Saints: ‘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. The Lord was showing us what was good for man to eat and drink. Now, what do we drink when we take our meals? Tea and coffee. Is it not? Yes; tea and coffee. Then, they are what the Lord meant when He said “hot drinks.”’ Brother Hyrum Smith spoke to the same effect.”
Tea and coffee are also specifically mentioned in some 1837 meeting minutes, where Joseph Smith was present, and in this 1839 book written by the former member, John Corrill.
In an 1871 discourse, Brigham Young said, “I have heard it argued that tea and coffee are not mentioned in the Word of Wisdom; that is very true; but what were the people in the habit of taking as hot drinks when that revelation was given? Tea and coffee. We were not in the habit of drinking water very hot, but tea and coffee—the beverages in common use.”
There seems to be no indication that Joseph Smith or subsequent presidents of the Church understood “hot drinks” to refer to anything other than tea and coffee. I’ve found one single solitary discourse (from George Q. Cannon in 1868) that also put hot chocolate or hot cocoa under the category of hot drinks, but that interpretation has never been upheld by other leaders or incorporated into the policy of the Church.
Now, it’s also very important to remember that in these early years, the Word of Wisdom was not initially given “by commandment or constraint.” “… Joseph Smith never interpreted the revelation as demanding total abstinence, but stressed moderation and self-control.”
Some Latter-day Saints followed the Word of Wisdom more strictly than others, but don’t be surprised when you hear about Joseph Smith drinking whiskey in Liberty jail, or when you see coffee, tea, and alcohol on the packing list of the pioneers. Total abstinence was not expected.
As an interesting side-note: In the early years of the Church the term “strong drink” used in D&C 89 generally only applied to hard liquors, like whiskey. Things like lightly fermented wine and even beer were generally considered to be more mild drinks. Verse 17 even mentions that barley is for animals and “mild drink” — likely a reference to beer. Now, again, you likely wouldn’t have gotten in trouble in the early years for drinking even “strong drink” in moderation. The problem was drinking in excess, or actually getting drunk.
But despite how the Word of Wisdom was observed in the past, we live in an ever-adapting and changing church. While the past is fascinating and instructional, Latter-day Saints today observe the Word of Wisdom largely according to the interpretations and emphases given by leaders today.
Thus, today we are expected to completely abstain from all alcoholic drinks, tobacco, illicit drugs, as well as tea and coffee — whether hot or cold. And while I still have plenty of questions about the Word of Wisdom, I don’t mind that emphases shift over time. Joseph Smith taught, “This is the principle on which the government of heaven is conducted—by revelation adapted to the circumstances in which the children of the kingdom are placed.” And perhaps there will be more adaptations of the Word of Wisdom in the future.
But you may be wondering, how did we get from there to here? From an attitude of moderation to an attitude of complete abstinence? At what point did we start to be more strict about this stuff? That’s a great question, and it’s one that we’re going to talk about in the next episode. Hopefully, this answered some of your questions. Check out the resources in the YouTube description if you want to dive deeper into this. Watch some of our other videos while you’re here. And have a great day!
- Doctrine and Covenants Section 89: https://bit.ly/3wrBU6o
- “Revelations in Context: The Word of Wisdom,” by Jed Woodworth: https://bit.ly/3MGQdv6
- “Word of Wisdom” via the Encyclopedia of Mormonism: https://bit.ly/3wHsgyd
- “Word of Wisdom” via the Church’s website: https://bit.ly/3afiFpq
- “Why did Brigham Young build a whiskey distillery in Utah?” via FAIR: https://bit.ly/3Pv9m4M
- “Did Joseph Smith Obey the Word of Wisdom?” via Steven C. Harper: https://bit.ly/3G9mmJe
- “The history and implementation of the Word of Wisdom” via FAIR: https://bit.ly/3PAgIUz
- “A Historical Analysis of the Word of Wisdom,” thesis by Paul H. Peterson, 1972: https://bit.ly/3yJwc2w
- “The Word of Wisdom: Development and Practice,” via the Church’s website: https://bit.ly/3PlA3sJ
- “Scripture Roundtable: D&C Gospel Doctrine Lesson 22, ‘The Word of Wisdom’” via Interpreter Foundation: https://bit.ly/3yJiEEn