The Commandments

Hey guys, so we’re talking about the Word of Wisdom today. If you don’t know what that is, go watch these episodes. In a nutshell, it’s a Latter-day Saint health code revealed to Joseph Smith in 1833 — it’s the reason why we don’t chew or smoke tobacco or drink alcohol, tea, or coffee. Latter-day Saints today adhere to a rather strict interpretation of the Word of Wisdom, but it wasn’t always that way. In this episode, we’re going to look at how our interpretation of the Word of Wisdom has evolved over time. It’s fascinating stuff — don’t go anywhere.

Alright, so if you’re familiar with the text of D&C 89, you’re aware that the Word of Wisdom was not given “by commandment or constraint.” In these early years, it was essentially considered good advice, and the emphasis was more on moderation rather than total abstinence. 

Today, however, Latter-day Saints completely abstain from the substances referred to in the Word of Wisdom. So, why do we interpret this so strictly today when they didn’t back then? Well, our modern interpretation of the Word of Wisdom is not the result of some grand revelation but has been more of a slow burn, having more to do with slowly evolving attitudes and circumstances. Now, that’s not to say that God hasn’t been inspiring this gradual shift. It’s simply been more comparable to a gradual sunrise rather than flipping on a light switch.

And that’s OK. I love belonging to a faith that can be flexible and adapt to changing circumstances over time. And there could be more changes in the future. But in the early years of the Restoration, it was largely up to each individual to decide how strictly to observe the Word of Wisdom. As long as you avoided excess and weren’t out drunk on the street, you probably weren’t going to get in any trouble.

Tea, coffee, and alcohol were on the packing list for Mormon pioneers headed west. Joseph Smith and other leaders drank wine in Carthage Jail and whiskey while detained in Missouri. Again, the emphasis was moderation, not abstinence. When did that change? 

During a general conference on September 9th, 1851, Brigham Young had the congregation vote and promise to “leave off the use of … all things mentioned in the Word of Wisdom.” Some past leaders, such as Joseph F. & Joseph Fielding Smith, have believed that it was at this point that the Word of Wisdom became a strict commandment. However, a wealth of additional evidence, as we will see, strongly suggests that this probably isn’t accurate.  

In the 1850s, leaders did start to emphasize a more strict adherence to the Word of Wisdom, but mainly among the younger generation. For example, in 1855 Brigham Young advised, “If the ‘old fogies’ take a little tobacco, a little whisky, or a little tea and coffee, we wish you boys to let it alone, and let those have it who have long been accustomed to its use. … let the old folks have it, but you young, smart gentlemen, let it alone.” 

The Word of Wisdom was also emphasized in the 1860s and 1870s, but abstinence was still not mandatory. In 1861, Brigham said, 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 that I shall do so. I have never done so.”

But it does appear that Brigham later did mull the idea over. In 1869 he said, “I require all under 100 years old to stop using tobac[c]o & drinking whiskey[.] if they do not, we will soon make it a test of fellow[ship] in the Church[.] you should keep the word of wisdom.” While official Church action was rare during the Pioneer era, “At Brigham’s death [in 1877], the people understood that the ideal was abstinence.” — as opposed to moderation. That said, it was a constant battle.

The 1880s brought a renewed emphasis on the Word of Wisdom. George Q. Cannon spoke about a “spurt of zeal” on the subject but wondered, “…how long will this last? … It seems worse than child’s play to be constantly making resolves in this direction and constantly breaking them.” President Wilford Woodruff in 1894 went so far as to ask leaders to resign their positions if they could not more closely observe the Word of Wisdom. That same year, Heber J. Grant said that preaching on this subject to the Saints was like “pouring water on a duck’s back.” 

By 1898, strict obedience still wasn’t required for a temple recommend, but as time went on, that definitely seemed to be where things were headed. 

By the 1900s, the older generation of converts was passing away, and the generation who had been raised in the Church and who had been taught to more closely observe the Word of Wisdom came into leadership. In 1913, President Joseph F. Smith’s take was that strict adherence to the Word of Wisdom had always been the eventual goal, but if it had been given by way of commandment from the beginning, “it would have brought every man … under condemnation; so the Lord was merciful and gave them a chance to overcome, before He brought them under the law.” In other words, it seems like President Smith viewed the moderation interpretation as sort of the “lower law” and total abstinence as the “higher law.”

In 1921, under President Heber J. Grant, adherence to the Word of Wisdom became a prerequisite for entering the temple. His take was essentially that if something comes to us even as a suggestion from God, we should treat it as a commandment. President Grant called on the 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.” It’s President Grant’s tenure that really bridges the gap between interpretations.

Now, there are still a lot of factors feeding into this gradual shift that we haven’t talked about. We didn’t really talk about the temperance or Prohibition movements or economic factors in early Utah. I’ll link a ton of great resources in the YouTube description that go into this topic in much more depth. Check out some of our other videos while you’re here, and have a great day!


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