The Commandments

OK, so if you’re at all familiar with The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, you probably already know that members of the Church don’t smoke or do other recreational drugs, and they don’t drink alcohol ……. coffee, or tea. We always save those two for the end. I feel like people are always like, “Oh, yeah, good, smoking is bad … illegal drugs, yeah, alcohol, meh ok makes sense, COFFEE AND TEA?!?!”

Don’t freak out. We’re gunna talk this through. It’s all part of a revelation we call The Word of Wisdom.

Oftentimes, both anciently and modern…ly, revelation comes about as the result of a question. In 1833, Joseph Smith had started a small school called, “the School of the Prophets.” It consisted of like 25 guys packed into a small room on the second floor of a mercantile store in Kirtland, Ohio. These guys were big-time pipe-smokers and chewing tobacco users.

It made the room nasty. Joseph’s wife, Emma, was just disgusted with the tobacco-soaked floor — they both lived in this mercantile at the time, so she often was the one cleaning the floors. Anyway, Joseph ends up asking God about how to remedy the situation. The resulting revelation is recorded in Doctrine and Covenants Section 89. There’s a link in the description below if you want to read it for yourself. It’s only 21 verses long.

The revelation, called The Word of Wisdom, is essentially a law of health we live by. It’s pretty broad in some ways and pretty specific in others. It talks about the stuff we should be eating, as well as the stuff we should not eat. Currently, Latter-day Saints live this law pretty strictly. From the text though, we learn that when it was first revealed it was not considered a commandment, but rather divine counsel. Joseph Smith, Brigham Young, and their contemporaries still occasionally smoked and drank. Through later prophets, the Word of Wisdom evolved from counsel to commandment, which I’m grateful for, because statistically Latter-day Saints that follow this commandment live about 8 to 11 years longer than the general population.

But really, why are coffee and tea on that list? What’s wrong with them? How did they make the list but the Bacon Double-Cheeseburger with Mayo didn’t, ya know? OK first of all, just because it’s not listed in the Word of Wisdom doesn’t mean you should eat it. It also doesn’t list bleach, but don’t drink bleach.

But why coffee and tea? Well, there’s a lot of speculation about that. We Latter-day Saints are very cautious of addictive substances, so some people assert that we must not be able to drink coffee and tea because the caffeine in them is a stimulant and can be addictive. That’s a good theory and may have something to do with it, though it’s led to the misconception that Latter-day Saints can’t drink soda that has caffeine in it, which isn’t the case.

The revelation also says it was being given “In consequence of evils and designs which do and will exist in the hearts of conspiring men in the last days.” This calls to mind stories of Big Tobacco and other companies working overtime to get you addicted to their products and leaves the door open to those kinds of possibilities right now and in the future. Will something, or is something like this happening with tea and coffee? I don’t know.

When it comes right down to it, I don’t know exactly why we’re asked not to drink coffee or tea. But I believe Joseph Smith was a prophet, so I’m not going to drink it.

You might remember a certain leper in the Old Testament called Naaman. In 2nd Kings, Naaman hears about a man in Samaria who could apparently heal people. His name was Elisha. He was a prophet. Naaman, having nothing to lose but his limbs, traveled to Elisha’s house to see if the rumors were true. Elisha doesn’t meet Naaman personally, but rather sends out a messenger to him. The messenger said to Naaman, “Go and wash in Jordan seven times, and thy flesh shall come again to thee, and thou shalt be clean.”

Naaman’s response was similar to how many people respond to the tea and coffee thing. He thought it was ridiculous. The Jordan river had no healing powers, in fact, it was a pretty nasty river. Well, eventually, Naaman tried it out. Lo and behold, he was healed.

When it comes to tea and coffee, many people outside our faith pass our belief off as “blind, mindless obedience.” Hopefully, we’d disagree. We’d call it faith obedience. We have faith that it’s instruction that God currently would like us to live by, even if we don’t understand why. That rhymed!

Check out the link to our website in the description for more information about the Word of Wisdom. I’ll throw a few other helpful resources in there for you as well, and we’ll see you next time. Have a great day!

Learning More:

hand holding a cup of coffee

Photo by Quincy Alivio on Unsplash

It’s really interesting to compare the Latter-day Saints’ health law to the Jews’ health law in the Law of Moses. There are promises in the Word of Wisdom for those who keep the law:

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. Amen.

In the Law of Moses, God does not mention health, He just gives commandments. But in fact, there’s a Mosaic law in the Word of Wisdom—”That inasmuch as any man drinketh wine or strong drink among you, behold it is not good, neither meet in the sight of your Father, only in assembling yourselves together to offer up your sacraments before him. And, behold, this should be wine, yea, pure wine of the grape of the vine, of your own make.” Jews can drink alcohol outside the Kiddush, but they don’t buy any grape products other than Jewish-made. That was for safety. Even though God, through Moses, never mentioned health, Jews have been healthy over the millennia because of their laws. God seemed to have something even more important in mind, though, and that is separation.

A Jewish person who kept the laws of kosher (or who now keeps them) really cannot eat a meal in a Gentile home. Picture the apostle Peter’s hesitance when he was invited into a Gentile home to teach the gospel, saying, “Ye know how that it is an unlawful thing for a man that is a Jew to keep company, or come unto one of another nation; but God hath shewed me that I should not call any man common or unclean.” It’s the dietary laws that kept the Jews separate from the Gentiles.

Meanwhile, Latter-day Saints are supposed to do the opposite—take the gospel to the world, to every household. They enter the household and lo and behold, they can’t drink the wine…or the coffee…or the tea. It takes courage to turn these things down. Not just because they are tempting, but because you don’t want to offend the host or make a spectacle of yourself. But when the courage is mustered, everyone at the table begins to wonder (wow, this person is so odd!). What that does is pique curiosity. It piques others to see that the Latter-day Saint is different, odd, but kind of healthfully, pleasantly so. The Latter-day Saint is fulfilling his calling to be part of a peculiar people, with “peculiar” meaning “set apart from the world.” Thus, it may be that we are commanded not to drink coffee or tea just so we’ll seem peculiar.

The original commandment, though, actually says “hot drinks”: “And again, hot drinks are not for the body or belly.”

Later revelation identified these as coffee and tea. There could be many reasons (see these links):

But focusing on the main point of Doctrine and Covenants, Section 89, is a wise choice: “In consequence of evils and designs which do and will exist in the hearts of conspiring men in the last days, I have warned you, and forewarn you, by giving unto you this word of wisdom by revelation—”

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