Being Wise about the Word of Wisdom: Abolishing Dietary Minutiae as Measurements of Righteousness

Image result for green tea
Members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (hereafter “Church”) are required to possess a temple recommend in order to be allowed into the church’s temples to participate in Mormonism’s most sacred rituals and ceremonies. The recommend is signed by two ecclesiastical leaders, and it certifies that the member is sufficiently righteous to enter Mormonism’s holiest place.  The temple recommends are obtained by members meeting with a local ecclesiastical leader.  In those interviews they’re asked questions to determine their religious beliefs, and degree of adherence to LDS commandments.  If found worthy, they must undergo a second interview with a leader possessing even higher authority, who then repeats the same questions asked in the first interview.  If they pass this interview, they receive the temple recommend, which is a little wallet-sized slip of paper bearing the person’s name, membership number, congregations to which he belongs, and the signatures of those who interviewed him. The possession or non-possession of this little piece of paper thus becomes the standard most commonly used by Mormons to determine each other’s level of religious devotion. Church leaders naturally aspire to have all members be “recommend holders.”
The ceremonies and rituals performed in the temple include marriages, which Mormons teach last throughout eternity if the couple lives righteously, but otherwise end at death; special blessings, or “endowments,” wherein individuals are promised exaltation and godhood if they stay faithful; and vicarious works for the dead.   These vicarious rituals, called “ordinances” in Mormon terminology, include baptisms, conferral of the gift of the Holy Ghost, washings and anointings, endowments, and marriages for persons who, for whatever reason, didn’t get the chance to participate in them during their mortal lives, but might accept Mormonism’s message in the hereafter.  The belief in the necessity and practice of these ordinances as a prerequisite of exaltation and godhood is fully explained in the essay Jesus’s Doctrine and Gospel versus Mormonism’s Teachings of Temple Priesthood Ordinances and Exaltation, elsewhere on this website.

In order to prove oneself worthy to receive a temple recommend, Mormons must certify that they don’t drink coffee, tea, or alcoholic beverages, and do not use tobacco.  This health code, referred to by Mormons as the “Word of Wisdom,” purports to be a revelation Joseph Smith received from the Lord in 1833 describing which substances should and shouldn’t be taken into the body.  It is found in Section 89 of the LDS book of scripture Doctrine and Covenants (hereafter “D&C”).  Abstention from the proscribed substances is as fundamental to Mormonism’s orthodoxy as abstention from pork is to orthodox Judaism.  In this essay, I will list the numerous reasons why I believe an individual’s consumption of coffee, tea, and moderate amounts of alcohol, or use of tobacco, should have no bearing whatsoever on whether she is deemed  righteous and worthy to enter the temple, or to participate fully in anything else.
Let me first make clear that I fully recognize the benefits Mormons have enjoyed by abstaining from alcohol and tobacco.  Alcoholism can ruin the physical and emotional lives of alcoholics and their family members, and can poison relationships with friends.  It causes deaths  from drunk driving and violence that would otherwise not occur if the drinker were sober.  Tobacco causes cancer to smokers, and sometimes, to those who have to inhale their smoke for extended periods of time, and it damages voices and facial skin.  Because active Mormons avoid these substances, they have avoided much harm to their lives to which smokers and drinkers are more vulnerable.
But it cannot be emphasized enough that all these benefits can be, and are, enjoyed by people of other religions, or no religion, who don’t regard abstention from alcohol or tobacco as a commandment.  Such people don’t abuse substances for the simple reason that they recognize that it’s good for their health not to do so.  In other words, it isn’t the commandment aspect of abstention that brings health and happiness; it’s the benefits the individual perceives will come from abstaining from substance abuse.  If Mormonism made it a rule for me to brush my teeth after meals, and to buckle my seatbelt before driving, would that mean I couldn’t avoid cavities or vehicular injuries unless I became Mormon?  Do we always need a commandment to enable us to care for our own health?
Furthermore, I, a lifelong Mormon myself, have no ulterior motive of de-stigmatizing the use of tobacco, or the overuse of alcohol, so as to assuage my own pained conscience.  I have never drunk alcohol or used tobacco, and don’t plan to start, except to the extent that I might in the future drink wine when partaking of the sacrament as Jesus intended.  I don’t drink coffee, either, though not because I think God would ever care about such an embarrassingly trivial thing.  What I argue for here is abolishing the Word of Wisdom as a standard of righteousness, and relegating it back to what it’s supposed to be–non-mandatory health advice (only part of which is scientifically sound, as discussed below) that individuals can heed or ignore without ramifications for their standing in the Church.
Biblical Accounts of Jesus’ Rejection of Dietary and Health Codes as Measurements of Righteousness
Of course, all religions have a right to determine what rules they deem important. But if Mormonism seeks to emulate Christ’s teachings, it should abolish such requirements as antithetical to his gospel.  It should have done so long ago.  Because this hasn’t been done, a great many Mormons have grown up misunderstanding what their religion is supposed to be all about.  Thus, the first reason to abolish the rules against coffee, tea, tobacco and moderate amounts of alcohol is that Jesus himself made clear that such rules have no place in his church. When confronted by the Pharisees with the fact that his disciples ignored the Jewish religious tradition of washing their hands before eating, Jesus responded by explaining that such health-related practices weren’t spiritually consequential.  In Matthew 15 we read:

11 Not that which goeth into the mouth defileth a man; but that which cometh out of the mouth, this defileth a man.

12 Then came his disciples, and said unto him, Knowest thou that the Pharisees were offended, after they heard this saying?

13 But he answered and said, Every plant, which my heavenly Father hath not planted, shall be rooted up.

14 Let them alone: they be blind leaders of the blind. And if the blind lead the blind, both shall fall into the ditch.

15 Then answered Peter and said unto him, Declare unto us this parable.

16 And Jesus said, Are ye also yet without understanding?

17 Do not ye yet understand, that whatsoever entereth in at the mouth goeth into the belly, and is cast out into the draught?

18 But those things which proceed out of the mouth come forth from the heart; and they defile the man.

19 For out of the heart proceed evil thoughts, murders, adulteries, fornications, thefts, false witness, blasphemies:

20 These are the things which defile a man: but to eat with unwashen hands defileth not a man.

After Jesus’ departure, in his early church Paul reinforced these same concepts to the Colossians converts to the church, instructing “Let no man therefore judge you in meat, or in drink,” explaining that these relics of Judaic law were not part of Christ’s gospel.  (See Colossians 2:16.)

Can there be any doubt that if contaminated food doesn’t spiritually defile a man or woman, coffee, tea, moderate amounts of alcohol and even tobacco don’t spiritually defile them either?  Jesus himself drank wine, and he famously provided six jugs of  of wine for a wedding celebration as his first miracle.  (See John 2:1-10.)  The Pharisees, ever eager to criticize Jesus and his disciples, found fault with the iconoclastic wilderness man, John the Baptist, for not sitting down and eating and drinking with the Jews, alleging he must therefore be possessed of a devil.  But of Jesus, who, like everyone else, did eat and drink with sinners, publicans, and everyone else at meals and feasts, the Pharisees said “Behold a man gluttonous, and a winebibber. . .”  (See Matt. 11:18-19.)  Jesus rebuked them for this, leaving no doubt that judging a person by what they ingest, or even how much of it they ingest on a particular occasion, was incompatible with his own more elevated gospel–an ethos of heartfelt kindness towards others.

With Jesus’ teachings in mind, we should reconsider the subject of temple attendance within Mormonism.  If, as Mormons believe and teach, temple ordinances are so overwhelmingly important that the consequences of performing or not performing them last throughout the eternities, should an individual’s ability to attend the temple ride on whether she has a cup or two of coffee to start her day, or tea with her lunch, or a glass of wine with her dinner?  If a man invited Jesus to dine with him and offered him beer to drink as part of that meal, would Jesus refuse the offering, giving the reason that he needed to keep himself unspotted from sin?  What if the man smoked a cigar every time a child or grandchild was born, or when his football team won a game, and offered one of those cigars to Jesus to celebrate with him?  Would Jesus abstain for purity’s sake (as opposed to a morally neutral reason such as perhaps not liking the smell or taste of cigars)?  Judging from Jesus’ own words, it is far more likely that Jesus would drink a beer with his host, just like he drank wine with his hosts and disciples, or that he would have no objection, at least  based on health or morality, to smoking one of the man’s cigars to celebrate with him.  (He might refrain because he found it unenjoyable, of course, but even then, he likely would have accepted a glass of champagne as a substitute.)  Regardless, how can Mormons justify denying someone entrance to what is deemed the eternity-altering temple, based on such spiritually insignificant behavior as drinking tea, coffee or moderate amounts of alcohol, or using tobacco?  Doesn’t it make a mockery out of our religion to be so obsessed with such minutiae?  Isn’t it not only unscriptural, but indeed blasphemous, to teach that the same Lord who taught the Beatitudes as the centerpiece of his sermons to the Jews and Nephites, is the one who will deny you eternity’s blessings because twice a day you drink antioxidant-rich green tea?

The Word of Wisdom’s role in adjudging righteousness is even worse than that of merely determining who enters the temple and who doesn’t.  In the endowment ceremony itself, one of the covenants dead people make, through their live temple patron proxies, is to accept the “Law of Consecration” as contained in the LDS Doctrine and Covenants, which is specifically named Thus, the book containing the health and dietary guidelines in Section 89 receives specific formal recognition by God as a book of scripture whose teachings are binding, even on the dead.  Of course, a reading of all the sections of that book, including the parts that may appear to address the “Law of Consecration,” demonstrates that it is not written with the spirits of dead people in mind as its intended audience.  In fact, though the book’s sections, with Section 89 being the perfect example, are clearly instructions for persons with live physical bodies only, the book is afforded preëminent status in the temple’s vicarious rituals for the dead.  The things the Doctrine and Covenants says now become things dead people have to agree to as part of their acceptance of the gospel in the spiritual realm where they dwell.  (In the temple endowment ceremony, the Book of Mormon, which Mormons claim to accept as the keystone of their religion, is not mentioned, either by name or by reference to its content. Even the Bible isn’t mentioned by name, though many of its writings are alluded to throughout the endowment ceremony.)   It thus becomes difficult to argue to an orthodox Mormon that anything in the Doctrine and Covenants isn’t to be taken as greatly important, given the divine specific endorsement of it in the temple ceremony.  It’s not hard to see how Mormons come to regard words about coffee, tea and tobacco to be at or near the center of their religion.  How and why did we ever let ourselves get into this morass of doctrinal absurdity?  It certainly isn’t taught in the Bible or Book of Mormon.

Book of Mormon Teachings on Dietary and Health Codes

The Book of Mormon corroborates Jesus’ strong rejection in his biblical teachings of using physical health guidelines to measure a person’s righteousness.  The Jewish health guidelines, which the Nephites inherited as descendants of the house of Israel, had originated with the law of Moses.  In addition to all its other regulations, this law defined which animals could be eaten as meat and which could not, which parts of edible animals could be eaten, and what combinations of food were permitted or forbidden.  It also decreed such things as when baths and washings should take place, and how long couples had to wait after menstruation to engage in sexual intercourse.  But when Jesus visited the Nephites after his resurrection, he pointedly put an end to the Law of Moses, explaining that its purpose had been fulfilled in him.  (See 3 Nephi  15:2-8.)  The law he replaced it with was his own higher law of inward spirituality, and it contained no dietary or health rules.  Instead, Jesus taught the people to believe in him, repent and be baptized, and continue on with humility thereafter.  He then repeated to the Nephites the Sermon on the Mount which he had delivered in Palestine, which concerned individuals’ obligations of kindness to each other.  In so doing, Jesus also instructed that no additional rules be appended to his new doctrine and gospel.  (See 3 Nephi 9, 11-14 generally, and 11:39-40 specifically.)  With the Mosaic Law now discarded, the health and dietary laws contained within it were also discarded, no more to constitute part of Christ’s gospel.

But by exalting the specifics of the Word of Wisdom to commandment status, and judging our people by what they ingest like the Pharisees did with Jesus and his disciples, Mormonism has invented a new orthodoxy, resembling, at least in spirit, the law of Moses that Jesus did away with.  This recent iteration contains new prohibitions not even found in the original.  (As will be demonstrated below, Mormonism’s new prohibitions, in several instances, don’t even promote better health, despite that being their intended purpose.)  Predictably, the same damage suffered by the Israelites to their understanding of what is religiously important has occurred in modern Mormonism.  We have taught our people to misapprehend what’s important and what’s not.  It’s extremely common for our youth to belittle peers who are different or eccentric in some way, but to nevertheless consider themselves righteous because they don’t drink, smoke or chew.  Some of our most morally righteous members don’t feel comfortable attending church because they can’t seem to do without their morning coffee, or are worried someone will smell tobacco or beer on their breath.  And, as discussed above, we use our rules on coffee, tea, tobacco and alcohol to keep people out of the temple, implying that God himself is arbitrary and capricious enough to hold a cup or two of tea or coffee against us, but not a bucket of fried chicken, or a big steak cooked rare.

The Lack of Logic Behind Mormonism’s Dietary Rules

Mormonism’s dietary rules have also, over time, proven to be illogical, for a number of reasons.  The least important of these is the fact that the wording of D&C 89 cannot reasonably be interpreted to forbid what Mormons are taught it forbids.  D&C 89:9, the verse wherein coffee and tea are supposedly implicated, is surprisingly vague:  “And again, hot drinks are not for the body or belly.”  Section 89 nowhere specifically mentions coffee or tea, but merely, “hot drinks.”  Church leaders have provided a somewhat convoluted interpretation of this term, holding that hot drinks means caffeinated tea and coffee, and even cold, caffeinated ice tea, but not hot drinks containing no caffeine, and not even hot drinks like hot chocolate which do contain caffeine, but not as much as in coffee.  To add to the confusion, even the proscription against caffeine is also only inferred, as that substance isn’t specifically mentioned in D&C 89 either.  In fact, no explanation for why hot drinks would be unhealthful is provided.  Since Section 89 purports to be a revelation from  the Lord’s own mouth, it’s puzzling that the Lord would not specifically name coffee and tea as the harmful substances, or explain why some forms of them are harmful.  The standard practice elsewhere in scripture is that the Lord doesn’t specify all we should do to live righteous lives, but is specific when setting forth that which we shouldn’t  do.  Section 89 seems to be a departure from the normal scriptural pattern.

The failure to name coffee, tea, or caffeine, or to explain why hot drinks do damage to one’s health in any other way than other hot things can harm us, is all the more puzzling when considering that other plant-based foods such as wheat, corn, oats, rye and barley are specifically named, and are recommended for various purposes, in verse 17.  “Pure wine of the grape of the wine” for sacramental purposes is also mentioned in verse 6.  (For more thoughts on the need to use actual wine in the sacrament, as opposed to the current LDS practice of using water, see The Mormon Use of Water Instead of Wine in the Sacrament elsewhere on this website.)  If grapes and wine and five kinds of grain can be specifically mentioned, why can’t coffee or tea?  Logical explanations are hard to come by.  It is just as difficult to argue that the Lord didn’t know the English words for tea or coffee as it is to argue that Joseph Smith wouldn’t have understood those words had they been revealed to him by the Lord.  Neither explanation is logical.

Along these same lines, if this is truly a revelation from God, it’s odd that the Lord would be unable to find any more descriptive phrase than “strong drinks” in verses 5 and 7 to describe all alcoholic beverages.  The Mormon practice of abstaining from all alcohol is based on the assumption that the Lord used “strong drinks” to refer to all beverages containing alcohol other than wine from grapes, which is mentioned separately as useful for the sacrament.  Thoughtful individuals might wonder again, “Couldn’t the Lord be a little more specific?”  There are many strong drinks that don’t contain alcohol, and I’m told the converse is also true; some alcoholic drinks are milder than black coffee, various teas, or liquid medicines.

In addition to using vague words to describe what is forbidden, another illogical assertion in verse 5 is almost too obvious to mention.  There, the drinking of wine is declared to be “not good,” when, as demonstrated above, Jesus and his disciples drank it regularly, and Jesus defended its consumption as having no moral implications.  Perhaps Joseph Smith himself portrayed wine negatively in these verses, without divine input, because of his own father’s tendency to find solace in wine when confronted with what he considered his own frequent failures to lead his family.1  Whatever the reasons, they’re not scripturally based.

Two final problems in relying on D&C 89 as the basis for Mormonism’s health and dietary rules are significant indeed.  The first of these is that the counsel in verses 12 and 13 to eat animal flesh sparingly, or better, “only in times of winter, or of cold, or famine,” is completely ignored in the Church.  No questions are asked in temple recommend interviews whether the church member eats too much meat.  It’s ironic that the overconsumption of meat, which has scientifically proven health consequences, is the one dietary guideline Mormons have chosen to not accept as a measurement of righteousness, and as the guideline they follow the least.  Mormons consume beef, pork, turkey, chicken, duck, pheasant, quail, elk, venison (and of course fish) just as much as anyone else.

The second of these two final problems is the most important of all the ones related to the wording of D&C Section 89.  Verse 2 specifically declares the entire section “to be sent greeting; not by commandment or constraint” but as “the word of wisdom.”  Incredibly, Mormonism’s leaders have done the opposite, making what was at first regarded as unusual dietary guidelines promulgated by Joseph Smith, and mostly  ignored by Church leaders and laity during the 1800s, into full-blown, rigid commandments in the early decades of the 20th century.  It is hard to understand why this was done.  Perhaps church leaders decided that to have a legitimate religion, it was necessary to have a plethora of restrictive rules, as were possessed by the pre-Christian Jews, and the later Baptists and Puritans.  Whatever the reason, the process whereby Section 89 health advice became commandments, which were then used to measure righteousness, required the Church to completely violate the spirit and letter of the express words introducing the guidelines.

D&C 89 is only Partially Reliable as Sound Health Advice

If Church leaders aren’t persuaded that, for moral and doctrinal reasons, they should discontinue using the Word of Wisdom as a measurement of righteousness, they might still be persuaded by recent scientific studies, which demonstrate that the effects of drinking coffee and tea, and moderate amounts of wine (and even some other alcoholic beverages used wisely), actually promote better health.  See, e.g., 10 Proven Benefits of Green Tea – Healthline , wherein it is asserted that green tea is the world’s most health-promoting beverage; Coffee: Benefits, nutrition, and risks – Medical News Today ; The latest scoop on the health benefits of coffee ;  Coffee and health: What does the research say? – Mayo Clinic ; Health effects of coffee: Where do we stand? – CNN – ; and Red wine and resveratrol: Good for your heart?

A reading of these articles suggests their conclusions are reliable, as the authors of each of them not only cite to myriad scientific studies, but are careful to point out risks associated with the misuse of coffee, tea and wine.

All in all, when faced with the above arguments, the only plausible reason why LDS Church leaders may refuse to make the changes called for above will be that admitting the church leadership has erred, and that this error has gone uncorrected for almost 100 years, is incredibly painful.  It implies that not all decisions by Church general authorities are divinely inspired, and that some errors they make, whether negligently or on purpose, are of great magnitude and last a long time.  Hopefully, current leaders will be able to prayerfully review their Word of Wisdom-related teachings and practices, ignore ego-driven and face-saving considerations, and simply ask the Lord, “O say what is truth?”  If they do, I believe change will come, and will improve our spiritual health.


1. Richard Lyman Bushman, Joseph Smith: Rough Stone Rolling (New York:  Alfred A. Knopf, 2005) 42, 55.

2 thoughts on “Being Wise about the Word of Wisdom: Abolishing Dietary Minutiae as Measurements of Righteousness

  1. Great points all around. The “only in times of winter, or of cold, or famine” phrase has always been puzzling for me, since as you mentioned briefly, we completely ignore it. Not that I’m for obeying it of course! Also, I didn’t know that the church had officially condoned decaf coffee. That would strongly suggest that caffeine is the bad actor in coffee, but cola (and energy) drinks are on the OK list. I think we’ve had different church leaders weighing in at different times over the decades, giving us a very confusing picture of what the “Lord’s will” is.
    Jesus smoking a cigar is pretty hard to picture though, I must say. I personally don’t picture Jesus feeling the need to “celebrate” with a cigar, regardless of what it might mean culturally to one of us. When I picture being in his presence I don’t think it would occur to me to have him listen to my favorite rock n roll songs, or go for a run with me, or watch a funny youtube video. You’re right, he might be totally fine doing those things with me, but I wouldn’t feel the need to bring it up. But who knows how things will be once we’re all safe and sound in heaven. I guess my reaction to the cigar picture is based on a lot of negative cultural associations, and I hate to picture Jesus with a cigar.


    • Hugh, I just now saw this old comment you made. Sorry for the delay in seeing it. I have approved it and published it. In response to your comments, I edited the part about the cigar smoking a little to stress the fact that Jesus might be normal enough to refuse a cigar simply because it’s gross.


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