Section 89 of the Doctrine and Covenants is called the ‘Word of Wisdom’. The name came from the 1st verse. Joseph Smith announced this revelation Feb. 27, 1833.
During the early 1800’s, drinking alcoholic beverages was a common and accepted practice among Americans, including the members of the church. A temperance movement started in 1826 and gained in popularity through the early 1830’s before fading. In fact, in one year over 6,000 temperance organizations were formed. This movement may have influenced Joseph Smith to inquire of the Lord concerning the use of alcohol and tobacco-along with his wife’s concerns.
The School of the Prophets
The Word of Wisdom, like many revelations of the Restoration, came about as a question posed by the Prophet Joseph Smith. Speaking of this historical context, Brigham Young said the following:
I think I am as well acquainted with the circumstances which led to the giving of the Word of Wisdom as any man in the Church, although I was not present at the time to witness them. The first school of the prophets was held in a small room situated over the Prophet Joseph’s kitchen, in a house, which belonged to Bishop Whitney, and which was attached to his store, which more probably might be about fifteen feet square. In the rear of this building was a kitchen, probably ten by fourteen feet, containing rooms and pantries. Over this kitchen was situated the room in which the Prophet received revelations and in which he instructed his brethren. The brethren came to that place from hundreds of miles to attend school in a little room probably no larger than eleven by fourteen. When they assembled together in this 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 room, and as soon as the pipe was out of their mouths a large chew of tobacco would then be taken. Often, when the Prophet entered the room to give the school instructions he would find himself in a cloud of tobacco smoke. This, and the complaints of his wife at having to clean so filthy a floor made the Prophet think upon the matter, and he inquired of the Lord relating to the conduct of the elders in using tobacco, and the revelation known as the Word of Wisdom was the result of his inquiry. 1
Occasional exceptions were noted to the total abstinence position. It is recorded that Joseph Smith drank from the “fruit of the vine” after a wedding feast in Jan. 1836. 2 A week later the First Presidency toasted with wine the marriage of John Boynton. 3 This behavior was consistent with the prophet’s view that the Word of Wisdom was intended to be a guideline inviting moderation and self-control versus excessive drunkenness and behavior. 4
The early members struggled with the interpretation and living of the Word of Wisdom. This was a result of several factors, 1) it was given “not by way of commandment”, 2) it was a new thought and required people to change a physical behavior, 3) some exceptions by church leaders were seen by members in public, 4) other areas had fallen short of true observance, like the Law of Consecration.
When did it become a Commandment?
Several church leaders, including Wilford Woodruff and Ezra Taft Benson have stated that the Word of Wisdom became binding on members when Brigham Young called for a sustaining vote to observe the revelation at the Sept. 9, 1851 General Conference. A letter from the First Presidency to the saints said, “The Conference voted to observe the Word of Wisdom and particularly to dispense with the use of tea, coffee, snuff, and tobacco…” 5
Throughout the 1860’s and 70’s observance of the Word of Wisdom was not a condition of membership in the Church. In the early 1880’s, John Taylor as Church President, started a reform movement to increase adherence to the Word of Wisdom by church leaders which had considerable success. Between 1885 and 1893, the church was involved with the polygamy question and the emphasis on the Word of Wisdom naturally diminished by the Church leaders.
In 1894, President Wilford Woodruff issued a strong statement. “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.” 6
By the time Joseph F. Smith became president in 1901, the Word of Wisdom was becoming an accepted and practical observance of church leaders and members. President Smith refined the interpretation of ‘hot drinks’ as tea and coffee. He also started emphasizing not issuing temple recommends to flagrant violators. Leniency was still to be shown ‘older’ people with bad Word of Wisdom habits.
At the October, 1908 conference session, the Word of Wisdom was the theme. Although this was a time when prohibition was a national issue, no direct reference was made to it in this conference. In 1917 prohibition did exist in Utah. It remained until 1933 when Utahns voted for the 18th amendment to the U.S. Constitution ending Prohibition nationally.
As President Heber J. Grant began his presidency, it had become the rule that compliance with the Word of Wisdom was a tenant of the Mormon faith. Before President Grant’s death in 1945, the status of the revelation had risen to a level where it was binding, a test to the member’s obedience, and a requirement for a temple recommend. As President Grant said in General Conference, “Today I appeal to you, each and all, to use your influence at home and abroad, to get the people to keep the Word of Wisdom, and I am going to read it. It may be that it will be the fifty-third time in the past fifty-three years. I think that I have read it at least once a year if not a half a dozen times.” 7
Since 1945, during the subsequent church presidencies, the Word of Wisdom has been accepted as a commandment of God along with other commandments. Discussions now center over interpreting the provisions of the revelation to specific questions like the use of cola drinks, filtered cigarettes, smokeless tobacco, de-caffeinated coffee, white bread, caffeine in chocolate bars, etc. To these inquiries, Bruce R. McConkie gave his response,…”some unstable people become cranks with reference to this law of health. It should be understood that the Word of Wisdom is not the gospel, and the gospel is not the Word of Wisdom…” 8
The Word of Wisdom has become associated with The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Stories have been told how compliance has helped protect and bless the lives of members of the Church. In addition, information from numerous non-Mormon studies involving health aspects of the Word of Wisdom has added the world’s credibility to an already established religious rule. 9
Whether one wants to obey the principles of the Word of Wisdom from a common sense health perspective or a spiritual vantage point based on a faithful obedience, it can be unequivocally stated that the Word of Wisdom as given by the Lord was and is for the benefit of man physically as well as spiritually. As Ezra Taft Benson has said, “The Word of Wisdom is a law-a principle with promise. If we obey the provisions of the law, we receive the promises. If we do not, there will be both temporal and spiritual consequences.” 10
“The Word of Wisdom is one of the evidences of the inspiration of Joseph Smith’s prophetic calling.” 11
1. Brigham Young, Journal of Discourses, 1868, Vol 12:158.
2. Joseph Smith, The Personal Writings of Joseph Smith, compiled and edited by Dean C. Jessee [Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Co., 1984], 132. See also Leonard J. Arrington, An Economic Interpretation of the Word of Wisdom, BYU Studies, vols. 1-2 (1959-1960), Number 1–winter 1959. In this article we read: “We then partook of some refreshments, and our hearts were made glad with the fruit of the vine. This is according to the pattern set by our Savior Himself, and we feel disposed to patronize all the institutions of heaven.” A fortnight later at the marriage of the apostle, John Boynton, the Prophet was presented by Orson Hyde, Luke Johnson, and Warren Parrish with “three servers of glasses filled with wine, to bless.” “And it fell to my lot to attend to this duty,” he wrote, “which I cheerfully discharged. It was then passed round in order, then the cake in the same order; and suffice it to say, our hearts were made glad while partaking of the bounty of earth which was presented, until we had taken our fill; and joy filled every bosom, and the countenances of old and young seemed to bloom alike with cheerfulness and smiles of youth “The feast, he wrote, “was conducted after the order of heaven, which has a time for all things.
3. Leonard J. Arrington, An Economic Interpretation of the Word of Wisdom, BYU Studies, vols. 1-2 (1959-1960), Number 1–winter 1959.
4. Joseph Smith, History of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 7 vols., introduction and notes by B. H. Roberts [Salt Lake City: The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 1932-1951], 2: 406.
5. President Brigham Young, Heber C. Kimball, Willard Richards; The conference voted to observe the word of wisdom, and particularly to dispense with the use of tea, coffee, snuff, and tobacco, and in this thing as well as many others, what is good for the Saints in the mountains, is good for the Saints in other places, and if all who profess to be Saints would appropriate the funds lavished on luxuries, and articles unwise to use, to the benefit of the public works, we would soon see another “Temple of the Lord.” (Sixth General Epistle of the Presidency, Jan. 15, 1852; reference to “conference” is to the semi-annual conference of the Church, Sept. 7, 1851) Message Of the First Presidency, 2:90.
6. Millenial Star, 11/19/1894. See also: Brian H. Stuy, ed., Collected Discourses, 5 vols. [Burbank, Calif., and Woodland Hills, Ut.: B.H.S. Publishing, 1987-1992], 4.
7. President Heber J. Grant, Conference Report, October 1935, 8.
8. Bruce R. McConkie, Mormon Doctrine, 2d ed. [Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1966], 845.
9. Rick Morris, 10 Surprising benefits of quitting smoking, CNN Health, April 7, 2012. See also: O’Connor, PG. Alcohol abuse and dependence. In: Goldman L and Ausiello DA, eds. Cecil Medicine. 23rd edition. Philadelphia, PA: Saunders Elsevier; 2007: chap 31. See also: Ellen Bouchery, Economic Costs of Excessive Alcohol Consumption in the U.S., 2006, American Journal of Preventive Medicine, Volume 41, Issue 5 , Pages 516-524, November 2011. See also: Run and Not Be Weary, Liahona, June 2009.
10. President Ezra Taft Benson, Conference Report, April, 1983, p.. 70.
11. President Ezra Taft Benson, Conference Report, April, 1983, p. 70.