The Word of Wisdom: We are Doing it All Wrong

Aug 13, 14 The Word of Wisdom: We are Doing it All Wrong

A couple of years ago I wrote a series of posts about revelation, specifically about revelation or inspiration received through a human filter. Part of the series was a three-part post in which I dissected the Word of Wisdom (through my own filter, obviously). You can read Part 1 here, Part 2 here, and Part 3 here.  In those posts I related how the Word of Wisdom was a product of Joseph’s time and his worldview and perspectives. Today, most Mormons believe that the Word of Wisdom consists of abstaining from coffee, tea (green and black), alcohol (excluding Nyquil), and tobacco. Although the Word of Wisdom does not specifically mention illegal drugs, they are on the blacklist today too. I think it would be fair to include the abuse of legal drugs also. I don’t think there is an official church stance on medical marijuana. If I’m wrong, please post a comment and the source.

First and foremost, the Word of Wisdom was intended as counsel, not as a commandment:

D&C 89:2 “To be sent greeting; not by commandment or constraint…”

But somehow, over time, the intention changed. The culture changed. Things got specific…

89:9 “…hot drinks are not for the body or belly.” What exactly does this mean? Well, it evolved from literally not drinking anything hot – including soup – to just not drinking coffee and tea (green and black tea). If you ask Mormons why those two things are singled out, most will rattle off something about caffeine (while slurping down their ice-cold Diet Cokes). Fortunately, the church recently stated that caffeine is in fact not part of the Word of Wisdom. All closet Diet Coke drinkers breathed a sigh of relief and felt worthy again. Dr. Peppers on the house!

When the church’s statement about caffeine came out, I got the sense that we as a people want to be commanded in all things. We want to be told what is good and what is bad. For a lot of people this makes life easier and less complex. We want a plan! The unknown is scary. It’s easier to follow a checklist in order to receive blessings and happiness. We like knowing that we are on the right path. It feels good. However, there are issues in wanting instruction for every little thing in our lives. We are warned of this, yet we persist.

D&C 58:22 “For behold, it is not meet that I should command in all things; for he that is compelled in all things, the same is a slothful and not a wise servant; wherefore he receiveth no reward.”

Let’s go back to the Word of Wisdom to further demonstrate this point. When we are offered something to eat or drink do we ask ourselves first, “Is this good for my body?” or do we ask ourselves, “Is this against church rules?” Or is it one in the same: “I don’t drink this because the Word of Wisdom says it is not good for my body.” If something is on the “don’t” list, then it is completely avoided – even association with it is avoided. I turned down some food on my mission because it was cooked with alcohol (don’t judge me – I’m sure I’m not alone). But on the flip side, if an item is not on the “don’t” list, we are ON BOARD. And we will even offer a prayer for it –  “bless these doughnuts to nourish and strengthen our bodies.”

One time when I went to a restaurant with some friends we had to split the pizza – half meat, half veggie – because one of my friends was a vegetarian. I asked him why he decided to be a vegetarian. He simply stated that his body couldn’t digest meat. Fair enough. His body is different than mine; he has different needs. Some people prefer Tylenol to Advil because Advil upsets their stomachs. Many medications that work well on one person will do terrible things to another. Some people are allergic to grains – there goes the “staff of life.” (D&C 89:14)

I guess what I’m trying to say is that we are all different – physically, emotionally, mentally, spiritually, etc. We all have different needs. What works for some of us, just will not work for others. So when our rules, our “do’s” and “don’ts”, get too specific, something’s got to give. In order to learn about ourselves, to grow and mature, we have to get uncomfortable; we have to take calculated risks. The problem with wanting to be commanded in all things is that we oftentimes give up our most valuable gift in the process – free agency – and our growth is stunted.

Here are a few examples that illustrate that desire to be commanded in all things instead of discovering and learning things for ourselves.

  1. We are instructed in 1 Nephi to “hold to the rod.”  We even sing a hymn about it! If you go back and re-read the story told in 1 Nephi, the first group, the ones that were “clinging to the rod of iron,” were the first ones to fall away even after they tasted the fruit. The second group were “holding fast to the rod of iron” and they make it okay. In my mind, the clingers only made one decision in their lives – to cling to the rod. They depended way too much on the words of others and never matured.
  2. Do you think we would be anywhere if we stuck with Adam’s game plan? This is the guy that we praise for doing EVERYTHING he was commanded! “Yo, Adam! Why did you build that altar?”  “I don’t know. Because I was commanded.” Great answer, Adam. Eve, on the other hand, thought, pondered, and took a calculated risk. And we owe her big time for her choice.  Side note: There is nothing wrong with Adam, and sometimes I wish my kids were that obedient when I want them to get ready for bed, but we can clearly see who was the mature one in that relationship.
  3. Although riddled with errors, the book “Mormon Doctrine” made it easy for members to identify, in print, what was good and what was bad. Including playing cards. (Bad.) We didn’t really have to think any more, we just referenced the shit out of Mormon Doctrine. No more pondering. Those authoritative answers given in that terrible book became bullies to any other possible thoughtful answer. Don’t worry; Deseret Book doesn’t sell that false doctrine anymore.

The way I see it, clinging happens today when we rely upon specific instruction to guide us on the path to higher ground. In addition to the Word of Wisdom, white shirts, ties, dresses vs. pants, sleeves on children, no facial hair for men, only one pair of earrings, and no long hair on men are more examples. In so many areas we have created policies that trump written scripture. Should we start counting the steps we take on the Sabbath now? We have even done this even with the temple garment. Nowhere in the temple do we covenant to wear the garment both day and night; we are instructed to where it “throughout our lives.” But policy rears its ugly head in the temple recommend questions when we are asked if we wear it both day and night. It even includes a bit about not taking it off during yard work. Where is our opportunity to exercise our agency? Where is the chance for personal, prayerful interpretation? It seems like if a principle is measurable, then we will measure it. It’s so much easier to measure – you either drink green tea or you don’t; you either wear garments while doing sweaty yard work in the Arizona sun or you don’t. Checklist complete!

As a parent of four boys it is exciting to watch them grow to say the least. I love the stages they are in right now. That being said, I can’t wait until my youngest is out of diapers and I can’t wait until he sleeps through the night. I can’t wait until they can wipe their own butts, well, at least do a better job at it. Different stages comes with different rewards. I love seeing my wife breastfeed our youngest. He is our last child so we treasure it even more. There is a tiny hidden battle I think that takes place in most parents, an inner battle of wanting to keep their kids locked into a certain age, cute and adorable. But as parents it is so rewarding to see our kids grow and mature. Don’t we want our children to think for themselves? Or do we want them coming to us for the rest of our lives to make sure they wiped their butts properly? I don’t think our Heavenly Parents want that either.

1 Corinthians 13:11 When I was a child, I spake as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child: but when I became a man, I put away childish things. (not including Star Wars figures)

So instead of asking whether or not something is against church rules, perhaps we should ask if it is beneficial for our bodies, if it’s moral, if it harms others, if it harms ourselves, etc. Study it out. Thoughtfully. Make calculated risk. Be mindful of yourself and others. Exercise moderation. Try to eat organic. THINK, search, ponder, and pray. Don’t give up your most precious gift – your free agency. And stop clinging – that is so 600 B.C.

And while you pass the coffee, here is a fun list of Word of Wisdom rebels:

  • Joseph Smith (President of Church) – Alcohol, Tobacco
  • Brigham Young (President of Church) – Alcohol
  • John Taylor (President of Church) – Alcohol
  • Brigham Young, Jr. (Apostle) – Alcohol
  • John Henry Smith (Apostle) – Alcohol
  • BH Roberts (President of 70) – Alcohol
  • Anthon H. Lund (1st Presidency) – Alcohol
  • Matthias F. Cowley (Apostle) – Alcohol
  • Charles W. Penrose (1st Presidency) – Alcohol
  • Emmeline B. Wells (Relief Society president) – Coffee
  • George Albert Smith (President of Church) – Alcohol
  • James Talmage (Apostle) – Tobacco, Hashish
  • And last but not least: Jesus (Savior of the world) – Alcohol


Born and raised in Northern California, Paul received his education at Ricks College and BYU with a BA in Spanish, minor in PE Coaching. Paul served his LDS mission during the years 94-96 in Rosario, Argentina. He now runs a skate shop in Provo, UT. He's married and has 4 boys. He is currently inbetween callings ;).

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  1. Brent /


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  2. Excellent thoughts, Paul.

    I too feel puzzled at how we got from point A (moderation and individual agency) to point B (don’t think for yourself just follow all the rules that someone else spelled out for us for untold generations.)

    Whether or not we can identify any models for going back once something has been so ubiquitous in Church culture, I think we need more of this critical evaluation and not just relying on “the traditions of our fathers,” which phrase almost always appears in the scriptures next to the word “foolish.”

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  3. BY would also include tobacco as well as all of the 12 and 1st Prcy that partook of wine in their Thursday Temple sacrament meetings until prohibition.

    However, I don’t really see the problem with God giving a specific health related command at different times/covenants: e.g. no pork and shrimp for the Israelites, no wine for John the Baptist, but allowed for Jesus and the disciples, no fruit without consequences for Adam and Eve, etc. In our day, no alcohol, tea, (wisdom in 1833, made a commandment in 1851 and for worthiness in 1921).

    That’s fine if someone wants to decide all on their own, but I don’t see the point of revealed instructions from God if you’re if you’re going to do what you decide you think is best anyways.

    Interesting that although much ado was made by Church PR and even an apostle in the past year on the subject of alcohol regulation. However, not peep about marijuana, not even on legalization for non-medical use in CO and WA. Perhaps a literal interpretation of “wholesome herb”?

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  4. Neal

    You left off David O McKay.. :)

    At a reception McKay attended, the hostess served rum cake. “All the guests hesitated, watching to see what McKay would do. He smacked his lips and began to eat.” When one guest expostulated, “But President McKay, don’t you know that is rum cake?” McKay smiled and reminded the guest that the Word of Wisdom forbade drinking alcohol, not eating it. David O. McKay and the Rise of Modern Mormonism, Gregory Prince and Wm. Robert Wright, p. 23.

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  5. Porter /

    “When we are offered something to eat or drink do we ask ourselves first, “Is this good for my body?” or do we ask ourselves, “Is this against church rules?”

    In my experience many ask themselves a very different question: “will anyone see me drinking this?” At least here in Utah it seems to me that when it comes to the word of wisdom many are more concerned about appearances more than obedience. I know TONS of people who drink alcohol on vacation but would never dream of doing so in their local neighborhood restaurant. Why is that? What does this say about us as a people?

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  6. I feel better now …¥

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  7. Jeffery pool /


    Wisdom herb …¥

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  8. Daniel Bride
    Daniel Bride /

    I love the spirit of this post. Way beyond just the word of wisdom, Mormon culture generally seems to encourage lust for absolutes and discomfort with ambiguity. Anecdotally, it seems to me that the more certain a person is that everything in the Church is certain and unquestionable, the more angry and disillusioned he or she will be after confronting a challenging idea/doctrine/practice/historical record. On the other hand, many people who were okay with uncertainty before they googled “Mormons and salamanders” are able to make room for more uncertainty afterward without snapping.

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  9. Daniel S
    Daniel S /

    Loved this. On the medical marijuana bit, I have no idea what the official church policy is. On my mission in California, we taught a member who grew and used medical marijuana legally for a past injury. He had to go through tons of extra time and interviews (stake president included) to be able to receive the aaronic priesthood. That was like 5 years ago, but it seemed very taboo.

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  10. I am of a split mind on the WoW. As a died in the wool, progressive, Liahona Mormon I would love to see us tilt away from the “this is a test of obedience” version of the gospel to the “teach correct principles and let them govern themselves” gospel. the WoW would indeed be exhibit 1.

    On the other hand, as a sociologist I would say that along with Sabbath the WoW is probably the single most effective identity building and boundary maintaining mechanism in the church. Every day in every society in the world a Mormon will reaffirm their identity as Mormon by refusing coffee, tea, alcohol, tobacco or whatever. There is a reason that many strong identity religions have some sort of dietary restriction. It is simply super effective for community building and boundary maintenance.

    I think one reason we as a church have turned to loving black and white rules is that, lets admit it, it serves the interest of the institutional church. It is far easier in an organization to govern by clear cut, easily identifiable rules and criteria than it is “by the Spirit”. If there is a winner when it comes to handbook creep it is the bureaucratic church. It aligns perfectly with its interests. And I am not saying that is all bad. it is simply a fact. As a bishop will tell you it is always easier to administer the same rules “fairly” to everyone than it is to manage on a case by case basis with different rules for different people. That takes a huge amount of time and effort. And it always risks accusations of unfairness etc.

    We see this in things like the policing of ward level modesty standards or the institutionalization of dating rules. As parents we get to avoid a whole lot of sticky, annoying discussions if we can just say – “The rule is not until 16 and ALL of your friends are abiding by the same rule” or “No shoulders here girls”. When each family is allowed to set their own standards smart kids will pick the most lenient family as the comparator. Of course the problem is that now what we have is that the most crazy, orthodox families have defacto become the arbiters of our ward standards. And so goes Pharisaical creep.

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  11. James /

    For those wondering how we “got there from here” in terms of the shift in tone and policy on the WoW, here’s a link to a fascinating paper by Leonard Arrington entitled “Economic Interpretation of the Word of Wisdom.”

    FYI…opens as a PDF.,d.aWw&cad=rja

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  12. Gary Forrester /

    Mormonism has become too Pharisaical to ever give up the laundry list of contradictory commandments that the WOW has become

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    • “Now those men, or those women, who know no more about the power of God, and the influences of the Holy Spirit, than to be led entirely by another person, suspending their own understanding, and pinning their faith upon another’s sleeve, will never be capable of entering into the celestial glory, to be crowned as they anticipate; they will never be capable of becoming Gods. They cannot rule themselves, to say nothing of ruling others, but they must be dictated to in every trifle, like a child. They cannot control themselves in the least, but James, Peter, or somebody else must control them. They never can become Gods, nor be crowned as rulers with glory, immortality, and eternal lives. They never can hold sceptres of glory, majesty, and power in the celestial kingdom.”

      -Brigham Young 1853 General Conference

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  13. Brent /

    Good take on wisdom, common sense, and agency.

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  14. Another superb example of using the brains God gave us to benefit ourselves and those around us. How hard is that?! (And, FYI, the temple garment interview question says nothing about ALL day and ALL night; perhaps it is semantics to some. To me, it is about independent thinking.

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    • “How often has the Holy Spirit tried to tell us something we needed to know but couldn’t get past the massive iron gate of what we thought we already knew?”

      – Dieter Uchtdorf 2012 Worldwide Leadership Training

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  15. Daniel /

    Great post, Paul, and well articulated. This is a complicated topic to talk about, given the vastly different opinions in the Church. I love the comments here too, and I generally agree but I think there is something missing, and that is obedience. Now I’m not talking about the blind-just-so-I-can-receive-the-blessings-and-appear-righteous kind of obedience, but the real opportunity to test the principles for ourselves. That may require disobedience to seemingly ridiculous rules. I love the iron rod insight- obedience for its own sake carries no guarantees.

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    • I hear ya – I tried to note that out with the differences in the iron rod story. The second group still “held fast”. I just think it is interesting that there are two different words for the two different groups.

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  16. I've been in this Church a long time now. Listened to a lot of General Conference talks. The brethren (70s, Apostles and 1st Presidency) have repeatedly expressed that the Word of Wisdom is now indeed, a commandment. Why go from a word of suggestion/counsel to commandment? My guess would be that it was too much to demand that everyone do it all at once. Early growth of the Church would have been hindered too much. Something like that anyway. Bottom line, it's a commandment now. And I'd like to see dates and reliable sources on the "fun list of word of wisdom rebels."

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  17. It was in mine. I remember in 1986 a small room full of us in the Washington D.C. Temple, "all day, every day" was stressed, with exception of activities like swimming, basketball or karate where your activity-related clothes didn't cover it up. Granted, I asked about karate, but it's all the same. Bishop's (or bishop's counselor) reading from a card possibly written but definitely approved by the Prophet, the same authority that hands down the sealing power in the Temple, and all the interviews associated with it. Maybe someone was cutting corners in your interview or just old or something. Priesthood is government.

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  18. I agree that there's a lot of Mormon Mythology and culture that some take as doctrine. I've been in wards where presidencies would fight over me as a teacher, and other wards where I couldn't teach anyone over 5 years old, both for my anti-Mormon culture verbage. But it's there and it sticks to people. And people, being imperfect, sometimes pass it on. So? They're not perfect. I'm embarrassed by some of the things I taught as a young, freshly returned missionary. But I learned. In another 30 years I'll be embarrassed by things I'm doing now, even though I'm acting and communicating the best I can to convictions attained from passing through reading, studying, pondering, praying and fire.

    Your reference to "clinging" and "holding" to the iron rod… I don't think it's the difference in those words that determined if they fell. It's who they paid attention to after they ate the fruit, right? After all, we're told to "cling" to our wife in Genesis, right?

    Your criticism of Adam if short-sighted. When Adam and Eve were in the Garden, they did not have a large library of LDS books to refer to, or to reference to whenever they had a question. And due to their lack of experience, it probably didn't even occur to them to ask questions about much. It doesn't show lack of initiative, it's lack of experience, and a perfectly rational reliance on reliance on God and his messengers.

    And Eve was not necessarily more insightful or rebellious than Adam was. Satan just used a different tactic on her, manipulating her inexperience (a tactic he came up with after failing to get Adam to do it), and it worked. But it still backfired in Satan's face, and turned out to be what God was expecting, further down the road, anyway.

    I've been able to debunk Book of Mormon errors pretty easily. Remember that Book of Mormon prophets were going through learning stages too (i.e. Alma, Nephi, etc.) Newbie prophets who were often having doctrine revealed or explained to them as they were writing it down, or they were just figuring out the revelation as they were writing it… whichever. We had a Family Home Evening on this recently. Moroni and Mormon knew a lot more about the doctrine after reading over 1,000 years of writings than Nephi, who'd had basic Jewish upbringing and schooling or Alma the Younger who'd recently converted did. My belief is that those and other "mistakes" are left in to show us that prophets of 1,000+ years ago had learning curves to work through, too.

    Alma's excellent lecture on Faith as a Seed covers the idea of how much obedience and reliance on leadership do we employ. Get an idea. Pray about it. Act on it. Does it work? Does it fit with doctrine? Does the Spirit say , "Yay-yay," or "Nay-nay," during the seedling testing process? If it works, go with it. If it doesn't, try to figure out what was wrong with it. Situationally challenge your original idea. Was it all wrong, or just part of it? Good grief- even Christ told the surviving Nephites to pray and ponder about his words. Yeah, Jesus Christ said ask the Spirit to make what I've said click. It's kind of what you're saying, but you're leaving out the Spirit. The Spirit guides and reveals. Rebukes and encourages. Builds you up and smacks you down. But if you're just trying to think it our for yourself, there's no telling where you might wind up.

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  19. I think it is helpful to distinguish between the two ways we commonly use the phrase “Word of Wisdom” in the Church. One is a commandment, the other wise counsel from our Savior. I’ve written a bit about this here:

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