This week I got an email from a college friend. In it, there was this fun question:

I have a question.  I was teaching my youth sunday school class about the commandments and Word of Wisdom came up.  As per usual, I told them that there was nothing in the word of wisdom (or since then, officially) about caffeine.  I pointed to the caffeine blip in the newsroom last fall where it was specifically mentioned. Anyway, the RS President’s daughter is in my class and I got an email tonight about me “saying it was okay to drink caffeine.” You know this stuff. What else is there out there that talks about the word of wisdom and caffeine?


So I thought that I could use this email and my response for this blog post…


Word of Wisdom and caffeine. Unrelated issues or directly related? Really, it’s the Mormon debate of the late 20th century. Why late 20th century you might ask? Well, to answer that, we’d need to go back to the beginning, back to the world and world-view in which Joseph Smith gave the world the revelation. The view of the medical field at the time was obviously misguided by today’s standards, and some treatments were attempts at balancing the humors by drinking “hot drinks” with emetics. This likely exacerbated his older brother Alvin’s illness and played a role in his death.


Really we can avoid the rest of the 19th century if we’d like because the fact that Brigham thought they should be used sparingly (“If a person is weary, worn out, cast down, fainting, or dying, a brandy sling, a little wine, or a cup of tea is good to revive them. Do not throw these things away, and say they must never be used; they are good to be used with judgment, prudence, and discretion. Ask our Bishops if they drink tea every day, and in most cases they will tell you they do if they can get it.“), that Brigham saw coffee as part of Zion and the United Order, and that our 3rd and 4th Presidents saw them as a very minor component of the Word of Wisdom when compared to the much more important part of avoiding eating meat, doesn’t really affect our argument.


By the mid-20th century, many Mormons equated caffeine as being synonymous with the ban on “hot drinks,” especially with the rise in popularity of Coca-Cola. This reminds me of a great story about the beloved prophet David O. McKay:
“During intermission at a theatrical presentation, his host offered to get refreshments: “His hearing wasn’t very good, and I got right down in front of him and I said, ‘President McKay, what would you like to drink? All of our cups say Coca Cola on them because of our arrangement with Coca Cola Bottling, but we have root beer and we have orange and we have Seven-Up. What would you like to drink?’ And he said, ‘I don’t care what it says on the cup, as long as there is a Coke in the cup.'”
David O McKay and the Rise of Modern Mormonism pg 23


During Romney’s presidential campaign several news programs stated that caffeine violated the Word of Wisdom. Part of their evidence for this claim was the fact that BYU banned caffeinated drinks from campus. The church moved to stop that incorrect information (a good summary is here). BYU gave a response that the lack of caffeine on campus was because there was no demand for it. 😉 LOL, sorry, give me a moment. That line makes me laugh every time.


I have to assume that the parent who contacted you did so because she believes that caffeine is actually in some way a violation of the Word of Wisdom.
If she believes it is always wrong to have caffeine, then she needs to be corrected.
If she believes that caffeine is part of the ‘spirit of the Word of Wisdom’ or that it is some unwritten higher law, then she should be satisfied that you said that the church clarified that caffeine is not specified as being part of the word of wisdom and leave her to personally (or in her family) add more levels of rules (Jesus was a big fan of that btw).
Perhaps she doesn’t view it as being against the word of wisdom per se, but feels that by saying so that it somehow encourages the kids to go drink dozens of energy drinks. If so, maybe emphasize how you focused on moderation in all things in the lesson (except of course when it comes to the no-no ‘not even once’ items).




My snarky advice is to also let her know that you’re going to talk about Jesus next week and wanted to be sure not to offend by saying things like Jesus pal’d around with harlots and publicans, and gave men fish which possibly ruined their incentive to learn to fish.


However, my best advice is to try to approach things with her in the spirit of love and understanding. Maybe it was a game of telephone. Maybe she’s been taught her entire life that caffeine is in fact a violation of the health code of Mormonism. Maybe a kind answer from you will do more to help her correct her views than any other approach.


Best of luck!

Geoff was born in Northern Utah and raised primarily in Central California. He received a BS in Biomedical Physics from Fresno State, a MS and PhD in Bioengineering from Stanford, and is now an Assistant Professor at the University of Utah working as a Clinical Medical Physicist. He served his LDS Mission in Donetsk Ukraine. He's married and has two boys and two girls. He is currently the ward organist and primary pianist.

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