This article is part of a series on Discovering the Word of Wisdom. To view all the articles in this series, see Featured Author Jane Birch.
Out of the many reasons members of the Church argue against a healthy, vegetarian diet, there is one reason that seems to trump them all: “Our leaders do not preach this, so it can’t be true.” I think it is obvious why we are not told how to follow all the counsel given in D&C 89. Put simply: unlike the well-known prohibitions, the rest of the dietary advice in D&C 89 is not a commandment. In fact, this is stated clearly in the introduction to D&C 89 where it states that this wisdom is sent,
not by commandment or constraint, but by revelation and the word of wisdom (D&C 89:2 emphasis added)
D&C 89 consists of 21 verses packed full of counsel and advice from our Savior, but the fact that these verses are in our scriptures does not mean God expects all of us to interpret them in the same way. This is made even more clear when we contrast the apparent ambiguity in the 21 counsel-packed verses with the very plain and explicit direction that the Lord has given us through our Church leaders: abstain from all alcohol, tobacco, coffee and tea. In our Church this is what it means to “keep the Word of Wisdom” in order to be found worthy to enter the temple.
But what about the rest of the counsel in D&C 89? I believe we are free to interpret this counsel and decide how to apply it in our lives. And while this counsel is clearly not a commandment in the same sense as the four well-known prohibitions, would we not be wise to pay attention to dietary advice from our Maker? After all it was given by
revelation and the word of wisdom, showing forth the order and will of God in the temporal salvation of all saints in the last days. (D&C 89:23, emphasis added)
Like most of us (myself included!), the most righteous Latter-day Saints I know don’t necessarily claim to fully understand and adhere to all the dietary advice in D&C 89. Yet, there is no question that they, and many other Saints I know who don’t necessarily have the best of all diets, are among the most spiritual people to have walked this earth. But are they all the healthiest? Could even the most righteous saint enjoy better health by more fully following the counsel in D&C 89?
A Look Back at Church History
Note: In the following overview, I will refer to D&C 89 as the “Word of Wisdom,” as is common among Church leaders and members, although the four prohibitions in D&C 89 (alcohol, tobacco, coffee and tea) have always been emphasized the most and are the only ones mandated by the Church. To be clear, I do not expect (and would not even recommend) that the rest of the dietary advice be mandated.
From the beginning, many Church leaders and members accepted D&C 89, also called the “Word of Wisdom,” as a commandment from God and felt strongly about the importance of keeping it. Some were even over-zealous in their desire to enforce it. But for many Saints, learning to live by even the basic prohibitions emphasized by our Church leaders today was a huge challenge. I suspect God knew that meeting this challenge would involve a very long process. And in fact, it took about 100 years before strict adherence of the four main prohibitions in the Word of Wisdom came to be widely accepted as the standard expected of all faithful Church members.
When the Word of Wisdom was revealed, alcohol, tobacco, coffee, and tea were widely used both inside and outside of the Church. While many contemporary advocates for better health practices condemned the use of these stimulants (along with many other foods, drinks, and practices they found unwholesome), their advocacy was not based on modern scientific evidence, as the professional study of nutrition was in its infancy. Furthermore, others championed the benefits of alcohol, tobacco, coffee, and tea for fatigue or special medical needs, and they were used widely to treat all kinds of illnesses (often in ways we’d find appalling today).
In fact, the use of these stimulants for health was so common it seems to have not occurred to the early Saints that the Word of Wisdom should apply to those circumstances. Given the dominant cultural practices of the day and the wording “not by commandment or constraint” included in the revelation’s introduction, many Saints interpreted it to warn only against serious abuse, drunkenness, and overindulgence.
While some early Saints were serious about applying a stricter interpretation to the Word of Wisdom, the majority, including many leaders, were much more liberal. The Prophet Joseph himself stressed forgiveness and charity over strict enforcement, and his immediate successors followed suit. After all, there were many pressing issues during the decades following the 1833 revelation, like aiding the Saints in fleeing from persecutions, crossing the plains, settling the West, and keeping the economy from collapsing.
From the Nauvoo period to the 1880s, strict observance of the Word of Wisdom was largely an individual choice. Rather than stressing complete abstinence from all alcohol, tobacco, coffee, and tea, nineteenth-century Church leaders took more pragmatic positions, which included moderation, exceptions, and tolerance. President Brigham Young did not himself fully commit to the Word of Wisdom until the 1860s. As Church leaders began to fully commit, they were in a much better position to help lay members, but even then they were comparatively tolerant (especially toward older Saints), and even backtracked on encouraging strict obedience to the Word of Wisdom for various reasons, including economic ones.
The Blessings in the Word of Wisdom Don’t Depend on a Church Mandate
To me it is important to realize that even during the period when the prohibitions listed in the Word of Wisdom were not mandated for faithful Latter-day Saints, those Saints who followed these teachings were still blessed, not just spiritually, but also with better health. Even today non-members of the Church are blessed if they abstain from alcohol, tobacco, coffee, and tea. They may never have heard of the Word of Wisdom, but following this counsel will still bring the related blessings. It is clear that we do not need a Church mandate to gain many of the blessings that come from following counsel given in D&C 89.
Clearly the same situation applies today. Just because all the dietary counsel in D&C 89 is not mandated does not mean that following this advice would not result in tremendous blessings. In fact, the blessings promised in D&C 89 (see verses 1821) apply to all of the counsel and not just the well-known prohibitions.
I find it fascinating that thousands of non-Mormons around the world are now adopting a “whole food, plant-based diet” and reaping many of the blessings promised in the Mormon Word of Wisdom! They are discovering greater health and some of the “hidden treasures of knowledge.
” They are finding that after years of relative incapacity they can now “run and not be weary . . . walk and not faint”! I encourage you to read their stories on sites like “Fork Over Knives” and “Star McDougallers.” These stories are now inspiring many Latter-day Saints and helping us realize that the Lord gave the same dietary counsel to His people in 1833. What a treasure we have!! (Read LDS success stories at Discovering the Word of Wisdom.)
Converting the Saints to the Word of Wisdom was a Major Undertaking
Today every Mormon child and convert is expected to know and obey the prohibitions in the Word of Wisdom, but helping early Church members take the Word of Wisdom seriously and transition to the point where we are today was a long and arduous journey. It took decades of hard work and continual preaching. Church leaders were often discouraged by the enormous effort and continued reluctance of many Saints to obey. They did have help and support from some members. One prominent LDS woman wrote the following in 1877:
Do we as a people realize the importance of those precious words. . . . Could we find fifty Latter-day Saints in the Territory who abstain from tea, coffee, whiskey and tobacco or considers that it is worthwhile to even give it a thought. Is it not high time to wake up and open our eyes and look about us. If the Lord had no purpose in giving the Word of Wisdom, why did he take the trouble to give it. And if it is not necessary for us to observe it, what is the use of having it.
But while some Saints felt strongly about living the Word of Wisdom, others were largely oblivious. Even at the turn of the century, almost 70 years after the revelation, some Saints did not fully understand that their religion asked them to forego all alcohol, tobacco, coffee, and tea. After all, it was possible that their fellow ward members, even their bishops and stake presidents, were not fully observing the Word of Wisdom. Some members of the Church at that time could have smoked their way to lung cancer or drunk their way to cirrhosis of the liver, and still not have made a connection between their suffering and a lack of keeping the Word of Wisdom. (Fast forward to today: how many Saints see no connection between their heart disease or diabetes and their possible neglect of some of the advice given in D&C 89?)
President Heber J. Grant is well remembered as an ardent champion of the Word of Wisdom. He loved the Word of Wisdom and spoke on it often, even though he frequently felt his words were falling on deaf ears. You can feel his exasperation as he relates the following stories, which he shared during the 1895 General Conference as a young apostle:
I confess to you . . . that I have been humiliated beyond expression to go to one of the Stakes of Zion, to stand up and preach to the people and call upon them to obey the Word of Wisdom, and then to sit down to the table of a President of a Stake, after having preached with all the zeal, energy, and power that I possessed, calling upon the people to keep the commandments of God, and to have his wife ask me if I would like a cup of tea or a cup of coffee. I have felt in my heart that it was an insult, considering the words that I had spoken, and I have felt humiliated to think that I had not sufficient power, and enough of the Spirit of God to enable me to utter words that would penetrate the heart of a President of a Stake, that he at least would be willing to carry out the advice which I had given.
I remember going to a Stake of Zion but a short time ago and preaching with all the energy I possessed and with all the Spirit that God would give me upon the necessity of refraining from the drinking of tea and coffee, and I heard also at that conference a very eloquent appeal to the Latter-day Saints by a man who, I understood, was a president of a quorum of Seventy. But when we came to take our meal, he jokingly said that he could not do without his tea and coffee, and he proposed to have it and suffer the consequences. I remember going to another Stake of Zion and preaching to the people on the necessity of refraining from tea and coffee and giving some figures upon the wasting of the people’s means; and the president of the Stake remarked, after I got through, that he thought the Lord would forgive them if they did drink their coffee, because the water in that Stake of Zion was very bad. I did not say anything, but I thought a good deal, and I had to pray to the Lord and to bite my tongue. . . . I have become so discouraged, so disheartened, so humiliated in my feelings.
In the same speech, Elder Grant goes on to describe how discouraging it was that the Saints were spending more money breaking the Word of Wisdom than they were spending to keep the law of tithing! Despite his discouragement, Elder Grant continued to preach on the Word of Wisdom, even to the point of wearying many Saints. In 1932, as president of the Church, he stated that “he had been called a crank for constantly urging the Saints to observe the Word of Wisdom, but mentioned that he expected to be a crank in that respect to the end of his life.”
Notwithstanding the struggles, over the many decades definite progress was made, and more and more Saints became compliant with the prohibitions in the Word of Wisdom. Finally, during President Grant’s term as president of the Church, the time arrived to enforce strict abstinence from alcohol, tobacco, coffee and tea as a requirement for a temple recommend and other Church privileges. During President Grant’s tenure, abstaining from all alcohol, tobacco, coffee, and tea “came to be regarded as a binding principle [and] a test of individual obedience and worthiness.” Again, this was roughly 100 years after the revelation had first been given!
We Don’t Need a Mandate from God to Obtain Greater Blessings!
We owe a lot to early Church members who, to their credit, did not give up in the face of a very difficult challenge. They not only changed their own behavior, they worked diligently to help their fellow Saints do the same. But it took much more than a revelation from God to bring this change to pass. God warned the Saints in 1833 about the stimulants that are “not good for man,” but the fact that this advice came from their Maker was not enough to get some Saints to forego substances they loved until the Lord made it a mandate for all to obey. This fact did not make them bad people, only human! Elder Heber J. Grant observed in 1895:
I want to say that some of the sweetest spirited men whom I have ever known, and men as true to the Gospel as I ever could be, have disobeyed the Word of Wisdom.
Perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised if the word of the Lord is not enough to persuade some Saints today to pay more attention to all of the counsel in Section 89. The Saints in the nineteenth-century rationalized, “This has not been mandated! Many Church members do not even do this!” The fact is, they were right. But being right did not stop them from getting lung cancer or other preventable diseases because they did not heed the word of the Lord.
Most of the dietary principles in the Word of Wisdom are not mandated and probably never will be. But is this really a good reason for ignoring wise counsel from a loving God? Is not the Lord pleased when we do not need to be commanded in all things (D&C 58:26)?
I testify that the Lord desires greater blessings of health for His people, and He has taught us the way. Let us each prayerfully study His counsel and commit to following it as well as we are able.
Next Time in Discovering the Word of Wisdom
Is it true that Church leaders have not encouraged us to pay attention to the dietary counsel in the Word of Wisdom that goes beyond the familiar prohibitions? Actually, our Church leaders have spoken out frequently on many aspects of D&C 89! In next week’s article, I share a few of my favorite statements.
Jane Birch is the author of Discovering the Word of Wisdom: Surprising Insights from a Whole Food, Plant-based Perspective (2013) and many articles on the Word of Wisdom. She can be contacted on her website, Discovering the Word of Wisdom.
 Paul Y. Hoskisson, “The Word of Wisdom in Its First Decade,” Journal of Mormon History 38, no. 1 (2012): 131200.
 Paul H. Peterson, An Historical Analysis of the Word of Wisdom (M.A. thesis, Brigham Young University, August 1972). Note: I rely on Peterson’s excellent thesis for background history throughout this entire section.
 Leonard J. Arrington, “An Economic Interpretation of the Word of Wisdom.'” Brigham Young University Studies 1, no. 1 (Winter 1959): 3749.
 Quoted in Peterson, An Historical Analysis of the Word of Wisdom, 66.
 Heber J. Grant, The Millennial Star 57, no. 7 (February 14, 1895): 9798.
 Quoted in Peterson, An Historical Analysis of the Word of Wisdom, 97.
 Peterson, An Historical Analysis of the Word of Wisdom, 90.
 Heber J. Grant, The Millennial Star 57, no. 7 (February 14, 1895): 101.