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This article is part of a series on the Word of Wisdom. To view all the articles in this series, see Discovering the Word of Wisdom.
In “Three Foods Ordained by God,” I introduced the three foods the Lord ordained for our use:
- Wholesome herbs (plant foods) and fruit (D&C 89:10–11)
- Animal flesh (D&C 89:12–13)
- Grain (D&C 89:14–17)
Last week, I explored “The Wholesome Herbs Ordained by God.” This week, I address animal flesh. As I do, let’s remember that the Word of Wisdom does not “over-explain” its message, nor have Church leaders chosen to define it in detail. In fact, the scriptures do not contain one set meaning, but rather are vehicles through which personal revelation can come to us. Like other gospel principles, it is up to us to choose how to apply the counsel to our lives. Like parables, the meaning of Section 89 can differ for each of us, and it can change over time. Hopefully the following analysis can open up ways to think about the Word of Wisdom that might lead to our receiving our own inspiration.
Animal Flesh is Ordained for Our Use
In Section 89, the Lord makes it plain that both plants and animals are ordained for our use.
all wholesome herbs God hath ordained . . . flesh also of beasts and of the fowls of the air, I, the Lord, have ordained for the use of man . . . (verses 10 & 12)
This is important. While it is rare to hear someone suggest that humans should never eat plants under any circumstance, there are some people (albeit a very small number) who make the claim that humans should never consume meat under any circumstance. The Lord suggests otherwise. Not only does He tell us that He ordained the flesh of animals, He also says (in an earlier revelation):
And whoso forbiddeth to abstain from meats, that man should not eat the same, is not ordained of God. (D&C 49:18) 
Not only is flesh ordained for our use, we should not command others to abstain from it, for those who do so are not ordained of God. To me, this suggests an important role for animal flesh in the human diet. It also suggests the importance the Lord places on each of us choosing for ourselves what function it should serve in our diet.
While science certifies the fact that humans have no physiological need for animal flesh when there are enough plant foods to supply the needed calories, it is obvious that there have been times and seasons when plant foods have not been enough and when animal flesh was an important, even critical, supplement to the human diet. I think of Lehi and his family who depended on meat as they journeyed to the Promised Land, or the LDS pioneers who hunted for game as they crossed the plains on their trek to Utah. Similarly, hunting was critical to the success of the Lewis and Clark Expedition as they explored the unknown regions of what is now the western USA. Of course there have also been small populations, like the traditional Eskimos in Alaska or the Chukotka in the Russian Arctic, who relied on the flesh of animals for sustenance over long periods of time.
God loves His children and has provided a world rich in the resources we need to survive and thrive. Food is obviously a critical resource. Not only do our human bodies require food, food is also central to human bonding and community building. Because our bodies are essential to the Plan of Salvation, it must also be true that the food needed to sustain our bodies must also be essential to this Great Plan. Consequently, the Lord created two basic sources of food, both of which are addressed in the Word of Wisdom:
In D&C 89, the Lord makes it plain that both types of food are ordained for our use.
Ordained for the Use of Man
While both plant and animal foods are ordained for our use, the Lord does make an interesting distinction between these two foods. According to Section 89, plant foods were ordained for our “constitution, nature, and use” (D&C 89:10). In contrast, verse 12 indicates that the flesh of animals is ordained for our “use.” Apparently, the flesh of animals is not ordained for our “constitution” or “nature” as are plants.
Why might that be?
I’ll share one thought I have. As I discussed last week in “The Wholesome Herbs Ordained by God,” all the nutrients required by our bodies ultimately derive from plant foods. Only plants can synthesize the carbohydrates, proteins, fats, and organic micronutrients needed by our bodies. When we eat plants, they literally become our bodies. The same is true for animals because they too require the same basic plant nutrients. Not only do plants literally become our bodies, they also literally form the bodies of all animal life.
In this sense, we can see that animal flesh does not form the constitution or nature of our bodies, only plants do. However, we can use animal flesh. We can use animal flesh as way to get to the nutrients of plants simply because animals are a secondary source of these nutrients. Animals eat plants and when we eat animals we get the nutrients they got from plants.
Perhaps this is why we humans can use both plant and animal foods, but only plants are ordained for our constitution and nature.
“Nevertheless . . . to be Used Sparingly”
Another distinction the Lord makes sheds additional light on the differing roles of plant foods versus animal foods. While “wholesome” plants are ordained for our “constitution, nature, and use,” apparently without reservation, the Lord tells us the flesh of animals is to be “used sparingly.”
What might the instruction to use animal flesh “sparingly” mean? Here are some definitions of the word sparingly from the 1828 Webster’s Dictionary:
- Not abundantly.
- Frugally; parsimoniously; not lavishly.
- Abstinently; moderately.
- Seldom; not frequently.
- Cautiously; tenderly.
The Oxford English Dictionary defines sparingly as “In a restricted or limited manner; very moderately, scantily, slightly.”
I think of the word sparingly like a parable. Each of us may come to a different conclusion about its meaning, and that conclusion may very well change over time. There are so many interesting ways we could think about this word. Some people think, for example, of using meat like a spare tire, which is pulled out in times of emergency. Others are sympathetic to Hugh Nibley’s interpretation. He suggests the use of the word sparing in the Word of Wisdom means “sparing God’s creatures.”
On the other side of the spectrum are those who claim that the average American during Joseph Smith’s day included such a large quantity of meat in their diets that any reduction of the amount of meat compared to what they ate could be counted as sparing. By this definition, we could increase the amount of meat we are currently eating and, as long as it was less than what some Americans were eating in the early 19th century, it could count as using it sparingly.
I love that we each get to decide what the Lord’s counsel in this verse means to us, what we feel best about doing. I’m fully confident that if we earnestly seek to know His will for us, and we follow it faithfully, then we will be on the path to receive further light and knowledge from the Lord.
“It is Pleasing Unto Me”
As useful as verse 12 is in helping us understand the role of animal flesh in the Lord’s diet plan, the next verse in Section 89 may give us further insight into the Lord’s intent:
And it is pleasing unto me that they should not be used, only in times of winter, or of cold, or famine. (D&C 89:13)
This is reiterated, perhaps even clarified, in verse 15:
And these [the beasts of the field, and the fowls of heaven, and all wild animals] hath God made for the use of man only in times of famine and excess of hunger. (D&C 89:15)
Note the context of these verses. Section 89 is given “not by commandment or constraint” (D&C 89:2). LDS Church leaders have clarified that we are not to consume alcohol, tobacco, coffee, and tea and other harmful substances, but they have left us to determine how to understand and apply the rest of the counsel in the Word of Wisdom. The Lord tells us plainly that the flesh of animals is to be used sparingly, but He leaves it up to us to figure out what this means and how to apply this counsel. All this, it seems to me, is done in the context of respecting our agency, our individual circumstances, and where we are in our life’s path.
It is in this respectful context that the Lord tells us it is “pleasing” to Him if we do not use the flesh of animals except in certain circumstances. Note the gentleness of this statement. It is not given by commandment or constraint. It is not a point-blank injunction like the statement in verse 12: “they are to be used sparingly.” Instead, the Lord reveals something personal about Himself. He shares with us what is pleasing to Him. This reminds me of the revelation for Emma Smith where the Lord says it is “pleasing unto me” that Emma “make a selection of sacred hymns . . . to be had in my church” (D&C 25:11). Why was this pleasing to the Lord? He explains:
For my soul delighteth in the song of the heart; yea, the song of the righteous is a prayer unto me (D&C 25:12)
Why is it pleasing to the Lord that we not use the flesh of animals except in certain circumstances? What is it that He delights in that this verse may be revealing to us?
I love that the Lord tells us what pleases Him. I love that He tells us not as a commandment, but for our consideration. There must be some hidden treasure here!
“Only in Times of Winter, or of Cold, or Famine”
If it is pleasing to the Lord that we not use meat, except under certain circumstances, what are those circumstances? I love the way the Lord explains this, not by giving us a technical definition or through scientific reasoning but by using another phrase that we could consider a mini-parable:
only in times of winter, or of cold, or famine. (D&C 89:13)
And two verses later, He states it this way:
only in times of famine and excess of hunger. (D&C 89:15)
Again, I think of Lehi and his family whose lives were at risk when Nephi’s bow broke. I think of the pioneers trying to supplement their limited rations with whatever game they could hunt. I think of Lewis and Clark who often went hungry because they could not secure sufficient plant or animal food as they traveled through the wilderness of the West. And I think of those hardy populations who eked out a living in the frigid arctic where they could not depend on plant foods.
I also think of many of our own ancestors throughout the generations who at times lived on the edge of poverty and starvation and were extremely grateful for food that could be obtained from any source possible, plants or animals. Even today there are some of God’s children who at times depend on animal flesh for survival.
In these contexts, it seems obvious why the Lord ordained the flesh of animals for the use of humans. But what do these verses mean to most of us now in the 21st century? How do they apply to we who live in warm homes, surrounded by an abundance of food? What if we never experience famine or excess of hunger? (For further analysis of verse 13, see Note 6.)
In verse 12, we are told that that animal flesh is ordained for our use “with thanksgiving.” In the context of Lehi and his family, the pioneers, Lewis and Clark, and peoples living in the frigid arctic, it becomes especially clear why obtaining flesh could be a cause for great thanksgiving.
I assume that whenever we feel it is appropriate to consume the flesh of animals that this should be done with thanksgiving. We are grateful to the Lord for providing for our needs. We are grateful for an earth that produces foods that sustain life. We are grateful for the animals who give up their lives so that we can receive needed nourishment.
According to the counsel in the Word of Wisdom, both plant and animal foods are to be used with thanksgiving. Note a distinction we might draw between versus 11 and 12. Where plant foods are to be used “with prudence and thanksgiving,” the flesh of animals is to be used with “thanksgiving,” but no mention is made of prudence. Why is that? Could it be that the counsel to use it sparingly and only in times of winter, cold or famine leave little room for it to be used imprudently?
The Paradoxical Nature of Scriptures
I love that the scriptures are full of paradox and tension between diverse values and priorities. This opens up room for the exercise of agency in our search for truth. As just one example, the Lord tells us to rest on the Sabbath Day and says, “thou shalt not do any work” (Exodus 20:10), but He also tells us that if one of our sheep falls into a pit on the Sabbath, it is lawful to do the work necessary to rescue it (Matthew 12:11). The beauty of principles is that they teach eternal truths, and the beauty of revelation is that we can learn how to apply those principles in particular circumstances.
The same is certainly true of the Word of Wisdom. It is not black and white. It is principle based. It defies easy answers, and this can encourage us to find our own answers through study and prayer. For those who are interested, I recommend a wider study of other scriptures that specifically relate to the consumption of the flesh of animals. Here are some to start with:
Daniel 1:1–15 (Daniel and his companions refuse to eat the rich food of the king.)
D&C 49:18–21 (The Lord’s counsel to the Shakers. Compare verses 18–19 with verses 20–21.)
D&C 59:16–20 (The fulness of the earth, both animals and plants, are given to God’s children. Compare verses 16–19 with verse 20.)
2 Ne. 30:12–15 (In the Millennium, all animals and humans will live together in perfect peace.)
Note: Some would add 1 Timothy 4:1–4 to this list, though the Greek word translated into meat in the King James Bible means food in general and not specifically the flesh of animals. (This definition of the word meat might also be applicable to D&C 49:18.)
Next Time: What About Fish?
The Lord makes mention of beasts and fowls in verses 13 and 14 and adds “wild animals” in verse 14. Is this intended to represent all animal flesh or to exclude certain animal flesh? What about fish, for example? This is a topic I’ll address next time in Discovering the Word of Wisdom.
One healthy way of eating in harmony with the Word of Wisdom is a whole food, plant-based diet. For more information, see: “Getting Started.”
Jane Birch is the author of Discovering the Word of Wisdom: Surprising Insights from a Whole Food, Plant-based Perspective and many articles on the Word of Wisdom. She can be contacted on her website, Discovering the Word of Wisdom. Watch the video “Discovering the Word of Wisdom: A Short Film.”
 Elder Dallin H. Oaks explains these concepts in “Scripture Reading and Revelation,” Ensign (January 1995). I apply his insights to the Word of Wisdom in this article, “Why God Doesn’t Over-Explain,” Meridian Magazine (October 10, 2016).
 For my thoughts on D&C 49:18, see “What does it mean to ‘command to abstain from meats’” on DiscoveringtheWordofWisdom.com.
 Oxford English Dictionary Online (Oxford University Press, June 2014).
 Hugh Nibley, “Word of Wisdom: Commentary on D&C 89,” 1979.
 For a thorough analysis and evaluation of the various interpretations of D&C 89:13 throughout Mormon history, see A. Jane Birch, “Getting into the Meat of the Word of Wisdom,” Interpreter: A Journal of Mormon Scripture 11 (2014): 1-36.