Editor’s Note: The following represents the views of the author and do not necessarily represent the opinions of Meridian Magazine as a whole.
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.
Today is the last article in this series on Word of Wisdom Pioneers. I did not originally plan to write so much about these champions of the Word of Wisdom, but once I got started, the history was too compelling to let go. I’ve really enjoyed learning more about these Word of Wisdom giants, and I hope it has been interesting to many of you. In case you missed any this series, here is the complete set: Discovering the Word of Wisdom Pioneers.
In honor of Pioneer Day last week, I invited readers to become modern-day Word of Wisdom pioneers, something that goes well with the Church’s #IAmAPioneer campaign. It may not be easy, and it may take great courage and faith, but we can follow the example of so many converts who adopt a new identity and give up addictive substances when they join the Church. It is not easy to give up the unhealthy foods that harm our body temples, but it is easier when we view this as a change of identity and something we are doing to please the Lord.
Of course, like every so-called “sacrifice” the Lord invites us to make, embracing a Word of Wisdom diet turns out to be no sacrifice in the end. The blessings God pours out on those who follow His dietary plan more than make-up for any temporary discomfort or inconvenience!
Today I conclude this series on Word of Wisdom pioneers by exploring what we have learned from this brief exploration of over 150 years of Word of Wisdom history.
We Mormons have known the basic principles of a healthy diet for a very long time!
With all the confusing and contradictory advice we hear about diet and nutrition, it is interesting that so many of our Word of Wisdom pioneers taught us the basics of a healthy diet so long ago. For over one hundred years, people in our community have taught us a Word of Wisdom diet:
(1) whole plant foods rather than processed foods;
(2) meat sparingly and preferably only in times of cold and famine; and
(3) grains as the staff of life (the staple of the diet). (D&C 89:10–17)
This dietary plan revealed by Joseph Smith in 1833 is the same plan that today’s whole food, plant-based experts have demonstrated is optimal for human beings. We Mormons have known that for a very long time!
The 19th and early 20th century Saints had the same excuses we have today for not wanting to embrace the counsel in the Word of Wisdom.
I love reading the fiery sermons from the 19th and early 20 centuries when Church leaders were begging the Saints to give heed to the Word of Wisdom and give up their alcohol, tobacco, coffee, and tea. It is clear from these sermons that the Saints were having a hard time heeding this counsel. They had a multitude of excuses, which include:
- The Word of Wisdom was given “not by commandment or constraint.” (D&C 89:2)
- Many Church members, including Church leaders, were using these substances.
- The science of the day did not suggest it was necessary to abstain from these substances.
- These substances were thought to be helpful for certain health situations.
- They “felt better” when they used these substances.
Interestingly, these are some of the same excuses many Mormons use today for not following the dietary counsel found in the Word of Wisdom! We often complain that contemporary Mormons neglect large parts of the Word of Wisdom. The fact is: that has always been the case.
It is difficult for us to change our traditions.
We are creatures of habit, and even a revelation from God does not make it easy to change our food traditions, especially when that means giving up substances that are addictive in nature.
The difficulty of fundamentally changing the culture and habits of the Latter-day Saints was a great frustration of many early LDS Church leaders and other Word of Wisdom pioneers. Those who promoted the Word of Wisdom were continually puzzled by such an attitude. Why reject the counsel of a wise and loving Savior who is only trying to bless us with advice that will bring tremendous physical, spiritual, and even financial benefits?
We sometimes prefer the dark, even when it makes us miserable.
Early Saints complained then, as we sometimes do now, that the meaning of D&C 89 is not entirely clear, but it was as if many Saints did not want an unambiguous understanding of these verses. They did not want it to be plain and simple because they did not want to be responsible for giving up substances and habits that were difficult to abandon. Some seemed to seek darkness rather than light, preferring (in Elder Neal A. Maxwell’s words) ambiguity to accountability.
We all like to think we welcome the truth, but the fact is we only want so much. We sometimes even get upset at the truth. We resist knowledge that seems to interfere with our “fun” or the way we view the world. Even when we are miserable in the dark, we sometimes prefer it to the responsibility that comes from being in the light.
The Word of Wisdom stands up very well to science
We too often hear contradictory messages about diet and nutrition because the media focuses on news that appears surprising or even bizarre, but if we step away from the day-to-day coverage of the topic and take a look at the big picture, it is crystal clear that the bulk of good nutrition science supports a diet that is high in unprocessed fruits, vegetables, and whole grains and low in animal foods. Both science and the Word of Wisdom support a “whole food, plant-based diet.”
Word of Wisdom pioneers wrote frequently about the convergence of science and the Word of Wisdom, which they believed provides “convincing evidence of the divine inspiration of the Prophet Joseph Smith.” President Gordon B. Hinckley said:
I regard [the Word of Wisdom] as the most remarkable document on health of which I know. It came to the Prophet Joseph Smith in 1833, when relatively little was known of dietary matters. Now the greater the scientific research, the more certain becomes the proof of Word of Wisdom principles.
We are fortunate to be benefactors of this inspired revelation. I know the Lord is pleased when we take this counsel seriously and make its wisdom an integral part of our lives.
We are good at ignoring science
Although the evidence that processed foods and animal foods are not optimal for the human body continues to grow, our Word of Wisdom pioneers of the past would be astonished to learn Latter-day Saints are not any better at following the dietary counsel in the Word of Wisdom today than the Saints were in their days. We Mormons (like almost all in the Western world) consume an enormous amount of processed foods and are as prejudiced in favor of a meat-centric diet as we have ever been.
Although much of the science former Word of Wisdom pioneers used is now dated, their primary claims have been verified by further research, and yet the average diet among members of the LDS Church is arguably less healthy today than in the early 20th century.
LDS Church Leaders have never excused us from paying attention to the dietary counsel in the Word of Wisdom.
There is no doubt that Church leaders have always placed the greatest emphasis on abstaining from alcohol, tobacco, coffee, and tea. The fact is they had their hands full just trying to get the Saints to pay attention to this counsel. But while the dietary counsel in D&C 89 has taken a backseat to the prohibitions, the dietary counsel has never been dismissed as being unimportant. Quite the contrary: Church leaders routinely include it as part of the Lord’s Word of Wisdom.
Emphasis on the prohibitions was never presented by Church leaders to excuse the Saints from following the rest of the counsel in D&C 89. At no time has any prophet or apostle interpreted D&C 89 to mean only the prohibitions. At no time have they told us adherence to the prohibitions gives us license to ignore the rest of God’s revelation. And at no time have they told us that we are entitled to receive all of the Lord’s promises while obeying only part of His counsel.
It has never been easy to be a Word of Wisdom pioneer.
Telling people they should give up unhealthy behaviors has never been the way to win a popularity contest! Often the Word of Wisdom pioneers were simply ignored. Others were called names: “extremists” or “food faddists” who are “out of line with Church policy.” The prophet Heber J. Grant was labeled a “crank” for preaching on the Word of Wisdom so often. A few critics have even used scriptures they don’t understand to suggest that encouraging a meat-free diet is a sign of apostasy. It really is not easy to encourage people to heed the counsel the Lord designed for the “temporal salvation of all saints in the last days” (D&C 89:2).
It is also not easy to be a Word of Wisdom pioneer by being the first in one’s family or community to change to a healthier diet. Some people don’t like it when others eat a healthy diet. They feel judged. If they often eat with that person, they feel deprived. It is hard enough to change ingrained traditions, but to do so with little social support and possibly even active opposition is a real challenge. Just like the opposition some converts get when they join the Church, it takes real courage to move forward in faith, not always knowing exactly what one should do.
The Lord has inspired many Word of Wisdom pioneers with passion and dedication.
Despite all the difficulties, I’m amazed at the dedication of the many Word of Wisdom pioneers who have gone before us. They were committed to a cause. They had tasted of the fruit of heeding the Lord’s counsel, and they found it so delicious that could not help but share it with as many of their brothers and sisters as possible. It was not easy. Many ignored them. Others criticized them. But they continued to share this glorious “principle with a promise” with great faith, knowing that this is pleasing to the Lord and a blessing to those who listen.
I have featured but a small number of the Word of Wisdom pioneers in the past. I’ve enjoyed learning about many more as I’ve studied the history and also heard from the descendants of some of the unsung heroes. I’m grateful the Lord inspired many Latter-days Saints throughout our history with a passion for the Word of Wisdom and a desire to share it with all of us.
Our Word of Wisdom pioneers are still trying to help us from beyond the veil
I’m convinced that past champions of the Word of Wisdom did not lose their passion for the Word of Wisdom when they passed from this life to the next. In fact, I’m convinced that they are even more passionate about this great revelation now that they have an expanded understanding of the entire Plan of Salvation that comes from being in the Spirit World. I believe they are as eager as ever for many more Latter-days Saints to wake up to this message, most especially their own descendants. I have definitely felt their encouragement and support from beyond the veil as I write about the Word of Wisdom. It has motivated me to seek out quite a number of their children and grandchildren, both to gather information about their parents/grandparents but also to remind them of the great legacy left to them.
I do not know why I’ve been prompted to do this work, but I can’t help but think it has partly to do with the desires of the great Word of Wisdom pioneers who have gone before us. When they lived here on earth, they had faith in the glorious promises contained in the Word of Wisdom and knew that we as an LDS community were only denying ourselves blessings by not heeding this divine counsel. Now that they are in the Spirit World, they understand even better the power of the Word of Wisdom and its central role in hastening the work in these last days. I believe they are reaching beyond the veil to many of us with this message. They have not only touched my heart, they are touching the hearts of many others who, like me, are being inspired to devote their time and energy to proclaiming this good news!
Coming Soon: “Discovering the Word of Wisdom” Short Film
I feel compelled to share the good news of the Word of Wisdom with as many Latter-day Saints who are willing to listen. I know there are many Saints who are searching for the answers the Word of Wisdom provides, and I hope to find them and encourage them to discover how powerful the counsel in D&C 89 is for our day. But my ability to reach many people is extremely limited.
In order to reach more people, I’m producing a very short film about the Word of Wisdom. It will be free and available on YouTube. I hope this film will encourage many more Mormons to get excited about the wonderful counsel we have from the Lord and the amazing blessings He has promised us. When it is done, I’ll need the help of many to share this message with others. If you’d like to be notified when the film is completed, go to Discovering the Word of Wisdom Short Film.
For more help on embracing a healthy Word of Wisdom diet, see: “Getting Started on a Whole Food, Plant-based Word of Wisdom Diet.”
Next Time in “Discovering the Word of Wisdom”
Despite having the Word of Wisdom, we Mormons are not immune from following every wind of dietary doctrine that comes across the Internet or in a bestselling book. No doubt almost every diet has some redeeming value, but how do they all measure against the Word of Wisdom? Next time in Discovering the Word of Wisdom, I will be taking a closer look at how one particularly popular diet, the Paleo Diet, stacks up against D&C 89.
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.
 See “I Am a Pioneer” at LDS.org.
 Neal A. Maxwell, Whom the Lord Loveth: The Journey of Discipleship (Salt Lake City, Utah: Deseret Book), 142.
 John A. Widtsoe and Leah D. Widtsoe, The Word of Wisdom, a Modern Interpretation (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1937), 6.
 Gordon B. Hinckley, “Living Worthy of the Girl You Will Someday Marry,” Ensign (May 1998): 49–51.
 Paul H. Peterson, cited in Jane Birch, “Discovering the Word of Wisdom Pioneers: Eating as a Sanctifying Experience,” Meridian Magazine (July 13, 2015).
 Jane Birch, “Discovering the Word of Wisdom Pioneers: Heber J. Grant,” Meridian Magazine (May 4, 2015).