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.
Last time in Discovering the Word of Wisdom, I shared amazing insights from some of the great 19th century Word of Wisdom pioneers. During this time period, the Word of Wisdom was not strictly mandated by the Church. While strongly encouraged to observe the counsel in D&C 89, many good Church members and even Church leaders served faithfully at every level of the Church even though they may have occasionally, or even habitually, used alcohol, tobacco, coffee, or tea. Even with continual encouragement, it proved to be quite a struggle for members of the Church to give up these substances.
This week, I continue sharing exhortations from 19th century Word of Wisdom pioneers. As I do, note how similar the struggles of the 19th century Saints are to our day. Our addictions are definitely different. Instead of struggling to give up coffee or tea, we have a hard time cutting back on a variety foods most of us realize are probably not what the Lord declared “wholesome” for our body temples: candy, cookies, cupcakes, chips, donuts, ice cream, pie, rich meaty dishes, cream-covered casseroles, fried chicken, pizza thick with cheese, hamburgers, French fries, soda, etc.
We might well protest, “But we are not commanded to cut back on up meat or junk foods!” Perhaps it would be easier if the Lord made healthy eating a commandment, but He does not choose to command in all things (D&C 58:26). Just as alcohol, tobacco, coffee, and tea were not mandated in the 19th century, the dietary counsel in D&C 89 is not mandated for us today, but all the same, this counsel is the “order and will of God in the temporal salvation of all saints in the last days” (D&C 89:2).
As you read the powerful words of these 19th century Word of Wisdom pioneers, I invite you to consider your own diet in light of the Lord’s counsel in D&C 89. Thanks to the faith and obedience of early members of the Church, you probably don’t have an addiction to alcohol, tobacco, coffee, or tea. You faithfully keep the Word of Wisdom in this respect. But what about the rest of dietary counsel in Section 89? How can the words of these pioneers help you develop the desire and determination to embrace even more of the Lord’s counsel?
Note especially the strong encouragement and pleading from the prophet Brigham Young. He spoke often and fervently on the Word of Wisdom. He was also one of several Church leaders who encouraged the saints to not only abstain from addictive substances but to also dramatically cut down on their meat consumption and to eat wholesome foods. In fact, one of his daughters described Brigham as a “natural vegetarian.”
President Brigham Young, delivered in Tooele City, August 17, 1867
“It may be remarked that some men who use spirituous liquors and tobacco are healthy, but I argue that they would be much more healthy if they did not use it, and then they are entitled to the blessings promised to those who observe the advice given in the ‘Word of Wisdom.’ Some few persons who have been addicted to the use of hot drinks, etc have reached the age of eighty, eighty-three, and eighty-four years, but had they not been addicted to such habits of living they might have reached the age of an hundred or an hundred and five years.” (Journal of Discourses 12:117–123)
Elder George Q. Cannon, delivered in the New Tabernacle, Salt Lake City, April 7, 1868
“The greatest boon that God has given us, and that upon which every other hinges, is life. With life we need health, the power to carry out designs of our being upon the earth. Without these blessings everyone must perceive that other blessings which we value very highly would be of little or no account. . . .
“We have heard considerable of late . . . on the subject of the Word of Wisdom. . . . We are told, and very plainly too, [what is not good for us] . . . The question arises in the minds of a great many people, ‘What then are we to eat if we drop swine’s flesh and eat very little beef or mutton, and cannot drink tea or coffee, why, dear me, we shall starve to death.’ In conversation with one of the brethren the other day, he remarked ‘the diet of the poor is principally bread and meat, and if they dispense with meat, they will be reduced to very hard fare.’ I reasoned with him on the subject, and before we had got through, I believe I convinced him that other articles of food could be raised more cheaply and in greater variety than the flesh of animals.” (Journal of Discourses 12:221–222)
President Brigham Young, delivered in the New Tabernacle, Salt Lake City, May 10, 1868
“We have had this Word of Wisdom thirty-five years last February, and the whole people have not yet learned to observe it after the true spirit and meaning of it. . . . Flesh should be used sparingly, in famine and in cold. The people are beginning to listen to these things. The Spirit of the Lord is urging the people to cease from everything that is evil, and to reform in their lives; for unless the spirit urged the people to do right, we might as well talk to the sides of this house. We are urged by the spirit to refrain from articles which tend to death, to preserve this life, which is the most precious life given to mortal beings preparatory to an immortal life. It is our business to prepare to live here to do good. Instead of crying to the people prepare to die, our cry is prepare to live forevermore. These mortal houses will drop off sometime, and when they are cleansed and purified, sanctified and glorified, we shall inherit them again forever and ever.” (Journal of Discourses 12:209)
President Brigham Young, delivered in the New Tabernacle, Salt Lake City, Oct. 30, 1870
“The Word of Wisdom has been preached to this people, first and last, a good deal, that is the written word in the Doctrine and Covenants. It has been read and taught to the people now, some thirty-eight years! And yet we neglect to observe this trifling lesson concerning our health. Is it not strange? Yes, it is; it is passing strange; it is astonishing! How many there are of our brethren who say, ‘I can’t dispense with my tobacco! I can’t lay down my pipe or cigar and let it alone; I must take it up again, I can’t live unless I have a little tobacco in my mouth, or in my nose.’ I have no knowledge of their using it in their ears. . . .
“There are many of our Elders who say, ‘I can’t live without indulging in this unseemly appetite.’ To say that the nature of man requires tobacco and spirits is absurd. . . .
“There is no doubt whatever that the food we eat, and which is absolutely necessary to sustain us, contains poison. I do not dispute that the poison contained in the bread that has been distributed from the table this afternoon, if extracted by a skillful chemist, would be enough to kill; but still, as combined with the other constituent elements of which bread is composed, it is not injurious, and we eat it without harm. But where we find so much poison in articles the people will become very strongly attached to them in a very short time. For instance, how quickly persons become attached to the practice of opium eating; they cannot live without it! If there was no poison in it it would not operate upon the system as it does. . . .
“Many of our sisters think they cannot live without tea. I will tell you what we can do—I have frequently said it to my brethren and sisters—if they cannot live without tea, coffee, brandy, whiskey, wine, beer, tobacco, &c., they can die without them. This is beyond controversy. If we had the determination that we should have, we would live without them or die without them. . . .
I ask again will we observe the Word of Wisdom? ‘No, we will not, unless we have a mind to.’ That is the answer. ‘If we have a mind to and feel disposed to do so, we will observe it, but not without.’
“I say to all the Elders of Israel, if it makes you sick and so sleepy that you cannot keep out of bed unless you have tobacco, go to bed and there lie. How long? Until you can get up and go to your business like rational men, like men who have heads on their shoulders and who are not controlled by their foolish appetites. I have said to my family, and I now say to all the sisters in the Church, if you cannot get up and do your washing without a cup of tea in the morning, go to bed, and there lie. How long? Until the influence of tea is out of the system. Will it take a month? No matter if it does; if it takes three months, six months, or a year, it is better to lie there in bed until the influence of tea, coffee and liquor is out of the system, so that you may go about your business like rational persons, than to give way to these foolish habits. They are destructive to the human system; they filch money from our pockets, and they deprive the poor of the necessaries of life. . . .” (Journal of Discourses 13:275–277)
Elder George Q. Cannon, “Topic of the Times,” Juvenile Instructor Vol. 27, No. 22, (November 15, 1892), pp. 689-691.
“There are many people at the present time who are paying considerable attention to the care of the body and to the improvement and preservation of health; but in most of instances they do not associate this care of the body with religion; they consider it a matter altogether apart from religion. In this respect the Latter-day Saints occupy entirely different ground. Our religion impresses upon us the importance of taking care of our bodies. Yet, notwithstanding that which the Lord has done for us in revealing to us the true principles of life, there is a great amount of ignorance even among us upon this important subject. There is a carelessness and an indifference upon these questions that are not found among many well-informed people in the world. Many of the Saints do not seem to be alive to the importance of those laws which pertain to well-being and preservation of the health and strength of the body. Their old traditions cling to them, and it appears to be difficult for them to shake them off. Yet the day must come when the people of God will be superiors physically and mentally, to every other people upon the face of the earth. Before this day shall come, however, the ignorant and the neglectful will either have reformed or have passed away. Pestilence of various kinds, which we are led to expect through the word of the Lord are yet to break forth, will have their effect in calling the Saints’ attention to those laws of life and health which, to be a strong and vigorous people, we must observe.
“. . . Those who obey the laws of life and health as God reveals them will have advantages over those who neglect them.”
President Wilford Woodruff, at the General Conference of the Church, in the Tabernacle, Salt Lake City, Sunday Morning, October 7, 1894
“There may be things contrary to the Word of Wisdom that we indulge in, and that we think we cannot live without; if we cannot, let us die.
“. . . If I do not value my standing, my salvation, my crown of glory and eternal life more than I value those things which are represented as being unwise for us to use, then I am not fit to occupy my position. And this applies to every man in Israel. We all ought to take a course whereby we might be justified before the Lord. We live in the last dispensation and fulness of times, and we are placed here to guide and direct the affairs of the Church of God on the earth. Hence we ought to be wise men; we ought to be righteous men, holy men, temperate men; we ought to be men that will stand in a position to receive the Spirit of God to guide and direct us. If we do not stand in this position, we are not fit to perform this work.” (The Deseret Weekly 49, no. 18, p. 545)
What impressed you about these sermons? What do you find particularly relevant for us in our day? Please share your thoughts in a comment or contact me.
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”
During the last two weeks, I’ve been highlighting the words of 19th century prophets and apostles, but the 19th century LDS women were also amazing supporters of the Word of Wisdom. I find their writings inspirational and full of insight. Next week, I’ll share a few of my favorite exhortations from some of our 19th century sister Saints.
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.
 Jane Birch, “Discovering the Word of Wisdom: We are Not Very Different from the Early Saints!” Meridian Magazine, October 7. 2014.
 See also, “Two Meanings of ‘Word of Wisdom’” by Jane Birch on the Discovering the Word of Wisdom website.
 Susa Young Gates and Leah D. Widtsoe, The Life Story Of Brigham Young (New York, 1930), 213.