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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 “Distinguishing Between Doctrines, Principles, and Applications,” I introduced a framework Elder David A. Bednar uses. To review, Elder Bednar tells us:
- Doctrines are fundamental truths of salvation that are eternal and do not change. Examples include “the nature of the Godhead, the plan of happiness, and the Atonement of Jesus Christ.” (pp. 151–152)
- Principles are “basic guidelines for behavior” that are “based upon and arise from doctrines,” and like doctrines, they “do not change.” They provide direction, but they are not specific behaviors or actions. Examples include faith in Christ, repentance of sins, obedience to God, and service to others. (pp. 154–155)
- Applications are “the actual behaviors, action steps, practices, or procedures by which gospel doctrines and principles are enacted in our lives.” They “can vary according to needs and circumstances.” Examples include not shopping on Sunday; praying morning, noon, and night; and always paying tithing first (p. 156)
Elder Bednar suggests that each of these answer a different question. Doctrines answer the question “Why?” Principles help us understand “What?” And applications tell us “How?”
Because I believe this framework can help us better understand the Word of Wisdom, last week I explored “The Doctrine of the Word of Wisdom.” I cited the following scriptures that help answer the question “Why?” as in “Why should we be careful about what we put into our bodies?”
- God has a body of “flesh and bone.” He made our body in His image. (Genesis 1:27; D&C 130:22)
- Our spirit and body together constitute our “soul” and without the body we “cannot receive a fulness of joy” (D&C 88:15; D&C 93:34).
- Our body is holy. It is a “temple of God” where His Spirit dwells. (1 Cor. 3:16–17)
- Our body is not our own. It has been “bought with a price.” (1 Cor. 6:20)
The doctrine of the Word of Wisdom helps us understand why we should honor, respect, and care for our body as a sacred stewardship. This is important because, as Elder Boyd K. Packer taught, “True doctrine, understood, changes attitudes and behavior. . . . That is why we stress so forcefully the study of the doctrines of the gospel.”
With the doctrine of the Word of Wisdom in mind, we now turn to the counsel found in D&C 89, the Word of Wisdom.
The Counsel on Alcohol, Tobacco, Coffee, and Tea
Doctrine and Covenants Section 89 includes three main sections: (1) introductory text (verses 1–4); counsel about substances and foods (verses 5–17); and promises (versus 18–21). In the middle section, the first set of instructions we encounter in D&C 89 are found in verses 5–9:
5 That inasmuch as any man drinketh wine or strong drink among you, behold it is not good, neither meet in the sight of your Father, only in assembling yourselves together to offer up your sacraments before him.
6 And, behold, this should be wine, yea, pure wine of the grape of the vine, of your own make.
7 And, again, strong drinks are not for the belly, but for the washing of your bodies.
8 And again, tobacco is not for the body, neither for the belly, and is not good for man, but is an herb for bruises and all sick cattle, to be used with judgment and skill.
9 And again, hot drinks are not for the body or belly.
Beginning with Joseph Smith, every LDS prophet has interpreted “hot drinks” to mean “coffee and tea.” Since the early 20th century, LDS Church leaders have used D&C 89 to teach us that to be in good standing with the Church, we must abstain from all alcohol, tobacco, coffee, and tea. We now accept this counsel as a commandment of the Lord. We know that abstaining from these substances is part of the process for being worthy to enter the Temple, as well as obtain other blessings of membership in the Church.
My question is this: is the counsel to abstain from all alcohol, tobacco, coffee, and tea an eternal, unchanging principle or an application of a more fundamental principle?
The Lord tells us that the Word of Wisdom is a “principle with promise” (D&C 89:3). LDS Church leaders have instructed us to abstain from alcohol, tobacco, coffee, and tea to be a member in good standing. This counsel applies to all LDS members, no matter where they live, old and young, male and female. Certainly, from this perspective, this counsel looks like a gospel principle.
However, gospel principles are eternal and true for all situations throughout all time. Do we have evidence that this specific list of four items constitutes an eternal law that applies to all of God’s children who choose to follow Him, no matter what their circumstances or when they lived throughout all of history? Let’s look at a few considerations.
Jesus Christ, His Disciples, and Ancient Prophets Drank Wine
The use of Wine was common throughout the old world and certainly throughout the Bible. The Old Testament records that the Lord accepted wine as a sacrificial offering and many of the prophets of the Lord drank wine. Drunkenness was condemned, but complete abstinence from wine or even strong drink was never part of the law.
John the Baptist did not “drink wine and strong drink,” (Luke 1:15), but the Savior came “eating and drinking” (Luke 7:34). Because He did not abstain from wine, He was accused of being a “winebibber” (Matthew 11:19). The New Testament records that Jesus’s first miracle was turning water into wine (John 2:1–11).
Not Originally Given as a Commandment
Notably, D&C 89 was given “not by commandment or constraint” (v. 2). Accordingly, early Church leaders did not treat the counsel in D&C 89 as an inviolate rule. Joseph Smith stressed moderation over complete abstinence. He and many other Church leaders continued to use alcohol, tobacco, coffee, and tea, albeit sparingly, throughout the 19th century.
Modern-day Exceptions to the Rule
In the Word of Wisdom itself, the Lord provides for an exception to the use of wine when “assembling yourselves together to offer up your sacraments before him” (v. 5). Church leaders later changed this, which appears to be another indication that it is not an eternal law but instead one subject to change. The Savior indicates that He will “drink of the fruit of the vine” with us at some future date (Matt. 26:29; D&C 27:5); although some suggest that drink may not be fermented, I assume that all of us will gladly receive whatever He gives us at that time.
In addition, we know that the Church continues to sanction exceptions to the general counsel to abstain from alcohol, tobacco, coffee, and tea, for example in the case of medical need. The Church handbook states that these exceptions should be made “under the care of a competent physician.” Thus, we occasionally hear of members in good standing who are using one or more of these otherwise prohibited substances because of the belief that it will address a medical need.
Modern-day Additions to the Rule
Of course the four substances, alcohol, tobacco, coffee, and tea, in no way exhaust the list of substances that are harmful to the human body. These are only the harmful substances that were particularly popular during Joseph Smith’s day. No doubt any of the following are just as harmful if not more so:
- Cocaine and crack cocaine
- MDMA (ecstasy)
- LSD (acid)
- PCP (angel dust)
Even the above does not begin to exhaust the list of dangerous substances. Given that there are hundreds of substances that are harmful to us, what is the purpose of singling out just four of them?
Clearly, our Church leaders are also not satisfied that the Word of Wisdom should only include alcohol, tobacco, coffee, and tea. They have made it clear that many other substances should be added to the list, even though they are not spelled out in D&C 89. In the section on the Word of Wisdom, the Church Handbook states:
Members should not use any substance that contains illegal drugs. Nor should members use harmful or habit-forming substances except under the care of a competent physician.
Commonly available “harmful or habit-forming substances” vary over time and depend heavily on location. In every part of the world there are different substances that are particularly popular that might be added to this list. Members are directed to seek counsel from local ecclesiastical leaders when they are unsure about the use of a potentially harmful substance.
As for less harmful or less habit-forming substances, these are not completely off the hook either, though the decision to use these substances is left to individual members. Elder Boyd K. Packer stated:
People write asking what is the position of the Church on the Word of Wisdom, for instance, on soft drinks or something. And we think, “Why do they have to ask?” It is a principle, and you have the freedom to do as you will. You do not have to be commanded in all things. Without having to have the Church deliver a statement on it.
If, as Elder Packer tells us, this counsel in the Word of Wisdom is “a principle,” what is that principle?
From my perspective, there is no evidence that the Lord’s counsel in D&C 89:5–9 is meant to be seen as an eternal principle in the form of, “I the Lord single out alcohol, tobacco, coffee, and tea as unique substances that my people should never use under any circumstance.” Instead, by highlighting alcohol, tobacco, coffee, and tea, He seems to be giving us examples of the types of substances we should avoid.
From this perspective, the counsel to avoid alcohol, tobacco, coffee, and tea appears to be a gospel application rather than a gospel principle. Of course avoiding these substances is still critical for us to do, since LDS Church leaders have made it very clear that this is an expectation of Saints in the last days. But this counsel is not an end in itself; rather, abstinence from alcohol, tobacco, coffee, and tea are important ways we are to apply the more fundamental principle that Elder Packer alludes to.
If this is the case, what is the more fundamental principle? Would the Lord give us applications of a principle and neglect to give us the principle? If not, is the principle found anywhere in D&C 89? Where?
Next Week in Discovering the Word of Wisdom
Next week in Discovering the Word of Wisdom, I plan to explore possible principles that support the counsel to avoid alcohol, tobacco, coffee, and tea. I invite readers to join me in this exploration. What principle do you think the Lord is suggesting by highlight these four substances? I’m interested in your thoughts; please contact me.
For help getting started on a healthy Word of Wisdom diet, 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.”
 David A. Bednar, Increase in Learning: Spiritual Patterns for Obtaining Your Own Answers (Salt Lake City, UT: Deseret Book, 2011).
 Boyd K. Packer, “Little Children,” LDS General Conference (October 1987).
 We have Joseph Smith’s words only second-hand: “Joel H. Johnson, with whose family the Prophet was intimate, relates that on a Sabbath day in July (1833) following the giving of the ‘Word of Wisdom,’ when both Joseph and Hyrum Smith were in the stand, the Prophet said to the Saints: ‘I understand that some of the people are excusing themselves, in using tea and coffee, because the Lord only said “hot drinks” in the revelation of the Word of Wisdom. Tea and coffee are what the Lord meant when he said “hot drinks.”‘” Quoted in John A. Widtsoe and Leah D. Widtsoe, The Word of Wisdom, a Modern Interpretation (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1937), pp. 85–86.
 Daniel B. Wallace, “The Bible and Alcohol,” on Bible.org (June 21, 2004).
 Jane Birch, “Discovering the Word of Wisdom: Why Aren’t We Told How to Eat?” Meridian Magazine, July 2, 2014
 The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Handbook 2: Administering the Church—2010, Selected Church Policies and Guidelines 21.3.11 (Intellectual Reserve, 2010).
 Boyd K. Packer, “The Instrument of Your Mind and the Foundation of Your Character,” CES Fireside for Young Adults (February 2, 2003).