“The Word of Wisdom,” Revelations in Context (2016)
“The Word of Wisdom,” Revelations in Context
Like many other revelations in the early Church, Doctrine and Covenants 89, also known today as the Word of Wisdom, came in response to a problem. In Kirtland, many men in the Church were called to preach in various parts of the United States. They were to cry repentance unto the people and gather in the Lord’s elect. To prepare these recent converts for their important labors, Joseph Smith started a training school called the School of the Prophets, which opened in Kirtland on the second floor of the Newel K. Whitney mercantile store in January 1833.1
Every morning after breakfast, the men met in the school to hear instruction from Joseph Smith. The room was very small, and about 25 elders packed the space.2 The first thing they did, after sitting down, was “light a pipe and begin to talk about the great things of the kingdom and puff away,” Brigham Young recounted. The clouds of smoke were so thick the men could hardly even see Joseph through the haze. Once the pipes were smoked out, they would then “put in a chew on one side and perhaps on both sides and then it was all over the floor.”3 In this dingy setting, Joseph Smith attempted to teach the men how they and their converts could become holy, “without spot,” and worthy of the presence of God.4
This episode in the Whitney store occurred in the middle of a massive transformation within western culture. In 1750, personal cleanliness and hygiene were infrequent, haphazard practices, mostly the concern of the wealthy and aristocratic. By 1900, regular bathing had become routine for a large portion of the population, especially the middle classes, who had adopted gentility as an ideal.5 Tobacco spitting shifted from being a publicly acceptable practice among most segments of the population to becoming seen as a filthy habit beneath the dignity of polite society. In the midst of this cultural shift, at the very moment when everyday people started to concern themselves with their own cleanliness and bodily health, the Word of Wisdom arrived to light the way.
The scene in the School of the Prophets would have been enough to give any non-tobacco user like Joseph Smith cause for concern.6 Joseph’s wife, Emma, told him that the environment concerned her. He and Emma lived in the Whitney store, and the task of scrubbing the spittle from the hardwood fell upon her. She may have complained of being asked to perform this thankless task, but there was also a more practical consideration: “She could not make the floor look decent,” Brigham Young recalled.7 The stains were impossible to get out. The whole situation seemed less than ideal for those who were called of God as these elders were, especially when we remember that the room with the filthy floor was Joseph’s “translation room,” the same place where he received revelations in the name of God. Joseph began inquiring of the Lord about what could be done, and on February 27, scarcely a month after the school started, he received the revelation later canonized as Doctrine and Covenants 89. The answer was unequivocal: “Tobacco is not for man but is for bruises & all sick cattle; to be used with judgement & skill.”8
Tobacco was just one of a host of substances pertaining to bodily health and cleanliness whose merits were hotly debated on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean at the time the Word of Wisdom was received. Discussion was so frequent because abuse was so widespread. Frances Trollope, a British novelist, reported disdainfully in 1832 that in all her recent travels in the United States, she hardly ever met a man who was not either a “tobacco chewer or a whisky drinker.”9
Drinking, like tobacco chewing, had clearly gotten out of hand. For centuries nearly all Americans had consumed large quantities of alcoholic beverages, much like their European counterparts. The Puritans called alcohol the “Good Creature of God,” a blessing from heaven to be imbibed in moderation. Alcohol was consumed at virtually every meal, in part because the unpurified water of the time was so unhealthy. Home-brewed beer was a favorite, and after 1700, British-American colonists drank fermented peach juice, hard apple cider, and rum either imported from the West Indies or distilled from molasses made there. By 1770, per capita consumption of distilled spirits alone—to say nothing of beer or cider—stood at 3.7 gallons per year.10
The American Revolution only exacerbated this reliance on alcohol. After molasses imports were cut off, Americans sought a substitute for rum by turning to whiskey. Grain farmers in western Pennsylvania and Tennessee found it cheaper to manufacture whiskey than to ship and sell perishable grains. As a consequence, the number of distilleries grew rapidly after 1780, boosted by settlement of the corn belt in Kentucky and Ohio and the vast distances to eastern markets. To the astonishment of observers like Trollope, Americans everywhere—men, women, and children—drank whiskey all day long. American consumption of distilled spirits climbed precipitously, from two and a half gallons a person in 1790 to seven gallons in 1830, the highest amount of any time in American history and a figure three times today’s consumption rate.11
This elevated alcohol consumption offended religious sensibilities. As early as 1784, both Quakers and Methodists were advising their members to abstain from all hard liquor and to avoid participation in its sale and manufacture.12 A more aggressive temperance movement took hold among the churches in the early decades of the 19th century. Alcohol became viewed more as a dangerous tempter and less as a gift from God. In 1812, the Congregational and Presbyterian churches in Connecticut recommended strict licensing laws limiting the distribution of alcohol. Lyman Beecher, a leader in this reform movement, advocated even more extreme measures, endorsing full abstinence from alcoholic beverages. The idea soon became a central plank of the American Temperance Society (ATS), organized in Boston in 1826. Members of the organization were encouraged to sign a temperance pledge not just to moderate their alcohol intake but to abstain altogether. A capital “T” was written next to the names of those who did so, and from this the word “teetotaler” was derived. By the mid-1830s, the ATS had grown to well over a million members, many of them teetotalers.13
Encouraged by the ATS, local temperance societies popped up by the thousands across the U.S. countryside. Kirtland had its own temperance society, as did many small towns.14 Precisely because alcohol reform was so often discussed and debated, the Saints needed a way of adjudicating which opinions were right. Besides rejecting the use of tobacco, the Word of Wisdom also came down against alcoholic beverages: “Inasmuch as any man drinketh wine or Strong drink among you behold it is not good, neither mete in the sight of your Father.”15
Nevertheless, it required time to wind down practices that were so deeply ingrained in family tradition and culture, especially when fermented beverages of all kinds were frequently used for medicinal purposes. The term “strong drink” certainly included distilled spirits such as whiskey, which thereafter the Latter-day Saints generally shunned. They took a more moderate approach to milder alcoholic beverages like beer and “pure wine of the grape of the vine, of your own make.”16 For the next two generations, Latter-day Saint leaders taught the Word of Wisdom as a command from God, but they tolerated a variety of viewpoints on how strictly the commandment should be observed. This incubation period gave the Saints time to develop their own tradition of abstinence from habit-forming substances. By the early 20th century, when scientific medicines were more widely available and temple attendance had become a more regular feature of Latter-day Saint worship, the Church was ready to accept a more exacting standard of observance that would eliminate problems like alcoholism from among the obedient. In 1921, the Lord inspired President Heber J. Grant to call on all Saints to live the Word of Wisdom to the letter by completely abstaining from all alcohol, coffee, tea, and tobacco. Today Church members are expected to live this higher standard.17
American temperance reformers succeeded in the 1830s in no small part by identifying a substitute for alcohol: coffee. In the 18th century, coffee was considered a luxury item, and British-manufactured tea was much preferred. After the Revolution, tea drinking came to be seen as unpatriotic and largely fell out of favor—the way was open for a rival stimulant to emerge. In 1830, reformers persuaded the U.S. Congress to remove the import duty on coffee. The strategy worked. Coffee fell to 10 cents a pound, making a cup of coffee the same price as a cup of whiskey, marking whiskey’s decline. By 1833, coffee had entered “largely into the daily consumption of almost every family, rich and poor.” The Baltimore American called it “among the necessaries of life.”18 Although coffee enjoyed wide approval by the mid-1830s, including within the medical community, a few radical reformers such as Sylvester Graham and William A. Alcott preached against the use of any stimulants whatsoever, including coffee and tea.19
The Word of Wisdom rejected the idea of a substitute for alcohol. “Hot drinks”—which Latter-day Saints understood to mean coffee and tea20—“are not for the body or belly,” the revelation explained.21 Instead, the revelation encouraged the consumption of basic staples of the kind that had sustained life for millennia. The revelation praised “all wholesome herbs” and explained that “all grain is for the use of man & of beasts to be the staff of life … as also the fruit of the vine that which beareth fruit whether in the ground or above ground.” In keeping with an earlier revelation endorsing the eating of meat, the Word of Wisdom reminded the Saints that the flesh of beasts and fowls was given “for the use of man with thanksgiving,” but added the caution that meat was “to be used sparingly” and not to excess.22
Latter-day Saints who learn of the American health reform movements of the 1820s and 1830s may wonder how these movements relate to the Word of Wisdom. Did Joseph Smith simply draw upon ideas already existing in his environment and put them forward as revelation?
Such concerns are unwarranted. Remember that many early Latter-day Saints who took part in temperance societies viewed the Word of Wisdom as inspired counsel, “adapted to the Capacity of the weak & the weakest of Saints who are or can be called Saints.”23 Moreover, the revelation has no exact analog in the literature of its day. Temperance reformers often tried to frighten their hearers by linking alcohol consumption with a host of horrific diseases or social ills.24 The Word of Wisdom offered no such rationale. Strong drink, the revelation says simply, is “not good.” Similarly spare explanations are given for the injunctions against tobacco and hot drinks.25 The revelation can be understood more as an arbiter and less as a participant in the cultural debate.
Instead of arguing from a position of fear, the Word of Wisdom argues from a position of confidence and trust. The revelation invites hearers to trust in a God who has the power to deliver great rewards, spiritual and physical, in return for obedience to divine command. Those who adhere to the Word of Wisdom, the revelation says, shall “receieve health in their navel and marrow to their bones & shall find wisdom & great treasures of wisdom & knowledge even hidden treasures.”26 These lines link body to spirit, elevating care for the body to the level of a religious principle.27
In the end, some overlap between the Word of Wisdom and the health reform movement of the 19th century is to be expected. This was a time of “refreshing” (Acts 3:19), a moment in history where light and knowledge were pouring down from heaven. On the night Joseph Smith was visited by the angel Moroni for the first time, in the fall of 1823, the angel quoted a line from the book of Joel and said it was about to be fulfilled: “I will pour out my spirit upon all flesh,” the passage read (Joel 2:28; emphasis added). Insofar as temperance reform made people less dependent on addictive substances, prompting humility and righteous action, the movement surely was inspired by God. “That which is of God inviteth and enticeth to do good continually,” the Book of Mormon stated (Moroni 7:13).28 Rather than concerning themselves with cultural overlap, Latter-day Saints can joyously contemplate how God’s Spirit touched so many, so widely, and with such force.
Soon after receiving the Word of Wisdom, Joseph Smith appeared before the elders of the School of the Prophets and read the revelation to them. The brethren did not have to be told what the words meant. They “immediately threw their tobacco pipes into the fire,” one of the participants in the school recalled.29 Since that time, the inspiration in the Word of Wisdom has been proven many times over in the lives of the Saints, its power and divinity cascading down through the years. In some ways, the American health reform movement has faded from view. The Word of Wisdom remains to light our way.