Teachings of Presidents
Chapter 11: Living the Word of Wisdom

“Chapter 11: Living the Word of Wisdom,” Teachings of Presidents of the Church: David O. McKay (2011), 102–11

“Chapter 11,” Teachings: David O. McKay, 102–11

Chapter 11

Living the Word of Wisdom

The Word of Wisdom is a vital part of the gospel, which is “the power of God unto salvation”—physical salvation as well as spiritual salvation.1


President McKay taught and testified that the Word of Wisdom was a commandment given by the Lord to bless us both physically and spiritually. In his teachings as well as his actions, he strictly obeyed this commandment. During a visit with the queen of the Netherlands in 1952, President and Sister McKay had an interesting experience. The queen had scheduled 30 minutes for a visit with them. President McKay carefully watched the time, and when the half hour was up, he politely thanked the queen and began to leave. “Mr. McKay,” she said, “sit down! I have enjoyed this thirty minutes more than I have enjoyed any thirty minutes in a long time. I just wish you would extend our visit a little longer.” He sat down again. Then a coffee table was brought in, and the queen poured three cups of tea, giving one to President McKay, one to Sister McKay, and keeping one for herself. When the queen noticed that neither of her guests drank the tea, she asked, “Won’t you have a little tea with the Queen?” President McKay explained, “I must tell you that our people do not believe in drinking stimulants, and we think tea is a stimulant.” She said, “I am the Queen of the Netherlands. Do you mean to tell me you won’t have a little drink of tea, even with the Queen of the Netherlands?” President McKay responded, “Would the Queen of the Netherlands ask the leader of a million, three hundred thousand people to do something that he teaches his people not to do?” “You are a great man, President McKay,” she said. “I wouldn’t ask you to do that.”2

David O. McKay

Through his teachings and his example, President McKay demonstrated the blessings of living the Word of Wisdom.

Teachings of David O. McKay

The Word of Wisdom is a clear commandment given by revelation from the Lord.

On the 27th of February, 1833, the Prophet Joseph Smith received the revelation recorded in the 89th section of the Doctrine and Covenants. … I want to read a few [verses] from that section:

“Behold, verily, thus saith the Lord unto you, in consequence of evils and designs which do and will exist in the hearts of conspiring men in the last days, I have warned you, and forewarn you, by giving unto you this word of wisdom by revelation.

“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.

“And, behold, this should be wine, yea, pure wine of the grape of the vine, of your own make.” [D&C 89:4–6.] …

The particular sentence that I wish to call attention to is this: “Inasmuch as any man drinketh wine or strong drink … behold it is not good, neither meet in the sight of your Father.” That is the word of God to the people of this generation. It stands with just as much force as the words of the Savior, “If any man will do His will he shall know of the doctrine, whether it be of God or whether I speak of myself.” [John 7:17.] Latter-day Saints, you know this statement of the Savior’s is true; we testify that if any man will do the will of God he will get the testimony, in his heart and in his life, that the Gospel of Jesus Christ is true. We accept the words of the Savior, “Except ye repent, ye shall all likewise perish.” [Luke 13:3.] Those eternal truths, so tersely expressed, we accept as true. We may not live up to them wholly, but as a people we accept them, because they are the word of God. Just so strong, just so eternal stands this truth … , “Strong drink is not good for man.” [See D&C 89:7.] Yet [many years] have passed, and during that time this doctrine has been preached every week, if not every day, in some congregation of Israel, and still we find in our midst a few who say, by their acts, it is good for man.

I am glad when I study this passage, to find that the Lord did not say, “Strong drink to excess is not good;” nor “Drunkenness is not good.” Suppose He had weakened that expression by modifying it and saying, “Strong drink in excess, or when taken in large quantities, is not good,” how soon we should have justified ourselves that a little drink is good. But like other eternal truths it stands unqualified; strong drink is not good.3

I think tobacco is a vice which should be shunned as the bite of a rattlesnake. … The Lord has said that tobacco is not good for man. That should be sufficient for Latter-day Saints.4

Members of the Church who have formed either the tobacco habit or the tea and coffee habit, or both, are prone to seek justification for their indulgences in things which the Lord has said plainly are not good for man. Whenever they try to do so, they only parade the weakness of their faith in the Lord’s words, which were given as admonition and “wisdom,” and obedience to which will bring blessing as certain and sure as if he had said, “Thou shalt not.”5

Disobeying the Word of Wisdom brings harmful physical and spiritual consequences.

There is a substance in tea and coffee which when taken into the human system, tends to increase the beating of the heart; which in turn increases the rapidity of the circulation of the blood and of breathing. This causes the body to become warmer and more exhilarated. After a time, however, this temporary enlivenment passes off, and the body is really in a greater need of rest and recuperation than it was before the beverage was taken. Stimulants are to the body what the lash is to the lagging horse—it causes a spurt forward but gives no permanent strength or natural nourishment. Frequently repetitions of the lash only make the horse more lazy; and the habitual use of strong drink, tobacco, tea, and coffee, only tends to make the body weaker and more dependent upon the stimulants to which it is addicted.

The Lord has said in unmistakable words that these things are not good for man. Science declares the same. God’s word alone should be sufficient for every true Latter-day Saint.6

A person’s reaction to his appetites and impulses when they are aroused gives the measure of that person’s character. In such reactions are revealed the man’s power to govern, or his forced servility to yield. That phase of the Word of Wisdom, therefore, which refers to intoxicants, drugs, and stimulants, goes deeper than the ill effects upon the body, and strikes at the very root of character building itself. …

During the last one hundred years, the marvelous advance of science has made it possible for man to determine by experiments the ill effect of intoxicants and drugs upon the nerves and tissues of the human body. Observation and experiment have demonstrated their effects upon character. All such experiments and observations have proved the truth of the … statement: “Strong drinks and tobacco are not good for man.”7

As I recall the influences upon my young life, I believe the greatest was the memorizing of that important saying: “My spirit will not dwell in an unclean tabernacle.”

Then there were … others, and they were all in the form of warnings. The first came to me as a boy as I sat on a spring seat by the side of my father as we drove into Ogden. Just before we crossed the bridge across the Ogden River, a man came out from a saloon, which was just on the northern bank of the river. I recognized him. I liked him because I had seen him on the local stage. But on that occasion he was under the influence of liquor, and had been for, I suppose, several days.

I did not know … he drank, but as he broke down and cried and asked father for fifty cents to go back into the saloon, I saw him stagger away. As we drove across the bridge my father said: “David, he and I used to go [home] teaching together.”

That was all he said, but it was a warning to me that I have never forgotten, about the effect of dissipation [or excessive drinking].

A little later, a teacher [assigned] us to read a story about a group of young people sailing down the St. Lawrence River. … I cannot give you the author, I cannot give you the title, but I can give you the memory that has stayed with me, about those young folks who were drinking and carousing and having a good time in the boat sailing down that noted river. But a man on the shore, recognizing, realizing the dangers ahead of them, cried: “Hello, there, the rapids are below you.”

But they ignored his warning, defied him. “We are all right,” and continued in their jocularity [or joking] and their indulgences. And again he cried out: “The rapids are below you,” and again they gave no heed to his warning.

Suddenly they found themselves in the rapids. Then they immediately began to row for the shore, but it was too late. I do not remember but just the words of the last paragraph, but cursing, yelling, over the rapids, over the falls they went.

Negative? Yes. But I will tell you there are many in the stream of life who are rowing just that way. I have never forgotten that story.8

We must be watchful against the “evils and designs of conspiring men.”

One of the most significant statements in the Doctrine and Covenants, one which carries with it evidence of the inspiration of the Prophet Joseph Smith, is found in the 89th Section … :

“In consequence of evils and designs which do and will exist in the hearts of conspiring men in the last days, I have warned you, and forewarn you, by giving unto you this word of wisdom by revelation …” (D&C 89:4.)

“Evils and designs which do and will exist in the hearts of conspiring men. …” The purport of that impressed me in the twenties, and the thirties of [the 20th] century. I just ask you … to recall the methods employed by certain tobacco interests to induce women to smoke cigarettes.

You remember how insidiously they launched their plan. First, by saying that it would reduce weight. They had a slogan: “Take a cigarette instead of a sweet.”

Later, some of us who like the theatre, noticed that they would have a young lady light the gentleman’s cigarette. Following this a woman’s hand would be shown on billboards lighting or taking a cigarette. A year or two passed and soon they were brazen enough to show the lady on the screen or on the billboard smoking the cigarette. …

I may be wrong, but I thought I saw an indication recently that conspiring men now have evil designs upon our youth. Keep your eyes and ears open.9

Members have a duty to themselves and the Church to live and teach the Word of Wisdom.

Every man, every woman, must bear a part of the responsibility of this Church. … No matter where we are, … wherever circumstances or business affairs may call us, be it in the canyon or elsewhere, and we are tempted, on a cold morning, to break the Word of Wisdom by drinking two or three cups of tea or coffee, let us feel then the responsibility of right.

Let each one say to himself, “The responsibility of membership in the Church is upon me; I will not yield. What though nobody sees me, I know and God knows when I yield, and every time I yield to a weakness I become weaker myself and do not respect myself.” If you are in business, and your companions say, “Come, let us go in and have a drink on this bargain, or this sale,” let your answer be, No, no! What though your thirsty appetite makes you long for it, be men, be Latter-day Saints, and say, “No; the responsibility of membership in the Church rests upon me.”10

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints stands committed unequivocally to the doctrine that tea, coffee, tobacco, and intoxicants are not good for man. True Latter-day Saints refrain from indulgence in tobacco and drink, either of stimulants or of intoxicants, and by example and precept, teach others to do the same.11

Living the Word of Wisdom strengthens character and brings happiness.

The Church urges men to have self-mastery to control their appetites, their tempers, and their speech. A man is not at his best when he is a slave to some habit. A man is not his best who lives merely to gratify his passions. That is one reason why the Lord has given the Church the revelation of the Word of Wisdom so that, even from boyhood and girlhood, young men and young women may learn to control themselves. That is not always easy. The youth today face enemies—false ideologies and immoral practices. … Sound preparation is necessary to meet and conquer these enemies.12

Every young man throughout Zion, when he comes forth from the waters of baptism, ought to know that it is part of his duty to resist smoking a cigarette, no matter where he may be. Every young person in the Church should be taught, when coming from the waters of baptism, that he should resist intoxicants when passed around at the social gathering. Every young member of this Church should know that tobacco in any form should not be used. He or she should resist all these habits, not only for the blessing that is promised herein by our Father, but also because of the strength so acquired to resist greater temptations.13

mother and son blessing eating

President McKay encouraged Latter-day Saints to teach their children and others the Word of Wisdom “by example and precept.”

One of the most practical teachings of the Church regarding [self-control] is the Word of Wisdom. It is true. It deals principally with the appetite. You show me a man who has complete control over his appetite, who can resist all temptations to indulge in stimulants, liquor, tobacco, marijuana, and other vicious drugs, and I will show you a youth or man who has likewise developed power to control his passions and desires.14

Neither the Church nor the world at large can hear too much about the Word of Wisdom. It is a doctrine given to man for man’s happiness and benefit. It is part of the philosophy of living. … He who fails to live it robs himself of strength of body and strength of character to which he is entitled. Truth is loyalty to the right as we see it; it is courageous living of our lives in harmony with our ideals; it is always power.15

Suggestions for Study and Discussion

  • In what ways was the Word of Wisdom far ahead of its time?

  • Why do people sometimes try to justify using the substances prohibited in the Word of Wisdom? What are some dangers in this type of thinking? (See pages 105–7.)

  • Why is it important to take care of our bodies? What are some of the negative physical effects of disobeying the Word of Wisdom? (See pages 105–7.) How does disobeying this commandment affect us spiritually? (See pages 105–7.)

  • President McKay spoke of tobacco advertising tactics used in the 1930s (see pages 107–8). What examples do we see today of “evil and conspiring men” promoting the use of harmful substances? How can we help youth recognize the benefits of obeying the Word of Wisdom?

  • How is the Word of Wisdom both a physical and a spiritual commandment? (See pages 105–7, 109–10.) What blessings are promised to those who obey this commandment? (See D&C 89:18–21.) What are the most important blessings you or your family have received from obeying the Word of Wisdom?

  • What can we do to increase our strength to resist temptations to break the Word of Wisdom? How does obeying the Word of Wisdom help protect and strengthen character? (See pages 109–10.)

  • What harmful and addictive substances are available today that are not specifically mentioned in D&C 89? How can the teachings in D&C 89 and the words of latter-day prophets help guide and strengthen us against these substances?

Related Scriptures: Daniel 1:3–20; 1 Corinthians 3:16–17; D&C 89:1–21


  1. Gospel Ideals (1953), 379.

  2. See Carl W. Buehner, People of Faith, Brigham Young University Speeches of the Year (14 Jan. 1953), 2.

  3. In Conference Report, Apr. 1911, 61–62; paragraphing altered.

  4. In Conference Report, Oct. 1949, 188.

  5. Gospel Ideals, 375–76.

  6. Gospel Ideals, 376–77.

  7. In Conference Report, Apr. 1964, 4.

  8. In Conference Report, Apr. 1949, 180.

  9. In Conference Report, Oct. 1949, 185–86.

  10. In Conference Report, Oct. 1906, 115; paragraphing altered.

  11. Gospel Ideals, 379.

  12. In Conference Report, Oct. 1969, 7–8.

  13. In Conference Report, Apr. 1960, 28.

  14. In Conference Report, Apr. 1968, 8.

  15. Gospel Ideals, 377.