Word of Wisdom

Temperance societies, which sought to prohibit spirituous liquors and vices within society, were a growing movement throughout the New England area, particularly among Christian women. Throughout history, religious groups have sought to regulate the use of food, alcohol, and other substances, in part as a means of self-discipline and control over bodily passions, but also to promote spiritual purity or development through disciplined physical practices. Dietary regulation was prominent in Puritan and post-Puritan American society, particularly during the Second Great Awakening. Physical and spiritual health were seen as interdependent, and various theories of health, though archaic to a twenty-first century reader, were widely accepted. Among these health theories included a rudimentary understanding of “energy” and illness. An over-consumption of protein, for example, was seen as over-stimulating, particularly during the warm summer months; and this excess of energy was thought to be a cause of illness. Likewise, temperature of beverages was also thought to negatively affect one’s energy, in particular one’s ability to regulate bodily temperature; and while fermented drinks (beer and wine) were considered good for health and digestion, distilled alcohol (whiskey, rum, etc.) was considered by the temperance movement to be a danger to society and cause of domestic abuse and laziness among men.

In 1833, at the urging of Emma Smith, Joseph Smith declared that he had received a revelation that came to be called the “Word of Wisdom,” a health and dietary resolution that counseled against the use of wine and “strong drink” (distilled liquor); tobacco (except for healing cattle wounds); “hot drink” (interpreted as coffee and tea); and limited meat consumption. Additionally, the Word of Wisdom encouraged Mormons to eat fresh fruits and grains; permitted “mild drink” made from barley (beer); and instructed them to produce their own wine for Sabbath observance. Adherence to this health code was initially voluntary, with periodic emphasis being placed on its observance—most notably, during Brigham Young’s mid-1850s “reformation” period. Many early Mormons, including Joseph Smith, wavered in their observation; however, by the early 20th Century its proscriptions, which were defined as all forms of alcohol, tobacco, and coffee/tea, became a defining attribute of the Latter-day Saints. Following the repeal of Prohibition, president Heber J. Grant declared the Word of Wisdom to be a commandment among the Latter-day Saints.

Historical Debate:

The bulk of the scholarly discussion around the Word of Wisdom centers on the influence of nineteenth-century social movements, such as the temperance movement and other wellness movements that were often tied into spiritual practices such as asceticism (denial of worldly pleasures for devotional purposes). Although a book-length treatment of the topic has yet to be produced, Lester Bush’s article in Dialogue, “The Word of Wisdom in Nineteenth-Century Perspective,” remains the most comprehensive treatment. The shift of the Word of Wisdom from counsel to commandment in the early twentieth-century is discussed in Mormonism in Transition: A History of the Latter-day Saints, 1890– 1930 by Thomas G. Alexander and observance of the principle is discussed throughout both The Mormon Hierarchy: Origins of Power and The Mormon Hierarchy: Extensions of Power by D. Michael Quinn. Word of Wisdom observance as a criteria for entrance into LDS temples is discussed in The Development of LDS Temple Worship, 1846–2000: A Documentary History, edited by Devery S. Anderson. A history of the temperance movement in the Ohio area is offered in Hearken, O Ye People: The Historical Setting of Joseph Smith’s Ohio Revelations by Mark Lyman Staker. Virtually all historians of Mormonism are in agreement that cultural conditions influenced the origin, implementation, and emphasis on the Word of Wisdom throughout the history of the Latter-day Saints. The crux of the debate, therefore, tends to be between those who feel that cultural influences at play compromise Joseph Smith’s claim of divine revelation, and those who defend the divine origin of the Mormon dietary code.

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