Thoughts on the Word of Wisdom

I served a mission from 1999-2001 in Southern California.  It was overall an amazing two years, but there was one aspect of that time that always filled me with dread.  I am sure many of the missionaries who served in the days of the “6 Discussions” will agree that the 4th discussion was terrifying.  For those of you who don’t know why, it came down to the final two concepts you teach in that discussion.

  • Chastity
  • The Word of Wisdom

Having a conversation with someone else about their chastity, especially when we were 19 years old and most of the people we were teaching were well over 35 years old, was not only the most intimidating thing we had to teach, but also it was embarrassing even having to tell someone you were going to teach them about it.  That isn’t to say that it wasn’t rewarding, but it was still terrifying.  

However, the purpose of this post was the second concept, which was much easier to bring up, but held almost as much trepidation for me, the Word of Wisdom.  Now, 16 years later, I feel much differently about both topics than I did as a missionary.  When it comes to the Word of Wisdom, I actually feel more sure about it’s importance now, but I also see it in a completely different way.  I hope in this post to clarify the history of the principle, and hopefully bring to rest some misconceptions and problems that have arisen in Mormon culture over this great  revelation known as the Word of Wisdom.

“The Word of Wisdom doesn’t belong to the order of the eternal Gospel. It is temporal and temporary but no less the will of God. We do not covenant and promise to keep the Word of Wisdom, because our promises and covenants are eternal. But we are bound while we’re here, so it is not secondary in importance.”—Hugh Nibley


In the early 1800’s it was normal for most people to chew and smoke tobacco, drink alcohol, and drink copious amounts of coffee and tea.  There were many small movements of people who believed that it was not good for a person’s health to participate in a variety of things, but these “Temperance Movements” were usually short-lived, and very small in their influence.  They also rarely included much more than encouragement to drink and use tobacco less.  These behaviors were no less a part of the early saints.  Many people have heard the story of how the Section 89 of the Doctrine and Covenants or Word of Wisdom revelation came to be, but here are Brigham Young’s own words:

“The brethren came to that place from hundreds of miles to attend school in a little room probably no larger than eleven by fourteen.  When they assembled together in this room after breakfast, the first thing they did was to light their pipes, and while smoking, talk about the great things of the kingdom, and spit all over the room, and as soon as the pipe was out of their mouths a large chew of tobacco would then be taken.  Often, when the Prophet entered the room to give the school instructions he would find himself in a cloud of tobacco smoke.  This, and the complaints of his wife at having to clean so filthy a floor made the Prophet think upon the matter, and he inquired of the Lord relating to the conduct of the elders in using tobacco, and the revelation known as the Word of Wisdom was the result of his inquiry.”  (Brigham Young, 12 JD 158, 1868)  School of the Prophets – 1833

It is important to note, that although all of the brethren at the time agreed this was a revelation, and the church body shortly thereafter, the living of the Word of Wisdom was not commonplace among the Saints until well into the 20th century. I think the Lord anticipated this, and as I have studied the revelation there are many small clues that He did know how difficult a task it would be to make this change to the community of the Saints, even stating in the revelation, “adapted to the capacity of the weak and the weakest of all saints, who are or can be called saints.”

The revelation is over 180 years old, and it still has such an important impact on Latter Day Saints.  It has blessed our community and made Latter Day Saints among the healthiest and happiest people in the world, less impacted by some of the world’s worst influences.  If studied and lived accordingly, it provides clarity of mind that increases our ability to hear the spirit of the Lord.  However, because it has become a practice that we can appear outwardly good at, it has also become a source of self-righteousness and judgment among the community of the saints. It is not uncommon when talking about someone who may not be active in the church to refer to them as, “drinking and smoking and stuff like that.”  I am guilty of saying that, and sometimes we use the living of the Word of Wisdom as a special badge of worthiness.  I have witnessed members of the church get into heated arguments over how to live the Word of Wisdom, comparing and ranking how they do it over how others do.   

“As long as I keep the Word of Wisdom—that’s the thing,” someone may say, and then preach that and nothing else. That is not the fullness of the Gospel. It is a minimal requirement—a principle with a promise—a first step: No great achievement but you get a reward for it. Others keep it better than we do. For example, on the whole the Seventh Day Adventists are better keepers of the Word of Wisdom than we are, but it’s not the Gospel.” Joseph F. Smith

I hope this post can help others, as my study and research has helped me in truly finding the awesomeness of the Word of Wisdom, and also help us to change our attitudes and our teachings to those who do not live it.

The revelation itself can be broken down into 4 parts.  I plan to discuss and give my thoughts on each of the parts:

  • Preamble
  • The Order of Healthy and Prudent Living 
  • Why the Commandment Part?
  • The Promised Results 


The preamble to the Word of Wisdom is the key to understanding the revelation.  In it the Lord highlights the three keys to studying, understanding, and applying the revelation in our lives.  I have underlined the three keys:

“To be sent greeting; not by commandment or constraint, but by revelation and the word of wisdom, showing forth the order and will of God in the temporal salvation of all saints in the last days—Given for a principle with promise, adapted to the capacity of the weak and the weakest of all saints, who are or can be called saints. 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—” D&C 89:2-4

Order (method) and Will of God 

The first key for me was realizing that the usage of the word “order” in this instance was in fact referring to a method or pattern.  The Lord is revealing the method and pattern for temporal salvation.  The next part was understanding who this pattern is for.  It is clear that “of all saints” means the community of the latter day saints as a collective whole and the benefits would also be for the whole.  It is not just a list of things for each person to do, or not to do, but it shows an order of things that can be applied in any circumstance we all may find ourselves in.  This key helped me to look at the words looking for a pattern that applied to us now, rather than the specifics that applied then.  

Much like Isaiah’s revelations there was much more to be found in the revelation than the lists of do’s and don’t’s it always appeared to me to be.  

Adapted to the capacity of the weak and weakest of saints

The pattern of the revelation is especially important when coupled with the important clarification from the Lord that these principles were adapted to the weakest, and through implication, all the way to the strongest of the saints.  In other words, the key is that the pattern must be applied by each individual to fit their individual needs.  The revelation was never meant to be a litmus test in which we judge and compare each other’s righteousness.  (i.e. Your abstinence from chocolate because it has caffeine in it shouldn’t matter to me, nor should my partaking matter to you. Since each of us will find the pattern’s application in our own circumstances, we may all end up with differing ideas and beliefs on the matter.)

To warn and protect the saints from evils and designs and conspiring men in the last days, I have warned you, and forewarn you:

The third key is found in the interesting language where the Lord says he warned us, and is forewarning us.  He is warning us twice?  As I thought about that a lot, it became clear that the purpose of the revelation was specific to the saints at the time to help them learn to incorporate these patterns into their community.  But there were also future circumstances that this revelation was meant to protect Latter Day Saints from.  It was a dual warning, and 182 years later it is easy to see how the Latter Day Saints have been protected by this revelation.  Consider the following Statistics published by the Church in 2001 (found at

  • Utah ranked first for the lowest prevalence of smoking, with 14 percent.
  • Utah ranked first for the lowest risk for heart disease, and was 20 percent below the national average.
  • Utah ranked first for the lowest number of cancer cases, with 239.5 cases per 100,000.
  • Utah ranked first for the lowest number of work days missed within a 30-day period due to physical or mental illness, with an average of under three days per month missed.
  • Utah ranked second for the lowest overall death rate, with only 5.6 deaths per 1,000.
  • Utah ranked second for lowest number of heart-disease mortalities, and was the most improved state since 1990.
  • Utah ranked third for best overall health in 2000, maintaining its high standing in this category during the past decade (second in 1994 and 1996; fourth in 1990; fifth in 1992, 1997 and 1998; and sixth in 1999).
  • Utah has by far the lowest rate of alcohol related deaths per fatality. 16% in 2008, and 21% in 2011.  The national average is 36%.
  • Utah has lowest rate of underage drinking at 14.2%
    • Consequently has the lowest teen pregnancy rate, the lowest rate of unwed mothers, lowest abortion rate.

*Not everyone in Utah is Mormon nor do all Mormon’s live the Word of Wisdom, however, Mormons made up over 70% of Utah in 2001.

I am not a professional researcher, but it seems clear, at least where there are a large concentration of Mormons, that the revelation has provided an extra level of protection from the ails of the world, while still living our lives within it.  I would bet that if you compared LDS vs. Non-LDS in all of these categories in other geographic areas around the world the statistics would hold up, and may even be more contrasting.

With these three keys in mind, I hope to discuss the remaining 3 parts of the revelation.  

 Order of Healthy and Prudent Living

In my study of the section 89 with the idea that there was a pattern there for me, I found a few principles that I think form the pattern of the type of Lifestyle that the Lord would want:

  • Natural things are ordained for our use
  • There is a season and a purpose for all things
  • All things should be used with Prudence and Thanksgiving

If we assume the three principles above are the pattern, then from there we can use the second key and begin to apply them to our current situation.  We can start asking ourselves questions about how we should live our lives in regards to our Health.

Some examples from the text are very insightful:

“All grain is ordained for the use of man and of beasts,to be the staff of life, not only for man but for the beasts ofthe field, and the fowls of heaven, and all wild animals that run or creep on the earth;” D&C 89:14

Elder John A. Widstoe believed that refined flour was contrary to the Word of Wisdom, even pushing to have its proscription enforced.  Some today believe that refined flour has caused the obesity epidemic due to an increase of sugar into our diets.  

“Yea, flesh also of beasts and of the fowls of the air, I,the Lord, have ordained for the use of man with thanksgiving; nevertheless they are to be used sparinglyAnd it is pleasing unto me that they should not be used, only in times of winter, or of cold, or famine.” D&C 89:12-13

President Lorenzo Snow believed the use of meat sparingly was more important in the living of the Word of Wisdom than strong drinks. 

“Meat sparingly. Again, sparing is a good word. It means “sparing God’s creatures.” It is to be used with thanksgiving and not with gluttony, which is one of the national weaknesses.” Hugh Nibley

In both of these examples there were other apostles who did not agree with them, and so we can see how important a role individual adaptation plays in the implementation of the Word of Wisdom.  However, the importance of prudence and thanksgiving in our choices on health, is paramount to our seeking to adapt the pattern to our lives. In order to be living it, we must actually be thinking, praying, and studying what it means for our health and how we should live.  Just doing what is convenient or traditional is not part of the revelation, adapting requires us to search for the pattern and evaluate our lives and make the changes we feel the Lord would want us to, all the while being careful not to force our adaptation on others. 

 Why the Commandment Part?

One of the things that I had very little understanding of before was why, when the revelation says it wasn’t a commandment, it became a commandment at a later date.  I feel as though I understand now, but I think a brief history of how the commandment part came about is helpful.  Here are some brief Historical Highlights that lead to the commandment:

  • After 1833 revelation, most members, including leaders, still occasionally participated in Alcohol, Tobacco, Coffee, and Tea.
  • 1851 – General Conference – Brigham Young called for a sustaining vote to observe the WoW. Even after, it was not a condition of church membership.
  • 1860 – Brigham Young counseled those chewing tobacco in church meetings to at least be discrete and not excessive.
  • 1870 – Brigham Young ended the practice of chewing and spitting tobacco in the Salt Lake Tabernacle.
  • 1880’s – John Taylor started a movement to increase adherence to the WoW. Years later, other issues became more important (e.g. polygamy) and it naturally diminished.
  • 1894 – W. Woodruff came out strong when he stated  “The Word of Wisdom applies to Wilford Woodruff, the President of the Church, and it applies to all the leaders of Israel as well as to the members of the Church; and if there are any of these leading men who cannot refrain from using tobacco or liquor in violation of the Word of Wisdom, let them resign and others take their places.  As leaders of Israel, we have no business to indulge in these things.  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.” (Millennial Star, 11/19/1894)
  • 1918 – Prohibition was a national movement in the early 1900s. Heber J. Grant became president in 1918, same time prohibition became law. He established that compliance of the WoW was a tenet of Mormon faith, a test of member’s obedience, and a requirement for a TR.
    • Commandment includes:
      • No Alcohol
      • No Tobacco
      • No Coffee or Tea – When asked for clarification the church has taken no specific stance on caffeine or decaffeinated coffees or teas. No stance on herbal teas or green teas. Church has said that caffeinated sodas are not against the WoW.
      • No Illegal Drugs – Includes abuse of prescribed drugs.
  • Present – Required for baptism, missionary work, attending church schools, and Temple Recommend. Violation does not lead to disciplinary action or excommunication.

With that history in mind there are two questions I still needed answers to: 

  • Why did it need to become a commandment?
  • Why didn’t the Lord want it to be a commandment in the first place?

By the turn of the century many of the original generation of Mormons to be taught the Word of Wisdom were aging, and the leaders of the church were concerned, and in my opinion, inspired to take action so that future generations would be protected from the problems associated with alcohol and tobacco in particular.  It is plain to see the wisdom in tobacco knowing what we know now, with alcohol it easy to see how the Lord was protecting the saints from the problems alcohol would wreak on a faster paced, media driven society.  We have cars, airplanes, bad relationship decisions, and media at our finger tips daily. Alcohol has become a socially acceptable vice that has ruined, and continues to ruin people’s lives.  While it is true that not every drink, nor every person who drinks is evil, the purpose of the revelation was not to designate alcohol evil, it was to protect the community as a whole.  Prohibiting all forms of alcohol consumption was necessary to protect future generations.  

The bigger dilemma involved Coffee and Tea.  I never had good answers as a missionary as to why Coffee and Tea were included in the prohibition.  My confusion persisted until I studied early church history and read that it was common practice, (not unlike energy drinks today), for people to drink coffee and tea 6 or more times a day.  It had become a crutch for the people even though they had counsel for over 80 years that “hot drinks” were not for the belly. The inspired leaders of the church at that time saw the importance of helping future generations avoid those stimulants as crutches for their life and so that was included in the commandment portion of the Word of Wisdom.  

“Why are these things so popular, and why are they bad? The narcotic spirits in these substances are the cause for their being so much liked by those who use them. They are habit-forming. Their most dangerous effects make them that.” Everything that we eat contains poisons, as far as that goes, but these are habit-forming.” Brigham Young 1870

“We can observe that Word of Wisdom.  We receive numerous letters inquiring whether this item or that item is proscribed by the Word of Wisdom.  If we will avoid those things which are definitely and specifically defined, and beyond this observe the spirit of that great revelation, it will not involve a burden.  It will, rather, bring a blessing.  Do not forget: it is the Lord who has made the promise.” Gordon B. Hinckley

Like the Children of Israel before, the saints were not able to overcome their past gods (habits and addictions) and so the Lord instituted a commandment to help protect future generations from the same fate.  When I realized this, it was a very spiritual experience, knowing that I am benefiting from this inspiration in ways I didn’t realize before.  However, it still left the question of why the Lord didn’t make it a commandment immediately unanswered.

“We often make a big fuss about the Word of Wisdom while ignoring the other commandments.” Hugh Nibley

The flip side of outward commandments, is that when, as a group, we become very good at keeping the commandment, we often use it to tout our own righteousness, all the while, having many weaknesses that remain hidden from the outside eye.  The Word of Wisdom has become that for many of us.  We have immediate reactions to those who drink alcohol, coffee, tea, or smoke, and most of those reactions are not loving.  We define obedience to our teenagers in Sunday School, Young Women, and Young Men more often in terms of the living the Word of Wisdom than to loving those who are downtrodden and afflicted. This reinforces both the potential ignoring of more important commandments, and causes us to separate further from those who do not live the Word of Wisdom commandments.  This gulf makes it difficult for us to help those who most need the benefits of the Word of Wisdom, and makes us less likely to adapt the pattern of the word of wisdom to our own lives because we feel “all is well in Zion” due to our living just the commandment part.

It is easy to see why the Lord wanted to avoid the commandment, but I am thankful he did, because it has blessed our community, and me individually.  But what are the promised blessings?

 The Promised Results

“And all saints who remember to keep and do these sayings, walking in obedience to the commandments, shall receive health in their navel and marrow to their bones; And shall find wisdom and great treasures of knowledge, even hidden treasures; And shall run and not be weary, and shall walk and not faint. And I, the Lord, give unto them a promise, that the destroying angel shall pass by them, as the children of Israel, and not slay them. Amen.” D&C 89:18-21

Health, Strength, Energy, and Vitality

I have already shown statistics, but would like to emphasize the real importance of choosing to care about your health by using the patterns of the Word of Wisdom.  It will not only give us collectively greater health, strength, energy, and vitality, but it will also teach us moderation, self-discipline, and gratitude.  These things help our minds, and increase happiness.  

“The Lord expects each of us to observe the Word of Wisdom.  What a wonderful thing it is, this Word of Wisdom.  It doesn’t impose burdens on us.  It gives us blessings.  A professor at the University of California at Los Angeles has carried on an intensive study over a period of years, and he has reached the conclusion, and published that conclusion, that the Mormon people, speaking of averages, live 10 years longer than their peers.  What is 10 years of life worth?  Think of it.  Think of the blessings which come to us as a gift of our Father in Heaven…No one can afford to violate the Word of Wisdom.” Gordon B. Hinckley

Wisdom, Treasures of Knowledge, Hidden Treasures (Revelation)

In all of my discussions with my friends, family, and acquaintances, the things almost everyone yearns for the most are answers to prayers, and revelation.  God is stating clearly and resoundingly, that living the pattern of the Word of Wisdom will lead to revelation.  I would suggest that the more we seek to bring our health choices to the Lord and make changes, the more confident we will be in seeking revelation from Him.

“Your body is the instrument of your mind.  In your emotions, the spirit and the body come closest to being one.  What you learn spiritually depends, to a degree, on how you treat your body.  That is why the Word of Wisdom is so important…Do not ignore the Word of Wisdom, for that may cost you the “great treasures of knowledge, even hidden treasures” promised to those who keep it.  And good health is an added blessing. – Elder Boyd K. Packer

Setting Apart from rest of the world like the mark of Israel in time of Moses.

The last verse about the destroying angel passing by us made the least amount of sense to me for the longest time, but as I realized how much the Word of Wisdom was comparable to the way the Lord interacted with the Children of Israel, I started to notice that this promise is so much more than just a reference to not being killed by the destroying angel.  It was meant to represent the way we will be marked by the Lord as his people.  The Word of Wisdom is meant to be a symbol to the world, and it is, that we are Mormon, that we believe in the restoration, and that we believe Jesus Christ lives and guides us even now.  It has been the lead-in to countless conversations in which I can explain what it really means to be Mormon, and what I really believe.  It also has provided respect and confidence from business associates not of our faith.  

“The Word of Wisdom is necessary for unity and cooperation. It’s a form of common sense and honesty. Drugs, luxuries, self-indulgence, fashions and wealth: they all go together. The Word of Wisdom is simply a warning to beware of the world, and although it is a temporal revelation, the keeping of it will help us to keep the more eternal covenants we have made with our Heavenly Father.” Orson Pratt

All of these blessings are invaluable when you look at them individually, but the protective blessings for our future posterity are also amazing. By following the pattern of the Word of Wisdom actively and avoiding the stumbling block of self-righteousness and comparison within the community of the saints and without we can help ourselves and protect future generations. Living the Word of Wisdom is a mark of our convictions, but it is not a mark of our superiority.  I am thankful for the Word of Wisdom and hope that we can all choose to adapt it more fully into our lives.

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