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Doctrine and Covenants 89
by Paul H. Peterson
This section, known as the Word of Wisdom from its first words, was received at a meeting of the School of the Prophets in the upper level of the Whitney store on February 27, 1833, in Kirtland, Ohio. According to Zebedee Coltrin, one of twenty-two Church leaders in attendance, Joseph Smith received the revelation in an adjoining room in the presence of two or three brethren, walked in with the document in hand, and read the contents to the assembled school members. The revelation was first printed in December 1833 or January 1834 on a broadsheet and was included in the 1835 edition of the Doctrine and Covenants.
The Word of Wisdom was given "in consequence of evils and designs which do and will exist in the hearts of conspiring men in the last days" (verse 4). As some of these designs pertain to what people eat and drink, the Word of Wisdom gives basic directions on what is good and not good, and posits a strong relationship between what individuals take into their bodies and their physical and spiritual well-being. The revelation prohibits three things: tobacco, strong drinks, and hot drinks (verses 5-9). "Strong drinks" were understood as alcoholic beverages; "hot drinks" were defined by early Church leaders as tea and coffee. Church leaders have traditionally confined relevant worthiness requirements to the prohibited items. The revelation also recommends the prudent use of herbs and fruits, the sparing consumption of meat, and the use of "all grain," but especially "wheat for man" (verses 10-17). Saints who obey the admonitions are promised health and strength, wisdom and knowledge, and protection from the destroying angel (verses 18-21).
The Word of Wisdom was an inspired response to specific problems or paradoxes within the Church and to pressing social issues in contemporary American society. Brigham Young recalled in 1868 that Joseph Smith was bothered by the seeming incongruity of discussing spiritual matters in a cloud of tobacco smoke and that Joseph's wife, Emma Smith, was bothered at having to clean the quid-littered floor. It is also probable that the Prophet was sensitive to, and supportive of, the widespread temperance sentiment of the 1830s. As was his custom, the Prophet went to the Lord for instructions, and section 89 is distinctive in the sense that it is a divinely approved code of health.
Interpretations and applications of the Word of Wisdom have gradually changed through the years. In part, this change is consistent with the Church's belief in continuing revelation through living prophets. With regard to this particular section, the varied interpretations also reflect some ambiguity in verse 2, which states that the revelation was given "not by commandment or constraint." Since verses 1-4 were part of the introduction to this section in the 1835 edition of the Doctrine and Covenants, through the years there have been differences of opinion as to whether the Word of Wisdom is a commandment in the sense that observance is obligatory to enjoy full Church fellowship as well as whether observance implies abstinence or merely moderation.
In the mid-1830s, many Church members felt that abstinence from alcohol, tobacco, tea, and coffee was a criterion for fellowship. The one possible exception to this otherwise strict interpretation was wine, which some early Church leaders may not have considered "strong drink." This early emphasis on abstinence or near abstinence failed to gain Church-wide or official acceptance, although Joseph Smith said no member "is worthy to hold an office" who has been taught the Word of Wisdom and fails "to comply with and obey it" (TPJS, p.117, fn.). Even so, the early statement gradually gave way to an emphasis on moderation. President Joseph F. Smith later taught that the Lord did not insist on strict compliance in these early years in order to allow a generation addicted to noxious substances some years to discard bad habits. This early pattern of moderation, observable by the 1840s, continued throughout the nineteenth century. President John Taylor initiated a reform in the early 1880s in which he stressed that all Church officers should abstain from the prohibited items, but his efforts were cut short by the social disruption caused by federal antipolygamy raids. While Church leaders did not require abstinence in the nineteenth century, they stressed moderation, counseled strongly against drunkenness, and opposed or carefully regulated the establishment of distilleries and grog shops. The numerous observations by visitors in Utah Territory attest to the prevailing orderliness and sobriety of Mormon communities and evidence the effectiveness of such preaching.
The path leading to the present position on the Word of Wisdom began with the Presidency of Joseph F. Smith (1901-1918) and culminated in the administration of Heber J. Grant (1918-1945), who, more than any other Church leader, preached strict compliance with frequency and fervor. By the early 1930s, abstinence from alcohol, tobacco, tea, and coffee had become an established test of Church fellowship. There was no known specific revelation that brought this about. It resulted from Church leaders' long-term concern over the deleterious physical and spiritual effects of alcohol, tobacco, tea, and coffee on both individuals and communities. National and local agitation over prohibition and the mounting scientific evidence attesting to the harmful effects of certain substances intensified that concern.
The Word of Wisdom has resulted in, among other things, better physical health among LDS people (see Vital Statistics) and physical affirmations of truths received through revelation. It has also brought about a distinguishing separateness that reminds Latter-day Saints of their religious commitments and responsibilities.
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Alexander, Thomas G. Mormonism in Transition, pp. 258-71. Urbana, Ill., 1986.
Bush, Lester E., Jr. "The Word of Wisdom in Early Nineteenth-Century Perspective." Dialogue 14 (Fall 1981):47-65.
Encyclopedia of Mormonism, Vol. 1, Doctrine and Covenants Section 89
Copyright © 1992 by Macmillan Publishing Company
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