About That Word of Wisdom Video (July 18, 2019)

On July 15th, following their release of a video on seer stones along with 69 (no, I'm not making a joke) videos on pornography, the LDS church released a new (short) video on the Word of Wisdom, which is a topic not covered in the longer Gospel Topics essays released over the last 5-6 years. If you have not seen it, the church published it on YouTube and you can view it here.

It's a short video and we're not going to spend a ton of time here rehashing it, but just as we did with the seer stone video, I want to point out some of the ways that it feels like the church is still dodging and skirting difficult issues while inoculating members about topics that don't add up.

Just like the Saints book, the church is using fluffy language and imagery to avoid giving any real details of how the Word of Wisdom was used for about 70 years after the revelation was recorded. In addition, the video uses a very simple art style which allows them to demonize those outside of the church (we'll get to that later) while painting early church leaders in the best possible way.

Below I am going to have the text of the video with some comments about why the church is still being misleading about the Word of Wisdom even in 2019 when the information is so readily available. We have not previously wrote about the Word of Wisdom, so at the end we will provide some more resources for anyone interested in learning more. From the video:

Members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints lived by a health code called the Word of Wisdom. What is the word of wisdom? And why do millions of Latter-day Saints around the world follow it? Let's take a closer look. The prophet Joseph Smith received the word of wisdom by revelation in 1833. He wrote the revelation down and canonized it in a collection of revelations called the Doctrine and Covenants, which Latter-day Saints view as scripture. The revelation is recognized by most as the reason why Latter-day saints abstain from alcohol, tobacco, coffee, tea and drug use. But to understand why the word of wisdom came about, we first need to know some historical context.

We're going to get into some details as to why this glosses over some issues wit the Word of Wisdom's actual text later, but the opening paragraph is pretty straightforward. The only thing I would add is that again they use imagery of Joseph Smith writing down revelation in the video, and that is just not historically accurate. For the earliest revelations Joseph Smith still used the stone in a hat and a scribe would write down the words, and in later revelations Joseph Smith would just dictate the wording to a scribe. It might seem like a small thing as the Word of Wisdom was likely after Joseph Smith used the seer stone for revelations, but again it is the issue where the church always tries to make Joseph Smith look as polished and refined as possible.

Again, it's not a huge deal and is possibly more of a carryover issue from the recent video on seer stones, but it just sets the tone that this video is not going to address the messiness of early church history, including the Word of Wisdom.

Back to the video:

The word of wisdom appeared at a time of intense public debate in the United States about alcohol abuse. As early as the 1810s, rapidly growing industrialization and alcohol use had begun breaking down previously held social norms. By the 1830s, many adults in the United States had been raised in families where alcoholic beverages were consumed at breakfast, lunch and dinner. Many people became concerned about the social and health consequences of increased alcohol consumption. The temperance movement grew as reformers called for abstinence from hard liquor, and many involved with the movement went further taking a pledge against all alcoholic beverages, including beer. Some even recommended coffee as a substitute for alcohol, given that clean water was not always available. At the same time, some reformers spoke out against tobacco use.

I want to give the church credit for this paragraph because it explicitly mentions that there was a growing public movement against alcohol, tobacco, and other substances. When I was taking the missionary discussions a little over 20 years ago, the Word of Wisdom was hailed as a revelation that Joseph Smith could not have possibly known about on his own. But as we have come to learn, almost every idea that Joseph Smith would later adopt was from a source around him whether it was the Melchizedek/Aaronic priesthoods (Campbellite movement brought over by Sidney Rigdon), multiple tiers of heaven (Emanuel Swedenborg), the First Vision (Solomon Chamberlain), temple endowment ceremony (Masonic ceremony), etc.

So I give the church credit for stating up front that these ideas of abstaining from certain substances was not unknown at the time of Joseph Smith's revelation. As a convert I thought it was remarkable that Joseph Smith knew of the problems that could come from abusing alcohol and tobacco, so it was quite a surprise to learn that not only did other groups already discuss this, but that the Word of Wisdom itself was treated much differently in his lifetime. Back to the video:

It was in this social climate in the early 1830s, Joseph Smith started a series of formal classes called the School of the Prophets. This school was an assembly of church leaders who met to discuss and instruct one another in theological and secular learning, such as religion, economics, philosophy and civic matters. But the attendees frequently smoked, chewed, and spat tobacco, all in the same space where Joseph taught the school and recorded revelations. In addition, Emma Smith, (one of) Joseph's wife (wives), was left to clean up the mess, and she was disturbed by the men's actions. She spoke to Joseph about it. Joseph inquired of the Lord and received the revelation known as the Word of Wisdom.
 

This paragraph is also fairly straightforward, and my only real comments here are on how the video compares the "School of the Prophets" against the non-Mormons in this time. As you'll see in the pictures below, the non-Mormons are portrayed as bumbling drunks smoking at the bar, while the church leaders are portrayed as scholarly figures smoking on pipes.

The truth is that early church members almost all drank -- including Joseph Smith. In fact, Joseph Smith drank wine on the day he died, which was a full decade after the Word of Wisdom was recorded. As John Taylor recalled:“Sometime after dinner we sent for some wine. It has been reported by some that this was taken as a sacrament. It was no such thing; our spirits were generally dull and heavy, and it was sent for to revive us. I think it was Captain Jones who went after it, but they would not suffer him to return. I believe we all drank of the wine, and gave some to one or two of the prison guards.” (History of the Church, 7:101)

Even three years after this revelation, Joseph Smith did not seem at all hesitant to drink alcohol. From the History of the Church: "We then partook of some refreshments, and our hearts were made glad with the fruit of the vine. This is according to the pattern set by our Savior Himself, and we feel disposed to patronize all the institutions of heaven." (Joseph Smith – History of the Church, January 14, 1836, vol.2, p.369)

There are also stories in Saints of early members getting drunk to the point where they were having visions, speaking in tongues, etc. That's not to say all church members were habitual drunks by any stretch, but neither were those not in the church which the different imagery implies even if unintentionally.

And back to the video:

The revelation helped the saints navigate many of the issues debated by reformers and also addressed Emma's specific concerns. For example, the Lord warn against consumption of strong drinks, which Latter-day Saints understand to mean alcohol. Also, the Lord cautioned that hot drinks, understood as coffee and tea, were not for the belly. In other words, not to be consumed. Neither was tobacco, which was better used as an herb for sick cattle. Also at the time, some groups like the Shakers, advised against eating meat, while other groups advocated no restrictions at all. However, in the Word of Wisdom, the Lord revealed that he ordained meat both beast and foul for the use of man on condition that it be eaten sparingly.

The Word of Wisdom, given in its early American context, did not specifically mention many substances that have since become common. As the world's industries began mass production of such substances, church leaders encouraged Latter-day Saints to use common sense and stay away from harmful habit forming substances. For example, recreational drugs should be avoided, while the authorized and correct use of prescription drugs is okay. In the word of wisdom, the Lord also warns against conspiring men with evil designs foreshadowing a surge of substance abuse, addiction and death.

This is where I have some real issues with the video, and it's because it glosses over some really big problems with the Word of Wisdom as it was originally interpreted.

 

First, the idea that D&C 89 is understood to mean coffee and tea for hot drinks is nonsensical. This is what D&C 89 states: "And again, hot drinks are not for the body or belly." Early church members took this to not only mean coffee and tea, but also to mean hot soups, which we know are quite healthy

The Word of Wisdom is just not a logical revelation. For example, we are told that hot drinks are in reference to coffee and tea, but you still can not drink iced coffee or tea and keep a temple recommend. Some apologists state that it is about caffeine, except that not only can you drink caffeinated soft drinks now, but BYU made a big pubic relations move in selling Coke products on campus in the last year. It just makes no sense.

There is no revelation that clarifies that "hot drinks" means just coffee, but even if that were true, why is iced coffee not OK? It just does not add up, and the fact that all of this references the ideas of Joseph's time strips this of any sense of revelation. And there is no better proof of that than God (through Joseph Smith) neglecting to tell the early members to boil their water.

You can read about this in Saints (Chapter 19), but a cholera outbreak sickened over sixty people and took the lives of over a dozen. This outbreak happened the year after the Word of Wisdom was recorded -- what better way to show that Joseph Smith was receiving real truth from God than to learn such a basic necessity as boiling their water before consuming it?

I can not stress this enough: Every concept in the Word of Wisdom was known to Joseph Smith through outside movements such as the Temperance Movement, yet the most important revelations such as boiling water were left unsaid. For me that is a red flag that can not be overlooked, and the video of course skirts right by the entire problem not just of boiling water, but how the early church defined hot drinks.

Second, while it is convenient to say that the revelation foreshadowed substance abuse, one has to remember that in Joseph Smith's time they believed the world was ending in a matter of years. The reference to the "consequence of evils and designs which do and will exist in the hearts of conspiring men in the last days" has to be taken in the context that they believed they were already in the last days, and that the specific substances that were detailed immediately after this statement were what Joseph Smith was referring to.

Third, and this is along the lines of defining what "hot drinks" are: The Word of Wisdom says that beer is OK. From D&C 89: "Nevertheless, wheat for man, and corn for the ox, and oats for the horse, and rye for the fowls and for swine, and for all beasts of the field, and barley for all useful animals, and for mild drinks, as also other grain."

The description of mild drinks using barley points directly to beer, which the church members continued to drink for long after the Word of Wisdom was recorded. That's not to say that the church should all start chugging beers, but to point out the absurdity in trying to unravel a revelation made using both the mindset and influences of the 1830s.

While we have come to learn that tobacco is incredibly unhealthy from long term smokers, we have seen many studies showing the healthy effects of mild coffee consumption. And on the flip-side, we are beginning to learn that coffee is way healthier that soda drinks such a caffeinated Coke products that are now proudly served at BYU.

What I'm trying to say is that the Word of Wisdom is a bit of a mess, and when you actually look at the revelation compared to how the church interprets it today, there is just no way to reconcile it in a way that makes any logical sense.

And if that's not enough, the church didn't even follow the Word of Wisdom as a commandment until 1902. In fact, the Word of Wisdom itself specifically states that it is not a commandment: "To be sent greeting; not by commandment or constraint."

This is why church members continued to drink and smoke for 70 years after the revelation was recorded. For a slew of quotes about members (and leaders) who drank alcohol, coffee, tea and smoked and chewed tobacco for almost 100 years after the Word of Wisdom, just check out MormonThink's collection of quotes.

So what we're left with is a revelation that is not a commandment, is very contradictory in terms of how the church views it today, and wasn't even adhered to be Joseph Smith or early church leaders until the 1920s when it became a temple recommend question. Which brings us to the last part of the video:

But Latter-day Saints see the word of wisdom as more than just a health code. Adherence to the word of wisdom not only teaches members how to control appetites and guard their health, it is also part of what makes him eligible for temple worship and promises spiritually benefits.

Most importantly, following the word of wisdom helps engender greater receptivity to personal revelation through the spirit of the Lord. As Boyd K. Packer, an apostle of the Lord in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, once said, "A fundamental purpose of the word of wisdom has to do with revelation. If someone under the influence can hardly listen to plain talk, how can they respond to spiritual promptings that touch their most delicate feelings? As valuable as the word of wisdom is as a law of health, it may be much more valuable to you spiritually than it is physically."

So let's review: What is the word of wisdom and why is it important to Latter-day Saints? The word of wisdom is a revelation. In it, the Lord promises that those who follow his guidelines will have better health. But he also promises greater happiness, wisdom and spiritual blessings, too. Most of all the word of wisdom shows us that God loves us. He wants us to be healthy and spiritually receptive to his words. Now, you know.

This last section really hits the main point of the Word of Wisdom: it is now used as a law of obedience. At the end of the day, we have health studies that show coffee and tea have health benefits and we have no consistency when it comes to banning coffee as a hot drink but also banning it as a cold drink, that the Word of Wisdom allows for beer, or that it isn't a commandment in the first place. But since 1921, the Word of Wisdom has been a condition of a temple recommend, so even if it doesn't make logical sense, it is a law that must be obeyed or your desired afterlife will be lost.

Some apologists argue that the reason it was not considered a commandment until 1921 was because church members needed time to get away from the addiction of these substances, but again we have almost 90 years between when it was recorded and when it became a requirement for a temple recommend - anyone using these substances when the revelation was recorded would have been long passed on. Another argument is that Brigham Young declared it to be a commandment in 1851, but again that opens the door to all of the other things that Brigham Young declared as prophet including the ban on blacks, Adam-God, blood atonement, and other teachings that the church wants no part of today.

 

One other element to this being a law of obedience is that the Word of Wisdom became a requirement for temple recommends shortly after the church released the second declaration ending polygamy. That caused a lot of uproar within the church since polygamy had been a foundational practice of the church and an "everlasting covenant." There is a case to be made that a reason for the Word of Wisdom becoming a rule and not a suggestion was to give the church members something new to rally around and identify themselves with. Again, this is something we can only speculate on, but it would be a possible explanation as to why the church clamped down in 1921 as they did.

The most likely reason that the church decided to clamp down on the Word of Wisdom in 1921 is because prohibition took place in the United States in 1920. Since it became illegal to purchase alcohol in 1920, it makes sense that the church would use that opportunity to make sure members were obeying the laws of the land considering that tensions were high with the government over polygamy just years earlier. Again, it is interesting that another major change in church doctrine/policy occurred due to outside forces - just as polygamy was ended and just as we've seen in the present day with temple changes, the LGBT policies, and the ban on blacks being lifted in 1978.

 

With regard to Packer's quote, I do agree that if you're drunk you will have a difficult time making good decisions, but as I mentioned earlier many of the early church events where many members were having spiritual visions or speaking in tongues just happened to come after taking the sacrament. I'm not saying that the alcohol or any other added substances caused those visions, but I am absolutely saying that having alcohol certainly did not dampen their spiritual beliefs of those events.

At the end of the day, the video follows the same pattern as the seer stone video and will likely be a fairly long series of topics that use cartoony imagery and fluffy narration to navigate around difficult issues. But even in spending just a few minutes writing these notes down, it's pretty apparent that the church is just not being honest about how messy these topics are, and why they cause a lot of problems for members who take the deep dive into the very truth claims made by the church.

And I give you this image the church used when discussing "conspiring men with evil designs" to show just how cartoony and Disneyesque these videos are:

The Word of Wisdom is far from a massive problem when it comes to church history for me, but again you can see just how Joseph Smith used the sources and movements around him to build theology, and I think that's important in the overall picture of the truth claims of the church.

Joseph Smith was aware of the temperance movement which called for the abstinence of liquor, he had investigated (and possibly joined) the Methodist church which discouraged hot drinks, and had Emma upset with him over tobacco. It is no surprise that these are the main points of contention in the Word of Wisdom, and again it fits a pattern of Joseph incorporating ideas and concepts he learns around him into the church's theology. While I won't say "Now you know" as the video declares, I do hope that if you're interested in learning more you will read some of our annotated LDS Gospel Topics Essays to continue receiving a fuller picture of the church's history and how it stacks up to the truth claims made by both Joseph Smith and current leaders today.

So this is a brief overview, and I have a few resources if you want to dig in further:

We've mentioned on many other posts how difficult it is to take in this new information, and we understand how painful it is to process. Please email us anytime at ldsdiscussion@gmail.com if you would like more resources to learn about these issues or if you are looking for people that you can safely talk to as you continue your faith journey.

Check us out on Twitter or Facebook as well for future posts and updates. Thanks for reading!