The Word of Wisdom

Members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints follow a set of dietary rules known as the Word of Wisdom. Here I will give an overview and introduction to this rather big subject, which I expect to revisit many times in future postings.

Many of our friends and coworkers are aware that Latter-day Saints have interesting dietary habits, but some are not. I once participated in a gift exchange at work during the Christmas season and was given a Starbucks gift card by a coworker who did not know that I never drink coffee because my religion forbids it. Of course I was not offended by this well-meaning gift, and it was easy enough to pass it on to someone else who could get more use out of it than I could. But this experience left me wishing that more of my colleagues understood my beliefs and how they impact my lifestyle.

Our religion is not unique in teaching rules about food and drink; similar beliefs and practices can be found in other Christian faiths, as well as in Judaism, Islam, Hinduism, and other world religions. The ancient scriptures include commandments from the Lord about what his people should and should not consume, and these laws were subject to change from time to time when new revelations were received. (See Leviticus chapter 11 and Acts chapter 10) Latter-day Saints view the Word of Wisdom as the latest iteration in this series of revelations.

Here is the historical context: In 1833 the young Church was headquartered in the small town of Kirtland, Ohio. Joseph Smith, the founder of the church, was working to prepare his brethren to travel abroad as missionaries. Twenty-five or more men would gather daily into a small room to hear Joseph teach, and often the room was so hazy with tobacco smoke that they could hardly see their instructor. The hardwood floor became covered with stains from their tobacco chewing and spitting. Joseph Smith felt that this condition was inconsistent with his charge to make the school “a sanctuary, a tabernacle of the Holy Spirit” (Doctrine and Covenants 88:137). He asked the Lord what to do about this problem, and received the revelation known as the Word of Wisdom as his answer.

Joseph Smith described the revelation as “a principle with promise, adapted to the capacity of the weak and the weakest of all” (verse 3). The instructions are all rather simple, and can be classified as prohibitions or endorsements. Alcoholic beverages, tobacco, and hot drinks (interpreted as meaning coffee and tea) are all prohibited by the Lord. Herbs, fruits, and grains are all endorsed as being useful and beneficial. Meats are also approved, but we are counseled to use them sparingly. The following promise is given in the last 4 verses of the revelation:

  1. 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;
  2. And shall find wisdom and great treasures of knowledge, even hidden treasures;
  3. And shall run and not be weary, and shall walk and not faint.
  4. 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.

These promised blessings include physical health and endurance, cognitive ability, and protection from spiritual dangers. Latter-day Saints who keep the Word of Wisdom attest to the fulfillment of these promises in their own lives; I have certainly seen them in mine. As a medical doctor I have cared for many patients whose health conditions were directly caused or exacerbated by using and abusing substances which the Lord forbids in this revelation.

Some people wonder how we view other people who don’t follow this law. Is it wrong to have a beer now and then when you are out with friends? Do we condemn others who smoke tobacco? Do we hold picket protests in front of coffeehouses? Of course not! We try to apply the same principle of tolerance here which we employ in other areas. There is also a principle of accountability: you cannot be expected to follow a commandment if you don’t even know of its existence. Thus, we do not condemn our neighbors who don’t follow the Word of Wisdom. We pray for them, and try to love them and influence them for good.

Can you imagine a world in which more and more people voluntarily choose to follow this commandment? How many headaches could be eliminated simply by avoiding caffeine overuse? How many cases of COPD and lung cancer could be prevented? Imagine a world without drunk driving and all of the tragedy that follows it. Think of how much quieter our emergency departments and police departments would be without intoxication-associated violence.

As is often the case with revelation from God, what Joseph Smith received was rather more than what he had asked for. And the promises realized by those who keep this law are far greater than anything we miss out on. During my residency I was routinely required to work shifts lasting 30 hours or more at a time, often without any sleep during the shift. But throughout my whole residency I never drank coffee or tea or even caffeinated soft drinks in order to stay awake when I was on call. I trusted in the Lord to give me the physical, emotional, and cognitive endurance I needed to carry what sometimes felt like a terrible burden of responsibility. I had confidence that he would always help me because I was always obedient to his Word of Wisdom.

Addendum 2014-03-27: A couple of readers pointed out that Starbucks actually has several menu items which might interest Latter-day Saints, including baked goods and a really decent hot chocolate. Maybe I’ll have to check it out sometime.

I would also like to clarify one point, which is that there is disagreement among Church members about whether caffeinated soft drinks are permitted under the Word of Wisdom. Whether or not they are, I think there are other good reasons to avoid them. We will dive into this controversy in more detail later.

Alan B. Sanderson, MD is a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and is a practicing neurologist.

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