The Word of Wisdom: Mark of a Peculiar People


The degree to which the Lord’s law of health, the Word of Wisdom, performs a function in support of the maintenance of an identity for the church separate from the world was not apparent to me until recent experiences brought home this truth.

During the past year I was in Geneva, Switzerland, to attend the arms limitation negotiations that took place there. My responsibilities made it necessary that I talk personally with most of the ambassadors representing the twenty-five nations at the negotiations. Preliminary to our more serious discussions, it was customary for the ambassador to offer me some form of liquor or occasionally coffee as a refreshment. Since a refusal without some explanation would have been offensive under the circumstances, I made a practice of explaining that my religion proscribed such beverages.

Although I considered it inappropriate at the time for me to volunteer any more information as to my beliefs, almost invariably my host would, in good humor, press me further as to the nature and the basis of such a prohibition. This usually led to a discussion of my religion, which went well beyond the Word of Wisdom to the story of the Book of Mormon, the foundations of the Mormon religion, and so forth.

This experience was repeated time and again in Geneva and later in Moscow, Leningrad, London, and Copenhagen, as my assignment took me to these locations in a follow-up to the negotiations.

Two long conversations took place, for example, in Moscow with noted Soviet scholars. In each case the genesis of our conversation was the Word of Wisdom. And in each case our conversation remained on the subject of the theology of Mormonism, at the insistence of my host, long past that point at which I would have felt compelled by the circumstances of our meeting to move on to the subject of our discussion. Finally, in each case I was asked to send them copies of the Book of Mormon upon my return to the United States.

I had enjoyed somewhat similar experiences before in connection with employment in Washington, D.C. But the intensity of this experience, as it was repeated in essence several times each week, caused me to perceive for the first time a possible function of the Word of Wisdom that I had not understood before.

Growing up in the Church, I had never had occasion to question the Word of Wisdom. I have lived it as a matter of habit and have never felt any particular temptation to do otherwise. To the extent that it was necessary, I rationalized the principle as a law of health that was possessed of such obvious blessings as to need no defense or analysis. Of course, no recent experience or new insight changes that conclusion. But an insight—new at least to me—was now mine as to another possible purpose of the Lord in instituting the Word of Wisdom.

The idea of separateness for his disciples has always been stressed by the Lord. In his first general epistle to the Church, Peter reminded the early Christians that they were chosen of God to perform certain functions essential to the accomplishment of his plan for the salvation of men. As the ancient Israelites were under covenant with the Lord to perform a peculiar role in the plan, and in that sense were a chosen people, so now the followers of Jesus had taken upon themselves by baptism a similar covenant. The early church, possessing unique priesthood powers, had a role to perform in the plan of salvation that could not be accomplished by others.

Peter told the early Christians that they were “a chosen generation, a royal priesthood, an holy nation, a peculiar people; that ye should shew forth the praises of him who hath called you out of darkness into his marvellous light.” (1 Pet. 2:9.)

A certain separateness seemed to be essential to the fulfillment of the roles to be performed by ancient Israel and later by the Christian church. Time and again Israel was enjoined to “come out of Babylon.” The Christian was instructed to be in the world but not of the world. The worldliness of Rome and Jerusalem was compared by the early Christians with that of Babylon and Sodom. Members of the church were told to keep themselves unspotted from the world.

The relationship between the church and the world at best contained a constant element of tension; at worst the attempts of the church to perform its functions resulted in its persecution. But in either situation, tension or overt persecution, as long as Israel and later the Christian church maintained its separate identity, its peculiar functions could be performed. The danger to the performance of these functions lay not in persecution or unpopularity but rather in the possibility that Israel or the church would suffer an unconscious assimilation into the world and lose the separateness essential to the accomplishment of its mission. Prophets and apostles inveighed against any tendencies of Israel and the church to merge with the world and lose their separate identities.

And so, in Geneva I had become a marked man almost from the first day. My religion was known to every delegation. It would have been impossible for me to sort of unconsciously assimilate into the world and—for the time—shed my religion. Unconscious assimilation had become impossible due almost entirely to the Word of Wisdom. And the same law that prevented gradual and somewhat unconscious absorption by the world also provided the springboard for a presentation of the message of the restoration of the gospel.

Later, back at the U.S. Department of State, I related some of these experiences to a young Jewish attorney in the legal adviser’s office. He said that it had always been his understanding that those portions of the Mosaic law dealing with food had been given to perform precisely the same function for his people: namely, to prevent the unconscious assimilation of the Jews into the gentile world.

It is difficult to conceive of a vehicle better suited to accomplish a degree of separateness and self-consciousness among a people than to require a unique pattern of eating—something that must be done regularly and relatively openly, it being impossible to keep such a public function hidden. Perhaps to some degree I understand better on a personal level the meaning of Peter’s words to the early Christians about being a “peculiar people,” a people set apart to perform a particular work, the preaching of the gospel.

Dr. Firmage, who is professor of law at the University of Utah and president of a student branch, last year attended the arms control negotiations at Geneva, Switzerland, as an International Affairs Fellow of the U.S.’s Council of Foreign Relations.