Health Law Received One Hundred Fifty Years Ago

By Gerry Avant

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    The Word of Wisdom, which has shaped the lives of millions of Latter-day Saints since the early days of the Church, was received 150 years ago.

    It all started in 1833 with a tobacco-stained floor in a smoke-filled room in Kirtland, Ohio, and a comment by the Prophet Joseph Smith’s wife that prompted him to approach the Lord with an inquiry. The resulting answer was the revelation known as the Word of Wisdom and now Section 89 of the Doctrine and Covenants. [D&C 89]

    The Word of Wisdom has not always been known as Section 89 of the Doctrine and Covenants. It was Section 80 in the 1835 edition, and Section 81 in the 1845 edition. It became Section 89 in the 1876 edition.

    The commandment has enabled Church members during the past century and a half to live longer and to enjoy life more.

    “I think,” said President Brigham Young in 1868, “I am as well acquainted with the circumstances which led to the giving of the Word of Wisdom as any man in the Church, although I was not present at the time to witness them.”

    President Young said the Prophet Joseph and his wife, Emma, lived in quarters attached to Newell K. Whitney’s store. Their kitchen was under the room in which Joseph received revelations and instructed the brethren in the first school of the prophets.

    “The brethren came to that place for hundreds of kilometers to attend school in a little room probably no larger than three by four meters,” President Young said. “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.” (Journal of Discourses, Vol. 12, p. 158.)

    However, social life and financial dealings of the early 1800s did not foster a positive attitude toward the Word of Wisdom. Liquor, tobacco, coffee and tea were considered necessities and were often used as a means of trade in the 19th century.

    Often contracts provided that whiskey, tobacco, coffee or tea be included as part of salaries or payment of debts. The pioneers relied on big game from the prairie or cattle from their abundant herds as a major source of food for every meal, thereby making it difficult for some to accept the new revelation’s direction for frugal meat consumption.

    Many did not regard the revelation as a commandment until September 9, 1851, when President Young declared it as such in a general conference session. (Millennial Star, February 1, 1852.) However, Joseph Smith, in History of the Church, Vol. 2, page 482, recorded that in a general meeting of the Church May 28, 1837, the members “resolved unanimously that we will not fellowship any ordained member who will not, or does not observe the Word of Wisdom according to its literal meaning.”

    President George Q. Cannon, in a November 15, 1892 Juvenile Instructor article, noted many Church members did not seem “to be alive to the importance of those laws which pertain to the well-being and preservation of health and strength of the body. Their old traditions cling to them, and it appears to be difficult for them to shake them off.”

    President Cannon then gave a promise, “Yet the day must come when the people of God will be superior, physically and mentally, to every other people upon the face of the earth. … We are promised greater safety than other people are likely to enjoy, but the promises are based on certain conditions which must be observed. If these are observed, then the promise begins to operate.”

    Statistics bear evidence the promise is being fulfilled. For example, the incidence of lung cancer among Mormons in Utah, where about 70 percent of the population is LDS, is approximately 65 percent below the rest of the United States. Non-Mormons in Utah have about the same incidence of lung cancer as the rest of the nation. The Utah Department of Health reported cigarette consumption in Utah averaged 6.5 per day during 1981; the national average was 53 percent higher, at 10 per day.

    Statistics also show that those adhering to the Word of Wisdom have a lower incidence of heart attacks, strokes and life-threatening diseases. The Utah Mormon heart attack death rate, for example, is 35 percent below the U. S. average.

    Word of Wisdom articles courtesy of Church News

    Illustrated by John Falter