“Word of Wisdom (D&C 89),” Church History Topics
“Word of Wisdom (D&C 89)”
In 1833, Joseph Smith received a revelation called the Word of Wisdom, now canonized as Doctrine and Covenants 89. The revelation is best known today for establishing the widely recognized Latter-day Saint practices of abstaining from alcohol, tobacco, and drug use, as well as coffee and tea.1
The Word of Wisdom appeared at a time of intense public debate about bodily health in general and alcohol abuse in particular. In the United States, many adults in the 1830s had been raised in families where alcoholic beverages were consumed at breakfast, lunch, and dinner. Many became concerned about the social and health-related consequences of increased alcohol consumption. Beginning in the 1810s, reformers called for abstinence from hard liquor; many of their hearers went further, taking a pledge against all alcoholic beverages, including beer. At the same time, some reformers spoke out against tobacco chewing and recommended coffee as a substitute for alcohol, given that clean water was not always available.2
Within the context of this debate, Emma Smith approached her husband, concerned about the environment in the School of the Prophets. The same space Joseph used to record revelations and work on his inspired Bible translation was also used as the schoolroom, in which attendees often smoked, chewed, and spat tobacco. Joseph inquired of the Lord and received the Word of Wisdom. The revelation helped Saints navigate many of the issues debated by reformers and also addressed Emma’s specific concerns. “Strong drinks” and “hot drinks,” the revelation said, were “not for the belly.” Neither was tobacco, which was better used as an herb for sick cattle.3 Sources make clear that many early Latter-day Saints understood “hot drinks” to refer to coffee and tea.4 Some groups, like the Shakers, advised against eating meat, while others advocated no restriction. The Word of Wisdom took an independent position, saying that the Lord ordained the use of meat, on condition that it be eaten “sparingly.”5 The Word of Wisdom also advocated the use of grain and fruit.
For the next two generations, Church leaders taught the Word of Wisdom as a command from God, but they tolerated a variety of viewpoints on how strictly this commandment should be observed. Many Saints continued to drink coffee and tea, and some chewed tobacco. In territorial Utah, Church leaders denounced public intoxication and whiskey drinking but were often silent on the moderate use of milder alcoholic drinks. This tolerance gave the Saints time to develop their own tradition of abstinence from habit-forming substances.
Even so, Church leaders looked forward to the time when a higher standard would be observed. In the 1860s and 1870s, Brigham Young called on the Saints to reject all use of tea, coffee, tobacco, and liquor.6 Children were routinely taught to live the Word of Wisdom better than their parents had. The result of this teaching was a younger generation of Latter-day Saints who had grown up with Word of Wisdom observance and were able to adhere to the standard of full abstinence.
With the decline of polygamy after 1890, the increasing emphasis on the Word of Wisdom became a new marker of Latter-day Saint distinctiveness. In the early 1900s, the Saints replaced wine with water for sacramental use. In 1919, Latter-day Saints greeted an amendment to the U.S. Constitution that prohibited the manufacture and sale of alcoholic drinks as a great victory for humankind.7 In 1921, the Lord inspired President Heber J. Grant to require all Saints to abstain from alcohol, tobacco, coffee, and tea in order to obtain a temple recommend.
As alcohol and tobacco consumption gradually became more common in the United States, the Latter-day Saints became known for their persistent refusal to drink and smoke even while many other Christians indulged. Citing this divergence, 20th-century Church leaders often appealed to statistics showing that the Saints lived longer lives and suffered from fewer serious health ailments, in keeping with the Word of Wisdom’s promise that adherents would “run and not be weary, and shall walk and not faint.”8
The Word of Wisdom, given in its early American context, did not anticipate or specifically address many substances that have since become common. Over time, Church leaders have emphasized the underlying principles of the revelation, such as caring for the health of the body and avoiding addictive substances. In some instances, they have given specific guidance. For example, recreational drugs are forbidden by the Word of Wisdom, while authorized use of prescription drugs is permitted. The use of some substances, such as caffeine, has been left to the judgment of individual Saints and is not prohibited as a requirement for receiving a temple recommend.
Latter-day Saints see the Word of Wisdom as more than a health code. Adherence to its guidelines not only makes them eligible for temple worship but provides spiritual benefits, including greater receptivity to personal revelation.