Word of Wisdom in First Decade

For the most part, discussions of the Word of Wisdom on the Bloggernacle tire me out.  While I agree that the modern church’s stress on abstinence from alcohol isn’t what the Word of Wisdom actually says, and it should be noted that saints in Nauvoo were encouraged to grow grapes for making wine in Nauvoo, the current Church interpretation isn’t that big of a deal to me.  I don’t understand why it is such a hang-up for certain people.  They will note that early saints smoked and drank and still were able to go to the temple, and they are right.  However, I was surprised to learn that in the first decade after the Word of Wisdom was given, adherance was much stricter–in some cases, saints were even excommunicated for violations of the Word of Wisdom!

Paul Hoskisson put together a nice article in the Journal of Mormon History titled “The Word of Wisdom in its First Decade”.  It is available at the Utah State University website; Mormon History Association Members have free access, but you may be able to purchase it for download–you’ll have to check (I’m a member of MHA, so it was free for me.)  Hoskinsson notes that both wine and water were used in the first decade, so wine in the sacrament was not considered a violation.  Additionally, early Mormons didn’t consider medicinal use of coffee, tea, or alcohol to be a violation of the Word of Wisdom.  With those caveats, Hoskinsson states that “I will now provide evidence that, except for these two exclusions, the Kirtland stand of abstinence was identical to our modern standard.”

I will note that I think in some cases, these early saints were MORE strict than our modern standard.  Mike at Wheat and Tares discussed the Word of Wisdom last Thursday, and I want to point out some things he said.  Mike said,

Is the Word of Wisdom inherently an eternal law?  No.  Examples supporting this are easy.  The first recorded miracle of Christ according to John 2 was to make wine, wine good enough to make the host wonder why it was held back.  Christ accepted wine enough that He incorporated it into the sacrament — the most meaningful ordinance to remember Him.  Nephites made and drank wine.

Regarding this, I agree and disagree.  Hoskinsson’s article notes that early Mormons did use both water and wine for the sacrament.  Now wine is strictly prohibited in the modern Church.  So while this isn’t “eternal law” as Mike said, it is more than a suggestion as Mike also relates in that post:

In the canonized version of the Word of Wisdom, we read that it was sent as a”greeting; not by commandment or constraint, but by revelation and the word of wisdom” (D&C 89:2).  So, the original intent of the Word of Wisdom was to make some suggestions for health.

It should be noted that verses 1-3 were NOT part of the original revelation, but were part of a caption from the 1835 version of the Doctrine and Covenants.  If you start reading it in verse 4, it becomes no longer a suggestion, and includes “Thus saith the Lord.”

Behold, verily, thus saith the Lord unto you: In consequence of aevils and designs which do and will exist in the hearts of bconspiring men in the last days, I have cwarned you, and forewarn you, by giving unto you this word of wisdom by revelation”

Hoskinsson notes that

In addition to the 1835 Doctrine and Covenants that physically separates the caption from the revelation, most copies of the Word of Wisdom made between 1833 and 1869 follow the same model of physically setting off the caption from the rest of the text.  Not until the 1876 edition of the Doctrine and Covenants was the caption moved to become the first three verses.

Hoskinsson notes that

the official position of Church authorities in Ohio called for strict adherence to the Word of Wisdom at the same level required today–that is, to hold an office or to be a member in good standing required strict abstinence from tea, coffee, alcohol, and tobacco.”

He notes that some leaders wanted to excommunicate for violations, while some did not.

On February 12, 1834, less that a year after the Word of Wisdom was received, the first Church disciplinary council was held for violating the Word of Wisdom:  “Brother Leonard Rich was called in question for transgressing the Word of Wisdom, and for selling the revelations at an extortionate price while he was journeying east with Father Lyon.  Brother Rich confessed, and the council forgave him upon his promising to do better and reform his life.”

Hoskinsson notes that the charge was considered serious, though leniency was offered from contrite individuals.  He goes on to cite that John Murdock was disfellowshipped for “too free a use of Strong drink.”  In those days, disfellowshipment was almost equivalent to excommunication, indicating how serious a violation was considered.  Later in 1834, Joseph’s brother-in-law Wilkins Jenkins Salisbury “was expelled from the church for intemperance.”  After reinstatement in 1835, Salisbury was

disciplined again on  May 16, 1836 for neglecting his family, alcohol abuse, and being unfaithful to his wife.  He admitted that he had a “propensity for tale-bearing and drinking strong drink, but denied the other charges.” The council revoked his elder’s license and excommunicated him.  Supposing that he was not guilty of neglecting his family and of being unfaithful, as he claimed, means he was excommunicated for”tale-bearing” and drinking alcohol.

Almon Babbitt was brought before the High Council in 1836

for not keeping the Word of Wisdom, for stating the Book of Mormon was not essential to our salvation, and that we have no article of faith except the Bible.  The fact that the Word of Wisdom was mentioned first indicated that it was perhaps more serious than the other accusations.  After Babbitt admitted that he was wrong, the council reproved him and instructed him, among other things “to observe the Word of Wisdom and commandment so the Lord in all things.”  Though Babbit did not lose his official standing in the Church, perhaps because he confessed and seemed contrite, the fact that he was charged with breaking the Word of Wisdom at all confirms the seriousness with which it was understood in Kirtland.

Hoskinsson goes on to explain other cases of excommunication and punishment in the 1830s in Kirtland, and notes emphasis in the church newspaper, Messenger and Advocate in 1837.  As apostasy in Kirtland grew as a result of the Kirtland Bank Crisis, Joseph Smith and others decided to make plans to go to Missouri, land of Zion.  Saints needed to live the Word of Wisdom in order to be allowed to go to Missouri.  Leaders were told that members must obey the Word of Wisdom strictly.

G.W. Brooks was married to a non-Mormon wife.  They were brought before church leaders because “she had used tea most of the time on the road and used profane language.”  Mrs. Brooks expressed no remorse, declaring “she would still pursue the same course and it was not in the power of her husband or the council to stop it.  She further said that she was not a member of the Church and did not expect to fall under the rules of the camp.”

However, because her husband had agreed to abide the Word of Wisdom, the leaders

“Severely reprimanded Brooks ‘for not keeping his family in subjection as a man of God especially as an elder in Israel,’80 and then expelled both of them from the camp.”

Ouch!  That’s pretty strict, and I think we modern’s would be surprised to hear this reaction.  In Mike’s post, he says

Coffee and tea. This is a murky area, as the Word of Wisdom defines only “hot drinks”.  But what does this really mean?  Is iced tea bad?  How about Diet Coke?  Or hot chocolate?  What about mate?  What about camilla tea?  How about a hot chicken broth?  Green tea, white tea, rooibos tea ….[Mike lists about 20 more things]

Hoskinsson responds with this quote from early church member Joe Hills Johnson.

On a Sabbath Day, in the July following the giving of the revelation, when both Joseph and Hyrum Smith were in the stand, the Prophet said to the Saints:  “I understand that some of the people are excusing themselves in using tea and coffee, because the Lord only said ‘hot drinks’ in the revelation of the Word of Wisdom.  The Lord was showing us what was good for man to eat and drink.  Now what do we drink when we take our meals?  Tea and coffee.  Is it not?  Yes, tea and coffee. Then they are what the Lord meanst when He said ‘hot drinks.'”  Brother Hyrum spoke to the same effect.

In response to Mike’s question about Mountain Dew and Monster drinks, obviously those weren’t part of Joseph’s revelation because they didn’t exist.  I agree with Mike here, but it would be interesting to see what Joseph or President McKay would have said in regards to these modern drinks.  Compliance in Missouri wasn’t as strong as it was in Kirtland, though by 1837 “The meeting resolved unanimously that we will not fellowship any ordained member who will or does not observe the Word of Wisdom according to its litteral reading.”109 (emphasis in original).  Both Kirtland and Missouri voted that stores were not to sell liquor, tobacco, coffee or tea.  In Missouri, W.W. Phelps, Lyman Johnson, David and John Whitmer were expelled for not living the Word of Wisdom, among other things (such as selling land in Missouri against the Prophet’s direction) in 1838.  One of the charges against Oliver Cowdery (who was excommunicated also) was failure to observe the Word of Wisdom.

With the Extermination Order issued by Governor Boggs in Missouri, expelling Mormons from the state, the saints moved to Commerce, Illinois, later named Nauvoo by Joseph Smith.  Initial reports in Nauvoo showed that abstinence was the standard though these restrictions began to relax.  Hoskinsson reports that in 1839 Ephraim Owen confessed to not obeying the Word of Wisdom as well as other reports.  In February 15, 1841, the city council passed an ordinance making Nauvoo a “dry town.”

However, this is where relaxation of the Word of Wisdom began.  With the justification that they needed to account for non-LDS gentiles on the banks of the well-traveled waterway of the Mississippi River, later that year on July 12,

Joseph Smith proposed to the city council “that any person in the City of Nauvoo be at liberty to sell vinous liquors in any quantity, subject to the city ordinances.”  [History of the Church, 4, 383]  This ordinance made a distinction between distilled and fermented drinks.  Perhaps continued use of wine for the sacrament may have contributed to this distinction.

A month later, the elder’s quorum president John A. Hicks encouraged members to continue to be faithful in adherence to the Word of Wisdom, including abstinence.  A conference in Leachburg, Pennsylvania encouraged abstinence as well, and disfellowshipment for those that would not abide the Word of Wisdom.  Hyrum Smith gave a sermon in May 1842 (published in the Times and Seasons) that

God “has appointed the word of wisdom as one of the engines to bring about” the restoration of “mankind to their primitive vigour, and health,” and that “the word of wisdom is adapted to the capacity of all that ‘are or can be called saints.'”  He went on to advise the Saints, “Listen not to the teaching of any man, or any elder who ways the word of wisdom if of no moment.”147

This discourse is important for two reasons.  First, this sermon printed in the Improvement Era in 1901,148 and in 1916 and in the Millenial Star.149 Second, it was the first major public sermon that I could find extolling the health benefits of the Word of Wisdom.

However, in May 1842, the prophet Joseph Smith spoke for repeal of the alcohol ordinance and as mayor

told faithful member of the Church Theodore Turley, that he “had no objection to his building a brewery” in Nauvoo.154 …The ordinance passed in July 1842 allowing for the sale of “vinous liquors” in any amount would no doubt have covered the sale of fermented grains, in addition to wines.

While outlying churches kept the strictness of the previous Word of Wisdom, Nauvoo began to relax enforcement of alcohol especially.  In December 1843,

the city council passed an ordinance “that the Mayor of the city [Joseph Smith] be and is hereby authorized to sell or give spirits of any quantity as he in his wisdom shall judge to be for the health and comfort, or convenience of such travelers or other persons as shall visit his house from time to time.”160

Hoskinsson notes that the reasons Nauvoo relaxed standards were due to

  • prominent members not following the Word of Wisdom
  • leaders advising against strict adherence
  • the popular view that coffee, tea, and alcohol could be used for medical reasons

Perhaps some of these play into Mike’s reasons as well.  So, it seems that this is the point at which Word of Wisdom changed from “commandment” to “suggestion” as noted in the first 3 verses of section 89.  However, as noted in this Dialogue article, Brigham Young in 1851 made enforcement of the Word of Wisdom a bigger issue.  The importance of the Word of Wisdom has has times of strong and weak enforcement up until the Heber J. Grant administration, where it has largely stayed the same since the days of Prohibition.  Are you surprised that the Word of Wisdom was this strictly enforced prior to Nauvoo?


6 comments on “Word of Wisdom in First Decade

  1. According to Smith’s fellow prisoner John Taylor, “the prophet requested and drank wine at Carthage Jail the night before his was murdered in 1844.”

  2. Thanks for that. Provides an excellent perspective from history.

  3. @Stephen M (Ethesis)

    And it fits the “line upon line” model of understanding and revelation.

  4. And alcohol was the only medicine/remedy they had at the time, for anxiety and sleep.

  5. Mention this in connection with the last night in Carhtage Prison.

  6. Paul Hoskisson’s argument about the D&C 89 text and first decade is certainly not a settled issue. Scholars of the Joseph Smith papers assert that the first three verses of D&C 89 have always been integral to the text. How strenuously the Word of Wisdom was enforced during the first decade rests on a few isolated cases where enforcement was noted, but says nothing of how widespread the use of alcohol, tobacco, coffee, and tea actually were in that first decade. Given that these are addictive substances, and it took the saints as a whole almost 100 years to slowly stop their widespread use, it is doubtful that all saints gave them up during that first decade. It is a fascinating topic!

    If you are interested, I’ve written quite a bit on the Word of Wisdom, including stories of Latter-day Saints who are trying to better understand and follow the counsel in D&C 89 that goes beyond the well-known prohibitions. My website is: http://discoveringthewordofwisdom.com. My book is Discovering the Word of Wisdom: Surprising Insights from a Whole Food, Plant-based Perspective: http://discoveringthewordofwisdom.com/buy-book/about-the-book/

    What would happen to us if we all took the Lord’s counsel seriously, to eat only “wholesome herbs” [plants], meat sparingly only in times of need, and to make grains the “staff of life”?

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