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   Jim Catano | Review - Mormon Church's dietary code

Review of and commentary on a book chapter on the LDS (Mormon) Church's dietary code known as the Word of Wisdom

by Jim Catano

"Mormonism in Transition--a History of the Latter-day Saints, 1890-1930," University of Illinois Press, 1996 by Thomas G. Alexander examines the development of several Latter-day Saint practices, principles and doctrinal interpretations within the changing social and political context of a 40 year period. It's a bit dry and it's helpful to have a basic background in LDS history and terminology, but this is a highly informative read in terms of content and conclusions.

Alexander is an LDS historian at the church's Brigham Young University and writes from a sympathetic but frank and objective perspective. I'm writing as a Mormon who is also a vegetarian and mildly disappointed that the current LDS Church does not give greater emphasis to its complete health code (known as the Word of Wisdom) specifically the parts which encourage a limited consumption of meat and then only in special circumstances. See my article at


I'm limiting this review to the author's observations about the changing interpretation of the Word of Wisdom during that period and mostly those that deal with meat consumption, but the chapter contains abundant material dealing with other aspects of the Word of Wisdom (restrictions on alcohol, tobacco, coffee and tea) and the role of the LDS Church and members in the national Prohibition debate.

The author begins by putting the Word of Wisdom in a historic context up to 1833 when the revelation was first received from God by LDS Church founder and prophet, Joseph Smith:

"Currently available evidence indicates that adherence to the Word of Wisdom in the nineteenth century was sporadic," (258) and "Some members or groups committed themselves to strict adherence to the Word of Wisdom, but they were doing so as individuals bound to 'a principle with promise.' " (259)

This was pleasing for me to read as it seems very similar to what a small corps of "veggie Mormons" is doing today. The author then examines the question of whether or not the Word of Wisdom is a commandment from God:

"Although Brigham Young declared the Word of Wisdom to be commandment and secured the approval of some of the Saints to that proposition, he announced no revelation on the subject, and actual observance did not coincide with public pronouncement. An 1851 conference and in some cases other conference addresses or reminiscences of addresses are often cited as the date the Word of Wisdom became binding as a commandment. However, during Brigham Young's lifetime, after the conference, he and other church leaders and members failed to observe the Word of Wisdom as we interpret it today. " (259)

That's why I'm not too impressed when someone says, "Well, President Hinckley (the current church leader who is also considered a prophet) eats meat." My response to them is typically, "Well, he's still human, isn't he?"

While I also agree that the Word of Wisdom probably should not strictly be considered a commandment, what the author failed to examine is that the first three verses of Doctrine and Covenants Section 89 (which chronicles the revelation) were added after it was received (see the heading of Section 89). If one begins reading at verse four, it appears to be as much a commandment as anything God has given humankind in recorded scripture. The softening from a "commandment" to a "recommendation" most likely came about because of the resistance of the earliest Latter-day Saints to abandon long-held habits.

Furthermore, most Latter-day Saints just weren't ready for the "full program" then and many apparently still aren't ready now--and that may include me. I can't say that I fully understand and implement the complete revelation especially in regard to how an ideal plant diet should be prepared and consumed. It seems to recommend more fresh produce and grain than I currently eat. Dr. Alexander continues:

"Lorenzo Snow, the president of the Council of the Twelve...believed the Word of Wisdom was a commandment and that it should be carried out to the letter. In doing so, he said, members should be taught to refrain from eating meat except in dire necessity, particularly since Joseph Smith taught that animals have spirits. President Woodruff, then president of the church, said he looked upon the Word of Wisdom as a commandment and that all members should observe it, but for the present, he said, no definite action should be taken except the members should be taught to refrain from the use of meat." (259)

Sadly, the don't-eat-meat-except-in-dire-necessity concept is given very little emphasis in the LDS Church today. However, again showing the divergence of opinion among Mormons on this matter Alexander writes:

"Though it seems clear that some church leaders like Heber J. Grant and Joseph F. Smith insisted upon complete abstinence from tea, coffee, and tobacco, all general authorities did not agree. Lorenzo Snow again emphasized the centrality of not eating meat, and in 1901 John Henry Smith and Brigham Young, Jr., of the Twelve thought that the church ought not interdict beer, or at least not Danish beer." (260)

I got a chuckle out of that--I wonder if it was Heineken. However, it reminded me that my opinion is a good as the next Mormon's in regard to how the Word of Wisdom relates to me especially if I seek the guidance of the Holy Spirit in applying it.

Some current Latter-day Saints become very uncomfortable if they see in others any divergence from the minimum standard the church now teaches which is no alcohol, tobacco or recreational drugs including (relatively recently) all caffeinated drinks. They seem threatened if someone points out that the Word of Wisdom advises a limited consumption of meat--a practice few Mormons follow today. Again illustrating a similar diversity of thought on the matter a century ago Alexander writes:

"We find then a diffuse pattern in observing and teaching the Word of Wisdom in 1900. Some general authorities preached quite consistently against the use of tea, coffee, liquor, tobacco, and meat. None supported drunkenness, and no one insisted on the necessity of vegetarianism. In practice, however they and other members also occasionally drank the beverages which current interpretation would prohibit." (260)

I know of no credible LDS authority who has ever stated that animal flesh cannot be consumed in emergencies. While animals are considered to have divinely created spirits (a doctrine unique to the LDS faith among Christians, I believe) it has always been held that humans are of a higher order and can take animal life if it becomes necessary to preserve human life. Sadly, many Mormons today think bacon and eggs for breakfast, a burger and a milkshake for lunch, and a roast for dinner are somehow "necessary." They've also been programmed to believe that things like obesity, cancer, heart disease, and diabetes are "naturally occurring" conditions.

The author refreshingly illustrates how one lay member's influence can eventually affect the entire church:

"In addition to liquor, tobacco, tea, and coffee, some members of the church urged that the prohibitions of the Word of Wisdom ought to be broader. In March 1917 Frederick J. Pack of the University of Utah published an article in the Improvement Era [an LDS publication] dealing with the question, "Should LDS Drink Coca-Cola?" His answer was no. His argument was not that the Word of Wisdom prohibited such drinks, but that such drinks contained the same drugs as tea and coffee." (267) Prof. Alexander then asks:

"What role did revelation play in the matter? Section 89 of the Doctrine and Covenants was clearly given as a revelation to Joseph Smith. Advice that the members of the church adhere to the word of Wisdom was undoubtedly given under inspiration. There is, however, no contemporary evidence of which I am aware that a separate new revelation was given changing the word of Wisdom from a "principle with promise" to a "commandment" necessary for full participation in all blessings of church membership." (268)

I agree that a full observance of the Word of Wisdom was not then (and is not now) "necessary for full participation in all blessings of church membership," but I wouldn't bet a large sum of money that it isn't necessary to qualify for exaltation in the highest degree of the Celestial Kingdom--the supreme eternal dwelling place in LDS theology (with at least six levels having been identified). This book has reminded me that the LDS Church--then and now--does not always insist that its members strive to that ultimate level possibly because of contemporary cultural limitations. The author concludes:

"Thus the confluence of a number of forces, religious and secular, rather than a single force led to a change in the interpretation of the Word of Wisdom...An understanding of the way in which the current interpretation of the Word of Wisdom developed is significant...since it provides a case study of doctrinal and policy development in the church." (270)

This gives me hope that all the current non-LDS efforts promoting reduced meat consumption may eventually lead the Latter-day Saints to a better understanding and application of their own doctrine. There certainly is a need. Although Mormons benefit statistically from abstaining from alcohol, tobacco and drugs, the LDS population is trending in the wrong direction in reference to diet-related degenerative diseases. The trend lines for heart disease, diabetes and obesity are all moving closer to the national norm. Reducing meat consumption to Word of Wisdom levels would bless Mormons greatly.

And finally, giving credence to the minority of contemporary Latter-day Saints who (like me) believe our grass-roots influence can be felt and shape things within the church, the author states:

"If a study of the interpretation of the Word of Wisdom can tell us anything, it is that such change does not take place in a vacuum." (271)

"Mormonism in Transition" ably illustrates the fascinating societal dynamics that contribute to changes in LDS principles and practices. Thomas Alexander's book is a worthwhile read for all with a serious interest.

Jim Catano

Articles about Mormomism and Vegetarianism


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