Word of Wisdom: the Forgotten Verses
by Jim Catano
Most of the quotes by LDS leaders appear in longer citations recorded in Dr. Kenneth Johnson's wonderful book, Mormon Wisdom and Health formerly titled The Word of Wisdom Food Plan.
This talk was originally presented at the Northern Utah Health and Nutrition Conference on November 8, 1997 in Ogden, Utah.
A Path Begins
On an autumn day in 1992, I was stretched out on a sofa in front of the TV set feeling ill. I routinely suffered four or five cold or flu episodes each year and this was one of those times. Television can be an intellectual desert, but on that day a Dr. Marc Sorenson was being interviewed about his book MegaHealth. He was suggesting that a total vegetarian diet could not only reverse obesity and provide immunity against many infections but also drastically reduce the incidence of several degenerative diseases including diabetes, allergies, arthritis, heart disease and even cancer. He was so bold as to suggest that, in many cases, a plant-based diet could actually cure these modern plagues.
I probably would have dismissed his arguments except that what he was saying seemed, at the time, to be vaguely consistent with a health code that is part of my religious experience. That code is known as the Word of Wisdom among members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints who are also called Mormons. The Church is commonly referred to as the LDS Church.
LDS Doctrines Relating to Human Health
A core belief for Latter-day Saints is that God speaks to individuals in the present day so they can be beneficiaries of divine revelation to guide their lives. The person who has been called to lead the Church as its president is regarded as a modern prophet who passes general revelations along to the Church at large. As such, modern prophets fulfill the same function as the prophets of Biblical times in that they communicate the will of God to humankind regarding its current circumstances.
Mormons believe that in 1833 God gave by divine revelation to the first of these modern prophets, Joseph Smith, Jr. a health code that came to be known as the Word of Wisdom. Some might question why a health code, something that seems more earthly than spiritual, should be part of a religious observance in the first place. Mormon theology is consistent with a health code for several reasons.
First, the Mormon cosmology, or the Mormon view of the nature of the universe, does not divide the physical from the spiritual as separate or conflicting elements. In fact, in an 1830 LDS revelation, the Lord is quoted as saying, "...all things unto me are spiritual, and not at any time have I given unto you a law which was temporal..." (Doctrine and Covenants 29:34)
In such a context, the physical becomes a sub-set, or a small part of, the larger realm which is spiritual so that all of God's laws take on a spiritual significance even if they are concerned with seemingly temporal things like food or physical health. LDS doctrine is quite specific about the importance of overcoming earthly appetites especially those that lead to over-consumption, compulsion and which can be detrimental to health thereby causing physical and consequently spiritual damage.
Lifespan-Can I Lengthen "My Turn on Earth?"
Another aspect of LDS theology which supports a health code is that the time allotted on earth for this mortal life is absolutely critical to individual spiritual progression and must be used wisely. A verse recorded in the Book of Mormon, which is a companion volume to the Bible recorded in ancient America, says "...wo unto him...that wasteth the days of his probation, for awful is his state!" (2 Nephi 9:27)
It is believed that the first fully human inhabitants of earth, Adam and Eve, could have lived indefinitely inside the Garden of Eden had they not transgressed a commandment that had to do with what they chose to eat. Even after having been driven from the garden, however, Adam and Eve and their descendants down to Noah seemed to enjoy a maximum life span of almost 1,000 years. The eldest was Methuselah who is reported to have died at 969 years of age. Just before the Great Flood, however, God announced to Noah that after the flood the life span of man would be further reduced "...yet his days shall be an hundred and twenty years." (Genesis 6:3)
Only in a few remote places on earth today do people attain the age of 120 with any regularity. In our so-called sophisticated, medically advanced society, average life span is little more than 75 years. Interestingly, a Biblical psalmist recorded 2,400 years ago, and some 1,500 years after the flood, that life spans were then down to "threescore years and ten," which is 70 (a score being 20) "...and if by reason of strength they be fourscore years" or 80 "yet is their strength labour and sorrow, for it is soon cut off, and we fly away." (Psalms 90:10)
Isn't it fascinating that a psalmist lamented that his people were only living from 70 to 80 years, a life span typical of our modern era. Maybe that's what Brigham Young, the second prophet of the LDS Church who led the pioneer saints across the plains, had in mind when he said, "It is an unusual circumstance to see a man a hundred years old, or a woman ninety. The people have laid the foundation of short life through their diet." (Discourses of Brigham Young, p. 187)
Is a life span of 120 years realistically attainable in these days? Credible, current, scientific research shows that not only is it possible but, if we are willing to pay the price by strictly monitoring what we put into our mouths and other lifestyle choices, we can actually enjoy our extended years in vibrant health while engaging in a full range of activities we now associate with youth or with middle age.
The quest for a longer, healthier life is fully consistent with the LDS view of mortality being a probationary period that is not to be wasted but used joyfully and in service to others and in preparation to meet God. Other LDS doctrines embody the principles of stewardship and accountability being given and expected of the children of God concerning their bodies as well as with their other possessions and gifts.
Is This a Question of "Right and Wrong" or Degrees?
An interesting aspect of LDS theology is that many things are considered to be on a continuum rather than in a cut and dried, black or white, right or wrong dichotomy. For example, in the LDS view of eternity there is no one Heaven or one Hades into which all of humanity is sent to either enjoy endless bliss or suffer eternal torment. Rather, the two spheres of paradise and hell are temporary abodes which immediately follow death where most spirits continue to prepare for an eternity in which there is a wide-range of dwelling places each with a greater or lesser degree of light, knowledge and reward.
With that in mind, it is easier to understand why the LDS Church is not especially heavy-handed in its enforcement of principles like the Word of Wisdom health code. While it is true that tobacco or alcohol users cannot hold most Church offices or attend special non-Sabbath day services in LDS temples, the dietary aspects of the Word of Wisdom are left up to individuals to discover for themselves when they become ready.
This tolerant atmosphere allows for a greater exercise of individual agency--another vital LDS principle. Someone who is out of conformance on an issue like the Word of Wisdom, therefore, is not so much considered a candidate for eternal torment but an unfortunate soul who is missing out on the blessings and rewards, both earthly and eternal, that come from adherence. Possibly, this is why Church leaders are only gradually making adherence to the Word of Wisdom an expected component of LDS behavior.
Has Emphasis on the Word of Wisdom Ever Changed?
Obviously, in 1833 there wasn't much scientific evidence to reinforce the wisdom of abstinence from coffee and black tea (referred to as hot drinks in the revelation) and tobacco and alcohol. In fact, the popular notion was that those products offered more benefit than they did harm. Many Church members were overwhelmed by the major sacrifices they were being called on to make. One can imagine how these seemingly meaningless restrictions, but ones that required dropping lifelong habits, met with resistance. Soon after it was revealed, Joseph Smith felt the need to soften the impact of the Word of Wisdom by adding an introduction. The first three verses added after-the-fact and recorded in Section 89 of the book of Doctrine and Covenants then invited Word of Wisdom observance, "not by commandment or constraint" but by "greeting." (D&C 89:2)
Gradually, as more emphasis was given to this revelation, a minimum standard of abstinence from the four listed stimulants and depressants was adopted, and the Word of Wisdom was eventually accepted as binding on the Church membership through a vote of common consent. However, adherence has rarely been enforced by any strict disciplinary measures.
Are Mormons Ready to Step Up?
In my opinion (and I repeat that this is not in any way an official policy of the Church), it seems that Latter-day Saints may now be poised to embark on an even higher level of compliance to the principles of the Word of Wisdom. During a semi-annual world conference, the current president and prophet, Gordon B. Hinckley, admonished, "We must observe the Word of Wisdom. As we read our newspapers, as we watch the television news, these remarkable words first spoken in 1833 come to life before our very eyes...People are becoming more health conscious. We have a running start on the world, a code so simple and easily understood." (Ensign, November 1997, pg. 69)
President Hinckley went on to show that even the current level of compliance to the Word of Wisdom affords an additional 10 years of life to Mormons who don't smoke or drink alcohol. I note, however, that this still falls far short of the 120 years possible for humans. One very disturbing trend is that Latter-day Saints are succumbing to degenerative illnesses like heart disease and cancer in ever increasing numbers (see the graphic in Church News, October 25, 1995, p. 12). I'll grant that other environmental factors also play a part, but Mormons could do much better with the variables that are within their control. President Hinckley had stated previously, "I regret that we as a people do not live [the Word of Wisdom] more fully." (Ensign, May 1990, p. 51)
Mormons believe in seeking individual inspiration to confirm that which is spoken from the pulpit. Therefore, it behooves each Latter-day Saint to prayerfully ask him or herself, "Is President Hinckley suggesting that I pay more attention to verses 10 through 15 of the Word of Wisdom?" Those passages in Doctrine and Covenants Section 89 read:
"...all wholesome herbs," or plants as the footnote explains, "God hath ordained for the constitution, nature and use of man--
"Every herb in the season thereof, and every fruit in the season thereof; all these to be used with prudence and thanksgiving.
"Yea, flesh also of beasts and of the fowls of the air, I , the Lord, have ordained for the use" and please note--NOT for the constitution, nature and use as was said of the plants but merely for the use "of man with thanksgiving, nevertheless they are to be used sparingly;
"and it is pleasing unto me that they should not be used, only in times of winter, or of cold, or famine.
"All grain is ordained for the use of man and of beasts, to be the staff of life, not only for man but for the beasts of the field, and all wild animals that run or creep on the earth;
"And these" in repetition of the admonition to limit the eating of animal flesh "God made for the use of man only in times of famine and excess of hunger."
Historic Baggage and the Current Social Climate
Despite the fact that the Word of Wisdom was recorded in 1833, the economic evolution of the American West brought many early Latter-day Saints, like their neighbors, into the livestock and dairy trades. This continues to this day, and I count several of those good, hard-working, honest people as friends. However, as more Americans move away from meat and dairy products in favor of healthier options, it will certainly bring more financial hardship on these good people whose careers are wholly dedicated to and whose fortunes are sometimes completely invested into land and equipment to raise livestock. I, for one, wish them the very best as they strive to find better uses for their lands and their energies.
I state firmly that no Latter-day Saint who has made a change for better health has the right to judge harshly others who have not. Each is on the path at a different point and the decision to move ahead, backward or to stay put is strictly an individual one. I also state emphatically, however, that the idea of not eating the flesh of animals except for emergencies has NOT gone completely unstressed in LDS teaching since 1833.
Hyrum Smith-Removing "Beastly Appetites"
Hyrum Smith, brother of the prophet Joseph and Patriarch to the Church, wrote in 1842 in the Times and Seasons, which was then an official Church publicationů "God...knows what course to pursue to restore mankind to...pristine excellency and primitive vigour, and health; and He has appointed the Word of Wisdom as one of the engines to bring about this thing, to remove the beastly appetites, the murderous disposition and the vitiated taste of man, to restore his body and vigour, promote peace between him and the brute creation, and as one of the little wheels in God's design, to help to regulate the great machinery, which shall eventually," and I call your attention to the word 'eventually,' "revolutionize the earth, and bring about the restoration of all things." (Times and Seasons 3:799-801)
He went on to say, "let them be sparing of the life of animals" it sounds like for Hyrum it went beyond just a matter of just human physical health, doesn't it? "let them be sparing of the life of animals, it is pleasing saith the Lord that flesh be used only in times of winter, or of famine."
Hyrum wrote in summation, "Let these things be adhered to; let us lay aside our folly and abide by the commandments of God; so shall we be blessed of the great Jehovah in time and eternity; we shall be healthy, strong and vigorous; we shall be enabled to resist disease; and wisdom will crown our councils, and our bodies will become strong and powerful, our progeny will become mighty, and will rise up and call us blessed.... We shall prepare ourselves for the purposes of Jehovah." (Times & Seasons 3:799-801)
Hyrum's position is completely consistent with that of his brother, the Prophet Joseph Smith, who edited certain Bible passages to correct inaccuracies he said occurred because of mistranslations over time. One of particular interest is found in Genesis which in today's biblical versions seems to suggest that the vegetarian diet practiced for 2,500 years by Adam and the other ancient patriarchs was replaced by God with an omnivorous diet in the time of Noah. However, Joseph Smith added a clear cautionary warning to the text. Genesis 9: 11 of the Joseph Smith Translation (found on page 797 of the current LDS biblical index section) reads, "...surely, blood shall not be shed, only for meat, to save your lives; and the blood of every beast will I require at your hands."
Brigham Young-Blunt Counsel to Bless Lives
Unfortunately, the prophetic vision of Joseph and Hyrum Smith was not quickly fulfilled. In 1855, Brigham Young chastised the saints by saying, "The fathers and mothers have laid the foundation for many of these diseases, from generation to generation, until the people are reduced to their present condition.... The people have laid the foundation of short life through their diet, their rest, their labor, and their doing this, that, and the other in a wrong manner, with improper motives, and at improper times. I would be glad to tell mothers how to lay the foundation of health in their children, that they may be delivered.... Some say that 'this is a miserable world, I do not care how soon I get through.' Well, go and destroy yourselves, if you choose; you have all the opportunity that you can desire...Latter-day Saints who live merely to get ready to die are not worth much; rather get ready to live, and be prepared to live to the glory of your Father in Heaven and to do the work He has given you to do." (Journal of Discourses 2:269-71)
George Q. Cannon-"Their Old Traditions Cling to Them"
A quorum of 12 apostles helps direct the affairs of the LDS Church, and in 1892, Apostle and First Counselor George Q. Cannon stated, "Our religion impresses upon us the importance of taking care of our bodies. There is a carelessness and an indifference even among us that are not found among many well-informed people in the world. Many of the Saints do not seem to be alive to the importance of those laws which pertain to well-being and preservation of the health and strength of the body. Their old traditions cling to them." (Juvenile Instructor 27, May 15, 1892, pp. 690-91)
Elder Cannon understood human psychology and knew how difficult it is to change old habits (at least until we form new ones which then become rather easy to maintain). He saw the importance of having a personal testimony of the truth of principles before they can be easily implemented. He stated, "If I do not see the evils that result from eating meats to excess, and the benefits that would result from abstaining, what anybody else may see would only have a temporary effect upon me. I must feel in my own heart that it is injurious to me to indulge in these things; there must be a well settled conviction within me that this is the case." (Journal of Discourses 12:44-45)
Elder Cannon also knew that one of the techniques we humans resort to in order to talk ourselves out of following the word of God is rationalization. He said, "The question arises...'What then are we to eat if we drop swine's flesh'," (note: several of the early saints, like the Children of Israel, did not eat pig flesh at all) " 'What then are we to eat if we drop swine's flesh and eat very little beef or mutton...why, dear me, we shall starve to death.' In conversation with one of the brethren the other day, the brother remarked 'the diet of the poor is principally bread and meat, and if they dispense with meat, they will be reduced to very hard fare.' I reasoned with him...that other articles of food could be raised more cheaply and in greater variety than the flesh of animals. It is an exceedingly difficult thing for most people to break off and discontinue cherished and long standing habits." But Elder Cannon also emphasized the benefits, "We can have variety in diet, and yet have simplicity. We can have a diet that will be easily prepared, and yet have it healthful. We can have a diet that will be tasteful, nutritious and delightful to us and easy to digest..." (Journal of Discourses 12:221-4)
Lorenzo Snow-Seeing the Entire Revelation
Other prophets and apostles have been less publicly vocal than Elder Cannon yet carried the same convictions within themselves. Concerning the Word of Wisdom, Lorenzo Snow is reported to have paid "special attention to that part which relates to the use of meat, which he considered just as strong as that which related to the use of liquors and hot drinks." Elder Snow "was convinced that the killing of animals when unnecessary was wrong and sinful, and that it was not right to neglect one part of the Word of Wisdom and be too strenuous in regard to other parts." (Journal History, 5 May 1893, pp. 2-3)
One hundred years ago, in a meeting of the church leadership, then-Apostle Lorenzo Snow "introduced the subject of the Word of Wisdom, expressing the opinion that it was violated as much or more in the improper use of meat as in other things, and thought the time was near at hand when the Latter-day Saints should be taught to refrain from meat eating and the shedding of animal blood." (Journal History, 11 March 1897 p. 2) Maybe the time Lorenzo Snow foresaw a century ago is now upon us now.
Joseph F. Smith-Putting Hunting for "Fun" in Perspective
Several prophets have spoken out against sport hunting. Joseph F. Smith said in 1913, "I do not believe any man should kill animals or birds unless he 'needs' them for food...I think it is wicked for men to thirst in their souls to kill almost everything which possess life. It is wrong, and I have been surprised at prominent men who I have seen whose very souls seemed to be athirst for the shedding of animal blood. They go off hunting deer, antelope, elk, anything they can find, and what for? 'Just for the fun of it!' I am a firm believer... in the simple words of one of the poets: 'Take not away the life you cannot give, for all things have an equal right to live'." (Juvenile Instructor 48:309)
In a later statement that was quoted again by two other prophets, President Joseph F. Smith said, "We are a part of life and should study carefully our relationship to it. We should be in sympathy with it, and not allow our prejudices to create a desire for its destruction. The unnecessary destruction of life begets a spirit of destruction which grows within the soul. It lives by what it feeds upon and robs man of the love that he should have for the works of God. It hardens the heart of man... The unnecessary destruction of life is a distinct spiritual loss to the human family. Men cannot worship the Creator and look with careless indifference upon his creation. The love of all life helps man to the enjoyment of a better life. ...Love of nature is akin to the love of God, the two are inseparable." (Juvenile Instructor, April 1918, p. 182-3)
Heber J. Grant-an Example of Good Health
Back to the subject of human health, President Heber J. Grant stated, "I think that another reason I have very splendid strength for an old man is that during the years we have had a cafeteria... I have not, with exception of not more than a dozen times, ordered meat of any kind. ...I have endeavored to live the Word of Wisdom and that, in my opinion, is one reason for my good health." (Conference Report, April 1937, p. 15)
John A. Widstoe-Adding the Confirmation of Science
One of the most brilliant scholars to ever serve in the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles was John A. Widtsoe who had the additional perspective of a scientist as to the merits of a plant-based diet. He wrote in a book on the Word of Wisdom, "It was shown in the history of plant science that plants contain all the necessary food substances: proteins, fats, starches and the carbohydrates, minerals...water [and] vitamins. The Great builder of the earth provided well for the physical needs of His children. Countless varieties of edible plants, vegetables, cereals, fruits and nuts are yielded by Mother Nature for man's daily food. If one uses meat it must be used sparingly and in winter or famine only.... They who wish to be well and gain the promised reward stated in the Word of Wisdom must obey all of the law, not just part of it as suits their whim or their appetite, or their notion of its meaning." (The Word of Wisdom, a Modern Interpretation, 1950)
Just as it was 50 years ago, some Church members today still resist a full embrace of the principles of their divinely inspired health code. Sadly, some even resent the efforts of others who attempt to rise above the current LDS cultural norm, and they sometimes label as "fanatics" those who try to pursue a higher course. In defense of those Latter-day Saints who have a special awareness of health and nutrition, Elder Widtsoe said, "one with an intelligent interest in food and good life habits is in no sense a faddist or 'crank.' Indeed, every one should have such a sound fundamental knowledge of nutrition." (The Word of Wisdom, a Modern Interpretation, 1950)
David O. McKay-Warning Against the Path of Least Resistance
Of course, it is always easier to walk the path of the majority and to turn deaf ears to that which might make one appear different from others. President David O. McKay said, however, "Too many members move along the lines of least resistance and yield to a craving appetite developed by disobedience to the Word of Wisdom of God, thus depriving themselves of spiritual as well as physical strength... Neither the Church nor the world at large can hear too much about the Word of Wisdom." (Improvement Era, 1953, p. 376)
Joseph Fielding Smith-a Quiet Example
Be aware that LDS people who choose to abandon the eating of animal flesh in search of better health and peace with the animal kingdom do not walk that path alone. President Joseph Fielding Smith's wife, Jesse Evans Smith, said, "my husband doesn't eat meat" and he felt a "disdain of meat and (a) love of vegetables." (Brigham Young University Daily Universe, May 6, 1971, p. 1)
Ezra Taft Benson-Seeking a "Daniel" Generation
Ezra Taft Benson, who became not only president of the Church but had also served as the U.S. Secretary of Agriculture in the Eisenhower administration, has been described similarly during his later years by his private nurse, a personal friend of mine. President Benson had said, "In general, the more food we eat in its natural state and the less it is refined without additives, the healthier it will be for us." (Ensign 4:66, 1974)
Elder Benson obviously felt some frustration about how well Americans do in their eating habits because he once observed, "To a significant degree, we are an overfed and undernourished nation digging an early grave with our teeth, and lacking the energy that could be ours.... We need a generation of young people who, as Daniel, eat in a more healthy manner than to fare on the 'kings meat' ---and whose countenances show it." (Teachings of Ezra Taft Benson pp. 476-7) His reference, of course, is to the biblical Daniel who, as a student in the Babylonian royal court, opted for simple vegetarian food and whose superior health quickly became visible to others. See Daniel, Chapter 1 in the Old Testament or the wonderful account in Antiquities of the Jews by Josephus, Book 10, Chapter 10, verses 1-2 for details.
President Benson also remarked, "There is no question that the health of the body affects the spirit, or the Lord would never have revealed the Word of Wisdom.... Disease, fever and unexpected deaths are some of the consequences directly related to disobedience.... To a great extent, we are physically what we eat. Most of us are acquainted with some of the prohibitions of the Word of Wisdom...but what need additional emphasis are the positive aspects---the need for vegetables, fruits, and grain, particularly wheat. We need a generation of people who eat in a healthier manner." (Ensign, September 1988, p. 5)
What's Different About Our Day?
Nearly from the beginning of history there have been those who employ corruption for their own economic or political gain. The problem, according to Section 89, would continue to exist in our times. "In consequence of evils and designs which do and will exist in the hearts of conspiring men in the last days, I have warned you, and forewarn you, by giving you this word of wisdom..." Was that additional 1833 'forewarning' meant specifically for us today? If so, are Mafia bosses, drug cartel gangsters, and alcohol and cigarette executives the only "conspiring men" who operate in our society? Is it possible that others may have respectable titles with legitimate companies? Is it possible that anyone who promotes a product which creates an habitual appetite or that is not health-giving is, at best, an unwitting accomplice of the conspirators? Is it possible to not be an evil person and yet be an ally to the conspiracy? Is, for example, the heart surgeon who performs what amounts to Roto-Rootor service on people's arteries only to watch them go out and plug them up again and never teaches them to abandon their high fat diet an "accessory" to a conspiracy? Are medical schools that continue to superficially teach nutrition and prevention really part of the problem rather than the solution? I'm not answering these questions. I'm merely asking them. It's up to you to find the answers.
However, if you are looking for evidence of what President Hinckley was talking about in October 1997 General Conference, you may want to go back through that stack of newspapers and magazines in your garage. While the advertisements from the cattle, dairy and egg industries continue to suggest that for breakfast you need some "incredible, edible eggs" and "beef is what's for dinner" and, heaven forbid, don't forget to ask if you've "got milk?" the news and feature stories in those publications are almost all telling you the exact opposite.
Almost daily there is an article and sometimes several that preach the wisdom of eating less fat, cutting down on meat or dairy, the dangers of food poisoning from animal products, etc. The press is getting it right this time, and President Hinckley, as is typical of his wisdom, seems to be turning the educational process over to church members themselves. There is less need to preach from LDS pulpits that which is becoming obvious to all who will open their minds and their hearts and will ask in the name of Jesus Christ for the self-discipline to change lifelong and vainly cherished habits.
Does D&C Section 49 Cancel Section 89?
If you choose to tread a similar path, be aware that you will encounter some Latter-day Saints who will ignorantly criticize you because they do not understand Section 49 of the Doctrine and Covenants and try to make it justify their own flesh-eating habits. They forget that this section was given two years before the Word of Wisdom (Section 89) and can't see that 49:18 is actually a warning to those who would prohibit others from abstaining from eating flesh rather than a condemnation of those who do abstain.
There is understandable reason for honest confusion on this point. First, there is an error in a footnote in the present edition of the LDS scriptures which suggests that "biddeth" means "forbiddeth." However, just as "left" surely does not mean "right," nor does "good" mean "bad," to "bid" someone does not mean the same as to "forbid" someone. "I bid you to come to my house" is the exact opposite of "I forbid you to come to my house." The inaccurate footnote prompts us to incorrectly believe that the person who asks another to abstain from meats is not ordained of God. However, the original scripture (which was published for 148 years without that footnote) teaches that he who forbids others to abstain from meats is the one who is not ordained of God. Furthermore, if forbid really meant bid it would alter 49:15 to also condemn "whoso 'biddeth' to marry."
Another component of the confusion is that some readers believe the clause "that man should not eat the same" is some sort of quotation by an imagined and unidentified vegetarian heretic. I suggest that it is really a modifying clause that clarifies what it means to "abstain from meats." In other words, the passage could be interpreted, "Whoever forbids others to abstain from meats, "others" being those who believe that humans should not eat animal flesh, is not ordained of God to forbid them." This is consistent with the context of the rest of the section that instructed a non-LDS, Shaker community how it might modify its beliefs to be consistent with Mormon theology. On some points Shaker and LDS doctrine were poles apart, but on the this point Joseph Smith seems to have been telling the vegetarian Shakers that they would not be compelled by LDS leaders to eat meat if they were to convert to Mormonism.
This interpretation is fully consistent with verse 19 which says that the beasts, the fowls, and "that which cometh of the earth" are all ordained to provide food and clothing. Logically, isn't it much more productive to shear a sheep each year for wool than to kill it and have the use of its body only once? Doesn't it make more sense to use your ox to pull your wagon and your plow and provide fertilizer for your crops year after year than to kill it and use its body only once? Don't chickens and other fowl provide effective on-going pest control when allowed to live and patrol the farm? I can only speculate that "that which cometh OF the earth" may refer to earthworms, bacteria and other life forms within the soil that one would never eat directly but are vital to the successful growth of plants which, in turn, become a better direct source of food and fiber than the dead bodies animals.
On such a self-sustaining farm people can "have in abundance," as 49:20 recommends, as there would be more production allowing for a greater and more even distribution of temporal resources. Remember the words of George Q. Cannon who explained that, "other articles of food could be raised more cheaply and in greater variety than the flesh of animals." It takes from 5 to 12 pounds of grain when fed to livestock to produce one pound of meat. What better way for all to have abundantly than for humans to be eating the grain directly thus creating food for 5 to 12 times as many people. Wouldn't that go a long way toward establishing a Zion society and eliminating the inequities of a worldly system in which one man "possess that which is above another?"
Only by interpreting these verses in this way is verse 21 consistent with the rest. It reads, "Wo be unto man that sheddeth blood or that wasteth flesh and hath no need." Less than two years after, in Section 89, the Lord gave the guidelines as to when those situations of "need" occur which are "only in times of famine and excess of hunger."
My Personal Choice and Testimony
In November of 1992, I decided to take the Word of Wisdom at face value. I gradually gave up eating meat and had just one bite of turkey on the next two Thanksgivings to prove to my grown children that I had not become a "fanatic." Since then, however, I guess I have become a "fanatic" and have given up eating all forms of animal flesh. I try to avoid dairy products and eat eggs only occasionally. Like Joseph F. Smith, I have come to believe that a loving Creator is concerned with the welfare of all his living creations and not just His human spirit-children. I believe that the Lord prefers that we kill and eat animals only to save our lives in true emergencies. If I am ever confronted with famine, I will certainly consider eating animal flesh just as the Word of Wisdom allows.
I don't believe, however, that what I call "the cold weather escape clause" (D&C 89:13) currently applies to me. According to the thermostats on the wall of my home, office, in my car, and everywhere else I go, for all my body knows it lives on a subtropical island year round. I certainly don't have the excuse of the pioneer saints who had below-zero winds blowing through the chinks of their poorly heated cabins. Eating meat for them may have been essential for survival. It certainly is NOT for me.
I am a witness that health improves when one abandons the standard American diet in favor of one based on a more literal reading of the Word of Wisdom. Those four or five yearly colds and bouts of flu don't visit me any more. Occasionally, if I feel symptoms coming on, I take a clove of garlic and a few herbs and in the morning the symptoms are gone. I no longer suffer chronic low-back and neck pain. A case of plantar's warts that plagued me for almost ten years, despite using every medical treatment available, disappeared within three months after changing my diet. People who haven't seen me in some time think I've discovered a reverse-aging process, and those who don't know me are surprised to learn that I'm a grandfather as most think I'm in my mid 30's. I now weigh what I did in high school, the wrinkles around my eyes have lessened, and even my hair texture has improved.
Nevertheless, I am also very much aware that I'm in still the process of learning the full meaning of the Word of Wisdom. I sense that I'm on that continuum spoken of earlier and that I'm taking small steps towards a higher goal I still can't even fully see. I cannot say, for instance, that I always grow or select, combine and prepare my plant-based foods in the most health-giving way or eat them in the ideal amounts.
I also realize that the current Word of Wisdom is a "scaled down" version of what a loving Father in Heaven would give us if we were capable of living it. Verse 3 of Section 89 clearly declares that this revelation has been, "adapted" (and that, of course, means that it has been modified) "to the capacity of the weakest of all saints." My desire is to implement this "adapted" version of the health code and then be willing to advance to the Lord's full-blown version when it becomes available.
All Enjoy the Freedom of Agency
I once felt compelled by certain circumstances to ask the First Presidency of the Church if my vegetarian lifestyle was consistent with current LDS doctrine. Understandably, their response is not a wholesale endorsement of vegetarianism, but I received a letter that states, "If members of the Church prefer not to eat meat, that is their privilege." That brief statement makes it clear to me that the free exercise of individual agency is alive and well in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Its members are taught correct principles and allowed to govern themselves, and they are given new and higher principles as they are mentally and spiritually prepared to take the next step.
Let us remember the words of Isaiah, "Whom shall he teach knowledge? and whom shall he make to understand doctrine? them that are weaned from milk, and drawn from the breasts. For precept must be upon precept, precept upon precept; line upon line, line upon line; here a little, there a little." (Isaiah 28:9,10) I take great joy in seeing the gradual, line upon line fulfillment of an 1833 prophetic prescription for health in my own life and in the lives of my family members and friends.
Do You Believe These Promises?
There comes a time when all Latter-day Saints must ask themselves if they really believe the words they claim to have been inspired by God. Doctrine & Covenants 89: 18-21 makes these promises:
"...all saints who remember to keep and do these sayings, walking in obedience to the commandments," (let us NEVER forget that this is NOT just about food) "shall receive health in their navel and marrow to their bones;
"and shall find wisdom and great treasures of knowledge, even hidden treasures;" (and I take that to mean that there are some things about the Word of Wisdom, the Gospel of Christ, and about ourselves that we can NOT possibly know until we become exact in our performance of that principle.)
"and shall run and not be weary, and shall walk and not faint," (and how many Latter-day Saints beyond their early 20's can currently pass that test?)
"and I, the Lord, give unto them a promise, that the destroying angel shall pass by them, as the children of Israel, and not slay them."
Most current Latter-day doctrinal instruction focuses on spiritual salvation. Based on the Word of Wisdom, however, it seems that those who follow the exact truths of this divinely inspired prophecy will also be given a shield against the sword of the angel of destruction even unto their "temporal salvation." (Doctrine & Covenants 89:2)
Elder George Q. Cannon warned, "Pestilence of various kinds which we are led to expect through the word of the Lord are yet to break forth...will have their effect in calling the Saints' attention to those laws of life and health." (Juvenile Instructor 27, May 15, 1892, pp. 690-1) I personally believe that those plagues may have already begun to unfold as the infectious and degenerative illnesses of our times, but Elder Cannon summarized the joyous antidote to this ominous specter. "This revealed Word of Wisdom embodies the most advanced principles of science in the condemnation of unclean or gluttonous appetites; and if it were implicitly obeyed by the human family, it would be a power to aid in a physical redemption of the race."
I believe he was right. Do you?