This article is part of a series on Discovering the Word of Wisdom. To view all the articles in this series, see Discovering the Word of Wisdom in Meridian Magazine.

Last time I addressed the question of why we aren’t told exactly how to eat in our religion. I suggested the reason is that most of the counsel in D&C 89 is not given as an explicit commandment. The familiar prohibitions of alcohol, tobacco, coffee, and tea have been clarified, but D&C 89 contains much more counsel from the very person who knows best how to nourish our bodies and spirits: our Creator! I concluded by suggesting we’d be wise to pay closer attention to more of the Lord’s advice and not expect to be commanded in all things (D&C 58:26) 

Of course, Church leaders have spoken on many aspects of the Word of Wisdom beyond the well-known prohibitions.[1] They have always encouraged healthy eating, emphasizing wholesome fruits, vegetables, and grains. They have also, though less frequently, commented on the use of animal flesh. I’ll highlight a few of these statements below and then share how some of our prophets have modified their diet in light of the Word of Wisdom.

The Prophet Joseph Smith’s beloved brother, Hyrum Smith, was Patriarch to the Church when he delivered a beautiful address on the Word of Wisdom in 1842. The following is but a small part of his much longer exhortation:

[God] knows what course to pursue to restore mankind to their pristine excellency and primitive vigor, 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 to health, and vigour, promote peace between him and the brute creation. . .

Let men attend to [the Word of Wisdom], let them use the things ordained of God; 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’—and why to be used in famine? because all domesticated animals would naturally die, and may as well be made use of by man, as not.[2]

In 1897, before he became prophet, Apostle Lorenzo Snow spoke with the First Presidency and other Apostles on 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.[3]

A year later, Lorenzo Snow spoke again to his brethren on the Word of Wisdom

[He] drew special attention to that part which relates to the use of meats, which he considered just as strong as that which relates to the use of liquors and hot drinks. He also referred to the revelation which says that he that forbids the use of meat is not of God. . . . Bro. Snow said he 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.[4]

In a 1948 General Conference address entitled “Eat Flesh Sparingly,” Elder Joseph F. Merrill focused specifically on the consumption of meat:

All over the Church the belief is general that the Word of Wisdom is practically observed if the individual abstains from the use of tea, coffee, liquor, and tobacco. But a careful reading of the revelation shows this belief to be erroneous. There is much more to the document than abstention from the use of narcotics. . . . According to what are regarded as the best investigations, the right proportion of protein is generally about 10 percent of the total number of heat units consumed. . . . The foods to be used most sparingly are those which contain a great excess of protein, such as meat, eggs, cheese, and beans. On this account, there are many authorities who think that it would be safer to discard the use of meat altogether than to continue to use it so freely as many Americans are doing.[5]

Although a few Church leaders have emphasized the verses in D&C 89 on the flesh of animals, it is important to remember that the Lord did not make this restriction a mandate for the Church. Rather, the list of prohibitions is clear and short! However, when emphasizing the blessings in the Word of Wisdom, Church leaders often refer to more of the counsel in D&C 89 than just the short list of prohibitions. For example, in a 1979 address to the BYU community, Elder Ezra Taft Benson stated:

There is no question that the health of the body affects the spirit, or the Lord would never have revealed the Word of Wisdom. . . . To a great extent we are physically what we eat. Most of us are acquainted with some of the prohibitions, such as no tea, coffee, tobacco, or alcohol. What needs additional emphasis are the positive aspects—the need for vegetables, fruits, and grains, particularly wheat. In most cases, the closer these can be, when eaten, to their natural state—without over refinement and processing—the healthier we will be. 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 because we overindulge in junk foods. . . . We need a generation of young people who, as Daniel, eat in a more healthy manner than to fare on the “king’s meat”—and whose countenances show it (see Daniel 1).[6]

Gordon B. Hinckley spoke often on the Word of Wisdom, encouraging members to live it more carefully. During the 1990 General Conference, he noted that the Word of Wisdom “proscribes alcohol and tobacco, tea and coffee, and emphasizes the use of fruit and grains.” He added, “This Word of Wisdom came to us from the God of Heaven, for our blessing. I regret that we as a people do not observe it more faithfully.”[7]

Personally, I appreciate the very clear counsel we receive from Church leaders about exactly what we need to do to “keep the Word of Wisdom.” Beyond that, our leaders do not tell us exactly what we should and should not eat. But they do encourage us to study D&C 89 and to use our own judgment in following the counsel we find there. President Hinckley expressed this well during a 1985 General Conference:

We receive numerous letters inquiring whether this item or that item is proscribed by the Word of Wisdom. If we will avoid those things which are definitely and specifically defined, and beyond this observe the spirit of that great revelation, it will not involve a burden. It will, rather, bring a blessing. Do not forget: it is the Lord who has made the promise.[8]

We have our agency. The Lord respects that. Our leaders respect that. We can read the revelation in D&C 89 for ourselves and get our own answers. Beyond the few specific prohibitions, no one is going to mandate what we must eat. But if we wish to know what would please the Lord, He will reveal it to us, line upon line. I have a testimony that observing “the spirit” of this great revelation “will not involve a burden,” as President Hinckley tells us, “It will, rather, bring a blessing.”

Latter-day Saint Leaders, Leading by Example

We know about the efforts of at least a few of our latter-day prophets to emphasize the positive aspects of the Word of Wisdom in their own diet, including eating very little meat.

No modern-day prophet was a greater champion for the Word of Wisdom than President Heber J. Grant. He lived the Word of Wisdom and attributed his excellent health, in part, to eating very little meat. In the 1937 General Conference, at 80 years old, he said he worked long hours “without fatigue and without feeling the least injury.” He explained:

I think that another reason why I have very splendid strength for an old man is that during the years we have had a cafeteria in the Utah Hotel, I have not, with the exception of not more than a dozen times, ordered meat of any kind. On these special occasions I have mentioned I have perhaps had a small, tender lamb chop. I have endeavored to live the Word of Wisdom, and that, in my opinion, is one reason for my good health.[9]

President George Albert Smith was also careful about his consumption of meat. In the 1950 Improvement Era devoted to honoring his 80th birthday, his son-in-law reported:

President Smith’s meals are simple and nourishing. In the summer he eats no meat, and even in the winter months he eats very little.[10]

President Joseph Fielding Smith, like his father Joseph F. Smith, often expressed concern for animals, believing them to be eternal creatures that would be resurrected to a state of glory.[11] In 1970, his wife, Jessie Evans Smith, reported, “My husband doesn’t eat meat. . . . We eat lots of fruits and vegetables.”[12]

President Ezra Taft Benson’s son said that his father, “In his personal life, was sparing in his use of meat and generous in his use of fresh vegetables and grains.” [13]

In an unforgettable 1978 General Conference, President Spencer W. Kimball shared cherished songs from his youth including In Our Lovely Deseret, penned by Eliza R. Snow. He quoted this lovely pioneer hymn, which includes the words:

That the children may live long And be beautiful and strong,

Tea and coffee and tobacco they despise, Drink no liquor, and they eat

But a very little meat;

They are seeking to be great and good and wise. (Hymn #307, emphasis added)

Immediately after sharing line five, President Kimball interjected, “I still don’t eat very much meat.”[14] He went on in this address and in the next Conference address to share his “feelings concerning the unnecessary shedding of blood and destruction of [animal] life.”[15]

These men did not wait for an official Church pronouncement to try to adjust their diet to be more in harmony with the wisdom of D&C 89. Nor as prophets did they mandate that all Church members make the same decision. We are each left to decide how we wish to interpret and implement the wise counsel in Section 89.

Recent Counsel

In a powerful address given in the October 2013 General Conference entitled, “Decisions for Eternity,” Elder Russell M. Nelson reminded us that our bodies are a “vital part of God’s eternal plan.” He taught that the decisions we make in how we care for and use our bodies will “determine your destiny” because “your body is the temple for your spirit. And how you use your body affects your spirit.”[16] He goes on to say

A pivotal spiritual attribute is that of self-mastery—the strength to place reason over appetite. . . . When we master our appetites within the bounds of God’s laws, we can enjoy longer life, greater love, and consummate joy.[16]

What a glorious doctrine! By mastering our appetites we can take good care of the priceless gift God has given us and invite His Spirit to dwell with us. Let us remember that when we choose how we eat, we are making “decisions for eternity.”

Next Time in Discovering the Word of Wisdom

With 21 verses of dietary counsel in the Word of Wisdom, why are the prohibitions the ones most emphasized? Why is this the only part of the Word of Wisdom that many Saints know? Next time I will explore this topic.

Jane Birch is the author of Discovering the Word of Wisdom: Surprising Insights from a Whole Food, Plant-based Perspective and many articles on the Word of Wisdom. She can be contacted on her website, Discovering the Word of Wisdom.


[1] You can find examples on The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints website. Type the following into the search box, including the quote marks: “word of wisdom” and vegetables.

[2] Hyrum Smith, “The Word of Wisdom” in Times and Seasons 3, no. 15 (June 1, 1842): 799–801.

[3] Church Historian’s Office, Journal History of the Church (March 11, 1897): 2.

[4] Church Historian’s Office, Journal History of the Church (May 5, 1898): 2–3.

[5] Joseph F. Merrill, “Eat Flesh Sparingly,” Conference Report (Salt Lake City: The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, April 1948): 70–75.

[6] Ezra Taft Benson, “In His Steps,” BYU Devotional (1979).

[7] Gordon B. Hinckley, “Mormon Should Mean ‘More Good,’” Ensign (November 1990): 51.

[8] Gordon B. Hinckley, “Let Us Move This Work Forward,” Ensign (November 1985) 85.

[9] Heber J. Grant, Annual Conference Report (Salt Lake City: The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, April 4, 1937), 15.

[10] Robert Murray Stewart, “A Normal Day in the Home of George Albert Smith,” Improvement Era (April, 1950): 287.

[11] Gerald E. Jones, Concern for Animals as Manifest in Five American Churches: Bible Christian, Shaker, Latter-day Saint, Christian Scientist and Seventh-Day Adventist (PhD diss., Brigham Young University, 1972), 115–118.

[12] “Jessie Evans Smith’s Ninety-Minute Bread,” Improvement Era (April 1970): 59.

[13] Paul H. Peterson, “The Sanctity of Food: A Latter-day Saint Perspective,” in Religious Educator 2, no. 1 (Provo, UT: BYU Religious Studies Center, 2001), 41.

[14] Spencer W. Kimball, “Strengthening the Family—the Basic Unit of the Church,” Ensign (May 1978).

[15] Spencer W. Kimball, “Fundamental Principles to Ponder and Live,” General Conference (October 1978).

[16] Russell M. Nelson, “Decisions for Eternity,” General Conference (October 2013).