This article is part of a series on Discovering the Word of Wisdom. To view all the articles in this series, see Featured Author Jane Birch.
In the last article, I questioned why it is that, out of all the wonderful dietary counsel in the Word of Wisdom, the prohibitions are the ones most emphasized. Today I take another look at Church History to help us better understand the relationship between the prohibitions in the Word of Wisdom and the rest of the dietary advice.
Today, most Church members do not find it hard to abstain from the substances prohibited in the Word of Wisdom. In fact, it sometimes surprises us that it took nearly 100 years for the majority of the early Saints to commit to giving up these harmful substances.
Those of us who grew up keeping the Word of Wisdom are fortunate to have never developed the addictions that many of the early Saints had, but are we really all that different from these early Saints? I find the history of the Word of Wisdom interesting in light of the parallels between (1) how the early Saints viewed the Word of Wisdom prohibitions before they were mandated, and (2) how the Saints today view the rest of counsel in D&C 89, which is likewise not mandated. Below I highlight some examples.
1. We interpret the Word of Wisdom based on the customs of the wider culture and the traditions we’ve grown up with.
Consumption of alcohol, tobacco, coffee, and tea was common in the early 19th century. Nearly every Mormon household regularly used these substances, and this fact colored their perceptions and understanding of the Lord’s counsel. This helps us understand why the early Saints often interpreted the prohibitions of the Word of Wisdom as warning more against excess consumption that absolute abstinence.
Today, American diets are filled with food with little nutritional value. Most of what we eat is highly processed. Meat is typical for many meals. We rarely eat whole grains, and some abstain from them altogether. With this background it is easy to read D&C 89 and come away with the impression that we should simply “eat more fruits and veggies.” Like the early Saints, there is much in this revelation we simply don’t “see” because our cultural traditions color our perceptions.
2. We trust what we believe about sound health practices to the point of discounting parts of the Word of Wisdom that go against it or reinterpreting those verses to fit our understanding.
At the time the Word of Wisdom was revealed, some doctors and other health promoters also condemned the use of the prohibited stimulants, but many others championed the benefits of alcohol, tobacco, coffee, and tea for fatigue or special medical needs. These substances were used widely to treat all kinds of illnesses. The use of these stimulants for health was so common it seems to have not occurred to the early Saints that the Word of Wisdom should apply to those circumstances. They assumed expert advice should take precedence where health was concerned.
Likewise, nutrition experts today tell us that a healthy diet can include processed junk foods and that meat and dairy should be a part of our diets. Everywhere we read about the importance of getting lots of protein and so-called experts are telling us grains, even whole grains, are bad. The fact that the Lord has counseled us otherwise in D&C 89 can seem like outdated advice or at least is not relevant when we feel we have more pressing health concerns to deal with. Like the early Saints, we assume the Word of Wisdom is all about good health, so if a different way of eating has been proven by science to be superior, than we should trust in science and the experts.
3. We can’t believe using certain substances can be all that bad when we observe that most people, including most good Latter-day Saints, are consuming them.
Imagine what a confusing message it must have been for the early Saints when they’d be exhorted by some Church leaders to abstain from alcohol, tobacco, coffee, and tea on the one hand, and then on the other to regularly observe good Church members, perhaps even their own bishop or stake president, regularly consume these items! As humans, we are highly influenced by the examples of those we respect. In light of the negative examples of some otherwise very righteous Church members, it was easy for many early Saints to assume the prohibited substances could not be all that bad.
Likewise, most of us today know the difference between truly healthy foods and those that are not so healthy. On the other hand, it is clear that many of the best people we personally know eat things that are “not so healthy.” So we feel safe in assuming, it can’t be all that bad to do so. At the very least, we feel confident that eating junk food won’t keep us out of the Celestial Kingdom. While this is true, no doubt many of the early saints who smoked their way to lung cancer will also make their way to the Celestial Kingdom as well.
4. Social customs and our intense desire to be a gracious host or guest have a powerful effect on our actions, even to the point of contradicting what we know to be good advice.
Remember Elder Heber J. Grant preaching a vigorous sermon on the Word of Wisdom, and subsequently being offered coffee and tea at the Stake President’s home? What was the Stake President’s wife thinking?? Of course, she was following the customs of the day that demanded treating guests in a certain way. She was doing what she had been taught to do as a good hostess, just as other good women in her Mormon community would do. It would have felt extremely uncomfortable to her to do otherwise. And what about the situation Elder Grant was put in? Wouldn’t it be uncomfortable to refuse the hospitality of a good Stake President’s wife? Social customs are very hard to resist!
Likewise, those who try to eat healthy today are put in a dilemma when they find themselves in the type of social situation that normally seems to demand that we serve junk foods. These situations include not just having friends and family over to watch the football game, but also ward functions, Young Men/Young Women activities, and Primary! No one wants to be inhospitable, to make it seem like we are trying to “make a statement,” that we are somehow better than others, or to deny friends fun foods that are, after all, not “against the commandments.” Like the early Saints, social situations almost demand we act contrary to better judgment.
5. We feel justified in ignoring advice in the Word of Wisdom when it doesn’t suit our personal health needs and bodily constitution.
Because it was frowned upon, many early Saints did attempt to give up alcohol, tobacco, coffee, and tea. Some were successful, but others quickly discovered that they did not “feel so good” when they stopped consuming these substances. After going cold turkey, some felt extremely sick. Some got headaches, others felt nervous and anxious, some gained weight. Many felt they simply could not function well throughout the day without these stimulants. They sometimes interpreted these negative experiences as evidence that their bodies had a “need” for these substances that surely superseded the counsel in Section 89. The Lord would not want them to feel sick and uncomfortable, right?
Likewise, most of us today seem to feel it is perfectly all right to eat highly processed foods, lots of meat, and to abstain from grain if we feel our health circumstances warrant it or it will help us lose weight. It is not uncommon to hear reports from people who feel “weak and tired” if they stop eating meat, get indigestion from consuming whole grains, or just “don’t do well” on whole plant foods. People report getting extreme headaches if they stop consuming, for example, their daily Dr. Pepper. It is easy to assume that this is concrete evidence that the advice in the Word of Wisdom does not suit our bodies and therefore is not personally relevant to us. Like the early Saints, we believe, “Surely the Lord wants us to feel good, right?”
6. Once we are accustomed to using substances not good for our bodies, it is very difficult for us to change the way we eat.
I think most of us can understand why it was hard for the early Saints to give up alcohol, tobacco, coffee, and tea. Today we have a scientific understanding of the highly addictive nature of these substances. Going cold turkey can induce significant physical withdrawal symptoms. We also understand the psychological, mental, and emotional reasons why giving up these substances can be extremely difficult. Now, as we recall that Section 89 was originally given “not by commandment or constraint” (D&C 89:2) and was not mandated by early Church leaders, we can understand why merely having this counsel from the Lord did not mean that everyone was able to quickly overcome lifelong addictions.
Similarly, today we better understand the addictive nature of highly processed foods and how the food industry uses sugar, salt, and fat to get us hooked on their products. Less well known, but also well documented, is the addictive nature of meat and dairy. Consequently, it is not surprising that we love our processed foods, meat, and dairy, especially cheese! Like the early Saints, it is very hard for us to give up things we love!
7. We (very rightly) feel other aspects of the gospel (e.g., charity, service) are more important than “fanatical” observance of the Word of Wisdom.
The early Saints had a lot on their hands: fleeing from persecutions, crossing the plains, settling the West, and keeping the economy from collapsing. Building the Kingdom of God takes a lot of work and much effort. Perhaps this is the reason many did not make strict observance of the Word of Wisdom a priority. Perhaps what some of them did not appreciate was how much easier it might have been to accomplish the work they needed to do if they had had better health and were not addicted to substances.
Likewise, hopefully no one today believes that the Word of Wisdom is the most important doctrine in the Kingdom. Clearly it is not! For example, we know love of God and our fellow human beings are the first and second great commandments. There are many issues the Church faces that are more important than how we eat. For today’s Church, this may include issues like pornography, sexual abuse, and the breakdown of families. But like the early Saints, wouldn’t the physical and spiritual blessings of following the counsel in D&C 89 help us better accomplish the work of the Lord and resist the temptations of our day?
8. Like the early Saints, we don’t need to be commanded in all things to receive the blessings.
The early Saints cannot be blamed for not fully abstaining from the substances prohibited in the Word of Wisdom. It came “not by commandment” (D&C 89:2). Nevertheless, that did not stop the Saints from suffering the ill consequences of consuming substances that the Lord warned are “not for the body” (D&C 89:8). Those that gave them up before they were commanded to do so undoubtedly were blessed.
While our Church leaders encourage us to eat a healthy diet and take care of our bodies, they have left us to prayerfully decide for ourselves how to do that. But like the early Saints, we don’t need a mandate to gain the blessings, both spiritual and temporal, that come from voluntarily choosing to more closely follow the Lord’s advice. Let us seek for every blessing the Lord is pleased to give us!
How to get started?
Did you know that eating a Word of Wisdom diet could help you lose ALL excess weight, gain energy, resolve many types of health problems, and prevent up to 80% of chronic disease? D&C 89 outlines three main dietary principles:
1. All wholesome plants “in the season thereof” are ordained for our “constitution, nature, and use,” and should be used with “prudence and thanksgiving.” (D&C 89:10–11)
2. Animal flesh is ordained for human use, but it should be eaten sparingly, and only in times of need: winter, cold, famine or “excess of hunger.” (D&C 89:12–13, 15)
3. All grain is good and is ordained to be the “staff of life.” (D&C 89:14, 16)
Are you ready to give the Lord’s counsel a try? In an article on “Overcoming Challenges,” I outline three practical strategies for getting started:
1. Go cold turkey. This means making the decision to give up the old way of life and embrace the new…100% For those who are ready, this can be the easiest strategy because it is then clear what you will and will not eat. But you can flounder if you are not well prepared and determined.
2. Take baby steps. This is a strategy for making the transition in smaller, incremental steps. Perhaps this month you give up soda, next month sugar, and the next eat only whole grains. It can be easier for some to make small changes one at a time, but the results are also not so dramatic at first.
3. Find a buddy. We are social beings, and we do better when we combine our efforts with others. Finding a buddy to do this with (or at least to report to) can be helpful. If you are interested, we have a Facebook group you can join:
Word of Wisdom Health Challenge: this is an open Facebook group, so you don’t even have to join to view the posts, but please join so you can participate in the conversation!
Next Time in Discovering the Word of Wisdom
If a Word of Wisdom diet really is as powerful as I claim, if it really can eliminate up to 80% of chronic illness, including heart disease, diabetes, stroke, and many types of cancer, why don’t all the experts tell us this? Surely these dedicated, caring professionals would not withhold the truth! What gives? Next time I explore this interesting topic.
Jane Birch is the author of Discovering the Word of Wisdom: Surprising Insights from a Whole Food, Plant-based Perspective (2013) and many articles on the Word of Wisdom. She can be contacted on her website, Discovering the Word of Wisdom.
 Jane Birch, Discovering the Word of Wisdom: Surprising Insights from a Whole Food, Plant-based Perspective (Provo, Utah: Fresh Awakenings, 2013). Also in Jane Birch, “Discovering the Word of Wisdom: Why Aren’t We Told How to Eat?” Meridian Magazine, July 2, 2014.
 See previous footnote.
 Michael Moss, Salt Sugar Fat: How the Food Giants Hooked Us (New York: Random House, 2013) & David A. Kessler, Your Food Is Fooling You: How Your Brain Is Hijacked by Sugar, Fat, and Salt (New York: Roaring Brook Press, 2012).
 Jane Birch, “Discovering the Word of Wisdom: Food Addiction,” Meridian Magazine, July 2, 2014 (see footnote 3).