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 few weeks, I’ve been addressing comments and questions from readers. Recently, I’ve focused on verse 13 of Section 89:
And it is pleasing unto me that they [flesh of animals] should not be used, only in times of winter, or of cold, or famine. (D&C 89:13)
Last week, I explored health-related interpretations of verse 13. The most popular interpretation from an historical perspective is the assertion that it is better if meat is eaten in the cold rather than the heat because “meat warms the body.” Despite the popularity of this claim, however, there is no scientific evidence that backs it up. Likewise, the idea that we need more calories from meat in the winter has no scientific basis. Last, the explanation that consuming a lot of meat is hazardous to our health is scientifically correct. However, this explanation does not explain why the Lord is pleased if we do not consume meat at all, except in times of winter, cold, or famine.
This week I’ll explore an explanation for verse 13 that has proven especially popular over the last few decades: before the era of mechanical refrigeration, meat spoiled easily so it was prudent to abstain from eating meat except in times of winter or cold. I’ll conclude with one last common interpretation: plant foods are less available in the winter or cold, so meat is sometimes needed to supplement the diet.*
The Refrigeration Theory
One popular explanation of D&C 89:13 (which dates from at least the early 1940s) is the idea that since the early Saints did not have the convenience of modern-day refrigeration, the Lord counseled them to consume meat only in times of winter or cold, when the meat would not spoil as quickly. The implication is that since “modern refrigeration now makes it easy for us to eat meat safely in any season” this counsel is no longer relevant to us.
Of course, none of the early Saints interpreted this verse this way. You would think that if this interpretation made sense, people who actually had experience keeping, killing, and eating animals might see the wisdom in this line of thinking. After all, they knew the difference between hot and cold and had experience in handling fresh meat and observing it spoil in the heat. But that is not the case. None of the early Saints recognized the supposed wisdom in the Lord’s counsel to not eat meat spring, summer or fall because it might be dangerous to do so, given the temperature. Instead, 19th century Saints assumed the Lord’s reasoning had to do with meat being more appropriate to consume during the cold season.
Then (as now) there were people who got sick from eating spoiled foods of many kinds. But do we have lots of cases of early Mormons becoming seriously ill from eating meat in the summer specifically due to a lack of refrigeration? Does it make sense to assume that they lacked the basic understanding of how to eat meat safely in times other than winter or cold?
Sound Evidence for this Theory is Lacking
It is true that many food-borne illnesses derive from meat, and temperature is a critical and well-recognized factor that can lead to spoiling. The early Saints would no doubt have appreciated the convenience of mechanical refrigeration, but the hypothesis that God would instruct humans to eat meat only in times of winter or cold to reduce the chances of them consuming it spoiled faces several challenges.
The likelihood of eating spoiled meat has to do with how meat is handled and not when it is consumed. Warm weather complicates the handling of meat, but eating either properly prepared fresh meat or properly preserved meat is no more dangerous or unhealthy in one season than another. Likewise, both fresh and preserved meats are dangerous in any season if they are not properly prepared.
Spoilage is a year-round problem, even in modern times, and there are a variety of factors (in addition to heat) that determine whether meat will spoil: animal feed and hygiene, slaughtering techniques, cross-contamination, food handling and preparation, and other factors.  Keeping raw meat cold, while clearly an important factor in preventing or postponing most types of spoilage, does not prevent all types of spoilage. And while there are additional risks when the weather is warm, this is true with milk, eggs, and plant-based foods as well.
Before mechanical refrigeration, there were fewer ways to keep the flesh of animals cold enough to thwart decay. If there were no means to reduce the temperature of the meat to a safe level, slaughtered animals had to be either consumed or preserved within a necessarily short time frame, but this was by no means an insurmountable obstacle, given that the timing of the slaughter was also controlled by humans.
Whether or not spoilage can be detected without instruments, spoiled meat can quickly make a person very sick and can even lead to death, a clear incentive for avoiding it. Fortunately, spoiled meat often looks, smells, and tastes bad. Meat was too prized to allow it to spoil on a frequent basis, and techniques for preserving it were established hundreds, even thousands of years before the 1830s. In fact, “refrigeration has been around since antiquity.” Other well-established preservation techniques included adding sugar, salting, drying, dehydrating, smoking, pickling, fermenting, and brining.
If helping the Saints avoid meat spoiled by excess heat was the Lord’s reasoning for verse 13, this revelation was particularly ineffectual. There is no evidence that the early Saints dramatically changed their behavior in light of this counsel; nor is there evidence for widespread illness or death that could have been prevented had they done so. Indeed, the early Saints were no doubt at least as well aware as their fellow Americans of the need to handle meat carefully and as well versed in the various techniques to preserve animal flesh when it could not be consumed immediately.
Other Scriptures Do Not Support the Refrigeration Theory
D&C 89:13 is not the only scripture where God suggests limitations on the consumption of meat. Does it make any sense to think that the Lord meant for the following statements to be true . . . “except when the meat is kept in a refrigerator”? Try adding this exception to any of these verses:
And 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. (JST Genesis 9:11)
And wo be unto man that sheddeth blood or that wasteth flesh and hath no need. (D&C 49:21)
And [animals] hath God made for the use of man only in times of famine and excess of hunger. (D&C 89:15)
I don’t believe it really makes sense to claim that these scriptures have been invalidated due to the invention of mechanical refrigeration.
While it remains true that warm weather complicates the handling of meat, it appears to be too great a stretch to suggest that D&C 89:13 was specifically designed to address this issue. In fact, it is only since the invention of mechanical refrigeration that this particular explanation for verse 13 became popular, too late to have done the early Saints any good. The Word of Wisdom says nothing about properly preserving meat, refrigeration, or the conditional nature of this counsel.
Meat as a Supplement during the Winter
Several editions of the LDS Church Educational System Doctrine and Covenants Student Manual state, “Before fruits and vegetables could be preserved, people often did not have enough other food to eat in winter.” Actually, humans have known for thousands of years how “fruits and vegetables could be preserved,” but this interpretation at least implies that meat is more necessary in conditions in which plant foods are scarce.
Before the era of modern transportation, mechanical refrigeration, and year-round stocked grocery stores, the human diet was tied to the cyclical nature of the farm. People ate seasonally. Most plant foods were harvested during late summer and fall. From this harvest, people preserved a variety of plant foods for the winter and cold months, but this supply (depending on its size) could run out, causing a “hunger gap” between the time the supplies ran out and the earliest harvest in spring. The flesh of animals was used not just for taste and variety, but also as a useful supplement to the diet to provide adequate calories. Animals were routinely slaughtered in the late fall, preserved, and consumed until the supply ran out. It was hoped that the next harvest would be available by that time.
According to this interpretation of the Word of Wisdom, eating the flesh of animals during winter and cold would serve a function similar to eating meat during a famine or times of “excess hunger” (v. 15). Winter and cold are times when nonplant foods may be scarce, and humans without supplementary animal foods could face hunger. In fact, the similarity between verses 13 and 15 of Section 89, both of which describe when it is appropriate for humans to use the flesh of animals, suggests a close relationship between these verses. The parallel construction could indicate that they are referring to the same conditions:
only in times of winter, or of cold, or famine. (v. 13)
only in times of famine and excess of hunger. (v. 15)
As writers on the Word of Wisdom frequently point out, the Word of Wisdom does not require a total vegetarian diet. Together with all that the earth produces, the Lord has ordained the flesh of animals for humans (D&C 49:19; 89:12), so that his children might always have “in abundance” (D&C 49:19). Although the Lord cautions that the flesh of animals should not be used when there is “no need” (D&C 49:21; JST Genesis 9:11), clearly the Lord would sanction the consumption of animal flesh in times of need. While in our day the plant foods we have access to provide more than enough abundance, there certainly are times and places where this has not been the case. As John and Leah Widtsoe point out in their influential book on the Word of Wisdom, even though animal flesh is not an ideal source of nutrition, “meats have the power to sustain life for a time if nothing else is eaten.”
What is the Lord’s Reasoning?
The suggestion that meat is more needed in times when plant foods are scarce does not explain why it is pleasing to God if we avoid consuming the flesh of animals during times other than winter or cold. In contrast to the abundance of scientific data to support the value of not consuming the flesh of animals beyond the level of “sparingly,” there appears to be no evidence that it would be better for human health to consume the flesh of animals during certain seasons of the year rather than others. The only exception is when conditions such as cold or winter make plant foods so scarce that animal flesh is needed to sustain life.
So why is the Lord pleased if we don’t use meat except in times of winter, cold, famine, or excess of hunger? What does your reading of D&C 89 suggest to you?
Real Mormons • Real Stories
This section features Latter-day Saints who have adopted a Word of Wisdom diet. (If you have a story to share, please contact me.)
Kevin Tunstall was relatively young and healthy when he felt prompted to get screened for cancer. His LDS doctor was skeptical, but humored him anyway. Sure enough, the tests came back positive for prostate cancer. Kevin’s life went into a tailspin. Seeking guidance, he went to the temple and there pled with the Lord for help. When the scriptures on his lap fell open to D&C 89, his heart started racing. He knew he could choose to believe that this was a coincidence, but instead, he believed it was the Lord trying to tell him something. Kevin says, “I chose there and then to believe the Lord wanted me to read this. I felt He was telling me, ‘This is an answer to the problem. Read it and you can solve it.’” Read the rest of his story here: “I just wanted to feel normal.”
Next Time in “Discovering the Word of Wisdom”
What about moderation in all things? Isn’t the whole food, plant-based diet rather extreme, and are we not cautioned against dietary fads and extremes?
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.
* I explore D&C 89:13 in greater detail in A. Jane Birch, “Getting into the Meat of the Word of Wisdom,” Interpreter: A Journal of Mormon Scripture 11 (2014): 1-36.
 Melanie Douglass, R.D., Losing It: Life Is Better When You Feel Good (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 2005), 8.
 Gordon M. Wardlaw and Anne M. Smith, Contemporary Nutrition, 6th ed. updated (Boston: McGraw-Hill, 2007), 529–40.
 R. A. Lawrie, Lawrie’s Meat Science, 6th ed. (Cambridge: Woodhead, 1998), 119–25.
 Lawrie, Lawrie’s Meat Science, 143–211.
 Wardlaw and Smith, Contemporary Nutrition, 538.
 James E. McWilliams, A Revolution in Eating: How the Quest for Food Shaped America (New York: Columbia), 79–81.
 Barabara Krasner-Khait, “The Impact of Refrigeration.” History Magazine (July 5, 2005).
 Lawrie, Lawrie’s Meat Science, 143–211.
 Doctrine and Covenants Student Manual Religion 324 and 325, 210. Similar arguments are used by others. See, for example, Lora Beth Larson, “The Do’s in the Word of Wisdom,” Ensign, April 1977, 46.
 McWilliams, A Revolution in Eating.
 Interestingly, the book most often cited to bolster this claim is one that promotes a near-vegetarian diet. See John A. Widtsoe and Leah D. Widtsoe, The Word of Wisdom: A Modern Interpretation (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1937), 137.
 Widtsoe and Widtsoe, The Word of Wisdom, 217.
 Jane Birch, “Discovering the Word of Wisdom: Getting to the Meat of D&C 89, Part I,” Meridian Magazine (December 1, 2014). See also longer version: A. Jane Birch, “Getting into the Meat of the Word of Wisdom,” Interpreter: A Journal of Mormon Scripture 11 (2014): 1-36.