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.
Last time in Discovering the Word of Wisdom, I featured one of the earliest Word of Wisdom pioneers, Joseph Smith’s elder brother, Hyrum Smith. If you didn’t get a chance to read his fiery sermon on the Word of Wisdom, you can read it here: “Discovering the Word of Wisdom Pioneers: Hyrum Smith.”
This week, I will focus on a few more Word of Wisdom pioneers from the 19th Century.
The Word of Wisdom in the First 100 Years
When Joseph Smith first revealed the Word of Wisdom to the brethren assembled at the School of the prophets, the elders “immediately threw their tobacco pipes into the fire.”. Knowing this, we might assume that the entire Church immediately adopted this divine counsel. But such was not the case. The early Saints were not much different from us today. They loved the gospel and wanted to do what was right, but it proved very difficult to give up substances that they regularly enjoyed and were probably addicted to, like alcohol, tobacco, coffee, and tea.
I can certainly understand the difficulties early Church members had because many of us experience similar struggles today, even though our addictions may be quite different. Thanks to the efforts of the early Saints, most of us have never even tasted alcohol, tobacco, coffee, or tea, but we may have an equally difficult time giving up a variety of foods that seem out of harmony with the wise counsel in D&C 89.
Have you ever tried eating only the “wholesome” plant foods the Lord has ordained for our “constitution, nature, and use” (D&C 89:10)? Have you gone without sugar, soda pop, chips, and other favorite junk foods for any length of time? Have you tried dramatically reducing or even eliminating meat and other high fat foods and instead making grains the “staff of life” (D&C 89:12–14)? If you have, than you may know that eating a wholesome diet can be a lot more difficult than just deciding to “do it.”
Interestingly, 19th century Church leaders regularly admonished the Saints to cut back on meat consumption as part of keeping the Word of Wisdom. While the Church does not require any of us to cut back on either our meat or junk food consumption, it seems clear that this is in harmony with the Lord’s counsel in the Word of Wisdom. What impact does it have on us that the Lord simply counsels us to eat better and does not require us to do so? Understanding this distinction can help us better empathize with the early Saints, for in their day alcohol, tobacco, coffee, and tea were not forbidden by “commandment or constraint,” just as meat and junk food are not forbidden today.
Given that 19th century Church leaders did not demand complete abstinence (and many, especially local leaders, did not practice it themselves), it is understandable why many Church members were quite lax in their attitude toward the Word of Wisdom. How different from today! This mighty shift in compliance is due to the faith, diligence, and persistent efforts of many important 19th century Word of Wisdom pioneers. We owe them our gratitude!
I find the sermons these 19th century pioneers preached on the Word of Wisdom to be not only inspiring, but also instructive and useful in helping us deal with the Word of Wisdom challenges we face today. Again: the early Saints were not much different than we are today. They loved the Lord. They desired to follow His counsel, but they found it difficult to give up substances that they particularly enjoyed, especially in light of the fact that this was not a Church requirement at the time. Are not those of us who are trying to eat a healthier Word of Wisdom diet in a very similar situation today?
As you read some of the following excerpts from the 19th century, I encourage you to think about some of the less than wholesome foods we might enjoy today that may not be fully in keeping with a healthy Word of Wisdom diet. How are some of the excuses the 19th century saints used similar to what we hear today? Does any of the counsel given in these sermons apply to us? How might their counsel help us?
Elder George A. Smith, delivered in the Bowery, Great Salt Lake City, April 8, 1855
“It is an old proverb, that as the old birds crow the young ones learn. There are a great many habits . . . which our fathers have imbibed, and which their children have been induced . . . to practice, which are decidedly in opposition to the true principles of life and prosperity; now for us who are young, we are full of life and vigor, to think, because our fathers or mothers indulged in a good cup of tea, or cup of coffee, and a hundred other different luxuries which are at variance with the Word of Wisdom, that we must follow the same track . . . and not only ourselves become slaves to the same habits, but transmit them to our posterity [is not good] . . .
“I know that many men have persisted in the use of these stimulating articles until they cannot do without them, or they think they cannot. . . . a taste is formed for them, and we feel that we really must have our tea or our coffee; a glass of liquor does us good occasionally. How often does ‘occasionally’ come? ‘O, once in a while.’ How often is that? ‘Why, every now and then.’ And it gets so, by and by, if a man has addicted himself to it and don’t have it, he feels quite lonely, he feels lost, as though there was something wrong about him, and he becomes such a perfect slave to it, he cannot exercise his talents or his ingenuity.
“We frequently use [these substances] merely out of compliment. For instance, I call in a brother’s house, the lady of the house knows I am an Apostle, and she wishes to treat me with marked respect, and she supposes I am entirely unmindful of the precepts contained in the Word of Wisdom, makes me a cup of tea or coffee; well, I think it is a pity to throw it away, after it has spoiled half a gallon of the best American creek water, and I drink it to save it. . . .
“. . . they will invite me to partake with them; if I refuse, they will then begin to urge; but the best policy to be observed in cases of this kind is to do as we have a mind to; if we do not want ‘the intoxicating drink,’ let them take it all; and if we do, we will take it without urging, and bear the responsibility ourselves. This is the best policy I would wish to be governed by, though I have had to say, once or twice in my life, ‘Gentlemen, I do not wish to be urged.’ If a man refuses to drink with those who indulge in the use of strong drinks, it is customary to consider it a want of friendship. Let us be our own masters, and not believe we must be chained down to these foolish and hurtful traditions.” (Journal of Discourses, 2:362–364)
Elder Orson Pratt, delivered in the Tabernacle, Great Salt Lake City, May 20, 1855
“The spirit upon us should enable us to do that which is right, and that which is our duty. For instance, take the Word of Wisdom, which is given for our benefit and temporal salvation. It is true, disobedience to that is not so gross a sin as some others; but still, it is given for our temporal salvation, and should be observed. . . . after hearing a most glorious discourse upon this and other revelations . . . perhaps they will keep the Word of Wisdom two or three days; but it makes their head ache, and then they take a little tea, and it does them good for the moment, and they think the Lord don’t know what they need as well as they do.
Why cannot you be independent beings, and say, ‘I will do this, and that, and the other, let my neighbor do as he may; let my neighbor do as he will, but as for me and my house, we will serve the Lord?’ This is what ought to be.
“. . . Do not I like the good old tea? Yes I do, and when it is sweetened up, and a little cream turned in, it is very pleasant, as no doubt also was the forbidden fruit.” (Journal of Discourses 3:18–19)
Elder Ezra T. Benson, delivered in the Bowery, Great Salt Lake City, April 7, 1867
“Let us all endeavor by the help of God to leave off our tea, coffee, liquor, and other things, that are neither good for the body nor for the belly. We can overcome, for God will not require more of us than we can do. He has borne with us these many years; but, if I can discern the signs of the times, He is now going to require these things at our hands. Supposing He had given the Word of Wisdom as a command, how many of us would have been here? I do not know; but He gave this without command or restraint, observing that it would be pleasing in His sight for His people to obey its precepts. Ought we not to try to please our Heavenly Father, and to please His servants who are paving the way for us into the Kingdom of God?” (Journal of Discourses 11:367)
Elder George Q. Cannon, delivered in the Tabernacle, Great Salt Lake City, April 21, 1867
“I do not like to hear anybody express himself as though this movement in relation to keeping the Word of Wisdom is one got up and sustained only by enthusiasm. I do not call that enthusiasm which prompts people to walk up to the line of their duty and renounce evil practices, and when I hear men say—’I have seen the people get enthusiastic about the Word of Wisdom before, but they have soon relapsed into their old habits,’ I consider it wrong. We ought not to require to be talked to and counselled on points so well recognised and established as this.
“God has given to us a most positive promise on this subject, and we should be diligent in carrying it into effect without waiting to be counselled, getting up an excitement, or acting on the spur of the moment, and after awhile returning to old habits. . . . There should be a well settled conviction in the mind of every person belonging to this Church that it would be a real benefit for him or for her to observe the Word of Wisdom, and to carry into effect the counsel God has given on any point. If I do not see the evils that result from smoking and chewing tobacco, drinking liquor, tea, and coffee, or 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, then when I am thrown in contact with persons who use them, and inducements are offered me to do the same, it is easy for me to decline, because I am satisfied in my own mind that they are injurious, and there is no need of excitement or enthusiasm to enable me to refrain.
“It is true, probably, that there are many points concerning our welfare that may not have been touched upon by our Heavenly Father in the Word of Wisdom, but in my experience I have noticed that they who practice what the Lord has already given are keenly alive to other words of wisdom and counsel that may be given. . . . There are a thousand ways in which we can act unwisely; our attention has been directed to some few points, and if we observe them the Lord has promised us great treasures of wisdom, which will enable us to see a thousand points where we can take better care of our bodies, preserve our health, and which will enable us to train our children in the way of the Lord.
“. . . I hope that no person in this congregation will consider that the teachings we have had during Conference, or their results, arise from enthusiasm, but attribute them to the right source, the promptings of the Spirit of God. . . . We should be exceedingly careful in these things, and, if we wish to carry them out, let us resolve to do so upon principle and by the help of God, and not in our own strength, or because somebody else tells us to do so. This is the course for us, as Latter-day Saints, to take, then the benefits resulting will be permanent. It is the design of the Lord to develop within every man and woman the principle of knowledge, that all may know for themselves. He has poured out His holy spirit upon all of us, and not upon President Young nor upon bro. Joseph alone. The Lord designs that the principle of knowledge shall be developed in every heart.” (Journal of Discourses 12:44–45)
What impressed you about these sermons? What do you find particularly relevant for us in our day? Please share your thoughts in a comment below or contact me.
For more help on embracing a healthy Word of Wisdom diet, see: “Getting Started on a Whole Food, Plant-based Word of Wisdom Diet”
Next Time in “Discovering the Word of Wisdom”
Continuing my exploration of early Word of Wisdom pioneers, next week I’ll be sharing more excerpts from 19th-century Latter-day Saints. What I find so remarkable about their insights into the Word of Wisdom is that they are so relevant to our situation today, even though the dietary changes needed in our day are quite different.
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.
 Jef Woodworth, “The Word of Wisdom: D&C 89,” The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints website (June 11, 2013).
 Jane Birch, “Discovering the Word of Wisdom: We are Not Very Different from the Early Saints!” Meridian Magazine, October 7, 2014.