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.
During the last two weeks, I’ve been highlighting the words of 19th century prophets and apostles (see Part I and Part II), but the 19th century sister saints were also amazing Word of Wisdom advocates. Eliza R. Snow, for example, is well known for having penned “In Our Lovely Deseret,” the only hymn in our current hymnbook that directly addresses the Word of Wisdom. Verse two states:
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.
What is not well known is an earlier poem Eliza Snow published in 1840 entitled, “The Word of Wisdom.” Here are the first three stanzas:
The Lord imparted from above
The word of wisdom for our blessing?
But shall it unto many prove
A gift that is not worth possessing?
Have we not been divinely taught,
To heed its voice and highly prize it?
Then who shall once indulge the thought
It can be better to despise it?
Has self denial grown a task?
Or has that word been vainly spoken,
Or why, I fain would humble ask,
What is that word, so often broken.
This week, I share a few of my favorite exhortations from some of our early sister Saints. I find their writings inspirational and full of insight. In reading them, it is clear that the substances the women in the 19th century struggled with were coffee and tea. Most of us do not struggle with coffee or tea, but we may struggle with Coke or Pepsi or other foods we suspect are not completely in harmony with a wholesome diet, like sugary treats, highly-refined foods, excess meat, or highly caloric dishes.
In the 19th century, the Saints were not required to give up coffee and tea, but the Lord counsels against it in D&C 89. Similarly, the Lord has not demanded that we cut back on meat or junk food in our day, even though D&C 89 gives us plenty of reasons to do so. Before reading these excerpts, think of foods you enjoy eating that you feel are not fully in keeping with the Lord’s dietary counsel in D&C 89. As you read the advice these women gave to their fellow sisters on coffee and tea, substitute those substances that you are struggling with and see if their words can help you strengthen your resolve to embrace more wholesome foods.
Mary Lois Morris, The Woman’s Exponent, vol. 2 no. 14 (December 15, 1873)
“There is [an] item that forces itself upon my mind; that is, a portion of a discourse of President G. A. Smith, delivered during the late Conference in which he urged us to cease using tea and coffee, and, furthermore, said that we were not to make it for our guests unless in cases of sickness; and then we were to offer them herb tea first. This was right, he said, it was sensible. And added, that if we did not observe these things ‘our glory’ would ‘be clipped!’ . . .
“Shall the servants of God lift their warning voices in vain? Is it not grievous that they should feel oppressed by the weight of our sins, which we do not but should feel ourselves? It is a pity that at this late date, after having passed through and suffered what we have as a people, that we should fall back into the groveling ways of the world, and lose all we have been striving form, many of us from ten to forty years.”
“Aunt Mary,” (Mary Hodgson), The Woman’s Exponent, vol. 9 no. 4 (July 15, 1880)
“The Word of Wisdom . . . includes many things beside the use of tea, coffee, or tobacco. But as those are designated there, and I often find myself thinking about the great demand for tea and coffee by the sisters among the Latter-day Saints, and how few of them ever refuse the cup of tea, and that is always presented at our social gatherings in some localities at least, I thought I would write a few lines upon it.
“ . . . many of our young sisters require the cup of tea to help them to perform the most ordinary duties of life, and without it feel themselves totally unfit for exertion of any kind. And the majority of our young mothers not only use it constantly themselves, but give it to their little ones, thoughtlessly no doubt, but to their injury nevertheless, as helping them to imbibe habits calculated to retard their capacities for future usefulness . . .
“How blessed would we be could we only keep in our hearts that first love of the Gospel so many of us experienced in those by-gone days, when we first embraced its principles, when with light hearts we not only left off the use of what the Lord said was not wise, but left fathers, mothers, sisters and brothers also for the Gospel’s sake, how small in comparison is the abstaining from the use of tea and coffee.”
Sarah Pomeroy, The Woman’s Exponent, vol. 11 no. 2 (June 15, 1882)
“[The Word of Wisdom] says, ‘If you will give heed to these sayings and neglect them not, I the Lord will cause the destroying angel to pass by you, as it did the children of Israel, and it shall not slay you.’ Now what a glorious promise is this, by merely exercising the powers of self denial, denying ourselves of what is merely a gratification . . . What great and inestimable blessing are promised us.
“How can we be so foolish and short-sighted as to persist in a practice that will bring destruction and sorrow upon ourselves and offspring, when the way to escape these evils is so plainly pointed out. Is it not suicidal in its effects, to continue this practice? And how can we exercise faith in God, when our children are laid low by sickness, if we realize that we have been trampling under our feet, and considering as worthless those very laws, and rules, that if we had obeyed, would have preserved them from the power of the destroyer.
“If the Lord had not decreed, and foreseen, that great destruction was coming upon the inhabitants of the earth, why did He give us this warning, and at the same time provide a way for his Saints to escape these dire calamities? The Lord would not trifle with his people, although a great many are inclined to trifle with his words, but his words are too sacred to be trifled with. . . . may the Lord give each and every one of his Saints a portion of his Holy Spirit that we may realize the necessity of obeying the ‘Word of Wisdom,’ in its fullest sense, for I do not think that merely the avoiding the use of tea and coffee, and other stimulants, is all that is comprised or comprehended in the ‘Word of Wisdom.’”
“Sarah,” The Woman’s Exponent, vol. 16 no. 3 (July 1, 1887)
“My Dear Sisters:—The subject I shall take to treat upon, is one which I consider of vital importance to every Latter-day Saint . . . This important subject is the Word of Wisdom.
“Now, dear sisters, don’t shrug your shoulders or throw your heads with such a contemptuous toss, although I don’t really think a constant reader of the EXPONENT would ever indulge any such feeling, for I think it inspires to a better spirit and loftier ideas in regard to any principle connected with our holy religion. Notwithstanding the subject has been treated upon so extensively, and scarcely a Sabbath passes but some of our brethren speak in regard to it; yet how many, yes very many, are utterly indifferent to its teachings. There is not another revelation in the Book of Doc. and Co., that is written with such plainness and simplicity, or as easy to be comprehended as the one on the Word of Wisdom. It is adapted to the capacity of all, who may, or can be called Latter-day Saints. . . .
“ . . . But where will our faith be, if we willfully neglect to obey these laws that are laid down for our protection? I am very much afraid, if we have any at all, it will be very weak. . . . “
Mary J. Morrison, The Woman’s Exponent, vol. 12 no. 13 (December 1, 1883)
“I thought I would write a few words upon the Word of Wisdom. I feel timid in so doing for I believe it means so much more than our weak minds can comprehend, except we are enlightened upon it; but if we show our willingness we may learn little by little until we become perfected in it. Some think to quit drinking tea and coffee a great sacrifice but I think those who feel that way will esteem it a very small thing before they are tried as Abraham was. Nearly all human beings think they came into the world to be tried; so let us each ask ourselves the question, do we believe our Heavenly Father has revealed these truths for our benefit? If we do we should rejoice that we have the privilege of showing our appreciation of them, and try to adopt them in our every day life. I fear, if we are too weak to try, that we will likewise be too weak to stand when the destroyer is on the errand of death.”
Susa Young Gates, The Young Woman’s Journal vol. 6 (1894-1895)
“No one who has kept the [Word of Wisdom] in the past will fail to testify of the many blessings, which follow its observance. The buoyant, exalted feeling which comes to the spirit who has obtained a victory over the flesh and its appetites and passions, is worth whatever of sacrifice may be involved. The glory of obedience to law, the nearness with which the heavens seem to lean down at your cry, the clear, spiritual atmosphere above you, all these, and the blessings promised in the revelation are given to those who keep the law . . .
“There is one aspect of this matter which troubles me greatly. It is this: Sometimes a person who has been really ‘converted’ that is, whose heart has been so deeply touched that repentance and renunciation have followed the spiritual conviction—will keep the law for many days; but lo, in an unguarded moment, the tempter has come, and the baneful habit is resumed. Now comes the terrible struggle. Will the body or the spirit gain the victory? Will the body say, ‘Oh, it is only a cup of tea, only one smoke, only a taste of wine, and if I never do anything worse than drink a cup of tea, my sins won’t be very heavy.’ Or will the spirit whisper, ‘Thou has stumbled and fallen; cheer up, and get once more upon thy feet; stay not upon the earth because of thy one transgression, but arise and meet the tempter face to face. God will help you.’
“A cup of tea is a small thing, a very small thing to the person who cares nothing about it; but it is a mighty gate between God and the soul who cares more for it then for the law and word of the Lord. Temperance may not be total abstinence to all human beings; but it certainly means that to the one who has so little control of his appetite that one taste is fatal to abstinence forever after.
“I wish I might help you, girls, for some of you have acquired these pernicious tastes; I know how lightly such things are apt to appear to the young and thoughtless. And, too, how often a careless action occasionally repeated grows into a habit of wrong-doing, which fastens itself with iron bands around our souls.”
Louise E. Irvine, The Young Woman’s Journal, vol. 12 (1901)
“The Word of Wisdom includes more than simply abstaining from tea, coffee, and strong drink. Wisdom should be used in all things. . . . There are more people die from over-eating than from starvation.
“ . . . St. Anthony lived to a hundred and five years old, on mere bread and water, adding only a few herbs at last. The bread, however, was made from the whole grain.
“This is evidence to us that the plain, simple food is better for the health than pastry and other indigestible victuals, and produces longevity. Then why not live on fruit, nuts, and wheat, which the Lord has ordained for the use of man, to be the staff of life, which can easily be prepared, and is always nutritive? This way of living would do away with so much labor, which the present way of living brings upon wives and mothers. If we lived simply there would be a great deal more time for reading and studying, and improving the mind; at the same time the system would be getting just such food elements as go to make a strong, healthy body, and a vigorous mind.
“ . . . There are two kinds of food used as staple articles, which should be seldom used. One is meat, such as beef, mutton, pork and flesh of other animals. The other is food made from superfine flour. It is astonishing to see what quantities of white flour are eaten by our people. . . . Pure food builds up virtue and character. To realize good results the most nutritive and unadulterated food must be eaten.”
Ready for a Change?
If the valiant Saints in the 19th century could give up coffee and tea, what could we give up to more fully embrace the Word of Wisdom?
For more help, 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 feature the person who was, perhaps, the greatest champion the Word of Wisdom has ever had: the Prophet Heber J. Grant. He worked tirelessly throughout his ministry to get the Saints to keep the Word of Wisdom, and it was during his administration when the greatest change in the history of the Word of Wisdom took place: keeping the Word of Wisdom became mandatory for being found worthy to serve in important Church callings and to enter the temples of God.
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.
 Eliza R. Snow, “In Our Lovely Deseret,” Hymns of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (1985), #307.
 Eliza R. Snow, “The Word of Wisdom,” Times and Seasons 1, no. 10 (August 1840): 160. Here are the concluding stanzas:
It is a straight and narrow way,
That leads to the Celestial City:
That high taught saints should go astray,
Thro’ gentile customs, is a pity.
O; that the saints would all regard
Each gracious word that God has given
And prize the favor of the Lord
Above all things beneath the heaven.