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 this series on “Discovering the Word of Wisdom Pioneers,” I’ve been featuring early Church members who championed the Word of Wisdom. Today I feature the greatest champion the Word of Wisdom has ever known: the prophet Heber J. Grant (1856–1945).
An experience Heber had as a youth turned him into a tireless defender of the Word of Wisdom throughout his ministry. An LDS boyhood friend took up smoking, which led to drinking, a loss of virtue, and eventually death at a young age. When Heber visited his friend’s grave, he said, “I looked up to heaven and made a pledge to my God that liquor and tobacco would have in me an enemy who would fight with all the ability that God would give me until the day of my death.”
Heber J. Grant was ordained as an apostle in 1882 when he was just 25 years old and became the president of the Church in 1918. He served as prophet for 27 years, longer than anyone except Brigham Young. He had plenty of time to make good on his pledge, and we owe a debt of gratitude to him. After decades of cajoling and pleading from Church leaders, it was during President Grant’s administration that the tide finally turned and “keeping the Word of Wisdom” became more formally expected and then widespread among Church members.
President Grant credited his health and long life to his keeping the Word of Wisdom. He not only assiduously abstained from all alcohol, tobacco, coffee, and tea, he was also careful to eat meat sparingly, preferably only in times of winter or cold. To President Grant and those who defended the Word of Wisdom during the 19th and early 20th centuries, all of the wisdom in D&C 89 was the word of God and should be followed to obtain the Lord’s promised blessings. We tend to associate the Word of Wisdom with only the prohibitions, but no prophet has ever given us license to ignore the rest of the Lord’s counsel in D&C 89.
I love Heber J. Grant’s fiery, passionate sermons on the Word of Wisdom and wonder why it was so hard to move the Saints to action. What if we heard the same fiery sermons today, calling on us to fully embrace the Lord’s dietary counsel in the Word of Wisdom, encouraging us to cut out excess meat and junk foods and to embrace the wholesome fruits, vegetables, and grains ordained by God for our use? Would we respond any quicker than the 19th century Saints? Or are we sufficiently moved by the fact that D&C 89 is a revelation from God that we do not need any additional encouragement to follow it?
Below are excerpts from a few of President Heber J. Grant’s sermons on the Word of Wisdom.
October 1894 General Conference
“Now, I had made up my mind before I came to this conference that I would not open my mouth upon the Word of Wisdom. I have become so discouraged, so disheartened, so humiliated in my feelings, after preaching year after year both by precept and example, to realize that there are Bishops, Bishops’ Counselors, Presidents of Stakes, and Patriarchs among the Church of God whose hearts I have not been able to touch, that I had about made up my mind that I would never again say Word of Wisdom to the Latter-day Saints. I felt that it was like pouring water on a duck’s back. . . .
“I want to say that there is not a man or a woman among all the Latter-day Saints but who could keep the Word of Wisdom if they got down on their knees . . . and pray to God for help. The Lord has said that these words of wisdom are adapted to the weakest of the weak among the Latter-day Saints . . .
“We hear a great deal about hard times. The Latter-day Saints last year expended . . . by disobeying the Word of Wisdom, over a million dollars. In other words, the Latter-day Saints expended more cash in breaking a commandment of God than they paid tithing.”
October 1900 General Conference
“It is a disgrace for a man blessed with the Priesthood of God and with a testimony that God lives burning in his heart, to be so weak that a little insignificant cup of coffee is his master.”
October 1907 General Conference
“One Sunday . . . one of the speakers . . . was Sister Anna Snow, an aged wife of the late Apostle Erastus Snow. She had come from Scandinavia, and from her childhood had been addicted to the use of coffee, and thought she could hardly live without it; but finally, after reaching the age of eighty-two years, she was impressed that she had failed to do her duty in that regard, and decided, on her eighty-third birthday, that she would keep the Word of Wisdom still more perfectly and stop drinking coffee. It nearly killed her, but she finally succeeded in overcoming the habit. And she stood up in humility before the people, confessing her failure at not having fully kept the Word of Wisdom and expressed her gratitude to the Lord for giving her the ability, even at this late date, to overcome her failing; and she testified to the benefit she had already received because of the improvement in her health by obeying this law of God.
“I was profoundly impressed with her remarkable testimony, and how I wish that every one of our good sisters, and our brethren as well, who, year after year, have gone on breaking this simple commandment of the Lord, could have been there and listened to her testimony. I know a great many people have heard sermons on the Word of Wisdom for many years which have never made any impression upon them. I do not know how in the world we could make an impression upon some people. I know many individuals who have been labored with diligently in private, as well as by public teaching and admonition, but these labors have had no effect upon them. I feel in my heart that it is my duty to try to discover the weak points in my nature, and then pray to the Lord to help me overcome them. As I read the Word of Wisdom, I learn that it is adapted to the weakest of all the weak who are or can be called Saints [see D&C 89:3] . . . When I heard this aged sister testify that in her advanced years she had overcome, I wished that all Israel could have heard that testimony and been impressed by it.”
October 1923 General Conference
“Do we ever stop to think that the Creator of heaven and earth . . . has communicated with us, that he has given us counsel and advice such as will . . . give us vigor of body and of mind?
“There are thousands of Latter-day Saints [who have a firm testimony of Joseph Smith and the Gospel, but] when the Lord God Almighty . . . tells them what is good for them, physically and spiritually, and writes them a letter, neglect to pay any attention to it. I am sorry to say that today there are many of the sons and daughters of the Latter-day Saints—some of the sons and daughters of leading men and women in this Church, who are having social gatherings and who think that it shows a spirit of liberality and of broadness to drink wine and to have their tea and coffee and to play their cards, and to do those things that we have been taught are not good for us. I am going to read you a letter from the Lord to the Latter-day Saints:
[President Grant then reads D&C 89 in full with commentary, and adds:]
“I remember recently reading that many of the doctors had come to the conclusion that excessive use of meat was one of the great causes of cancer, and of many other of the diseases that are destroying the human race. Year by year the inspiration comes to men through study and research to confirm, one by one, the teachings that came by the inspiration of the living God to Joseph Smith, the prophet of this last dispensation.”
April 1925 General Conference
“No man who breaks the Word of Wisdom can gain the same amount of knowledge and intelligence in this world as the man who obeys the law. I don’t care who he is or where he comes from, his mind will not be as clear, and he cannot advance as far and as rapidly and retain his power as much as he would if he obeyed the Word of Wisdom.”
October 1935 General Conference
“I have been requested time and time again—principally by anonymous letters—‘For heaven’s sake find a new subject, and quit preaching so much on the Word of Wisdom.’ Never in all my life have I thought and believed and been convinced that the Latter-day Saints need the Word of Wisdom so much as they need it today.”
April 1937 General Conference
“The Lord God Almighty gave to us a revelation, and there is seldom a conference when someone does not take it upon himself to tell us: ‘Please do not speak on the Word of Wisdom. We hear it so much, we are sick and tired of it.’ Let me tell you something: No mortal man who is a Latter-day Saint and is keeping the Word of Wisdom is ever sick and tired of hearing it. When a man leaves a meeting and says (I have heard it in the dark): ‘Can’t they find something else to talk about besides the Word of Wisdom; I am sick and tired of it’—of course he is, because he is full of stuff that the Word of Wisdom tells him to leave alone. . . .
“I never thought of speaking regarding the Word of Wisdom in my remarks today, until now, but here it is:
[President Grant reads D&C 89 in full, with commentary]
“ . . . Some people say, ‘It is not given by commandment or constraint, and therefore I can take just a little sip.’ But what does it say?
Not by commandment or constraint, but by revelation, and the word of wisdom, showing forth the order and will of God—
“The will of God! Write it down, underscore it three times, and then, if there is anyone here who is not keeping it, get down on your knees and pray to God with all your heart to help you keep it in the future…
Showing forth the order and will of God in the temporal salvation of all Saints in the last days—
“The money that is expended for tea, coffee, tobacco and liquor would take care of all the poor people in the world, it would save the world, financially.
“ . . . 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 . . . ”
October 1937 General Conference
“The Word of Wisdom is what the Lord has to say, not what man has to say, and although an old subject, I propose to read the Word of Wisdom. This is what the Lord says, and not what Heber J. Grant says—don’t forget it. Let each and every one of us try to improve our lives and inspire others to improve theirs. No man or woman who is keeping the Word of Wisdom finds fault with it. Why? Because they know of the health they enjoy, they know of the peace, the joy, the comfort, the satisfaction that come to their hearts when they do what the Lord wants them to do. . . .
To be sent greeting; not by commandment or constraint
“Some say, ‘Oh, that is how I get around it. It is not given by commandment or constraint.’ What is it? I will tell you what it is
but by revelation and the word of wisdom, showing forth the order and will of God
“When the Lord shows forth his order and his will, do not try to sing lullabies to your conscience, any one of you who is breaking the Word of Wisdom.
—in the temporal salvation of all Saints in the last days.
“It would be the temporal salvation of the people of all the wide world if they would live the Word of Wisdom.
“ . . . It is no hardship to me to eat meat sparingly. I lived for several years, during the winter time, in the Utah Hotel and I am sure that not more than ten or a dozen times did I order meat, and then it was some small lamb chops; no pork, no turkey, no chicken, no veal of any kind did I ever eat during that time at the cafeteria.
“I rejoice in the remarkable health I enjoy. It has been the joy of my life to testify of the good things that come to every man and every woman who lives up to the commandments of the Lord. I thank the Lord beyond all the power with which he has endowed me to express my thoughts for this Word of Wisdom, the temporal salvation of this people, if we only keep it.”
What About Our Day?
What impressed you about President Grant’s words? Do you treasure the “letter” we have from our Savior, which is written to “give us vigor of body and of mind?” Are you eager to embrace all of the wise counsel that will bless us both temporally and spiritually?
For help getting started on 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”
Clearly the prohibitions in the Word of Wisdom (alcohol, tobacco, coffee, and tea) are the parts of D&C 89 that most occupied the attention of the early Word of Wisdom pioneers. What about the other parts? Clearly they were not as frequently mentioned, but neither have they been neglected. Next time, I’ll provide an overview of some of the early counsel on meat and feature yet another Word of Wisdom pioneer.
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.
 Heber J. Grant, “Answering Tobacco’s Challenge,” Improvement Era (June 1931): 450.
 Thomas G. Alexander, “The Word of Wisdom: From Principle to Requirement,” Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought 14 (Autumn, 1981): 78-88.
 For further context, see: Jane Birch, “Discovering the Word of Wisdom: Why the Preoccupation with the Prohibitions?” Meridian Magazine (September 26, 2014).