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. As always, the opinions expressed here belong to the author and do not represent Meridian Magazine as a whole.
I’ve been featuring Word of Wisdom pioneers, those who have most vigorously defended the Word of Wisdom throughout our history. Recently, I’ve featured two LDS medical doctors who published early clarion warnings in the Improvement Era documenting the power of a Word of Wisdom diet to prevent heart disease. In the context of early research on heart disease (featured in “Preventing Heart Disease”) it is clear that the articles by Dr. W. Dean Belnap in 1951 and Dr. Ray G. Cowley in 1969 were both well ahead of their time.
Today, I pause to consider the dialectical relationship between science and our evolving understanding of the Word of Wisdom.
Our Evolving Understanding of the Prohibitions
Each generation of Word of Wisdom pioneers has approached the Word of Wisdom with their own set of prejudices, adopted from the culture around them. Some of these prejudices have been good, some not so good, but it is inevitable that our culture and traditions color our perspectives. It is impossible to approach the Word of Wisdom without prejudice. Thus, each generation has contributed different values and insights to the Word of Wisdom.
Initially, the focus of the Latter-day Saints was on simple obedience, reducing or eliminating the substances the Lord declared are not good. At least during the first decade, health considerations were rarely used as reasons for avoiding alcohol, tobacco, coffee, and tea. Various members, even Church leaders, had different opinions as to how strictly the prohibitions should be kept. Some felt these substances should be completely avoided, but many interpreted the counsel to encourage moderation, and most continued to use them.
As the surrounding culture changed and the science evolved, so did the LDS rhetoric. The simple “order and will of God” (D&C 89:2) had not proven powerful enough to persuade many Saints to follow the Lord’s counsel, so as the health risks of the prohibited substances became better known, Latter-day Saints increasingly employed scientific reasoning to warn against the dangers of alcohol and tobacco, coffee, and tea. By the time the Saints were in Utah, most (if not all) sermons and writings on the Word of Wisdom cited health reasons (if not actual science) to strengthen the argument for obedience to the Word of Wisdom.
Even though their conclusions were correct (i.e. it is good to abstain from these substances), some of the reasoning and science Word of Wisdom champions used to support their claims later proved to be faulty. Perhaps not surprisingly, this established a pattern that has continued unabated to our day: the use of science to establish the truths in the Word of Wisdom, even though as science evolves, some of the arguments prove to be at least incomplete, if not incorrect.
Our Evolving Understanding of the Dietary Counsel
Next to the prohibitions, 19th and early 20th century LDS leaders most often advocated for using meat more sparingly, and preferably in times of winter and cold. Their use of contemporary science to support this dietary principle is an excellent example of how knowledge mixed with prejudice. D&C 89 gave them insight into evidence that supported reducing the consumption of meat, but lacking the scientific findings that came later, they based their conclusions on faulty reasoning. They drew on contemporary evidence to incorrectly argue that consuming meat was healthier in winter than in the summer. The evidence today suggests this assertion has no scientific basis. However, their general argument remains sound: we’d be wise to eat a lot less meat.
From the evidence, it appears that the Saints in Joseph Smith’s day did not even notice the other two dietary principles in the Word of Wisdom: (1) “wholesome” plant foods and (2) grains as the “staff of life” (see D&C 89:10–11; 14, 16). Because their diet naturally embodied these principles, these verses were not remarkable enough to cause notice. They didn’t have vending machines or 24/7 drive-thru junk food galore. The idea of being “anti-grain” was completely foreign: wheat was the de facto staple of every Mormon household. We don’t “see” principles that call us into action when the scriptures appear to be simple statements of fact.
It is only after the American diet began to fundamentally change around the turn of the 19th century that the nutrition world began paying much more attention to the health consequences of processed foods, and Mormons began paying more attention to the dietary counsel in D&C 89. Around this time, Latter-days Saints began speaking out on the evils of white sugar, white flour, and refined foods in general. As the idea that caffeine was the drug in coffee and tea that the Lord was guarding us against, cola drinks were added to the list of substances some Mormons claimed we should avoid.
The Widtsoes’ Book as an Example
The scientific rhetoric reached a new height in the 1937 publication of The Word of Wisdom: A Modern Interpretation by Apostle John A. Widtsoe and Leah D. Widtsoe. This book, the classic on the topic, was 250 pages long and employed extensive use of cited scientific research to promote the use of wholesome plant foods, whole grains, and meat sparingly, only in times of winter, cold, and famine. Again, while much of the science is now outdated, most of their conclusions, bolstered as they were by the word of the Lord, are still correct.
The Widtsoes’ book is the classic example of how the Latter-day Saints both used the Word of Wisdom to find hidden treasures in the scientific research and at the same time were blinded because of the science and prejudices of the day. Case in point: their firm belief in the nutritional qualities of dairy and eggs.
Dairy and eggs have held sway in the Mormon dietary imagination as “health foods” throughout our history. Because they are not specifically mentioned in the Word of Wisdom, we Latter-day Saints have not had the added advantage to help us see the increasing evidence that, like meat, these foods are best reserved for times of need. It is only as the health risks of these animal foods have been brought to light by non-LDS experts who support the principles of the Word of Wisdom that increasing numbers of Latter-day Saints have questioned their value.
In a straightforward examination of the three dietary principles in the Word of Wisdom, no doubt eggs and dairy are best classified with the flesh of animals. After all, they are not at all like wholesome plants or grains; their nutritional profile practically classify them as “liquid meat.” But culture and scientific prejudices blinded the Widtsoes (and many other Word of Wisdom pioneers) to these interpretations, and therefore they ignored the increasing scientific data that documented the health risks of these foods. I doubt they ever even questioned these assumptions.
LDS Have Been Followers Rather Than Leaders
What is clear now is that non-LDS experts have always led the way in helping the world understand the counsel in the Word of Wisdom. While we might have wished that our possession of the Word of Wisdom had given us the ability to lead out on these truths, the fact is that hard-working, intelligent experts not of our faith are the ones who have most strongly established the scientific basis for D&C 89. (These too are true Word of Wisdom pioneers, and I will be featuring them in a separate article in the future!) Our LDS Word of Wisdom champions have been, for the most part, followers rather than leaders in world nutrition.
Why followers? Why not leaders? Clearly anything I say on this topic is not conclusive, but I believe God is no respecter of persons. He blesses His children with knowledge and understanding based on their diligence in applying their talents and skills to the pursuit of truth. Establishing groundbreaking truths in any field, including nutrition, is difficult, painstaking work which often requires more than a dash of genius. No doubt we’ve enjoyed our share of genius and hard work, but we may not have applied it with the same degree of dogged persistence as have those who are true leaders in this field.
Could it even be possible that our possession of “the truth” may have blinded some of our Word of Wisdom champions? Sometimes when we think we know what is true, we don’t apply the same degree of effort to search for answers. In fact believing we “know the truth,” can prevent us from even asking the most important questions.
Still They Were Ahead of Their Time
While we have not been the cutting-edge leaders in nutrition, I am more impressed with how on target leading LDS exponents of the Word of Wisdom have been in terms of their general dietary recommendations! If the LDS community had only heeded their counsel, no doubt the amount of death and suffering that could have been avoided among Latter-day Saints would have been utterly phenomenal.
Where Latter-day Saint Word of Wisdom pioneers typically did not do the hard work to make breakthrough findings that established the Word of Wisdom, they often did have the insight to use the Word of Wisdom to discern and appreciate the scientific findings of others that did establish this dietary counsel. This was no small feat given that these findings have always been (and remain) highly controversial. It is not easy to champion a minority opinion, even if you do have scripture to help back it up!
It is Not Easy to be a Pioneer
Alas, it is clear that most of these Word of Wisdom pioneers were, for the most part, ignored by the LDS community. As we have seen, it was difficult enough for God and His prophets to persuade the Saints to obey even the prohibitions in this revelation; they had to resort to threatening to withhold certain blessings and privileges from the Saints to get the job done. It is no surprise that other Latter-day Saints did not have any more luck getting the Saints to pay attention to the dietary counsel. Though some were apostles (like Elder Widtsoe and Elder Merrill) or experts in nutrition (like Leah Widtsoe or Dr. Christopher), the Saints by and large ignored their counsel.
More than being ignored, these Word of Wisdom pioneers were often criticized for their beliefs. They were called “cranks” or “food faddists” or worse. Just like today, people do not like being told that foods they enjoy eating are not good for them.
The text in D&C 89 is only half of the revelation. The words are not complete; they are an aid to open up a world, and if our minds are not prepared for that world, we are blinded, at least in some respects, to it. What we bring to the text, and how the meaning of the text unfolds over time in our minds and hearts is the other half of the revelation. This is not something we do as individuals, but something we are doing as a community. As a community, we are coming to understand this revelation in new ways, allowing its meaning and beauty to unfold as we find the “hidden treasures” in this counsel from our Savior.
For more help on embracing a healthy Word of Wisdom diet, see: “Getting Started on a Whole Food, Plant-based Word of Wisdom Diet.”
My book, Discovering the Word of Wisdom, is now available in Kindle format.
Next Time in “Discovering the Word of Wisdom”
In each generation of the Church, Word of Wisdom pioneers have extended the boundaries of our understanding of the Word of Wisdom. Using the best science of their day, they have seen new insights and new discoveries in the text the Lord gave us in 1833. Next time, I feature yet another of these great pioneers as I begin to celebrate Latter-day Saints who championed a “whole food, plant-based” approach to the Word of Wisdom.
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.
 Paul Y. Hoskisson, “The Word of Wisdom in Its First Decade,” Journal of Mormon History 38, no. 1 (Winter 2012).
 One of many examples of this is the 1951 Improvement Era article I featured last week in “A 1951 Murder Mystery.” While the recommendation Dr. W. Dean Belnap concluded with is excellent and still valid, the science has of course evolved since that time. For a brief analysis of a few areas in his article that conflict with current science, see the notes at the bottom of Dr. Belnap’s article on my website, “Self-Punishment.”
 A. Jane Birch, “Getting into the Meat of the Word of Wisdom,” Interpreter: A Journal of Mormon Scripture 11 (2014): 1-36.
 Of course, there were processed foods before this time, and these grew increasingly popular throughout the 19th and 20th centuries. There were also Americans raising awareness of the deficiencies of these foods. Most prominently, Sylvester Graham began his campaign against white flour (and the poor bread people were “cursed” with) in the 1830’s.
 Jane Birch, “Discovering the Word of Wisdom: What About Dairy and Eggs?” Meridian Magazine, June 17, 2014.
 Jane Birch, “Discovering the Word of Wisdom: Why Aren’t We Told How to Eat?” Meridian Magazine, July 2, 2014