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 week in Discovering the Word of Wisdom Pioneers, I reviewed some of the counsel on meat given during the first 100 years of the Word of Wisdom. Given what the Lord states in D&C 89, it should not be surprising that Church leaders and others who spoke on the Word of Wisdom during this time consistently interpreted D&C 89 as an admonition to eat meat sparingly and only in times of winter, cold and famine. While it is true that the emphasis has always been on alcohol, tobacco, coffee, and tea, it is significant that no prophet or apostle has ever interpreted the Word of Wisdom to mean only the prohibitions. At no time have Church leaders told us that adherence to the prohibitions gives us license to ignore the rest of God’s revelation. Although not as emphasized, the dietary counsel has always been acknowledged to be part of the Word of Wisdom, and occasionally it has been the main emphasis, which brings us to this week’s topic.

This week I feature another apostle who served alongside President Heber J. Grant and Apostle John A. Widtsoe as a passionate defender of the Word of Wisdom, including the counsel on meat: Elder Joseph F. Merrill. Elder Merrill is distinguished by delivering what is clearly the most vegetarian address ever given in an LDS General Conference. What is unique about his speech is not that he encouraged the Saints to eat meat sparingly; what is unique is that this was the entire message of his speech.

Word of Wisdom Pioneer: Joseph F. Merrill (1868–1952)

Elder Joseph F. Merrill was not only a man of God, he was also a man of science and well respected for his education and intelligence. According to his biographer, Casey Paul Griffiths:

Joseph F. Merrill . . . developed an interest in science early in his life that blossomed into a lifelong career in academia. [After graduating from college] He went on to attend graduate school at Johns Hopkins University . . . and carry out additional studies at Cornell University, and the University of Chicago. He was one of the first members of the Church to receive a PhD. After his graduate studies in the eastern United States, he returned to the University of Utah where he served as head of the Physics department for nearly thirty years. . . . In 1928 he was asked to . . . serve as Church Commissioner of Education. In 1933 he was called to serve as a member of Quorum of the Twelve, remaining there until his death in 1952.[1]

Like President Grant, a tragic story turned Elder Merrill into a lifelong advocate for the Word of Wisdom. The tragedy was the death of his first wife, Laura, in 1917. His biographer writes:

When Laura was diagnosed with cancer, Elder Merrill sought every scientific cure available. He enlisted colleagues in the scientific community to provide radium and x-ray treatments for the cancer, both new and radical procedures at the time. When she passed away he was left a widower with six children, ranging from ages two to eighteen. Though he eventually remarried, the death of his first wife continually haunted him throughout the remainder of his life. In 1923 he recorded in his journal, “Had we understood and observed well the principles of nutrition I think she [Laura] might still be with me . . . She was taken away by a malady born of ignorance – a preventable malady I truly believe.” He was determined to not let the same tragedy occur twice, writing, “To the best of my knowledge I am now trying to teach the principles of nutrition to my family.”

Elder Merrill taught the importance of wholesome, natural foods and of using meat but sparingly. He developed a sermon, “Eat Meat Sparingly” which he considered important enough to include in radio broadcasts he did for the Church in 1931 and 1945. He explained that he spoke so frequently on the Word of Wisdom, “because the people of the church feel that they are keeping this commandment merely because they do not use tea, coffee, tobacco, and liquor.”

In one of his final addresses in General Conference, Elder Merrill focused exclusively on encouraging the Saints to eat meat sparingly.[2]

“Eat Meat Sparingly,” LDS General Conference (April 1948)

Elder Merrill begins his Conference address by praising the man who received the Word of Wisdom by revelation from God: the Prophet Joseph Smith. In Elder Merrill’s judgment, the Saints’ view of the “Lord’s Law of Health” was in error:

All over the Church the belief is general that the Word of Wisdom is practically observed if the individual abstains from the use of tea, coffee, liquor, and tobacco. But a careful reading of the revelation shows this belief to be erroneous. There is much more to the document than abstention from the use of narcotics. Among the statements are these:

“ . . . Yea, flesh also of beasts and of the fowls of the air, I, the Lord, have ordained for the use of man with thanksgiving; nevertheless they are to be used sparingly;
And it is pleasing unto me that they should not be used, only in times of winter, or of cold, or famine (D&C 89:11-13).”

Elder Merrill proceeds to make his case by quoting liberally from both scripture and science. He starts this discussion by citing authorities who tell us that “food has more to do with health than any other factor affecting health.” What an important truth for us to understand! No wonder the Lord’s Law of Health centers on food! Aren’t we fortunate that the Creator of our bodies has given us divine guidance on the very factor that “has more to do with health than any other factor affecting health”! Why would we ever want to ignore any part of this divine counsel?

Protein: As Controversial Then as Now

Just like today, people of this time period worried that eating meat sparingly might result in not getting enough protein. Just like today, people had to be reassured that this is not the case. So, even though this is a Conference talk, this is one of the main issues Elder Merrill addresses.

“Protein is the tissue-building constituent of foods,” he states and an “essential” part of our diet, along with “fats, carbohydrates, minerals, and vitamins.” But meat is not the only source of protein, he argues, and thereof “not a physiological necessity” since protein can be obtained from many sources, including “the proteins of vegetable origin.” Protein, Elder Merrill states, is found in every plant source, including, “peas, beans, grains, especially wheat, most vegetables, fruits, etc.”

According to Elder Merrill, the difficulty is not in getting enough protein; it is in getting the correct proportion of protein to guard against getting too much protein. Quoting from nutrition experts of the day, Elder Merrill makes an important point that is right in line with current scientific findings:

. . . foods should be so selected as to give to the ration the right amount of protein, or repair-foods, on the one hand, and of fats and carbohydrates, or fuel-foods, on the other.

According to what are regarded as the best investigations, the right proportion of protein is generally about 10 percent of the total number of heat units consumed. This means 10 percent of the total nutriment, that is ten calories of protein out of every one hundred calories of food.

To Elder Merrill’s credit, the fact that we need no more than roughly 10 percent of calories from protein is now very well documented, though you would not know it by reading about nutrition on the Internet! Further, Elder Merrill makes the equally important point that we can get too much protein. Again, he cites the nutrition experts of the day:

… a chief and common error of diet consists of using too much protein, two or more times too much.

“And why is too much protein injurious?” Elder Merrill asks. He proceeds to share several reasons, including how hard excess protein can be on the kidney and liver. Some of the reasoning Elder Merrill cites uses scientific language that is now outdated, but his main point and conclusions are well-substantiated by current research and nutritional advice: we are in more danger of consuming too much protein than consuming too little![3]

Elder Merrill concludes his discussion of protein with a statement from the United States Department of Agriculture:

… meat may be omitted from the diet altogether, for it has been determined that all necessary protein and energy may be obtained from other materials.

The USDA holds the same position today! [4]

Strength and Endurance

Elder Merrill next addresses the fear that reducing meat consumption will lead to a weaker body. Apparently, this issue was just as much a concern in his day as (again!) it is in ours. Here he relies on an authoritative book to address the topic. Elder Merrill states:

“The book, How To Live . . . says:

We have quoted Hubner, one of the world’s foremost authorities in hygiene, as condemning the very popular idea that meat is very ‘strengthening.’ Actual experiments on this point have shown exactly the opposite to be the case.

“This statement will surprise most people. But the book continues:

Meat eating and a high-protein diet, instead of increasing one’s endurance, have been shown, like alcohol, actually to reduce it.

“Then experiments conducted at Yale University by Professor Fisher are described, after which the book continues:

The experiments furnished a severe test of the claims of the flesh-abstainers. Two comparisons were planned: one between flesh-eating athletes and flesh-abstaining athletes, and the other between flesh-eating athletes and flesh-abstaining sedentary workers. The results would indicate that the users of low-protein and the nonflesh dietaries have far greater endurance than those who are accustomed to the ordinary American diet.

“Now let me read to you a few words from the Word of Wisdom, given by the Prophet Joseph Smith to the world long before science knew any of the facts that I have just read to you from How to Live. As a promise for observing the Word of Wisdom the revelation says:

And all saints who remember to keep and do these sayings, walking in obedience to the commandments, shall receive health in their navel and marrow to their bones . . .

And shall run and not be weary, and shall walk and not faint (D&C 89:18,20).

“Do the Yale experiments and the statements read from How To Live confirm or discredit the teaching of the Word of Wisdom relative to the eating of meat? How do you account for the fact that Joseph Smith could give these truths to the world many years before science knew about them?”

A Final Plea to Use Meat Sparingly

Elder Merrill concludes his address with a final plea to the Saints:

“Now I read again the words of the revelation to the Prophet:

. . . .they [meats] are to be used sparingly; And it is pleasing unto me that they should not be used, only in times of winter, or of cold, or famine (D&C 89:12-13).

“Latter-day Saints, why should you complain of the scarcity or high price of flesh foods? Have you not known that in any case you should eat them sparingly? The Lord told you so. I have quoted from some of the highest authorities in the world to the effect that they are not essential to your physical well-being. But Americans did not know this until God revealed it to them through his Prophet, Joseph Smith.

“And now I sum up. Proteins are the building materials of the body, the needed amount of which is largely determined by age and the kind of physical activity: but for the average adult it is about 10 percent of food intake. More than this should be avoided. Meat is the richest source of proteins but sizable amounts are found in the excellent foods—eggs, milk, cheese, beans, nuts, wheat, and more or less in other cereals, vegetables, and fruits. Americans eat too much meat, a non-essential in human diet, because all the proteins needed are available in the other foods just named.

“May the Lord help us to accept and live by every word he gives to us by the mouths of his holy prophets, I pray in the name of Jesus Christ. Amen.”

He Practiced What He Preached

It will come as no surprise that Elder Merrill practiced what he preached. “I have always lived according to my understanding of the Word of Wisdom,” he wrote in his journal, “this has contributed to my good health.” According to his biographer:

Able to keep up a rigorous schedule of work and travel well into his eighties, Merrill was living proof of his beliefs. . . . Elder Merrill passed away peacefully in his sleep at the age of eighty-three . . . the oldest member of the Quorum of the Twelve.

Some of the scientific language used by Elder Merrill in his Conference address is of course now outdated.[5] The best science available today obviously goes far beyond what was available to Elder Merrill in his day, but what is more interesting to me is that his basic conclusions, those which are in line with the Lord’s counsel in D&C 89, are even better supported by cutting edge science today, and yet we as a nation and as members of the Church are just as confused as the Saints were in his day, and we are just as much in need of Elder Merrill’s inspired counsel.

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 remarkable insights from one of the earliest Mormons to promote a relatively “whole food, plant-based diet.”

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.




[1] Biographical material in this article was drawn from a forthcoming biography of Joseph F. Merrill by Casey Paul Griffiths. See also, “Joseph F. Merrill and the Transformation of Church Education” (2011) and “Joseph F. Merrill and the 1930-31 LDS Church Education Crisis” (2010).

[2] Joseph F. Merrill, [Eat Meat Sparingly] Conference Report (Salt Lake City: The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, April 1948): 70–75. Note: The conference address was not originally titled, but it was based on a longer speech Elder Merrill entitled, “Eat Meat Sparingly.” When the Conference Address was published in the Improvement Era, it was entitled, “Eat Flesh Sparingly.”

[3] Dr. John A. McDougall, “Protein Overload,” The McDougall Newsletter (January 2004). See also, Jane Birch, “Discovering the Word of Wisdom: Where Do You Get Your Protein?” Meridian Magazine (June 17, 2014).

[4] The current USDA website provides a link to this useful resource: “Protein in the Vegan Diet.” This article echoes the same advice Elder Merrill taught, “Only about one calorie out of every 10 we take in needs to come from protein.”

[5] For example, like other Latter-days Saints of his time period, Elder Merrill was prejudiced in favor of the consumption of dairy and eggs, not realizing they carry similar health risks as meat. See, Jane Birch, “Discovering the Word of Wisdom: What About Dairy and Eggs?” Meridian Magazine (August 5, 2014).