Editor’s Note: As is always the case, the following represents the opinions and feelings of the author and do not represent the views of Meridian Magazine as a whole.  

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 Pioneers, I featured one of my all-time favorite articles on the Word of Wisdom, “The Sanctity of Food: A Latter-day Saint Perspective” by BYU Professor Paul H. Peterson. In this article, Dr. Peterson explores the way orthodox Jews find deep meaning and even a sense of the sacred from the everyday act of eating. He suggests that we Latter-day Saints could enjoy a similar sanctifying experience with food if we allowed the Word of Wisdom to enrich our approach toward consuming the foods the Lord has ordained for our use.

I’ve enjoyed writing about Word of Wisdom pioneers, but we are drawing near to the end of this series. With Pioneer Day approaching, today I invite each of us to consider how we can be modern-day Word of Wisdom pioneers. I also feature a few stories of modern-day pioneers.

“You Don’t Have to Push a Handcart”

I love teaching the five and six year olds in my ward Primary. As we’ve been getting ready for Pioneer Day, we’ve been singing:

You don’t have to push a handcart,
Leave your fam’ly dear,
Or walk a thousand miles or more
To be a pioneer! [1]

Is it possible to be a Word of Wisdom pioneer in the 21st century? Yes! Despite all the past preaching and exhortations, so few of us Latter-day Saints have paid attention that the choice to follow the dietary counsel in the Word of Wisdom does indeed make us pioneers.

While we don’t have to push a handcart, embracing the Word of Wisdom may not be easy. As the song says:

You do need to have great courage,
Faith to conquer fear,
And work with might for a cause that’s right
To be a pioneer!

It is ironic that 182 years after the revelation on the Word of Wisdom, it still takes “great courage” to be a Word of Wisdom pioneer. But as we have seen in this series, it took nearly a hundred years before the general Church population finally accepted total abstinence of alcohol, tobacco, coffee, and tea as the minimum standard set by the Lord and the Church for “keeping the Word of Wisdom.”[2] That apparently was the easy part!

How Are We Doing?

The prohibitions against alcohol, tobacco, coffee, and tea comprise 5 of the 21 verses in D&C 89 (vss. 5–9). Certainly these are important, and faithful Church members abstain from these substances. But what about the 8 verses (vss. 10–17) where the Lord gives us three distinct dietary principles? When we look closely at these, how are we doing?

  1. Do we eat only the wholesome plant foods God ordained for our use rather than the highly processed/refined foods that are short of many nutrients? (vss. 10–11)
  2. Do we use the flesh of animals sparingly (and preferably only in times of need)? (vss. 12–13; 15)
  3. Do we make grains the staff of life, the staple of our diets? (vss. 14, 16–17)

Despite our having a revelation from God and decades of research supporting these three principles from the Word of Wisdom, we Latter-day Saints still eat:

  1. An enormous amount of processed foods
  2. As much meat as ever
  3. Increasingly fewer grains

Of course, this is not true of all of us. I expect it is not true of many of my readers! But judging by the typical Mormon diet, it appears that we, as a people, have not paid a great deal of attention to any of the Word of Wisdom pioneers throughout our history. Is there any doubt that much of the ill health we see among members of the Church is related to our neglect of the Lord’s wisdom in D&C 89? What must the Lord be thinking?

As difficult as it is to experience ill health, it can also be difficult to embrace a healthy diet. Recall the words of last week’s Word of Wisdom pioneer, Paul Peterson. Before he experienced his own awakening to the dietary counsel in Section 89, he referred to those who would “broaden” the meaning of Word of Wisdom, as “extremists” and “food faddists” who are “out of line with Church policy.”[3] Yes, pioneers are sometimes called names and seen by others as “out of line.”

Who wants to face ridicule? How can we develop the needed courage and faith to heed God’s counsel? How can the words and deeds of past Word of Wisdom pioneers help us follow in their footsteps?

The Many Word of Wisdom Pioneers Among Us

May I suggest we do as many LDS converts have done? How many converts give up their old identity, along with former habits and practices, in place of a new identity and new practices when they join this Church? What could be harder than giving up alcohol, tobacco, coffee, or tea? And yet every year literally thousands of converts do this when they join the Church. We hear these stories so frequently, they are simply commonplace. Here are just a handful of examples:

  • Elder Jordan Rex shared the story of an investigator who saw the elders at her front door in a dream before they knocked on her door. She was a golden investigator, but they were nervous when she served them iced tea on the day they were going to teach her the Word of Wisdom, worried that they would offend her and “scare her off from her scheduled baptism.” Instead, “As soon as we explained the doctrines involved, she said, ‘Elders! Why didn’t you tell me this earlier!’ She then immediately picked up our glasses of tea, poured the contents down the sink and then threw her boxes of iced tea in the trash bin.”
  • Joyce Kinmont and her husband took the missionary discussions in their early twenties. She recalls, “The day the missionaries taught us about the Word of Wisdom, my husband handed them his cigarettes.”
  • Coffee and alcohol were a normal part of life for Diana Mahony as she was growing up, but when she heard the gospel, the next morning at breakfast, she passed up the coffee. She told her family, “Mormons don’t drink coffee, so I’m not going to drink the coffee.” She later recalled, “I never drank coffee or alcohol again. I had no desire. The decision was made. I loved coffee, but I wanted to be a Mormon, and Mormons didn’t drink coffee, so I didn’t drink coffee. Period. That was it.”[4]

Today’s converts are Word of Wisdom pioneers in their families. Just think: their ancestors have likely used alcohol, tobacco, coffee, or tea through thousands of years of human history! These are substances that have been used and enjoyed (whenever available) throughout generations of time. These brave converts, through faith in God, may well be the first members of their families to voluntarily abstain from all of these substances and establish a new tradition in their families. Are they not Word of Wisdom pioneers?

By embracing the prohibitions in the Word of Wisdom as a people, we Mormons literally changed our identity. Many people now identify us as people who do not use alcohol, tobacco, coffee, or tea. Most of us do not struggle with these addictions, even if we are converts, because we have so fully adopted this new identity. Could we not do the same with the dietary counsel in D&C 89? What if we decided that from now on we will take on ourselves the identity of one who joyfully embraces all of the counsel in D&C 89?

Simply Doing as the Lord Recommends

I wonder how many Latter-day Saints have read D&C 89 and then made a quiet personal decision, such as, “It is pleasing to the Lord if we abstain from meat, so I’m not going to use it.” How many Saints could say, after making this personal pledge, something similar to what Diana Mahony (above) said, “I never ate meat again. I had no desire. The decision was made. I loved meat, but I wanted to please the Lord, and the Lord is pleased if we don’t use meat, so I don’t use meat. Period. That was it.”

As I’ve been sharing the stories of Latter-day Saints adopting a whole food, plant-based Word of Wisdom diet, I’ve been surprised at the number of converts who, after reading the Word of Wisdom, thought they were joining a vegetarian Church! Here are a few examples:

  • Joyce Kinmont (whose husband gave the missionaries his cigarettes) recalled that the missionaries, “left us a pamphlet to read about Section 89 . . . which defines a healthy diet. In it the Lord says, ‘it is pleasing unto me that they [animals] should not be used, only in times of winter, or of cold, or famine’ (v. 13). We took the words at face value. We thought we were joining a vegetarian church. Well, OK, we thought we can do that. Living in warm, famine-free Southern California, we assumed these folks would not be eating much meat. Naively, we went happily off to our first church social, a ham dinner!”
  • Missionaries had given Warner Molema’s parents a copy of the Doctrine and Covenants when he was young, so it was in his home in South Africa. Though they were not LDS, when Warner read D&C 89, he decided to accept it and stop eating meat, in addition to alcohol, tobacco, and all “hot drinks.” Later when he joined the Church, it was only while serving a mission that he reluctantly ate some meat. He recalls, “it is very difficult to tell the kind members who had invited the missionaries to dinner that I could not eat the food they prepared.”
  • When Julie Beal joined the Church, she recalls, “I took the Word of Wisdom literally, believing it means what it states . . . [so] after reading the Word of Wisdom, it was a bit confusing to see meat being consumed so frequently by other Church members. I hadn’t expected that.”

Of course, we all have good reasons for not doing all the things that the Lord asks us to do. I know I ignored the counsel in D&C 89 for most of my life, excusing myself since everyone else did the same. Now I’m finding great joy in embracing the Lord’s counsel and adopting a new identity as a modern-day Word of Wisdom pioneer.

Our ancestors were lucky just to get enough food to sustain life. They did not have the opportunity or choice to be health food pioneers by voluntarily choosing a healthier diet. If our ancestors ate a healthier diet, it was because that is all they had. But our food situation is different. We have endless choice, so we can be pioneers in our families, the first members of our family to voluntarily choose to eat only the foods ordained by God for our use, in the manner pleasing to Him.

Modern-day Word of Wisdom Pioneers

What makes my joy in choosing a Word of Wisdom diet all the more thrilling is witnessing how many other Latter-day Saints are adopting the same new identity! On my website, “Discovering the Word of Wisdom,” I feature the stories of many Mormons who have changed their identity to one who embraces the dietary counsel in the Word of Wisdom. Each is a pioneer in some way. They have adopted a new identity. They are plowing new ground in their families, exploring uncharted territory, and opening up new vistas for those around them. They often have little help or support from friends and family, but through their diligence and example, they are paving the way for others to follow.

The following are just a few examples that can inspire all of us to adopt this new identity:

  • 25 years ago, the science supporting a healthy diet convinced Rogan Taylor that he and his wife Lynda should give up animal foods and embrace a Word of Wisdom diet. With a change of diet, the “terrible allergies” he had suffered since his youth disappeared. Since that day, Rogan has introduced this diet to literally thousands of clients in his physical therapy practice in Utah. See: “I believe every verse in the Word of Wisdom.”
  • For many years, Orva Johnson was the only person in her family to embrace a Word of Wisdom diet. Then a diabetic health crisis convinced her husband to give this diet a try. Amazingly, their nine children went on the diet with him to show their support. The doctor was highly skeptical, but then amazed when this diet cured his essentially incurable condition. By this time, the kids were also hooked. Now both their children and grandchildren have adopted a Word of Wisdom diet. See: “I knew I was being guided.”
  • Elodie Picard, a native of France, was diagnosed with thyroid cancer. Severe complications left her in a difficult situation with very few options. She recalls, “I did what any child of God does in this situation—I went on my knees and asked for His help.” The Lord led her to a Word of Wisdom diet, which completely resolved all of her complicated health problems. Now living in Vienna, Austria, she shares this amazing Word of Wisdom diet with members of her ward and stake. See: “I went on my knees and asked for His help.”

What starts with a single pioneer can quickly spread to many others: family, ward members, colleagues, and friends. Who wouldn’t benefit from the blessings of health, energy, and vitality, not to mention the hidden treasures promised in D&C 89?

We Need More Pioneers!

In my humble opinion, there has never been more of need for the Word of Wisdom than in our day, here in the 21st century. In fact, I believe the Word of Wisdom is tailor designed to address the diet and the health problems of our day. Our ancestors, including those who lived during the early days of the Church, had very little choice about their diet. We, on the other hand, with our almost infinite amount of choice, have too often used that freedom to choose foods that make us sick and tired. My guess is that this is not how the Lord wants us to treat our body temples!

Let’s take courage. We don’t have to push a handcart, leave our families, or walk a 1,000 miles, but we do have to have great courage and faith to conquer fear. If it is not easy, and we receive ridicule from others, at least we Mormons are used to that! In the recent “Face to Face with Elder and Sister Bednar,” Elder Bednar candidly told the youth that if you live the gospel, “You’ll be strange.” That is, others will think you are strange because you don’t do all the things they do. You are different. But, as Elder Bednar explains:

As you live it, many people will be curious. They will ask, and that provides an opportunity for you to assist them in learning about why you are the way you are.[5]

Being a Word of Wisdom pioneer provides the same opportunity to us to set an example. Yes, others, even those of our own faith, may find us strange, but they will also be curious. They will be curious not only about our healthy diet, but about our good health, our radiant glow, our trim bodies, the fact that we rarely get sick, and all the energy we have for doing good!

Choose to be different. Choose to be strange. Choose to be a Word of Wisdom pioneer!

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”

Next week is the final article in this series on Word of Wisdom pioneers. I plan to focus on some of the lessons we have learned through this look back at history.

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] Ruth Muir Gardner, “To Be a Pioneer,” Children’s Songbook (Salt Lake City, Utah: The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 1989), 218.

[2] Jane Birch, “Discovering the Word of Wisdom: Why Aren’t We Told How to Eat?” Meridian Magazine (September 9, 2014).

[3] Paul H. Peterson, An Historical Analysis of the Word of Wisdom (M.A. thesis, Brigham Young University, August 1972), p. 100.

[4] Jane Birch, Discovering the Word of Wisdom: Surprising Insights from a Whole Food, Plant-based Perspective (Provo, Utah: Fresh Awakenings, 2013), 77.

[5] Elder David A. Bednar and Susan Bednar, “Face to Face with Elder and Sister Bednar” (May 12, 2015).