Editor’s Note: As is always the case, the views and opinions expressed in published articles are those of the author and do not necessarily 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.
In the last article, I addressed one of the most frequently asked questions about a vegetarian diet: What about the verses in 1st Timothy and D&C 49 that warn against forbidding meats?
This week I’ll continue answering questions readers have posted or sent to me via my website. Today I’ll address a surprisingly popular, but misguided, interpretation of D&C 89:13. Somehow the addition of a comma to this verse has persuaded some people to believe the verse should be interpreted in a way that is exactly opposite of its meaning.
Questioning the Comma in D&C 89:13*
In 1921, a committee of five apostles who had recently completed a new edition of the Book of Mormon began preparing a new edition of the Doctrine and Covenants (D&C). Elder James E. Talmage, a member of the committee, noted that previous editions of the D&C contained “many errors by way of omission.” The most significant change in this new edition was the removal of the “Lectures on Faith,” but the committee also expanded the headnotes, revised the footnotes, and divided the pages into double columns. Numerous smaller changes were also made. As one of the many changes published in the revised 1921 edition, a new comma appeared in verse 13 of section 89, also known as the Word of Wisdom. This comma was inserted between the words used and only:
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 89:12–13)
In his detailed analysis of the textual changes throughout the history of the D&C, Robert J. Woodford relates the following interesting story:
It [the comma] was never found in any text prior to the 1921 edition of the D&C. According to T. Edgar Lyon [prominent LDS historian and educator], [Apostle] Joseph Fielding Smith, when shown this addition to the text, said: “Who put that in there?” This is a significant statement since Elder Smith served on the committee to publish that edition of the D&C. Thus, the comma may have been inserted by the printer and has been retained ever since.
This story supports what has become a very popular interpretation of verse 13, namely, that the inserted comma is a mistake that reverses the meaning of the text and that the true meaning is understood only with the errant comma removed. This interpretation suggests that the Lord is instructing us that we should not confine ourselves to eating meat only in times of winter, cold, and famine, implying that meat should be eaten at all other times as well.
Not only is this particular interpretation of verse 13 found on numerous websites, but I am aware of at least a few BYU professors who rely on this interpretation in explaining this verse to students. It is also included in a number of D&C commentaries written by LDS scholars. The following is an example from James W. McConkie’s 2010 D&C commentary:
Sometimes the addition or deletion of a comma makes very little or no difference. However, in this case the use of a comma completely changes the meaning. Without the comma after the word “used” in verse 13, the revelation recommends the use of meat year round. The placement of a comma prohibits the use of meat altogether, except “in times of winter, or of cold, or famine.”
McConkie goes on to suggest that not only is the comma a mistake but that it “could very well be removed” in a future edition of the book.
Notwithstanding the popularity of this explanation and the absence of an official interpretation of verse 13, I believe that this particular reading of the text is without merit. Below I will summarize the reasons why, of all possible explanations of this verse, this one is not a worthy contender.
Use of D&C 89:13 Before and After 1921
The theory that the added comma is problematic rests on the assumption that adding the comma changes the meaning of the text. Those who support this theory assert that the original and true meaning of the verse is clear once the comma is removed: the Lord is not pleased when we use the flesh of beasts and fowls of the air (meat) only in times of winter, or of cold, or of famine. The implication is that it pleases him if we use meat at other times as well.
While it is true that the comma did not appear in this verse until 1921, it is equally clear that the way the text was read without the comma in the decades before 1921 was identical to the way the text is read today with the addition of the comma. In other words, adding the comma did not change the way the text was read. In fact, Latter-day Saints who were adult members of the Church in 1921 did not remark on any change of meaning with the addition of the comma. The assertion that the text should be read differently without the comma is a much later idea, dating back to about the 1960s.
The following are examples of the way D&C 89:13 was read before 1921:
In 1842, Hyrum Smith was Patriarch to the Church at the time he gave a lengthy sermon on the Word of Wisdom. He states:
Let men attend to these instructions, let them use the things ordained of God; let them be sparing of the life of animals; ‘‘it is pleasing saith the Lord that flesh be used only in times of winter, or of famine” — and why to be used in famine? because all domesticated animals would naturally die, and may as well be made use of by man, as not.
In John Jacques’s popular 1854 Catechism for Children, Mormon youth are asked, “Why should flesh be eaten by man in winter, and in times of famine, and not at other times?” They are instructed:
Flesh is heating to the human system, therefore it is not good to eat flesh in summer; but God allows his people to eat it in winter, and in times of famine, because all animals suffer death naturally, if they do not by the hand of man.
In 1857, Apostle Heber C. Kimball said:
In a revelation which God gave to Joseph Smith, he says, “It is not pleasing in my sight for man to shed blood of beasts, or of fowls, except in times of excess of hunger and famine.” Go and read it for yourselves.
In 1868, President Brigham Young counseled:
Flesh should be used sparingly, in famine and in cold.
In 1868, Apostle George Q. Cannon said:
We are told that flesh of any kind is not suitable to man in the summer time, and ought to be eaten sparingly in the winter.
In 1895, Apostle Lorenzo Snow (then President of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles) stated:
Unless famine or extreme cold is upon us we should refrain from the use of meat.
There is no evidence for the idea that, before 1921, any of the literate, well-read Church leaders or Church members read D&C 89:13 in the way later supporters of the “errant comma theory” suggest the text should have been read without the comma.
Further, after the comma was inserted in 1921, no one noticed that the addition of the comma made their previous reading of the text problematic. Church members continued to interpret verse 13 the way they had before, including those who were old enough to have noticed the change. No one spoke of the meaning of the text having been “changed” by the added comma. Here are a few examples after 1921:
- Apostle John A. Widtsoe and Leah D. Widtsoe wrote The Word of Wisdom, a Modern Interpretation. Elder Widtsoe, born in 1872, became an apostle in 1921, the same year the comma was added. In the original 1937 edition of this book and also in the revised 1950 edition, they wrote: The Word of Wisdom … deals only with grains, fruits, vegetables—nature’s products—and with meat to be used sparingly in cold or famine.
- Apostle Joseph F. Merrill, born in 1868, would have been fifty-three years old when the comma was added. In a general conference address on the Word of Wisdom, he emphasized the importance of not eating meat as “freely as many Americans are doing” and stated: [Quoting from a book] “Under conditions of extreme exposure to cold the heat [from consuming excess protein in meat] might be of service. On the other hand, in case of fever, and in hot weather, the heat excess induced by too much protein may do great harm.” 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).”
- President George Albert Smith, born in 1870, was fifty-one years old in 1921. President Smith was apparently careful about his consumption of meat. In the 1950 Improvement Era devoted to honoring his 80th birthday, his son-in-law reported:
President Smith’s meals are simple and nourishing. In the summer he eats no meat, and even in the winter months he eats very little.
Why Was the Comma Added?
If the inserted comma did not change the way the text was read, why was it added? While there is no definitive evidence of who inserted the comma and for what purpose, there are only two ways the comma could have got into that verse: either it was added intentionally or by mistake.
If it was added intentionally, Apostle James E. Talmage is the person most likely to have inserted this comma, and he is the person most often cited as being responsible for it. Because of his attention to detail, the editing of scriptural text was often entrusted to him. The manuscript containing the revisions for the 1920 Book of Mormon are all in his hand; of the hundreds of punctuation changes made to the 1920 Book of Mormon edition, all of them came from Talmage, and none was due to a typesetting error. As Talmage was also on the same committee when they revised the D&C in 1921, it is likely he directed the punctuation changes in that edition as well, including inserting the comma into 89:13. Whether or not it was Elder Talmage, if the comma was added intentionally, it was undoubtedly done by (or under the direction of) one or more of the original committee members assigned to the task. Though it was apparently without the knowledge of Joseph Fielding Smith (if we assume Woodford’s telling of the story is correct).
If we take Woodford’s story at face value, Elder Smith had not seen the comma before it was shown to him, but this is not evidence that the comma was put in by the printer or even evidence it was put in by mistake. It is not even evidence that Elder Smith believed the comma changed the meaning of the text, especially given that he himself wrote the following in his 1947 commentary on the Word of Wisdom:
Neither is it the intent of this revelation to include grains and fruits in the restriction placed upon meats, that they should be used only in famine or excess of hunger.
Without definitive records explaining the change, what can we know about why it may have been added? Modern linguists can provide a significant clue. LDS linguistics scholar Royal Skousen explains how the natural evolution of language can cause problems for our understanding and interpretation of certain verses:
A number of passages from the scriptures … have caused misunderstanding and confusion. In each of these passages the source of the difficulty has been the language of the passage itself. Sometimes archaic words or changes in word meaning cause misunderstanding.… Much of our confusion over these passages can be resolved when we seek to determine what the words in the scriptures originally meant.
One of the examples Skousen uses is the word only in D&C 89:13. He explains how the meaning of the word only changed over time, making it useful for the comma to be added so that modern readers would not misunderstand the verse.
Next Time in “Discovering the Word of Wisdom”
In the next article, I’ll conclude this article with the evidence that makes it clear that the comma in D&C 89:13 was no mistake and did not change the meaning of this verse.
Real Mormons • Real Stories
This section features Latter-day Saints who have adopted a Word of Wisdom diet. (If you have a story to share, please contact me.)
Sam Swenson was diagnosed with the crippling disease of Ankylosing Spondylitis shortly after his mission. Given no hope for a cure, he struggled for years with intense pain. Pain killers offered little relief. Then one day while sitting in Sunday School, Sam read the Word of Wisdom more carefully than ever before. He recalls, “I was in law school at the time, which probably explains . . . why I was more focused on the exact words and punctuation of the section.” Through carefully reading these verses, Sam was shocked to discover hidden treasures he had never seen before. Filled with a desire to claim the promises contained in the Word of Wisdom, Sam recalls, “I resolved right there in that meeting that if I really had faith in the Lord and his promises, I needed to follow his counsel with strictness.” Read Sam’s full story here: “Do I believe the Lord means what he says?”
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.
* This article was originally published as A. Jane Birch, “Questioning the Comma in Verse 13 of the Word of Wisdom,” Interpreter: A Journal of Mormon Scripture 10 (2014): 133-149.
 Richard E. Turley Jr. and William W. Slaughter, How We Got the Doctrine and Covenants (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 2012), 101.
 Turley and Slaughter, How We Got the Doctrine and Covenants, 105.
 Robert J. Woodford, “The Historical Development of the Doctrine and Covenants: Vol. II,” (PhD diss., Brigham Young University, 1974), 1175–76.
 Note that while I will often use the word meat, the text actually refers to “flesh also of beasts and of the fowls of the air.” The terms are not necessarily equivalent.
 James W. McConkie II, Looking at the Doctrine and Covenants Again for the Very First Time (West Valley City, UT: Temple Hill Books, 2010), 353.
 The first reference I have seen in print is in the first edition of Richard O. Cowan’s Doctrine & Covenants: Our Modern Scriptures (Provo: Brigham Young University Division of Continuing Education, 1966). Dr. Cowan does not recall where this idea came from (e-mail message to the author, January 30, 2013).
 Hyrum Smith, “The Word of Wisdom,” Times and Seasons 3, no. 15 (June 1, 1842): 801.
 John Jacques, Catechism for Children Exhibiting the Prominent Doctrines of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Liverpool: F. D. Richards, 1854), 63.
 Heber C. Kimball, “Shedding Blood—God’s Provision for His Saints,” in Journal of Discourses, 6:50, November 15, 1857.
 Brigham Young, “The True Church of Christ—the Living Testimony—Word of Wisdom,” in Journal of Discourses, 12:209, May 10, 1868.
 George Q. Cannon, “Word of Wisdom—Fish Culture—Dietetic,” in Journal of Discourses, 12:221–22, April 7, 1868.
 Dennis B. Horne, ed., An Apostle’s Record: The Journals of Abraham H. Cannon (Clearfield, UT: Gnolaum Books, 2004), 424.
 John A. Widtsoe and Leah D. Widtsoe, The Word of Wisdom: A Modern Interpretation (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1937), 178–79.
 Joseph F. Merrill, “Eat Flesh Sparingly,” in Conference Report, April 1948, 75. This reads “[meats]” in the original article.
 Robert Murray Stewart, “A Normal Day in the Home of George Albert Smith,” Improvement Era 53 (April, 1950): 287.
 Royal Skousen, e-mail message to the author, February 2, 2013.
 Joseph Fielding Smith, Church History and Modern Revelation, vol. 2 (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1947), 148.
 Royal Skousen, “Through a Glass Darkly: Trying to Understand the Scriptures,” BYU Studies 26, no. 4 (1986): 1.