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.
Recently, I have been answering questions readers have posted or sent to me via my website. This week is the conclusion of the topic I addressed last week regarding a surprisingly popular, but misguided, interpretation of D&C 89:13. The 1921 edition of the D&C included an additional comma, which was inserted after the word “used” in D&C 89:13:
And it is pleasing unto me that they [the flesh of animals] should not be used, only in times of winter, or of cold, or famine.
Later authors speculated that the addition of the comma was a mistake that fundamentally changed the meaning of this verse. In the last article, I demonstrated that both before and after the comma was added, LDS Church leaders understood the verse to mean exactly the way it reads now with the comma. The meaning never changed.
As I concluded last week, modern linguists provide a significant clue as to why the comma was added to this verse. LDS linguistics scholar Royal Skousen explains that “Sometimes archaic words or changes in word meaning cause misunderstanding . . . [which] can be resolved when we seek to determine what the words in the scriptures originally meant.”
Questioning the Comma in D&C 89:13*
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. Skousen writes:
Now let us turn to a couple of examples from the Doctrine and Covenants. First, consider the use of the word only in that part of the Word of Wisdom that deals with eating meat: “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, 1921 and 1981 editions). In editions prior to 1921, the comma before only was missing: “And it is pleasing unto me that they should not be used only in times of winter, or of cold, or famine” (1879 edition). A reader might interpret this as meaning that meat could be used at any time, not only in times of winter, cold, or famine.
Of course, the real problem here is in the meaning of only. In the last century the word only very often had the meaning “except.” For example, the Oxford English Dictionary quotes a use of only that undoubtedly means “except”: “For many years the following notice was painted up at Bolton railway station: “Do not cross the line only by the bridge.” Clearly, this is the appropriate sense of only in this verse from section 89. James E. Talmage put the comma in the 1921 edition, but not in order to change the meaning of only. Instead, the meaning of only had changed and the comma was put in so that the modern reader could read the verse and still get out its original meaning.
In fact, there are many other examples throughout the scriptures where the word only means “except.” According to Skousen:
There are at least 10 clear instances of “only” with the meaning “except” in the Book of Mormon text.… The 1830 typesetter put a comma before 7 of the 10.… But for three instances he missed the need to put the comma[.20]
The following are two examples from D&C 121 where the word only clearly means “except.” Note that the first example does not include a clarifying comma:
That the rights of the priesthood are inseparably connected with the powers of heaven, and that the powers of heaven cannot be controlled nor handled only upon the principles of righteousness. (D&C 121:36)
No power or influence can or ought to be maintained by virtue of the priesthood, only by persuasion, by long-suffering, by gentleness and meekness, and by love unfeigned. (D&C 121:41)
Because there is no comma before the word only in verse 36, could we interpret it to mean that the powers of heaven can be controlled and handled on principles other than righteousness? Do we need some principles of unrighteousness to assist the priesthood? Clearly this does not make good sense, so we simply understand the word only to mean “except.”
In the second example, a comma comes before the word only, but even if we discovered that this comma was absent from this verse before 1921, no one would assert that the original meaning of this scripture was that such principles as persuasion, long-suffering, and love unfeigned are somehow insufficient to maintain the power of the priesthood. We would not be arguing that the addition of the comma reversed the meaning of the text. We’d simply interpret the word only to mean “except.”
Greater Internal Consistency
Looking at verse 13 from a different angle, another reason cited for discounting the “errant comma theory” is that the addition of the comma creates greater internal consistency in D&C 89. As Stephen Robinson and Dean Garrett note:
The difficulty in verse 13 lies in the comma following the word “used.” Depending upon the presence or absence of this comma, contradictory meanings may be ascribed to the text. Between 1833 and 1921, there was no comma in the text at this point in the revelation. The comma was first inserted in the revelation in the 1921 edition of the Doctrine and Covenants.
However, insertion of the comma brings verse 13 into agreement with the clear sense and intent of verses 12 and 15, and without it, these would seem to contradict verse 13.
This explanation is especially interesting in light of the fact that internal consistency is the most-cited reason for asserting that the comma is a mistake. This following example from McConkie’s D&C commentary is an example of this reasoning:
The placement of the comma in section 89 is inconsistent with some of the other revelations Joseph received. For example, in section 49 the Lord explicitly states that a person who “forbiddeth to abstain from meats … is not … of God.” (D&C 49:18.) Furthermore, meat is “ordained for the use of man for food and for raiment, and that he might have in abundance.” (D&C 49:19.) Timothy in the New Testament also warns that in the last days some, not of God, will forbid eating meat, “which God hath created to be received with thanksgiving of them which believe and know the truth.” (1 Timothy 4:3.)
The assertion that the meaning of verse 13 with the added comma is in conflict with other scriptures is a matter of interpretation. The meaning of D&C 89 with the inserted comma does not “forbid” the use of meat. Rather, it seems to say that meat is ordained for the use of man, but it is to be used sparingly, only in times of winter, cold, or famine.
No Changes to D&C 89:13 after 1921
Just as significantly, the punctuation in verse 13 has not been altered since 1921, not even during the major revision of the D&C done in 1981 when many changes were made and the footnotes were completely updated. Apparently, this was not an oversight, as verse 13 was specifically reviewed by the First Presidency and the Quorum of the Twelve, who, after asking Elder Bruce R. McConkie to research the matter, “decided that the comma as it now stands was in the proper place and should not be removed.” Here is the complete account as it appears in a biography of Bruce R. McConkie:
The Brethren carefully examined the revelations in the Doctrine and Covenants for printing errors and mistakes, including details as small as the placement of a comma. For example, during the committee’s work on the Doctrine and Covenants, the subject of the comma in section 89, verse 13, came up for discussion. The presence, or lack thereof, of the comma between the words ”used” and ”only” can drastically change the meaning of the verse. Earlier publications of the Church which contained this verse were ambiguous, as some included the comma and others did not. Elder McConkie said that the subject had been discussed by the First Presidency and the Twelve a year or two earlier. At that time they asked Elder McConkie to research the subject, which he did. His findings were then approved, and it was decided that the comma as it now stands was in the proper place and should not be removed. Therefore, the Scriptures Publications Committee did not take any further action. Elders Monson and Packer, both of whom were at this meeting, concurred with the decision to leave it as is.
Finally, it seems wise to base our interpretation of verse 13 on the current edition of the scriptures, especially in light of the fact that there is no evidence to suggest the alternative “errant comma” interpretation warrants merit. As Robinson and Garrett note in their 2004 D&C commentary:
[S]ince 1921, several different First Presidencies have had the opportunity to correct the reading of verse 13 in subsequent editions of the Doctrine and Covenants and have specifically declined to do so. At present, given our firm conviction in continuing revelation, we need to follow the reading of the most recent edition. There is no commandment or constraint on this issue, and Church leaders seem content to let the Saints apply the principle as stated here individually as guided by the Spirit.
Robert Woodford, who in 1974 had suggested the comma was a printing error, conceded in 1979 that we should “accept the verse [D&C 89:13] as written.” He still held to the view that the comma “reverses the meaning of the verse” but noted: “[I]n actuality most Latter-day Saints’ lifestyle is lived as though the comma were not there.”
Historical Interpretations of D&C 89:13
If the “errant comma theory” is not plausible, what does D&C 89:13 mean? To date, there is no consensus of opinion. In fact, during the last eight decades the number of interpretations has multiplied. This is in contrast to the first 100 years after 1833 when there actually was a consensus on the meaning of this verse among Latter-day Saints who addressed the issue. It was a literalist interpretation that took the verse at face value: it is pleasing to God if we do not use the flesh of beasts or fowls of the air, except in times of winter, cold, or famine.
The standard interpretation of D&C 89:13 during the first 100 years did not have a widespread impact on the dietary practices of the Saints during this time, but this is not because the Saints found this verse too ambiguous. The fact is, many Saints had a difficult time abiding by even the clearest counsel found the Word of Wisdom. After the revelation was given in 1833, there were Saints who promoted abstinence from alcohol, tobacco, coffee, and tea as the official standard for keeping the Word of Wisdom.
But the clarity of a standard of abstinence is quantitatively easier to understand and assess as compared to admonitions to use wholesome plants with “prudence and thanksgiving,” make grain the “staff of life,” or eat meat “sparingly” and “only in times of winter, or of cold, or famine.” Even so, the process of lifting the general Church membership to even the basic standard of abstinence from alcohol, tobacco, coffee, and tea took almost 100 years, and even now (181 years later) the task is not complete. LDS Church leaders are still working to help the Saints become fully obedient to this basic standard, even though the counsel in section 89 was specifically “adapted to the capacity of the weak and the weakest of all saints” (D&C 89:3).
Because Church leaders have never made verses 12–17 of section 89 part of the standard for Church worthiness, discussion of these verses has not played as prominent a role in the Word of Wisdom literature. This is particularly true of verse 13. In fact, Latter-day Saints who have addressed the Word of Wisdom during the last few decades have been more likely to emphasize the fact that meat is “ordained of God” and “not forbidden” than to suggest that Latter-day Saints should curtail their consumption, much less forego it other than in times of winter, cold, or famine.
It may be because of a disconnect between a straightforward reading of verse 13 and the dietary practices of the LDS people that alternative interpretations of verse 13 have flourished. Like the “errant comma theory,” most of the explanations of verse 13 (both before and after 1921) have been asserted without much evidence and have subsequently never been carefully analyzed for veracity.
While it is clear that the meaning of D&C 89:13 is not critical to keeping the Word of Wisdom in terms of the worthiness standard of the Church, it may be of value to anyone who wants to better understand the Word of Wisdom, as well to those who hope to claim the full measure of the promises contained therein for those who “remember to keep and do these sayings” (D&C 89:18).
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.)
As a young adult, Christie Cosky had no intentions of dramatically changing the way she ate. But after noticing that their diet was causing them to gain weight, she and her husband decided to eat healthier foods. Then one evening during scripture study, they read and discussed the Word of Wisdom, especially “the significance of the verses that talk about eating meat sparingly, only in times of cold, winter, and famine.” This led to more study and a prompting to give up the use of meat. Not only did the change of diet lead to weight loss, Christie’s irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) symptoms stopped, and her tension headaches disappeared! Read their full story here, “We love this way of eating and would never go back!”
Next Time in “Discovering the Word of Wisdom”
If the “errant comma theory” is not plausible, what does D&C 89:13 mean? Plenty of explanations have surfaced in the last few decades. Next week, I’ll address some of the most popular interpretations.
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.
 Royal Skousen, “Through a Glass Darkly: Trying to Understand the Scriptures,” BYU Studies 26, no. 4 (1986): 1.
 Skousen, “Through a Glass Darkly,” 5.
 Royal Skousen, e-mail message to the author, February 2, 2013.
 Stephen Robinson and Dean Garrett, A Commentary on the Doctrine and Covenants, vol.3 (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 2000), 149.
 McConkie, Looking at the Doctrine and Covenants, 353.
 Dennis B. Horne (2000). Bruce R. McConkie: Highlights from His Life and Teachings (Roy, UT: Eborn Books, 2000), 190.
 Robinson and Garrett, Commentary on the Doctrine and Covenants, vol. 3, 149.
 Robert J. Woodford, “A Survey of Textual Changes in the Doctrine and Covenants,” in Seventh Annual Sydney B. Sperry Symposium: The Doctrine and Covenants (Provo, Utah, Brigham Young University Religious Instruction, January 27, 1979), 33. [unpublished manuscript]
 This is based on my own analysis of the Word of Wisdom literature (published books, articles, and, more recently, websites) from 1833 to the present day.
 Paul H. Peterson, “An Historical Analysis of the Word of Wisdom” (master’s thesis, Brigham Young University, 1972).
 Paul Y. Hoskisson, “The Word of Wisdom in Its First Decade,” Journal of Mormon History 38, no. 1 (winter 2012): 132.
 This is based on the author’s analysis of the Word of Wisdom literature from 1833 to the present. The author is also doing research to explore the multiple ways D&C 89:13 has been interpreted since 1833.