This article is part of a series on the Word of Wisdom. To view all the articles in this series, see Discovering the Word of Wisdom.
Last week in “Rethinking Alcohol, Tobacco, Coffee, and Tea,” I explored the question of whether the prohibition of alcohol, tobacco, coffee, and tea in the Word of Wisdom is a principle or an application. As a reminder, according to Elder David A. Bednar:
Principles provide direction. . . A principle is not a behavior or a specific action. Rather, principles provide basic guidelines for behavior and action.
In contrast, Elder Bednar tells us:
Applications are the actual behaviors, action steps, practices, or procedures by which gospel doctrines and principles are enacted in our lives. Whereas doctrines and principles do not change, applications appropriately can vary according to needs and circumstances.
In determining whether abstaining from alcohol, tobacco, coffee, and tea is an eternal principle or an application of a principle, I explored the following considerations:
- Jesus Christ, His disciples, and ancient prophets drank wine and complete abstinence from wine or even strong drink was never part of the law in the Bible.
- The Word of Wisdom was not originally given as a commandment and even LDS prophets and other Church leaders did not follow it strictly during the 19th century.
- There are modern-day exceptions to the rule (most notably for medical needs under the care of a competent physician).
- There are many modern-day additions to the rule, as Church leaders also warn against illegal drugs and other harmful or habit-forming substances.
Based on these considerations, I concluded that the prohibition of alcohol, tobacco, coffee, and tea is an application and not a principle. Of course this counsel is a very important application because LDS Church leaders have consistently asked us to avoid these substances. So, while this counsel may not be an eternal law, it is a law required of us in our day.
Viewing these prohibitions as an application raises an important question. Since applications are always based on more fundamental gospel principles, what is the gospel principle that forms the basis for this application?
What is the Principle Behind the Prohibition?
What is the eternal, unchanging principle that flows out of “The Doctrine of the Word of Wisdom” and gives rise to the counsel to avoid alcohol, tobacco, coffee, and tea?
For possible clues, let’s first look at some of the typical ways LDS Church leaders have asked us to avoid certain kinds of substances:
- “We should avoid anything which contains ingredients which are harmful and habit forming.” — Mark E. Peterson 
- “There are many habit-forming, addictive things that one can drink or chew or inhale or inject which injure both body and spirit which are not mentioned in the revelation.” — Boyd K. Packer .
- “Avoid every kind of addiction. . . .The Lord in His wisdom has warned us that substances that are not good for us should be totally avoided.” — James E. Faust 
In addition, we have similar wording from official publications of the Church, including these:
- “Anything harmful that people purposefully take into their bodies is not in harmony with the Word of Wisdom” — True to the Faith: A Gospel Reference 
- “Members should not use any substance that contains illegal drugs. Nor should members use harmful or habit-forming substances except under the care of a competent physician.” — LDS Church Handbook 
If we look at the elements these various statements have in common, it appears Church leaders counsel us to avoid substances that are:
- Harmful to body
Note how a principle that encourages us to “avoid harmful substances” is flexible enough to be an eternal principle that could apply to all of God’s children. Of course, a substance that is harmful in one situation (morphine abuse) may be useful in another (after surgery), but the principle would be the same (don’t use substances that will harm you).
Is there anything in D&C 89 that could provide some wording for this principle? I find one helpful phrase in verse 5 where the Lord says that wine and strong drinks are:
not good, neither meet in the sight of your Father. (D&C 89:5)
Subsequently, the Lord declares tobacco “not good for the body, neither the belly” (v. 8) and says of hot drinks that they are “not for the body or belly” (v. 9).
I think this wording is useful. In the 1828 Webster’s Dictionary the word good includes the meaning, “having the physical qualities best adapted to its design and use.” The word meet means “suitable; proper; . . . adapted, as to a use or purpose.” Combined, the words “not good, neither meet” in this context suggests that some substances are not suitable, proper, or best adapted to human consumption. Given the sacred nature and purpose for our bodies, it is “not good, neither meet in the sight of [our] Father” for us to use these substances.
Notice how the counsel to not consume anything that is “not good, neither meet in the sight of your Father” could qualify as an eternal gospel principle, as this would be true in all situations.
We could also look to scriptures outside of D&C 89 for principles that support the prohibitions in the Word of Wisdom. Take, for example, any of the following:
- “Your body is the temple of the Holy Ghost . . . therefore glorify God in your body, and in your spirit, which are God’s.” (1 Cor. 6:20)
- “Present your bodies a living sacrifice, holy, acceptable unto God.” (Romans 12:1)
- “Whether therefore ye eat, or drink, or whatsoever ye do, do all to the glory of God.” (1 Cor. 10:31)
Any of these could quality as an eternal principle of health. Embracing these principles would logically imply that we should not only avoid substances that are harmful but that we treat our bodies as holy and belonging to God.
How would our eating habits change if we treated our body as the body of God? Or if we consumed only those things that would glorify God?
Why the Focus on the Four?
If the Lord is counseling us to not consume harmful substances, why did He do it by singling out four substances (alcohol, tobacco, coffee, and tea) as “not good” for us to consume? Here I’ll share some of my ideas.
As important as it is to know that “humans should not consume harmful substances,” it is pretty obvious from history that this advice, this simply-stated, is not particularly helpful. First, judging what is and is not harmful is not easy. Basing our decision on how we “feel” when we consume something, for example, is not a sure way to know what is healthy since many substances that “feel good” when we use them are harmful to us in the long run. Second, advice from intelligent people or from the science of nutrition is rarely unambiguous, and in fact is sometimes quite controversial. Often even the experts disagree, so we can’t entirely trust intelligent people or science to unambiguously tell us what is and is not harmful. Third, and most importantly, humans are extremely adept at justifying and rationalizing anything they want to do. Given the powerfully addictive nature of many substances, it is not surprising that we can find innumerable intelligent people who have all kinds of smart-sounding reasons why (despite very good evidence) substances such as alcohol, tobacco, coffee, and tea are actually not harmful (or not so harmful that we should totally avoid them).
It seems God in His mercy was very wise to give some concrete examples of what He meant by substances that are “not good” for us to consume. In giving examples, He didn’t soft-pedal; he chose the very substances that were most popular among the Saints at the time the revelation was given. In 1833, there may not have been even one adult Latter-day Saint who did not regularly use one or more of these substances.
From our 21st century perspective, the fact that God named specific substances as “not good” should have made it very easy for the Saints to follow this counsel in D&C 89. Of course, that is not exactly how it went down. Many Saints did completely abstain from these substances, but a great many more (including many Church leaders) did not. There are many reasons why, beginning with the fact that the revelation was given “not by commandment or constraint” (D&C 89:2). As for other reasons, they parallel exactly the reasons why Latter-day Saints today struggle to follow the counsel in D&C 89 outside of the four prohibitions. The fact is, it can be tremendously difficult for people to give up addictive or beloved substances.
Throughout the 19th century, LDS Church leaders emphasized the counsel in the Word of Wisdom against alcohol, tobacco, coffee, and tea, but during this time, they never established or enforced a strict rule of complete abstinence for all members. Their counsel leaned more toward encouragement, moderation, and common sense. There were always many exceptions, including, for example, being tolerant with older Saints who had already established life-long habits and allowing Scandinavian immigrants to drink coffee since it was such an integral part of their culture. During this time, Church leaders also encouraged the Saints to eat wholesome plant foods, wheat, fruit, vegetables, and to consume meat sparingly as part of following the Word of Wisdom.
Church leaders struggled mightily through the 19th and early 20th century to get the Saints to take the Word of Wisdom more seriously, but the compliance level was still relatively low. Their preaching increasingly focused attention on asking the Saints to simply abstain from all alcohol, tobacco, coffee, and tea. Finally, under President Heber J. Grant, Church leaders added more weight to this counsel by tying compliance to certain privileges of Church membership, including temple attendance.
The advantage of this focus on complete abstinence from alcohol, tobacco, coffee, and tea was that it provided clear and unambiguous guidelines for behavior. Clear and unambiguous guidelines always make compliance much easier, and penalties for non-compliance further increase compliance rates. This, combined with much fine preaching by LDS leaders, finally created a culture in the Church were complete abstinence was more the norm.
Consider what might have happened if instead the Church had enforced the principle that the Saints must not consume anything that is “harmful, habit-forming, or addictive” in order to be a member in good standing. Trying to enforce that standard might have generated much confusion and controversy about what did and did not “count.” And of course, if they had tried to enforce the additional counsel to consume “wholesome” plants, meat “sparingly,” and grains as “the staff of life,” assessing compliance would have been a nightmare and would have torpedoed the entire endeavor.
Emphasizing abstinence from alcohol, tobacco, coffee, and tea obviously made the standard for “keeping the Word of Wisdom” clear and easy to assess. But as this standard was emphasized, is it possible that some Church members might have concluded that the specific prohibitions were the essence of the Word of Wisdom rather than examples of a more fundamental principle? Is it possible that this practical emphasis on this gospel application had the unintended consequence that some Church members never made the effort to study and embrace the more important gospel principle?
Why Does It Matter?
Why does it matter whether the prohibition against alcohol, tobacco, coffee, and tea is a principle or an application? Does it really make any difference as long as Church members are abstaining from these substances? Consider how the Law of Moses can help us understand the important distinction between principles and applications.
The Children of Israel were slow to remember the Lord and so were given a “very strict law” that “they were to observe strictly from day to day” (Mosiah 13:30). The advantage of this law was that it provided clear and unambiguous guidelines for behavior. The disadvantage of giving strict applications of a principle is that doing so encourages people to believe that by simply following the letter of the law, they are obeying the principle. But we know this is not correct.
The Lord doesn’t just want our outward compliance; He wants our hearts. Doing specific behaviors, even if they are correct ones, is not following the principle. It is not enough to “do” the right things, we must “be” the right type of people and have the kind of character that naturally leads us to doing the right things at the right time for the right reasons. Thus we often hear of the importance of following the spirit of the law, or in other words, following the principle.
Many Mormons seem to believe that the Word of Wisdom is nothing more nor less than abstinence from alcohol, tobacco, coffee, and tea, but the Word of Wisdom is not a list of do’s and don’ts. The Lord gave it as a “principle with promise” (D&C 89:3). It is a principle based on doctrine. As our Church leaders have consistently counseled us, the Word of Wisdom is about honoring our bodies as a gift from God by eating in a way that cares for our bodies as temples so that we may not only have health, but that we may receive the greater light and knowledge the Lord would like to give us.
For many of the 19th century Saints, the principle of caring for our body temple was not enough counsel to generate the level of seriousness about the Word of Wisdom that the Lord desired. Concrete examples helped. The tireless preaching of Church leaders helped. Establishing consequences for non-compliance helped, but all of these efforts had an unintended consequence. It made it easier for the Saints to completely ignore the principle as long as they were abstaining from the specified substances that the Church had emphasized.
I believe we are still living with the consequences of this history. We Mormons are very good at abstaining from alcohol, tobacco, coffee, and tea (and we are very blessed by doing so!), but how good are we about embracing the following principles?
- Avoid all addictive, habit-forming, or harmful substances.
- Avoid anything that is “not good, neither meet” to consume.
- Treat your body as a temple of God and glorify God in your body.
- Show honor, respect, and care for your body as a sacred stewardship.
As important as it is for us to follow the counsel of Church leaders to avoid alcohol, tobacco, coffee, and tea, arguably, any of these principles is more important than mere abstinence from these substances.
What would happen if we focused first and foremost on the doctrine and principle of the Word of Wisdom? What would happen if we allowed the Lord to do as He promised to do in the New Testament when He said, “I will put my laws into their hearts, and in their minds will I write them” (Hebrews 10:16). If the Lord’s will was written in our hearts and minds, would we have any trouble knowing what we should and should not consume? Would we have any trouble embracing His counsel?
Next Week in Discovering the Word of Wisdom
There is a world of difference between mechanically following a rule and allowing the Lord’s will to be written in our hearts and minds. Next week I’ll explore this difference as it relates to the Word of Wisdom.
For help getting started on a healthy Word of Wisdom diet, see: “Getting Started.”
Jane Birch is the author of Discovering the Word of Wisdom: Surprising Insights from a Whole Food, Plant-based Perspective and many articles on the Word of Wisdom. She can be contacted on her website, Discovering the Word of Wisdom. Watch the video “Discovering the Word of Wisdom: A Short Film.”
 David A. Bednar, Increase in Learning: Spiritual Patterns for Obtaining Your Own Answers (Salt Lake City, UT: Deseret Book, 2011). pp. 154, 156. See also: Jane Birch, “Distinguishing Between Doctrines, Principles, and Applications,” Meridian Magazine (August 8, 2016).
 Mark E. Peterson, “A Word of Wisdom,” LDS pamphlet (1956), p.15.
 Body K. Packer, “The Word of Wisdom: The Principle and the Promises,” LDS General Conference (April 1996).
 James E. Faust, “A Royal Priesthood,” LDS General Conference (April 2006).
 True to the Faith: A Gospel Reference LDS Manual (2004), p. 186.
 The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Handbook 2: Administering the Church—2010, Selected Church Policies and Guidelines 21.3.11 (Intellectual Reserve, 2010).
 Webster’s Dictionary (1828), s.v. “good” and “meet.”
 Jane Birch, “Discovering the Word of Wisdom: We are Not Very Different from the Early Saints!” Meridian Magazine (October 7, 2014).
 Jane Birch, “Discovering the Word of Wisdom: Why Aren’t We Told How to Eat?” Meridian Magazine (September 9, 2014).