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Setting for the Revelation

Brigham Young tells what prompted Joseph to inquire of the Lord before he received Doctrine and Covenants 89. He describes the room where the school of the prophets was held attached to the Whitney store in Kirtland. Here “they assembled together… after breakfast [and] the first thing they did was to light their pipes, and, while smoking, talk about the great things of the kingdom, and spit all over the room, and as soon as the pipe was out of their mouths a large chew of tobacco would then be taken. Often when the Prophet entered the room to give the school instructions he would find himself in a cloud of tobacco smoke. This, and the complaints of his wife [Emma] at having to clean so filthy a floor, made the Prophet think upon the matter, and he inquired of the Lord relating to the conduct of the Elders in using tobacco” (Journal of Discourses, 12:158).

A Principle With A Promise

Doctrine and Covenants 89 contains helpful instructions for the latter-day use of our bodies. This fascinating section may be helpfully analyzed according to the Lord’s own description. He called it a “principle with a promise” (v. 3). Principles are guiding truths, or in other words, doctrinally based guidelines. Elder Packer has stated “a principle is an enduring truth, a law, a rule you can adopt to guide you in making decisions” (Ensign, May 1996, 17). Thus, the principle(s) of the Word of Wisdom establish a course of action that will enable us to receive the Lord’s promises. The principles are discussed in verses 4-17 and the promises are found in verses 18-21.

The first principle is a warning about the “designs which do and will exist in the hearts of conspiring men” (D&C 89:4). We must remember that our adversary has no body and is bent on wrecking our opportunities with one. Sadly “he seeketh that all men might be miserable like unto himself” (2 Nephi 2:27). From this we learn a significant reason for the Lord’s specific instructions concerning our bodies. In fact, we need look no further than recent revelations from the United States tobacco industry-whose deceitful and deliberate efforts to enslave millions to their products has been unfolded in the court system, to see the benefits of the foreknowledge of God. One apostle wrote over half a century ago about the “abundant evidence of the evils and designs of wicked men. It is seen in the advertising of tobacco, tea, coffee, liquors and beers and wines” (Joseph Fielding Smith, Church History and Modern Revelation, 1:384). The power of these advertisements is so great that many companies will pay in the multiples of millions of dollars for only thirty to sixty seconds of airtime during the Super Bowl!

Following the warning, the Lord gives both negative and positive prescriptions. Those things prohibited by God are detailed in verses 5-9:

5-7-“Wine or strong drinks” refer to alcoholic drinks of all kinds. The Lord said that partaking of them “is not good, neither meet in the sight of your Father.” The exception granted is the sacrament, which has its own restriction to that drink that is made among the Saints. This reminds us of the earlier warning to Joseph Smith about the dangers of wine even in the sacrament setting (see D&C 27:1-4; and heading) and out of which grew the current practice of using water instead of wine in the Church. As for those who would seek to justify themselves in partaking in “moderation,” Elder David O. McKay inspiringly declared: “It is sufficient for me to know that God said, ‘Wine, strong drink, is not good for man’; and I wish that all Israel would accept that divine statement, and prove in their lives to the whole world that they accept this as a revelation from God” (Conference Report, April 1911, 62).

8-“Tobacco is not for the body” in any form for man, but is useful in healing cattle. Elder George Albert Smith has stated, “In my judgment, the use of tobacco, a little thing as it seems to some men, has been the means of destroying their spiritual life, has been the means of driving from them the companionship of the Spirit of our Father, has alienated them from the society of good men and women, and has brought upon them the disregard and reproach of the children that have been born to them, and yet the devil will say to a man, Oh, it’s only a little thing!” (Conference Report, 1918, p. 40).

9-“Hot drinks” were defined by Hyrum Smith in 1842 and Brigham Young in 1867 respectively. “There are many who wonder what this can mean, whether it refers to tea or coffee, or not. I say it does refer to tea and coffee” (Times and Seasons, 1842, 3:801). “Many try to excuse themselves because tea and coffee are not mentioned, arguing that it refers to hot drinks only. What did we drink hot when that Word of Wisdom was given? Tea and coffee” (Journal of Discourses, 12:117).

5-9-Elder Boyd K. Packer has thoughtfully and humorously spoken about the temptation to consider these prohibitions in only legalistic terms. “Members write in asking if this thing or that is against the Word of Wisdom. It’s well known that tea, coffee, liquor, and tobacco are against it. It has not been spelled out in more detail. Rather, we teach the principle together with the promised blessings. 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.” For that matter, “everything harmful is not specifically listed; arsenic, for instance-certainly bad, but not habit-forming! He who must be commanded in all things, the Lord said, ‘is a slothful and not a wise servant’ (D&C 58:26)” (Ensign, May 1996, 17). Another witness to this is Joseph Fielding Smith. He has clarified that, “If we sincerely follow what is written with the aid of the Spirit of the Lord, we need no further counsel….  Thus by keeping the commandments we are promised inspiration and the guidance of the Spirit of the Lord through which we will know what is good and what is bad for the body, without the Lord presenting us with a detailed list separating the good things from the bad that we may be protected” (Improvement Era, Feb. 1956, 78-79).

If we are not careful, the negatives, or “don’ts” can get more press than the positives. In fact, the Lord has also discussed those good things he has placed on the earth for our righteous and blessed use. These “do’s” for our bodies are discussed in verses 11-17.

11-“In the season thereof” has been the cause of some confusion by those seeking to understand the Lord’s directions pertaining to fruits and vegetables. Joseph Fielding Smith has explained “any grain or fruit is out of season no matter what part of the year it may be, if it is unfit for use. The apple under the tree bruised and decaying is out of season while the good fruit is waiting to be plucked from the tree” (Church History and Modern Revelation, 1:385). Elder John A. Widtsoe further explains that with the use of “proper methods” many fruits and vegetables can be enjoyed long after their natural season and thereby not prohibited by the Word of Wisdom (see Evidences and Reconciliations, 3:157).

12-13-The “flesh also of beasts and of the fowls of the air” are revealed to be “ordained for the use of man.” The Lord had already stated this in a revelation to the Shaker community. “And whoso forbiddeth to abstain from meats, that man should not eat the same, is not ordained of God” (D&C 49:18; also 19-21). Elder Widtsoe offers the following: “The Word of Wisdom is not a system of vegetarianism. Clearly, meat is permitted.” As for those who choose not to eat meat, this Apostle continued, “That man can live without meat is well known, and he may live well if his knowledge is such as to enable him to choose adequate vegetable protein. And, all have the right if they so choose to live without meat” (Evidences and Reconciliations, 3:157). Further instructions concerning the use of meat are that it should be done with “prudence and thanksgiving” (D&C 89:11) and for “food and raiment” (D&C 49:19); “not to excess” (D&C 59:20), but “sparingly” (D&C 89:12).

13-“When this revelation was first printed in the Doctrine and Covenants (1835), there was no comma after this phrase [“should not be used”]. The addition of the comma clarifies the meaning of the text, thus dramatizing the importance of proper punctuation. The addition of the comma is in harmony with the context of the revelation, which is that meat should be used sparingly” (Joseph Fielding McConkie and Craig J. Ostler, Revelations of the Restoration, 655-56).

14-17-“All grain is ordained for the use of man.” Modern nutritional studies have shown the virtues of grains as the “staff of life” (v. 14). “Grains come in many forms and varieties, the most important being the cereals wheat, rice, and corn. Others are barley, millet, sorghum, oats, and rye. In most parts of the world grains are consumed directly by man…. All grain is good for the food of man and as feed for animals” (Doctrine and Covenants Student Manual, Religion 324-25, p. 210).

Following these directives we find the Lord’s promises for living the Word of Wisdom (in conjunction with living the commandments; D&C 89:18) in verses 18-21:

18-“Health to their navel and marrow to their bones” will be given. Two commentators, McConkie and Ostler, have expounded the meanings of these two phrases. “Symbolically, the navel represents the original source of nourishment and strength to every souls born into this world. Marrow represents the source of strength to the bones. The metaphor is rooted in one of the Proverbs. It reads: ‘Be not wise in thine own eyes: fear the Lord, and depart from evil. It shall be health to thy navel, and marrow to thy bones’ (Proverbs 3:7-8). In this expressive way, the ancient sage reminds us that obedience to the commands of God brings a healthy body. The chain of thought being that to trust God brings peace of mind, this in turn fosters good health, which in its turn brings a long and happy life” (Revelations of the Restoration, p. 656). These phrases are also found in more sacred settings still, and will find their ultimate fruition in the eternal realms of the Celestial Kingdom.

19-“Wisdom and great treasures of knowledge” will be found. It naturally follows that if my body is “under the influence” of an unhealthy substance, then my ability to recognize, perceive and interpret spiritual inspiration will be diminished. Elder Boyd K. Packer has said, “[while] the Word of Wisdom does not promise you perfect health… it teaches you how to keep the body you were born with in the best condition and your mind alert to delicate spiritual promptings…. Surely the Word of Wisdom was given so that you may keep the delicate, sensitive, spiritual part of your nature on proper alert. Learn to ‘listen’ to your feelings. You will be guided and warned and taught and blessed…. You shall be warned of dangers and shall be guided through the whisperings of the Holy Spirit” (Ensign, May 1996, p. 18-19). Another Apostle states, “those who, because of their acceptance and use of the Word of Wisdom, possess a clean body, a clear mind and a spirit in tune with the infinite, are best able to assist in establishing the Kingdom of God on earth, and thereby to render greatest service the their fellow men” (Elder John A. Widtsoe, The Word of Wisdom, 245).

Brigham Young warned that those “who will not listen nor obey” would reap “darkness and blindness of mind with regard to the things of God” and “they will cease to have the spirit of prayer, and the spirit of the world will increase in them in proportion to their disobedience until they apostatize entirely from God and His ways” (Journal of Discourses, 12:117-18).

Additionally, the ability to obtain wisdom-differentiated from “information” and even “knowledge” (see Elder Dallin H. Oaks, Ensign, May 2001, 82-83)-is another facet of this promise. Elder Oaks has taught, “as regards knowledge, the highest priority religious knowledge is what we receive in the temple. That knowledge is obtained from the explicit and symbolic teachings of the endowment, and from the whisperings of the Spirit that come as we are desirous to seek and be receptive to the revelation available to us in that sacred place” (ibid, 84). Only those who enter into the temples of the Lord-through, in part, their obedience to the Word of Wisdom-will receive this “highest priority religious knowledge.”

20-They shall “Run and not be weary, and shall walk and not faint.” It is helpful to recognize that this language is reminiscent of Isaiah 40:28-31. These words are part of that prophet’s description of the Lord himself. Those that “wait upon the Lord” are declared to be able also to perform in that Godly way because “He giveth power to the faint; and to them that have no might he increaseth strength” (Isa. 40:29; see Revelations of the Restoration, p. 657). Certainly there are miraculous cases of increased mortal physical performance as a result of living the Word of Wisdom, perhaps even the ability to endure tangible trials and afflictions well is another dimension of this promise.

In any event, it is ultimately the case that those who inherit the kingdom of God shall “be gods, because they have all power…. Except ye abide my law ye cannot attain to this glory” (D&C 132:20-21; Section 132 teaches about eternal marriage-which can only be enacted in the temple by participation in that priesthood ordinance; obviously to do this requires obedience to the Word of Wisdom).

21-“The destroying angel shall pass by them, as the children of Israel, and not slay them.” Elder Packer has illuminated the Lord’s intent by stating “surely… you see the prophetic symbolism in the Passover. Christ was ‘the Lamb of God’ (John 1:29, 36), the firstborn male without blemish. He was slain without breaking his bones, even though the soldiers were sent to do it. But it is not from mortal death that we shall be spared in such a Passover if we walk in obedience to these commandments, for each of us in time shall die. But there is a spiritual death which you need not suffer. If you are obedient, that spiritual death will pass over you, for ‘Christ our Passover is sacrificed for us,’ the revelation teaches (1 Cor. 5:7). While the Word of Wisdom requires strict obedience, in return it promises health, great treasures of knowledge, and that redemption bought for us by the Lamb of God, who was slain that we might be redeemed” (Ensign, May 1996, p. 19).

These are stunning promises when considered through the comments of prophets and scholars above-all for the taking, if I will but obey. In conclusion, Elder Packer has warned, “promises made in the revelation [D&C 89] will be denied to the careless or the reckless.” (Ensign, May 1996, p. 18). It will not do for me to justify my own will in the Word of Wisdom, I must find His will and allow Him to “rule and reign” and “be [my] guide” (Helaman 12:6).

Pristine Condition of Human Bodies Originally

Hyrum Smith, Joseph’s beloved brother once spoke in Nauvoo about the latter-day condition of our bodies as opposed to when they were first fallen from the Garden. He declares that only the power of God can redeem us from this degenerative state. Hence, the significance of the Word of Wisdom in that improving and perfecting process.

Everything has become degenerated from what it was in its primitive state; ‘God made man pure, but he has found out many inventions:’ his vices have become innumerable, and his diseases multiplied; his taste has become vitiated, and his judgment impaired; he has fallen-fallen-fallen, from that dignified state that he once occupied on the earth; and it needs a restorative that man has not in his possession-wisdom which is beyond the reach of human intellect;-and power which human philosophy, talent and ingenuity cannot control. God only is acquainted with the fountain of action and the main springs of human events; he knows where disease is seated, and what is the cause of it;–he also is acquainted with the spring of health; the balm of Gilead-of life; he knows what course to pursue to restore mankind to their pristine exeelency [sic] and primitive vigour, and health; and he has appointed the word of wisdom as one of the engines to bring about this thing, to remove beastly appetites, the murderous disposition and the vitiated taste of man; to restore his body to health, and vigour…” (Times and Seasons, 1842; 3:799-800).

Purpose, Power, and Spiritual Control of Physical Bodies

The Prophet Joseph Smith, through whom the word of wisdom was originally revealed, taught “we came to this earth that we might have a body and present it pure before God in the celestial kingdom. That great principle of happiness consists in having a body. The devil has no body, and herein is his punishment” (TPJS, 181). In a talk to the students at Ricks College (newly renamed Brigham Young University-Idaho), Elder David A. Bednar quoted the statement of Joseph Smith above and further explained that one of the blessings of mortality is “our physical bodies make possible a breadth and a depth and an intensity of experience that simply could not be obtained in our Premortal estate. As President Boyd K. Packer has taught, ‘Our physical body is the instrument of our spirit’ (Let Not Your Heart Be Troubled, p. 211). Thus, our relationships with other people, our capacity to recognize and respond to truth, and our ability to obey the principles and ordinances of the gospel of Jesus Christ are amplified through our physical bodies” (Ricks College Devotional, Jan. 11, 2000, p. 2).

In this same talk, Elder Bednar also quoted Brigham Young about the nature of our agency in regard to our bodies and their appetites.  “You are aware that many think that the Devil has rule and power over both body and spirit. Now, I want to tell you that he does not hold any power over man, only so far as the body overcomes the spirit that is in man, through yielding to the spirit of evil. The spirit that the Lord puts into a tabernacle of flesh, is under the dictation of the Lord Almighty; but the spirit and the body are united in order that the spirit may have a tabernacle, and be exalted; and the spirit is influenced by the body, and the body by the spirit. In the first place the spirit is pure, and under the special control and influence of that fallen nature that is of the earth. If the spirit yields to the body, the Devil then has power to overcome the body and spirit of that man, and he loses both…. When you are full of evil passion, and wish to yield to it, then stop and let the spirit, which God has placed into your tabernacles, take the lead. If you do that, I promise that you will overcome all evil, and obtain eternal lives” (Discourses of Brigham Young, pp. 69-70).

Some wonder about the body’s predilection toward certain sins like addictions to substances. Elder Oaks has commented on this so that there might not be confusion over how agency and freedom interact in the various circumstances of our lives. “When I say free agency I refer to what the scripture calls agency, which means an exercise of the will, the power to choose…. When I say freedom, I mean the power and privilege to carry out our choices. This includes everything from thoughts, such as hate, to actions, such as running…. We should be aware that some people are more susceptible to some addictions than others are. Perhaps such susceptibility is inborn, like the unnamed ailment the Apostle Paul… [suffered with; see 2 Cor. 12:7]…. Perhaps these persons, as the saying goes, were ‘born that way.’ But what does that mean? Does it mean that persons with susceptibilities or strong tendencies have no choice, no free agency in these matters? Our doctrine teaches us otherwise.

Regardless of a person’s susceptibility or tendency, his will is unfettered. His free agency is unqualified. It is his freedom that is impaired. Other persons are more free; because when they unwisely sample the temptations, they seem immune to the addiction. But regardless of the extent of our freedom, we are all responsible for the exercise of our free agency [our will]” (The Book of Mormon: Second Nephi, The Doctrinal Structure, Religious Studies Center, Brigham Young University: Provo, UT; 1989, 1, 13-14).

In the end, we must not forget that we have an envious adversary who is frantically seeking to deceive us about our bodies. Satan’s perversions tend to err on either side of the strait and narrow path that the Lord has mapped for our mortality. The sins of hedonism and asceticism are effective tools in the devil’s hands. Hedonism may be helpfully defined as reckless and rebellious behavior toward constraining bodily appetites. Nephi penned the immortal description of this attitude as an “eat, drink, and be merry” (2 Nephi 28:7-8) doctrine that deceives many about the true purposes and nature of life. In polar contrast, asceticism promotes self-mortification-an unnatural fettering of the body (see D&C 49 and heading). Elder Packer taught that we need to “learn to use moderation and common sense in matters of health and nutrition, and particularly medication. Avoid being extreme or fanatical or becoming a faddist” (Ensign, May 1996, p. 18).