On a TV newsmagazine a couple of years ago, Mike Wallace asked LDS Church President Gordon B. Hinckley about the church's distinctive health code and dietary restrictions. Wallace mentioned Mormons eschewing caffeinated beverages, including soda pop, as part of the health code referred to as "The Word of Wisdom." President Hinckley nodded in assent. I know at least one bishop who listened to that TV program with his typical Sunday night gathering of extended family--most of them nursing high-octane Coke products.

Did they pour out their wicked brews and reform their ways? I don't think so.

But the Mike Wallace spin on Mormon doctrine did generate a lot of heated conversations, Internet froth on listserves, smug satisfaction in some, and grumpy outrage from others. The debate about just what is "Mormon kosher" continues.

The ban on certain food items stems from a revelation received in February 1832, by Mormon founder Joseph Smith Jr. It is located in Latter-day Saint scriptures Doctrine & Covenants, Section 89. In its earliest phrases, it declares that it has come "not by commandment or constraint, but by revelation and the word of wisdom, showing forth the order and will of God in the temporal salvation of all saints in the last days, given for a principle with promise."

The passage prohibits the use of wine, "strong drink," tobacco, and "hot drinks," which have been defined since the 1830s as black tea and coffee. Caffeine is never mentioned. The revelation is not merely a list of "don'ts." It declares itself to be a "principle with promise" and urges followers to use "wholesome herbs" and grain, fruits "in their season," and to eat the flesh of "beasts and fowls" sparingly.

The promises are grand and poetic: "All saints who remember to keep and do these sayings...shall receive health in their navel and marrow in their bones; and shall find wisdom and great treasures of knowledge...And shall run and not be weary, and shall walk and not faint, and I, the Lord give unto them a promise, that the destroying angel shall pass by them, as the children of Israel, and not slay them.

Coming as it did during the sweeping 19th-century temperance movement in the United States, the Word of Wisdom's ban on alcohol for other than sacramental use was not extraordinary. (Mormons no longer use alcohol--or even grape juice--for their sacrament services commemorating the last supper.) Nor were we--or are we now--alone in our view that God cares what humans eat. Seventh-day Adventists, Jews, Hindus, and Muslims all have their own dietary codes. Documented health benefits have been attributed to each group's policies.

Paul Peterson, who teaches LDS history and doctrine at BYU, said in a recent article in the Salt Lake Tribune that "[Mormon Church leaders] preached moderation, not abstinence." This would explain why Joseph Smith had a bar in his Illinois home, why Brigham Young used tobacco at least in part because of toothaches, and why he sent Swiss converts to southern Utah to grow grapes for the "Dixie Wine Mission," eventually selling products throughout the American West.

Later-generation church leaders encouraged a stricter policy, and by the time Heber J. Grant served as church president (from 1919 to 1945), Peterson says President Grant wanted the faithful to avoid the "noxious substances" completely. "It was very much his mission."

By the 1950s, total abstinence was expected, and, according to Gary Bergera, co-author with Ronald Priddis of "Brigham Young University: A House of Faith," some church leaders and many BYU personnel "interpreted the ban on coffee and tea to include all caffeine-containing substances."

When decaffeinated coffees became available, inevitable questions arose. Is it the caffeine or is it the coffee itself? What about iced coffee or coffee ice cream? What about iced tea? Opinions vary, though they are often voiced (for both points of view) as though they were doctrine. Where is the locus of sin in the verboten beverages?

Current interpretations also include a ban on illicit drugs and drug abuse of any kind. Many of us are grateful that these fall short of banning chocolate, itself a mild stimulant. I personally view chocolate as my own nonprescription Prozac. One Lenten season, I decided to give up chocolate--for all but medicinal purposes.

The Word of Wisdom complies with healthy-living programs of all kinds, including, for example, the Dare program, though sometimes in unexpected ways. When the town's Dare officer in New England came to my son's fifth-grade class to talk about the evils of drugs, tobacco, huffing, and alcohol, he asked the children if they could think of one single thing tobacco was good for. My 10-year-old raised his hand and told him the scriptures say that tobacco can be good for bruises and sick cattle. The officer, flummoxed by this, asked my son to bring in the passage. The next day, faced with leather bound, gilt-edged evidence in Doctrine & Covenants 89:8, the officer shook his head and shrugged. "I guess it must be so! This is a first!"

Adherence to the Word of Wisdom is expected of all faithful Latter-day Saints. But whose version? The 1832 version of counsel, not command? The Prohibition-era command form under President Heber J. Grant? The no-caffeine interpretation prevalent among many church leaders, ardent missionaries, and celebrity newscasters?

The official word from church headquarters--Gordon B. Hinckley's nod to Mike Wallace notwithstanding--comes from LDS church spokesman, Dale Bills, quoted in the Salt Lake Tribune: "Members are expected to exercise wisdom in applying the principles of good health" on questions "not specifically addressed by LDS Church teachings."

That official word may be a bit vague for some. Here, for what it's worth, is my own take on the matter. I adhere to the Word of Wisdom. I abstain from the coffee, tea, alcohol, and tobacco specifics as mentioned. (I do not extrapolate further, though when given a cola option I prefer caffeine-free.) I do not abuse drugs. I eat meat sparingly. I try to eat fruit in season, but with produce shipping technology these days, that can be any time all year long, depending on where the fruit is coming from. Also, as my friend Cathy Stokes says, for those of us who live in cities, fruit in its season means when it's on sale.

In other words, I agree to live by the abstinence rules the contemporary church requires of me. Total abstinence does not make rational sense to me, and where moderation is possible, that's the principle I employ. But I do not follow the Word of Wisdom because it makes complete rational sense. Primarily, I follow these requirements because, besides promoting health, these expectations define my covenant community. I live the principles because I choose health; I agree to abstinence because I choose this community.

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