Monday, June 17, 2013

Teaching And Pondering The Word Of Wisdom

I had the opportunity to teach Lesson 22 out of the Doctrine & Covenants Sunday School manual last Sunday at my student ward (a combination of single adult students of any age, young single adult non-students, and married students). I'd like to share how it went, and give something of a blueprint--a lesson plan for my fellow teachers out there--in case any of you are ever in a similar position, along with further musings on the Word of Wisdom.

For starters, I didn't use the manual.

The trail-blazer approach to gospel doctrine was both exhilarating and nerve-racking, as I have slowly been turning into "that guy" in the ward. The one who questions everything. The one who doesn't buy what the institutional Church has to say on every matter. The one who doesn't think "all is well in Zion." But the one who, inexplicably, has a testimony anyway.

Fortunately, I've also been lucky enough to be blessed with a rather diplomatic nature. As such, the lesson didn't spiral out of control, and I kept it as positive as possible. The comments I got from my fellow ward members afterwards were all positive. Of course, this led me to wonder if I did a good enough job teaching the truth. But ultimately, I was satisfied with the results. It made me realize that if we're ever going to have a Mormon Awakening, it's going to take genuine, spirit-inviting discourse, not petty hair-splitting and contention. I believe it can happen, one lesson at a time.

The Lesson

I did my best to layer the teaching, starting very general, and getting more and more specific as the lesson went on. We started by reading the entire section (89, for those unaware the Word of Wisdom was more than just a commandment pulled out of the Torah by the modern Church). Strangely enough, there were 21 people in class, and they each read a verse (it was meant to be, I tell ya). Then we went back and transcribed the information. I wrote on the chalkboard everything contained in Section 89 that pertained to man. Here's what we had:
  • For the benefit of whom? (verse 1)
    the council of high priests
    the church
    saints in Zion
  • Received how? (verse 2)
    by greeting
    not by commandment or constraint
  • Showing what? (verse 2)
    the order and will of God in the temporal salvation of all Saints in the last days
  • Given for? (verse 3)
    a principle with promise
    adapted to the capacity of the weakest Saints
  • Because of? (verse 4)
    the evils and designs of conspiring men in the last days
  • Not good for man (verses 5-9)
    strong drinks
    wine (except in offering up sacraments)
    hot drinks
  • Good for man (verses 10-17)
    all wholesome herbs
    herbs in season
    fruits in season
    flesh of beasts and fowls of the air (meat & poultry)
       -to be used sparingly
       -pleasing to God they are not used except in times of winter and famine
    grain ("the staff of life")
    mild drinks of barley
  • Those who walk in obedience to these sayings shall: (verses 18-21)
    receive health in their navel and marrow in their bones
    find wisdom and great treasures of knowledge (even hidden treasures)
    run and not be weary, walk and not faint
    be passed by the destroying angel
Inescapably, there were some comments and questions during the early portion of the lesson that could have easily been a springboard into the deeper things I wanted to touch on before the end. But I wanted to make sure we had all the information up before getting there, because I knew that once we got going, we'd never finish the entire thing; I felt it was important not to skip over anything, particularly the blessings at the end. I allowed everyone who raised a hand to comment without quarrel, but instead of then letting everyone off the leash and going at it, I told them we'd get back to them on any concepts or questions they had later in the lesson.

A particularly interesting question that came up during this time was: "Since I don't deal with lack of food during winter, or famines, should I abstain from meat completely?" He pointed to verse 13, which says, "And it is pleasing unto me that they should not be used, only in times of winter, or of cold, or famine." Upon first reading, it seems the Lord is saying that optimally, meat shouldn't be consumed at all. Another member, however, pointed out that it looked like a case of weird 19th century grammar, where the comma after "used" isn't actually splitting these things into two separate ideas, but they are one. In other words, it is pleasing to God that meat should be eaten only in times of winter and famine. However you interpret verse 13, it is clear that other places in the scriptures say that preaching to abstain from meat is a corrupt doctrine, not to mention that in verse 12, it is stated that the beasts and birds have been ordained for the use of man. It wouldn't make sense to not use something that has been ordained for our use. The key here is that they are to be used sparingly. So if times of winter and famine don't produce meat-eating necessities for you, it is up to you to apply the "sparingly" rule in a way that works for you.

Before getting to the nitty gritty at the end, I made sure to write a couple more things down during the course of the lesson--first, we defined a couple words that are used in the Word of Wisdom, according to the definitions of the day--namely, the 1828 Webster's Dictionary, which can be accessed online. The two words I chose were "greeting" and "constraint."
greeting: addressing with kind wishes or expressions of joy.
constraint: irresistible force, or its effect; any force, or power, physical or moral, which compels to act or to forbear action, or which urges so strongly as to produce its effect upon the body and mind.
Second, I had a list of principles taught by the Word of Wisdom--not specific do's and don'ts but the overarching lessons we could apply from this revelation. We came up with temperance, moderation, respect for creation (our bodies and other creatures), obedience (even though it's not a commandment, it was pointed out that it's still considered obedience to follow the Lord's will--fair enough), free agency, and order. I made sure to reference back to these principles when we started getting into the more challenging issues.

The Questions

Before teaching, I compiled a list of challenging questions about the Word of Wisdom. I wasn't able to ask them all, but I think I at least touched on all of them. Here they are, with my follow-up thoughts (some of which were expressed during the lesson, not necessarily as bluntly as I've written here): 

1) Is the Word of Wisdom taught today by commandment and/or constraint?

Interestingly, the class agreed that it was indeed taught as both a commandment and constraint today. It's a commandment because, well, the Church says so. And it's a constraint--an irresistible force--because without following it, one cannot get baptized or enter the temple.

Red flag, anyone?

2) If the Word of Wisdom is indeed the "order and will of God in the temporal salvation of all the Saints in the last days," how can it be changed?

Note the underlined "all." I kept going back to this all-important phrase in verse 3. It is commonly assumed that the Word of Wisdom was just changed; most Mormons don't bother asking why, as they consistently fail to distinguish the imperfect church from the perfect gospel. If only Elder Poelman's original talk was kept from the flames of destruction by the brethren, more members might understand this.

Anyone who doesn't seriously question why the Church preaches the Word of Wisdom as they do after reading verse 3 is probably content with blindly following their leaders. But to anyone looking for greater enlightenment, all they have to do is think about it for one second and they should conclude with the obvious. If Section 89 was indeed given as God's order and will for the temporal salvation of all the Saints in the last days, then it absolutely cannot be changed. Especially without the words of the Lord himself to clarify or add to, something the Church doesn't even pretend to have. We like to say that it wasn't given as a commandment at first because the early Saints were addicted to tobacco or liquor or whatever, but there's no scriptural basis for such an assertion. The Word of Wisdom applies to a Mormon in 1833 the exact same as it does to a Mormon in 2013, if verse 3 is to be believed.

3) When did the Word of Wisdom become a commandment? Can you find the revelation?

The Autumn 1981 edition of Dialogue is an invaluable source for this question. The writers delve into the history of the Word of Wisdom, exploring the role of politics and Prohibition legislation, the evolution of both the doctrine and nature of the revelation, and the claim that Brigham Young made the Word of Wisdom a commandment in 1851.

During class, I shared a few statements that were quoted in those articles, after one brother quoted Brigham Young from his smartphone during the lesson, trying to prove it was made a commandment in the 1850s. (Welcome to teaching in the 21st century!) The quotes we find in Dialogue overwhelmingly prove that Young never made it a commandment; he simply called on people present at that meeting to covenant to live the Word of Wisdom. Such an occurrence makes the Word of Wisdom no more a commandment to the entire Church than does an endowed member covenanting to cleave unto his wife in a temple sealing make it a commandment to the entire Church membership to also cleave unto that man's wife.

Some food for thought from the early brethren, comments all made after 1851:

"The observance of the Word of Wisdom, or interpretation of God's requirements on this subject, must be left, partially, with the people. We cannot make laws like the Medes and Persians. We cannot say you shall never drink a cup of tea, or you shall never taste of this, or you shall never taste of that..." -Brigham Young

"I am aware that it is not by constraint, and a man should not constrain his family to obey it." -Orson Pratt

"If you must use tobacco, put a small portion in your mouth when no person sees you, and be careful that no one sees you chew it. I do not charge you with sin." -Brigham Young

"Some of the brethren are very strenuous upon the 'Word of Wisdom', and would like to have me preach upon it, and urge it upon the brethren, and make it a test of fellowship. I do not think I shall do so. I have never done so." -Brigham Young

"Supposing he had given the Word of Wisdom as a command, how many of us would have been here? I do not know; but he gave this without commandment or constraint, observing that it would be pleasing in His sight for His people to obey its precepts. Ought we not try to please our Heavenly Father?" -Brigham Young

This seems to leave no room for doubt--Brigham Young never preached the Word of Wisdom as a commandment. The last quote represents the tone of what the Word of Wisdom should be. Not about being constrained to follow the Lord, but about desiring to please the Lord.

One final quote from George Q. Cannon, Brother Brigham's personal secretary, in 1880 (three years after Young's death):

"It appeals to our sense of right that a commandment does not, because a commandment comes with strict injunctions which leaves no alternative but to obey; but this is a word of counsel by a kind father."

Conclusion: if it wasn't a commandment in 1881, it wasn't a commandment in 1851.

4) If beer is against the Word of Wisdom, why did the Lord say that mild drinks of barley are for man? Why was beer consumed by Saints, including General Authorities in moderation, all the way until prohibition?

Rock's blog covers this with a fine tooth comb. It's one of the best pieces on the Word of Wisdom you can find online. It's amazing to consider that, according to those original words intended for all of us, to keep the Word of Wisdom fully we actually should be consuming beer, not abstaining from it. 

5) If wine is acceptable to the Lord to use for the Sacrament, and the purpose of the Word of Wisdom is to protect us from conspiring men in the latter days, why do we not serve it for our sacrament? Do conspiring men have any power over our sacrament ordinance? Or are we just too lazy to make sure it's wine of our own make?

I didn't get a chance to bring this up during the lesson, though the bishop did believe that "pure wine of the grape" meant grape juice ( What it comes down to is that the Church would rather not stain its teetotaling image by having its members consume even the smallest amount of wine, no matter how symbolic and sacred an ordinance it would be used in.

6) Is the Word of Wisdom a law?

The manual says it is a law. Section 89 says differently--it is a principle with promise. A law is immutable; the Word of Wisdom is counsel given for the temporal salvation of Latter-day Saints in the last days. When we conflate laws with guidelines and principles, we begin to lose touch of what the gospel is all about. Now, as I will mention in #7, the principles that can be gleaned from it point to a law (and, as given, the higher law), but the counsel itself is not law.

7) Which version of the Word of Wisdom--Section 89 or the modern LDS one--is a better representation of keeping with a higher law? Which one looks more like something you'd see in the Law of Moses? 

It was on this query that I ended the lesson. This is what I wanted people to ponder as they headed out. What really is the purpose of the Word of Wisdom?

Think back to the statements from Young, Pratt, and Cannon. They perfectly demonstrate the power in the Word of Wisdom being a principle with promise, not the commandment of commandments that must be followed or else. And strangely enough, it was something Brigham and Orson actually agreed on!

Christ fulfilled the lower law with a higher one. It was that same higher law that was restored through Joseph Smith. One would think, by observing the Church today, that it was a restoration of the Law of Moses, especially if one notices the way the Word of Wisdom has devolved from revelatory counsel encompassing all sorts of things to: DO NOT DRINK COFFEE, TEA, LIQUOR, DO TOBACCO OR DRUGS. THEN YOU HAVE PASSED THE SIXTH GATE ON THE ROAD TO BEING BAPTIZED OR ENTERING THE TEMPLE. IF NOT, YOU ARE A SINNER IN DIRE NEED OF REPENTANCE, SO SAYS THE HANDBOOK. AMEN.


The essence of the gospel is charity--loving our God with all our heart, might, mind, and soul, and loving our fellow man as ourselves. It's not about maintaining an image by strictly following a bunch of rules; it's about following the Lord in a way that employs our free agency to the best of our individual capabilities.

Let me illustrate an example of this: a common objection you may hear from the McConkieites who insist on imposing Pharisaical and dogmatic views onto the restored gospel is that we shouldn't drink beer--even if they acknowledge it might be okay according to Section 89--because it could lead to more bad choices. It could lead to drunkenness. It could lead to alcoholism.

Don't give these slippery slope arguments the time of day. Sure, one beer could turn into many, but that is for you to decide and you alone. Slippery slopes are sophistries of the devil. I'm sure he employed the same strategy in trying to discredit the plan of salvation. I can imagine him saying in the preexistence, "If you go with God's plan, it will lead to separation from him. This will lead to sin. And that will lead to some not being saved. If you go with my plan, all will be saved."

It's a persuasive argument, but deep down we know it is wrong. Free agency is one of the greatest gifts God has given us. Don't listen to anyone who attempts to usurp your agency, whether in the Church or not, whether they wave a temple recommend in your face or not. Such a mindset is Luciferian. Giving his children the option to follow the Lord's commandments and counsel is what is necessary to make this life work as intended; if that option is replaced with coercion and constraint, like the way the Church has hijacked the Word of Wisdom, it is going contrary to God's purposes.



  1. I am loving everything you are writing brother. ..found you thanks to Rock's blog.

    You make an interesting point when you ask if our modern LDS rules, laws and bylaws look more like the Law of Moses than the Gospel of Jesus Christ. I saw that there is a lot to that statement much deeper than it seems surface- when you look at the fact that Moses came in 1836 and secretly gave Joseph the keys to the Gospel of Abraham, after we as a church rejected the higher law of the dispensation of the gospel of Jesus Christ along with consecration, I would say that yes, we are currently actually living that lower law of the very real Gospel of Abraham so that is His mercy we are not destroyed off the face of the Earth.

    These stifling laws along ridiculous circular-thinking 'testimony' that if Joseph Smith was a prophet because of his gifts of prophecy, translation and seership AND then voted as president of the church, then everyone who is sustained president of the church must automatically have the same gifts of prophecy, seership and translation as well- has nothing in common with the burden is light and my yoke is easy' Gospel of Jesus and its fruits of miracles as manifested in 4th Nephi and Acts in New Testament.

  2. Thank you for the kind words, Fusion. And good points made here, I completely agree. The false idea that Joseph Smith=Brigham Young=John Taylor=...=Gordon Hinckley=Thomas Monson is one of the most destructive assumptions in the Church. The way I look at it, if a Church is under condemnation, not living the higher law, and no longer headed by a man who has the gifts of a prophet, seer, and revelator, it only makes sense to question that Church.

    But then again, I am just a lowly rank-and-filer. The only keys I have are to my apartment and my Mitsubishi.

  3. Nice blog.

    Two points that might interest you:
    1. It was a common custom back in the day to boil barley and drink thw ater consumed. I think the pro-beer argument is a possibility but it is inconclusive. (Yes, I've read Rock's blog post)

    2. The meat comma, it turns out, was added (presumably by a printer) in a later edition of the doctrine and covenants. If you check out, for instance, the 1835 version of the D&C the comma is missing (check out this picture from Joseph Smith papers for proof

    Read that way, it is clear that the Lord does NOT want us to only eat meat in the winter or times of famine. In other words, we are commanded to eat meat year round and in times of plenty.

    1. Congrats, you inspired a post

    2. Interesting thoughts, Rob. I never knew the comma was added later--makes for many more possibilities as far as that interpretation goes. On the beer point, I would just have to say that even if the barley boiling was a common practice, it wouldn't change the fact that the definition of "mild drink" as per section 89 in 1832 would include fermented ale with alcohol content in the single digits, and that the breweries and casual consumption of beer (i.e., Joseph's diary entry about Moesser's) within Mormondom were so commonplace that it appears to have been simply understood that beer was tolerated and even prescribed by the early Saints.