The LDS Church promotes a health code which includes total abstinence from alcohol, tobacco, coffee and tea. The Church claims that the Word was inspired of God during a time when society remained unaware of the ill effects of strong drink and excessive consumption of meat. The real story is far more nuanced.
Few modern LDS members are aware that similar health codes and organized abstinence initiatives were well known concepts of the mid-1800s. Nor is it mere coincidence that American Temperance Society’s National Day of Temperance occurred the very day prior to Smith’s Word of Wisdom revelation, or how the revelatory language exactly mirrors the public discourse not only of the time, but literally of that week. Similarly, the suggestion to avoid “hot drinks” referred to drinks of a hot temperature and had nothing to do with the contents of coffee or tea.
In addition, the revelation was originally not a commandment, but a “suggestion” that remained largely ignored for generations, as the prophets after Smith (and Smith himself) continued to drink, while operating a distillery and maintaining control of profitable alcohol distribution in Utah. References in the Word of Wisdom to “barley drinks” seem to authorize mild beers (not Postum, as some Mormons believe), but this phrase is most often entirely overlooked.
Vegetarianism was also coming into vogue in the mid-1800s, though Smith’s wording in the revelation is less strict than many modern vegetarians aspire to. Mormons often congratulate themselves for following the Word of Wisdom as it is interpreted today, rarely reading the actual law, and completely ignoring the “eat meat sparingly” aspect of the revelation, perhaps because the LDS Church owns 2% of Florida, including the nation’s largest cattle ranch – plus meat is tasty. (King Ranch in Texas has more land but fewer cattle)
The modern LDS Church rightfully recognizes itself for lower rates of cancer in Utah because of low tobacco usage. Meanwhile obesity and cardiovascular disease remain huge problems, as the consumption of meat, processed and sugary foods have become the classic Mormon substitutes for coffee, tea, and alcohol. Perhaps if God had wanted to deliver a revelation that saved lives and improved wellbeing, He would have had more important things to say, beyond health suggestions that were commonplace for the time. For instance, the Word of Wisdom was adopted before germ theory became accepted, when many routinely died from disease and bacteria. If God had instead merely whispered “Boil your water,” millions of his children worldwide would have avoided severe sickness and early death; and there would be a lot more Mormons today.
THE WORD IS BORN
The Temperance Movement was very much a thing by the late 1820s. Simplicity of Health, published in 1829, elaborates on every item in Word of Wisdom. Means of Preserving Health was published in 1806 and contains every bit of the Word of Wisdom: avoidance of alcohol, coffee, tea, and tobacco and sparing use of meat, as well as eating fruits in season. The Journal of Health, published in Philadelphia, August 25, 1830 also contains every aspect of the Word of Wisdom.
The Kirtland chapter of Temperance Society formed in 1830, shortly before Mormons arrived from New York. Presbyterian minister, Sylvester Graham, conducted a speaking tour for almost fifteen years extolling the virtues of abstaining from alcohol, smoking, tea, coffee, and eating a diet mainly of grains, local fruits and vegetables; meat was expressly forbidden. He was popular and well known in the late 1820s – 1840, and also invented the Graham Cracker.
Feb 26, 1833 was National Day of Temperance, which prompted much discussion in Nauvoo. It was common practice at School of Elders to chew, spit and smoke tobacco. The ladies, as tradition would have it, were tasked with cleaning up the boys’ mess. Emma was prompted to lament, “It would be a good thing if a revelation could be had declaring the use of tobacco a sin, and commanding its suppression.” The matter was taken up and joked about, one of the brethren suggested that the revelation should also provide for a total abstinence from tea and coffee drinking, intending this as a counter dig at the sisters. Far from a groundbreaking revelation from God about health, Joseph Smith, Emma and the School of Elders were simply discussing the events of their day. Imagine their surprise when the following day, Feb 27, 1833, Smith brought forth revelation from God that conveniently ended the debate, using the very language of the temperance movement.
NOT A COMMANDMENT
Though LDS leaders insist that Smith was prescient in receiving health information from God, the Word of Wisdom revelation found in D&C 89 is not what we know today. It was delivered as guidance or sound advice; not by commandment. In fact, it does not include beer or wine, only hard liquor, and was originally never used to exclude members from temple worship; it was not meant to sift the faithful from the less devout.
The first three verses of the current scripture, the “not by commandment or constraint” part, were originally written only as introduction. This introduction was somehow integrated into the revelation text in the 1876 D&C edition, then canonized as LDS scripture. No General Conference ever offered the commandment to members for common consent, though such is supposed to be the rule for scripture being received by the body of the Saints.
Almost all Mormons continued drinking after the revelation, as it was recommended moderation rather than mandated abstinence. The recommendation toward eating meat sparingly was as ignored then as it is today. For example, Wine was provided at the dedication of the Kirtland temple, prompting some to speculate that it was spiked with hallucinogenic mushroom to inspire the mass visions not experienced before or after. No one thought to add such drinks to the forbidden list until much more recently.
The rule breakers were not limited to those who misunderstood the revelation. Joseph Smith himself installed a bar in his Nauvoo mansion, using his position as Mayor to pass a law making it the only place in the entire town to purchase a drink of alcohol.  The prisoners in Carthage jail with Smith requested wine to “lift their spirits.”  It is certainly not something that is talked about when members speak of Smith’s “martyrdom.” Smith’s personal journal recorded on June 1, 1844, “Drank a glass of beer at Moessers.” Perpetually uncomfortable with its own history, the Church intentionally omitted that inconvenient sentence when presenting the journal entry in History of The Church in 1906.
The practice of consuming alcohol continued in earnest for some time, as Brigham Young owned a distillery in Salt Lake, which the Church leased from him. It was almost as if no one really thought that God cared about the use of alcohol, tobacco, coffee or tea – that these were revelations that Smith received to pacify his wife at the time.
RECOMMENDATION BECOMES COMMANDMENT
Leonard Arrington, official LDS historian, wrote An Economic Interpretation of Word of Wisdom, thoroughly documenting how and why Brigham Young took Smith’s good advice and turned it into a commandment. He explained, “Brigham Young’s enforcement of the Word of Wisdom as a binding commandment, rather than as the “good advice” that it had been for decades, was driven by the need to keep scarce cash in Utah Territory; and a proscription on the purchase and use of luxury goods such as tobacco, tea, coffee, and alcoholic beverages, which were imported from the States, was a good way to do so” 
Young directly countered Smith’s divine revelation while providing no alternative revelation himself. His actions appear motivated by a desire to keep critical cash in Utah Territory during a time of need. Essentially, the purchase of luxury goods, such as coffee, tea, tobacco and alcohol, equated to money leaving the valley. His actions were arguably less about holiness and more about loyalty to the church that was simultaneously acting as the local government. The question of drink was not added to LDS temple recommend questions until 1921, when the desire to enhance member loyalty trumped financial motivations.
PROPHETS PROFIT FROM DISTRIBUTION
The LDS Church’s control of the liquor business extended far beyond Brigham Young. On October 7, 1873, George A. Smith, a member of the First Presidency, admitted: “We are doing a great business in tea, coffee, and tobacco in the Cooperative Store.”  These items were staples of frontier life in the West, small luxuries that most people could afford, which made difficult conditions just a bit more bearable.
The Salt Lake Tribune provides one of many accountings of how the LDS Church controlled liquor distribution in Utah for many years, through its solely owned Z.C.M.I. stores (Zion’s Cooperative Mercantile Institute). “. . . [T]he Mormon priesthood . . . resisted to the utmost the establishment of liquor houses by Gentiles here for a good while, not because they were liquor houses but because the Gentiles were getting the trade…” Again, the motivation was not God, or even health, but to enhance the financial standing of the Church.
Further, the Tribune argued, “This fierce effort to retain the liquor traffic here as a monopoly of the Church was quite in accord with the present status of affairs here where the Church is running the biggest liquor business in the state, through its Z.C.M.I. drug store and also through the big liquor business done by Apostle Smoot in his drug store at Provo….” If the practice resulted from a misunderstanding of God’s revelation in the Word of Wisdom, it extended right up to the highest levels of Church leadership.
The Tribune continued, “By means of auxiliary companies like the Z.C.M.I. drug company they maintain a huge liquor trade for the benefit of the Church hierarchs and the trustee-in-trust for the Church, and at the same time claim to be special advocates of the temperance cause; and while taking the tremendous profits of that trade, throw up their hands in horror at the idea of people spending so much money for liquor . . . denying all responsibility for it, while at the same time pocketing the profits and getting away with the rewards.”  More than a hundred years ago, it was clear to critics outside the Church that this was much less about adherence to temperance values (which remained a frequent topic among other Christian churches) and more about the bottom line.
Joseph F. Smith, while President (Prophet) of the LDS Church in the early 1900s, was identified as the President of ZCMI during the time it remained in the business of selling alcohol. Congressional testimony, given under oath during the Reed Smoot hearings, makes this clear, as admitted by ZCMI’s sales manager. 
- “Mr. Carlisle: You are traffic manager of the Zion Cooperative Mercantile Institution, I believe?’
- “Mr. Love: ‘Yes, sir.’
- “Mr. Carlisle: ‘Does it not deal in liquors?’
- “Mr. Love: ‘It does.’
- “Mr. Carlisle: ‘Who is the President of that concern?’
- “Mr. Love: ‘Joseph F. Smith.”
Joseph F. Smith was the nephew of Joseph Smith (the son of Hyrum Smith, who had come across the plains with his widowed mother while Joseph’s own children remained in Nauvoo with Emma). It can hardly be argued that he, as God’s prophet and President of the LDS Church, did not understand the Word of Wisdom as either a commandment or a vital health code.
Rather than seeing the Word of Wisdom as a divinely inspired health code revealed before its time, the truth is that it was common wisdom of the period. Church leaders ignored it for as long as it was in their interests to do so, and only embraced it when they desired additional tests of loyalty for admission to the temple (along with tithing) after polygamy was forced to a reluctant end. The Word of Wisdom evolved into a manageable way to divide the most devout members from those less inclined, as well as creating an easy way to distinguish Mormons from “Gentiles.” The modern interpretation of the Word of Wisdom continues to evolve, such as how the prohibition against all caffeine in the ’70s has since softened, and will likely continue to change as LDS leadership decides to read whatever they choose into the words of the actual text instead of explaining God’s will at the time in which it was written.
- An Economic Interpretation of The Word of Wisdom
- Word of Wisdom from Principle to Requirement
- Word Of Wisdom Becomes Commandment
- PBS: Beehive Spirits
 History of the Church, vol 7, 101 / see also History of the Church, June 27, 1844, vol 6, 616.
 Leonard Arrington: The Writing of Mormon History, 136.
 Journal of Discourses, vol 16, 238.
 Salt Lake Tribune, July 14, 1908.
 Reed Smoot Case, vol 4, 318-19.