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.
Few members are aware that similar health codes and organized abstinence initiatives were well known concepts of the day. 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.
The revelation was not a commandment and remained largely ignored for generations, as the prophets continued to drink, operating a distillery and control profitable alcohol distribution in Utah. The “eat meat sparingly” aspect of the revelation remains totally ignored even today, perhaps because the church owns 2% of Florida, including the nations largest cattle ranch – plus meat is tasty. (King Ranch in Texas has more land but fewer cattle)
The Word of Wisdom was adopted at a time before germ theory was widely known, when many died routinely from disease and bacteria. Today, Mormons claim that the Word was prophetic because you shouldn’t drink coffee and stuff. If God had instead merely whispered “Boil your water,” millions worldwide would have avoided 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. 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 1820’s – 1840, and also invented the Graham Cracker.
Feb 26, 1833 was National Day of Temperance, which prompted much discussion. 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 comment “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. Joseph, 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 conveniently addressing the debate, using the very language of the temperance movement.
NOT A COMMANDMENT
The Word of Wisdom revelation found in D&C 89 is not what we know today; it does not include beer or wine, only hard liquor. It was delivered as guidance or sound advice; not by commandment.
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 scripture. No General Conference ever offered the commandment for common consent.
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. 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.
Joseph Smith 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 (History of the Church, vol 6, 111). The prisoners in Carthage jail with Smith requested wine to “lift their spirits” (History of the Church, Vol 7, 101 / see also History of the Church, June 27, 1844, vol 6, 616). Joseph 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.
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. Brigham directly countered Smith’s divine revelation while providing no revelation himself. His actions appear motivated by a desire to keep critical cash in Utah Territory during a time of need. The purchase of luxury goods, such as coffee, tea, tobacco and alcohol, equated to money leaving valley.
“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” (Leonard Arrington: The Writing of Mormon History, 136). The question of drink was not added to LDS temple recommend questions until 1921.
PROPHETS PROFIT FROM DISTRIBUTION
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” (Journal of Discourses, vol 16, 238).
The Salt Lake Tribune provides one of many accountings of how the Church controlled liquor distribution in Utah for many years, through solely owned ZCMI 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…”
“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….”
“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” (Salt Lake Tribune, July 14, 1908).
Joseph F. Smith, while President (Prophet) of the Church in the early 1900’s, 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 (Reed Smoot Case, vol 4, 318-19).
- “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.”