Academic journal article Dialogue : A Journal of Mormon Thought

The Word of Wisdom in Contemporary American Mormonism: Perceptions and Practice

Academic journal article Dialogue : A Journal of Mormon Thought

The Word of Wisdom in Contemporary American Mormonism: Perceptions and Practice

Article excerpt

Brigham Young University made headlines in 2012 for a series of controversies that would be, to say the least, unusual on most college campuses: a student-led push for the university to sell caffeinated beverages at student vending locations. Although a staple throughout the United States, caffeinated sodas had long been restricted from sale at BYU due to "lack of demand," according to university officials.1 Five years later, however, caffeinated soda was, at last, approved for sale on BYU's campus. This was part of a larger conversation in which many in the LDS community expressed the belief that caffeine, from its association with coffee and tea, was either forbidden by doctrine or in a nebulous state of permissibility, leading to an official clarification that "the [C]hurch does not prohibit the use of caffeine."2 This controversy ultimately arose from Mormons' interpretations of the Word of Wisdom, originally conceived as advice for Joseph Smith's followers to live cleaner, purer, healthier lives. Obeying what later became section 89 of the Doctrine and Covenants has evolved into a key identifying cultural marker for Latter-day Saints.

While refraining from coffee, tea, alcohol, tobacco, and other harmful drugs is widely acknowledged to be a highly visible component of Mormon religious practices, there has been little previous research conducted regarding patterns of Word of Wisdom adherence within Mormon communities. Using original data collected in the fall of20i6 by the Next Mormons Survey (NMS), we present a comprehensive overview of rates of Word of Wisdom adherence among American Mormons as well as the degree to which contemporary Mormons view the Word of Wisdom as central to their religious identity.

Historical Development in Word of Wisdom Interpretation

Originally received in February of 1833, the Word of Wisdom is believed by the LDS Church to be a revelation to Joseph Smith regarding the appropriate dietary regulations for pure, healthy living.3 The text forbade the consumption of tobacco, hot drinks (which have been generally interpreted to mean coffee and tea based on Joseph Smith's clarifications "five months after he gave the revelation"), and some forms of alcohol.4 It also cautioned against the overconsumption of meat while advocating for the use of "wholesome herbs," fruit, and grains (D&C 89:1-14). However, scholarship on early practices indicates that Mormons' observance of the Word of Wisdom in the nineteenth century was far less of a focal point than it later became, despite the Word of Wisdom's later being declared a firm commandment by President Lorenzo Snow on May 5, 1898, following the precedent set by "a statement from Brigham Young that the Word of Wisdom was a commandment of God."5 Early Mormons eschewed drunkenness, for example, but did not entirely abstain from alcohol. Wine was served at Mormon weddings in the 1830s, at religious gatherings in which the Saints practiced speaking in tongues, and as part of the sacrament in church meetings.6 Historian Laurel Thatcher Ulrich has chronicled the fact that "a jug seems to have been essential equipment" at Winter Quarters in the 1840s.7 When he was president of the Church, Brigham Young himself did not always adhere to the Word of Wisdom's counsel. He maintained his habit of chewing tobacco until 1848, when he decided to quit the habit, and abstained successfully until 1857, when a painful toothache drove him to seek pain relief in chewing once again. He finally kicked the habit for good in 1860. In a sermon in March of that year, though, Young did not demand total abstinence from other brethren: he advised any men with a tobacco habit merely to "be modest about it," not spitting in public or taking out "a whole plug of tobacco in meeting before the eyes of the congregation." Rather, they were to go outside and avoid sullying the parlors of Zion. "If you must use tobacco, put a small portion in your mouth when no person sees you," he advised. …

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