Question: Did Joseph Smith violate the Word of Wisdom by drinking alcohol in Carthage Jail before he was killed?

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Question: Did Joseph Smith violate the Word of Wisdom by drinking alcohol in Carthage Jail before he was killed?

The wine is mentioned clearly in the History of the Church: Why would leaders include this information if it made Joseph look bad?

Joseph Smith drank alcohol in Carthage Jail prior to being martyred. Doesn't this make Joseph Smith a hypocrite for violating the Word of Wisdom?

We are sometimes guilty of "presentism"—judging historical figures by the standards of our day, instead of their day. We note that the wine is mentioned clearly in the History of the Church. Why would leaders include this information if it made Joseph look bad? This should be our first clue that something else is going on.[1]

John Taylor: "we sent for some wine. It has been reported by some that this was taken as a sacrament. It was no such thing; our spirits were generally dull and heavy, and it was sent for to revive us"

Consider also that drinking water in Joseph Smith's day (or during Biblical times) was a gamble because water purity was always questionable; a little alcohol in a beverage ensured that it was free of viruses and bacteria. The development of germ theory in the late 19th century lead to chemical treatments to ensure a safe supply of public drinking water. A strict ban of all alcohol in Joseph Smith's time would have been a death sentence for many Latter-day Saints—especially during the 1832–1833 cholera pandemic, which spread its disease by water.

Alcohol was also considered a medicinal substance, and was used with that purpose well into the 19th century. Thus, some wine or brandy use would be seen as "medicinal," rather than "recreational."[2] This perspective is likely reflected in John Taylor's later account of the events at Carthage:

Sometime after dinner we sent for some wine. It has been reported by some that this was taken as a sacrament. It was no such thing; our spirits were generally dull and heavy, and it was sent for to revive us. I think it was Captain Jones who went after it, but they would not suffer him to return. I believe we all drank of the wine, and gave some to one or two of the prison guards. We all of us felt unusually dull and languid, with a remarkable depression of spirits. In consonance with those feelings I sang a song, that had lately been introduced into Nauvoo, entitled, 'A Poor Wayfaring Man of Grief', etc.[3]:101

Alcohol was thought to be useful as a stimulant to restore both mood and energy

In a medicinal context, alcohol was thought to be useful as a stimulant to restore both mood and energy. As one history noted:

There was a wide spectrum of views on its use in medicine. At one extreme were those who felt that as alcohol was a stimulant, it should be beneficial in all disease states....A problem for doctors was reconciling that brandy (the most commonly used form of alcohol) seemed to have both stimulant and sedative effects. However it is clear that the emergency use of brandy was as a stimulant [and such use continued into the twentieth century]....For lesser conditions, tonics were much used as stimulants and alcohol was the basis of many of these, the alcohol concentration of which was often greater than that of wine....[2]

In the twenty-first century, a member who used morphine by injection to get high would be regarded as in violation of the Word of Wisdom. But, if they used it under a physician's supervision for a recognized condition for which its use was appropriate, that would be considered in harmony with the Word of Wisdom. Cancer patients, for example, do not lose their temple recommends simply because they require morphine. In a similar way, Joseph and his companions' use of wine prior to the martyrdom obviously did not trouble him or his contemporaries, because they understood their era's medical context.

Notes

  1. Joseph Smith, History of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 7 volumes, edited by Brigham H. Roberts, (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1957), 6:616. Volume 6 link
  2. 2.0 2.1 Henry Guly, "Medicinal brandy," Resuscitation 82/7-2 (July 2011): 951–954.
  3. History of the Church. Volume 7 link