Question: Did Joseph Smith violate the Word of Wisdom by drinking tea?

FairMormon Answers Wiki Table of Contents

Question: Did Joseph Smith violate the Word of Wisdom by drinking tea?

The Word of Wisdom was enforced differently in the 19th century than today

Joseph Smith is reported as drinking tea on a few occasions. Does 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.

The Word of Wisdom was enforced differently in the 19th century than today. It was not enforced as rigorously, or with the same requirements, in Joseph Smith's day. It was not the strict test of fellowships that it is for the modern member. Many speakers emphasized the Lord's patience in this matter, as applied to both leaders and members.

But, many of the events described are actually concerned about medical practice, not the social or recreational use of these substances. For example, one might be shocked to learn that President Kimball used morphine—however, the morphine was prescribed for cancer pain by a physician.

Joseph's use of tea may have been an exceptional event, worthy of note in his journal

Joseph's use of tea may have been an exceptional event, worthy of note in his journal. Why would this be?

In consulting the journal entry, we read: "Saturday, March 11th Too cold last night as to freeze [p.332] water in the warmest rooms in the city. River filled with anchor ice. 8 1/2 o'clock in the office, Joseph said he had tea with his breakfast." [1]

In Joseph's day, some medical thinking held that "hot drinks" (such as tea and coffee) could heat the body and vital fluids. While this was usually regarded as a bad idea that would be dangerous to health:

I found, after maturely considering the subject, that all animal bodies are formed of the four elements, earth, air, fire, and water. Earth and water constitute the solids, and air and fire, or heat, are the cause of life and motion. That cold, or lessening the power of heat, is the cause of all disease; that to restore heat to its natural state, was the only way by which health could be produced;....a state of perfect health arises from a due balance or temperature of the four elements; but if it is by any means destroyed, the body is more or less disordered. And when this is the case, there is always an actual diminution or absence of the element of fire, or heat; and in proportion to this diminution or absence, the body is affected by its opposite, which is cold. And I found that all disorders which the human family were afflicted with, however various the symptoms, and different the names by which they are called, arise directly from obstructed perspiration, which is always caused by cold, or want of heat ....[2]

This entry is from the works of Samuel Thomson, a founder of what became known as "Thomsonian herbalism." There were several Latter-day Saint physicians who were Thomsonians, including (significantly) Willard Richards, who wrote the diary entry we are here considering. The emphasis on loss of heat and lack of stimulation is significant—for it clashed with another set of medical principles, the "orthodox" or "heroic" doctors who came to believe that acute disease was not caused by lack of heat, but by too much energy, heat, or vital force: hence their prescriptions for bleeding, purging, and the like: to lower the energy or "heat." [3] Thus, under normal circumstances an 'energizing', 'hot', or 'stimulating' drink would be inappropriate.

There might, however, be exceptions. Thomson described a local woman who acted as a healer, and his admiration for her skill and methods is clear:

There was an old lady by the name of Benton lived near us, who used to attend our family when there was any sickness. At that time there was no such thing as a Doctor known among us, there not being any within ten miles. The whole of her practice was with roots and herbs, applied to the patient, or given in hot drinks, to produce sweating; which always answered the purpose. [4]

Thus, in a time of extreme cold, a "hot drink" like tea could be seen as a medicinal or preventative treatment which would help maintain health, since it would prevent the loss of the vital heat upon which the body depended. As a Thomsonian physician, Willard Richards (who wrote Joseph's journal for him) would have known and preached this. An "orthodox physician" (wary of heat, and more apt to bleed or purge) would have vigorously disagreed. [5]

By analogy, a modern member would be in violation of the Word of Wisdom if he or she injected morphine as a "recreational" drug. But, if the same drug was administered for a medical reason, the member would not be at fault. (Indeed, we might find fault with someone for refusing a medical treatment to maintain their health or cure an illness.)

That Richards was not surprised or offended by Joseph's consumption of tea on a bitterly cold winter morning demonstrates that Joseph's action was not the scandal that some wish to portray it as.

As one historian observed in 1972:

While the Saints opposed the common use of tea and coffee, it would appear that they had little objection to its occasional use for medicinal purposes. In an age when these items were frequenlty used as a relief for a wide variety of ailments, it would have been imprudent to have entirely forbidden their use.[6]


  1. Joseph Smith, An American Prophet's Record:The Diaries and Journals of Joseph Smith, edited by Scott Faulring, Significant Mormon Diaries Series No. 1, (Salt Lake City, Utah: Signature Books in association with Smith Research Associates, 1989), 331.
  2. J.U. and C.G. Lloyd, "Life and Medical Discoveries of Samuel Thomson, and a history of the Thomsonian Materia Medica, as shown in "The New Guide to Health," (1835) and the literature of that day, &c." in Bulletin of the Lloyd Library of Botany, Pharmacy and Materia Medica No. 11, Reproduction Series No. 7 (1909): 26. off-site (italics added)
  3. Lester E. Bush, Jr., "The Word of Wisdom in Early Nineteenth Century Perspective," Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought 14 no. 3 (Autumn 1981), 49.
  4. Lloyd, 12. (emphasis added)
  5. Bush, 55
  6. Paul H. Peterson, "An Historical Analysis of the Word of Wisdom," Master's thesis, Brigham Young University, 1972, 23-24.