Question: Why are "hot drinks" forbidden by the Word of Wisdom?

Table of Contents

Question: Why are "hot drinks" forbidden by the Word of Wisdom?

Members of the Church keep the Word of Wisdom because they are obedient to the commandments of God

Members of the Church keep the Word of Wisdom because they are obedient to the commandments of God. The Word of Wisdom is one sign of their membership in the covenant.

Historical circumstances at the time of Joseph Smith may have given a wider application to cautions against "hot drinks" than the current policy

Historical circumstances at the time of Joseph Smith may have given a wider application to cautions against "hot drinks" than the current policy. If true, this demonstrates the pattern by which Joseph claimed the Church should always be governed: "by revelation adapted to the circumstances in which the children of the kingdom are placed."[1]

According to the Church Administration Handbook:

The only official interpretation of “hot drinks” (D&C 89:9) in the Word of Wisdom is the statement made by early Church leaders that the term “hot drinks” means tea and coffee. Members should not use any substance that contains illegal drugs. Nor should members use harmful or habit-forming substances except under the care of a competent physician.
—Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Handbook 2: Administering the Church—2010 (Intellectual Reserve, 2010). Selected Church Policies and Guidelines 21.3.11

The only revealed answer to the question of why hot drinks (interpreted at present as coffee and tea) are prohibited by the Word of Wisdom is "because God told us they are"

The only revealed answer to the question of why hot drinks (interpreted at present as coffee and tea) are prohibited by the Word of Wisdom is "because God told us they are." Faithful members of the Church accept the revelations recorded in the Doctrine and Covenants as scripture, as sustained by a personal witness of the Holy Spirit.

Some members have pointed out that caffeine is contained in both coffee and tea, and that this substance has potential harmful effects.[2]

While the only official application of the term "hot drinks" is to tea and coffee,[3] an official statement of policy from the First Presidency is available, in which the use of any habit-forming drug is discouraged:

With reference to cola drinks, the Church has never officially taken a position on this matter, but the leaders of the Church have advised, and we do now specifically advise, against the use of any drink containing harmful habit-forming drugs under circumstances that would result in acquiring the habit. Any beverage that contains ingredients harmful to the body should be avoided.[4]

Such principles have led some members to include other caffeine-contained substances, such as cola drinks, in their application of the Word of Wisdom. But, use of cola products does not result in a restriction of Church privileges, while the use of coffee, tea, tobacco, alcohol, or illicit drugs certainly would.

It is a common misconception, among both members and non-members, that the Word of Wisdom exists primarily, or only, to promote the health of the members

It is a common misconception, among both members and non-members, that the Word of Wisdom exists primarily, or only, to promote the health of the members. Health protection is an important "side benefit," one might say, but arguably the most important reason for the Word of Wisdom is the promise given in the last verse of D&C 89, in which the members are told:

And I, the Lord, give unto them a promise, that the destroying angel shall pass by them, as the children of Israel, and not slay them.(D&C 89:21)

This refers to the last curse put on the Egyptians prior to the Exodus from Egypt. The Israelites were to mark their houses with lamb's blood at the first Passover. Houses so marked were protected from the "destroying angel." (See Exodus 12:1-30.)

Is lamb's blood "magic?" Does it repel angels like garlic does vampires? Hardly. Rather, we understand the blood to be a symbol of the covenant between God and Israel, and Christians understand it to be a foreshadowing of the culmination of that covenant as the blood of Jesus Christ protects from sin and destruction those who enter into a covenant with Him.

Thus, the Word of Wisdom functions in a similar way—it "marks us" as people under covenant to God. Consumption of coffee and tea is a common practice in many cultures—when others notice a member of the Church abstaining, it sets them apart as willing to forgo something that is culturally popular. This reinforces our duty to keep our covenants in both our own minds and in the eyes of others.

Some historical factors provide grounds for speculation about possible health and non-health reasons for the scripture's "hot drinks" prohibition

Orthodox medical care in Joseph Smith's day was based around what was called a "heroic" tradition. This school of thought went back to Galen, and invoked the four humours of yellow bile, black bile, phlegm, and blood. Disease was thought to be caused by an "imbalance" in these humours, and treatment aimed to restore the balance. In practice this was often done through blood-letting (bleeding) and purging (inducing vomiting and/or diarrhea).

The agent of choice for the orthodox physicians was calomel, or mercurous chloride. This treatment was popularized by Benjamin Rush, a signer of the Declaration of Independence, who treated victims of a yellow fever epidemic with it. When some patients survived both the yellow fever and Rush's misguided attmept to "treat" them with calomel and bleeding, he wrote a book that influenced medical practice in the United States for over a century. This doctrine was firmly in place in Joseph Smith's day.[5]

A heroic physician treated Joseph's older brother, Alvin, for an attack of "bilious colic" (likely acute appendicitis). Lucy Mack Smith recorded the outcome:

Alvin was taken very sick with the bilious colic. He came to the house in much distress, and requested his father to go immediately for a physician. He accordingly went, obtaining one by the name of Greenwood, who, on arriving, immediately administered to the patient a heavy dose of calomel. I will here notice, that this Dr. Greenwood was not the physician commonly employed by the family; he was brought in consequence of the family physician's absence. And on this account, as I suppose, Alvin at first refused to take the medicine, but by much persuasion, he was prevailed on to do so. This dose of calomel lodged in his stomach, and all the medicine afterwards freely administered by four very skillful physicians could not remove it. On the third day of his sickness, Dr. McIntyre, whose services were usually employed by the family, as he was considered very skillful, was brought, and with him four other eminent physicians. But it was all in vain, their exertions proved unavailing, just as Alvin said would be the case--he told them the calomel was still lodged in the same place, after some exertion had been made to carry it off, and that it must take his life.[6]

Such failures of heroic medicine predisposed the Smiths (with many of their contemporaries) to skepticism about orthodox "heroic" medicine.

Another medical system arose in the early 1800s: Thompsonian herbalism. Thompson patented his system, and opposed the heroics' measures—however, in many cases, his treatments were little better. Rather than using calomel, he used lobelia, or "wild Indian tobacco" as a cathartic and purgative. One could become a Thompsonian "doctor" simply by paying a $20.00 license fee to use Thompson's patents. Prominent Thompsonian physicians associated with the Latter-day Saints included Frederick G. Williams, Thomas B. Marsh, Sampson Avard, and Willard, Levi, and Phineas Richards.[7]

Joseph tended to use the Thompsonian physicians more than the orthodox, but he preached caution in the use of both calomel and lobelia:

Calomel doctors will give you calomel to cure a sliver in the big toe; and they do not stop to know whether the stomach is empty or not; and calomel on an empty stomach will kill the patient. And the lobelia [herbal] doctors will do the same. Point me out a patient and I will tell you whether calomel or lobelia will kill him or not, if you give it.[8]

Furthermore, many of the orthodox physicians in the Church—including John C. Bennett, William Law, and Robert Foster—were eventually to attack Joseph. And, Thompsonian opposition to the use of such drugs as quinine prevented an effective remedy from being used by the Saints.[9]

The herbal medications of the Thompsonians and orthodox physicians were generally administered by "percolating one pound of crude botanical with one pint of alcohol; teas were similarly prepared."[10]

Some have suggested, then, that the Lord's caution against "hot drinks" was a warning against the use of some of the extreme treatments advocated by the Thompsonian herbalists. The presence of Thompsonianism can be noted in the Word of Wisdom, which remarks that "tobacco is not good for the belly." This strikes the modern reader as strange—who would actually eat tobacco? But, in Joseph Smith's day, large doses of lobelia teas were consumed in order to induce purging.

This reading is perhaps supported by the fact that a Times and Seasons account of a discourse by Hyrum Smith said:

Again, hot drinks are not for the body or belly. There are many who wonder what this can mean, whether it refers to tea or coffee, or not. I say it does refer to tea and coffee.[11]

If there was confusion about the meaning of "hot drinks," it may be that at least some members understood the caution against hot drinks to extend to other beverages prepared hot, such as the infusions or teas of the heroics or Thompsonians.

On the other hand, Thompson himself sometimes referred to tea and coffee as "hot drinks," so the choice of wording may simply reflect common "medical" terminology in Joseph Smith's environment.[12]

In any case, the understanding that tea and coffee were intended by the term "hot drinks" is evident in the historical record by 1833 and 1834.[13]


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), 5:135. Volume 5 link See also Dean C. Jessee, The Personal Writings of Joseph Smith, revised edition, (Salt Lake City, Utah: Deseret Book, 2002), 507–508.
  2. Clifford J. Stratton, "Caffeine—The Subtle Addiction," Ensign (June 1988), 60.
  3. See, for example, Robert L. Simpson, Conference Report (April 1963), 53.;Boyd K. Packer, Conference Report (April 1963), 107. Early statements available in John A. Widtsoe and Leah D. Widtsoe, The Word Of Wisdom: A Modern Interpretation (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Company, 1937), 28 and Roy W. Doxey, The Word of Wisdom Today (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Company, 1975),10–13.
  4. Lester E. Bush, Jr., ed., "Mormon Medical Ethical Guidelines," Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought 12 no. 3 (Fall 1979), 103.
  5. Robert T. Divett, "Medicine and the Mormons: a Historical Perspective," Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought 12 no. 3 (Autumn 1979), 16–17. On
  6. Lucy Mack Smith, The History of Joseph Smith By His Mother Lucy Mack Smith, edited by Preston Nibley, (Salt Lake City, Utah: Bookcraft, 1956), 86. AISN B000FH6N04.
  7. See N. Lee Smith, "Herbal Remedies: God's Medicine," Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought 12 no. 3 (Autumn 1979), 40. See also Robert T. Divett, "Medicine and the Mormons: a Historical Perspective," Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought 12 no. 3 (Autumn 1979), 18–20.
  8. 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), 5:356–357. Volume 5 link
  9. N. Lee Smith, "Herbal Remedies: God's Medicine," Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought 12 no. 3 (Autumn 1979), 43,46.
  10. N. Lee Smith, "Herbal Remedies: God's Medicine," Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought 12 no. 3 (Autumn 1979), 47.
  11. Hyrum Smith, "The Word of Wisdom," Times and Seasons 3 no. 15 (1 June 1842), 801. off-site GospeLink (requires subscrip.)
  12. N. Lee Smith, "Review of Medicine and the Mormons: An Introduction to the History of Latter-day Saint Health Care by Robert T. Divett," Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought (Spring 1984), 157–158.
  13. Paul H. Peterson, "An Historical Analysis of the Word of Wisdom," Master's thesis, Brigham Young University, 1972, 22-23.



Further reading and additional sources responding to these claims