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Word of Wisdom/Early implementation and Joseph Smith
Early implementation of the Word of Wisdom and Joseph Smith
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- Question: In what way did Joseph Smith implement the Word of Wisdom during his lifetime?
- Revelations in Context: "it required time to wind down practices that were so deeply ingrained in family tradition and culture"
- Question: Was failure to keep the Word of Wisdom grounds for a disciplinary council in the 19th century Church?
- Question: Did Joseph Smith give some of the brethren money to purchase whiskey in violation of the Word of Wisdom?
- Question: Did Joseph Smith appear in public smoking a cigar right after teaching a sermon on the Word of Wisdom?
Question: In what way did Joseph Smith implement the Word of Wisdom during his lifetime?
Joseph Smith never interpreted the Word of Wisdom revelation as demanding total abstinence
The Word of Wisdom was enforced differently in the 19th century than today. Observance of the Word of Wisdom has changed over time, due to on-going revelation from modern-day prophets, who put greater emphasis on certain elements of the revelation originally given to Joseph Smith. Early Latter-day Saints were not under the same requirements as today's Saints are.
As one historian noted:
it appears clear that Joseph Smith never interpreted the [Word of Wisdom] revelation as demanding total abstinence, but stressed moderation and self-control....He had no objections to using tobacco for medicinal purposes. With regard to wine and "strong drink" possibly the most accurate index to the Prophet's position was expressed by Benjamin F. Johnson, who personally knew Joseph: "As a companion, socailly, he was highly endowed; was kind, generous, mirth loving, and a times even convivial. He was partial to a well supplied table and he did not always refuse the wine that maketh the heart glad."
Beer, unfermented or lightly fermented wine, and cider were considered "mild drinks" by some and therefore acceptable under at least some circumstances
The text of the Word of Wisdom forbids "strong drink" (D&C 89:5,7), which some (including Joseph) seem to have interpreted as distilled beverages (hard liquor). Beer, unfermented or lightly fermented wine, and cider were considered "mild drinks" by some (D&C 89:17) and therefore acceptable under at least some circumstances (note that verse 17 specifically permits "barley...for mild drinks"). One historian notes that the degree of rigor with which early Saints observed the Word of Wisdom varied:
 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 frequently used as a relief for a wide variety of ailments, it would have been imprudent to have entirely forbidden their use....
 The journal of Joseph Smith reveals many instances where Joseph and other Church leaders drank wine and a tolerant attitude towards the consumption of this beverage is particularly noticeable....
 Despite the injunction contained in the revelation discouraging the drinking of wine, (except for sacramental purposes) the casual nature of the allusions to this beverage suggest that many Church Authorities did not consider moderate wine drinking in the same category as the use of strong drinks....
Evidence suggests that the drinking of tea, coffee, and liquor was [in the 1830s] in general violation of the principle [of the Word of Wisdom], though exceptions can be found. All of these items were used by the Saints for medicinal purposes. Moderate wine-drinking was evidently acceptable to most Church leaders.... In short, it would seem that adherence to the revelation to at least 1839 required Church members to be moderately temperate but certainly [did] not [require] total abstinence....
Revelations in Context: "it required time to wind down practices that were so deeply ingrained in family tradition and culture"
"The Word of Wisdom: D&C 89," Revelations in context on history.lds.org (11 June 2013):
Nevertheless, it required time to wind down practices that were so deeply ingrained in family tradition and culture, especially when fermented beverages of all kinds were frequently used for medicinal purposes. The term “strong drink” certainly included distilled spirits like whiskey, which hereafter the Latter-day Saints generally shunned. They took a more moderate approach to milder alcoholic beverages like beer and “pure wine of the grape of the vine of your own make” (see D&C 89:6). For the next two generations, Latter-day Saint leaders taught the Word of Wisdom as a command from God, but they tolerated a variety of viewpoints on how strictly the commandment should be observed. This incubation period gave the Saints time to develop their own tradition of abstinence from habit-forming substances. By the early twentieth century, when scientific medicines were more widely available and temple attendance had become a more regular feature of Latter-day Saint worship, the Church was ready to accept a more exacting standard of observance that would eliminate problems like alcoholism from among the obedient. In 1921, the Lord inspired Church president Heber J. Grant to call on all Saints to live the Word of Wisdom to the letter by completely abstaining from all alcohol, coffee, tea, and tobacco. Today Church members are expected to live this higher standard.
Question: Was failure to keep the Word of Wisdom grounds for a disciplinary council in the 19th century Church?
In all cases where membership in the Church was taken away due to the Word of Wisdom, there were other accusations that were directed at the offender
Some have used the fact that early Church disciplinary councils would include the charge of failure to keep the Word of Wisdom as evidence against Joseph or other Saints. As Paul Peterson notes:
In all cases where membership or fellowship was taken away [partly on the grounds that the member did not observe the Word of Wisdom], there were other accusations that were directed at the offender. In many cases the Word of Wisdom violation appeared to have been considered less important tha the other infractions. In fact, the evidence strongly suggests that Mormonss were not expelled solely for violations of the Word of Wisdom except in the case of extreme drunkenness....In addition to this, the Word of Wisdom was somewhat unique in that it was a revelation that was given "not by way of commandment," [D&C 89:2] allowing a good deal of subjectivity for individual interpretation.:30
The complete prohibition of alcoholic drinks of any kind, and a strict enforcement of the Word of Wisdom's other prohibitions, only became part of the Word of Wisdom following the temperance movement of the late 19th and early 20th centuries; Presidents Joseph F. Smith and Heber J. Grant supported the movement and Grant made complete abstention from alcohol in any form a requirement for a temple recommend in the early 1920s.
Question: Did Joseph Smith give some of the brethren money to purchase whiskey in violation of the Word of Wisdom?
The use of whiskey as a stimulant while traveling was allowed, but abusing it by getting drunk was not
Liquor in judicious amounts was used as a medicinal substance, and seen as a stimulant or restorative against fatigue. This is why Joseph "investigated the case"--he wished to know if the use had been acceptable or to excess. (In a similar way, a modern-day Church leader who heard that a member was using morphine might investigate to discover if such use is appropriate--e.g., under a doctor's supervision in proper prescribed amounts for a legitimate ailment--or whether they were abusing it to get "high".)
Here's what Joseph said,
The company moved on to Andover, where the Sheriff of Lee County requested lodgings for the night for all the company. I was put up into a room and locked up with Captain Grover. It was reported to me that some of the brethren had been drinking whiskey that day in violation of the Word of Wisdom.
I called the brethren in and investigated the case, and was satisfied that no evil had been done, and gave them a couple of dollars, with directions to replenish the bottle to stimulate them in the fatigues of their sleepless journey.
The complete prohibition on alcohol was phased in gradually
Critics of the Church who use this quote as evidence that Joseph disregarded the Word of Wisdom also do not inform readers that the complete prohibition on alcohol was a gradual matter, and so Joseph's judgment on the issue was possible (which explains why no one at the time was shocked or outraged by it). Later nineteenth century Mormons, such as Brigham Young, understood the matter in the same way, and also distinguished between the excessive and judicious use of spirits.
Question: Did Joseph Smith appear in public smoking a cigar right after teaching a sermon on the Word of Wisdom?
This accusation was made by Amasa Lyman, who had already been excommunicated from the Church
Abraham H. Cannon made an entry in his diary stating that Amasa Lyman saw Joseph Smith smoking the cigar immediately after delivering a sermon on the Word of Wisdom and that he immediately afterward "rode through the streets smoking a cigar" in order to try "the faith of the Saints." At the time that Lyman made this accusation, he had already been excommunicated from the Church.
We ought to start with a degree of suspicion when we hear stories like this, because Joseph really did to things on occasion to test the Saints
These sorts of things really call into question a lot of these kinds of stories - especially when they are published long after the events they claim to be portraying (and the cigar story is certainly that). By the time these stories develop, we have these cultural myths being created about Joseph Smith. And so when we have this story about the Amasa Lyman encounter that first shows up in Abraham Canon's journal in 1895, we ought to start with a degree of suspicion. The problem we have with stories like this is that Joseph really did on occasion do things to test the Saints. He liked to go down to the boats at Nauvoo dressed poorly so as to interact with the new converts coming in to Nauvoo and to see what their expectations were. He regularly acted in ways that some thought were inappropriate for a prophet. One of the more widely known stories in the later 19th century was this one, recorded by William Allred and published in 1892:
I was with him [Joseph Smith] in the troubles at DeWitt, Adam-ondi-ahman, and in Far West. I have played ball with him many times in Nauvoo. He was preaching once, and he said it tried some of the pious folks to see him play ball with the boys. He then related a story of a certain prophet who was sitting under the shade of a tree amusing himself in some way, when a hunter came along with his bow and arrow, and reproved him. The prophet asked him if he kept his bow strung up all the time. The hunter answered that he did not. The prophet asked why, and he said it would lose its elasticity if he did. The prophet said it was just so with his mind, he did not want it strung up all the time. Another time when I heard him preaching he said if he should tell the people all the Lord had revealed to him, some would seek his life. Even as good a man as old Father C—-, here on the stand, he added, (pointing back to him) would seek his life.
There is this story, and it sounds like something we might expect, but it tends to have problems when we realize that this entire story is based on a much older story about the New Testament apostle John. Here is a version of that story, published by Fracis De Sales, in 1609:
It is necessary sometimes to relax our minds as well as our bodies by some kind of recreation. St. John the Evangelist, as Cassian relates, was one day found by a huntsman with a partridge on his hand, which he was caressing for his recreation. The huntsman asked how such a man as he could spend his time in so poor and mean an occupation? St. John replied: Why dost thou not carry thy bow always bent? For fear, answered the huntsman, that if it were always bent, it would loose its spring and become useless. Be not surprised, then, replied the apostle, that I should sometimes remit a little of the close application and attention of my spirit and enjoy a little recreation, that I may afterward employ myself more fervently in divine contemplation.
Joseph Smith and the early implementation of the Word of WisdomSummary: Joseph Smith implemented a moderate implementation of the Word of Wisdom, and not the more strict standard known to members today.
To see citations to the critical sources for these claims, click here
- Paul H. Peterson, "An Historical Analysis of the Word of Wisdom," Master's thesis, Brigham Young University, 1972, 38. The cited material is [Letter from BF Johnson to George F. Gibbs, 1903.]
- Paul H. Peterson, "An Historical Analysis of the Word of Wisdom," Master's thesis, Brigham Young University, 1972. Page numbers cited within text.
- "The Word of Wisdom: D&C 89," Revelations in context on history.lds.org (11 June 2013)
- Millennial Star 21:283
- October 1895 entry in theDiary of Abraham H. Cannon, Volume 19
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