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Word of Wisdom/Wine and alcoholic beverages
The Word of Wisdom and alcoholic beverages
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- Question: How does the fact that Jesus drank wine relate to the Word of Wisdom?
- Question: In what way did Joseph Smith implement the Word of Wisdom during his lifetime?
- Question: Did Joseph Smith violate the Word of Wisdom by drinking alcohol in Carthage Jail before he was killed?
- Question: Did Joseph Smith give some of the brethren money to purchase whiskey in violation of the Word of Wisdom?
Question: How does the fact that Jesus drank wine relate to the Word of Wisdom?
Jesus (and other people in the Old and New Testaments) drank fermented wine
Yes, Jesus (and other people in the Old and New Testaments) drank fermented wine. Unlike us today, they were not under any commandment not to do so.
The Word of Wisdom is a law specifically given to the Saints in the last days: It is not a universal or natural law
The Word of Wisdom is a law specifically given to the Saints in the last days (D&C 89:4). It is not a universal or natural law—like God's law against murder—that applies to all mankind in all ages. The Word of Wisdom does not apply to non-Latter-day Saints (D&C 89:3), and it did not apply to the Lord's covenant people before the restoration of the Gospel in the last days. It is a circumstantial commandment: One that is given to a particular people at a particular time and place. So it was not "wrong" for the Savior and his apostles to drink fermented wine at the Last Supper, or at the wedding at Cana, or in other circumstances.
In fact, the Word of Wisdom was initially given to the restored Church "not by commandment or constraint" (D&C 89:2) as, essentially, "divine advice." The early Latter-day Saints didn't live it as strictly as we do. (Joseph Smith and his companions drank a bit of wine in Carthage Jail to revive their spirits.) Acting under inspiration, later Church leaders gradually gave the Word of Wisdom more emphasis, until living it became a requirement for a temple recommend in the 1920s under President Heber J. Grant.
The Word of Wisdom is a commandment specifically given to us, "in consequence of evils and designs which do and will exist in the hearts of conspiring men in the last days" (D&C 89:4). These conspiracies didn't exist in Jesus' time, and have only recently become a serious problem, as advertising and marketing of alcohol makes it look "fun," but ignores the serious effects of alcoholism, spouse and child abuse, drunk driving, and so forth.
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....
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.
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." 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.: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....
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.
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.
- 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.
- 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
- Henry Guly, "Medicinal brandy," Resuscitation 82/7-2 (July 2011): 951–954.
- History of the Church. Volume 7 link
- Millennial Star 21:283