The Word of Wisdom has come to be a central and defining tenant of the Mormon faith. The phrase “don’t drink, don’t smoke” is almost universally included in a description of Mormon values or behaviors. Perhaps due to its clear-cut nature (or at least the clear cut nature of its prohibitions, not its recommendations) the Word of Wisdom has nearly been elevated to the status of the commandment of commandments.
But anyone who has actually bothered to read D&C 89 will know that the Word of Wisdom was given “not by commandment or constraint”, but as just what it claims to be—“a word of wisdom.” September 9, 1851 is usually cited as the day that it became a commandment, when Brigham Young declared it binding on the saints. What seems to have slipped the general membership’s body of conventional knowledge, however, is that the Word of Wisdom did not attain its status as the indispensable, orthodoxy-defining regulation that we now know it as until many decades later, under Heber J. Grant.
And this is where we see an interesting cross section in the Venn diagram of Church history and United States history. The student of the US Constitution should recall that the 18th Amendment to the constitution nationally outlawed “intoxicating liquors” in 1919. It was two years later, in 1921, that Heber J. Grant added strict Word of Wisdom compliance to the lineup of temple recommend questions.
Now, let me deviate just a bit and tell a little story; I promise I’ll come full circle with this train of thought.
One of my hobbies through the years has been amateur video production/filmmaking. Two years ago, a friend and I decided to enter a local Provo short film festival. This was no ordinary film festival though; this was a 48 hour film festival. Participants (teams) would attend a kick-off meeting, where they would be assigned a film style (science fiction, spy movie, kids show, etc) and a scripted line that they would be required to include in their film. Then, the timer would start, and 48 hours later, the teams would reconvene and be required to submit their finished product. The films could be no longer than 8 minutes, and had to be completed from start to finish in 48 hours.
So my friend and I attended the kick-off meeting, and we drew our required scripted line from a hat: “Last time I did that, I ended up naked in Mexico.” I rolled my eyes at the selection. Next, we drew our film style: “Film Noir.” Film Noir? What on earth is that? After a little googling, we learned that it was the Dick Tracy / Casablanca high-contrast black and white style that often told a grim tale of cops and robbers that usually had a morbid ending. Also, the stories told in Film Noir often took place in the time frame of the 1920s or 1930s.
We put our thinking caps on, and remembered that those years encompassed the Prohibition Era, where the mafia profiteered off of bootlegging, and the criminal underworld of the US was in its luxurious golden age.
Further research led us to discover that the 21st Amendment to the Constitution, which repealed prohibition, was ratified in 1933, and the state that cast the deciding vote in ratifying this amendment was—of all states—Utah.
With our filmmaking task in mind, we immediately saw the framework for a great story that would have particular relevance to a Utah audience, and fit perfectly in the in Film Noir genre. Considering the Heber J. Grant influence in the state at the time, one can only wonder what the political force was that led Utah to vote against prohibition. And that’s the story we set out to tell.
However, this is where we decided to diverge from history or reality in general, and just have some fun. We let our imaginations loose, and concocted a story about a Utah mob boss named “Slim Giovanni” (a la Al Capone) who was the ring leader of Utah bootlegging, and a corporate kingpin with massive political clout. A private eye detective sets out to go undercover into the mob, with the intent of breaking up the bootlegging ring, and dismantling Slim Giovanni’s political machine. A shady love interest and a series of double crosses leads the detective through a path of deception and betrayal, to his ultimate failure. The Utah bootleggers prevail, and the 21st Amendment is ratified.
So in the allotted 48 hours, we scribbled out a script, rounded up some friends and residents of the dorms as our cast, pulled together some makeshift costumes, scouted out locations, filmed the scenes, edited them, and produced the finished product.
Now, for your viewing pleasure, and in a shameless instance of self promotion and of tooting my own horn, I present to you Bootlegged: The Untold Story of the 21st Amendment.
If the video doesn’t work, click here.
Now, this of course should not be taken seriously, or seen as anything more than an attempt at historical fiction. But I do find it interesting to think back on the eras of the past, and think about those Mormons who viewed their faith, and even defined their orthodoxy, in ways very different than we do now.
“This is the Place” state park in Salt Lake exhibits a room full of pioneer bar-tending tools and artifacts, the Hotel Utah had a tavern, and there are many instances earlier church leaders using now-forbidden substances—facts that are very uncomfortable when perceived through a 21st century LDS perspective, but when all things are duly considered, are really of little consequence.
So that begs the question, what practices or behaviors do we now consider commonplace that will be embarrassing, appalling, or otherwise disconcerting to 22nd century Mormons?