The Word of Wisdom and the Temple: Personal, Political and Prophetic Dimensions

Aaron R. aka Ricoapostles, Culture, doctrine, General Authorities, LDS, Leaders, Mormon, prophets, revelation, theology, Word of Wisdom 23 Comments

Obedience to the Word of Wisdom, it is commonly known, was not always a requirement for entering the Temple or advancement in the Priesthood.  What is less clear from the historicl record is when this principle moved to become a requirement.  President Joseph Fielding Smith believed the change occurred in 1851, but an excellent article by McCue has shown this cannot be the case [1].  Others have argued that it occurred under the Joseph F. Smith administration (he seems to have been the first to have said it was a commandment – but it was only made a test of fellowship in extreme cases and informally in a letter dated Dec 28 1915 [2]).  Contrastingly Thomas Alexander argued that it happened under President Grant.  I agree with Alexander, but there is even confusion about when it was made official, was it early 20’s or early 30’s and what led to these changes?

According to Allen and Leonard ‘perhaps no doctrine was preached more enthusiastically by President Grant or stressed more in Church literature during his administration than the Word of Wisdom’ [3].  Arrington’s seminal (if not a little controversial essay) on the economic factors that led to the importance of the Word of Wisdom deals with the period till 1900 and misses some crucial occurrences in the lead up to this principle becoming a ‘commandment’.

The Personal

President Grant had a friend who had died young because of alcohol related problems (according to Truman Madsen it was cirrhosis of the liver [4]).  At the funeral President Grant records, in a sermon given in 1931, that ‘as I stood at his grave I looked up to heaven and made a pledge to my God that liquor and tobacco would have in me an enemy who would fight with all the ability that God would give me to the day of my death, and I have kept that pledge so far’[5].  Perhaps what haunted President Grant most was that this young man had given up his habits to serve a mission, but had quickly resumed them when he finished his service.

The Political

According to the Encyclopaedia of Mormonism ‘The [prohibition] movement intensified the Church’s interest in the Word of Wisdom. There is evidence that Church Presidents John Taylor, Joseph F. Smith, and Heber J. Grant wanted to promote adherence to the Word of Wisdom as a precondition for entering LDS temples or holding office in any Church organization; and indeed, by 1930 abstinence from the use of alcohol, tobacco, coffee, and tea had become an official requirement for those seeking temple recommends.’[6].   

It seems this interest became even more pronounced when the calls for repeal began.  President Grant’s concern can be seen in his April 2, 1932 General Conference address.  There was a controversial speech by Elder Stephen L. Richards at that same conference which will be discussed later.  But at the very least, it seems that President Grant’s emphasis on making the Word of Wisdom a requirement emerged out of a political context in which he saw liquor becoming a problem for the Latter-day Saints.  He had lived through and been an Apostle through some of the previous period of emphasis which Arrington documents, and perhaps did not want to see the Church membership go down that road again.

Perhaps President Grant saw the Church collectively as being like his friend.  He may thought the membership would enter a period of relapse; and he was trying to prevent it.

The Prophetic

What is surprising, is that in President Grant’s sermons on this issue and on the policy change he does not cite any direct revelation.  Interestingly, President Grant said in 1928, which seems to contradict Alexander’s thesis of the 1921 date, that ‘the Lord has not made this an absolute commandment’.  The implication here from President Grant however, is that if the Lord asks his people to do something then we should respond.  In addition, in a CHI (published in 1928) the Word of Wisdom was not explicitly mentioned as a requirement for the Temple, but was in the 1933 edition [2].  Thus although the issue seems to have been informally incorporated as policy its codification was not enforced until the early 1930’s in-line with the possible repeal of Prohibition. 

In addition, the evidence suggests that there has never been a sustaining vote on this issue [1].  I am not claiming that President Grant never believed he had received revelation on this issue nor that he never shared a testimony that he believed this principle was revelation.  What interests me is how, as a Prophet, he did not justify this change by referring to a revelatory experience but rather in a personal commitment to a principle and to political or social fears.  I would have expected an effort, like President Kimball discusses, of overcoming bias and prejudice that individuals hold in order to prepare for revelation.  For President Grant it seems that he moved forward in a different way.

Some Controversy

Stephen L. Richards who was an Apostle during this time gave a sermon, which was apparently not printed in the conference report because it angered President Grant.  It has been subsequently printed by Sunstone.  The sermon suggested that there was fanaticism in the way Church leaders had approached the issue of the Word of Wisdom, and other behaviours.  The date Sunstone give for the delivery of this sermon is the 9th April 1932.  Although there was not a General Conference session on that day, Stan Larson (source – fn 79) in a footnote in his work on B.H. Roberts makes reference to a Salt Lake Tribune article and First Presidency meeting that discussed Richards’ talk on the 9th and the day after.  Sunstone claim they got their transcript from the Church archives.  So there is some confusion in my mind at least about where this comes from.  However, according to Michael Quinn [7], on May 5th 1932, Stephen L. Richards told the First Presidency and Quorum of the Twelve that he will resign as apostle rather than apologize for his general conference talk which argued that the Church is putting too much emphasis on the Word of Wisdom. However on the 26th May he later recanted and apologised for his remarks.  What this suggests to me is that this move may have been as much a personal drive from President Grant as from a revelation.  Moreover, it certainly was not wholly accepted at face value by all of the twelve.


1. Robert J. McCue, Did the Word of Wisdom become a Commandment in 1851? in Dialogue, no. 3 [Salt Lake City, UT.: Dialogue Foundation, 1981], p. 66-77.

2. Thomas G. Alexander, The Word of Wisdom: From Principle to Requirement in Dialogue, no. 3 [Salt Lake City, UT.: Dialogue Foundation, 1981], pp. 79

3. James B. Allen and Glen M. Leonard, The Story of the Latter-day Saints, 2nd ed., rev. and enl. [Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Co., 1992], 525 – 526.

4. Truman G. Madsen, The Presidents of the Church, [Salt Lake City, UT. Deseret Book, 2004).

5. President Heber J. Grant, Answering Tobacco’s Challenge in Improvement Era, 1931, (Vol. Xxxiv. June, 1931. No. 8.)

6. Joseph Lyons, Encyclopedia of Mormonism, 1-4 vols., edited by Daniel H. Ludlow (New York: Macmillan, 1992), 1584.

7. D. Michael Quinn, The Mormon Hierarchy: Extensions of Power [Salt Lake City, UT.: Signature Books, 1997).

Comments 23

  1. Thanks for clarifying more of the story behind this. I had heard the theory that Heber J. Grant instituted it as doctrine; wasn’t it 1951 before it was sustained as binding upon the priesthood quorums of the Church, though?

  2. Post

    You would have to provide some source for that date, I have never heard it cited. The McCue article argues that there has never been a sustaining vote. Did you mean 1851? The article by McCue in dialogue shows that this was not binding on the Church as a whole. I will have a look at conference report.

  3. Rico, I must be thinking of 1851, as I can’t find a reference for that date anywhere. Well, that clears up an odd little chronological inconsistency I’ve been carrying around for a while.

  4. To me, there are 2 classes of principles: eternal principles and situational principles. Eternal principles are things that seem to have always been true and will always be true. Examples include murder, adultery, honesty, charity, etc. These have consistently been true throughout all epochs. Interestingly, they also seem to be generally true across religions and cultures. They are a part of all tenets of Christianity, but also in Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism, etc.

    There are also situational principles, in which I put the Word of Wisdom. These are things that seem to be big deals at the time, but aren’t really eternal principles. Examples include prohibitions on eating pork (which people didn’t do before but which we do now) or drinking wine (which Christ, Joseph Smith, and many others did do but we don’t do now). In my mind, these occasionally are “Thus sayest the Lord…” types of requirement, but often they mostly just reflect the personal opinion of whoever happens to hold the highest religious office at the time.

  5. Another comment that goes along with personal views and prohibition being a major portion of out current interpretation of the Word of Wisdom is how it translates into “Temple Questions”. Alcohol gets a huge emphasis in our current interpretation. However, we completely ignore the black-and-white verses talking about how meat should only be used in times of famine, or many other dietary things. If we really followed the Word of Wisdom as a revelation as opposed to the interpretation you comment on above, we would have questions related to that.

  6. Post

    #3 – You could be right I have just never heard that.

    #4 – The only inconsistency I can see here is that if health was important to the Lord in the past (and presumably this commandment has spiritual implications as the text itself says) then why would this not be an eternal principle. Moreover, why have some parts needed interpretation and others have not. Finally even those commandments you mentioned as being eternal there examples I can think of when they have been contravened. So although I think that distinction can be useful, it also opens up a host of other questions.

    #5 – As I am sure you are aware there was a time, especially under lorenzo snow and even under Joseph F. Smith when this part of the revelation was nearly made compulsory.

  7. President Packer told a slightly different story though in General Conference:

    “In 1908 in a general conference, President Joseph F. Smith read section 89 of the Doctrine and Covenants—the Word of Wisdom. Then he, both of his counselors, and the President of the Twelve all spoke to the same subject, the Word of Wisdom. Then a vote to accept it as binding upon the members of the Church was unanimously passed.” The Spirit of the Tabernacle April 2007 A search through the talks for the 1908 conference should confirm this -or prove it false.

    If it was voted on by the congregation in general conference and unanimously passed and ‘accepted as binding’ back in 1908, then what President Grant was doing in the ’30s was to make sure that everyone knew it was so. He may have also added it to the questions for the Temple but as a matter of proceedure or policy. But it would have been a ‘enforceable commandment’ from that 1908 conference onwards.

    A similar situation would occur today if, say, ‘abstain from pornography’ is added to the Temple questions (which it will be soon)

  8. The link to the Arrington essay leads elsewhere in the Signaturi universe.

    When were fermented barley drinks (e.g., beers) added to the implied (being neither wine nor strong drinks) list of prohibited substances? Herbs (e.g., cannabis)?

    1. This is a great question. Especially since the culture at large, and the Doc. & Cov. Deal with liquor, wine, and beer in specifics, and don’t confuse them. If you read the article above you will notice that President Grant also spoke in specifics: “liquor and tobacco” is what he cites. An old church primary song recites, “We drink no liquor and we eat but a very little meat. We are seeking to be good and great and wise.”

      In the Doc. & Cov. we see in verse 5:

      5 That inasmuch as any man drinketh wine or strong drink among you, behold it is not good, neither meet in the sight of your Father, only in assembling yourselves together to offer up your sacraments before him.

      There is a definite separation between wine and strong drink with some allowance for wine. the next two verses clarify:

      6 And, behold, this should be wine, yea, pure wine of the grape of the vine, of your own make.

      7 And, again, strong drinks are not for the belly, but for the washing of your bodies.

      But where is beer in this word? It is in verse 17. Don’t blink you’ll miss it.

      17 Nevertheless, wheat for man, and corn for the ox, and oats for the horse, and rye for the fowls and for swine, and for all beasts of the field, and barley for all useful animals, and for mild drinks, as also other grain.

      Barley, for all useful animals, and for MILD DRINKS, AS ALSO OTHER GRAIN. I have often heard people bemoan the low alcohol content of Utah beer. There is a reason why it had to be kept mild. Beer, according to the Doc. & Cov. is for us. Even the weak and weakest of the saints who are or can be called saints.

  9. Since I wasn’t around at the time, it doesn’t matter that much to me exactly when the parts of the WofW that are binding upon us were made so, but I think we are really missing the boat if we limit ourselves to the letter of the law and do not consider the blessings inherent in observing the spirit of the law. If we overeat, do not exercise and snack between meals, for example, we may be negating any positive temporal blessings we might be due from observing those things included in the letter of the law. If we abstain from alcohol and tobacco but partake of polluted air and water, we might do the same. I doubt any bishop will ever ask me if I exercise or eat junk food, and I may waddle off to the temple feeling pretty smug, but in my heart I will know that I have not taken the Lord’s counsel fully to heart.

  10. #8 – I have heard that before, and I have checked the CR and either it did not happen or it was not recorded. I find the first more plausible. Did Pres. Packer give a source for this?

    #9 – I agree with the interpretation given, but that interpretation may well have been v. different if the the meat part was emphasised and codified more rigidly (as some our leaders wanted).

    #10 – The link was not to the article, I figured that people could find that in BYU studies. The link was to a chapter from a book that is a history of BYU that discusses how BYU Studies was suspended after this article was published because of its content.

    #11 – I agree with your interpretation of the major principle we are to take from the WoW in general. For me this article is written out of my own interest in the history of how we got where we are and also in the role of prophetic leadership in that journey. For example, I am not convinced that this was revealed from God that it become binding upon us.

  11. Thank you, Rico, for this post. I guess I have always assumed 1921 because I’ve read so many places it was included in TR interview that year. In reading a few online things as a followup, I came across the following on wikipedia, for what it’s worth. Sorry no sources.

    “The church has no official stance on the consumption of caffeinated beverages and the consumption of such does not constitute a violation of the Word of Wisdom. However, a number of church leaders have discouraged the use of such products. For example, in 1922, Church President Heber J. Grant counseled the Latter-day Saints:

    I am not going to give any command, but I will ask it as a personal, individual favor to me, to let coca-cola [sic] alone. There are plenty of other things you can get at the soda fountains without drinking that which is injurious. The Lord does not want you to use any drug that creates an appetite for itself.

    Two years after making this statement, Grant met with a representative of the Coca-Cola Company to discuss the church’s position on Coca-Cola; at the conclusion of their second meeting, Grant stated that he was “sure I have not the slightest desire to recommend that the people leave Coca-Cola alone if th[e] amount [of caffeine in Coca-Cola] is absolutely harmless, which they claim it is”. Grant never again spoke out against the use of cola drinks.”

  12. Thanks. I had never read that before. I will have to look into that a little more.

    I have also heard that the Church subsequently owned shares in a cola company, I wonder if this is true. I alwasy thought the caffeine ban started with Widtsoe, but it seems to have not only been him.

  13. That Stephen L. Richards talk was great, and by my judgment, inspired. And quite pertinent today.

    If indeed it angered Pres. Grant, it must have been because some would interpret it wrong. To me, it would be the perfect sermon to include with a WoW campaign.

  14. Post

    I agree, that the talk is great. Actually faithful dissident has done a commentary on it in the past which is worth looking up. I think Pres. Grant felt it was undermining his perspective and I think he was right, but i also think that Elder Richards remarks were accurate.

  15. President Grant’s sermons on this issue and on the policy change he does not cite any direct revelation. Interestingly, President Grant said in 1928, which seems to contradict Alexander’s thesis of the 1921 date, that ‘the Lord has not made this an absolute commandment’.

    I can’t see the church back tracking on this as they seem to be doing on the race issue ie recent post by brother Holland. But as pointed out it appears to be a policy change since Joseph Smith not a revelation. Similar to what happened with Brigham Young and other apostles expanding on a policy that wasn’t meant to have happened.

    So if this is the case in theory will we see members drink sensibly in the future like our friends from the community of christ church

  16. #18 – I agree that it is unlikely, especially as the medical evidence mounts for some areas of the WoW. But it is possible that this could happen. I think the only scope for it, is if there is a culture change regarding the role of Bishops. Meaning in the TR questions are asked verbatim without expansion and whether answers are given by the individual. So it could be possible to for someone who drinks occassionally to answer to say they live the WoW and no further questions are asked.

  17. #19 – It seems to me that one could do this now. The relevant TR question – as it currently stands – is “Do you keep the Word of Wisdom?” So if one were to simply go by the actual revelation, which seems to allow for moderation rather than total abstention, they could actually give an honest answer even if they drink alcohol in moderate amounts (including use of wine in the Sacrament). Of course, they would need to be cutting back on the meat, if they follow a typical American diet.

    Based on current LDS practices, a more accurate phrasing of the current TR question would be “Do you keep the portions of the Word of Wisdom that mattered most to Heber J. Grant?”

  18. I could never see the Word of Wisdom as much more than “Mormon kosher” — a cultural marker and a symbol of obedience.

    If the Saints’ actual physical health were the Lord’s priority, he should have included “And boil that water you’re guzzling from the Platte, so thousands of you don’t die of cholera on the plains.”

  19. #20 – I agree that this might be a more accurate question, but it would also be what matters to the current prophets and because you sustain them before being this question it is implied. Moreover, although your right that as it stands the question is fairly ambiguous, as a Bishop, if you are aware of someone who is breaking the WoW then you would be encourage to raise that with them. It is not left to the individual.

    #21 – I think you raise an interesting point. I agree that health is not a major priority for the Lord, but is for his people. It seems that in most ages, prosperity has been a marker of divine providence. Health is one marker of that providence. The health benefits of living according to these recommendations is not in doubt but there might be other reasons for having it. The text itself suggests spiritual blessings connceted with the temple. But these are fairly open for interpretation.

    Actually this is one area that I should ahve included in the original write up. The conncetion between the language in the D&C 89 and the temple. That is for another time perhaps.

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