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 . 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 ). 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’ . 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’.
President Grant had a friend who had died young because of alcohol related problems (according to Truman Madsen it was cirrhosis of the liver ). 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’. 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.
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.’.
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.
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 . 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 . 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.
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 , 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).