Of course there is a story behind it. Many stories. The accepted story is that Joseph Smith held a Religious Education School everyday for the men who would be called to lead the church and that every morning they would begin their day huffing and puffing on cigars and pipes and then chewing tobacco and spitting all over the floor. The scene seemed to Brigham Young as something not altogether coinciding with their mission of cleanliness and wholesomeness. Josephs Smith’s wife, complained about the mess the men made with their tobacco spit and asked Joseph to do something about it. He went to the Lord to ask how to approach the men on this subject. What he returned with was Doctrine and Covenants 89.
The Word of Wisdom (hereafter WoW) is a fantastic and brilliant revelation. My favorite line of it is this. “Given for a principle with promise, adapted to the capacity of the weak and the weakest of all saints, who are or can be called saints.” or my paraphrasing. “Just because you can handle large amounts of liquor, your neighbor can’t so we will all abstain in order to help each other out.”
The WoW also asks us to refrain from tobacco and “hot drinks” and to eat with moderation. Remember the WoW’s prohibition of tobacco came forth over a hundred years before science knew all the damage tobacco use would cause, which is amazing. It was no mystery at the time of the problems caused by alcohol since studies show that as many as 50% of men during this time were addicted to alcohol.
As for the prohibition of “Hot Drinks”, its’ hard to say for certain. At the time, coffee and tea were the only “hot drinks” available.
But I get the impression that the WoW is much more than a simple DO NOT list. I get the feeling that Joseph Smith as a prophet, saw what was in store for the Saints, especially those who would move west. It is easy to attribute D&C 89 to one petty instance of the women of the church complaining about tobacco spittle. But, no doubt to me, the state of the members weighed heavy on his prayers and his pleas for guidance from Heavenly Father. He knew that these substances had a hold on his people, all people. He could see that these monkeys had no place in the handcarts and wagons or homes of the Saints. There was, and is, no room for these addictions in the lives of those who were and are called to preach the Gospel. Now, fast forward a century and three quarters and the actual practice of the WoW gets murky. There are many kinds of Word of Wisdom observers. Here’s a list of some of the types we run into.
- Non-caffeine Mormons. No caffeine of any kind. No Coffee or black tea. Herbal teas OK.
- Non-caffeine Mormons who drink decaf coffee, tea and soda.
- Non-coffee or tea Mormons who don’t drink coffee or tea but drink caffeinated sodas and pops.
- Non-hot drink Mormons who don’t drink any warm drinks. No herbal teas, cocoas, etc.
Why the variety? Well, because the scripture is left up to the person to interpret. This is the scripture relating to coffee and tea
So the WoW can be confusing, especially to folks who want to poke fun. Which Mormons will you ridicule? Mormons who avoid coffee and tea most of their life have the whitest of teeth so there’s a benefit. You can tell them right away. Caffeine addiction is as real as tobacco addiction though the WoW doesn’t specifically prohibit caffeine. Personally, I could never fathom how a testimony shunning coffee, even decaf, yet allowing for a Dr. Pepper addiction is more desirable than a testimony that includes decaf coffee and tea, yet shuns caffeine. Those that avoid all hot drinks altogether are very self controlled. Who can pass up cocoa in mid-winter Utah, after all? So it is a conundrum.
Mormony folks will try and tell you knowledgebly that coffee and tea are prohibited because they contain tannins which cause it to be unhealthy. However, there are equally as high amounts of tannins in grape juice. Tannins in high amounts are also found in berries and apples, cocoa, etc. We certainly eat all of these things yet do not die. Caffeine is an obvious problem. Billions of folks in the world can’t start their day without a cup of caffeine. If you can’t start your day without a cup of anything, you are probably addicted to that anything.
I have raised my kids to be caffeine free mostly because studies on caffeine and development are non-existent. They tell pregnant women to avoid caffeine to prevent low birthweight babies. They tell pregnant women to avoid marijuana to prevent low birthweight babies and I would never give my kids marijuana. I figure my kids have their whole lives to get addicted to caffeine why introduce it early? However, caffeine has great uses medicinally for headaches, stomach aches, long car trips and cramming for tests. I have given caffeinated sodas to my children when they have had stomach aches that I guessed were caused by constipation. Works like a charm. But, it doesn’t work if they drink caffeine all the time.
Doctrine and Covenants 89 doesn’t only cover coffee, tobacco and alcohol, it also addresses the eating of meat and grains. It really speaks to moderation. There is no room for sugar addiction and there is no room for gluttony among the Saints. So, the WoW (Word of Wisdom) is at its core an admonition of self control and balance, which should be easy. Should be.