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What's Not on the Mormon Menu

Many non-Mormons know very little about what their Mormon friends believe about Christ, the afterlife, or the plan of salvation. But they almost always know about the Mormon health code! Maybe they had neighbors who didn't drink beer at the block's annual Super Bowl party or worked with a woman who refused the coffee served at Friday morning department meetings. The Mormon commitment to good health usually makes an impression.

Like many aspects of the LDS religion, the duty to maintain good health has its roots in revelation, in this case a section of the Doctrine and Covenants that Mormons call the Word of Wisdom. The legend surrounding its origin is that Joseph Smith and other early LDS leaders used to chew tobacco during Church meetings, spitting juices on the floor. Joseph's wife, Emma Hale Smith, was disgusted by this act, and her complaints led the Prophet to ask God whether tobacco use was really appropriate for Latter-day Saints.

The Lord's response, contained in D&C section 89, covered far more than just tobacco; it also restricted the consumption of wine, liquor, meat, and hot drinks (today interpreted to mean tea and coffee of any temperature). Although many Mormons understand this scripture as suggesting that all caffeine is bad and should be avoided, this idea isn't official Church doctrine; the Church allows members to decide that issue for themselves, and some members choose to drink cola.

Some people wonder whether Mormons get kicked out of the Church for kicking back a few. The answer is no: Basic Church membership isn't contingent upon keeping the Word of Wisdom. However, members with Word of Wisdom problems can't hold priesthood callings or get a temple recommend. So although nobody gets excommunicated for smoking a cigarette or being spotted in Starbuck's, the full blessings of Church membership, including temple attendance, are reserved for those who walk the straight and narrow path.

Interpreting the Word of Wisdom

For most of the nineteenth century, Latter-day Saints interpreted the Word of Wisdom a little more loosely than they did in the 1830s or do today. Moderation, rather than entire abstinence, was the key:

  • Coffee, tea, and alcohol were among the list of provisions that the Church recommended for the westward trek in 1846.
  • Church leaders used wine for the sacrament at Sunday meetings and at the dedication celebrations for the temples in Kirtland, Ohio, and Nauvoo, Illinois.
  • Brigham Young chewed tobacco for most of his adult life. (He acquired this nasty habit before he converted to Mormonism, and he struggled valiantly to give it up, managing to quit for a nine-year period between 1848 and 1857.)
  • Young encouraged some early Latter-day Saints to begin vineyards in Utah, sending one group of Swiss immigrants to southern Utah to start the Dixie Wine Mission. Their vineyards were very successful, and they sold wine all over the Western United States in the late nineteenth century. Young had no tolerance for drunkenness, vulgar behavior, or the domestic violence that sometimes resulted from alcohol abuse, but he and other Latter-day Saints in the late nineteenth century did permit a small intake of wine or Danish beer.

So why are Mormons today teetotalers, when their pioneer ancestors weren't? The fact that early Latter-day Saints regarded the Word of Wisdom differently than Mormons do today isn't evidence of hypocrisy but of historical change. Here are some reasons:

  • It allied Mormons with the temperance movement. In the early twentieth century, American culture began examining food and health issues more strictly, with alcohol being a particular concern. The LDS Church was in favor of the temperance measures of the day and began substituting water for wine in sacrament meetings in July 1906. Fifteen years later, the Church made strict adherence to the Word of Wisdom a requirement for temple admittance, with no exceptions.
  • It helps build a Mormon identity today. After the Latter-day Saints gave up the practice of plural marriage, strict compliance in living the Word of Wisdom became another way of signifying Mormon identity. Today, keeping the Word of Wisdom helps bond the Mormon community as well as strengthen individual Latter-day Saints.
  • It saves Mormons from modern addictions that are potentially very serious.This reason could be the most compelling one of all for today's zero-tolerance policy. Nowadays, addictive substances are more widely available than ever before, and a Mormon has to learn to say no to the small things so that she's in the habit of saying no when someone offers her a drug that could ruin (or take) her life.

By the way, the Word of Wisdom contains an explicit mention that Mormons should eat meat sparingly and in times of cold or famine, if at all. Also, Joseph Smith taught that animals have spirits. But most U.S. Mormons are unabashed carnivores, and the Church has never taken an official position on vegetarianism. Lorenzo Snow, the Church's president in the early 20th century, emphasized his wish that all Latter-day Saints would stop eating meat, but Joseph F. Smith, the prophet who followed him, didn't stress this counsel.

The last word on the Word of Wisdom

Here's a quick rundown of what's kosher for Mormons and what's not, food-wise:

  • Definitely okay:
    • Hot apple cider and hot cocoa.
    • Caffeine-free soft drinks.
    • Chocolate (which entertainer Marie Osmond has labeled "Mormon medication").
    • Moderate quantities of meat.
    • Postum (which is fine from the perspective of Mormon orthodoxy, though maybe not from the standpoint of good taste).
    • A diet rich in grains and vegetables.
  • Probably okay:
    • Herbal tea (according to the Word of Wisdom, herbs are "to be used with prudence and thanksgiving").
    • Cooking with wine, because the alcoholic content burns off during cooking. Some very conservative Mormons, however, won't use so much as a teaspoon of vanilla extract in a batch of chocolate-chip cookies.
  • Possibly okay: Nonalcoholic beer and sparkling cider rather than champagne. However, some Mormons think they should avoid even looking like they're drinking forbidden substances, because drinking them may confuse people.
  • Probably not okay, but no one knows for sure: Decaffeinated coffee. A June 1988 article in the official Church magazine never said that decaf is forbidden, but it did take pains to point out that decaf drinkers suffer elevated risk for ulcers and other gastrointestinal difficulties. However, bishops and stake presidents aren't supposed to deny a member a temple recommend for drinking decaf, and Apostle John Widtsoe advised members that consumption of decaffeinated drinks isn'tagainst the Word of Wisdom.
  • Definitely not okay:
    • Alcohol, including wine and beer.
    • Black tea, green tea,and othercaffeinated teas.
    • Coffee and recipes that use it (which may even include desserts like tiramisu, though the authors hope not).
    • Iced coffee and iced caffeinated tea.
    • Illegal drugs, recreational drugs, and illicit prescription medications.
    • Tobacco.
  • The subject of endless debate: Caffeinated soft drinks.
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