If you find yourself in a group of Mormons and are feeling even a bit mischievous, ask them whether it is against the doctrine of the Church for them to drink caffeinated soda. You are certain to get nearly as many answers as you have Mormons in the room. If you are lucky, you might even get to see a pretty good argument starting, with the virtues and vices of cola beverages tossed around so violently that it isn’t safe to open the can.
With that said, and recognizing that at least a few million members of the Church might disagree with what I say in this post, I’m screwing my courage to the sticking place and taking on an explanation of what Mormons refer to as “The Word of Wisdom.”
The Word of Wisdom is the popular name for a revelation given to Joseph Smith in 1833. The impetus for the revelation appears to be concerns that Smith (or, more properly, his wife Emma) had with the use of tobacco in certain church meetings. I’m probably not getting the story exactly right, but apparently early Mormons who used chewing tobacco had a hard time hitting the spittoon, and Emma liked to walk around in her socks. Regardless, Joseph Smith took the matter to the Lord and received the revelation that currently is found in the 89th Section of the Doctrine and Covenants.
The revelation originally was given as counsel rather than commandment. Over the years the Church put more stress on the Word of Wisdom, and by 1930 obedience to the Word of Wisdom was a requirement for permission to enter into the temples.
According to the revelation itself, the Word of Wisdom was given “In consequence of evils and designs which do and will exist in the hearts of conspiring men in the last days,” suggesting that it is a law given uniquely to our time to address evils that are more prevalent in our days. Given that we live now in an age of addiction, that makes plenty of sense. Even if you think Joseph Smith was a fraud, you have to at least give him props for anticipating the dangers of big tobacco companies 150 years before it was trendy.
What Does the Word of Wisdom Prohibit or Permit?
Now we can start warming up the debate. The Word of Wisdom advises against certain things and encourages others. Tracking the specific language of the revelation, members are to avoid “wine or strong drink,” tobacco, and “hot drinks.” (D&C 89:5-9). Meat is to be eaten “sparingly.” (D&C 89:12). Encouraged is the use of herbs, fruits, and grains. (D&C 89:10-11, 14, 16). Later prophets have made clear that illegal drug use also is prohibited.
The confusion comes from the interpretation of “hot drinks.” The Church’s official interpretation since the time of Joseph Smith is that this refers to coffee and tea. Because the common denominator between those two drinks is caffeine, members of the Church have all kinds of opinions about whether certain foods and drinks are “against the Word of Wisdom.” In my years in the Church I’ve heard some members defend decaffeinated coffee and others condemn hot chocolate. Some folks think nothing of caffeinated sodas, while other soberly declare that they are taboo.
Why Can’t Mormons Get This Sorted Out?
So why isn’t there one standard practice among the members? There are probably a host of reasons, but I think there are two institutional things about the Church that contribute to what outsiders might see as waffling.
First, even though critics of the LDS Church frequently accuse it of being authoritarian, allowing for no individual thought or disagreement, the exact opposite is true, and this is demonstrated by the variety of practices with respect to the Word of Wisdom. Members are not only allowed, but expected to use their own judgment and inspiration from the Holy Ghost to make decisions about how to govern their lives.
Although the Church counsels members to maintain good health and avoid any addictive substances, you can still get a temple recommend if you drink Mountain Dew, scarf down meat everyday, or don’t eat your veggies. Those aspects of the Word of Wisdom seem still to be given “not by commandment or constraint.” Beyond coffee, tea, tobacco, alcohol and illegal drugs, Mormons are left to their own devices to sort out what they should and shouldn’t put into their bodies. That means that there are going to be differences of opinion.
Second, Mormons contribute to the confusion by simplistically calling the Word of Wisdom “the Lord’s law of health.” That opens the door to debate every time some new health study is issued about the benefits or harms of this or that food. Should red wine be allowed? Trans fats prohibited? As near as I can understand it, such questions are misplaced. Although one of the promised blessings of the Word of Wisdom is “health in their navel and marrow to their bones,” that is only one of the blessings. Like any commandment, the spiritual aspect is greater than the physical. Such blessings include “wisdom and great treasures of knowledge, even hidden treasures.”
The Word of Wisdom is no more a law of health than were the dietary laws introduced by Moses. Yes, there are practical reasons that the Israelites should have avoided certain foods, but even if pork were prepared in such a way as to present no health risks whatsoever, it still would be prohibited. The same is true of the Word of Wisdom: Even if someone discovers that coffee cures cancer and clears up acne, Mormons still would be required to avoid it, because compliance with the Word of Wisdom is a covenant with the Lord, not a committment to a celestial dietician. By reducing the Word of Wisdom to a mere health code, we render it much more difficult to understand.
Like people of all faiths, Mormons are working out their relationships with God as best they can. Even though we believe we have a living prophet to lead us, most of our daily choices are made based upon our experience, understanding, and inspiration. What is surprising is not the diversity of opinions about small issues like caffeine, but rather the remarkable consistency in the big things. We tell our members to follow the Spirit, and we trust that it will lead them in the same direction.