Evolution of the Word of Wisdom – Barley Drinks and Imbibing Pioneers

The Word of Wisdom is a distinct part of the mormon church, it details the do’s and don’ts of what members can and can’t eat or drink. Yet it wasn’t always so. As it’s written, the “commandment” is not really what is focused on, but since, church leaders have come up with their own list of don’ts and have largely ignored everything else. Reading section 89, where the word of wisdom originates, we see mention of many things that aren’t lived today. Barley drinks, eating meat sparingly, and even herbs and fruits when in season. Let’s look as some of these provisions and what they mean as well as some historical inconsistencies between the church and the WOW vs the narrative of today.

It is important (as with any doctrine of the church) to understand that as they say it was revealed “line upon line”, they really mean that it evolved over time from one thing into another thing entierly. This is true with more than just the Word of Wisdom, but keep it in mind as you study any doctrine of the church, as it is most likely not the same today as it was originally. This includes things like the word of wisdom, eternal marriage, the first vision, the godhead, translation, etc etc.

Mild Barley Drinks are Beer

Barley, Mild Barley

As it’s written, we can see that the Word of Wisdom permits members to drink mild drinks of barley.

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.

D&C 89:17

What are mild barley drinks? Well, you may not know since that is not what they are called today, but we’re talking about beer here. Good old fashioned Ale or Beer or Bier. The ingredients of Beer are water, hops, barley and yeast. So beer is the exact definition of a mild barley drink today, as well as in the 1800s when this section was written. They are called mild because they aren’t as “strong” as other drinks like wine or spirits like whisky. So according to the scripture, there’s actually nothing wrong with alcohol, just the “strong” stuff. Why is it that today we don’t partake of any alcohol of any sort? We’ll get to that.

Beer ingredients are water, hops, barley and yeast. Beer is the exact definition of a mild barley drink today as well as in the 1800s.

Though to be fair, this mention of mild barley drinks is the same verse where the different grains are reserved for different animals. Man has wheat, and we have “corn for the ox, and oats for the horse, and rye for the fowls and for swine, and for all beasts of the field”. Not sure if Mormon pioneers followed this clause of the Word of Wisdom either, but it’s sure not included on the temple recommend questions. Can you imagine? “Brother, do you only feed corn to your oxen? You sure there’s no oats or rye mixed in? Do you save the oats for the horse? You’re not eating any are you? Make sure you only partake of wheat…”

Mild Barley Drinks = Beer


Wine was originally used for the sacrament of course and the scriptural prayers still mention wine. But today it is forbidden. We’re led to believe that it’s always been this way, but you may be surprised to learn that church leaders drank wine often. Even though it’s mentioned as “not good” or “meet in the sight of your Father” in the WOW.

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.

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

D&C 89:5-6

When there was debate about needing proper wine for the sacrament, there is even a section in the D&C 27:2-3 that states “it mattereth not” what is used in the sacrament as far as wine or water or bread or wafers. As the section heading explains, this was received by Joseph Smith when he didn’t have any wine and wanted to administer the sacrament. The heading continues to state “Water is now used instead of wine in the sacramental services of the Church“. The church regularly uses this section to dismiss the question of why we don’t use wine for the sacrament (as they do in the scriptures). But they use this verse to sidestep without answering the question. The way they present it, leads us to believe that since this was received in August of 1830, that water has been used rather than wine. This implied assumption is not only misleading, but it’s also not true. Firstly, this predates the Word of Wisdom too! This section is received in 1830 while the Word of Wisdom section 89 wasn’t until 1833 so just like the story of Joseph’s leg surgery, they use it as an example of following the WoW, but when this came out, the word of Wisdom didn’t even exist yet.

Using wine for the sacrament didn’t stop with the word of wisdom, it actually continued well into the 1900s and was only stopped in order to follow the temperance movement ideals of abstaining from alcohol. Alcohol was made illegal during the prohibition era (1920 – 1933) in the United States so naturally church members had to follow the law – since they are so quick to obey other laws, like the laws forbidding polygamy for example (eye roll). Church leaders eagerly joined the movement using the word of wisdom doctrine to back up the push to become the teetotaling religion they are still known for today. Since they were taking the word of wisdom seriously now, it was treated as a commandment, even though the actual words proclaim that it is not a commandment. We must wonder if they were so eager to follow this law in order to be seen as compliant when before they had not been.

Alcohol in the Church

We also have indisputable evidence that alcohol was just a part of life for church members in that day. As mentioned earlier, Joseph Smith drank wine and beer and strong drinks throughout his life (excluding his leg surgery of course). Brigham Young did as well. In fact, part of settling and colonizing (or taking) the land was establishing vineyards (to make wine), breweries (to make beer) and even distilleries (to make whisky). There was a brand for each produced, sold and promoted by the official church. See some more Utah’s Distilling History at High West Distillery’s site.

The department store known as ZCMI (Zion Cooperative Mercantile Institution) sold beer, wine and even Valley Tan, a locally produced whiskey.

Hotel Utah, built by the church in 1910, boasted a basement with one of the finest bars in the West…

In what became known as the Wine Mission, European converts in the 1860s put their viticultural expertise to work and produced 3,000 gallons of wine a year in southern Utah. Brigham Young lauded their efforts: “I anticipate the day when we can have the privilege of using, at our sacraments, pure wine, produced within our borders.”

COMMENTARY: Mormon ban on alcohol not always absolute By Pat Bagley

Prophet’s Alcohol Profits

Brigham Young himself owned and made money from not only barley drinks, but also forbidden “strong drinks”. He owned his own distillery and sold his beverages to the church for church activities! Imagine a Pioneer Day celebration where saints drink liquor that was sold to the church from the current presidents own stores at nearly quadruple price!

Brigham Young was generally involved in any project where money was to be made. He owned his own distillery which the Salt Lake City Council rented from him for $2000 a year from 1861 to 1867. After that time the city bought liquor from the Howard Distillery, which was jointly owned by Brigham Young and Daniel H. Wells. That Young was a member of the City Council from 1872-1877 and Wells was Mayor from 1866-1876 should come as no surprise. On 3 June 1876, the Deseret News published a Grand Jury audit of the Salt Lake Corporation’s financial records which included substantial purchases of liquor. City funds paid for liquor for Pioneer Day and also for a party of veterans of the Mormon Battalion. The Deseret News report stated: “After completion of the railroad, the city continued to buy liquor from Brigham Young at $4.00 per gallon, although they could have gotten better ‘States’ liquor at $1.25 per gallon.”


President Grant

Obedience to the word of wisdom was not required in order to receive a temple recommend. Leaders like Heber J Grant, who is applauded for overcoming and focusing so much on self improvement, pushed the word of wisdom to be more of a commandment and less of a “not by commandment or constraint”. Earlier in his life though, Heber J Grant himself made a personal resolution to stop drinking alcohol (as well as coffee) because he couldn’t control himself. He couldn’t drink in moderation and found himself addicted time after time. So, it seems he decided to encourage everyone (by requirement) to join in on his personal goal of abstaining from alcohol and coffee.

While his Thirteenth Ward Sunday School tutors inveighed against coffee, tea, tobacco, and alcohol, the prohibition of these commodities was never made to be a religious test. Mormons could be considered “good” mormons and still occasionally imbibe. In fact, devout Rachel’s boardinghouse first introduced Heber to the taste of coffee. He soon became addicted and despite Rachel’s gentle disapproval he found that he could not abandon it. Time after time he quit only to find his appetite uncontrollable.

Young Heber J Grant’s Years of Passage, Ronald Walker, BYU Studies. Pages 145-147. Pages 15-16 of the linked PDF file: https://scholarsarchive.byu.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=2266&context=byusq
Head Mormon Church Officials Stand United for Prohibition, newspaper clipping.

Later on, and as President of the church, we have Grant to thank for making the WOW a requirement. It became required in 1921, the same time prohibition started, to advance in the priesthood or receive a temple recommend. Grant’s “administration also emphasized the practice of the LDS health code known as the Word of Wisdom. During the early 1900s, general authorities differed in their observance of the proscription against beer, wine, tobacco, coffee and tea, but among the apostles, Grant was one of the most vocal in opposing such substances. In 1921, Grant’s administration made adherence to the health code compulsory for advancement in the priesthood or for entrance to temples. Grant also spoke out in favor of Utah’s Prohibition movement, which occurred around the same time.” (see Wikipedia)

Inspired Revelation

“In no conceivable way could the word of wisdom have come of the dietary literature of the time” – Gordon B Hinckley

The church likes to claim that the Word of Wisdom as revealed was completely foreign to the accepted science of the day. The people then had no suspicions that too much alcohol was bad for them, or tobacco, or hot drinks. There is plenty of thought and conventional wisdom regarding health in those days. There are plenty of resources that call for much of the same guidance in 1806 and even 1830, while the Word of Wisdom was written in 1833. References can be found in 1806 Means of preserving health, and preventing diseases, 1806, Ricketson, Shadrach and Journal of Health, 1830. Note some specific phrases and words that are shared between these and the scripture such as “sparingly”. These references as well as the growing Temperance Movement of the times as well which were also instructing to abstain from strong drinks too.

The current requirements and interpretation of the Word of Wisdom is only 100 years old today. While it was received nearly 200 years ago. What a different and evolving church doctrine than we expect! While it is called inspired, and we’re told that the saints needed time to be prepared to live it. Where was the time to be prepared in other commandments? Like polygamy for example?

Many find no problem living the word of wisdom and do not question it. It makes sense in some health circles, but in looking at the evolution of the commandment and doctrine we would do well to ask questions and research the actual church history. It really has changed over the years. The interpretation, requirement and also the story around it has all changed.

For more resources understanding the Word of Wisdom please check these resources out:

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