Evolution of the Word of Wisdom – Stories We Tell

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The Word of Wisdom is the health code that today is required for full participation in the church. Filled mainly with restrictions on what latter-day saints should eat or drink: no alcohol, tobacco, tea or coffee as every primary child learns. The church uses many stories to encourage members to live this word of wisdom, and these stories are presented in such a way to lead us to believe that we’ve always had the Word of Wisdom and it’s always been what it is today.

Faith Promoting Propaganda

Attending primary or Sunday school for segments on church history, you likely remember the story of Joseph Smith Jr needing surgery on his leg as a young boy. For whatever reason he had an issue with his bone and rather than amputate the infected leg, his family opted for an experimental procedure.

The operation was to cut the bad part of the bone out. As the doc prepares the family for the excruciating pain of cutting a chunk of a young boys bone with a saw, the doctor offers Joseph some alcohol (brandy) as medicine to dull the pain.

Joseph chills through his surgery without restraint and refusing the brandy he is offered to dull the pain. https://www.churchofjesuschrist.org/media/video/2010-06-02-chapter-01-joseph-smith-and-his-family-1805-1820?lang=eng

But, we learn in class that this boy is so pure and righteous, he refuses to accept the drink and he says he just needs his dad to hold him. Joseph is credited with being noble for obeying a commandment to not drink alcohol even though the doctor offered it. He’s obeying the word of wisdom even when it’s hard.

Church video where Joseph has a leg operation and “refused to take brandy for the pain” (skip ahead to 3:23)

Spoiler alert, the word of wisdom didn’t exist at this point. Joseph, the boy who would pray in the woods and find gold plates and later, as an adult, establish a church, and then write the Word of Wisdom was still just a boy. This was prior to the organization of the church. The church uses this story regularly in the word of wisdom lessons to use the example of Joseph being strictly obedient.

Joseph may have written the Word of Wisdom and even preached temperance, but he never actually preached abstinence like the church does today, let alone live it. The church (and church historians) have whitewashed the history and portray Joseph as a man living current day interpretations of the health code. Quite anachronistic of them.

Mormon historians attempted to portray Joseph Smith as a teetotaler, but according to the testimonies of his contemporaries, Joseph Smith often drank alcohol in his own home or the homes of his friends in Kirtland. In Nauvoo Smith was far less discreet with his drinking habits.

Temperance Movement – Latter Day Saints, Wikipedia
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Temperance_movement#Latter_Day_Saints

The Sunday School lessons don’t tell us that Joseph regularly drank alcohol. In fact one of the last things he did was to partake of wine for the “lifting of his spirits” in Carthage Jail.

5:00-6:00 p.m. Wine is brought in for the prisoners in the upper room of the jail, and Joseph Smith, Taylor, and Richards “tasted” of the wine to lift their spirits.

Timeline of 96 Hours Surrounding the Martyrdom of Joseph Smith and Hyrum Smith
Contributed By Aubrey Eyre, Church News staff writer
https://www.churchofjesuschrist.org/church/news/timeline-of-96-hours-surrounding-the-martyrdom-of-joseph-smith-and-hyrum-smith?lang=eng

Some have even mentioned that the wine was used for a sacrament service, John Taylor, in the official history of the church put the story right that they drank this wine to revive them.

Sometime after dinner we sent for some wine. It has been reported by some that this was taken as a sacrament. It was no such thing; our spirits were generally dull and heavy, and it was sent for to revive us. I think it was Captain Jones who went after it, but they would not suffer him to return. I believe we all drank of the wine, and gave some to one or two of the prison guards. We all of us felt unusually dull and languid, with a remarkable depression of spirits.

John Taylor. HC V.7:101
https://byustudies.byu.edu/further-study-lesson/volume-7-chapter-9/

The lessons also neglect to mention that Joseph’s father, Joseph Smith Sr was a heavy drinker his whole life. Which may have influenced his opinion of alcohol as a young boy or at least influenced the leg surgery story. We have the story from Lucy Mack Smith, Joseph’s mother, who only shared it retrospectively. The story wasn’t recorded until after Joseph’s death when she wrote the Smith family history. By then, Lucy had even joined the temperance movement and that also may have influenced her storytelling.

“Lucy Mack Smith’s account of the surgery attracts interest as one of the few stories on record of Joseph Smith’s early childhood. Written nearly three decades later and after Lucy had embraced ideals of the U.S. temperance movement against alcohol, her account emphasizes Joseph’s refusal to take liquor for pain.”

Official Church Website. Joseph Smith’s Leg Surgery, https://www.churchofjesuschrist.org/study/history/topics/joseph-smiths-leg-surgery?lang=eng

Using this and other stories in this vein to lead us to believe that early leaders were different that they actually were is what we’ve become accustomed to in the church. This is an example of how the church narrative as told in the correlated material is not a representation of the actual truth. It is a narrative, a story that is retold so much that it begins to feel true. It is only a representation of a select few calculated pieces of the full story. These parts of the story are calculated to promote faith. In other words, church history, as the church teaches it, is propaganda. They omit anything that could be troubling or hard to understand and end up white-washing the whole story. This occurs not only in primary classes, but also adult Sunday School and even the advanced classes found in institute or even BYU. It makes sense that complex things would be omitted in primary, but when can more complex topics be introduced as the members mature. It’s hard to avoid the conclusion that these facts and parts of the story are kept from us because there is no way to reconcile the full story of church history with the full story of what the church is today.

To be fair, there are attempts to be more honest when teaching church history, though there is still plenty left out and incredible spin on the real story to make it feel more faith-promoting there are advances in honesty to mention. For example there is a long description of alcohol as strong drinks in this revelations in context study guide, it explains that as society was so dependent on drinking alcohol, God must have given a grace period before making the “not by way of commandment” section into an actual commandment:

Nevertheless, it required time to wind down practices that were so deeply ingrained in family tradition and culture, especially when fermented beverages of all kinds were frequently used for medicinal purposes. The term “strong drink” certainly included distilled spirits such as whiskey, which thereafter the Latter-day Saints generally shunned. They took a more moderate approach to milder alcoholic beverages like beer and “pure wine of the grape of the vine, of your own make.”

Doctrine and Covenants Study, Revelations in Context, Jed Woodworth
https://www.churchofjesuschrist.org/study/manual/revelations-in-context/the-word-of-wisdom?lang=eng#title3

Though this is a nice spin to put on it and it doesn’t hold water, the church is starting to talk about things like this, no matter how buried it is in study manuals. When else does god give time to “wind down practices that were so deeply ingrained in family tradition and culture”? Seems like an option he had for other commandments, but instead sent an angel with a flaming sword to force Joseph into polygamy and polyandry.

The Temperance Society succeeded in eliminating a distillery in Kirtland on February 1 1833, and by the end of the month, Joseph writes section 89 known as the word of wisdom. May members and lessons like to share that the revelation is contrary to the science and popular thought of the time. This completely ignores the whole temperance movement. It was very much a part of the religious, health and political rhetoric of the day to drink in moderation or even abstain from strong drinks.

The word of wisdom was revealed in 1833, and it took a long long time until it became the “commandment” we know it as today. It is required for things like priesthood advancement and a temple recommend, which in turn is required for a celestial marriage and exaltation. It may be a peculiar part of the religion and fully integrated with the culture and identity today, but early church members and even leaders would not recognize our current interpretations.

It’s been a shelf item to understand what it really is and see how it has changed over the years. The enforcement has changed and also the story around it has changed.


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

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