Reworking the “Word of Wisdom”

Revelations, like the Mormon “Word of Wisdom,” need to be updated from time to time.  This need is brought about by constantly improving scientific information about the human relationship with food and drugs, and the wider number of substances available to use and abuse.

It should be noted that the original version of TWOW is not easy to understand and requires serious interpretation.  I will base my opinions on the most popular interpretations today (Elder Boyd K. Packer, April 2011 conference talk):

The Lord revealed to Joseph Smith a code of health, the Word of Wisdom, long before the dangers were known to the world.  All are taught to avoid tea, coffee, liquor, tobacco, and of course varieties of drugs and addictive substances, which are ever present before our young people.  Those who obey this revelation are promised that they “shall receive health in their navel and marrow to their bones:

“And shall find wisdom and great treasures of knowledge, even hidden treasures;

“And shall run and not be weary, and shall walk and not faint.”

I have no problem with the absolute prohibition against any form of tobacco.  This is a wonderful commandment and needs to be obeyed . . . period.

The absolute prohibition on the consumption of alcohol is a bit of a problem.  There appears to be considerable evidence that alcohol has some value for treating aging (dementia) and heart patients.  So this part of TWOW could use some exceptions.  As a heart patient, my doctor stated that if you don’t already drink, don’t start.  But if you do drink, there is evidence that moderate consumption may be appropriate (and he is Mormon).  There are obviously problems with heavy drinking, and these problems need to be carefully considered. 

Alcoholism is obviously a huge problem in the world.  But so is the overuse of prescription drugs and other substances.  If the latter are substitutes for alcohol, what have we gained by not drinking (other than a temple recommend).

The issue of coffee and tea is even more problematic.  There is good evidence that moderate consumption of both tea and coffee is beneficial.  Neither is specifically mentioned in TWOW.  Brigham Young’s interpretation of this restriction may have been motivated by economic conditions (both had to be imported) in the Utah Territory at the time.

By specifically excluding coffee and tea, Mormons frequently switch to soft drinks to get their caffeine.  And there is absolutely no food value in most bubbly drinks, in fact the empty calories and carbonation are seriously problematic.

My grandfather was a Mormon bishop and stake president.  He couldn’t wait to get out of Cache Valley so he could have a cup of “joe.”  My father was an on-and-off again coffee drinker and managed to maintain a temple recommend.  I get the impression that this part of TWOW is not always actively enforced.

It seems like a contemporary interpretation of TWOW could include:

  • moderation in all things (medication, diet, exercise, work)
  • a balanced well-rounded diet
  • eat meat sparingly
  • an absolute restriction on the use of tobacco
  • avoidance (not a prohibition) of sugar, empty calories, alcohol, and carbonation
  • medication only when it matches real medical problems
  • reasonable sleep
  • daily exercise
  • monthly fasting

But I would suggest excluding any mention of coffee and tea (they would be covered under “moderation in all things”).  There are several reasons to reemphasize fasting for adults:

  • there is evidence that it is good for your health
  • an occasional sacrifice is certainly good for the spirit
  • fast offerings are important for helping the less fortunate

We need to emphasize the spiritual benefits of living a healthy life.  Carrol Firmage writes (in Dialogue), “To work the land is a sacrament (covenant with the Divine) of continuity and caring that links past, present, and future.”  She proposes a sacrament of the garden.  This would certainly go a long way toward improving diet and life style.

According to Carroll’s spouse, Ed Firmage Jr., we should reinstitute aggressive stake, ward, and home gardening programs:

The wisdom of the Word of Wisdom, with its counsel to eat meat sparingly, becomes more evident every day.  And yet, this arguably the most important element of the Word of Wisdom as regards both individual health and the environment, is not the aspect of the Word of Wisdom that we focus on today.  If we want to be healthy and to live sustainably, the core of our diet should be what we raise ourselves, and this, for us, as for most people thoughout history, is grains, fruits, and vegetables, not meat. . . .  The Church should encourage members to rip out their lawns and create productive permaculture.

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2 Responses to Reworking the “Word of Wisdom”

  1. rogerdhansen says:

    According to David Brooks writing in the NYTimes (21 Apr 2011):

    “Rigorous codes of conduct allow people to build character. Changes in behavior change the mind, so small acts of ritual reinforce networks in the brain. A Mormon denying herself coffee may seem like a silly thing, but regular acts of discipline can lay the foundation for extraordinary acts of self-control when it counts the most.”

  2. rogerdhansen says:

    According to Time magazine (18 Apr 2011), in a short article titled” “Fasting for Your Heart”:

    “Starving yourself isn’t healthy, but periodic fasts may actually be good for your ticker.

    Researchers in Utah show that a 24-hour fast can lead to favorable changes in cholesterol and blood-sugar levels, which suggests that supervised fasting may help combat heart-disease risk. But even the authors aren’t ready to endorse it just yet–at least not until further work reveals whether there is a safe way to skip calories. Not eating triggers the stress response, so repeated episodes of fasting may end up straining and damaging the heart.”

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