The Interplay of Culture and Doctrine

January 11, 2008

By Steve M.

Because M&M’s thoughts on goal-setting and New Year’s resolutions are so similar to my own (and you guys probably thought we never agreed on anything), I’m going to write on the topic originally scheduled for this week–which is, as our one-week-behind sidebar indicates, “Nevertheless they are to be used sparingly.”

As most readers of this blog probably recognized, that phrase comes from Doctrine & Covenants 89:12, a verse in the revelation that has come to be called the “Word of Wisdom.” Verse 12 states that while the “flesh . . . of beasts and of the fowls of the air” are “ordained for the use of man,” they are “nevertheless they are to be used sparingly.” Verse 13 elaborates, stating that “it is pleasing unto [God] that they should not be used, only in times of winter, or of cold, or famine.”

As the Word of Wisdom entry in the lds.org “Gospel Topics” section indicates, the revelation is commonly described as the “law of health revealed by the Lord for the physical and spiritual benefit of His children.” That webpage succinctly describes the law as it is understood in the modern church. It prohibits alcohol, tobacco, and “hot drinks” (i.e., tea and coffee), implicitly forbids illegal drugs and other addictives, and encourages the consumption of healthy foods such as fruits, vegetables, and grains. Notably, the entry specifically points out that the revelation also prescribes the “sparing” consumption of meats, but does not mention the part about times of winter, cold, or famine.

Of course, modern Mormons aren’t particularly known for their “sparing” consumption of meat. We may be known for not smoking or drinking, but we can’t claim quasi- or partial vegetarianism as one of our distinguishing characteristics.

I believe that Section 89, particularly its counsel regarding meat consumption, is one of the best examples of how culture affects the meaning of what we consider a divine revelation (in this case, one that is partially delivered in the voice of God). While Latter-day Saints accept as God’s literal words the proclamation that “[w]hat I the Lord have spoken, I have spoken, and I excuse not myself” (D&C 1:38), we have nonetheless used Section 89 as a mere starting point for subsequent interpretations and reinterpretations of “the Lord’s law of health.”

History tells us that Section 89 probably had a different meaning to the Latter-day Saints of the 1830s. Its prohibitions fit well with the temperance movements, which cautioned against consuming substances such as tobacco and alcohol. These movements even debated the health implications of drinking liquids served at elevated temperatures (which, of course, included tea and coffee). As one society wrote, “Cold water clears the head; and though it does not regenerate, it greatly unwraps the heart.” The Temperance Society, which also preached against the use of “all ardent spirits as a beverage,” was often called the “Cold Water Society” by outsiders (see here). In this context, the statement that “hot drinks are not for the body or belly” (D&C 89:9) would not have been ambiguous. Likewise, moderation or abstinence in meat may have been linked to the temperance movement; a subsequent temperance-oriented movement in England regarded meat as a stimulant, and described abstinence from it as “the higher phase of temperance” (see here). Thus, the endorsement of “sparing” meat consumption also may have been unsurprising. As the Kirtland Temperance Society had succeeded in closing the city’s distillery during the month prior to the reception of the Word of Wisdom, temperance was likely at the front of the Kirtland Saints’ minds. While the extent to which the movement influenced Joseph Smith or the revelation itself is up for debate, nineteenth-century views of health would have informed the early Saints’ views of the Word of Wisdom.

Although the revelation was not solidified as a requirement for temple attendance until 1921 (during the Prohibition era, appropriately), and in its present form is still introduced with the words “not by commandment or constraint,” it is one of the most seriously taken commandments in Mormondom. However, to modern adherents far removed from the cultural context of nineteenth-century America, the original import of the revelation text is less clear. To us, “hot drinks” has always meant tea and coffee, and it is widely believed that the rationale has something to do with the beverages’ caffeine content (although hot chocolate, a “hot drink” not forbidden by the Word of Wisdom and widely enjoyed by Mormons, has about the same caffeine content as green tea–see here). The belief is implicitly backed up by the Church, as its temples, universities, and other outlets do not serve caffeinated beverages (even the Polynesian Cultural Center, which is largely directed at non-Mormon tourists, only serves decaffeinated coffee). Beer is decidedly a prohibited substance, even though the original revelation endorsed the use of barley for “mild drinks” (verse 17). And, as hinted at above, the injunction to partake of meat “sparingly”–preferably only in times of cold, winter, and famine–although clearly stated in the revelation, is almost universally ignored. Thus, while a cup of tea will keep you out of the temple, consuming six Big Macs per day won’t. We ostensibly believe that the revelation–the whole revelation–is inspired, yet our modern conception of the Word of Wisdom is, in many respects, at odds with the actual text of Section 89.

Culture is probably at least partially responsible for the evolution of the Mormons’ understanding of the revelation. As mentioned, it transitioned from “inspired counsel” to “binding commandment” at a time when alcohol was prohibited in the United States. As illicit drugs became a concern in the twentieth-century, they were added to the list of the revelation’s prohibited substances. As concerns related to “winter, cold, and famine” shrunk and meat was cemented as a staple of modern Americans’ diet, the revelation’s counsel regarding meat consumption apparently faded into insignificance.

Some Mormons apparently experience some cognitive dissonance as they observe the gap between their own diet and that originally prescribed by the revelation. Gramps responds to the concern with an explanation I’ve heard on several occasions–that the first comma in verse 13 was originally lacking. Apparently, it originally read: “And it is pleasing unto me that they should not be used only in times of winter, or of cold, or famine.” Hence, according to Gramps, the verse was intended to convey the opposite meaning–that it pleases the Lord when His people don’t confine their meat consumption to times of winter, cold, and famine. Of course, this explanation ignores the context established in the previous verse (“sparingly”), and fails to consider that the addition of the comma may have been intended to clarify the verse, and to make its “true” or original meaning more apparent. It also ignores nineteenth-century interpretations of the verse, such as Eliza R. Snow’s “In Our Lovely Deseret,” which celebrates that the children of Deseret eat “[b]ut a very little meat.” This cognitive dissonance may also be apparent in the scriptures cited in the footnote to the word “sparingly” in the current edition of the Doctrine & Covenants, each of which endorse the use of meat rather than elaborate on the word “sparingly.” Perhaps springboarding off of the gap between nineteenth-century and modern interpretations of the Word of Wisdom, the Sugar Beet has toyed with the idea of applying the meat restriction in the same manner that the revelation’s other mandates are presently applied: “Excess Meat Scandal Rocks Seminary Presidency.”

In a recent VSOM thread, one commenter said the following: “There is a difference between Mormon culture and Mormon doctrine. The doctrine is there to guide us and help us be more Christ-like, but unfortunately the culture lags behind what the doctrine teaches.” I don’t entirely disagree with the statement, but in many (if not most) instances, I tend to agree with the Narrator’s response: “Doctrine is defined by the culture. If a doctrine isn’t accepted by the culture, it fades on the wayside. (See Adam-God, ancestry of Native Americsns [sic], priesthood ban doctrines, immorality of birth control, etc etc etc). On the other hand, when a culture largely embraces a teaching it becomes ‘doctrine.'”

As discussed, culture has most likely influenced the evolution of Word of Wisdom understanding in Mormondom, thus affecting the manner by which we define doctrine and expected behavior. While “doctrines” are widely described as “universal” or “unchanging,” the disparity between the Section 89 text and contemporary interpretations of the law it introduced evidences the fact that our conceptions of “doctrine” change. As is often the case, the line separating cultural norms from universal truth, human from the divine, is fuzzy. In the black-and-white world of Sunday School and the Correlation Committee, such a proposition may be discomfiting. But embracing it accommodates a more nuanced, flexible, and realistic approach to the origins, function, and development of revelation and doctrine in Mormonism.


  1. The Joseph Smith Memorial Building on Temple Square serves caffinated drinks.

  2. The Joseph Smith Memorial Building on Temple Square serves caffinated drinks.

    If that’s true, then it’s an anomaly.

  3. Let it be known and recorded that Steve and I finally agreed on something. 🙂

    Not that we expected that to last…. 🙂

    I tend to think of the doctrine that our bodies are sacred and that obedience is a key law of heaven (regardless of the specifics, which sometimes do change…think law of Moses to gospel law, for example).

    So, I don’t see the specifics of the WoW as the doctrine. The same could go for other examples narrator gave (birth control is not a doctrine, it’s a rule based on the doctrine of the importance of birth and life to the plan of salvation. It’s hard to figure out where doctrine ends and where rules begin, but I think it’s important to separate them out. I think it’s the rules that are subject to change.

  4. Great dialogue on a hot subject. So, I’ll put in my two cents.

    We have all seen the gulf of possibilities that can occur by way of the WoW. For instance, I had a friend that was denied baptism for admitting that, because he was a professional classical guitarist who practised eight or more hours a day, that he would proabably not quit coffee altogether. On the other end, we all know people who quit coffee for a month to go to their daughter’s temple wedding, and so forth.

    Then there is the sugar issue. It is not mentioned in the WoW. Nor is Haagen-daaz, or Twinkies. And yet we know many “worthy” members who, although follow the WoW to perfection, are very overweight and unhealthy because of their compulsive relationship with sugar and carbs.

    Then there is the fact that some teas are healthy. Some black teas are filled to the brim with antioxidants, as well as red, white, and green teas which boast of similar health benefits. By the way, Persian tea (a black tea) is faboulous for natural regularity, and will keep you awake without sugar, splenda, carbonation,or any other poison.


    So, at long last, I have come to the comfortable conclusion that the “spirit of the WoW” is the real message to adhere to, above all else. Translation: Use your head, get educated, and have some personal integrity on what is good and not good for you.

    Here is a start: Drugs, bad. Alcohol, bad. Coffee, bad. Sugar, bad (this includes a hot-chocolate addiction…or cold chocolate, at that.) Binging, bad.
    Exercise, good. Vitamins, minerals, and essential fatty acids…good. Leafy green vegetables, good. Fish, good. Variety of healthy foods, great. Meat on occasion, fine. Sugar on occasion, fine. Education on nutrition, helpful. A good bowel movement once or twice a day, fascinating.

    Ceasing to halo or pitchfork people in the Church for little things, a wonderful and welcome idea.

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