Thomas G. Alexander gives historical overview of WoW during the 19th century.


Thomas G. Alexander, Mormonism in Transition: A History of Latter-day Saints, 1890-1930, 3rd ed. (Salt Lake City: Greg Kofford Books, 2012), 274-275

Greg Kofford Books
Thomas G. Alexander, N/A
Reading Public

Currently available evidence indicates that members gave only sporadic adherence to the Word of Wisdom in the nineteenth century. At various times, Church members adopted resolutions, leaders offered counsel, and Church courts disfellowshipped or even excommunicated members at least in part because of their failure to observe the Word of Wisdom. In general, however, members and leaders alike honored adherence in the sense of abstaining from tea, coffee, liquor, and tobacco as much in the breach as in the observance, particularly after 1840. Some members or groups committed themselves to strict adherence to the Word of Wisdom, but they were doing so as individuals bound to "a principle with promise."

Although Brigham Young declared the Word of Wisdom to be a commandment and secured the approval of some of the Saints to that proposition, he announced no revelation on the subject, and actual observance did not coincide with the public pronouncement. An 1851 conference and in some cases other conference addresses or reminiscences of addresses are often cited as the date the Word of Wisdom became binding as a commandment. However, during Brigham Young's lifetime, after the conference, he and other Church leaders and members failed to observe the Word of Wisdom as we interpret it today. Brigham Young and other Church leaders again reemphasized the Word of Wisdom in the late 1860s and early 1870s, but this reemphasis seems to have been more closely related to the larger effort to discourage imports than to emphasize the health aspects of the principle. From the death of Brigham Young until after the turn of the century, adherence was intermittent. In 1883 and 1884 the general authorities, following the lead of President John Taylor, emphasized the need to adhere to the Word of Wisdom. Thereafter, it seems generally to have laid dormant.

The status of the Word of Wisdom in the late 1890s seems evident from contemporary sources. At a meeting on May 5, 1898, the First Presidency and Twelve discussed the Word of Wisdom. One member read from the twelfth volume of the Journal of Discourses a statement by Brigham Young that the Word of Wisdom was a commandment of God. Lorenzo Snow, then the president of the Quorum of the Twelve, agreed, saying that he believe the Word of Wisdom was a commandment and that it should be carried out to the letter. In doing so, he said, members should be taught to refrain from eating meat except in dire necessity, particularly since Joseph Smith taught that animals have spirits. Wilford Woodruff, then president of the Church, said he looked upon the Word of Wisdom as a commandment and that all members should observe it, but for the present, he said, Church leaders should take no definite action except that members should be taught to refrain from eating meat. The minutes of the meeting record that "President Woodruff said he regarded the Word of Wisdom in its entirety as given of the Lord of the Latter-day Saints to observe, but he did not think that Bishops should withhold recommends from persons who did not adhere strictly to it."

Though it seems clear that some Church leaders like Heber J. Grant and Joseph F. Smith insisted upon complete abstinence from tea, coffee, liquor, and tobacco, all general authorities did not agree. During a discussion in 1900 after he became president of the Church, Lorenzo Snow again emphasized the centrality of not eating meat, and in 1901 John Henry Smith and Brigham Young Jr. of the Twelve thought that the Church ought not interdict beer, or at least not Danish beer. Other apostles like Anthon H. Lund and Matthias F. Cowley enjoyed Danish beer and currant wine. Charles W. Penrose occasionally served wine. Emmeline B. Wells, then a member of the presidency and later president of the Relief Society, drank an occasional cup of coffee, and George Albert Smith took brandy for medical reasons. Elder George Teasdale agreed with President Woodruff and thought that no one ought to be kept from working in the Sunday School because he drank tea and that eating pork was a more serious problem than drinking tea or coffee.

We fine then a diffuse pattern in observing and teaching the Word of Wisdom in 1900. Some general authorities preached quite consistently against the use of tea, coffee, liquor, tobacco, and meat. None supported drunkenness, and no one insisted on the necessity of vegetarianism. In practice, however, they and other members also occasionally drank the beverages that current interpretation would prohibit. President Snow and other leaders urged observance of the Word of Wisdom by way of counsel. Some apostles like John Henry Smith believed that the more important question was one of free agency and that those who continued to insist upon strict adherence to the Word of Wisdom were ignoring more serious principles. President Snow also opposed sanctions against the use of alcohol, and he was visibly upset when the general board of the YMMIA asked for an end to the sale of beer at Saltair.

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