Thursday, March 9, 2017

Word of Wisdom

I was attending church and meeting with my Bishop on a regular basis so that I could be back in full fellowship.  Which meant living the standards of the Mormon church, which I was.  I had given up drinking alcohol at this point and prepared to do what it took to be worthy to baptize my daughter when she turned 8.

On one particular Sunday, the lesson was about the Word of Wisdom, as revealed to Joseph Smith in the Doctrine and Covenants.  I have always been familiar with the Word of Wisdom, since I've grown up in the Church.  I knew what I wasn't allowed to take into my body, but I had never truly studied the history behind the revelation, or the early church implementation of said scripture.

Of course we didn't study the historical side of the Word of Wisdom during church, nor did we delve into the early church usage of the doctrine.  I had to take this on in my own study, but it's what I carefully read during the lesson which first caused me to pause and contemplate.

In Section 89 of the Doctrine and Covenants, we find the Mormon church's sole scripture regarding the Word of Wisdom doctrine.  In verse 5-7 we read:

"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.
And, again, strong drinks are not for the belly, but for the washing of your bodies".
Mormons are taught what is meant by "strong drink" as read in this verse.  They are told it is all manner of alcohol.  So this is your liquor and beer combined.  This is what I was always taught growing up, and what was taught even during this class on this day.  Mormons take it to heart because it's what their leaders tell them.  This was fine with me, as it was familiar.  I had no objections to this interpretation... until this day.  

This was because I continued to read this Section, which was not done by the teacher, as it wasn't really part of the selective lesson plan.  As I read further into the Section, I came across verses 16 and 17, which read:

"All grain is good for the food of man; as also the fruit of the vine; that which yieldeth fruit, whether in the ground or above the ground—

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".
Now, what is this "mild drinks" mentioned in verse 17? Being that I had taken up drinking alcohol after my divorce, I understood the difference between liquor and beer. One is a strong alcoholic beverage, while the other is mild. Also, barley is commonly used in the production of beer.  I thought to myself, could beer actually be permissible as dictated by this verse? I knew the Mormon church would say no, as it was strictly forbidden. However, I would later learn the following about what is considered "Doctrine" of the Church:

  • Not every statement made by a Church leader, past or present, necessarily constitutes doctrine. A single statement made by a single leader on a single occasion often represents a personal, though well-considered, opinion, but is not meant to be officially binding for the whole Church. With divine inspiration, the First Presidency(the prophet and his two counselors) and the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles (the second-highest governing body of the Church) counsel together to establish doctrine that is consistently proclaimed in official Church publications. This doctrine resides in the four “standard works” of scripture (the Holy Bible, the Book of Mormon, the Doctrine and Covenants and the Pearl of Great Price), official declarations and proclamations, and the Articles of Faith. Isolated statements are often taken out of context, leaving their original meaning distorted. (Official church stance)

So, to be considered Church Doctrine, the statement must be within the Standard Works of the Mormon church.  There is a section at the end of the Doctrine and Covenants that are "Official Declarations" of the Mormon church.  These statements, because they are within the Standard Works are considered Doctrine, and they include the statement abolishing the practice of polygamy and granting blacks the priesthood.  

There was, however, nothing within the Standard Works that dictated the definition of "strong drink" and "mild drink" found within the Word of Wisdom.  Instead, we only have policy statements made by the Church leaders regarding the used of all alcohol.  So, I was curious.  Was abstaining from beer merely a requirement to enter the temple, but not a sin?  What was more, is the beginning of the Section states, "To be sent greeting; not by commandment or constraint".  This drove me to deeper study of the matter, and to prayer.

I found that when I researched this topic, it opened Pandora's box to a heap of other topics of questionable Church history/policy.  For now, I focused on the Word of Wisdom, and this is what I found.

I learned the origin for the Revelation came by way of a frustrated Emma Smith, as she and other sisters had to clean the floors after the Elders of the early Church would make a mess with their spit from chewing tobacco.  As David Whitmer recounted:

“Some of the men were excessive chewers of the filthy weed, and their disgusting slobbering and spitting caused Mrs. Smith … to make the ironical remark that ‘It would be a good thing if a revelation could be had declaring the use of tobacco a sin, and commanding it's suppression.' The matter was taken up and joked about, one of the brethren suggested that the revelation should also provide for a total abstinence from tea and coffee drinking, intending this as a counter ‘dig' at the sisters.”(Des Moines Daily News, 16 Oct 1886:20 c. in: Newell & Avery 1994:47, also c: An Historical Analysis of the Word of Wisdom, Paul H. Peterson - Masters Thesis, [no location provided]; Also: c. in Tanner 1987:406. See also Tanner 1987: Ch. 26 for excellent coverage). (Emphasis added).

I learned that, as it reads at the beginning of the Section, the Word of Wisdom was not a commandment, but a set of advice as directed by God.  Joseph Smith himself would continue to smoke a cigar on occasion and drink beer and wine.  

"Joseph Smith tried the faith of the saints many times by his peculiarities. At one time he had preached a powerful sermon on the Word of Wisdom and immediately thereafter, he rode through the streets of Nauvoo smoking a cigar. Some of the brethren were tried as was Abraham of old." (Tanner 1987:6 c: Joseph Smith as an Administrator, Gary Dean Guthrie, M.A. thesis, Brigham Young University, May 1969:161, in turn c: the diary of Apostle Abraham H. Cannon. V.19. 1 Oct 1895. Special Collections Dept. BYU Library). (Emphasis added).

Then, I found this:

"The text of the Word of Wisdom forbids "strong drink" (D&C 89:5, 7), which was initially interpreted as distilled beverages (hard liquor). Beer, unfermented or lightly fermented wine, and cider were considered "mild drinks" (D&C 89:17) and therefore acceptable (note that verse 17 specifically permits "barley...for mild drinks"). The complete prohibition of alcoholic drinks of any kind only became part of the Word of Wisdom following the temperance movement of the late 19th and early 20th centuries; Presidents Joseph F. Smith and Heber J. Grant supported the movement and Grant made complete abstention from alcohol in any form a requirement for a temple recommend in the early 1920s". (

So, there I was, utterly baffled by what I just discovered.  I took this to prayer and asked God if what I had learned was true, and if beer was permissible and I still be right with Him.  The answer was yes.  I dutifully studied the principle, formulated an opinion, and took it up with God and asked if it be right.  This is what I had taught investigator's while on my mission, and now I did the same regarding a gospel principle.  

Of course I knew my position would not be supported by the Church leaders, nonetheless, my reasoning was sound.  There was no official Church statement banning beer from Member consumption.  All we had, was a scripture which expressly permitted it, and nothing else.  Beer was a "mild drink".  This personal revelation didn't cause me to be a faithful mormon while drinking beer.  Instead, it made me pause and think, for myself for once and not how the Church wanted to think for me.  This made me look more deeply into other matters, and to harmonize the things I researched with being a faithful Mormon.  

I had opened a brand new chapter in my life, and an honest journey to discover the Truth of the matter began.

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