Ask Us: Top Reference Questions about the Word of Wisdom

by Jeffrey Tucker, Brian Passantino, and Ryan Combs
23 August 2022

The Church History Library receives many questions about the Word of Wisdom through its Ask Us online service. See answers to popular questions here.

At the Church History Library, our Public Services team frequently receives questions about the revelation known as the Word of Wisdom. Originally received by Joseph Smith on February 27, 1833, and canonized in the Doctrine and Covenants as section 89, the Word of Wisdom “show[s] forth the order and will of God in the temporal salvation of all saints in the last days” through a set of dietary directives.1 Researchers are often interested in the context surrounding the emergence of the Word of Wisdom, as well as how the revelation has been treated by Latter-day Saints throughout the Church’s history. Additionally, due to the language used in section 89—including phrases that can be somewhat vague to the modern reader, such as “hot drinks,” “strong drink,” and “mild drinks”—we receive many questions about the history of the revelation and interpretations of its specific elements.

Using key word searches on the Church History Catalog, researchers can find a litany of articles, documents, and artifacts relating to the Word of Wisdom. Here are four questions that are representative of the most frequently asked questions we receive about the Word of Wisdom, along with their answers:

1. Which foods or substances are prohibited by the Word of Wisdom?

Answers to this question can take a couple of forms. For those people who simply want a simple yes or no answer regarding a particular food or drink, we usually refer to section 38.7.14 of General Handbook: Serving in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, which states:

The Word of Wisdom is a commandment of God. He revealed it for the physical and spiritual benefit of His children. Prophets have clarified that the teachings in Doctrine and Covenants 89 include abstinence from tobacco, strong drinks (alcohol), and hot drinks (tea and coffee).

Prophets have also taught members to avoid substances that are harmful, illegal, or addictive or that impair judgment.

There are other harmful substances and practices that are not specified in the Word of Wisdom or by Church leaders. Members should use wisdom and prayerful judgment in making choices to promote their physical, spiritual, and emotional health.

In a 2019 statement, the Church clarified that “vaping or e-cigarettes, green tea, and coffee-based products” are prohibited by the Word of Wisdom.The Church also counsels against the recreational use of marijuana and the “misuse of prescription drugs,”saying that “substances such as marijuana and opioids should be used only for medicinal purposes as prescribed by a competent physician.”4

For researchers seeking a more comprehensive review of past statements, the Church has published numerous articles about the Word of Wisdom in its various periodicals. Thus, the Liahona, Ensign, and other Church-sponsored publications can be fertile ground for researching what has been said over the years about the dietary directives in the Word of Wisdom, including articles and book chapters such as the following:

Occasionally, researching in the Church History Catalog may turn up letters written to Church leaders with questions about the Word of Wisdom—and, sometimes, the collections also contain Church leaders’ replies. For example, some letters from Church leaders exist that indicate that at the time they were written, the Church did not consider the consumption of Sanka (a brand of decaffeinated coffee) to be a violation of the Word of Wisdom and that temple recommends should not be withheld from those who consumed it.5 While such letters may be interesting for research purposes, they often do not reflect current Church teachings.

2. When did the Church stop using wine for the sacrament?

When the Church was first organized, Joseph Smith received a revelation that the Saints should “meet together often to partake of bread and wine in the remembrance of the Lord Jesus.”6 Beginning with the founding meeting of the Church, wine was used as part of the sacrament service. Later, in the fall of 1830, the Prophet was told by a heavenly messenger that the wine used for the sacrament meetings should be made by Church members. He was also told that “it mattereth not what ye shall eat or what ye shall drink when ye partake of the sacrament.”7

Despite water being allowed for the sacrament, many members still used wine throughout the 19th century, and tracking the history of congregations’ transition from wine to water is complicated. We know that after the pioneers’ arrival in Utah, wine was frequently used for the sacrament, creating enough demand for wine “of your own make” that a grape farming mission (colloquially known as the Dixie Wine Mission) was established in southern Utah.8 However, toward the end of the 19th century, there appear to be increased efforts to use water in place of wine.9 For example, in the beginning of the 20th century, we have a record from Elder John Henry Smith, who makes a note that wine was not used when the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles and the First Presidency partook of the sacrament on July 5, 1906.10

The following resources may be helpful to answer this question more fully:

3. When did coffee and tea become prohibited under the Word of Wisdom?

The revelation that gave us the Word of Wisdom was received on February 27, 1833. According to the historical note on this revelation at the Joseph Smith Papers Project, “among the members of the Church of Christ there was apparently some question as to what the revelation meant by ‘hot drinks,’ prompting [Joseph Smith] and Hyrum Smith, according to one reminiscent account, to explicitly identify coffee and tea at a meeting in Kirtland in July 1833 as the ‘hot drinks’ prohibited by the revelation.”

About nine years later, an article in Times and Seasons reported a discourse given by Hyrum Smith on the Word of Wisdom that named coffee and tea as the “hot drinks” referred to by revelation: “And again ‘hot drinks are not for the body, or belly;’ there are many who wonder what this can mean; whether it refers to tea, or coffee, or not. I say it does refer to tea, and coffee.”11

4. When did living the Word of Wisdom become a prerequisite for temple attendance?

Speaking in general conference in September 1851, Brigham Young called on members to formally covenant to abstain from tea, coffee, tobacco, whiskey, and “all things mentioned in the Word of Wisdom.”12 However, implementation of President Young’s invitation was gradual; for example, as late as 1901, some Church leaders still drank beer and wine.13

Later, in 1919, the First Presidency under President Heber J. Grant made observing the Word of Wisdom a requirement for receiving a temple recommend. That year, the First Presidency sent a letter to mission presidents saying that “letters of recommendation should be given only to those who have been members of the Church at least a year, and in good standing for one year prior to giving the recommend. It must be known that they keep the Word of Wisdom, pay their tithing and otherwise are good members. Each letter of recommendation should specify what particular blessing the person is recommended to receive.”14

Top image: Two unidentified women having tea (PH 5608).