This article is part of a series on Discovering the Word of Wisdom. To view all the articles in this series, see Discovering the Word of Wisdom in Meridian Magazine.
In the last article, I shared some statements from our Church leaders that go beyond the usual prohibitions most of us associate with the Word of Wisdom. I also emphasized that while these prohibitions are spelled out by Church leaders for all members, we are individually responsible for how we choose to respond to the rest of the Lord’s counsel in D&C 89.
With 21 verses of dietary counsel in the Word of Wisdom, why are the prohibitions the ones most emphasized? Why is this the only part of the Word of Wisdom that many Saints know? I certainly don’t have all the answers, but this week I will explore this topic.
Why the Preoccupation with the Prohibitions?
The prohibitions in D&C 89 are clearly emphasized far beyond the admonitions in D&C 89 for consuming what is healthy. One reason for this emphasis must surely be that this is the will of the Lord, as revealed to our modern-day prophets. But although Church leaders did not make these prohibitions a strict mandate for all Church members until nearly 100 years after the Word of Wisdom was revealed, from the very beginning, these well-known prohibitions have always been the most emphasized. Why?
One obvious reason may be because the prohibitions very clearly contradicted the early Saints’ dietary practices and forced them to reconsider the use of substances they particularly enjoyed. Most of the early Saints regularly consumed one or more of the substances the Lord warns about in Section 89: alcohol, tobacco, coffee, and tea. No doubt most were addicted to these substances to one degree or another. For the Lord to speak out against pleasures they loved and habitually indulged in was more than a little difficult for many Saints and must have caught their attention. It certainly caught the attention of those brethren who heard the Prophet Joseph Smith read the revelation out loud in the School of the Prophets, as they “all immediately threw their tobacco and pi[p]es into the fire.”
On the other hand, there would be no reason for the early Saints to focus on the advice regarding wholesome plants, meat, and grains, as their dietary practices did not obviously contradict this counsel. The plants they consumed came from their own farms (or their neighbor’s farms) and were consumed relatively unprocessed, and therefore were quite wholesome. Most of the Saints were not wealthy. They likely indulged in as much meat as they could afford, but for many Saints, this was, of necessity, relatively “sparingly” as that is all most could afford. On the other hand, grains (in particular wheat) were affordable to all and were, without question, their “staff of life” (the bulk of their calories). When the word of the Lord already coincides with our current practice, we may not even recognize it as something we need to attend to, much less focus on.
Subsequent Church leaders likely focused on the prohibitions for the same reasons, and also because it is easier to judge compliance if the commandment is specific. It is much easier to evaluate whether a person abstains from all alcohol, tobacco, coffee and tea, than to judge whether the person is eating “wholesome” plants, meat “sparingly,” and making grains the “staff of life.” In time, it also became clear that the consequences of disobeying the prohibitions, at least in terms of alcohol and tobacco, were critical for obvious health and social reasons.
Line Upon Line
If the time and effort that went into getting the Saints to obey the prohibitions of the Word of Wisdom is any example, perhaps another reason we have not been encouraged to more strictly observe all the counsel in Section 89 is that we have not been ready to embrace it. Early Church leaders taught that they could not fully reveal to the people all that the Lord revealed to them because the people would not accept it. In 1844, just a few months before he was martyred, Joseph Smith said:
I have tried for a number of years to get the minds of the Saints prepared to receive the things of God; but we frequently see some of them, after suffering all they have for the work of God, will fly to pieces like glass as soon as anything comes that is contrary to their traditions: they cannot stand the fire at all.
Sometimes in conversations with others about the Word of Wisdom, I sense people are afraid to even open the door to the possibility that they might be prompted to change how they eat. I certainly do not feel that everyone who studies the Word of Wisdom will be prompted to eat like I do, but I find it interesting that we sometimes fear even opening the door to these revelations. I am sure I only recognize this fear because I’ve experienced it many times myself about any number of topics! We don’t always welcome revelation! Elder George A. Smith commented on this phenomenon in 1855:
. . . we find plainly illustrated, in the whole history contained in the sacred book, the principle that the Lord wished to reveal unto the children of men things which had been hid from before the foundation of the world, principles which would exalt them to celestial thrones, but they would not, or, which amounts to the same, He could never find a people, could never communicate with a generation or a very numerous body of men that would obey His commandments, listen to His counsel, and observe His wisdom, or be led by His revelations.
Elder Smith describes occasions when the Lord could not “reveal to us a single principle farther than He had done” or “He would have upset the whole of us.”
We are told the Lord will bless us with “commandments not a few” (D&C 59:4). What would our lives be like if we loved and embraced all the counsel the Lord blesses us with? Of course, D&C 89 is not the only revelation we do not fully observe. Who among us is totally honest, has complete faith, always serves unselfishly, and thinks kind thoughts about drivers who rudely cut us off? We know the Lord’s blessings are not reserved for only those who are perfect, and that He will bless us to the full extent He is able as we learn “line upon line, precept upon precept” (2 Nephi 28:30). I believe we Latter-day Saints truly want to do what is right, but our lives are already very complicated, and considering a change in diet can be overwhelming. If I can understand this, I know God certainly understands this.
Finally, like many religious peoples, we tend to focus our attention on prohibitions (the “thou shalt nots”) even when we realize that the admonitions are equally, indeed often more important (e.g., love neighbor, keep the Sabbath day holy, forget ourselves in service).
Building on the Prohibitions — Success Stories!
Perhaps learning to obey the prohibitions in Section 89 can be a stepping-stone for Latter-day Saints. We have been so blessed by following this counsel! We have experienced the blessings that come from heeding the voice of the Lord in abstaining from harmful substances. This should give us increased faith and confidence to heed the rest of the counsel in D&C 89.
On the Discovering the Word of Wisdom website I publish stories of Latter-day Saints who are experiencing tremendous blessings by following the advice in D&C 89 more closely. People of all ages report that the blessings are not just physical, they are also spiritual, mental, and emotional as well. I’m impressed with how often these Saints feel directed to D&C 89 in answer to their prayers. With so many Saints finding great blessings by turning to the Word of Wisdom, I know that the Lord’s word is sure, and that these words are meant for us in our day!
Take Sam Swenson for example. While serving on his mission, Sam developed a devastating chronic disease, ankylosing spondylitis. With no hope for a cure, he struggled for years with intense pain. Sam recalls:
I struggled all through my college years, taking large amounts of Advil and Motrin to treat the pain . . . Most nights I would toss and turn because of pain and sometimes I would swell up so badly that I would have to flop out of bed onto the floor and drag myself by my forearms to the medicine cabinet for pain killers.
Then one day, while sitting in Sunday School, Sam read D&C 89 and for the first time saw counsel he had not seen before. Sam tells us:
I resolved right there in that meeting that if I really had faith in the Lord and his promises, I needed to follow his counsel with strictness. I went home and talked to my wife about a drastic diet change. I was raised in a meat and potato home. It was difficult for me to even imagine a meal that did not include a meat dish. But I was tired, and I was desperate…
The results? Sam reports:
I have no studies or sources of authority for the results I saw, but all I know is that from that time forward, I have been able to live a normal, pain-free life. I am a recipient of the promises found in the Word of Wisdom. [Read Sam’s full story here]
Many of these stories describe overcoming chronic illness. Almost all of them feature losing weight. It is typical for people on this diet to get back to the weight they were when they graduated from high school (or even less if they were overweight at that time). One sister shares her story of losing 163 pounds by following the counsel in the Word of Wisdom. You can also read the stories of those who found permanent relief from allergies, cancer, high cholesterol, diabetes, endometriosis, food addiction, headaches, irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), heart disease, and stomach problems. And a Word of Wisdom diet can do MUCH more!
Just think what a treasure we have right there in the middle of our scriptures! Why ignore it just because we are not commanded to obey?
How to Get Started
Do you desire greater physical or spiritual blessings? Are you willing to give the word of the Lord in D&C 89 a try? Here are some steps to take:
- Prayerfully study D&C 89.
- Write down the first impressions that come to you.
- Commit to doing what you feel prompted to do.
- After putting your promptings into action, repeat the process.
Here are resources that can help you study the principles in D&C 89 out in your mind: Resources
Here are some links to preparing wholesome plant-based foods: Recipes
Here is advice for overcoming challenges: Challenges
Do we not want all of the promised blessings?
We have been given the Word of Wisdom to guide our actions, and our leaders have left us to decide how we will respond to most of the counsel. I’m glad the Church has clarified that we should not consume alcohol and tobacco, even sparingly. When I think of how much heartache and devastating health consequences this has spared us, I am grateful beyond words! If the Church had not been so clear on this part of D&C 89, my guess is that many of us, like the early Saints, would choose the route of “moderation.” But why settle for a moderate amount of the blessings?
I personally do not believe the positive admonitions of the Word of Wisdom will ever be mandated by the Church. Nor do I think they need to be mandated in order for us to benefit from them. If we as Latter-day Saints were not falling victim to the devastating chronic illnesses found in the general population, we might be forgiven for ignoring them. While we have been greatly blessed by avoiding many harmful substances, most of us will at some point still fall victim to serious health problems that could have been avoided had we followed the truths found in the Word of Wisdom.
Let us, instead, lay claim to all of the blessings the Lord is pleased to give us.
Why procrastinate? Read: Reasons to Start Now
Next Time in Discovering the Word of Wisdom
Most Church members do not find it hard to abstain from the substances prohibited in the Word of Wisdom so it sometimes surprises us that it took nearly 100 years for the majority of the early Saints to resolve to finally and completely give up these harmful substances. Those of us who grew up keeping the Word of Wisdom are fortunate to have never faced those addictions, but are we really all that different from the early Saints? In the next article, I’ll explore this interesting topic.
Jane Birch is the author of Discovering the Word of Wisdom: Surprising Insights from a Whole Food, Plant-based Perspective and many articles on the Word of Wisdom. She can be contacted on her website, Discovering the Word of Wisdom.
 Paul Y. Hoskisson, “The Word of Wisdom in Its First Decade,” Journal of Mormon History 38, no. 1 (2012): 131–200.
 Richard Cowan, Doctrine & Covenants: Our Modern Scripture (Provo, UT: Brigham Young University Press, 1978).
 History of the Church, 6:184–85; from a discourse given by Joseph Smith on Jan. 21, 1844, in Nauvoo, Illinois; reported by Wilford Woodruff.
 George A. Smith, “Gathering and Sanctification of the People of God.” March 18, 1855. Reported By: G. D. Watt.