Feast upon the Word Blog

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RS/MP Lesson 29: “The Lord’s Law of Health” (Gospel Principles Manual)

Posted by joespencer on March 5, 2011

This (heavily edited!) lesson is not terribly exciting, but I’ll see what I can do with it.

As with any discussion of the Word of Wisdom today, I feel the need to make clear that there are two Words of Wisdom. First, there is section 89 of the Doctrine and Covenants, a marvelous revelation with a complex set of origins, deserving of the closest interpretive scrutiny. Second, there is the institutional practice, given pride of place both by its connection with the temple (its place in the temple recommend interview questions) and by its deeply public association with “being Mormon.” These two Words of Wisdom are not the same thing, though there is obviously some important overlap. In order to attend the temple, one does not need to live D&C 89, one needs to live the institutional code; and in order to live D&C 89, one needs—at least during the work of textual interpretation—to bracket the institutional practice.

It is worth pointing out as well that this tortured relationship between two distinct Words of Wisdom can be understood to be an instance of institutional interpretation, as if the institutional Word of Wisdom were a kind of hermeneutic of the scriptural Word of Wisdom. There is something to that, but for my own purposes I would like to keep the two Words of Wisdom separate. In what follows, I will call the “Word of Wisdom” (with capital W’s) the institutional practice and “word of wisdom” (all lowercase) the scriptural text.

A quick and interesting confirmation of the point I’m making here is perhaps in order. In the lesson, in the section titled “We Are Taught That Certain Things Are Good for Our Bodies,” one finds the following statement: “Grains are good for us. Wheat is especially good for us.” Here is an undeniable attempt to draw from the revelation in order to supplement the institutional practice. But what is interesting is that the new edition here actually deletes another full sentence that used to appear in this statement. It used to read: “Grains are good for us. Wheat is especially good for us. Grains may be used also to make mild drinks.” Now, I’m not sure exactly how that sentence was left in the manual so long, because it is quite clear historically that the grain-based mild drinks that section 89 describes as being fine would clearly include beer, ale, and the like. And it is clear that the sentence “Grains may be used also to make mild drinks” has been removed because, understood correctly, it would actually be in conflict with the institutional practice of the Word of Wisdom: Beer doesn’t fly with the Word of Wisdom, though it technically does with the word of wisdom. The removal of this sentence marks the important tension between institutional practice and scriptural revelation.

Of course—and I should hope this is clear—I don’t mean to suggest that there is something wrong with the institutional practice. Indeed, keeping people away from alcohol, even where it is technically approved in the scriptural texts, is something well worth doing. I have no qualms about any aspect of the institutional implementation of the Word of Wisdom. It is unquestionably wise, and a great deal of misery has been avoided among the Saints because of widespread obedience to it. I do take issue with the way that many Saints make it a sticking point of fidelity, often ostracizing those who struggle with it—especially when, despite all we tend to say about it, it is a relatively minor affair. (I’m especially frustrated that we seem not too worry too much about things like “making out” or immodest clothing or other things that encroach on the much more serious law of chastity, but we have endless debates about whether so-and-so should be drinking Dr. Pepper.) But anyway, I assume my point is clear.

So, to the lesson….

There are, in light of what I’ve said above, two ways to tackle this lesson. One would be to focus on the Word of Wisdom (the institutional practice), thus emphasizing both what needs to be obeyed in order to be worthy to enter the temple and what ought to be done in order to aim at healthy living. The other would be to focus on the word of wisdom (the actual revelation). Here I want just to focus on the latter.

“Much of the information God has given us concerning good health is found in Doctrine and Covenants 89” (p. 167).

Whence the revelation that is now section 89? A wonderful article on the likely historical origins of the revelation can be found here (written by Clyde Ford and published in the Journal of Mormon History some years ago). What I especially like about this piece is the way it takes the text seriously. I highly recommend it. What Ford makes especially clear, interestingly, is that the revelation was only in part (or only a part of the revelation was) originally concerned with “good health.” (This is also argued substantially in a piece by Lester Bush.) Much of it was focused instead on (1) the Church’s changing relationship to its enemies and what that implied about the use of wine in the sacrament and (2) the way that living in Zion might inflect the way one eats, etc. What of the revelation seems to have been concerned with health seems pretty clearly to have been given in response to queries about the validity of the temperance movement that had been spurred by the widespread availability of cheap corn whiskey.

“We should also avoid overeating” (p. 169).

This sentence was, interestingly, added for the new edition of the manual. I mention it, though, because the parts of section 89 that seem to have been connected with Zion (talk of eating fruit in the right season, using grain to right purposes, etc.) are clearly concerned with the idea that all eating must be done with thanksgiving, and in the case of eating meat with a kind of asceticism. I don’t know whether those injunctions exactly match up with “avoiding overeating,” but they do suggest that we ought to take eating more seriously, to cease to regard food as fuel on the one hand, and on the other hand to cease to regard the merely sweet or salty as deserving of constant consumption.

“[T]he spiritual blessings He has promised us are even greater than the physical ones” (p. 171).

This, I think, is crucial. Though the lesson suggests that “run[ning] and not be[ing] weary,” etc., is a physical blessing, there are good reasons—scriptural and otherwise—to believe that there is something more than “merely” physical at work here. Better put, the material blessings described in the last verses of section 89 should not be interpreted as temporal. One way of understanding Joseph Smith’s statement regarding the inexistence of immaterial matter is to suggest that there is nothing strictly temporal, that everything “physical” is actually much more closely intertwined with the spiritual than we might guess.

And much of what section 89 promises is much more than merely physical. The promises concern wisdom and treasures of knowledge (that the revelation was given as the Saints prepared themselves, in the school of the prophets, for the endowment to be received in the Kirtland House of the Lord is certainly of significance here), as well as escape from the destroying angel.

That last promise deserves careful thought. From what are we about to escape?

Now, these notes are short and sketchy, and for that I apologize. In large part, this is a consequence of the fact that I won’t actually be teaching this lesson; somewhat less important is the fact that I’m hard at work on two very substantial posts for the blog here. But please start conversation on this lesson and let’s see what comes of further discussion.

22 Responses to “RS/MP Lesson 29: “The Lord’s Law of Health” (Gospel Principles Manual)”

  1. BrianJ said


    Sorry, but I just thought that couldn’t be emphasized enough.

  2. Ben S said

    Excellent post.

  3. kirkcaudle said

    Nice job as always Joe.

    General question, often in church we talk about the “higher law” and the “lower law.” How do we view the Word of Wisdom vs. the word of Wisdom?

    Are they equal? Is one higher and is one lower? Are we commanded to keep one and not the other because perhaps we are not ready to follow the “higher” one?

    • Justin said

      General question, often in church we talk about the “higher law” and the “lower law.” How do we view the Word of Wisdom vs. the word of Wisdom?

      When performing an on-line scripture word search, I found that:
      There are no occurrences of the term higher law or high law found in the text of the scriptures. Neither were there any occurrences of the term lower law or low law.

      This tells me that this division is man-made — much like the distinction between a “word of Wisdom” and the “Word of Wisdom(TM)”.

      The saints are bound to follow the scriptures that have been canonized by the common consent of the church — the rest follows the “anything more or less than this cometh of the devil” principle.

  4. NathanG said

    As I learned many things about health through medical school and residency, I’ve grown discontent with the standard Mormon view of the Word of Wisdom. I’ve heard the argument, and probably used it, of “look at the great blessings of health that were revealed long before science figured it out”. The main focus of keeping the Word of Wisdom was on the greath health benefits. Then research dealt with alcohol and it’s protective role in heart disease. The justifcation I heard within my own family was, “it must be something in the grapes used for the wine”, but more research suggests it’s from any alcoholic beverage. I have abandoned dealing with the Word of Wisdom as prudent to follow because of it’s great health benefits (which incidentally, I still believe it provides great health benefits), but it is essential to follow because I promised I would. I made a commitment to follow it when I committed to be baptized. I am reminded of my commitment to follow the Word of Wisdom every time I renew my temple recommend. A drink of alcohol or a smoke aren’t inherintly making people evil, but if I took a sip of alcohol or a puff of a cigaratte, I would be violating a promise that I made, and it would injure my spirituality.

    I’m glad you include the distinction between the scriptures and the institutional practice. When I’ve thought of these differences I have always thought of the introduction to D&C 89 where it talks about being adapted to the capacity of the weak and the weakest of all saints, who are or can be called saints. Originally given as wisdom without constraint or commandment, but gradually the saints came to a point where they chose to be bound by it, and certain items from the revelation were used as a minimum observance to enable one to be baptized or attend the temple (I know I’m glossing over historical detail). As the collective church raised the standard of where the weakest who could be called saints could live, the church chose to be bound by that standard. There is potential then, for the institutional practice to become more similar to the entire revelation, perhaps including some do’s and not just don’ts, although I don’t see any particular rapid movement toward any change.

    My last source of frustration is that observance of the Word of Wisdom seems to have become a cultural identity more so than a source of spiritual blessing. “I am a Mormon, and Mormons don’t drink coffee, so I don’t drink coffee.” I think the cultural practice is what make arguing over caffeine so exciting, or whatever less significant discussions accompany the Word of Wisdom. On the flip side, the cultural practice of the Word of Wisdom can be a useful topic of discussion with non-member friends.

    • Douglas Hunter said


      I think you make an important point. Although there is a cultural emphasis on the utility of the Wow that can’t be where its spiritual significance lies. As Heschel writes ” He who goes to pray is not intent upon enhancing his store of knowledge; he who performs a ritual does not expect to advance his interest. Sacred deed are designed to make living compatible with out sense of the ineffable. . .it is not the utility that we seek in religion but eternity.” If we follow the WOW for what we incorrectly think of as its utility we miss its significance.

  5. joespencer said

    Kirk #3 asks:

    “Are they equal? Is one higher and is one lower? Are we commanded to keep one and not the other because perhaps we are not ready to follow the “higher” one?”

    I like the thought, but I don’t think it would work to try to set up a higher/lower law distinction here. If the scriptural version is made the higher law and the institutional practice the lower law, then those living the higher law would—or at least could—overtly break the lower law, and so couldn’t be admitted to the temple.

    I think it’s best to see the relationship between the two versions of the Word of Wisdom as being complex and the consequence of a good deal of history. The prohibition movement in the early twentieth century has a good deal to do with the shape of the institutional practice (Tom Alexander has a good article on this which can be read here. A similar treatment can be found in his Mormonism in Transition.) And I suspect that it is the Word-of-Wisdom-as-a-cultural-marker that has contributed to the longevity of the institutional practice.

    But as I said in the post, I have no qualms about the institutional practice. I do wish that the Saints could put the Word of Wisdom in perspective (I found the recent change allowing WoW violating fathers to participate in certain ordinances a nice gesture), but I’m happy that the practice of avoiding especially alcohol and tobacco is in place: both my parents are only-members-in-their-family converts, and both came from severely alcoholic families; anyone who has seen that up close appreciates a culture in which these substances are much, much less likely to destroy lives.

    At any rate, one of my biggest concerns about the institutional practice is that it reduces to something “for good health” (as NathanG points out). The Word of Wisdom was not originally given for that reason; was not understood to serve that purpose for at least decades after that; and still, in my opinion, has little to do with physical health.

  6. Alan Jackson said

    I’d be curious to hear more about how we could put the institutional vs revelation in perspective.

    In the temple recommend question, I’m pretty sure it just asks if you keep the word of wisdom. The leader may go in more depth, but the question doesn’t go into specifics of how you follow it.

    I might go further to say that our institutional word of wisdom is largely the current understanding of how we’ve been instructed to interpret the revelation. Maybe it wasn’t originally understood and practiced the same way we do, but I don’t have a problem with that. The current “institutional” instructions from people such as Hinckley and Monson are fulfilling their roles as living prophets. They certainly emphasize the spiritual blessings from following the Word of Wisdom.

    Thanks for the links to the other treatings of the WOW. I’m off to educate myself some more!

    • Justin said

      I’d be curious to hear more about how we could put the institutional vs revelation in perspective.


      The best way that I’ve found to put such things into perspective is to open the scriptures and just take a look at what the word of wisdom says and what it doesn’t.

      If the original meaning is not known, then there may be as many interpretations as there are persons interpreting -= causing our standard works to be no standard whatsoever. That creates confusion.

      “Liken it to ourselves” ought to build upon the original meaning, not vice versa. We start with the minimal standard [the finite, or original meaning], and then work outward to the infinite — not vice versa.

      When you start with the “liken all scriptures to yourself” model first, the original meaning doesn’t hold a whole lot of weight b/c it just becomes one of many infinite ways to interpret the scripture. However, beginning with original meaning grounds the soul to the one meaning — and then the Spirit may adjust things according to the doctrine of expediency.

  7. joespencer said


    I agree on all but one point, namely, “how we’ve been instructed to interpret the revelation.” While we’ve certainly been instructed on interpretation on a few points (i.e., “hot drinks” means tea and coffee), there is much that the institutional practice says nothing about, and there is much that the institutional practice simply adds to the revelation. Though there is an undeniable relationship between the practice and the revelation, I think it’s best when tackling the revelation itself to see the two things as two separable things.

    I think….

  8. Robert C. said

    Kirk’s question (#3) has me wondering about the implicit analogy here between the Word/word of W/wisdom and the way of reading Paul’s take on the law (esp., say, circumcision) from a New Perspective of Paul (NPP) viewpoint. That is, I think it makes sense to read the Word of Wisdom, as institutional practice, in terms of it being like the law functioning as a sign of the covenant, but not the essence of the covenant (since the essence of the covenant was to point beyond itself, to Christ, like the Word of Wisdom points beyond itself to the word of wisdom and the larger apparatus of the Church which itself points to Christ, the Gospel, etc.).

  9. Alan Jackson said


    Do we include general conference talks on the word of wisdom as “institutional practice”?

    I’d love some more examples (beyond the wheat for mild drinks, which is the one that really stands out):

    * there is much that the institutional practice says nothing about

    * and there is much that the institutional practice simply adds to the revelation.

    As far as treating them separately, my confusion just comes in when I’m trying to decide how to live my life. I read the text, then I read the talks given by prophets/apostles as “this is how we think you should approach this subject” and then I decide. They are two things, but I see them as one subject (in the same way I would read any scripture along with modern commentary on the same subject).

  10. Robert C. said

    I think Alan (#9) nicely casts the larger issues at stake here. I think there is quite a bit of confusion about the difference and role of institutional practice relative the question of “how to live my life.”

    My own view is that, as a rule, there’s a dangerous tendency in church culture to lean to heavily on institutional practice in such a way that it crowds out personal initiative (and that’s why I’m an active participant here at the blog–I view it as an aid for helping on the individual initiative side of things, which I think is in keeping with the institutional message, but often not the way institutional practice is appropriated at by individuals and wards…).

  11. joespencer said

    We might include conference addresses, but what I have in mind for the moment in identifying the institutional practice is less what is said about the Word of Wisdom than what is institutionally enacted. First and foremost, one can’t go to the temple if one uses certain substances. Second, one can go to the temple though one does not follow—even remotely—other aspects of the actual revelation. Third and least important institutionally but no less real, one faces social difficulties depending on how one responds to the “received” Word of Wisdom (whether or not this matches up with what the Brethren have said, what the revelation says, or whatever).

    (Now, again, let me be clear: I have no problem with the institutional version. I just want to distinguish between them for the purposes of making sense of the revelation.)

    More examples of what separates the two versions of the Word of Wisdom. Under the heading of what the institutional practice leaves out or passes over in silence: herbs for the use of man (verse 10); plants in their actual season (verse 11); prudence! (verse 11); thanksgiving (verse 11); meat sparingly (verse 12); relationship between animals and grains (verse 17); etc. Under the heading of what the institutional practice adds to the revelation: harmful substances other than alcohol, tobacco, and hot drinks; exercise and the like; overeating; caffeine (even chocolate at times!); etc.

    (And again let me be clear that I have no problem with the institutional practice here. I’m glad to see harmful substances proscribed, exercise and healthy practices prescribed, etc. But I do think it is necessary to recognize that there is a major difference in spirit between “the Lord wants us to live healthily, and here are some ways to do it” and the revelation itself, which is concerned with much more than health, etc.)

    Finally, your last paragraph. I have a double response here. The more straightforward one first: I think distinguishing two Words of Wisdom should not at all confuse us about how to live our lives. We should live the institutional practice, without reserve. To say that the revelation is doing something different is not to suggest that there is something wrong with the practice; it’s to say that there is something else besides the practice. Now, the less straightforward response: I think that, once we recognize that we should live the institutional practice faithfully and, I think, unquestioningly, we should allow the revelation to complicate or even confuse things for us a bit. That is not to say that it ought to make us wonder about the wisdom of following the institutional practice. It is to say that we ought to be studying the revelations, trying to make sense of them on their own terms, and so determining how to shape our lives as a whole. The institutional practice gives us a short list of prohibited activities and a shorter list of encouraged activities. The revelation gives us something much richer, much more complex, much more interesting. It gives us something to think about, something to study, something that—perhaps—might change our way of thinking about the world, and not just change a few actions (actions with, in most cases, enormous consequences).

    Anyway, I hope this helps make clearer what I’m after here. Thanks, at any rate, for forcing me to try to make it clearer. :)

  12. joespencer said

    And what Robert said! :)

  13. Alan Jackson said

    Thanks for the clarification. I think I understand and agree with your original point now.

  14. kirkcaudle said

    “I think that, once we recognize that we should live the institutional practice faithfully . . . we should allow the revelation to complicate or even confuse things for us a bit . . . It is to say that we ought to be studying the revelations, trying to make sense of them on their own terms, and so determining how to shape our lives as a whole.” –Joe

    Nicely put Joe.

    I wonder then if we should not study section 89 in the same way that we would study a text such as 1 Corinthians 11 where Paul talks about the sacrament. Before 1 Cor. 11 can be understood the entire sacramental meal must be put in context. The way the Corinthians (and Paul) experienced their institutional sacrament was much different than our own today. However, it is still useful to study that text in order to see how it can “shape our lives as a whole.”

    What Paul is doing with the sacrament in 1 Cor. 11 is not wrong; it is just simply different. What Joseph Smith is doing within section 89 is not wrong; it is just different from what President Monson does with the revelation. I agree with Joe, we must undoubtedly follow the modern institution. However, we must follow the modern institution without somehow forgetting/understanding (but not necessarily reinterpreting) the past.

  15. Jay said

    I’m not sure what you mean by institutional word of wisdom versus spiritual text of word of wisdom? Your furtive institutional word of wisdom that those items which are required to to be worthy of a Temple recommend.

    Perhaps you may have forgotten that Temple question regarding the Word of Wisdom, includes these words, “do you live the word of wisdom completely?” I simply don’t see a difference between institutional and scriptural separation you refer to in this blog.

    Joseph Fielding Smith regarding versus 10 through 17

    Many a man thinks he’s keeping the word of wisdom, who knows only the don’ts which is part of the script meaning. Some that stumbled over the meaning of the expression “in the season thereof” it argued that grains and fruits should only be used in the season of their growth and when they have ripened. This is not the intent, but any grain or fruit is out of season no matter what part of the year it may be if it is unfit for use. The Apple under the tree Bruce and decaying is out of season on the good fruit is waiting to be plucked the tree. Neither is it the intent of this revelation to food grains and fruits in the restrictions placed upon meets that they should be used only and famine or excess hunger. CHMR, 1948, 2:148

    Joseph Fielding Smith versus

    Among…questions received we find such as this: “Why does not the Lord give us further revelation to cover the many other stimulants and drinks in the proper foods for the body?” The answer is because such reveler revelation is unnecessary. The word of wisdom is a basic law. It points the way and gives us ample instructions in regards to both food and drink, good for the body and also detrimental. If we sincerely follow that which is written with the aid of the spirit of the Lord, we need no further counsel. The wonderful instruction contains the following promise: (section 89:18 to 20, quoted”).

    Thus by keeping the commandments your promise inspiration and the guidance of the Spirit of the Lord to which we will know what is good and was bad for the body, without the Lord for his presenting us with a detailed list separating the good things from the bad that we may be protected. We will learn by this faithful servant that the promise of the Lord are fulfilled. ….. According to the promise of the Lord we will have wisdom to understand these things by virtue of faithful observance of the basic law, the word of wisdom. As a safeguard to each and all is this: if in doubt as to the food or drink weathers good or harmful, leather the loan until you have learned the truth in regard to it. If anything offered his habit-forming, we will be saved to conclude that it contains some ingredients that are harmful to the body and should be avoided. (I.e., February 1956, 59:78 to 79)

    Joseph Smith, the prophet
    Re vs. 5
    The Lord has not ordained strong drink for the belly but for the washing of the body. Tobacco is in not nauseous, stinking, abominable thing, and I am surprised that any human being should think of using it. Foreign elder especially to eat or smoke it is a disgrace, he is not fit for the office; he ought first to learn to keep the word of wisdom and then to teach others. God will not prosper man who uses it again hot drinks are not for the belly. There are many who wonder what this can mean whether refers to tea or coffee are not I say it does refer to tea and coffee. (TS, 1842, 3;799 – 801)

    Brigham Young regarding verse nine, hot drinks.
    Many try to excuse themselves because tea and coffee are not mentioned, bargaining that it refers to hot drink only. What do we drink hot when the word of wisdom was given? Tea and coffee. It definitely refers to that which we drink with our food. I said to the Saints at our last annual conference, the spirit whispers to me call upon Latter Day Saints to observe the word of wisdom, to let tea coffee and tobacco alone and to abstain from drinking spiritualist drinks. If the spirit of God whispers this to his people to their leader, and they will not listen nor obey, what will be the consequences of their disobedience? Darkness and blindness of mine with regard to the things of God will be there lot; they will cease to have spirit of prayer, and the spirit of the world will increase and then in proportion to their disobedience until the apostle size entirely from God and his ways…… There is not a single saint deprived of the privilege of asking the father, the name of Jesus Christ, our Savior, if it is true that the spirit of the Almighty whispers to his servant Brigham Young to urge upon the Latter Day Saints to observe the word of wisdom. All have this privilege from the apostle to the lay member. Ask for yourselves. JD, August 17, 1867, 12:117 – 118

    • Douglas Hunter said


      I like the distinction Joe makes between the institutional / cultural practice of the WOW and the scripture itself. There are a number of reasons for this in addition to what Joe wrote above. For example there is evidence that J.S. and B.Y. drank wine throughout their lives,and saw the WOW as a suggestion or guide for moderation. Of course the WOW tells the saints that they should make their own wine, so these show how the cultural / institutional practices associated with the WOW are historically determined and how our interpretations change. The WOW has a history, and the fact that it emerges in a 19th century context is writ large in the text itself although that aspect is ignored by the current institutional /cultural awareness of the WOW.

      Also there is the distinction between the lesson’s assertion that the WOW is a law and the introduction to the WOW which contains interesting language “to be sent greeting; not by commandment or constraint but by revelation . . .” This language seems to suggest that the WOW is not a law. But why would such language be used to introduce the WOW? I think the answer lies in the third verse “Given for a principle with promise, adapted to the capacity of the weak and weakest of all saints . . .” This kind of point of view, the adoptability of practice to those who are weak in the context of dietary practice reminds us of Romans 14 in which Paul addresses the conflict in the community between those who wish to keep Kosher and those who see it as unnecessary. Paul calls those who desire to keep Kosher “weak in faith” but goes on to explain that when it comes to the theology of eating that people who want to keep kosher should not be forced to do otherwise despite their being weak. He also states that “the kingdom of God is not meat and drink; but righteousness, and peace and joy in the holy ghost.” Later Paul writes “It is good neither to eat flesh nor to drink wine nor anything whereby thy brother stumbles, or is offended or is made weak.”

      There is a great deal more that I could say on these topics but suffice it to say that J.S. knew his bible very well, and the text itself suggests that he may have been inspired by, or responding to Romans 14 as he wrote the introduction to D&C 89.

  16. joespencer said


    Combining Joseph Fielding Smith’s quotation with your interpretation of the recommend question, you seem to be suggesting that those who eat fruit out of season should answer “No” when they’re asked the question in a recommend interview. Is that right? If so, I suspect you’d have a hard time finding many—even and especially among the leaders of the Church—who agree with you. If not, I’m not sure what you’re trying to say.

  17. toddh said

    Thanks for all the great info week and after week. I can’t imagine how much work you put into these lessons for the rest of us. My lessons are so much better each week because of the hard work you put into these posts.

    Looks like I will be released this next month so I won’t be coming back here as frequently. Thanks again!

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