We Latter-Day Saints call The Word of Wisdom ‘A Principle with Promise’. From a theological view, it is simply ‘just’ another covenant much like those found throughout the Old Testament – agreements between God and Noah, Abraham, Moses, David, and Christ are a few of the ones that come to mind. Who, for example, can forget the image of rainbow signifying God’s promise to never again flood the earth? A covenant is an if-then scenario whereby if man fulfills his promises, God must fulfill His as well. And so, those of us who choose to follow this Principle expect that God will keep His covenant with us.
In a nutshell, the Word of Wisdom is pretty simple to understand – eat good food and avoid addictive substances. If we do that, we are promised that we will be healthy. That’s really it in a nutshell.
So, what’s so hard about following that, you might ask? Well, The Word of Wisdom is a funny thing. Truly. I know of no any other commandment that we have been given that leaves so much up to each individual to determine for him or herself. We are taught that our understanding of the Gospel is built line upon line, precept by precept, and therefore, a careful examination of the scriptures regarding the Word of Wisdom can lead to further understanding of this wonderful promise.
The Word of Wisdom is divided into three parts. The first proscribes the use of use of alcohol, tobacco, and hot drinks. The second prescribes certain foods as being for the use of man and animals. The third relates the blessings that will come to those who follow these dietary laws.
If one reads the Word of Wisdom literally, it clearly states that we should avoid wine, strong drink, tobacco, and hot drinks. We should consume herbs, flesh sparingly in winter or famine, grain, and fruit of the vine in ground or above ground. Sounds easy, doesn’t it? But when we look at each part of it, there is so much that we have to interpret for ourselves.
Avoiding alcohol and tobacco are probably the least contentious, and I would guess that most Latter-Day Saints have no issue with agreeing that we have been told to avoid these two things. Yet, there are LDS who interpret “strong drink” as being *any* alcoholic beverage, while others say it only applies to distilled spirits.
We have been told by prophets that “hot drinks” means specifically tea and coffee. This is actually a hotly debated topic in LDS circles, as some believe it means any tea and any coffee, some believe it is because of the caffeine found in those drinks and therefore do not drink any caffeinated beverages, and some believe it means one should not drink any *hot* drinks. Personally, I don’t drink any caffeinated beverages, as President Hinckley said in a television interview once that he did not drink any caffeinated soda. That was good enough for me. But, in 2004 there were temples where cola products were sold in the vending machines in the cafeteria – I don’t know if they still do or not. Note that it doesn’t say anything in the Word of Wisdom about avoiding illegal drugs… But again, most LDS would tell you that we are supposed to avoid them as well.
These items are what most Latter-Day Saints tend to focus on – the “nots” in the Word of Wisdom, if you will. But there is a whole set of “do’s” that we are supposed to follow as well, sometimes referred to as the “Forgotten Verses”. Sure, most LDS recognize that we should eat healthy food, but if we were to follow the Word of Wisdom strictly we might change our eating habits even more.
Herbs are not only good for you, but they are easy to grow and can help combat disease when used judiciously. They also flavour our food, and can lessen our reliance on salt and pepper as seasonings. When the Word of Wisdom was introduced, salt was not a common staple, and pepper was rare. Herbs, on the other hand, could be gathered from the wild, and many could be easily grown in home gardens.
It’s the final three that I personally find most interesting. I developed a severe health issue a few years ago and it seemed like no matter what I did or how many doctors I saw, it just kept getting worse. My patriarchal blessing cautioned me to follow the Word of Wisdom strictly, and I *thought* I had been doing so… Until I reread these “forgotten verses” which state “flesh sparingly except in winter or famine, grain and fruit of the vine in ground or above ground”. In part because eating flesh literally made me ill, and in part because of what I had read, I became a vegetarian. And anyone who is LDS who reads this will know what I mean when I say that being a vegetarian in this Church is very difficult. Every meal, every potluck, every event seems to be focused around food… And most of it revolves around the meat! If it is not a main dish, like chicken wings or meatballs, it’s in the casseroles, and we LDS love our casseroles! Some LDS eat meat because they like meat and the scriptures say that animals are here for our use; others interpret the bit about winter as a statement against food spoilage and since we now have refrigeration it doesn’t matter; and surprisingly there are others like me who do not eat meat because it’s not winter and we’re not in famine, besides for health reasons. There is even an LDS vegetarian group at BYU!
As I studied, pondered, and prayed about the matter, some things came to my mind:
- I have pets. I love my pets. I’ve even had pet rabbits. Why would I treat some animals almost as toddlers and think nothing of killing and eating others?
- The Scriptures tell us that animals are here for our use. Animals can be used as companions, work animals, to provide fertilizer, for dairy and eggs and wool without having to die to do so.
- Factory farming promotes inhumane practices.
- People in general are disconnected from their food supply.
As a result, I decided that I would no longer eat any flesh, that I would work towards being able to provide my own dairy products and eggs for my own use, and until then, that I would limit my consumption of mass-produced dairy and eggs. I have since discovered that several LDS prophets and apostles were also vegetarian, as were many of the early Saints.
Bottom line? Like I said first, the Word of Wisdom is left wide open to personal interpretation in many regards. And the funny thing is that anyone who followed any of the above interpretations can honestly and truthfully reply during a temple recommend interview that they do indeed follow the Word of Wisdom.
As such, they have access to the promises found within this scripture: health in their navel and marrow to their bones;wisdom and great treasures of knowledge, even hidden treasures; shall run and not be weary, and shall walk and not faint; and that the destroying angel shall pass by them, as the children of Israel, and not slay them.
But for me, following the counsel I have been given to follow the Word of Wisdom ‘strictly’, I will not eat flesh. As the young daughter of a friend of mine declared to her friends when they were giving her grief over her choice to be vegetarian like her parents, “My body is not a graveyard.”