Section 89: The Word of Wisdom
Since September 1832, after moving from the Johnson farm in Hiram, Ohio, Joseph and Emma had been living in quarters above Newel K. Whitney’s store in Kirtland. Their first child to survive infancy, Joseph Smith III, was born there on November 6, 1832, the day the Prophet returned from a short mission to the East with Bishop Whitney. Above Emma’s kitchen, located on the ground floor, Levi Hancock had created a small schoolroom by remodeling a former porch.
The only comment made by Joseph on February 27, 1833, when the revelation known as the Word of Wisdom was received, was: “I received the following revelation.” Section 89 was the first revelation received after the organization of the School of the Prophets. Brigham Young was later to comment on the events that led to Joseph’s inquiry which resulted in this revelation. Although he was not a member of the School of the Prophets in 1833, and was not present on the day the Word of Wisdom was actually received, he was a member of the 1835 school and was familiar with conditions at the earlier meetings which he described as follows:
I think I am as well acquainted with the circumstances which led to the giving of the Word of Wisdom as any man in the Church, although I was not present at the time to witness them. The first School of the Prophets was held in a small room situated over the Prophet Joseph’s kitchen in a house which belonged to Bishop Whitney, and which was attached to his store, which store might probably be about fifteen feet square. In the rear of this building was a kitchen, probably ten by fourteen feet, containing rooms and pantries. Over this kitchen was situated the room in which the Prophet received revelations and in which he instructed his brethren. The brethren came to that place from hundreds of miles to attend school in a little room probably no larger than eleven by fourteen [which served as a meeting place for the School of the Prophets between January and April 1833]. When they assembled together in this room after breakfast, the first thing they did was to light their pipes, and while smoking, talk about the great things of the kingdom, and spit all over the room, and as soon as the pipe was out of their mouths a large chew of tobacco would then be taken. Often when the Prophet entered the room to give the school instructions he would find himself in a cloud of tobacco smoke. This, and the complaints of his wife at having to clean so filthy a floor, made the Prophet think upon the matter, and he inquired of the Lord relating to the conduct of the elders in using tobacco, and the revelation known as the Word of Wisdom was the result of his inquiry (JD, 12:158).
David Whitmer reported that the revelation was received under somewhat different circumstances. He said:
Quite a little party of the brethren and sisters were assembled in the Smiths’ house. 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 its 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. Sure enough, the subject was afterward taken up in dead earnest, and the “Word of Wisdom” was the result (Des Moines Daily News [Des Moines, Iowa], October 16, 1886).
In February of 1833, many members of the Church used tobacco, drank hard liquor, and regularly partook of tea and coffee. Indeed, of the twenty-two men who were charter members of the School of the Prophets, only two of them never used tobacco in any form. You might well imagine that the room in which the School of the Prophets met was more like a pool hall than a room of religious study—with twenty men spitting or smoking. One might also well imagine that Emma had more than a little to do with pressuring Joseph to inquire of the Lord concerning this matter since it was she who had to clean up the room after the brethren left.
February 1833 was also a time when the temperance crusade was rapidly gaining momentum in various parts of the United States, including Ohio. The American Temperance Society was formed in 1826. By 1831 there were more than two thousand local temperance societies in the United States, with over 150,000 members nationally. Thirty of these societies were located in Ohio, with the largest in Kirtland, where virtually all the Christian churches supported the temperance movement. Merely two years later, in 1833, there were five thousand local temperance societies nationally with a combined membership of one and one quarter million persons. It is interesting to note that on February 1, 1833, the Kirtland Temperance Society marched upon and tore down the distillery in Kirtland and two more in nearby Mentor. Many reformers of the period taught their own health laws. Some critics of the Church have suggested that Joseph created this revelation (and indeed many other revelations) simply by copying from his contemporaries. Again we see the nature of revelation. Just as the Spirit of the Lord had prepared the ground for the restoration in so many other ways, it was also preparing the ground for a remarkable change in American frontier culture. The soil was ready for planting. Section 89 was revealed when circumstances had set the stage and when pressures dictated a need. Even though this revelation was received in a smoke screen (no pun intended) of many other similar sounding health codes, this one was of divine origin and has certainly stood the test of time and scientific scrutiny.
Reports from others who were present at the School of the Prophets on February 27, 1833, indicate that Joseph received the revelation (section 89) on that date in the presence of two or three others, in an adjoining room in which the Prophet received revelations, and then brought the written revelation into the room where the School of the Prophets first met to present to all twenty-two of the brethren in attendance.
Section 89 was published as section 80 in the 1835 edition of the Doctrine and Covenants.
Although Joseph asked the Lord specifically regarding tobacco, he received not only an answer to that inquiry but also to many other concerns relating to health. However a caveat should be noted. As section 89 of the Doctrine and Covenants, the Word of Wisdom is part of the doctrine of the Church. Unfortunately, in some instances the Word of Wisdom has also become part of the culture of the Church and the “hobby horse” of some individual members. Sometimes the Word of Wisdom as church doctrine and the Word of Wisdom as local or individual culture come into conflict with each other. Individual interpretations of section 89 abound (see 2 Peter 1:20), and some persons have elevated their private understanding of section 89 above other principles of the gospel. Elder Bruce R. McConkie wrote: “Some unstable people become cranks with reference to this law of health. It should be understood that the Word of Wisdom is not the gospel, and the gospel is not the Word of Wisdom. . . . There is no prohibition in section 89, for instance, as to the eating of white bread, using white flour, white sugar, cocoa, chocolate, eggs, milk, meat, or anything else, except items classified under the headings, tea, coffee, tobacco, and liquor” (Mormon Doctrine, 845-46).
At present, being obedient to the Word of Wisdom for the Church collectively is interpreted to mean abstaining from alcohol, tobacco, coffee, tea, and illegal drugs. No one but the President of the Church has the keys to impose any other specific requirement upon the saints collectively as part of the Word of Wisdom. Individually, however, the Spirit may reveal additional information, advice, or applications to persons for their own benefit, but when this happens, they are expected not to impose their view on others, even if their views are correct (see Alma 12:9; see also the commentary on “more or less” in D&C 10:68; compare 18:13; 93:25; 3 Nephi 11:40).
D&C 89 The Word of Wisdom D&C
89:18-21 All saints who remember to keep and do these sayings . . . shall receive health in their navel and marrow to their bones. And shall find wisdom and great treasures of knowledge, even hidden treasures.
verses 1-3 These first three verses of section 89 were not part of the original revelation but were written by Joseph some time after February 1833 as an inspired introduction and description. They were first included in the revelation in the 1876 edition of the Doctrine and Covenants. The text of the revelation itself was usually thought to begin with what is now verse 4. Obviously the introduction itself was inspired of the Lord and was given to Joseph Smith by revelation with the rest of section 89.
1 A Word of Wisdom, for the benefit of the council of high priests, assembled in Kirtland, and the church, and also the saints in Zion—0000
verse 1 “A Word of Wisdom” The use of capital letters in church literature often distinguishes the revelation in section 89, the Word of Wisdom, from other, more general words of wisdom found elsewhere in the scriptures (for example, D&C 46:17; 50:1; 1 Corinthians 12:8).
2 To be sent greeting; not by commandment or constraint, but by revelation and the word of wisdom, showing forth the order and will of God in the temporal salvation of all saints in the last days—
verse 2 “not by commandment or constraint” Constraint means force or compulsion. The precepts of the Word of Wisdom as practiced in the Church today are an excellent example of the principle of “line upon line, precept upon precept” (D&C 98:12; see also the commentary for that verse). In successive stages over a century or more, the Lord has moved the saints toward collective, total abstinence from coffee, tea, alcohol, tobacco, and illegal drugs. From the day the Word of Wisdom was first received, however, there has never been any question of what the will of the Lord was on these matters or any question that the will of the Lord placed an obligation of obedience upon the saints whether communicated by direct commandment or not. Moreover, the Lord’s previous commandment not to purchase wine or strong drink from their enemies is often overlooked in discussing this verse (see D&C 27:3).
Yet, “many [of the nineteenth century] saints believed that the use of stimulants during sickness, fatigue, and depression was not in violation of the Word of Wisdom. Subsequently, there are many casual references, in Joseph Smith’s History of the Church, of church members’ drinking wine” (Backman and Cowan, Joseph Smith and the Doctrine and Covenants, 83). We must remember, however, that in the nineteenth century, without today’s sophisticated pharmaceuticals, alcohol, nicotine, and caffeine of necessity played a much larger role in the relief of pain, fatigue, and depression than they do today, but their imputed efficacy usually exceeded their actual benefits. The supposed medicinal use of these substances was part of the cultural heritage of early church members. In his great mercy, the Lord did not give the Word of Wisdom as a commandment to this first generation of saints who were, by and large, already addicted to one or more of the forbidden substances and who were already culturally conditioned to accept their use both medicinally and socially. A significant difference between nineteenth and twentieth century observance of the Word of Wisdom is that twentieth century saints understood “observance” to require complete abstinence, whereas nineteenth century saints tended to interpret “observance” as moderation in the use of the prohibited items.
Neither Joseph Smith nor Brigham Young nor any of their successors to date have sought to make observance of the Word of Wisdom a test for continuing membership in the Church. Though church leaders have counseled observance of the Word of Wisdom from the beginning, and frequent attempts were made to impress its importance upon the saints, total abstinence from coffee, tea, alcohol, and tobacco was seldom preached or practiced in the first thirty years after the revelation was received. President Joseph F. Smith explained: “The reason undoubtedly why the Word of Wisdom was given—as not by `commandment or restraint (sic),’ was that at that time, at least, if it had been given as a commandment it would have brought every man, addicted to the use of these noxious things, under condemnation; so the Lord was merciful and gave them a chance to overcome, before he brought them under the law” (CR, October 1913, 14). It might be added that between 1833 and the 1860s, the Church had many other grave issues to occupy its collective attention—that is, mobs and persecution, emigration to Utah, and survival in a harsh environment.
However, as time has passed—as older generations have given way to new ones—and as more effective medical alternatives have become available to the so-called stimulants of the nineteenth century, the Lord has, through his prophets, gradually required increasingly strict adherence to his will as expressed in 1833. By the 1860s, it could be said that “Mormons were temperate and moderate but not abstinent.” Many church leaders did not begin completely to live the Word of Wisdom until several decades after it was received. On September 9, 1851, some eighteen years after the revelation was given, President Brigham Young proposed in a general conference that all saints discontinue the use of tea, coffee tobacco, and whiskey. The motion carried unanimously, and the principle known as the Word of Wisdom was accepted as a binding commandment for all members (Millennial Star, 14:35). But the saints were slow to remember their covenants. Repeated admonitions from the prophets to obey the Word of Wisdom met with varying degrees of obedience. By 1861 the saints were still using large quantities of tobacco. Apparently Brigham Young did not completely stop chewing tobacco until 1862! On October 13, 1882, the Lord revealed to John Taylor that the Word of Wisdom should henceforth be considered a commandment to the Church. Soon thereafter, on September 28, 1883, the Quorum of the Twelve collectively resolved to observe the Word of Wisdom in its entirety, and on October 11, 1883, observance of the Word of Wisdom was made a condition for attending the recently revived Schools of the Prophets (Peterson, Word of Wisdom, 70-72). These later schools were not the same as the 1833 school but were perhaps more like predecessors of today’s priesthood leadership training meetings.
During October conference in 1908, President Anthon H. Lund of the First Presidency announced that individuals violating the Word of Wisdom should not be called to leadership positions in local units and quorums of the Church. In 1913 the First Presidency instructed the president of the Salt Lake Stake not to recommend young men for missionary service unless they were observing the Word of Wisdom. Many would point to the date of 1923, when Heber J. Grant was president, as the time in church history when the Word of Wisdom became a binding commandment as we know it today. Even subsequent to this date, compliance among the saints was far from perfect. As late as the October conference of 1942, the First Presidency (Heber J. Grant, J. Reuben Clark, Jr., and David O. McKay) urged the saints to “quit trifling with this law and so live it that we may claim its promises” (Improvement Era 45:687, November 1942).
It must be noted that the history of Word of Wisdom observance in the Church does not indicate any change in “the will of God” (verse 2) from earlier times. It has been the Lord’s will since at least February 27, 1833, that the saints observe the Word of Wisdom. The Lord has been merciful, however, in allowing us collectively to change our culture and our habits over time, rather than condemning us all for an inability to observe all things immediately. Moreover, sometimes our focus on what has become a commandment obscures the fact that much of section 89 is still given “not by commandment or constraint,” and allows the saints to use their own best individual judgment in keeping the will of the Lord in the use of meat, grains, fruits, vegetables, etc. At present, observance of the Word of Wisdom (that is, strictly speaking, the commandment to abstain from alcohol, coffee, tea, tobacco, and harmful drugs) is required to be worthy of attending the temple, or to hold a church leadership position.
“the temporal salvation of all saints” The Lord does not give strictly temporal commandments, for all things are spiritual unto him (D&C 29:34-35). However, we do often benefit temporally from our obedience to the commandments of God. This is especially true with the Word of Wisdom. By observing the will of God in this matter, the saints will collectively have better physical health and temporal blessings (see verses 18-21 and their commentary).
Moreover, by ignoring the Lord’s will concerning our temporal salvation, we can put at risk our spiritual salvation. As President Joseph Fielding Smith observed: “The temporal salvation of the children of men is a most important thing, but sadly neglected by many religious teachers. The truth is that the spiritual salvation is dependent upon the temporal far more than most men realize. The line of demarcation between the temporal, or physical, and the spiritual, cannot be definitely seen. The Lord has said that he has not given a temporal commandment at any time. To men some of these commandments may be temporal, but they are spiritual to the Lord because they all have a bearing on the spiritual or eternal welfare of mankind” (Church History and Modern Revelation, 1:383).
3 Given for a principle with promise, adapted to the capacity of the weak and the weakest of all saints, who are or can be called saints.
verse 3 “principle with promise” A grand principle taught us by section 89 is that of self-control, especially the control of physical appetites. The more we deny and control inappropriate appetites, the more spiritually mature we become. In section 89, the principle or principles are contained in verses 4-17, and the promise or promises may be found in verses 18-21.
“adapted to the capacity of the weak and the weakest of all saints” The Lord’s use of the phrase “weakest of all saints” probably refers to his willingness to be patient with those who are struggling. The Lord is willing to give time to those who are honestly trying to do his will—even “the weakest of all saints.” The atonement of Christ is no less effective for the weaker saints who are, with difficulty, honestly trying to observe the Word of Wisdom than is it for others who are, with difficulty, honestly trying to be honest, kind, or virtuous. Some of the leading brethren of the early Church took a long time to overcome habits of thought and practice in connection with the Word of Wisdom.
However, today there is no way around it. Unless one abstains from coffee, tea, alcohol, tobacco, and the abuse of drugs, one is in violation of the commandment.
4 Behold, verily, thus saith the Lord unto you: In consequence of evils and designs which do and will exist in the hearts of conspiring men in the last days, I have warned you, and forewarn you, by giving unto you this word of wisdom by revelation—
verse 4 “evils and designs which do and will exist in the hearts of conspiring men” Violation of the Word of Wisdom is being cunningly cultivated and promoted by people who are perfectly willing to compromise our health—and even our lives—in exchange for money. Now that the mainstream is becoming aware of their evil intentions and of the vicious effects of their products, these same individuals are now targeting less wary game: the young and the uneducated, especially in countries with less sophisticated medical understanding of these evils. A quote from John A. Widtsoe is pertinent: “Throughout the ages the lust for gold has tempted men to place adulterated or dangerous foods upon the market. While pure food and drug laws now protect the people more than in the past, these ‘evils and designs,’ through excessive and misleading advertising, continue to appear in new and deceptive forms” (Evidences and Reconciliations, 3:154).
“evils and designs which do and will exist” “I have warned you, and forewarn you” The language of these phrases clearly indicates that in 1833 there was both a present and a future threat to the saints from “conspiring men” concerning issues involving the Word of Wisdom. It is very possible that the first warning is directed at those things specified in 1833 (that is, alcohol, coffee, tea, and tobacco), while the Lord’s forewarning is directed at future hazards like the scourge of narcotics and other harmful drugs now ravaging our society but not readily available in 1833.
verses 5-7 Here the Lord warns against the use of alcoholic drinks except when wine is used for the sacrament. As mentioned previously (section 27), the use of wine in the sacrament continued until the turn of the century.
5 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.
verse 5 “wine or strong drink” “Strong drinks” are those containing alcohol. “Soft drinks” contain no alcohol. The Lord counsels the saints of 1833 against the use wine or other alcohol-containing drinks, except that wine was permissible for use during the ordinance of the sacrament.
6 And, behold, this should be wine, yea, pure wine of the grape of the vine, of your own make.
verse 6 “pure wine of the grape of the vine, of your own make” The Lord is not saying here that the wine used in the sacrament should be merely fresh grape juice. The wine commonly used for the sacrament in the nineteenth century Church was fermented and contained alcohol (see D&C 20:75). Rather, it seems likely that he is again warning the saints against using wine obtain from their enemies, as it might be adulterated or poisoned (see D&C 27:4).
Since the beginning of the twentieth century, the uniform practice of the Church has been to use water for the sacrament.
7 And, again, strong drinks are not for the belly, but for the washing of your bodies.
verse 7 “for the washing of your bodies” Using distilled alcohol was then and is now used for disinfectant purposes.
8 And again, tobacco is not for the body, neither for the belly, and is not good for man, but is an herb for bruises and all sick cattle, to be used with judgment and skill.
verse 8 “but is an herb for bruises and all sick cattle” In the folk-medicine traditions of the past there was some interest in the possible medicinal value of tobacco plant when ingested by cattle. It was also used as a poultice for bruises. Today, there seems to be little interest in the use of tobacco for any medical purposes, and certainly the harmful effects of tobacco on health are well documented.
9 And again, hot drinks are not for the body or belly.
verse 9 “hot drinks” This term was specifically defined as tea and coffee by the prophet Joseph. The temperature of a drink, of course, has nothing to do with whether or not it is forbidden by the Word of Wisdom. “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” (Joseph Smith, Times and Seasons, 3:799-801). It is clear that the saints in 1830 understood clearly that the term “hot drinks” referred to tea and coffee (see Peterson, “Word of Wisdom,” 22-24; Ludlow, ed., Encyclopedia of Mormonism, 4:1584).
Speculation by members that the drug caffeine might be the cause of the Lord’s prohibition against tea and coffee has led some to avoid all forms of caffeine in addition to tea and coffee, especially that found in other caffeinated drinks. In spite of popular opinion, chocolate contains little or no caffeine. It does contain a milder stimulant called theobromine. This latter chemical apparently has no tendency to produce habituation. It is not the policy of the Church, nor its collective practice, to forbid either caffeinated drinks or chocolate (see Jacob 4:14 for the blindness that comes from “looking beyond the mark”). President Heber J. Grant said in conference: “I am not going to give any command, but I will ask it as a personal, individual favor to me, to let Coca Cola alone. There are plenty of other things you can get at the soda fountains without drinking that which is injurious. The Lord does not want you to use any drug that creates an appetite for itself” (CR, April 1922, 165.) Concerning cola drinks, the First Presidency has issued the following statement: “With reference to cola drinks, the Church has never officially taken a position on this matter, but the leaders of the Church have advised, and we do now specifically advise, against the use of any drink containing harmful habit-forming drugs under circumstances that would result in acquiring the habit. Any beverage that contains ingredients harmful to the body should be avoided” (Priesthood Bulletin, February 1972, 2).
The reader should note that caffeine does, in fact function as an addicting or habituating substance. As little as 100-200 mg of caffeine daily (the amount of caffeine in a single cup of coffee is about 100 mg) can result in addiction. This simply means that when the intake of caffeine is suddenly stopped or withdrawn from an individual, a “withdrawal syndrome” results. A “syndrome” is simply a group of symptoms that happen together. The withdrawal syndrome, then, is the group of symptoms that result from the sudden cessation of the intake of all caffeine. It tends to occur within 12-24 hours after the cessation of caffeine. The most prominent symptom of the withdrawal syndrome is headache, often described as “pounding.” Other symptoms may commonly include muscle pain and lethargy. Less common symptoms include nausea and vomiting, depressed mood, or irritability.
verses 10-17 Verses 5 through 9 have warned against things not good for man. These verses (verses 10-17), however, list the things that should be used to maintain good health.
10 And again, verily I say unto you, all wholesome herbs God hath ordained for the constitution, nature, and use of man—
verse 10 “all wholesome herbs God hath ordained” The word herb refers to vegetables and plants that are nourishing and healthful for man. Unfortunately, the Lord has left it to us to learn for ourselves which herbs or plants are wholesome, and therefore useful, and which plants are not wholesome. No one in the Church except the prophet has the right to make this determination for others.
Certainly this verse should not be interpreted to be an endorsement of herbal medicine instead of mainstream medicines and doctors. There is no implication here that herbs and herbalists are to be preferred to doctors practicing scientific medicine.
11 Every herb in the season thereof, and every fruit in the season thereof; all these to be used with prudence and thanksgiving.
verse 11 “in the season thereof” Elder John A. Widtsoe understood the term “in the season thereof” to refer to the preferability of fresh foodstuffs to old and possibly spoiled or tainted food (Evidences and Reconciliations, 3:157). This phrase probably has no meaning today because of modern means of refrigeration and preservation.
12 Yea, flesh also of beasts and of the fowls of the air, I, the Lord, have ordained for the use of man with thanksgiving; nevertheless they are to be used sparingly;
verse 12 “they [the flesh of beasts and fowls] are to be used sparingly” The term sparingly must be understood according to the standards and norms of frontier America in 1833. At that time, meat was often considered “the staff of life” (verse 14), and when possible, the diets of many Americans consisted largely, or even mostly, of animal flesh. Section 89 seeks instead to establish whole grains as the staff of life, or the primary sustenance of humans, without at the same time forbidding the use of meat except “sparingly” (see verse 14 and its commentary).
Moreover, “when the Word of Wisdom was revealed, methods for preserving meat were still primitive. Spoiled meat can be fatal if eaten, but the chance of spoilage is not as great in winter as in summer. Modern methods of refrigeration now make it possible for meat to be frozen and thereby preserved for later use in any season” (Doctrine and Covenants Student Manual, 210). Refrigeration also makes it possible to keep freshly slaughtered meat without risk of spoilage for longer periods of time, even in summer’s heat. It should be noted that the proper definition of “sparingly” can vary depending on differences in one’s age, activity, weather, or other circumstances.
13 And it is pleasing unto me that they should not be used, only in times of winter, or of cold, or famine.
verse 13 This verse has caused a lot of consternation. While it is probably prudent to eat meat sparingly in all situations, we certainly are not commanded to become vegetarians (D&C 49:18). The way this verse is written seems to indicate that we should only eat meat in winter or in situations of unusual cold or famine. The confusion is caused by the comma which James E. Talmage placed between the words “used” and “only” when he punctuated the verse in the 1921 edition. If the comma is removed, then the meaning of the verse is considerably changed. If the comma is left, then this verse does fit in the context of verses 12 and 15. Some feel that the verse ought to be interpreted without the comma, but since 1921, several different First Presidencies have had the opportunity to correct the reading of verse 13 and have specifically declined to do so. By default, we are left to interpret the verse as it is now written.
14 All grain is ordained for the use of man and of beasts, to be the staff of life, not only for man but for the beasts of the field, and the fowls of heaven, and all wild animals that run or creep on the earth;
verse 14 “All grain is . . . the staff of life” A staff is a support, and the staff of life is a support or aid that gives life to human beings. All wholesome grains are intended by God to be used by humans and other creatures as food. In fact, grain (not just wheat, but other grains as well) rather than animal flesh should be understood to be the staff of life, or the primary source of human sustenance.
15 And these hath God made for the use of man only in times of famine and excess of hunger.
verse 15 There is an ambiguity here involving the word these. This adjective can be understood as referring back to all the beasts, the fowls, and the wild animals mentioned in verse 14, or it can be understood as referring to the wild animals alone, since these are mentioned last in the series. President Ezra Taft Benson taught that the antecedent of the word “these” in this verse is the phrase “wild animals that run or creep on the earth” in verse 14. Note in that verse that there is a distinction made between the beasts of the field (domesticated animals) and wild animals. His interpretation is that we should use the domesticated animals for food, and wild animals (deer, elk, moose, antelope, etc.) should be killed and eaten only in periods of famine or hunger. He wrote an article about keeping the Sabbath day holy, and in it he mentioned that one thing we should not do on that day is engage “in sports and hunting wild animals which God made for the use of man only in times of famine and excess of hunger (see D&C 89:15)” (Ensign, May 1971, 7).
16 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—
17 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.
verse 17 “wheat for man” While all grains, fruits, and vegetables are given as food for man (see verses 10-11, 16-17), in frontier America wheat was the most nourishing grain readily available for human beings. Some species are better adapted for the use of some grains than others. This does not mean that a species cannot eat other grains, only that there are some grains more nourishing to it naturally than others.
“mild drinks” Among the several nonalcoholic drinks made with barley in the nineteenth century was barley water, which was made by soaking barley in warm water and saving the broth, “which is reputed soft and lubricating, and much used in medicine” (Webster’s 1828 American Dictionary, s.v. “barley-water”). A similar mild drink was made from boiling roasted barleycorns into a stronger flavored drink.
18 And all saints who remember to keep and do these sayings, walking in obedience to the commandments, shall receive health in their navel and marrow to their bones;
verse 18 “walking in obedience to the commandments” The promises of verses 18-21 are based not solely upon living the Word of Wisdom but also upon keeping all of God’s commandments. Keeping the principles of the Word of Wisdom while disobeying the other commandments of God would not entitle an individual to the promised blessings. Thus, it will be seen that the promises made in verses 18-21 do not refer merely to the physical results of healthy living, which results are as readily available to the wicked as the righteous. Observance of the Word of Wisdom may involve our temporal behavior, but its promises are primarily spiritual blessings for obedient saints.
Elder Harold B. Lee taught: “If you would escape from the devastations when God’s judgments descend upon the wicked, as in the days of the children of Israel, you must remember and do what the Lord commands: ‘. . . all saints who remember to keep and do these sayings,’ meaning keep this great law of health, known as the Word of Wisdom to you Latter-day Saints, and in addition thereto ‘walk in obedience’ to the commandments, which would include honesty, moral purity, together with all the laws of the celestial kingdom, then ‘the destroying angel shall pass by them, as the children of Israel, and not slay them” (CR, October 1968, 62).
“health in their navel” Anciently, the navel or umbilicus was considered to be the cosmic center of a human being since it indicated an individual’s origins and his or her link with eternity past and future. Many ancient peoples and traditions referred to their sacred temples as “the navel of the universe.” For example, both the pagan Greek shrine at Delphi and the Christian Church of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem displayed to visitors, stones considered to be the “omphalos ges” (Greek for “navel of the world”).
19 And shall find wisdom and great treasures of knowledge, even hidden treasures;
verse 19 “and shall find wisdom” The revelation is, after all, a word of wisdom. Wisdom is not a physical but a spiritual blessing, bestowed on those who keep the commandment. Once again, section 89 promises much more than just a blessing of health to those who live a healthy lifestyle.
“great treasures of knowledge, even hidden treasures” This phrase refers to revelation. Perhaps one aspect of this blessing has to do with the fact that adherence to the Word of Wisdom is required for entrance into the temple. Perhaps this is, at least in part, because in the temple we are apt to be taught by revelation many of the mysteries of God. Moreover, however, personal revelation is a spiritual, not temporal, blessing promised to those who keep the Word of Wisdom and follow the other commandments.
20 And shall run and not be weary, and shall walk and not faint.
verse 20 This verse does not promise that those who keep the Word of Wisdom will never become weary or faint. It also does not promise that those who obey the health laws of section 89 will never become handicapped by illness or injury. Again, we must keep in mind that the promises here are spiritual in nature rather than purely physical. It is certainly true collectively, and it is often true individually, that those who observe the Word of Wisdom will be healthier than those who do not, and this is part of the significance of section 89 to the saints. But this is neither the ultimate focus nor the full promise of the principles involved. “Run” and “walk” in this verse likely refer to our spiritual struggles and progress in this mortal life, and all the spiritual promises and blessings of the Word of Wisdom are available even to the invalid and the handicapped, if only they will observe the commandments of God.
21 And I, the Lord, give unto them a promise, that the destroying angel shall pass by them, as the children of Israel, and not slay them. Amen.
verse 21 “and not slay them” The saints who observe the Word of Wisdom will be spared at the last day because they are saints, not because they are healthy. Plenty of healthy, wicked people will be slain at the last day despite their workouts at the gym, their balanced meals, or their drug-free lifestyles. At the last day, the obedient will escape physical destruction, but more importantly, spiritually they “shall run and not be weary” (verse 20), and they will escape spiritual death.
- Michael J. Preece