I recently saw the movie “The Saratov Approach,” based on the true story of two missionaries for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints who were kidnapped in Russia in 1998. At some point during their captivity, one of their captors asks one of the missionaries if he would like a beer. He declines, and the captor offers coffee or tea. The missionary smiles wryly and says, “You don’t know very much about us, do you?” 

A beer, cigarettes and a prayer book. FAVS stock image by MinHee Kim.

A beer, cigarettes and a prayer book. FAVS stock image by MinHee Kim.

It seems that most of my friends are aware that Mormons don’t drink alcohol or smoke. However, many people don’t realize that the injunction not to drink alcohol comes from a more general code of health followed by church members today.

In 1833, after experiences that led Joseph Smith to wonder about the use of certain substances, particularly tobacco, he prayed about the matter.

In answer to his inquiry, he received what we now refer to as The Word of Wisdom (published in the Doctrine & Covenants, Section 89). In addition to prohibiting the use of tobacco, “wine or strong drink” (alcohol), and “hot drinks” (clarified later as tea and coffee), the Word of Wisdom encourages eating meat “sparingly,” and counsels that grains, fruits, and vegetables are “good for the food of man.”  The revelation promises both physical and spiritual blessings to those who follow the counsel.

These principles were taught and lived in the Latter-day Saint community long before some of the modern medical advancements and research advocated for similar practices.

Recent studies show that these health habits seem to have a positive physical effect. In 2008, the UCLA School of Public Health released data from a 25-year study of a Latter-day Saint population in California. It showed that this group had a lower total death rate than had ever been reported for a group followed for 25 years. They also reported one of the highest life expectancies ever reported in a well-defined group in the U.S. Mormon females had a life expectancy of 86 (5.5 years longer than comparable American females) and Mormon men had a life expectancy of 84 (nearly 10 years longer than other US males). 

Such studies, obviously, do not prove causation. There is nothing to prove that following the Word of Wisdom will improve health or lengthen life. In fact, I know people who are very faithful members of our church who have struggled with health problems throughout life, despite living these principles.

Why, then, do Mormons follow these principles?

It is deeper than a desire for greater health. I can’t speak for everyone I know, but I can explain my personal understanding.

First, and foremost, we believe in modern prophets and revelation. The principles taught in this revelation have come from the same loving God by the same means as the ancient principles outlined in the Old and New Testaments. As such, they take on much greater significance to us than guidelines outlined in a health pamphlet.

Further, the Bible teaches that our bodies are temples. They house our spirits. As 1 Corinthians 3:16 (KJV) says, “Know ye not that ye are the temple of God, and that the Spirit of God dwelleth in you?” There is a definite connection between our bodies and our spirits, and therefore, both are considered sacred to us. We know that our physical decisions can have spiritual repercussions. As we care for our bodies, we also care for our spirits.

From this perspective, then, it makes total sense to us that some of the blessings promised for living these principles are spiritual in nature – blessings such as “wisdom,” and “knowledge,” in addition to being able to “run and not be weary and walk and not faint.”

I know many people who have felt blessed by following the Word of Wisdom.

Recently, a friend of mine who works the night shift as a nurse in an ICU unit shared her experience living this principle. When she first started her job, many of her coworkers gave her a hard time about not drinking coffee to stay awake and alert. Some even told her she would never make it if she didn’t.  She felt confident in staying true to her beliefs. After working that shift for the past two years, she says she has never felt too tired to perform her duties and care for her patients.

To her, and to many other members of our faith, the benefits of following these principles are very real.

10 Comments

  1. Kris Katarian

    Kris Katarian

    It would certainly take an immense amount of self-discipline to live according to those healthy lifestyle principles, and those who can should be applauded. For myself, I would fail miserably without coffee.

    Another thought. From the outside looking in, the culture of the Mormon Church seems (to me) somewhat insular and rigid. How does the Church handle the inevitable curiosity and experimentation of their youth? (I’m thinking along the lines of the Amish, who allow their young people to leave the community for a period of time. They experience a more typical lifestyle and decide whether they want to commit to the Amish way. My spelling is no doubt wrong, something like rumspringa?)

  2. Kirsten Pinto

    Kirsten Pinto

    Article author

    Thanks for your comment, Kris. I’ve honestly never felt restricted or like I am missing out on something. I am able to live a very full life without using alcohol or tobacco. I can still meet up with friends “over coffee.” I just order something else. I have lots of friends who have different beliefs than I do, and am not offended if they serve alcohol at their holiday party or other get-together when I am there. On the flip side, following these principles can be quite liberating. I have been able to entirely avoid some of the problems associated with alcohol and tobacco use. It is also important to note that no one is forced to do anything. I live these principles because I believe in them. And all are welcome to worship with us, whether they follow these principles or not.

    • Hi Kirsten, Thank you for posting. I work in SLC, Utah and the majority of my coworkers(about 45 out of 50) are practicing LDS. I would say out of these 45 coworkers adhere to The Word of Wisdom and abstain from tobacco, coffee, and tea use. On the same hand I would say the majority of my LDS coworkers consume soda, and generally speaking, large amounts of soda every day. It’s common practice for these coworkers to consume more than three 32 ounce sodas daily and typically it is diet coke. I am going by what I see and hear so I know that not everyone drinks that much soda. It was something that I was surprised by when I moved to Utah two years ago. I don’t believe my co-workers are outliers in the general LDS population in SLC in regards to being strict about alcohol, coffee, tea and tobacco use(following The Word of Wisdom) but are okay with drinking soda in varying amounts. Many drink the soda to make it through long hours working with elementary age students. This seems contradictory to the Word of Wisdom. Soda has many negative effects on your body (hard on your teeth causing cavities, loads of sugar put into your body, diet sodas having artificial sweeteners possibly being linked to cancer,etc ). This practice does not seem to line up with what you are stating about living a longer and healthier life. Why is soda okay but coffee and tea not? It seems inconsistent to draw the line on several things that can in fact be harmful to your body but be okay with allowing to consume a product that is just as harmful (and potentially harmful to your spirit) ? I am in no way writing this in a mocking and hurtful way but I truly want to know what the reasoning behind this is?

      • Hello Janae, I am LDS (Mormon) and I appreciated and agree with your comments. I believe that most LDS members are faithful in maintaining the “letter” of this health “law” but not the full “spirit” of the “law”. I believe that each of us coild choose to better live the spirit of this law and discover even greater and richer blessings ( both physical and spiritual) if we chose to be more discerning of what we put into our bodies. We would be wise to eat much less processed foods of all kinds (including soda) and engage in greater physical activity. If we chose to more broadly live the inspired council known as the “Words of wisdom” we would live 20 years longer than the general population instead of just 10. And who can put a value on 20 extra years of life? Think of how much more service we could render to our families and communities! Thanks Janae for your insightful observations… no more soda for me!

      • Janae, I agree with what both you and Andrew said concerning soda drinks. The same sort of thing happens when we as Christians “cherry pick” which Commandments we are willing to obey and to what degree we are willing to obey them. All of us can be strict to obey the Commandments that come easy for us and/or are important to us and then stop there, while leaving the harder “weightier matters” unchecked.

        Some think it is a big enough sacrifice to avoid drugs and strong drinks (acholhol, tobacco, tea, and coffee) and they are only willing to give up the bare minimum or that which makes sense to them. By so doing they believe that they avoid the impending health problems that would result from sinning by commission. Even though…they are in the act of sinning by omission (transgressing the Spirit of the Law) by taking in other harmful substances that they have not guarded (their body and spirit) against.

        I come from a long pioneer heritage and they taught me not to drink caffeinated soft drinks (because they understood and were willing to obey the Spirit of the Law for which the commandment was given). I still do not drink caffeinated soft drinks—-that was the choice I was willing to make.

        My children, on the other hand, were taught about the Letter and the Spirit of the Law, but they chose to follow their father’s tradition and only live the Letter (at this point). They still have a choice to do either, however it is harder to stop, than it would have been, to never have started. This is yet another blessing to those who were willing to sacrifice without knowing WHY that the sacrifice was requested in the first place. This is what is meant by exercising greater faith and trusting in Heavenly Father and his promises.

        But sometimes we have to learn the hard way to be obedient—and it is learned through that which we suffer. In the end, hopefully we will learn that the Lord had our best interest in mind—when he gave us the Commandments to help to guide us to a better life!!!

        Life is a journey of constant learning and even though we make mistakes we can repent and change our ways. Through the help of the Lord we can do all things that are expedient for us to change in our lives!

  3. Kris Katarian

    Kris Katarian

    Thanks for your reply, Kirsten. You are definitely going to live longer than I am!

    The ability to socialize with others and make alternative choices to theirs, without judgment, is an admirable quality.

  4. Janae,
    The curch put out a statement on soda. Ive included the link.

    http://m.heraldextra.com/news/state-and-regional/lds-church-clarifies-stance-on-caffeine/article_e4e357d0-ba5d-5a6c-8e78-dd1e791a34b2.html?mobile_touch=true

    • Hi Benjamin,
      I have read the article but I still don’t understand the logic behind this stance. I can understand the negative health benefits/ alterations to your body and mind when tobacco and alcohol are used but I do not see the point in banning tea. Tea has many health benefits and in that article it mentions numerous times that the LDS church is not banning drinks with caffeine. So why pick on tea? The only negative thing that I can see in drinking tea is the caffeine. I think many members of the LDS church are going by the law because that is what the church commands of them but there is no logic in saying you can’t drink tea (healthy) but it’s okay to drink soda (very unhealthy). I have questioned a couple of my coworkers and their response is that there is less caffeine in soda than in coffee and tea(completely false). I would have much more respect for The Word of Wisdom if Mormons were practicing it to make better changes to their health instead of just adhering to a law that an elder in their church has commanded them to do. Obviously it is not the former when soda is being guzzled like water. Here is a link about the health benefits of tea… http://www.webmd.com/diet/features/tea-types-and-their-health-benefits

      And a quote from the Web MD article..
      Studies have found that some teas may help with cancer, heart disease, and diabetes; encourage weight loss; lower cholesterol; and bring about mental alertness. Tea also appears to have antimicrobial qualities.

      “There doesn’t seem to be a downside to tea,” says American Dietetic Association spokeswoman Katherine Tallmadge, MA, RD, LD. “I think it’s a great alternative to coffee drinking. First, tea has less caffeine. It’s pretty well established that the compounds in tea – their flavonoids – are good for the heart and may reduce cancer.”

  5. Larry Lawton

    My immediate family joined the LDS church when I was young, and I “caught on” when I was twenty. As noted, correlation does not mean causation, but my family provides some interesting evidence. My mother is the youngest of eleven children, my father one of five. It has been sad to see the difficulties alcohol has caused with so many of my aunts, uncles and cousins, not to mention the obvious illnesses. I don’t have accurate statistics, but health problems sure seem to have been more vexing, and death called earlier, for those who did not join the church. It’s not now difficult for me to live up to these prohibitions, though I admit occasionally longing for a beer for a decade or so after that fateful Sophomore year in college. (Though I NEVER gave in!)
    Still, I live this way because I love God, not for mere worldly health reasons. I often wonder what might happen if we were to wake up tomorrow in a world where no one drank tea or coffee. Would God ask us to do something else to remind us, on daily basis, of our commitment to honor Him by striving to live above the lowest common denominator.

  6. Kirsten Pinto

    Kirsten Pinto

    Article author

    Janae, thanks for your questions. The Word of Wisdom provides us general principles. It is not meant to be a comprehensive health guide. But it does teach us that God cares what we do to our bodies and that what we do with our bodies affects our spirits. With that in mind, our members are expected to use the Word of Wisdom, along with prayer, to guide the choices they make–just as they should with any other principle or commandment. It is not my place to judge how another applies the principles in his or her life. It is important to understand that we do believe the Word of Wisdom to be revelation, which comes from God, not man. Isaiah taught, “For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are my ways your ways, saith the Lord.” (Isaiah 55:8 KJV) So, in all honesty, I may not ever be able to explain the “logic” behind it completely. It’s a principle with a promise of blessings for obedience to it. Those blessings are not just physical, but also spiritual in nature. It would seem then, that the commandment itself was not given purely for reasons of physical health. I believe I have been blessed in many ways as I have tried my best to apply these principles, but my motive is not necessarily in hopes of living longer. I do it out of obedience and love for a God from whom I believe this revelation came.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Comments with many links may be automatically held for moderation.