Abide #7: Doctrine and Covenants 89

  • We will be discussing each week’s block of reading from The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints’ “Come, Follow Me” curriculum. We aren’t here to present a lesson, but rather to hit on a few key themes from the scripture block that we believe will help fulfill the Maxwell Institute’s mission to inspire and fortify Latter-day Saints in their testimonies of the restored gospel of Jesus Christ and engage the world of religious ideas.”

  • Janiece Johnson: In 1833, each morning around 25 elders would cram themselves into a small upper room of the Newel K. Whitney store in Kirtland to listen to Joseph teach them. Brigham Young described, “Men would light a pipe and begin to talk about the great things of the kingdom and puff away until they could barely see Joseph through the thick haze of smoke. After they finished their pipe, they would pull out their chewing tobacco and soon their spittle was all over the floor.” This dingy setting was the School of the Prophets. Historian, Jed Woodworth quipped, “Ironically this was the place Joseph Smith attempted to teach the men how they and their converts could become holy, without spot, and worthy of the presence of God.” 

    Now, Brigham Young pointed to Emma’s frustration with the stained floor prompting Joseph to ask the Lord. David Whitmer talks about women being strong proponents of temperance while many of the men would prefer to ignore such ideas. This was a time of major flux in the transatlantic world with ideas concerning hygiene and temperance. And Joseph’s decision to ask the Lord gave the saints a new revelation- a principle with a promise. That revelation- a word of wisdom- is our topic today. 

    My name is Janiece Johnson. I am a Willes Center research associate at the Maxwell Institute. And I, along with Joseph Stuart, the public communications specialist at the Institute, will be discussing each week’s block of reading from The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints “Come, Follow Me” curriculum. We aren’t here to present a lesson but rather hit on a few key themes from the scripture block that we believe will help fulfill the Maxwell Institute’s mission to inspire and fortify latter-day saints in their testimonies of the restored gospel of Jesus Christ and to engage the world of religious ideas. 

    Today we are glad to be joined by Dr. Kate Holbrook. A historian and writer and the managing historian of women’s history in the church history department of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints. She is also a member of the Maxwell Institute’s Advisory Board. Welcome, Kate!

    Kate Holbrook: Thank you, Janiece and Joey. I am so happy to be here today.

    Janiece Johnson: We are very happy to have you here. Kate has thought a lot about this section, as many of us have, but Kate also has a specific academic focus on food and thinking about dietary practices and religious practice of food. So we are really excited to discuss section 89 with Kate today. 

    Okay, let’s jump into section 89. Now, of course tobacco was not the only concern. One scholar called America during this period, “The Alcoholic Republic.” Different religious and social groups began to focus on temperance in the 1830s. In the mid-nineteenth century you could choose to buy a new family bible complete with the gilded temperance pledge ready for you and your descendants to sign so that this temperance pledge could stand throughout time. That, coupled with growing knowledge about hygiene, made this a significant concern of many Americans and the transatlantic world. 

    Kate Holbrook: You know, Janiece, I think the context of the period that this revelation came out of is really important because revelation always comes through a person in a particular place at a particular time and so that’s interesting and important to remember. I also believe, with the word of wisdom, that it was a guide. Just like now there are so many different voices with what we now call nutrition science. Back then too there were a lot of new ideas and proposals about what it meant to be healthy and how to eat best for the body. And so, rather than thinking that the Word of Wisdom was in any way mimicking those, I like to think of it as a guide for them too. These are the things to pay attention to. This is the moderate approach that will actually serve you very well. And then, I mentioned I believe the Word of Wisdom is for today as much as it was for back then so even though we might understand it a little differently than they did when they first received it, I really believe it’s our best moderate guide for today as well. 

    Janiece Johnson: Yeah, I really like that. And I think that goes right along with how the revelation begins. “A word of wisdom for the benefit of the counsel of high priests assembled in Kirtland”, that specific group but then we go larger, the church, and also the saints in Zion, “…to be sent by greeting not by commandment or constraint but by revelation and the Word of Wisdom, showing forth the order and the will of God and the temporal salvation of all saints in the last days, given for a principle with a promise, adapted to the capacity of the weak and the weakest of all the saints, who are or can be called saints.” If we want to become saints, if this is part of our desire, then this is something we want to think about and a guide to help us in that process. 

    Kate Holbrook: I’m excited for us to unpack what’s in those first verses. There’s so much going on there. 

    Joey Stuart: One of them that comes to me is, “…a principle with a promise,” and recognizing too that originally it wasn’t something that was required of church members, but rather something that was a guidepost. It was a way of living your life through recommendations. Some specifically covenanted to live it, but not all did. So looking at today, Kate, what do you think that it means to observe the Word of Wisdom, and how do we know how and why we are supposed to live the Word of Wisdom?

    Kate Holbrook: Joey, behind your question I think is a lot of information about the history of people obeying the Word of Wisdom because people when they first heard it in Kirtland they did embrace it and do their best and way back in Kirtland they understood the line about hot drinks to mean coffee and tea. I don’t actually know if they had an option for hot chocolate and then they became refugees and they’d go from place to place and just start to get settled in especially in Nauvoo where they really got settled and things were looking so positive and then they’d have to leave again. I think as part of all that dislocation, they didn’t pay as much attention to it. They just thought of it more as that recommendation rather than a commandment. And then they got to Utah and had some peace. They established themselves and after the Utah war they were finally able to just have some prosperity and relative quiet and at that point they thought of the prohibition of alcohol as more of a prohibition against drunkenness. 

    Some church leaders were very strict with it and other church leaders would have a glass of wine. Emmaline Wells diaries, which a large part of them are available online now, have accounts where she mentions things like “so and so had beer on a picnic” or “so and so gave some (now I can’t remember what kind of alcohol it was but), a little drink” and that seemed fine to most people as long as it was drinking in moderation. But then church presidents really didn’t feel that we were being serious enough about it, and the one who really took hold of the reins and gave us a vision that’s more in line with what we do now is Heber J. Grant. And I think it’s interesting that he did that because Heber J. Grant, himself, had an aunt famous for her coffee and she would make it for him and he felt himself develop a dependence on it and he decided to not drink it anymore and he found it was really hard to give up. And then his father had died and his mother really struggled financially as she was raising him and when he got old enough he had a lot of energy, a good work ethic, and a good mind for business. As he began to have some reliable income he wanted life insurance and he went to get the life insurance and they had a different view of health than we do now and they told him he was too slender and they wouldn’t insure him. So, his doctor suggested he start drinking beer to put on some weight and he did. But then he found, you know, he was having maybe five or six beers a day and he had already gained the weight and beer didn’t make him feel great and he had a hard time not drinking it. And so he became church president having overcome those dependencies but being really aware of how they had affected him. 

    I think he had seen how this more moderate approach over time had allowed people to develop problems like alcoholism. He saw, and certainly those of us studying history can see, the more compassionate approach to the Word of Wisdom was not to say “oh do what you can” but it was to help people not develop the habits that would be so hard to break in the long run. And especially with alcohol it was to keep people from developing a dependence on alcohol. So Heber J. Grant is the one who said “this can mean a lot of things, but if you want to go to the temple that means you’re not going to use tobacco in any form, you’re not going to drink any alcohol, you’re not going to drink tea, and you’re not going to drink coffee.” And then it clearly says in the revelation, but it’s kind of a step up, you don’t eat a lot of meat, you eat plenty of fruits and vegetables and grains. And so that’s  how we understand following the Word of Wisdom today. 

    Joey Stuart: Thanks for sharing that. I think that it’s interesting that it aligns with what many researchers and dieticians say today where half your plate should be vegetables and fruit, a quarter protein, and a quarter of grains. That aligns very well with the Word of Wisdom. Of course, the Word of Wisdom is something that we live because we are asked to live it, because we are commanded to live it, not because a dietician said so. Janiece, what would you say about that? 

    Janiece Johnson: Well, and I think that there – we have examples of people from the beginning who believed this was something that could affect their lives positively and implemented it. And though broadly the application was different, there were those individuals who received the revelation and wanted to live it. One of my favorite pieces of material history from this period is actually a manuscript copy of this revelation that belonged to a woman, Anne Marsh Abbott, who was one of the earliest converts to the church in 1830. And it’s, as far as I’m aware, the only extant manuscript revelation that we have that’s in a woman’s hand. And it’s her copy of section 89 and it’s worn around the edges, it’s like she folded it up or had it in her pocket or in her scriptures. But it’s her own copy, so before even this was published and printed she wanted to have access to this. And we have very few of her writings, we don’t have any of her writings about the Word of Wisdom, but the fact that she preserved this copy, this manuscript copy that she wrote down the revelation, I think tells us something very poignant about what she felt about it and her relationship with it. She was not one of those who was ignoring it and getting distracted by other things. 

    Joey Stuart: That’s something I think about as well, as you both mentioned that, different people had different approaches to keeping the Word of Wisdom overtime. But today, something that I hear is that either there are too many things that we focus on in the Word of Wisdom, so why do we have to do all these things? But then I’ll also hear from some folks, why isn’t it stricter? Why don’t we add more things to it? Why don’t we specifically say things like, illegal drugs or Tide pods, or whatever people are ingesting into their bodies that is making them ill. Kate, do you have any thoughts about that? 

    Kate Holbrook: I do. Thank you. I hear those same things, maybe not about the tide pods, good point.

    Janiece Johnson: Hopefully we have figured that one out on our own.

    Kate Holbrook: But people, we have new information now and we also have fads now and we have people who really care a lot about their bodies being temples and achieving maximum health, especially people who are particularly athletic. So they wonder, why isn’t candy against the word of wisdom? Why isn’t white flour against the word of wisdom? I think it’s good to remember that it says it’s for the weakest of the saints in the beginning. So that’s a way to orient yourself and say oh, I can do more, I can take my health more seriously if that’s something that’s important to me. 

    But also, we have something that is doable for all people. It’s not so strict that some people say, I’m never going to be able to give up sugar so I’m just going to throw away this whole revelation all together. For me, the alcohol prohibition – well, I think if sometimes if people really focus on health then that’s when they can start to say, well wouldn’t this be healthier. There’s some science that suggests that a couple glasses of wine can promote something that might help prevent cancer. So I think it’s not so much about whatever contemporary nutrition science says about health, it’s more just trusting and saying this is a moderate approach that we can all do and we’re going to do it because it’s best for the community. I guess one more thing I’m thinking about here is alcohol. My poor dad grew up in the church, but gave him beer to sip when he was young and he ended up being an alcoholic and he left when I was six weeks old. And then he ended up taking his own life about ten years later, and so I’m hyper aware of the way alcohol can really destroy a life. Alcoholics and some other people anonymously propose that about 20% of people, if they drink alcohol, are predisposed to become alcoholic. So that’s more than 20% of the population affected by alcoholism. 20% of the population becoming alcoholic will also affect all of their loved ones and anyone who lives with them and suffers either watching them suffer be captive to this, or suffers at their hand because they become abusive or unemployed or whatever else it is. 

    So, I think one reason that we just follow this and we just say no alcohol, is because we are doing it for our community. We and those 80% that don’t become alcoholic are saying for the 20% who would and for their loved ones, we are willing to give up this thing that might otherwise help us feel relaxed or more socially acceptable. 

    Janiece Johnson: Yeah and I think that’s beautiful. The Word of Wisdom talks about this being salvific, that this is offering salvation and thinking about the manner in which that could save us, literally, from so many things. And when we get to the end of the revelation we have these beautiful promises that are not just temporal in nature, but they are also spiritual. And I just want to read these three verses, “All saints who remember to keep and do these things, walking in obedience to the commandments, shall receive health in their navel and marrow in their bones.” So we’ve got those physical promises of health. But it continues, “They shall find wisdom and great treasures of knowledge, even hidden treasures and shall run and not be weary and walk and not faint. 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.” These promises are expansive to every part of our life, that we may have the kind of protection that we can live out a life where we thrive. And that’s really what the Lord wants. The Lord wants us to be able to thrive. 

    Kate Holbrook: If there’s any message that comes from the Doctrine and Covenants it’s that Janiece. I love the way you said that. The Lord wants us to thrive and I believe that’s why we have this revelation. I believe it does promote good health among those who are willing to commit to it. I think it’s important that the school of the prophets was the setting where this revelation was received. Joseph Smith was translating in the next room and he came into where people were studying their math, and language, and scripture and he said, I just received this revelation. They needed clear heads. They were trying to learn so that they could be missionaries and share the gospel. These blessings of knowledge and wisdom were particularly pertinent now as they still are today of course. 

    Janiece Johnson: I’ve been thinking about the phrase in verse 4, “Of evils and designs which do and will exist in the hearts of conspiring men in the last days.” Now, there is a lot of advice out there for the world. There is a lot of advice and sometimes lots of competing opinions about our health whether it be our physical health or our spiritual health. And not all advice is equally relevant or equally useful to us. And I think about (big) tobacco. There were people, there were executives who were conspiring against the health of millions and millions of people. There are also others who are out there conspiring who are trying to make money because they get us either addicted to something or they get us really excited about a new diet fad that it’s going to solve all of our problems. And I think that, again, this a promise that we’ll have that guidance and that ability to see clearly and to see through perhaps some of those conspiring people who don’t have our best interest at heart. 

    Joey Stuart: And thinking even more broadly, Kate you’ve thought a little bit about the salvation of the earth, right, the place that the Word of Wisdom has on being good stewards for the earth. 

    Kate Holbrook: Thanks for asking that Joey. What we know today about climate change and stewardship for the earth. The suggestions in this revelation––it even says eat seasonally, although that was mostly what people did back then though it’s not what we do now. But to eat more grain and less meat, to eat lots of fruit and vegetables in season, those are things that are good for the earth. Especially aware of climate change right now, in Utah we had a bad heat wave in early June and we’re having a bad drought. And I know that weather patterns and these kinds of things are markedly different all over the world right now. A lot of it feels out of our control. The way we eat is one thing we do have control over. I think the revelation was pertinent in that way. 

    Joey Stuart: Yeah, this is something that a friend told me he had stopped eating meat altogether because of ecological concerns. And this is something that the church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has spoken about and they are not saying you need to stop eating meat meaning the individual you, not you necessarily, Kate, Janiece, or me, but rather that we can all do something for someone somewhere even if we can’t do everything for everyone everywhere. The Word of Wisdom is very individual but also allows us to create to our immediate communities and the global community. 

    Janiece Johnson: And I think that the Word of Wisdom gives us this sense of mindfulness. It wants us to just not be mindless consumers, to think about those decisions that we’re making. And that may look a little bit different for all of us as the Spirit guides us each individually. But part of the strength here is the flexibility.

    Kate Holbrook: I’m thinking too, the context, you guys both mentioned the community and we do this for other people as well as ourselves. The school of the prophets where this was received was upstairs in a building that was Newel K. Whitney’s store and he became one of the first bishops of the church. And that was one of the first storehouses of the church where you gave goods to the poor. That wasn’t the space where the Law of Consecration was received but it was the general time period and the people trying to figure it out and live it were meeting in that store. And the fact that this careful thinking, and praying, and receiving revelation about how to care for a community was happening at the same time that we received this revelation about diet seems like an important connection to me. 

    Joey Stuart: I 100% agree. I think that as Latter-day Saints we need to embrace the reality that revelation is going to be received. This is something I will see with my students sometimes, either in Sunday School or in different classes that I teach, that they’ll say things were different in the past so that means that it doesn’t matter in the present. And that just seems to be throwing the baby out with the bathwater, given I’m a historian and I think that folks should learn from the past. But just because someone did something in the past doesn’t mean that it’s advisable now or in any way that we should be learning from history not mimicking history with every opportunity that we have to do so. And one of the people I find most interesting thinking about the Word of Wisdom is Leah Widstoe. You’ve done some research about Sister Widtsoe, can you tell us something about her?  

    Kate Holbrook: Leah was a granddaughter of Brigham Young. She had this impressive pedigree, but she’d also had, at the same time, a lot of suffering in her life. Leah’s mother had been married to an alcoholic who was abusive and Leah was a little girl but she had seen evidence of that abuse. In her own marriage she lost several children around the time of their birth and so thinking about the Word of Wisdom and thinking about health became really important to her. She actually had a degree from one of the leading institutions at the time, the Pratt Institute in Brooklyn, New York in domestic science which included nutrition science. She married a Harvard trained chemist and they wrote and thought a lot about the Word of Wisdom.

    There are two things that come out of their examples for me, especially Leah’s example because she was a little more staunch than her husband. He would carry around candy in his pockets to give to the grandchildren and Leah did not have candy. One, that we talked about earlier, if you take this so far that the majority of people can’t follow it they are going to throw the whole thing out. So you have to find some moderation. That was something she struggled with because she believed so much in the revelation, wanting people to follow it as much as possible. But the other thing is that she and John––together they wrote one book that was used as the priesthood manual of study in 1938. And they really helped the whole church community understand the importance of the revelation and take it more seriously. They were important in that big shift in our church in people really taking it more seriously that we are the beneficiaries of today. 

    Many nutrition science findings change overtime and as my daughter, Amelia says, she’s a wise kid. There are a lot of ways to approach a healthy lifestyle, so leaving flexibility in the Word of Wisdom makes sense both in terms of agency in giving our agency over it, and in terms of health. There are a number of ways to be healthy. I personally like that the Word of Wisdom is moderate. I find moderation in approach to diet to be the most effective way for me to feel good, to maintain good health, and also to be happy and celebrate being alive and having flourishing relationships, which Jesus Christ also tells us to do in other portions of the Doctrine & Covenants. Enjoy this bounty that is given to you, is for you to enjoy.

    Janiece Johnson: And back to that idea of thriving and figuring out how to thrive. And for me, this is the most important element. In the case of tobacco, our science is going to back up the Word of Wisdom saying tobacco is not for human beings. Tobacco is not good for us, we know that, there’s no question of that. But yet if I’m just going to rely on science, right now a scientific study will also tell me, like you mentioned earlier Kate, that the benefits of drinking a glass of red wine every night. And there is something more here that, when we covenant, when we commit to this, there is something that changes within us. So, drinking that red wine may physically help me, but when I’ve covenanted not to do it, it actually has a different effect. And I want to be able to thrive temporally and spiritually. I want to be able to thrive in all aspects of my life. 

    Kate Holbrook: That’s a great point Janiece. 

    Joey Stuart: I completely agree. I also think that covenant relationship also helps clarify what our responsibility is with the Word of Wisdom, meaning that it is between us and the Lord to figure that out unless you are a literal judge in Israel, like you are helping someone to obtain a temple recommend or a baptismal interview recommend, it’s not necessarily your place to say something about how someone should or should not live the Word of Wisdom. This is something I find interesting is that when I meet with non-Latter-day Saint scholars they always make sure that there is an option that is non-alcoholic for me, individually. And at first this used to make me feel really self-conscious. And say, “Oh they noticed I’m not drinking and they know I’m a Latter-day Saint and they’re going to think I’m a weirdo.” But in reality what I’ve come to see over time is that they care enough about me to help me live the religious laws that I’ve lived up to. 

    We aren’t there to force anyone to do anything and often at times I think we worry a little bit too much about what other people think in regards to what we are doing to keep our covenants. I think about this anecdote in Gregg Prince’s biography of David O. McKay in thinking about caffeine where President McKay is at a theatrical presentation and the usher says, “President McKay what would you like to drink, all of our cups say Coca-cola on them (with some latter-day saints thinking Cocacola was against the Word of Wisdom) and so we can’t take that off of the cup, but we do have root beer and orange soda and we have seven up, what would you like to drink?” And President McKay, dead-pan, says “I don’t care what it says on the cup as long as there is Coke in the cup.” And I love this story because President McKay wasn’t ashamed to drink what he wanted to drink and he wasn’t adding requirements to the Word of Wisdom that weren’t there. And if anyone was going to know what the requirements were you would think it would be President McKay who is the head of the church. I think that it’s just so crucial for us to remember that we covenant to do specific things and that as we are moving forward in our lives and trying to stay on the covenant path, that we don’t have to add other requirements or restrictions to it other than what the Lord has given to us already. 

    Kate Holbrook: Thanks very much Joey for that. I love what you were saying too, about us not being each other’s judges. It’s a bishop, a member of the stake presidency, those are our judges in Israel and the rest of us just tend to our own business and love each other. Come prayerfully to our understanding between us and God of our levels of righteousness and obedience. 

    The Word of Wisdom really is about community at least as much as it is about individual health. And one way I think of it, is to think of it as a Latter-day Saint law of kosher. It’s a way that we show our commitment to God and to our community members. It’s an opportunity to obey, and to show our good faith. And really, in my own experience the more I’m able to have opportunities to obey and show my faith to God, the richer my spiritual life and my whole other life become. I heard on the Faith Matters podcast the other day, there was an interview with Terryl Givens who’s just finished a biography of Eugene England. Terryl was talking about a conception that England has: are you a customer, or are you a servant? So in the Word of Wisdom, are you a customer demanding that the revelation be just the way you want, that you want it to say just what you want it to say and you’re going to take your money back if it doesn’t say what you want it to say. Are you a customer or are you a servant? One who says this is what it says, and God I give my heart to you. 

    In my opinion, the way to become more like God is to be a servant like this, not a customer. We are blessed for obedience and service. We are so blessed for those but those aren’t the main reasons for our dedication. A customer might want to debate the merits of green tea, but the servant just accepts it and goes all in. Why not be all in? Instead of crippling over our pet causes, why not give ourselves to God as his fully devoted servants? In my opinion and in my experience, full devotion leads to a richer, more meaningful, and more abundant life.

    Janiece Johnson: Kate, that’s beautiful. I think that’s where we should stop, because that’s our goal:  as disciples of Christ to be able to live a more full and complete and abundant life. And I think the Lord gives us an opportunity here. We get to decide if we take advantage of it. 

    Joey Stuart: Thank you for listening to this episode of, Abide, a Maxwell Institute Podcast. Head on over to iTunes, or your preferred podcast provider to subscribe, rate, and leave a review––each of which are worth their weight in podcast gold. You can receive show notes including references to the sermons and articles referenced in this episode by signing up to receive the Maxwell Institute newsletter at mi.byu.edu. Please also follow us on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and YouTube for more content from the Neal A. Maxwell Institute for Religious Scholarship. Thank you.