LDS health code • The restrictions were not always a commandment, and some wonder whether the bans on coffee and tea will evaporate in the global church.
Story by Peggy Fletcher Stack
The wisdom of swearing off tobacco — with its clear cancer-causing and addicting elements — is a no-brainer. Forsaking liquor is a tougher sell, but alcohol has its drawbacks.
Try, though, asking Belgians and Brazilians to give up coffee, or the Japanese, French and British to go without tea. To many, it makes no sense — not for health and certainly not for righteousness.
Yet that is what Mormon missionaries are expected to do as they scour the planet looking for potential converts to the Utah-based Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
A candidate for baptism or admittance to an LDS temple must agree to abide by the faith’s Word of Wisdom, a health code that bars the use of these substances.
The temporal advice was first pronounced as a divine revelation in the 1830s by Mormon founder Joseph Smith, given not as a “commandment or constraint,” but as a “word of wisdom.” By the early 1900s, though, LDS leaders moved to make the prohibitions mandatory, and now such abstinence has become a hallmark of Mormonism.
Coffee cups turned upside down — sometimes dubbed the “Mormon flip” — and Sprite in wine glasses signal LDS faithfulness to onlookers and would-be judges.
These drinks remain out of bounds, even as evidence mounts that moderate wine-drinking is beneficial, and both coffee and tea contain antioxidants to help fight off disease.
Though some point to the code as a reason for Latter-day Saints’ generally good health and longevity, Mormon officials acknowledge adherence is not primarily about health.
“It’s a symbol of willingness to live in obedience to the standards God has revealed through his prophets for members of the church,” says LDS spokesman Eric Hawkins, qualifying them to participate in sacred rituals.
In other words, Mormonism teaches that sacrificing certain substances is a significant act of deference to authority as a necessary step toward salvation.
But, as the global faith expands, has the mandate outlived its usefulness as a measure of moral rectitude?
Creating an identity
After the LDS Church officially abandoned polygamy and theocracy at the end of the 19th century, the Word of Wisdom became “a remarkably effective boundary maintenance device,” says Patrick Mason, head of Mormon studies at Claremont Graduate University in Southern California. “It allowed Mormons to be very visibly distinctive and separate from their neighbors without giving an offense. It was not nearly so offensive [to mainstream America] as polygamy.”
Muslims, Jews and some Christians (think Seventh-day Adventists) have rules about what believers should eat and drink, he says, that may seem arbitrary or inexplicable to outsiders.
Mormons do, too, he says, and that’s OK.
“It’s not like giving up coffee or tea is going to adversely affect their health,” the scholar says. ”The church is not withholding fruits or vegetables, after all.”
Partaking of proscribed substances might keep an otherwise committed person out of the LDS Church, he says, but not out of heaven. The faith’s doctrine offers plenty of “post-mortal” passes to paradise.
But obeying the Word of Wisdom does carry a social cost.
“It has meant some people who otherwise believed couldn’t fully participate,” Mason says, “just because they couldn’t shake one or more of their habits.”
They sometimes are treated like “second-class citizens” in the LDS fold, he says, and cannot access temples or hold “callings” (positions) in the volunteer-staffed congregations.
The Word of Wisdom has created rifts in families, neighborhoods and friendship circles. And Judaism’s model doesn’t work in the 15.6 million-member church.
“There is certainly a spectrum of practice within Mormonism, but they are not connected to formal subdivisions like the orthodox, conservative and reform Jews,” explains Brian Birch, director of religious studies at Orem’s Utah Valley University. “It’s not as easy for someone to self-identify as a 'reform Mormon’ in terms of how they practice the Word of Wisdom and other tenets of the faith.”
Such groupings may, however, be on the horizon.
The next generations
Mormon convert Jana Riess abandoned the forbidden drinks six months before she was immersed in the waters of baptism.
Riess, an LDS author and editor in Cincinnati, had witnessed the pain of alcoholism in her family, so giving up wine wasn’t too hard.
“When you have that legacy, you are more likely to take a look around at what is not working,” she says, “and try to model your life differently.”
After forsaking coffee, she recalls, she slept better.
“I did receive the promise inherent in the Word of Wisdom,” Riess says, “and felt I would have some nourishment from this principle.”
The Mormon writer continues to live LDS standards on this, she says, and does not judge those who don’t.
Disobedience on this is “not at all” a sin, she states matter-of-factly.
Riess tells of a member who smoked before and after her baptism. During Sunday school, this woman would drive around in her car with a friend, smoking. It took years for her to break the habit, all the while remaining a committed, participating Mormon. She later led the female LDS Relief Society in her area.
“She was allowed to be baptized even though she was still smoking,” Riess says. “Her service should make us think a little about being flexible.”
Such tolerance may become increasingly necessary — if the LDS Church hopes to retain the rising generations.
In a poll of more than a thousand Mormons, Riess found that millennials differed from their parents’ generation about the nature of Word of Wisdom obedience.
More than three-quarters of baby boomers (born between 1945 and 1964) and the older, so-called silent generation viewed not drinking alcoholic beverages as essential to being “a good Mormon,” while 40 percent of millennials (for this survey, those born between 1980 and 1998) saw it that way.
As to whether one could be a good Mormon and drink coffee and tea, both numbers were lower and the gap was closer — 51 percent of boomers/silents vs. 31 percent for millennials replied “yes.”
Members of Generation X (born between 1965 and 1979) fall between the boomers/silents on whether nondrinking is essential — 51 percent. On coffee and tea abstinence, respondents in this category came in similar to millennials — 31.8 percent.
“There is clearly a difference in how Mormons feel about drinking alcohol,” Riess says, “versus coffee and tea.”
Some argue that the LDS restrictions have led to almost laughable extremes.
The church’s flagship school, Brigham Young University in Provo, made national news recently when a non-Mormon ROTC commander refused to sign BYU’s Honor Code, because it insisted that he abstain from a cup of coffee or glass of wine — even in his own home.
Counsel to commandment
Doctrine and Covenants Section 89 lays out the church’s dietary advice. Besides warning against wine or “strong drinks” and tobacco, this LDS scriptural text says to eat meat “sparingly” and have herbs and fruits in their “season.” It also proclaims, albeit vaguely, that “hot drinks are not for the body or belly.”
It was founder Smith’s older brother Hyrum who first added the particulars a few years after the 1833 revelation.
“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,” Hyrum Smith is quoted as saying in 1842. “Why is it that we are frequently so dull and languid? It is because we break the Word of Wisdom, disease preys upon our system, our understandings are darkened, and we do not comprehend the things of God; the devil takes advantage of us, and we fall into temptation.”
He went on to say that “not only are [these drinks] injurious in their tendency, and baneful in their effects, but the importation of foreign products might be the means of thousands of our people being [poisoned] at a future time, through the advantage that an enemy might take of us.”
Some have interpreted that paragraph to mean that the church should grow its own grapes, tobacco, tea leaves and coca beans rather than be vulnerable to enemies through their products, while other historians view it as a warning that these substances could harm Mormons.
This much is clear: During most of the 19th century, LDS leaders partook of all the forbidden “fruits.” Remember, the Word of Wisdom was expressly given “not by commandment” at the start.
Some smoked or chewed tobacco. Wine was used in the church’s sacrament, or communion, until the turn of the 20th century. Authorities routinely drank it, sold it, served it. Coffee and tea were common. Varieties of beer arrived with immigrant converts.
LDS apostles John Henry Smith and Brigham Young Jr. “both thought that the church ought not interdict beer, or at least not Danish beer,” historian Thomas G. Alexander writes in a history of the Word of Wisdom. “Other apostles, like Anthon H. Lund and Matthias F. Cowley, also enjoyed Danish beer and currant wine.”
Female leader Emmeline B. Wells, who became general president of the Relief Society, “drank an occasional cup of coffee, and [future church President] George Albert Smith took brandy for medicinal reasons,” Alexander reports. “Apostle George Teasdale, agreeing with President [Wilford] Woodruff, thought that no one ought to be kept from working in the Sunday school because he drank tea and that eating pork was a more serious breach than drinking tea or coffee.”
Mormon authorities wrestled with whether to urge compliance through counseling or to take a more rigid approach.
“In June 1902, the [governing] First Presidency and Twelve [apostles] agreed not to fellowship anyone who operated or frequented saloons,” Alexander writes. “In the same year, [President] Joseph F. Smith urged stake presidents and others to refuse [temple] recommends to flagrant violators but to be somewhat liberal with old men who used tobacco and old ladies who drank tea. Habitual drunkards, however, were to be denied temple recommends.”
In 1906, talk of Prohibition began, spurred on by teetotalling evangelical Protestants. Within a decade, the movement had spread across the country. LDS Church President Heber J. Grant joined in enthusiastically. Nearly three decades later, as the U.S. repealed Prohibition laws, Mormonism’s abstinence rules had become increasingly codified.
Potential damage from alcohol was well-known, but why coffee and tea?
In the 1920s, Coca-Cola executives sought a meeting with the LDS Church president, asking him not to forbid their product and downplaying its caffeine content. Though several apostles wanted Grant to do so anyway, the Mormon prophet demurred to the businessmen.
“We will say that since the First Presidency received assurance from the Coca-Cola Co. some years ago that they had practically eliminated the objectionable ingredients from their product,” Grant wrote in the 1930s to LeGrand Richards, then-president of the Southern States LDS Mission, “we have withdrawn our objections to its use as a beverage.”
Still, many Mormons (including apostle John A. Widtsoe) continued to believe that caffeine was the culprit in the banned “hot drinks,” so they avoided all colas — and condemned those who didn’t as not living the “spirit of the law.”
Utah-born LDS missionaries soon circulated these attitudes worldwide, teaching their converts to shun caffeinated soft drinks as part of their commitment. Some bishops even inappropriately asked about Coke in “worthiness” interviews, and BYU refused to sell anything with caffeine — even as confused Latter-day Saints guzzled these sodas in large quantities.
In the 1960s, according to biographer Gregory Prince, church President David O. McKay was at a Bountiful concert hall, where a friend offered to get him a drink from the concession stand. The friend was mortified when the cup he handed the Mormon leader was emblazoned with the words “Coca-Cola” in large letters.
“I don’t care what it says on the outside,” McKay told his embarrassed friend, “as long as there’s Coke on the inside.”
The church, yet again, set out to settle the matter during Mitt Romney’s 2012 U.S. presidential campaign, issuing a statement that “the revelation spelling out health practices … does not mention the use of caffeine” (though BYU remains free of caffeinated Coke).
Meanwhile, devout Mormons across the globe have had to assess whether their own drinks might be taboo as well and whether some sodas were healthier than their country’s murkier — and possibly disease-filled — water.
Kava is a favorite drink among many Pacific Islanders, but it raises “tricky questions” for Mormons, says BYU-Hawaii professor Chiung Hwang Chen.
“It is neither alcoholic, fermented or caffeinated,” she says. “Quite the contrary to being a stimulant, it is a mild relaxer with some anesthetic properties.”
There are no consistent Mormon rules about its use — even in Hawaii’s LDS-dominated Laie area, some lay LDS leaders ask about kava in temple recommend interviews, while others don’t.
“The rationale for a ban,” she says, “is probably not so much about the Word of Wisdom … but the social aspect of kava drinking.”
Some argue that “irresponsible socialization [kava parties lasting through the night] among some Polynesian men should be the culprit, not kava itself,” Chen says. Others “embrace the ban fully, teaching/believing that the substance itself is problematic.”
For some Mormons, “kava is part of their faith,” writes Daniel Hernandez, a researcher at New Zealand’s University of Auckland. “For others, it’s a hindrance to it.”
“It all depends,” he argues, “on the purpose and use of it.”
Similar confusions — and conclusions — bedevil a discussion of “maté,” Argentina’s national drink, which many Mormons in South America embrace. It is at once condemned for being rich with caffeine and questioned for its cultural traditions.
“We were forbidden from drinking maté (as was the whole South American south area),” writes a missionary who served from 2007 to 2009. “The primary reason offered was hygiene, as everyone’s mouth would touch the 'bombitlla’ [communal gourd] as the maté was passed around.”
Then there’s Japan.
Seth Rogers served in the LDS Japan Fukuoka Mission in the mid-1990s and was allowed to drink barley and wheat teas, he says. “All other teas in Japan, including the ubiquitous green tea, were strictly off-limits.”
Given how much tea the Japanese “consume on all occasions,” says Rogers, “this was a real trial for the members there.”
When Lee Poulsen, who works for NASA, was a missionary in Sapporo in the early 1980s, every person who invited in the Mormon elders wanted to serve them tea. So the guest proselytizers began by telling their hosts they couldn’t have any brown, black, green or white tea, but that they could drink roasted barley tea, mushroom tea or seaweed tea.
One woman “went into despair upon hearing this,” Poulsen recalls, “because she had run out of all her other kinds of teas, and had no other option to serve to us.”
Instead, she insisted on giving the young men “boiling hot water in little tea cups.”
A balanced tension
The problem for many Mormons, especially non-Americans, is that eliminating coffee and tea means remaining apart from the hospitality and unity surrounding such beverages.
Heeding the Mormon dietary directives, says Belgian Wilfried Decoo, “is often the most obvious sign of breaking away from family traditions and fracturing the cultural cohesion.”
Beyond local traditions, coffee and tea have become a universal language binding diverse populations.
To help immigrant mothers integrate socially, European schools often organize “a short 'coffee or tea get-together’ when mothers drop off their kindergarten or elementary school children in the morning,” Decoo says. “Local mothers and mothers from other cultures get the chance to sit together for 10 or 15 minutes over a cup of coffee or tea — a symbol of their common identity, and get to know each other.”
A Mormon mother who would start out with “we never drink coffee or tea” could, he says, “undermine the social intention and the solidarity.”
From 30 years of overseas experience on five continents in rich and poor countries alike, Utahn Paul Carpenter has observed that these beverages are the “principal means” of putting diverse people at ease and “getting conversations started.”
If they were not seen as “sinful,” says Carpenter, who spent his career in the U.S. foreign service, “the church could even take advantage of them to facilitate missionary work and to accomplish its community-building goals.”
Overall, the social costs, he says, have outweighed any health benefits.
The church’s dietary injunctions were established when it was primarily a U.S. faith, says Mason, the California LDS scholar. “In the 1920s, they weren’t thinking about all these other substances.”
Latter-day Saints in diverse countries have to weigh the apparent rightness of cultural traditions against the righteousness of Mormon teachings.
Globalization, he says, “puts pressures on the church and its uniformity.”
For his part, LDS apostle Dallin H. Oaks, in a recent speech to BYU-Hawaii graduates, says giving up some cultural, ethnic and family mores is a small price to pay for the richness of the Mormon gospel.
“When the practices of these cultures are contrary to gospel covenants and culture,” he declares, “we must push back and separate ourselves from them.”
Local Mormon leaders, says Hawkins, the church spokesman, “may provide counsel to their members about practices specific to their region.”
Melissa Inouye, a Mormon professor at the University of Auckland, endorses that approach.
“The people best equipped to interpret how a set of dietary rules from 1830s America should be applied to mark separation from surrounding society are the people native to that society,” she says. “Naturally, even within communities of local Latter-day Saints, and even within families, there will always be disagreements about the spirit and the letter of the law.”
Given the fact that the Word of Wisdom was “very loosely observed with regard to alcohol in 19th-century Utah (there was beer at ward parties) and is almost completely ignored today with regard to meat consumption ('only in times of winter, or of cold, or famine’),” Inouye says, “we should bear in mind that observance of the Word of Wisdom is not self-evident, but is shaped by LDS community norms at a given time and place.”
Mason, too, wonders about the coming generations.
LDS dietary restrictions created a powerful, core Mormon identity, full of meaning and purpose that served the religion for more than a century, he says, but may have to be adapted in the future.
“Mormons do not live in cloisters,” he notes. “They go to work and have neighbors who drink a glass of wine with dinner with no obvious adverse effect. They see that a moderate use of these substances do not lead to a life of misery.”
The expansive universe of social media immerses today’s members in a wider culture way beyond what previous Latter-day Saints ever knew, Mason says. “The nature of technology makes the persistence and cohesiveness of subcultures like Mormonism so much harder to maintain.”
As the faith continues to adapt to surrounding cultures, the scholar predicts, the Word of Wisdom will be “defined differently and applied differently.”
He can only imagine, Mason says, “this is what keeps LDS leaders up at night.”
In an international church, and faced with varying customs and conditions, the Word of Wisdom can present Mormon missionaries with their share of, well, awkward dilemmas as they strive to heed the LDS health code.
Here are some examples:
Wayne Fagg: We used to substitute various Fanta drinks, some with caffeine, for water when there was none potable, for use in the sacrament when I served in Peru from 1980 to ’82. We were encouraged to drink Coke regularly to “help” rid us of microbes.
Sherrie Gavin: In Australia, alcohol in Christmas pudding is an essential ingredient, and I know no non-American Mormons who make Christmas pudding who shirk it.
Andrew Hall: Among Japanese Mormons, caffeinated cola drinks are widely seen as against the Word of Wisdom [though they are not]. Most members are aware that American members largely do not follow this interpretation, and they do not ask about cola drinks in temple recommend interviews. But they often say, “This is how we do it in Japan.”
Andrew Brown: Members in Argentina could drink Yerba maté; missionaries couldn’t. I have since drunk maté with an [LDS general authority] while he regaled me with stories of general officers of the church who had tried it and enjoyed it.
Jennifer Skousen Sudweeks: Masala chai in India. Sometimes it’s made with just spices, and sometimes it has black tea in it. It’s hard to tell because local blends don’t have the ingredients on the pouch. You actually buy it from a bulk bin, and they scoop it into a bag for you. Some members avoid masala chai altogether, and some claim they can tell the difference by the smell, which is probably true. White tea is also confusing. It’s a different plant altogether from green or black tea here. So some members think it’s OK since it’s basically herbal tea. Others lump it in with black tea. There are also some who drink green tea because it’s not fermented, and that is what they believe is wrong with black tea.
Sariah Toronto: In Russia, in the early 1990s, missionaries and members would buy kvass, a fermented beverage made from rye bread. I do recall seeing bottled kvass at Mormon functions. When visiting in people’s homes, if they did not have herbal tea on hand, we would be served “children’s tea” — jam (usually from berries) mixed with hot water.
Lisa Kay Carmack Palmer: Airag is fermented mare’s milk and traditionally provides much nutrition in Mongolia. The [LDS governing] First Presidency was specifically asked if this drink was against the Word of Wisdom. The answer was that they did not feel inspired to add this to the list of proscribed substances.