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In My Ward: Lesson 22: The Word of Wisdom: “A Principle with Promise”

By: Ardis E. Parshall - June 16, 2013

The Attention Activity in this lesson comes straight from J. Stapley’s recent BCC post Gospel Doctrine Lesson 22. Thanks, J.!

Lesson 22: The Word of Wisdom: “A Principle with Promise”

Doctrine and Covenants 89

Purpose: To encourage class members to obey the counsel in the Word of Wisdom, as well as the Lord’s other counsel about physical health.


1. Why was the Word of Wisdom revealed?
2. The Lord’s counsel about what is not good for the body
3. The Lord’s counsel about what is good for the body
4. Promised blessings for obedience to the Word of Wisdom

Attention Activity

Write on board before class, leaving enough room for Venn diagram to be developed during discussion:

Multiple “Words of Wisdom”

Temple Recommend
D&C 89
Personal applications

I understand that this class has already discussed the Word of Wisdom this year after a lesson number mixup a month or two ago. Today’s lesson will, I think, go in a different direction from the reports I’ve heard of that lesson, so please stick with me despite a little repetition.

A good friend pointed out recently that we actually follow multiple versions of the Word of Wisdom. Mixing those multiple “words of wisdom” is what leads to debates and controversies over what is or what is not part of the Word of Wisdom. Let’s start by sorting out those multiple versions. For right now, let’s overlook questions of right and wrong, and just focus on the principles.

When you have your temple recommend interview, the bishop asks you whether or not you keep the Word of Wisdom. His question is really quite narrow – he isn’t asking whether you eat wheat, or whether you feed corn to your ox; he is really only asking you whether you keep certain specific “rules” relating to the Word of Wisdom. What, as a minimum, is his concern? That is, what must you be able to see you do to qualify for the recommend? (Hopefully class members will stick to: avoiding tobacco, alcohol, coffee and tea. Accept avoidance of illegal drugs. If anything else is mentioned, keep discussion to a minimum, but note that those additional ideas are not really factors in temple recommend qualification. During discussion, draw a relatively small circle on the board, with “T.R.” inside.)

That’s a very narrow view of the Word of Wisdom, but ongoing violation of any one of those prohibitions will probably mean that the bishop will ask you to work on before he can sign your recommend. That narrow interpretation is one of the versions of the Word of Wisdom. There are, of course, quite a few other ideas that are mentioned in Section 89 that the bishop won’t ask you about. Without debating what they mean or how they should be interpreted, what are some other ideas that are specifically mentioned in Section 89 that are not brought up in a temple recommend interview? (Possibilities: meat, which grains are “ordained” for which creatures, recommendations for eating fruits and herbs “in the season thereof,” use of foods “with prudence and thanksgiving,” positive uses for tobacco and alcohol. If someone suggests an interpretation – avoidance of chocolate or cola drinks, or vegetarianism, or obesity – clarify that those are enlargements of certain phrases in the scripture but are not actually mentioned. During discussion, draw a much larger circle around the “T.R.” circle, with the T.R. circle toward the edge of larger one; label it as “Sec. 89.”)

Using their best judgment, and often through study and thought, many people have adopted health practices or food preferences that they believe are supported by principles in the Word of Wisdom, but which are not explicitly mentioned in the scripture. Without debating the rightness or wrongness of those behaviors, what are some of the practices that large numbers of Latter-day Saints adopt in connection to the Word of Wisdom? (Do not allow debate! If it doesn’t lead to debate about rightness or wrongness, encourage reference to the parts of Section 89 that people rely on to support their personal choices regarding diet, etc. Solicit ideas like vegetarianism or veganism, avoidance of caffeine in any form, avoidance of pork, avoidance of hot soup or other hot liquids, etc. During discussion, draw a large circle that surrounds the “T.R.” circle and heavily overlaps the “Sec. 89″ circle, but which also extends beyond the “Sec. 89″ circle. Label the part that extends beyond the “Sec. 89″ circle as “Personal.”)

How can recognizing that there are “multiple words of wisdom” help us understand each other and avoid arguments over what is or is not supported by the Word of Wisdom?

Is it wrong for someone to keep a stricter form of the Word of Wisdom than another? At what point does it become a problem?

On the need for good judgment in applying or extending the Word of Wisdom:

Be aware of the addition of the comma in the early 20th century, in “…should not be used only in times of winter …” (Use this as a novelty or humorous point to generate interest and conversation if class members are not participating.)

“13. They [flesh of beasts and fowls] should not be used, only in times of winter. The difficulty in verse 13 lies in the comma following the word ‘used.’ Depending upon the presence or absence of this comma, contradictory meanings may be ascribed to the text. Between 1833 and 1921, there was no comma in the text at this point in the revelation. The comma was first inserted in the revelation in the 1921 edition of the Doctrine and Covenants.

“However, insertion of the comma brings verse 13 into agreement with the clear sense and intent of verses 12 and 15, and without it, these would seem to contradict verse 13. Moreover, since 1921, several different First Presidencies have had the opportunity to correct the reading of verse 13 in subsequent editions of the Doctrine and Covenants and have specifically declined to do so. At present, given our firm conviction in continuing revelation, we need to follow the reading of the most recent edition. There is no commandment or constraint on this issue, and Church leaders seem content to let the Saints apply the principle as stated here individually as guided by the Spirit.” (Stephen E. Robinson, A Commentary on the Doctrine and Covenants.)


“Of course, the real problem here is in the meaning of only. In the last century the word only very often had the meaning ‘except’. For example, the Oxford English Dictionary quotes a use of only that undoubtedly means ‘except’: “For many years the following notice was painted up at Bolton railway station: ‘Do not cross the line only by the bridge.’” Clearly, this is the appropriate sense of only in this verse from D&C 89. James E. Talmage put the comma in the 1921 edition, but not in order to change the meaning of only. Instead, the meaning of only had changed and the comma was put in so that the modern reader could read the verse and still get out its original meaning.” (Royal Skousen, BYU Studies [citation?] But note that this explanation does not work with the “only” in verse 15.

Section 89 is a fairly short section; let’s turn to it now and remind ourselves exactly what it says: (Have class members read verses aloud, encouraging discussion. Some suggested questions and resources are noted here, but follow class interest and comments. If controversial points are raised, help class members identify which of the “multiple words of wisdom” are represented. Don’t allow the debate, speculation, and wild hair-splitting that occurred in this class when the Word of Wisdom was discussed in May.)

Doctrine and Covenants 89:

Revelation given through Joseph Smith the Prophet, at Kirtland, Ohio, February 27, 1833. As a consequence of the early brethren using tobacco in their meetings, the Prophet was led to ponder upon the matter; consequently, he inquired of the Lord concerning it. This revelation, known as the Word of Wisdom, was the result.

1–9, The use of wine, strong drinks, tobacco, and hot drinks is proscribed; 10–17, Herbs, fruits, flesh, and grain are ordained for the use of man and of animals; 18–21, Obedience to gospel law, including the Word of Wisdom, brings temporal and spiritual blessings.

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—

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—

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.

Can you think of other instances when the Lord has given “adaptable advice,” for us to follow to the best of our ability, even when that means different behaviors from each of us?

Might the parable of the talents (Matthew 25:14-30), where each servant magnified his stewardship according to his ability, be relevant?

“We believe, from the Scriptures of truth, that to every church in the past ages, which the Lord recognized to be his, he gave revelations wisely calculated to govern them in the peculiar situation and circumstances under which they were placed, and to enable them by authority to do the peculiar work which they were to perform.” – Why might we need the counsel of Section 89 in ways that the people of God in earlier dispensations may not have needed it?

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—

What do the words “do and will” imply?

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.

6 And, behold, this should be wine, yea, pure wine of the grape of the vine, of your own make.

D&C 27:2 For, behold, I say unto you, that it mattereth not what ye shall eat or what ye shall drink when ye partake of the sacrament, if it so be that ye do it with an eye single to my glory …

Ezra Taft Benson: “I cannot forget the French Saints who, unable to obtain bread, used potato peelings for the emblems of the sacrament,” (CR Oct 1980); in the Tuomotus Islands where water was not available and where natives drank the fluid from young coconuts in place of water, coconut milk and the meat of the coconut were routinely used as sacrament emblems for many years.

7 And, again, strong drinks are not for the belly, but for the washing of your bodies.

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.

9 And again, hot drinks are not for the body or belly.

The Church recognizes “hot drinks” as coffee and tea, and has done so at least since the Nauvoo era: “And 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.” (Hyrum Smith, 1842)

Although some speakers have discussed the caffeine and tannin content of coffee and tea as unhealthful, just as they have discussed the nicotine in tobacco and the effects of alcohol on the brain, neither the Word of Wisdom itself, nor any modern, official Church pronouncement has said that those chemicals are the sole reason why these items are banned. Removing the caffeine from coffee doesn’t make it Word-of-Wisdom-approved; neither does the presence of caffeine in chocolate or soft drinks mean that those products are prohibited by the Word of Wisdom. Where in our diagram do judgments about caffeine content belong? (The personal interpretation area.)

Spencer W. Kimball: “I never drink any of the cola drinks and my personal hope would be that no one would. However, they are not included in the Word of Wisdom in its technical application … I personally do not put them in the class as with the tea and coffee because the Lord specifically mentioned them [the hot drinks]. (Teachings of SWK, 202)

2010 Church Handbook: “The only official interpretation of ‘hot drinks’ (D&C 89:9) in the Word of Wisdom is the statement made by early Church leaders that the term ‘hot drinks’ means tea and coffee. Members should not use any substance that contains illegal drugs. Nor should members use harmful or habit-forming substances except under the care of a competent physician.” (Handbook 2: 21.3.11)

10 And again, verily I say unto you, all wholesome herbs God hath ordained for the constitution, nature, and use of man—

11 Every herb in the season thereof, and every fruit in the season thereof; all these to be used with prudence and thanksgiving.

What does it mean to use good foods “with prudence”? What might this have to do with waistlines?

D&C 59:15-21:

15 And inasmuch as ye do these things with thanksgiving, with cheerful hearts and countenances, not with much laughter, for this is sin, but with a glad heart and a cheerful countenance—

16 Verily I say, that inasmuch as ye do this, the fulness of the earth is yours, the beasts of the field and the fowls of the air, and that which climbeth upon the trees and walketh upon the earth;

17 Yea, and the herb, and the good things which come of the earth, whether for food or for raiment, or for houses, or for barns, or for orchards, or for gardens, or for vineyards;

18 Yea, all things which come of the earth, in the season thereof, are made for the benefit and the use of man, both to please the eye and to gladden the heart;

19 Yea, for food and for raiment, for taste and for smell, to strengthen the body and to enliven the soul.

20 And it pleaseth God that he hath given all these things unto man; for unto this end were they made to be used, with judgment, not to excess, neither by extortion.

21 And in nothing doth man offend God, or against none is his wrath kindled, save those who confess not his hand in all things, and obey not his commandments.

For many families, I suspect that a blessing on the food at mealtime is the only family prayer given in a day. What do these verses suggest about the purpose and spirit of such a blessing?

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;

13 And it is pleasing unto me that they should not be used, only in times of winter, or of cold, or famine.

Lorenzo Snow frequently taught that meat should be eaten sparingly, and only in times of dire necessity; one justification for his teaching this was the seriousness of taking life unnecessarily.

Many Saints in the early days of Utah taught that eating pork in any amount was against the Word of Wisdom. (“We are told that swine’s flesh is not good, and that we should dispense with it … The question arises in the minds of a great many people, “What then are we to eat if we drop swine’s flesh and eat very little beef or mutton, and cannot drink tea or coffee, why, dear me, we shall starve to death.” GQC, April 1868, JD 12:221-22) –

How does habit or a lack of imagination play into the overuse of meat?

D&C 49:19, 21: For, behold, the beasts of the field and the fowls of the air, and that which cometh of the earth, is ordained for the use of man for food and for raiment, and that he might have in abundance. … And wo be unto man that sheddeth blood or that wasteth flesh and hath no need.

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;

15 And these hath God made for the use of man only in times of famine and excess of hunger.

What does “these” refer to?

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.

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;

19 And shall find wisdom and great treasures of knowledge, even hidden treasures;

20 And shall run and not be weary, and shall walk and not faint.

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.

“All of God’s commandments, including the Word of Wisdom, are spiritual” (Joseph B.Wirthlin, CR Apr. 1996) – What spiritual blessings are found among these physical blessings?

Boyd K. Packer: “The Word of Wisdom was given so that you may keep the delicate, sensitive, spiritual part of your nature on proper alert” (CR April 1996) – How so?

Boyd K. Packer: “I have come to know … that a fundamental purpose of the Word of Wisdom has to do with revelation. … If someone ‘under the influence’ [of harmful substances] can hardly listen to plain talk, how can they respond to spiritual promptings that touch their most delicate feelings? As valuable as the Word of Wisdom is as a law of health, it may be much more valuable to you spiritually than it is physically” (CR October 1979)


(Emphasize the blessings over the proscriptions.)

Other resources to help with discussion:

Boyd K. Packer: “Members write in asking if this thing or that is against the Word of Wisdom. It’s well known that tea, coffee, liquor, and tobacco are against it. It has not been spelled out in more detail. Rather, we teach the principle together with the promised blessings. … Everything harmful is not specifically listed; arsenic, for instance – certainly bad, but not habit-forming!” (CR, April 1996)

Gordon B. Hinckley: “Some have even used as an alibi the fact that drugs are not mentioned in the Word of Wisdom. What a miserable excuse. There is likewise no mention of the hazards of diving into an empty swimming pool or of jumping from an overpass onto the freeway. But who doubts the deadly consequences of such? Common sense would dictate against such behavior.” (CR, October 1989)

Joseph Smith Papers context: “This revelation had both a general and specific historical context. In 1830s America, temperance and health reform were prominent matters of discussion. It was natural for early church members to consider these issues. At the same time, the use of tobacco among some members of the newly established “school of the prophets” had raised concerns, prompting JS to seek divine guidance concerning healthy and unhealthy food and drink. This revelation, which became known as the Word of Wisdom, was not originally perceived as a commandment but as divine guidance.

“Frederick G. Williams recorded this text in Revelation Book 2 perhaps in early 1833. It is designated “A Revelation for the benefit of the saints &c.” A closing notation indicates that it was “Given Februay 27—1833.” John Whitmer later recorded the text in Revelation Book 1, where it is identified as “A Revelation for the benefit of the saints, given in Kirtland, February 27, 1833.” Other manuscript versions are extant. The 1835 Doctrine and Covenants included this revelation but did not give a date or location.”

Other counsel that relates to the Word of Wisdom:

D&C 88:124: Cease to be idle; cease to be unclean; cease to find fault one with another; cease to sleep longer than is needful; retire to thy bed early, that ye may not be weary; arise early, that your bodies and your minds may be invigorated.



  1. This went pretty well. A young woman talked to me afterward about how frustrated she had always been in wanting a list of do’s and don’ts and with everybody coming up with a different list. The “multiple words of wisdom” discussion helped her realize where those lists came from, and why she had the right/responsibility to decide what her list should be.

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — June 16, 2013 @ 12:47 pm

  2. This is, hands down, the best lesson I’ve ever experienced on the Word of Wisdom. Thank you, mille fois!

    Comment by David Y. — June 16, 2013 @ 9:03 pm

  3. Thanks, David. I’m still adapting to teaching this class, which, instead of being filled with very elderly people as my classes in this ward have usually been, is the youngest class I’ve taught since my last Primary class. It’s a very different dynamic. Plus, through a mixup, they had a WoW lesson only a few weeks ago, which, according to numerous reports, was pretty wild with hair-splitting and speculation and disputation.

    But I don’t think you can go wrong very often by reading the scripture itself and discussing questions as you go, and J.’s “multiple words of wisdom” idea really was as important in ending the disputations and straightening out the wild ideas as anything else that could have been taught, IMO.

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — June 16, 2013 @ 9:27 pm

  4. My daughter has celiac disease and cannot eat wheat. I hope people do not think that means she is breaking the WoW. Nothing brings out the fanatics like the WoW.

    We each have personal rules of health. For example, I am on blood thinners and a special diet after my stroke. Yesterday as a reward for filling in in Primary, I was given a bag of microwave popcorn as a thanks for “popping in”. I handed it back and told the dear sister that she might be able to use it for another sub, but I am on a low sodium diet. I also have to limit my intake of foods containing vitamin K.

    When I teach the youth, I explain that the WoW is the basic rule of health for the saints, but that there are other things that the Spirit may ask them to do to be healthy, but make sure that it’s the Spirit. Before my stroke, I would get up early enough to run before I taught Early Morning Seminary. That was part of my personal WoW at that time. The doctor told me that I had had a major stroke and should not have been able to walk. The Angel of Death’s wing grazed my head.

    Comment by wonderdog — June 17, 2013 @ 4:31 am

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