By Eric Johnson
There has been plenty of Internet speculation in recent month concerning a possible change in Mormonism to allow coffee and tea, both of which were banned in the Word of Wisdom. Imagine the rejoicing of retail establishments such as Starbucks and Beans and Brews throughout Utah, Idaho, Arizona and Wyoming if the current ban were ever to be lifted. And how many Mormons will exult in being able to partake of something everyone else at the office has enjoyed for all those years!
Will the church leaders ever change their stance on this very sensitive topic? It’s a question many are asking.
First, we must understand what Joseph Smith claimed to be told by God in the LDS scripture called the Doctrine and Covenants. In verse 4, Smith recorded the Lord saying,
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—
Notice, “by revelation.” It’s a word that means different things to leaders today, but this was supposed to be God revealing His mind to Joseph Smith (and, ultimately, the Latter-day Saints). After describing how “wine,” “strong drink,” and “tobacco” were not good, verse 9 adds that “hot drinks are not for the body or belly.” The church interprets this verse on its website:
Doctrine and Covenants 89:9 says we shouldn’t drink “hot drinks.” The only official interpretation of this term is the statement made by early Church leaders that it means tea and coffee. Caffeine is not specifically mentioned as the reason not to drink these drinks. (Is there anything wrong with drinking sodas with caffeine in them? Is caffeine bad? The Word of Wisdom doesn’t mention it”).
It was not until the 1920s that the church leaders required its people to abide by the Word of Wisdom to qualify for entrance into LDS temples.
Would a change matter?
The church has modified or made changes in its policies (or the way the teachings had been understood by Latter-day Saints) over the years, including:
- Caffeinated soda is not in violation of the Word of Wisdom
- The church and its members should be called by the full name, not nicknamed (i.e., “Mormon”)
- Church services went from three hours to two beginning in 2019
- Female missionaries can wear slacks instead of dresses
- Children of LBGQT parents are now allowed to be blessed and baptized, contradicting an edict from 2015
D&C 89 doesn’t say anything about soda or other drinks with caffeine, even though I have been told by many former Mormons that they were taught this by their local leaders. Even Apostle Bruce R. McConkie wrote,
Obviously the standard of judgment must be uniform throughout the Church, and local officers are not at liberty to add other items to this list. However, there are many other substances which have a harmful effect on the human body, though such particular things are not specifically prohibited by the Word of Wisdom. Certainly the partaking of cola drinks, though not included within the measuring standard here set out, is in violation of the spirit of the Word of Wisdom (Mormon Doctrine, 1966, p. 845).
Either McConkie was a general authority or he was not. Was he telling the truth? Or not? According to 21st century Mormon leaders, however, McConkie must not have been teaching “officially.” This only begs the question, how is anyone supposed to know when the leaders are speaking with authority? The other three policy changes have been made in the past year, with President Russell M. Nelson saying there are more changes to be made.
I remember a review of a book Bill McKeever and I wrote in 1994 (Questions to Ask Your Mormon Friends, Bethany House, 1994), now out of print. The review was written by Latter-day Saint Lance Starr where he said drinking coffee and tea could lead to esophageal cancer. This, he said, was the main reason why hot drinks were banned by God. What will Starr’s response be now if the church ever allowed for this change? And if Starr is right, why would the leaders put its members in such danger?
Yet this idea (or the idea that hot drinks are bad) actually goes against scientific evidence. For example, consider this article that describes “25 Science-Backed Health Benefits of Coffee that you may not know.” If the Word of Wisdom is a “health code,” then how could coffee be shown to be beneficial? If it’s healthy today, wasn’t it healthy at the time that Smith supposedly received his “revelation”?
The way that D&C 89 has been generally interpreted (i.e., somehow hot chocolate or Postum is allowed but coffee and tea are banned) seems to be subjective eisegesis, or interpreting based on one’s personal presuppositions. However, there is too much evidence that the leadership has taught all along how coffee and tea goes against the commandment of God. A change of this nature would be nothing less than HUGE.
Evidence that the banning of Coffee and Tea is what was meant by D&C 89:9
Let me spend the rest of this article offering church citations to prove this last point. These come from Bill McKeever’s book In Their Own Words, a resource I highly recommend.
“No official member in this Church is worthy to hold an office after having the Word of Wisdom properly taught him; and he, the official member, neglecting to comply with and obey it” (Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith, p. 117).
“This Word of Wisdom prohibits the use of hot drinks and tobacco. I have heard it argued that tea and coffee are not mentioned therein; that is very true; but what were the people in the habit of taking as hot drinks when that revelation was given? Tea and coffee. We were not in the habit of drinking water very hot, but tea and coffee—the beverages in common use” (Teachings of Presidents of the Church: Brigham Young, p. 212).
Joseph F. Smith:
“But says one, ‘If I am offered a cup of tea or a cup of coffee I cannot refuse it.’ Then, according to the word of the Lord, you are too weak to be a Latter-day Saint” (Conference Reports, April 1880, p. 36).
Heber J. Grant:
“THE ROAD TO APOSTASY. I have seen men in high places start in by drinking tea and coffee, saying, ‘That doesn’t amount to anything,’ then next using liquor, then next finding fault with the authorities of the Church, and the first think I knew they left the Church. But I have never known a person, man or woman, who attended his meetings, and partook of the spirit and inspiration that are present in the meetings of true, faithful Latter-day Saints, who has ever apostasized.—CS, April 10, 1937:1” (Gospel Standards, p. 42).
“ON ‘TEAS.’ I want to announce that I shall be glad if we will quit giving notices to the papers of what is termed ‘teas’ that are being held in our homes. I read of a ‘tea’ being given in the home of President Hebert J. Grant, and of the ‘tea’ table’s being decorated. There is no tea table in the home of President Heber J. Grant. I would like us to change that name in our newspapers, at least so far as Latter-day Saints are concerned, and have it a ‘social gathering,’ or a lunch, or anything you have a mind to call it, and quit calling it a ‘tea’ when every Latter-day Saint is asked by the Lord to leave tea, coffee, and tobacco alone.—CR, April, 1926:8” (Gospel Standards, p. 43).
George Albert Smith
“The Lord says that we should not use hot or strong drinks. He tells us that tobacco is not good for us. He advises us against the using of these things, and tells us that we should use grain for food and even tells us the kind of grain that is best for us. He tells us that there are some things that are better than others. He tells us to use meat only sparingly, and he gives us the privilege of having all wholesome herbs and fruits as part of our diet and promises us, with the use of these things, happiness. He warns us against the use of strong drinks and tobacco. Last year, this state that we live in, violated that commandment of God to the extent of over $22,000,000. Yet, we, many of us, belong to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. I want to say that not one penny of that $22,000,000 that was used for these things that our Heavenly Father has said are not good for us, has produced any happiness. On the contrary it has produced misery, and sorrow, and the unfortunate part of it is that it not only applies to us in mortality, but also it will mean sorrow in many cases throughout the ages of eternity” (Conference Reports, April 1944, p. 30).
Joseph Fielding Smith
“SALVATION AND A CUP OF TEA. You cannot neglect little things. ‘Oh, a cup of tea is such a little thing. It is so little; surely it doesn’t amount to much; surely the Lord will forgive me if I drink a cup of tea. Yes, he will forgive you, because he is going to forgive every man who repents; but, my brethren, if you drink coffee or tea, or take tobacco, are you letting a cup of tea or a little tobacco stand in the road and bar you from the celestial kingdom of God, where you might otherwise have received a fulness of glory?” (Doctrines of Salvation 2:16).
Spencer W. Kimball
“The Word of Wisdom is a commandment. In 1851 President Brigham Young gave to this Church the Word of Wisdom as a final and definite commandment. From the time it was given to the Prophet Joseph until 1851 it was considered as a matter of preference or suggestions to the people, a word of advice and counsel. From 1851 until this day it is a commandment to all the members of the Church of Jesus Christ” (The Teachings of Spencer W. Kimball, p. 201).
Howard W. Hunter
“Live the spirit of the Word of Wisdom. We complicate the simplicity of the Word of Wisdom. The Lord said don’t drink tea, coffee, or use tobacco or liquor and that admonition is simple. But we confuse it by asking if cola drinks are against the Word of Wisdom. The 89th Section of the Doctrine and Covenants doesn’t say anything about cola drinks, but we ask questions that go beyond the simplicity of the lesson that has been taught. We know that caffeine is taken out of coffee and used as an ingredient of cola drinks. It seems to me that if we probably want to live the spirit of the law we probably wouldn’t partake of that which had been taken from what we were told not to drink” (“Marriage is Forever,” Australia Area Conference, Women’s Meeting, Melbourne, Australia, November 28, 1979. Cited in The Teachings of Howard W. Hunter, pp. 104-105. Bold in original).
“We are told, and very plainly too, that hot drinks—tea, coffee, chocolate, cocoa and all drinks of this kind are not good for man” (George Q. Cannon, April 7, 1868, Journal of Discourses 12:221).
“We must not permit them to drink liquor or hot drinks, or hot soups or to use tobacco or other articles that are injurious” (George Q. Cannon, April 7, 1868, Journal of Discourses 12:223).
“I know persons who apostatized because they supposed they had reasons; for instance, a certain family, after having travelled a long journey, arrived in Kirtland, and the Prophet asked them to stop with him until they could find a place. Sister Emma, in the mean time, asked the old lady if she would have a cup of tea to refresh her after the fatigues of the journey, or a cup of coffee. This whole family apostatized because they were invited to take a cup of tea or coffee, after the Word of Wisdom was given” (George A. Smith, March 18, 1855, Journal of Discourses 2:214).
“A man may keep the Word of Wisdom so far as tea, coffee, and tobacco are concerned, and still come very short. If he wishes and intends to be right, he must obey this, together with all the commandments and Words of Wisdom. We must regulate our thoughts, our comings in, our goings out, and all our doings and our minds by the Spirit of the Lord, and by the counsels of His servants” (Orson Pratt, May 20, 1855, Journal of Discourses 3:19).
“I believe there are no people in the world who have mastered and overcome mortal weaknesses quite so well as we have. But, I want to see that mastery more complete. I want to see the children of those who have forsaken the sins of the world, who have left off the use of tea, tobacco, coffee, and liquor, take advantage of the example of the fathers and mothers, thus each generation shall become more perfect, until we shall attain unto that which God has designed we should” (Melvin J. Ballard, Conference Reports, October 1912, p. 109).
“The Word of Wisdom put restrictions on members of the Church. To this day those regulations apply to every member and to everyone who seeks to join the Church. They are so compelling that no one is to be baptized into the Church without first agreeing to live by them. No one will be called to teach or to lead unless they accept them. When you want to go to the temple, you will be asked if you keep the Word of Wisdom. If you do not, you cannot go to the house of the Lord until you are fully worthy” (Boyd K. Packer, “The Word of Wisdom: The Principles and the Promise,” Ensign (Conference Edition), May 1996, p. 17).
Church Manuals (part of the correlated curriculum produced officially by the LDS Church)
“We must obey the Word of Wisdom to be worthy to enter the temple. If we do not obey the Word of Wisdom, the Lord’s Spirit withdraws from us” (Gospel Principles, 2009, p.167).
“The Lord also counsels us against the use of ‘hot drinks’ (D&C 89:9). Church leaders have said that this means coffee and tea, which contain harmful substances. We should avoid all drinks that contain harmful substances” (Gospel Principles, 2009, p. 169).
Since Russell M. Nelson became the church’s 17th “prophet, seer and revelation” beginning in 2018, the church leaders seem to have been intent on making changes to help “modernize” their religion. Could it be too many members are leaving the fold? Or it has become harder to get new recruits? Anything to help popularize the religion in a “Public Relations” sense seems to be the answer.
It seems to be that if the members don’t like three-hour Sunday services, then the attitude offered by the leadership is apparently accommodation. If there are too many complaints about female missionaries having to wear dresses, then they seem to be fine allowing them to wear slacks. Is it possible that because so many Mormons are tempted by hot drinks that the church will consider making this change in the near future? If so, I can only imagine the leaders will someday say “drink coffee and tea,, but with moderation” in his pronouncement.
Honestly, such a change could be likened to a snag in a sweater. Pull at it and it begins to unravel. In other words, if the church changes the Word of Wisdom to eliminate D&C 89:9, then what other “sacred” doctrines come into jeopardy? Future questions the leaders will have to ask would include:
- Should Mormons be allowed to smoke cigarettes? Marijuana? Vape?
- Should Mormons be allowed to drink beer? Wine? Hard drinks?
- And, what other teachings are at risk in future changes, including:
- Females allowed to hold the priesthood
- Homosexuality permitted and sanctified, perhaps even in LDS temples
- Tithing 10% for temple qualification (nope, scratch that one, this one is golden–I guarantee it or I’ll eat my hat!)
The culture always changes, yet truth doesn’t change. If drinking coffee and tea was wrong in the days of the first sixteen presidents, then why could this doctrine change? If drinking hot drinks is no longer a health concern, were the other leaders all overreacting by denying Mormons over the years the pleasure of coffee beans and tea leaves?
A church with leaders who proverbially stick their fingers in their mouths and put them out, waving it over their heads, in order to test to winds of popular opinion is a church that does not have any authority from God, whatsoever. If these leaders decide to make this change, it will only prove once again that Mormonism’s truth claims are as fluid as the culture around them is in flux.
For another look at this issue, go to “Why are Mormons not allowed to drink coffee?”