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So now it isn’t the caffeine?

By Bill McKeever

The following was originally printed in the Nov-Dec 2012 edition of Mormonism Researched. To request a free subscription, please visit here

In response to comments made on NBC’s Rock Center with Brian Williams that aired on August 23, 2012, the LDS Church offered several clarifications, one of which made reference to the use of caffeine. During the program, devoted entirely to the subject of Mormonism, Williams stated, “Mormons don’t drink, no caffeine, cigarettes or swearing either.” The program also featured journalist Kate Snow asking a Mormon member, “Do you drink caffeine?” Her answer, “No… I’ve never had a cup of coffee. I had a Coke once.”

The original clarification on the Word of Wisdom was posted on the official LDS Church Newsroom Blog and said, “The church does not prohibit the use of caffeine” and that the reference to ‘hot drinks’ does not go beyond [tea and coffee].” This was later revised to read,

“Despite what was reported, the Church revelation spelling out health practices (Doctrine and Covenants 89) does not mention the use of caffeine.  The Church’s health guidelines prohibit alcoholic drinks, smoking or chewing of tobacco, and ‘hot drinks’ — taught by Church leaders to refer specifically to tea and coffee.”

The latter statement is technically correct when it says that D&C 89 does not mention caffeine; however, many past Mormon leaders strongly discouraged its use, referring to the stimulant as a poisonous drug that was habit-forming and harmful. Rudger Clawson, a member of the First Presidency under Lorenzo Snow, stated in general conference,

“Scientific men have told us that in tobacco there is a deadly poison, and in tea there is a poison called tannin, in coffee a poison called caffeine. And we know that such must be the case, because these forbidden things are really and substantially narcotics, and a narcotic is something that is habit-forming” (Conference Reports, October 1935, pp.107-108).

Mormon Apostle George F. Richards, in a general conference message given three years later, said,

“Some of our people quibble over the matter of tea and coffee, and say there is no mention of tea and coffee in the Word of Wisdom. I want to say to you that from the beginning of this Church, in the days of the Prophet Joseph, down to the present time, the leaders of this Church have interpreted that Word of Wisdom to include tea and coffee and all drinks that are habit-forming because of the caffeine and drugs they contain” (Conference Reports, October 1938,  p.56)

In a conference message given in April 1930, David A. Smith, the son of future President Joseph Fielding Smith, stated, “Coffee and tea do more harm than good. Caffeine and tannic acid are the harmful agents in these beverages” (Conference Reports, April 1930, p.85).

In March 1918, the Improvement Era, an official LDS magazine that ran from 1897 to 1970, included an article by Dr. Frederick J. Pack that specifically targeted the caffeine content of Coca-Cola. Titled “Should Latter-day Saints Drink Coca-Cola?” Dr. Park  wrote,

“Authorities agree that caffeine is present in tea and coffee, as they are ordinarily served at restaurant tables, to the extent of about 1.5 to 2.5 grains per cup. The coca-cola people admit that an equal amount of their beverage contains about 1.25 grains of caffeine. It will be observed that coca-cola contains slightly less caffeine than does an equal amount of either tea or coffee. It should be understood, however, that an ordinary glass of coca-cola is much larger than a cup of the other beverages. It is fair to say, therefore, that the caffeine content of a glass of coca-cola is just about equal to that contained in a cup of tea or coffee.”

In October 1939, the Improvement Era ran another article titled “Caffeine in Cola Drinks.” Mormon Apostle John Widtsoe warned that

“cola drinks contain the drug, caffeine. For that reason, every argument used against coffee and tea, and some other arguments, may be used against cola drinks, and all other beverages containing caffeine, even in small amounts. They are determined habit formers, and may lead to the coffee and tea habit. They injure human health.”

The Encyclopedia of Mormonism, published in 1992, addressed the caffeine issue on a number of occasions. “The main chemical in coffee that has caused health concerns is caffeine, a cerebral and cardiovascular stimulant” (1:289).  “Devout Latter-day Saints do not drink teas containing caffeine” (4:1441). “. . . leaders have counseled members to avoid caffeine and other addictive chemicals” (4:1585).

The December 2008 edition of Ensign magazine carried an article titled “The Energy Drink Epidemic.” Thomas J. Boud wrote,

“I believe that if we follow the spirit of the Word of Wisdom, we will be very careful about what we consume, particularly any substance that can have a negative impact on our bodies. This is true regarding any drug, substance, or even food that may be damaging to one’s health. This includes caffeine” (pp.51-52).

Given the rather consistent warnings of past LDS leaders, it appears that this new “clarification” tends to add to the confusion generated by “latter-day revelation.”

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