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Mormonism’s Prophet Offers Simple Counsel

by Sharon Lindbloom
28 August 2019

The current president of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Russell M. Nelson, has been touring Latin America. According to an article published in the Salt Lake Tribune, President Nelson spoke in Guatemala last weekend, counseling church members there to “Keep it simple.” He said, “My counsel today is very simple: Please keep the commandments of God.”

It’s always a good idea to seek to live according to the will of God, but within the system of Mormonism, that is not a simple thing to do.

I don’t mean that it’s hard to keep God’s commandments—that is hard, no matter what religion one aligns with. I mean that it’s not simple within Mormonism to even know what the commandments of God are.

With Mormonism’s claim of continuing revelation, living prophets, and its doctrine that the declarations of its living prophets are more important than those of its past prophets, LDS commandments change. It’s not always easy to keep up with those changes, or to even understand them.

For example, in Mormonism it used to be a commandment from God to live the law of plural marriage (polygamy). In fact, Mormonism’s third prophet claimed to receive a revelation in which God said this law would never be revoked, but would stand forever. The revelation made it clear that plural marriage was a requirement for Mormons who wanted to obtain eternal life. Yet this is not a commandment in the LDS church today. Plural marriage is forbidden in the Mormon church today.

The LDS doctrine called the Word of Wisdom is another difficult commandment to understand. Found in the Mormon book of scripture called the Doctrine & Covenants, this commandment began as a “word of wisdom,” not a commandment. Joseph Smith recorded this revelation (D&C 89) in 1833, presenting it as a sound principle for healthy living. Eighteen years later Mormonism’s second prophet Brigham Young declared it to be a commandment. Later still, keeping this commandment became necessary if Latter-day Saints wanted to participate in Mormonism’s sacred temple ceremonies – which is where this commandment stands today.

But discerning what the commandment actually requires has many Mormons confused.

The revelation itself says in part, “…strong drinks are not for the belly,tobacco is not for the body, neither for the belly, and is not good for man,hot drinks are not for the body or belly…”

Over the years the LDS church has tried to clarify exactly what the Word of Wisdom prohibits and why. Church leaders have long said that the revelation’s “hot drinks” refers to coffee and tea. Early leaders explained that tannin and caffeine were the forbidden substances in tea and coffee (respectively). This led many Mormons to believe caffeinated soft drinks were also forbidden by the Word of Wisdom. Indeed, at least one apostle specified that soft drinks were taboo:

“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.” (John Widtsoe, Improvement Era, October 1939)

More recently (2012), Newsroom, an official Mormon church source, explained, “The church does not prohibit the use of caffeine.” This announcement was later revised to a fuller statement:

“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.”

Therefore, since 2012 there has been no commandment in force prohibiting Mormons from consuming caffeine; the Word of Wisdom “does not [specifically] mention” it.

In the August (2019) edition of New Era magazine the church again sought to clarify what the Word of Wisdom requires, saying that any drink, hot or cold, that contains any amount of coffee or tea is prohibited by the Word of Wisdom. This includes any drink that has a name that ends with “ccino,” green tea, black tea, and iced tea (no information was provided on white tea or herbal teas). This recent clarification fits the long-standing LDS understanding of the Word of Wisdom’s stance on “hot drinks,” and seems to merely educate people on which of today’s popular drinks might be hiding a forbidden substance. But the August clarification also spoke against e-cigarettes and vaping, pointing out that nicotine and other chemicals in e-cigarettes may be addictive and harmful to users. The statement said, “Vaping is clearly against the Word of Wisdom.”

Yet just as in the case of caffeine, the Word of Wisdom does not mention nicotine. As clarified by the church in 2012, the Word of Wisdom prohibits “smoking or chewing tobacco.” But e-cigarettes have no tobacco in them. While keeping the commandment that is known as the Word of Wisdom is required if a Mormon hopes to obtain eternal life, understanding what this commandment prohibits and proscribes is not a simple matter.

Consider another example. About a year ago LDS president Russell Nelson announced that God revealed to him the importance of calling the church by its full name, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. He said God was displeased with nicknames (e.g., “Mormons,” “LDS,” “Mormon Church,” etc.) and commanded a “course correction for the name of the Church.” President Nelson said that it “is a major victory for Satan” when the Lord’s name is removed from (the name of) the church, so over the past year the church has been working to “bring [themselves] into harmony with His will.” The church’s URLs, the name of the church’s choir, the stylebook used by journalists, etc., have all been changed to conform to this commandment. Church members have been called on to correct their friends and acquaintances who use the words “Mormon” or “Mormons” with courtesy and patience.

This name correction seems like it should be a simple commandment to understand, but it’s not. Over the past few months the church has been producing videos in a series called “Now You Know” which seek to explain some of the doctrines of that faith. Surprisingly, given the commandment against using nicknames, several of these new videos incorporate the word “Mormons” in their presentations.

Also surprisingly, the church’s Handbook 2, found online at the LDS church’s website, states,

“When referring to Church members, it is preferable to use the phrase ‘members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.’ As a shortened reference, ‘Latter-day Saints’ is preferred and ‘Mormons’ is acceptable… In addition, it may be necessary to use the word Mormon to identify the Church as it is commonly known in some countries.” (21.1.34)

The church itself is now fudging on this commandment it says was given by God through the current living prophet. How are Latter-day Saints supposed to understand this commandment and what is required of them if they are to obey it correctly?

In biblical times the Jewish people lived under a burdensome and complicated system of laws and commandments. When Jesus was asked which was the “greatest commandment,” He answered:

“You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the great and first commandment. And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments depend all the Law and the Prophets.” (Matthew 22:37-40)

If we keep those two commandments, everything else falls into place. Of course, the problem is, we don’t keep those two commandments; we don’t even keep the first one. None of us loves God as we ought – this is why we need a Savior. The message of the biblical Gospel is that Jesus perfectly kept the commandments for us, and we who love and trust in Him will be forgiven, cleansed, and saved according to God’s great mercy (Titus 3:4-7). But this is not the gospel message of Mormonism.

In Mormonism, individuals must prove themselves righteous according to their works, achieving forgiveness and cleansing through a process involving a series of steps and their own perfect obedience. They cannot and do not rely on the obedience of another – this includes the perfect obedience of Jesus. A member of the LDS First Presidency taught during the church’s 1976 October General Conference,

“The truth is that we are saved by grace only after all we ourselves can do. (See 2 Ne. 25:23.) There will be no government dole which can get us through the pearly gates. Nor will anybody go into the celestial kingdom who wants to go there on the works of someone else. Every man must go through on his own merits. We might just as well learn this here and now.” (Marion G. Romney, “In Mine Own Way,” Ensign, November 1976, 123)

Salvation in Mormonism is not a simple matter. It requires personally obeying President Nelson’s “simple” counsel to “keep the [LDS] commandments of God.” This is impossible — not only to diligently obey them, but to even adequately understand what they are in order to do what Mormonism’s God requires.

President Nelson’s counsel is not simple, but that of Jesus is. He says,

“Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.” (Matthew 11:28-30)

Jesus calls us to set down our heavy burdens of self-reliance and find rest — find hope — in Him. Jesus is the one way to keep it simple.

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