By Eric Johnson (Revised 8/27/2019)
Prior to the April 2019 General Conference, there were some who were predicting a possible change in Mormonism to allow coffee and tea, both of which are 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 would be able to exult in being able to partake of something everyone else at the office has enjoyed for all those years!
Perhaps because there was such speculation in April, the church “doubled down” in August 2019 and declared, emphatically, that the Word of Wisdom remains in full force.
Before we discuss the church’s double-down move, we must first 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 the phrase “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 this way 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 1920’s that the church leaders required its people to abide by the Word of Wisdom to qualify for entrance into LDS temples.
Who has the authority?
In earlier days, many Latter-day Saints refused to drink soda with caffeine. However, in 2012 the church stated that caffeinated soda is not in violation of the Word of Wisdom. In fact, 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 LDS 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? Other policy changes have been made just in the past year (2018-19), including:
- 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
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 who 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 seems to be subjective eisegesis, or interpretation based more on one’s personal presuppositions than the context of a passage. After all, how can the church allow hot drinks such as hot chocolate (with caffeine in it, even!) or Postum but ban coffee and tea? However, there is too much evidence to show how the leadership has taught all along how coffee and tea goes against the commandment of God. (For more on this and to see the teachings of LDS leaders on the Word of Wisdom, click here.)
The Church’s “Doubling Down” on the Word of Wisdom
Could it be that the speculation of the possibility that coffee and tea was soon to be made kosher (so to speak) in Mormonism cause the leadership some angst. It sure seems so because, just a few months after that April conference, an article came out in the August 2019 New Era magazine titled “Vaping, Coffee, Tea, and Marijuana.” The subtitle reads, “Let’s clear up a few items that young people today may be confused about when it comes to the Word of Wisdom.” This magazine is aimed at the Mormon teenagers. After giving “some facts” about the Word of Wisdom, including that “the Lord forbids our using tobacco and ‘hot drinks,’ which, Church leaders have explained, means tea and coffee,” the article systematically went after four different items that some young people might get confused about.
Vaping, E-Cigarettes, Etc.
The article states,
Electronic vaporizers or e-cigarettes are devices people use to inhale mist, usually with various flavors. One study showed that nearly two-thirds of teen e-cigarette users thought that the pods they were vaping contained only flavoring. That’s way, way far from the truth. Most vaping pods contain nicotine, which is highly addictive, and all of them contain harmful chemicals. Vaping is clearly against the Word of Wisdom.
I am guessing that most Latter-day Saints already knew that vaping and e-cigarettes went against the Word of Wisdom. This statement is true, as vaping could be just as dangerous and addictive as tobacco. Most vaping pods do contain nicotine, whether or not the users even know that.
Mocha, Latte, Macchiato, Etc.
The word coffee isn’t always in the name of coffee drinks. So, before you try what you think is just some new milkshake flavor, here are a couple of rules of thumb: (1) If you’re in a coffee shop (or any other shop that’s well-known for its coffee), the drink you’re ordering probably has coffee in it, so either never buy drinks at coffee shops or always ask if there’s coffee in it. (2) Drinks with names that include café or caffé, mocha, latte, espresso, or anything ending in -ccino are coffee and are against the Word of Wisdom.
Not only did the church remind its followers (in the introduction) that coffee and tea are still not allowed, but also any type of drink that has coffee. Can you imagine how embarrassing it would be for the young person visiting a coffee shop ask the barista, “Does ______ have coffee in it?”?
The church again restated that no tea, green or black, conforms to the rules. The article said,
Green tea and black tea are both made from the leaves of the exact same tea plant. The only difference is that the leaves in black tea are fermented and in green tea they’re not. They’re both tea and against the Word of Wisdom. Some drinks have tea in them but don’t advertise that fact, so always check the ingredients. Also, iced tea is still tea.
One must ask, if caffeinated colas are allowed, why is “iced tea” (or iced coffees, for that matter) not allowed? The Word of Wisdom specifically says “hot drinks,” so shouldn’t cold drinks be fine? This also begs the question: Since the article was written to young people and caffeine seems to be the big taboo, then why are energy drinks such as Monster, Red Bull, and Rock Star not discussed? Shouldn’t these be banned too? After all, the risks in these drinks is probably much greater than iced tea. (Check out this article for evidence.) The church article does not help clarify, one way or the other, this issue. Why not?
Marijuana may be legal for medicinal or even recreational use in a lot of places now, but that doesn’t mean that any use is suddenly not against the Word of Wisdom. Medical uses are being studied, but just like many pain medications such as opioids, marijuana is an addictive substance. Such habit-forming substances should be avoided except under the care of a competent physician, and then used only as prescribed.
With the legalization of marijuana in states where many Latter-day Saints reside (i.e. California, Oregon, Washington, Colorado), this statement apparently needed to be included.
Doubling down = A Surprise for Us Looking In On From the Outside
I have to admit, I was a bit surprised by this New Era article that came out just a few months after the massive speculation. In fact, for the original April 2019 edition of the article you are reading, I had written the following:
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.
Then I concluded:
A church with leaders who proverbially stick their fingers into their mouths and pull them out so they can test the 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.
It is hard to figure out this current LDS administration out! After all, these leaders denied children of homosexual parents to get baptized or blessed in 2015, with Nelson calling this decision a “revelation” in 2016. . . only to finally back down in April 2019! (For a three-part Viewpoint on Mormonism week-long series on that topic titled “Reversing a Revelation” airing April 15-17, 2019, click the following links: Part 1 Part 2 Part 3)
In one way, I give the leaders credit for standing firm on what has been traditionally taught. In another way, I think the overall rule is silly. Many things, in moderation, can be justified, including a moderate intake of alcohol or coffee. If the Word of Wisdom is supposed to be a health code, then why would God have banned things that could be beneficial, including red wine and coffee?
But more than anything, the Word of Wisdom creates a “false humility” in the individual Latter-day Saints who somehow think they are doing God a favor through their obedience to a church’s dietary standard. This flies in the fact of Colossians 2:1-23, which says,
Therefore do not let anyone judge you by what you eat or drink, or with regard to a religious festival, a New Moon celebration or a Sabbath day. 17 These are a shadow of the things that were to come; the reality, however, is found in Christ. 18 Do not let anyone who delights in false humility and the worship of angels disqualify you. Such a person also goes into great detail about what they have seen; they are puffed up with idle notions by their unspiritual mind. 19 They have lost connection with the head, from whom the whole body, supported and held together by its ligaments and sinews, grows as God causes it to grow.
20 Since you died with Christ to the elemental spiritual forces of this world, why, as though you still belonged to the world, do you submit to its rules: 21 “Do not handle! Do not taste! Do not touch!”? 22 These rules, which have to do with things that are all destined to perish with use, are based on merely human commands and teachings. 23 Such regulations indeed have an appearance of wisdom, with their self-imposed worship, their false humility and their harsh treatment of the body, but they lack any value in restraining sensual indulgence.
I like how the NIV translates verse 23: “Such regulations indeed have an appearance of wisdom . . .” Given time, however, the Word of Wisdom provided no revelation that would make someone in the 21st century say, “Oh my, how did Joseph Smith know?” Instead of showing that coffee and tea are harmful, science has shown that they can be beneficial in moderation. Yes, Smith did point out the harmful effects of tobacco, but this fact was even known in Joseph Smith’s day!
For now, the Church has doubled down on the Word of Wisdom. Indeed, there will be no going back on coffee, tea, or any other vice. Until maybe tomorrow or next week. Who really knows what the leadership’s new edict or change will be in the future? It’s anyone’s guess.
For another look at this issue, go to “Why are Mormons not allowed to drink coffee?”