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Mormonism 201 (The Word of Wisdom): Response to Lance Starr

Response to Lance Starr
Rejoinder by Eric Johnson

If the reader so far has come to expect that Mormonism 201 is marked with numerous logical fallacies, including unwarranted ad hominem attacks and circular reasoning, then he or she will not be disappointed in chapter 14 that was written by Lance Starr.

Would you like some cheese with your whine?

Lance Starr does not take more than a paragraph before he makes what has to be the most audacious ad hominem attack in all of the rebuttals in Mormonism 201. He writes: “Indeed, there is truly nothing new, especially in McKeever and Johnson’s Mormonism 101. After reading this chapter, I can only say that I hope the authors are paying a royalty to Jerald and Sandra Tanner. The chapter is little more than a rehash of an essay that appeared in the Tanners’ anti-Mormon opus Mormonism: Shadow or Reality? It’s probably a good thing for McKeever and Johnson that such textual incest is common among the writers in the anti-Mormon genre, otherwise they should be worried about a lawsuit for copyright infringement.”

Footnote 1 then reads, “As I read this rather short chapter in McKeever and Johnson’s book, I was struck by the many similarities between this chapter and chapter 29 from Jerald andSandra Tanner’s book Mormonism: Shadow or Reality. My curiosity was sufficiently peaked that I obtained a copy of the Tanner’s (sic) book and did a comparison of the two.” He then lists 10 similarities and adds, “In fact, it would seem that McKeever and Johnson essentially edited the Tanner’s (sic) work to make it shorter then simply stuck their names on it. Their footnotes give the Tanner’s (sic) no credit for their work whatsoever.”

With all of this venom, there is no doubt that Starr would like his readers to believe that Bill and I copied from Jerald and Sandra Tanner’s work Mormonism: Shadow or Reality, condensing their work into our chapter. His claim is absolutely bogus. First, I have to ask, is Starr accusing us of “plagiarism”? He never uses this particular word in the two paragraphs that contain his charge, but later in his review, he says this:

“They would also have us believe that as he was plagiarizing these ideas (and plagiarism is something that McKeever and Johnson should be very keenly aware of) from these various resources, he somehow managed to avoid including even a single bit of the ‘quackery’ that was prevalent in his day.”

Referring to the possibility that Smith took his ideas for the Word of Wisdom from temperance movements in his day, Starr gives a very telling parenthetical comment. He, in fact, uses the word “plagiarism.” Perhaps he was very careful not to use the word in his original complaint because he might have been aware that using quotes referenced by other authors is not a crime and is not even unethical, especially when you have permission to do so.

So just what is “plagiarism“? The Miriam-Webster dictionary says this is “to steal and pass off (the ideas or words of another) as one’s own : use (another’s production) without crediting the source.” If Starr wants to accuse us of plagiarism, then he is wrong. After all, the Tanners themselves would never claim that their ideas on the Word of Wisdom, including the concept that this LDS code is not a biblical concept, were original with them. Then if the Tanners were not the first to make these claims, would it be right to accuse the Tanners of “plagiarizing” from whomever we could trace as the first to criticize the Word of Wisdom? While we cannot ascertain which critic first disagreed with the Word of Wisdom, we can assure you that the Tanners were not the first, and certainly Bill and I will not be the last.

Another reason why this charge is false is that plagiarism is stealing someone else’s ideas or words that are not your own. If we had provided the quotes from the original sources but never provided any documentation, then this is plagiarism. I wonder just where Starr got the quote from the ballplayer Yogi Berra listed at the front of this rebuttal. Did Yogi personally tell this to Starr? I highly doubt it. So from where did it come? How come he didn’t give credit for this source? This type of back-and-forth haggling shows just how silly Starr’s charge is.

And if we had claimed that our book was original and there was never another one like it—well, this would have been a lie, and anyone with any sense of reason should have realized the lack of truth in these words. I don’t think that too many people have been confused about the purpose ofMormonism 101. As the title implies, our book was meant to be a basic primer that compares Mormon teaching with evangelical Christianity. Our preface and introduction clearly state our intentions.

There are also no grounds for “copyright infringement,” as Starr claims, even if the Tanners were on the opposite side of the fence. This is because you cannot copyright original quotes in a research essay. Consider the example of Shelby Foote, the great Civil War historian. Would Starr claim that Foote is a plagiarist when this historian quotes from sources previously utilized by other people? How about when somebody uses those same original quotes after reading Foote’s books? Is this person obligated to report where he got those quotes? If so, then I suppose every researcher is going to have to do massive amounts of work to discover who reported what and when. It would become such a nightmare to trace any particular quote.  I am a college English professor, yet I would never tell students that they are plagiarists because they included quotations in their term papers that had been previously utilized by published authors. My main concern is that each student utilizes original sources and writes their own commentary.

Consider another example. Are the nightly news anchors obligated to say where each piece of the news came? Is anyone so naïve to think that the local television news doesn’t get the majority of its sources from other media organizations, including the Internet and the local newspaper?

We have had several people call MRM’s office to ask us if they could use certain primary quotes that we cite, adding that they would be glad to give us credit. Bill’s response has always been the same, as he has told these researchers to feel free to use whichever quotes they want. However, he has told them that it is not necessary to credit us. The Tanners feel the same way and have encouraged others to utilize their quotes, especially from Mormonism: Shadow or Reality, which is the bible of all countercult books on Mormonism. But let’s be serious. It isn’t normal to give a secondary source credit for a primary quote. Why should Starr require this of us? If this is such a big issue, then perhaps Starr needs to critique his church’s scholars who oftentimes use primary sources previously used by others without crediting the secondary sources. Examples of this can be found in Mormonism 201.

Starr also writes that there is “truly nothing new” in our book. He doesn’t clearly state whether he means ideas or quotes. As far as information, we include a number of original quotes that, to our knowledge, have never been used in other publications. Perhaps Starr would like to find any other instance that anyone else quoted from page 85 of the 1988 book A Sure Foundation: Answers to Difficult Gospel Question as we do in chapter 14. How about the many Ensign articles referenced throughout our book, including these from chapter 15 (February 1995, August 1997, March 1997)? In fact, we continually quote writings that were published after 1995, or five years and earlier before our book went to press. We even have several references that were written the very year Mormonism 101 hit the bookshelves! How can he then say that nothing is new?

Of course, in trying to prove our case that Mormonism really has not changed, it was imperative for us to include older quotes from LDS general authorities with our new information. Meanwhile, as far as ideas are concerned, we never claimed the concepts would be new. Why should they be? It should be expected that the LDS ideas of God, Jesus, the path to salvation, and temple worship would be criticized in this evangelical Christian book. Obviously these ideas are not new with us.

The idea of taking the Tanners’ quotes is mentioned in another chapter rebuttal, this byMormonism 201 founder Kevin Graham whose accusation in the chapter 7 (Bible) rebuttal is similar to Starr’s:

“Could this be mere coincidence all throughout the book? I suppose it is possible, but I think we should allow their readers who are more than likely fans of the Tanners, to judge for themselves before buying the same book twice. Is this plagiarism? If the Tanners granted permission to use their research, it is strange that they do not offer credit to them. What I do find interesting is a definition of plagiarism offered by none other than Eric Johnson himself:

‘I am a high school teacher. If someone comes to my class with a paper entitled ‘The Cat in the Big Hat,’ with the ideas obviously coming directly from a certain ‘doctor,’ I don’t have to see word-for-word copying to accuse the student of plagiarism. Just using the idea and calling it your own makes you guilty of this crime. Eric Johnson should find his own comments self-incriminating as it clearly demands a strong criticism against those who even allude to a previous work without offering proper acknowledgement. Lance Starr also noted that chapter fourteen appears to be a replica of several pages from the Tanners. There are probably many more instances that were not addressed by other Mormonism 201 reviewers, but I think these examples serve teh (sic) purpose of bringing their claims of the offering the ‘cutting edge’ into serious question.'” 

Unlike Starr, Graham purposely stops short of calling us plagiarists. However, Graham certainly insinuates it through his use of a quote from one of my Internet articles. Graham does fail to inform the reader that he has taken my words out of their context. The illustration I give is very clear. It is unethical to take someone’s original concept and claim it is your own. Yet nowhere do we ever indicate that our book is the first of its kind to provide the type of information that we are giving. There have been many 20th century works on the topic of Mormonism from a Christian perspective; already there have been additional books since the time of our book’s publication. Clearly our intention was to provide a book that any layperson could comprehend.

When Graham writes, “I think these examples serve the purpose of bringing their claims of the offering the ‘cutting edge’ into serious question,” I ask where did we ever say our book was ‘cutting edge’? A radio show host gave our book this moniker, but that is his prerogative. Where do we ever tout Mormonism 101 as a book that is “cutting edge”? Perhaps Graham or Starr could refresh our memories.  Truly the title of the book indicates that our presentation was intended as an introduction to Mormonism in an “examin(ation) of the religion of the Latter-day Saints.”

With all of this said, we acknowledge that we utilized some quotes from the Tanner’s publication. Although we possess all but one of the original sources that we used from Mormonism: Shadow or Reality, in hindsight, we probably should have credited the Tanners with these quotes. It must be understood that every cult researcher worth his salt has the Tanners’ book on his or her bookshelf. To not have it or use it would be amiss since it is a wonderful reference tool!

Dave Constantino, our good friend and fellow MRM board member, has even financed a CD-ROM edition of this book and has packaged it with rare LDS books, which our ministry sells. I should also point out that we listed Mormonism: Shadow or Reality in our bibliography at the end of the book, which should have clearly shown that this was a work we did utilize in Mormonism 101.When we told Sandra about the charge leveled by Starr and Graham, she laughed and told us how ridiculous the accusation was, adding “of course you have permission to use whatever you want from it.”

Graham makes it appear that we have copied “throughout” Mormonism 101. Unless he is willing to prove this with the facts to back it up, we would advise him (and Starr, for that matter) to back off this ridiculous charge. And instead of worrying about the source of any quotes we provide, perhaps these writers ought to spend more time either defending or refuting the quotes themselves. Quite clearly these men are utilizing the logical fallacy commonly known as a red herring.

Please don’t put any poison into my well

Returning to Starr’s rebuttal, the author writes about his impression of our chapter: “I can’t say that I’m disappointed, because disappointment requires a high level of initial expectation. Unfortunately, based on my past experiences with anti-Mormon literature, I didn’t hold out any lofty expectations for fairness or even a reasonably in-depth treatment of the subject at hand. I wasn’t disappointed in either respect. In total, the author’s (sic) arguments were often unfair and so shallow that if they were a puddle of water, that puddle would barely wet the soles of my shoes.

“The topic of this chapter of Mormonism 101 is the unique LDS doctrine of the Word of Wisdom. McKeever and Johnson gleefully attack this principle, liberally quoting from the Tanner’s (sic) work, blissfully unaware of any previous LDS response to the Tanner’s (sic) work. In the several years that I have dealt with anti-Mormon propaganda, the biggest complaint that I have is that anti-Mormon writers like McKeever and Johnson seem so frightened of admitting that competent counter-arguments exist and seem almost incapable of responding to those arguments. They seem dedicated to the principle that if you repeat a fallacy often enough and vociferously enough, then that fallacy becomes truth. In realty, it simply becomes an oft-repeated fallacy. The chapter itself is very poorly organized because the authors are fond of using little throw-away lines that are tangential to their arguments.”

This is a classic example of the logical fallacy known as “poisoning the well.” In other words, before providing any evidence to back up his accusations, Starr attempts to cast doubt on our work in his introduction. Our arguments, he says, are “unfair and so shallow” that, if they were water, they would hardly dampen the soles of one’s shoes. We “gleefully attack” the Word of Wisdom, he says, making it appear that our primary motive was to search and destroy the doctrine no matter the cost. Then he says we “liberally quote” from the Tanners’ work, which Starr insinuates has been adequately answered. Then, Starr assumes that we must have been “frightened of admitting that competent counter-arguments exist and seem almost incapable of responding to those arguments.” We are apparently dedicated to the principle that if “you repeat a fallacy often enough and vociferously enough, then that fallacy becomes truth.”Finally, it is a “poorly organized” chapter since we use so many “little throw-away lines.”

Any Mormon who has made it this far into Starr’s chapter would have to believe that Bill and I:

  • are plagiarists (because, unlike Graham, Starr has never said he’s not accusing us of this practice)
  • ignore anything ever written by Mormons to defend the Word of Wisdom
  • use shallow arguments in an unfair way
  • continually use logical fallacies because we don’t think anybody will notice.

Let’s see what proof Starr is able to bring to the table.

Proof is in the pudding

Starr writes: “Let us begin with the first assertion related to the Word of Wisdom. McKeever and Johnson state: ‘While most Mormons say caffeine is their reason not to drink coffee and tea, an article in the Salt Lake Tribune states that 90 percent of adults in North Americaconsume caffeine on a regular basis through other products.’ My first reaction to this statement is: So what? That 90 percent of adult (sic) in North America consume caffeine on a regular basis is totally irrelevant. It does not address the percentage of Mormons who consume caffeine on a regular basis, neither does it describe what some of these other sources may be. Many common headache medications contain the drug because it enhances the effectiveness of the pain killing properties of the medicine. Anyone taking this medication could be classified as partaking caffeine, (sic) however the Mormons have always recognized that the ‘abuse’ of certain drugs is different that (sic) using those drugs for legitimate medical reasons. Without further information or clarification, therefore, the ’90 percent’ figure is totally useless.”

How is this totally useless? If caffeine is against the Word of Wisdom, as many Mormons understand the concept and therefore believe to be true, then shouldn’t there be a desire to avoid this drug altogether? And where does it say in the Word of Wisdom that there are exceptions to this rule when it can be shown to be for a “legitimate medical reason“?

Actually, some tests are showing that caffeine may hold some medical advantages. An August 2003 article in Better Homes & Gardens talked about the health benefits provided in natural coffee. “People have tried to pin negative things on coffee,” Martha Goodrian, the outpatient dietitian with Good Samaritan Hospital in Dayton, Ohio, said. “The truth is it isn’t as unhealthy as most people think it is.” She said that“coffee beans, like tea leaves, have natural nutrients that are transferred to the coffee,” helping to curb certain types of cancer and to prevent kidney stones. Betty Rudy, who is a respiratory therapist at the same hospital, said coffee can be part of a solution to keep asthma under control because coffee naturally relaxes “the muscles around the bronchial tubes.”

An article from reports this: “Caffeine, the chemical stimulant in coffee and tea, has been found to lower the risk of skin cancer in laboratory mice. A study suggests that a skin lotion spiked with caffeine or with another compound found in green tea can reduce by more than half the number of cancer tumors on the skin of hairless mice exposed to brutal levels of ultraviolet radiation, said Dr. Allan Conney, a professor of cancer and leukemia research at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, New Jersey.”

In this study, the caffeine is said to have lowered the cancer risk by 72 percent of those mice that ingested the caffeine after their exposure to radiation. Since skin cancer is the most common of all cancer, it is hoped that this study can be used to help find a solution for those people who are highly susceptible to melanoma and other skin cancers. In fact, the article says that there is “a need for a ‘morning-after’ treatment for skin cancer” that “would reduce cancer risk after excessive sun exposure.”

Suppose that later scientific studies support the above research and determine that coffee and tea are beneficial in the fight against such a killer as cancer. Let’s even suppose certain Mormons are convinced that this research is correct. They feel that their coffee and tea may help prevent cancer. Are they then justified in drinking coffee and tea after a day in the sun? Would they be given clearance in their next temple recommend meeting and receive their prized cards after admitting to this? We highly doubt it.

Caffeine is not only found in coffee and tea but in soda and numerous other products, as we mentioned in our book. Interestingly enough, much of Utah—which is supposed to be 70 percent LDS—ingests caffeine on purpose. Writes Derek P. Jensen: “It’s a familiar scene: the bleary-eyed milling around the coffee pots at 7-11, or in line at the Starbucks. Yet perhaps just as common are the crowds filling all manner of containers with everything from Diet Coke to Mountain Dew at gas stations from Logan to Lehi and beyond. While Salt Lake will never be confused as a ‘latte town’ and we’re not as heavily caffeinated as the Pacific Northwest, it’s clear Utahns love their coffee—and their soda….On Salt Lake’s Fifth South freeway corridor Chevron employee Justin Brough says commuters stop in daily for soda, regular coffee and visits to a popular cappuccino machine. ‘I’d say almost every other customer,’ Brough said.”

Starr personally does not believe caffeine is good for the human body, but he writes this later in his rebuttal: “Unfortunately, I must concede one point to the authors. While I have already pointed out that the consumption of coffee and tea is not prohibited due to the caffeine content, it is true that caffeine is a drug and does have a deleterious effect on humans. It is addictive and can, in very high doses, be dangerous. It is due to this fact that this reviewer does not drink caffeinated beverages of any kind. However, it is also true that some Mormons do enjoy cola drinks and other soft drinks that contain caffeine. The Church has no official stand on caffeine as it pertains to the Word of Wisdom.”

After quoting Bruce McConkie, he adds this: At this time, however, the Lord has not seen fit to include caffeine as a substance forbidden by the revelation. Thus, some Latter-day Saint do partake of these things without endangering their worthiness to enter the temple. Despite this fact, it is still true that the majority of faithful Mormons comply with the Word of Wisdom as it is currently understood and interpreted and they have reaped the benefits, both temporal and spiritual of their obedience to this principle.”

It is obvious that there is confusion from both Mormons and non-Mormons alike about what exactly the Word of Wisdom prohibits. Should the code include hot drinks only? Or are cold drinks that have caffeine also prohibited, as it is interpreted by numerous Mormons?

Like Starr, many Mormons stay away from caffeinated drinks. Yet the whole issue can be confusing. Consider this article from The Salt Lake Tribune: “Coke-guzzling Mormons let out a collective cheer earlier this month when Lt. Gov. Olene Walker told comedian Bill Cosby that caffeine was fine ‘as long as it’s cold.’ True, Walker is no LDS spokeswoman, but her comment resounded with faithful Mormons who imbibe energy-boosting colas under the disapproving scrutiny of fellow believers who righteously eschew them. Outsiders are continually baffled about how caffeine fits in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints’ prohibitions, known simply as the ‘Word of Wisdom.’ The passage from Mormon scripture forbids the use of wine, strong drink, tobacco and ‘hot drinks,’ which have been defined since the 1830s as black tea and coffee. Nowhere does it mention caffeine….”

The article later continues: “Those (Mormons) who believe that coffee and tea are off-limits because of their caffeine content avoid any products that contain it—primarily soda pop like Coca-Cola, Pepsi, Mountain Dew and Dr Pepper. But few Mormons have a problem with chocolate, which also is a mild stimulant. Many Mormons readily use painkillers and diet drugs laced with caffeine. Perhaps it is the taste of coffee, not the caffeine, that God forbids. If so, is decaffeinated coffee OK? Coffee-flavored ice cream? The health code mentions ‘hot drinks.’ Hot chocolate is, well, hot, but Latter-day Saints find it a welcome alternative to coffee.”

As it can be seen, the church leaders are apparently not willing to give any more specific guidance in what it means to follow the Word of Wisdom. As the Salt Lake Tribune points out, “LDS Churchspokesman Dale Bills said that ‘members are expected to exercise wisdom in applying the principles of good health’ on questions ‘not specifically addressed by LDS Church teachings.’ Still, confusion, even among the faithful, is rampant.”

Since Mormons are not allowed to drink coffee, the article shows how some Mormons substitute caffeinated soda for it. “‘I can’t drink coffee because of religious reasons, but I still need the caffeine,’ said Darla Thomas while scurrying off to work with a 44-ounce Diet Coke in hand. The large fountain drink, she says, is now a daily habit. ‘I could probably go through two of these before noon.’ In a Salt Lake bagel shop, Rock Olsen says his morning Diet Coke has also become a habit. ‘If I don’t have a Diet Coke for like three days I start to feel a little wiped out,’ he said. You won’t get an argument from downtown Maverick employee Thomas Holland who says the foot traffic from nearby office buildings is steady and thirsty for something cold. ‘I see a lot more people drinking soda than coffee because this is a Mormon town, you know.”

Yet the article points out that sodas with caffeine are even worse than coffee. “According to Joan Clark, outpatient clinical dietician at University Hospital, everybody reacts differently to caffeine. For cardiac patients and high stress individuals, she notes even small amounts can be dangerous. On average, Clark says a 6–ounce cup of coffee contains roughly 100 milligrams of caffeine while a 12-ounce coke has 65. A cup of tea has just under 50 milligrams….’I would say coffee is actually better than pop,’ said Clark…Another danger with the oversized fountain drinks or for the six-pack a day drinkers is the caffeine levels add up in a hurry….’The problem with Coke is people can get addicted,’ Clark added. ‘Not only do they get addicted to the caffeine, they get addicted to the sugar rush.’ Meanwhile, Nutrasweet, the trade name for the chemical aspartame in Diet Coke leads to irritability and nervousness according to Clark.”

As far as coffee is concerned, there is contradictory research on whether or not coffee drinking is bad for one’s health. Besides possibly helping fight skin cancer cells, heavy coffee drinking has been said to lower diabetes risk. According to one Internet article: “Scientists at Vrije University inAmsterdam said components in coffee seem to help the body metabolize sugar, thereby reducing the risk of diabetes, which affects 130 million people worldwide… Whether it’s filter, cappuccino, latte or espresso, coffee maintains minerals such as magnesium, potassium and other micronutrients that have health benefits….Individuals who drank seven or more cups of coffee a day, were 50% less likely to develop the disease….’For most people it is not bad to drink moderate amounts of coffee,’ (Dutch researcher Rob) van Dam said.”

According to a 1986 Journal of the National Cancer Research study of more than 16,000 people, there is no relationship between coffee consumption and cancer risk. In addition, “the most recent review by the International Agency for Research on Cancer also concluded that data do not support a link between caffeine consumption and cancer in humans.”

Meanwhile, tea has been said to help boost the body’s defenses against infection according to one scientific report. According to the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, “the health effects of tea have been extensively studied. It has been linked to lower heart disease and cancer risk through the action of flavonoids, a type of antioxidant. Other studies have linked tea to helping combat osteoporosis, the brittle bone disease, and to relieving some allergy symptoms. If the ban on coffee and tea is for health reasons—which is what most Mormons tell us when we ask why the Word of Wisdom was created—then why are faithful Mormons substituting soda for coffee? Furthermore, if beer is said to be beneficial in moderate intake, why is it banned as well?

Yet Starr says caffeine is not the reason why hot drinks are prohibited in the Word of Wisdom. He cites sources from the International Journal of Cancer and the International Journal of Vitamin and Nutritional Research to show that there is “evidence of a link between esophageal cancer induced by the consumption of very hot drinks.” 

If the problem, then, is a heated beverage, then what about those Mormons who drink hot chocolate (as mentioned in the Salt Lake Tribune article above)? One would think that there should then be the same effect when “hot soup” hits the esophagus. If Mormons are supposed to avoid hot drinks, then why is former BYU professor Cleon Skousen seen on page 213 of the April 1960 edition of the Improvement Era serving up a pot of hot Instant Postum to a couple of police officers. In fact, the advertisement boasts that “Postum is 100% coffee-free, contains no caffeine or other artificial stimulants.” Why mention the caffeine if this is not a reason for the ban? In the September 1953 issue of The Improvement Era, “Ficgo” is advertised on page 703 as “a delightful hot beverage for those who don’t drink coffee.” Why would these drinks be advertised in a Mormon publication if the heat in the drink is most dangerous? At what point do we ask how ridiculous Starr’s argument really is?

Was the Word of Wisdom a command?

Starr then proceeds to explain how Bill and I are somehow misleading because we don’t quote all of the words from the original D&C 89. After quoting verse 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”), Starr proceeds to reply to a point in our book where we write, “If this (Word of Wisdom) was such an important teaching, it seems strange that it was not a command from God when this revelation was first given.”

He then writes, “I must ask the authors why they find this so strange when the second verse of the revelation clearly says that it was NOT a commandment. I am led to seriously question the amount of time and study that McKeever and Johnson invested. How they missed the answer to their own question, which was so obviously stated, is beyond me.”

We clearly wrote on page 202 of Mormonism 101 that the Word of Wisdom “did not become a ‘command’ for eighteen years until it was proposed in 1851 by President Brigham Young.” Although we agreed that it was not a “command,” it seems strange that many people did not take it that way and considered it much more than a divine “suggestion,” as Starr seems to insinuate.

For instance, History of the Church 2:34-35 reported this in February 1834: “The president opened the Council by prayer…The Council then proceeded to try the question, whether disobedience to the Word of Wisdom was a transgression sufficient to deprive an official member from holding office in the Church, after having it sufficiently taught him. Councilors Samuel H. Smith, Luke S. Johnson, John S. Carter, Sylvester Smith, John Johnson and Orson Hyde, were called to speak upon the case then before the Council. After the Councilors had spoken, the President proceeded to give the decision: 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 or obey it; which decision the Council confirmed by vote.”

In the same publication on page 482, it is shown that, on May 28, 1837, it was“resolved unanimously, that we will not fellowship any ordained member who will not, or does not, observe the Word of Wisdom according to its literal reading.” According to the Encyclopedia of Mormonism, “In the mid-1830s, many Church members felt that abstinence from alcohol, tobacco, tea, and coffee was a criterion for fellowship. The one possible exception to this otherwise strict interpretation was wine, which some early Church leaders may not have considered ‘strong drink.’ This early emphasis on abstinence or near abstinence failed to gain Church-wide or official acceptance, although Joseph Smith said no member ‘is worthy to hold an office’ who has been taught the Word of Wisdom and fails ‘to comply with and obey it’ (TPJS, p.117, fn.).” 

Consider this from an 1855 speech delivered by Elder George A. Smith in the Salt Lake Tabernacle:“I know persons who apostatized because they supposed they had reasons; for instance, a certain family, after having traveled a long journey, arrived in Kirtland, and the Prophet (Joseph Smith) 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.”

LDS President Joseph Fielding Smith said that a member could not hold a church office unless he abided by the Word of Wisdom. Smith writes this in Essentials in Church History“One question considered was as follows: ‘Whether disobedience to the word of wisdom was a transgression sufficient to deprive an official member from holding office in the Church, after having it sufficiently taught him?” After a free and full discussion Joseph Smith, who presided, gave his decision as follows: ‘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 or obey it.’ This decision was confirmed by unanimous vote.”

Although I am not suggesting that everyone, including all of the LDS leaders, considered the Word of Wisdom as crucial and something to be followed, many did as these quotes attest. Even Starr admits this when he quotes from someone’s master’s thesis: “Early LDS records suggest that ‘adherence to at least some portions of the revelation was mandatory and necessary for Church fellowship'” but there “‘was no consistent pattern or interpretation or application of the Word of Wisdom between the time it was given and the middle 1840’s.'” Yet if God intended for this code to be followed, then why did the LDS leaders disobey its principles? And if it wasn’t supposed to be a command, then why did it become a command in later years, remaining so today? It seems that Starr wants to play games with the word “command” in an attempt to give freedom to interpret the Word of Wisdom based on the culture in which one lives.

But I suspect that many contemporary Latter-day Saints do not know that the Word of Wisdom was a result of pragmatism and NOT prophethood. As it has been documented, the Word of Wisdom was given by Smith to appease his wife Emma and not as a health code for the betterment of his people. For instance, BYU professor Marvin Hill says in Sunstone magazine:“According to David Whitmer, Emma was disgusted at the spitting of tobacco juice by the elders in a school in Kirtland which was held above her kitchen.  She said, ‘It would be a good thing if a revelation could be had declaring the use of tobacco a sin.’ The elders countered against Emma and the ladies by suggesting that the revelation should also provide for abstinence from the use of tea and coffee.”

Thomas Alexander writes: “The Word of Wisdom itself originated in a revelation Joseph Smith received in February 1833. At the time the region around Kirtland, Ohio, where Smith and the church leaders resided, together with much of the northeastern United States, was a hotbed of temperance and health reform sentiment. Moreover Smith and his wife Emma became offended by the frequent use of tobacco by guests who visited their house for instruction. The revelation against the use of alcohol, tobacco, and hot drinks (Joseph Smith interpreted the phrase ‘hot drinks’ to mean tea and coffee about five months after he gave the revelation) also cautioned against eating too much meat and advocated the use of herbs, fruits, and grains. In return members were promised physical and intellectual strength.”

Maxine Hanks tells this story: “Emma complained at ‘having to clean so filthy a floor,’ and according to Brigham Young, this in part ‘made the Prophet think upon the matter, and he inquired of the Lord relating to the conduct of the elders in using Tobacco, and the revelation known as Word of Wisdom was the result of his inquiry.’ David Whitmer adds a bit more, telling us that Emma actually suggested a revelation on the subject: “Some of the men were excessive chewers of the filthy weed, and their disgusting slobbering and spitting caused Mrs. Smith… to make the ironical remark that `It would be a good thing if a revelation could be had declaring the use of tobacco a sin, and commanding its suppression.””

A Post-Modern Mormonism

From the way Starr presents it, how you follow the Word of Wisdom is not as important as following it in the way that makes the most sense to each individual. He writes, “…the majority of faithful Mormons comply with the Word of Wisdom as it is currently understood and interpreted and they have reaped the benefits, both temporary and spiritual of their obedience to this principle.”

Starr does not offer any proof that the majority of “faithful Mormons” should be considered followers of the Word of Wisdom. Then he writes: “The issue of interpretation brings us to McKeever and Johnson’s second major argument—the fact that early Mormon leaders didn’t follow the teachings of the Word of Wisdom as strictly as do modern members of the faith. Why this fact should bother them is unclear, especially in light of the aforementioned verse three which clearly states that the World of Wisdom was not, at that point in time, a commandment.”

He later adds, “The early Mormons and their leaders did not interpret the Word of Wisdom in the same way as it now interpreted…. The reasonable question is not, ‘did early Mormon leaders obey the Word of Wisdom as it is understood today.’ The reasonable question is, ‘did early Mormon leaders obey the Word of Wisdom as they understood it in their day?’ The answer to that question is a resounding yes.

Starr is wrong. As earlier pointed out, leaders were held to a higher standard than the laity and were compelled to comply with the Word of Wisdom standard. This also begs the question as to what it meant to follow the Word of Wisdom “as (people) understood it in their day.” Does this mean a person today can drink coffee because studies make it appear that the caffeine will help fight melanoma cancer? Does it mean a person can abuse caffeine in non-heated drinks or eat too much food as long as he does not ingest “hot” drinks? If the code can be interpreted in different ways, then what real purpose does it serve?

It is disingenuous to refer to the Word of Wisdom as some revelatory miracle that proves Joseph Smith was a prophet when Starr admits it wasn’t a command when it was first given. If there was a purpose to the Word of Wisdom when it was first given, then there needs to be a purpose for it to be followed today. Otherwise, it becomes a man-made code and should therefore be no more binding in our lives than the dietary laws as mentioned in Leviticus. The reason Christians are not required to follow these laws is that God deemed these “unclean” foods as fine. But if God really gave the Word of Wisdom for a particular reason, then that reason must still matter. It just doesn’t make sense that it was originally not given as a command and then evolved into one.

To make “personal revelation” the key is akin to asking one’s sister if she is fasting from food. “Yes,” she replies, “I am.” “So why are you eating a Twinkie?” “Because,” she answers with confidence, “fasting means not eating food, and a Twinkie is not food.” In the same way, having the ability to interpret the Word of Wisdom however you want, as Starr seems to suggest, makes the Word of Wisdom a meaningless concept. The LDS Church has an obligation to tell its people how this law needs to be followed (i.e. approval or not for caffeinated drinks; medical treatment for skin cancer; etc) and why the Word of Wisdom is even necessary for the 21st century.

Starr also does not answer some vital questions. For instance, why did:

  1. the early LDS leaders disobey something that was supposedly given by God? Obviously some took it to be a command, even if everyone did not.
  2. it evolve into a command under the leadership of Brigham Young? It would seem that making the Word of Wisdom a “command” when it was merely given to appease Emma, who apparently was disgusted with tobacco juice on the floor, is more pragmatic than prophetic.
  3. the LDS Church wait until the 1930s to make the Word of Wisdom a requirement for temple entrance? If it was commanded by Brigham Young, why didn’t the leaders see this as a reason to limit temple entrance immediately?

Then Starr lists what he calls our “accusations,” including “an alleged story that Smith counseled a man to get drunk else he die.” This item, he says, is “based only a third party allegation and is completely hearsay. There is no evidence that Smith said such a thing or that the man who was thus counseled actually died. Ergo, it is an inane and utterly useless example, typical of an argument desperate to score points at any cost.”

We quoted from a typed copy of the Life of Oliver B. Huntington, which is located at the University of Utah. Although Starr would like to cast doubt on Huntington’s credibility, he fails to mention that Huntington was Joseph Smith’s personal secretary. The reason he wrote what he did was to show off Smith’s prophetic nature and not to describe the Word of Wisdom. Starr can write whatever he wishes, but his presuppositions get in the way of truth. He doesn’t seem to realize that he has the burden of proof to prove Huntington was not a credible witness. In fact, we have just as much information that Huntington’s story is true as compared to the idea that Joseph Smith was visited by angels, that he was given the priesthood by Peter, James, and John, or that he translated the Book of Mormon. Yet very few Mormons cast doubt on the authority of Oliver Cowdery.

Starr then provides us with this analysis: “McKeever and Johnson are not covering new ground with their arguments. They are simply parroting the very same accusations that Jerald andSandra Tanner first made years ago. It is most interesting that while accusing Smith and other LDS leaders of the bygone era with blatant hypocrisy, neither the Tanners nor their imitators McKeever and Johnson seem able to address the glaring inconsistency inherent within their argument. How were Joseph Smith, Brigham Young and other leaders able to indulge themselves, in public, using substances forbidden by the Word of Wisdom, without any apparent criticism from the members, if the understanding of the Word of Wisdom in that time was that of complete abstinence as it is today? The answer is quite simple but will not make McKeever and Johnson (or the Tanners for that matter) happy: The early Mormons and their leaders did not interpret the Word of Wisdom in the same way as it now interpreted.”

Brigham Young turned the Word of Wisdom into a command in 1851, yet the evidence clearly points to the fact that he took it no more seriously after this time than before. Our chapter is littered with evidence that Young did not take the Word of Wisdom seriously any more after 1851 than before. Certainly a Mormon like Starr can rationalize, “Well, that’s just the way they were back then.” A Mormon can do the same with polygamy, the black issue, and other “swept-under-the-carpet” issues. But merely pointing to the culture still doesn’t make marrying more than one woman or discriminating against blacks any more right than wrong.

There is no doubt that a person can believe whatever he or she wants to believe. But the fact is that the Word of Wisdom—if this really was a command and God intended for His people to follow it—cannot be interpreted in whatever way one feels best. How were these leaders able to indulge in vices such as tobacco and alcohol? Starr asks. There is no doubt that some of Smith’s contemporaries turned their eyes away from the abuse, but there is proof that some members were uncomfortable and even left the church. The hypocrisy of the membership was even admitted by LDS Apostle Orson Pratt who once stated, “I do not wonder that the world say that the Latter-day Saints do not believe their own revelations. Why? Because we do not practice them.”

And for Starr to say that it “virtually ensured wildly varying interpretations of the revelation”ignores the supposed idea of “latter-day revelation.” If it was, as Starr suggests, a great “suggesion, then why did it later become mandatory for all Mormons who desired to enter the temple, especially with Alma 41:8 in the Book of Mormon says that the decrees of God are unalterable? If it was merely a suggestion in the 19th century, then it should be a suggestion in the 21st century as well.

It also makes it appear that this church is being guided more by the whims of the people and personal opinion rather than by prophets and apostles. To have “wildly varying interpretations”of a doctrine such as the Word of Wisdom begs the question of why even bothering having these “latter-day” leaders. In fact, this is the complaint many Mormons have about Christendom as a whole, with the idea that there is so much doctrinal confusion because the Catholic, Orthodox, and Protestant churches do not have the authority that the Mormons do have. In other words, we should expect confusion with the branches of Christianity that lack authority. We shouldn’t expect this from a church that supposedly has a man with the same keys of the Kingdom of God that Peter and Joseph Smith had!

Then Starr gives evidence to show that Joseph Smith himself did not take the Word of Wisdom seriously in his lifetime, rather stressing “moderation.” This is fine, except today Mormons point to the fact that Smith was ahead of his time. While abstaining from alcohol, tobacco products, and hot drinks themselves, many temple Mormons would resist the very idea that God merely intended moderation, whether two centuries ago or today. If these products are fine in moderation, then why did the LDS Church leaders ban them completely? Why did President Joseph Fielding Smith say, as we stated in our introductory quote, that “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 ofGod…”?

In a footnote in his chapter’s summary, Starr writes: “In the Latter-day Saint view, the Lord introduced the doctrine but refrained from making it a commandment at first because at the time the majority of the Saints were not living according to the principles found therein. Making it a commandment at that time would have placed many members under condemnation. Instead, the Lord showed a measure of mercy, phasing in the principle. This action also has a prototype in the Children of Israel whom Moses led out of the wilderness. The older generation, too tainted by all their years in captivity, were forced to wander for 40 years until a new generation could be reared that was unencumbered by the same baggage their parents brought with them.”

Thus, according to Starr, God “introduced” the Word of Wisdom but was apparently so wimpy that he decided to move slowly. For instance, can you imagine Paul speaking to the Corinthian Christians and how he would have addressed believers who lived in a culture infiltrated with sexual immorality? Instead of saying “flee from sexual immorality” (1 Cor. 6:18) or “expel the immoral brother” and “hand him over to Satan” (1 Cor. 5:1-5), Paul would have been better off saying, “You know, if you’d like, shuffle away from sexual immorality until more medical knowledge comes in. And don’t be so rough on the brother who is having sexual relations with his mother-in-law until everyone in the church agrees that this is wrong. Remember, everything should be done in moderation. God doesn’t want anyone to be offended, so be careful not to use words that judge!”

Is this how God works? Absolutely not! When God knows something is good, He commands it. When it is wrong, the deed/doctrine/understanding is condemned. As far as not hurting anyone’s feelings and condemning something, certainly Jesus, Paul, and the Old Testament prophets really didn’t care about being politically correct. What the people thought about the criticism was not their concern. Right was right, and wrong was condemned. This meant personally condemning individuals in numerous cases. There were even times when the speaker’s words were meant to be offensive in hopes of awakening dead souls to the reality of their sin(s). Starr’s reference to the Israelites wandering in the desert for 40 years is a non sequitur and does not support his argument.

The whole issue comes down to this: Either the original Mormon prophet was way ahead of his time in stressing moderation—which is not a bad thing—or he was not. But the Word of Wisdom, as practiced in today’s Mormonism, is not the same Word of Wisdom that Joseph Smith originally introduced. If, as Starr states,

  • Mormons are “highly influenced by the prevailing medical wisdom of the day in regards to how they interpreted the revelation”
  • “the LDS have always interpreted the Word of Wisdom based on current medical knowledge, not on fallacious assertions based on the shallow research of professional anti-Mormons.”
  • “many early Saints believed that there were medical benefits for the consumption of alcohol, including tonic or restorative properties, as well as relief from fatigue and sore throats.”
  • “At other times alcohol was consumed to lift their spirits in times of turmoil.”
  • “The Saints didn’t believe that ingestion under these conditions was in violation of the Word of Wisdom.”
  • “In the final days of Brigham Young’s illness in 1877, he received regular doses of brandy—the single most widely used drug of that time.”
  • “Observance meant moderation. It really doesn’t matter that Joseph drank on occasion—he lived the Word of Wisdom according to his understanding of the revelation based on the newness of the concept and his cultural understanding of health and medicine”

then the Word of Wisdom can no longer be considered as inspired revelation from God. Rather, D&C 89 becomes a rationalistic outlook based more on the current medical science knowledge as well as on each Latter-day Saint’s personal opinion than on revelatory guidance from the Creator. So which is it? If the Word of Wisdom wasn’t taken seriously back in Smith and Young’s days because it didn’t conform to contemporary medical science and contemporary Latter-day Saint opinions, then its vital importance for today’s Mormon seems a bit overdone. Just because we have more information today from a medical standpoint should not get in the way of a cutting-edge doctrine that—and again, I assure you, most Mormons with whom I speak believe—was way ahead of its time.


Despite Starr’s desire to turn the Word of Wisdom into a progressive revelation, he fails to connect the dots. Should Mormons view the Word of Wisdom as a piece of advice from God—never meant to become a legalistic requirement for entrance into the most important place in all of Mormonism, the temple—as Starr seems to suggest? Should they consider this as important in the areas the Word of Wisdom lines up with medical science or the overall opinion of the Latter-day Saint people? Or should they hold that the Word of Wisdom was ahead of its time and is a direct command of God? Perhaps the temple Mormon ought to read Starr’s review and see how at least one Mormon doesn’t consider D&C 89 as anything more than originally commanding moderation in alcohol, tobacco, and hot drink issues. If Starr is right, then we wonder when Gordon Hinckley will dictate that the Word of Wisdom obedience is no longer required for temple entrance.


In order to make this review easier to read, all original quotes from the Mormonism 201 rebuttal are boldfaced and italicized to separate these from the rest of the rejoinder.

We ought to point out that we are long-time friends with Jerald and Sandra.

Introductory college classes often use this designation, which is the feeling we wanted to convey. Although it was not necessarily made for anyone under a junior high level, we intended this book to be easily comprehended by high school students and up.

The Tanners’ work is extensive. They have uncovered numerous quotes before the advent of computers and CD-ROM programs. There is no doubt that many quotes we and other LDS researchers use were probably first uncovered by them!

This is not the first time this charge is leveled or insinuated in a chapter from Mormonism 201. If there is “nothing new,” and if our book is merely a rehash of previous “anti-Mormon” books, then why the need for Mormonism 201 in the first place?

Isn’t this just as unethical as what he accuses me of doing?

How about Joseph Smith’s use of the Bible—word for word in most cases? Where did Smith ever give credit to the Bible for his obvious use of the Bible? If Starr wants to talk about ethics, perhaps he should first look at his religion’s founder.

It should be noted that the Tanners have sold Mormonism 101 in their bookstore since it was published in 2000. It sits next to our other two books. Certainly this must be a vote of confidence!

While we don’t agree, we have to admit that Starr is very creative with his charge!

The reader ought to realize as well that merely “answering” someone is not necessarily the same as “answering” with good logic and responses. In other words, while many Mormons have tried to rebut the Tanners’ scholarship, these rebuttals have generally been woefully inadequate. We have found the same with Mormonism 201, so when Mormons hear the bragging on the Internet that“McKeever and Johnson are found short,” they may generally assume that these responses were good. As we are showing in these rejoinders, these are generally not strong responses; rather, they are filled with logical fallacy and a general mean-spiritedness.

The San Diego Union/Tribune, September 2, 2003, “Daily Cup of Joe can be Beneficial.”

“Study: Caffeine lowers skin cancer risk in mice,” August 26. 2002, August 26. 2002

The Salt Lake Tribune, January 12, 2003. “Caffeine Conundrum”

For instance, a person cannot find any caffeinated soft drinks anywhere on the campus of the LDS-owned Brigham Young University. Yet students drink it on the campus all the time.

Salt Lake Tribune, February 17, 2001. “”The Word on Caffeine, LDS teachings are unclear on issue of consumption”



Salt Lake Tribune, January 11, 2003, “Caffeine Conundrum.” Starr admits in his writing that “other reported effects of drinking coffee are more controversial and have yet to be firmly proven.”


November 8, 2002 article in

 Yahoo News, April 29, 2003

According to, twenty years of research shows that beer protects “against major ailments such as heart attacks, stroke, hypertension, diabetes and dementia.” In addition, an article on no-alcohol beer showed that it had similar benefits (“No-alcohol beer offers heart benefit of booze,” WebMD Medical News, 5/13/2004.

Surely these hot “beverages” (the esophagus must not be able to tell the difference between “hot” coffee and “hot” chocolate or soup) would also be harmful to a person.

Emphasis his.


Journal of Discourse 2:214. Thanks to the Tanners for this reference.

Page 169. Thanks to the Tanners for this reference. The Tanners also point out that Smith sometimes used the breaking of the Word of Wisdom as a means of excommunicating certain members, including David Whitmer and Almon Babbitt. For complete information on this topic, we recommend the reader look over chapter 26 (“The Word of Wisdom”) in Mormonism: Shadow or Reality.

March 1985, 10:3/58.

Mormonism in Transition, p. 258.

Women and Authority, p. 190.

One wonders how Starr defines “faithful.”

Acts 10:9ff

Journal of Discourses 17:104. Thanks to the Tanners for this reference.


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