I have always had trouble understanding the Word of Wisdom. As it reads in the 89th section of Doctrine and Covenants, observance of the following things are required by God:
- Strong drinks are not to be consumed, but rather to be used for washing.
- Tobacco is not for the body or the belly, but is to be used for bruises and sick cattle.
- Hot drinks are not to be consumed.
- Herbs and fruit are to be used with prudence and thanksgiving.
- Meat and poultry are to be eaten sparingly, and that only in winter or times of famine.
- Grains are for both man and beast.
It seems clear enough, but apparently it does not actually mean what it says. Mormons who affirm that they obey the Word of Wisdom do not eat meat only in times of famine, treat their bruises with tobacco, or wash with strong drink.
Furthermore, Mormons do consume hot drinks while still believing that they are in full compliance with the Word of Wisdom. That’s because it’s generally understood that “hot drinks” in the revelation refers specifically to coffee and tea. The LDS web site for non-Mormons says:
“Your body is a precious gift from God. To help keep our bodies and our minds healthy and strong, God gave a law of health to Joseph Smith in 1833. This law is known as the Word of Wisdom…God promises great physical and spiritual blessings to those who follow the Word of Wisdom. Today, the scientific community promotes some of the same principles that a loving God gave to Joseph Smith nearly two centuries ago.”
Therefore, it seems clear that the Word of Wisdom was given primarily for health, to protect God’s people from harmful substances. That’s why an article from yesterday’s Deseret News caught my eye. “Nice cup of ‘Mormon tea’ eased settlers ailments” reports on “the kind of tea early Utah settlers drank.” It came from a broom-like shrub in the Gnetaceae Genus Ephedra family. The article states,
“While it is a source of ephedra, it doesn’t violate the The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints’ Word of Wisdom.”
Deseret News states that no negative side effects were noticed when the pioneers were using it, though recently it has become known that extracted ephedra may lead to serious health problems.
In fact, Baltimore Orioles pitcher Steve Bechler’s death in 2003 was tied to ephedra and in April 2004 the FDA banned the sale of dietary supplements containing ephedra due to its serious health risks.
So why were Mormons drinking tea made from a plant containing ephedra? Why were they drinking tea at all?
The Deseret News article says,
“Other settlers brewed a strong tea from the plant to treat syphilis and other venereal diseases and as a tonic. Seeds from the plant were ground as bitter meal or used to flavor bread dough.”
Included in the Deseret News report is this list of “known effects”:
- a stimulus to the central nervous system
- increased blood pressure
- increased heart rate
- increased urine to dispose of excess body fluid
- elevated mood
- decreased appetite
- lessened fatigue
This sounds an awful lot like caffeine to me. And caffeine is usually what Mormons tell me is the harmful component of coffee and tea that prompted that portion of the Word of Wisdom in the first place. (Please note that today’s “scientific community” has found several health benefits related to caffeine. For example, see “Coffee: The New Health Food?“)
As I said, I’ve always had trouble understanding the Word of Wisdom. I don’t get why it was okay for Mormon pioneers to drink ‘Mormon tea.’ I don’t get why it was okay for them to drink tea with ephedra in it. I don’t get why it was okay for them to drink a “hot drink” at all. I don’t get why their behavior did not violate the Word of Wisdom.
LDS President Joseph Fielding Smith wrote,
“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.’ …if you drink coffee or tea, or take tobacco, are you letting a cup of tea or a little tobacco stand inn 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)
I don’t get it. Do you?