According to Paul Hoskisson, an amazing thing about the revelation known as the Word of Wisdom is not just what is in it, but what was left out.

"The Lord stirs up the pot whenever he wants to reveal something new," said Hoskisson, a professor of ancient scripture at Brigham Young University, during a presentation at the recent Sperry Symposium.

People, for example, were prepared for the restoration of the gospel. They were seeking for truth and had explored doctrines, practices and ideas that would lead them to accept the teachings of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

Section 89 of the Doctrine and Covenants, or the Word of Wisdom as it is commonly called, was no exception to this pattern. The early 19th century was full of interest in health ideas, fads and fears. The revelation was not given in a vacuum, but in an atmosphere where people were ready and seeking for guidance.

"We should not even expect anything new or different in the restoration," Hoskisson said, "because the Lord was stirring up the pot again." God begins his work on people before the revelation comes.

Before the Lord revealed his will concerning the use of alcohol, tobacco, coffee and tea, people had already become familiar with some of the revelation's ideas.


In the early 1800s, according to Hoskisson, about three or four gallons of whiskey was consumed per person per year. Temperance societies were started to reduce consumption and teetotaling societies worked to eliminate all use of alcohol.

The Kirtland (Ohio) Temperance Society was formed in 1831 before Joseph Smith moved to the town. In 1833, less than a month before the revelation, a teetotaling society purchased the distillery in Kirtland and demolished it.

Alexander Campbell was a leader in the reformed Baptist community (eventually called the Disciples of Christ). His newspaper, the Millennial Harbinger, was a source of many health ideas. "His advice was 'no alcohol, except in the sacrament,' " Hoskisson said. The majority of members of the LDS Church in Kirtland had been "Campbellites" and would have been comfortable with prohibitions on alcohol.


King James, of King James Bible fame, was a crusader against using tobacco. By the 1800s, "most people thought tobacco was really disgusting," said Hoskisson. Campbell also spoke out against tobacco.

Hot drinks

Joseph Smith defined the revelation's "hot drinks" as coffee and tea, according to Hoskisson. "Campbell didn't say much against coffee and tea because, according to his biographer, he really liked tea," Hoskisson said.

Rev. Sylvester Graham, however, did speak against coffee, tea and hot drinks. Graham, after whom the graham cracker is named, was an authority on health in the 1800s. Ideas about coffee and tea were mixed, but the majority thought they were bad.


At the time of the revelation the average American ate meat three times a day and the average meal included three or four different kinds of meat. A banquet would have about 30 different kinds of meat and fish served.

Graham was a vegetarian. Other voices also encouraged using less meat. One cookbook from 1830 tells young married men they should not bring friends home and expect their wives to serve more than three different kinds of meat.

If the provisions of the Word of Wisdom were familiar with members of the LDS Church in 1833, what makes the Word of Wisdom different? It is the things which are "noticeably absent," according to Hoskisson. It is those things that would have been included if the Word of Wisdom was merely a restatement of popular health ideas in Joseph Smith's day.

Other hot drinks

Joseph Smith's definition of "hot drinks" did not include many of the popular hot drinks of the day: chocolate, herbs and milk (which people drank after boiling it first). "And yet the health nut literature of the day mentions all of those as being bad for you," Hoskisson said.

Some of the literature went so far as to say that it was better to drink hot tea than what they thought was one of the worst things you could drink: hot water.


Water (not hot water) was seen as the best and only drink by many in Kirtland. The reasoning was that if it was good enough for cows and pigs it was good enough for man, Hoskisson said. Cool water was seen as a cure for many ailments. "Yet nothing about water occurs in the Word of Wisdom, not a word — hot or cold," he said.

Standard medical procedure

Accepted medical practice in Joseph Smith's time included bloodletting, calomel (a mercury compound) and laudanum (opium and alcohol). There were, however, campaigns against these "cures." "It is even more surprising (no mention of these is made in the Word of Wisdom) because Joseph Smith lost his beloved brother Alvin to an overdose of calomel," Hoskisson said.

Fruits and vegetables

Fruits and vegetables were often mentioned in health literature, but not always positively. People were not supposed to eat them with the skins on. Cucumbers were singled out as being bad. People were encouraged to consume vinegar with vegetables to prevent flatulence.


Nineteenth-century America was a dirty place, according to Hoskisson. Graham encouraged daily sponge baths. Parents were encouraged to give their children daily baths of their extremities in cold water. "Nothing about hygiene in the Word of Wisdom," Hoskisson said.


Graham spoke of clothing as a necessary evil. People spoke out against corsets, stays, garters, neckties and wearing flannel. Hoskisson said these views were held quite widely in Joseph Smith's day.


"Exercise in moderation ... was very important in those days — especially walking. None of that was in the Word of Wisdom," Hoskisson said.


Common views in the early 19th century were that intense thinking was destructive to health — particularly the digestion. Campbell also thought too much thinking was unhealthy.

While it is true that all of the items in the Word of Wisdom were at least mentioned in contemporary literature of Joseph Smith's time, "clearly the Word of Wisdom contains none of the stupid and strange ideas that were rampant in the Prophet's day," Hoskisson said. "Neither does it include all the reliable and good stuff in his day."

The Word of Wisdom is different and unique, Hoskisson said. It contains the enduring and sound provisions of a revelation from God and is a witness of the prophetic calling of Joseph Smith.