PROVO — 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 Brigham Young University professor of ancient scripture, 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 LDS Church.

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. The revelation was given in an atmosphere where people were ready and seeking for guidance.

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

Alcohol: In the early 1800s, according to Hoskisson, about three or four gallons of whiskey were consumed per person per year. The Kirtland (Ohio) Temperance Society was formed in 1831 before Joseph Smith arrived. 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 advice was 'no alcohol, except in the sacrament.'" The majority of Mormons in Kirtland had been "Campbellites" and were comfortable with prohibitions on alcohol.

Tobacco: King James, of King James Bible fame, crusaded against tobacco. By the 1800s, "most people thought tobacco was really disgusting," said Hoskisson.

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."

The Rev. Sylvester Graham, after whom the graham cracker is named, did speak against coffee, tea and hot drinks.

Meat: At the time of the revelation, the average American ate meat three times a day, with three or four different meats at each meal. Graham was just one voice who encouraged using less meat.

So what is it that makes the Word of Wisdom different? The things that are "noticeably absent," according to Hoskisson. It is those things that would have been included if it merely reflected popular ideas.

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). "And yet the health-nut literature of the day mentions all of those as being bad for you," Hoskisson said — especially plain hot water.

Water: Cool water was believed to be 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). "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 often were mentioned in health literature, but not always positively. People were not supposed to eat them with the skins on.

Cleanliness: 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.

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

Thinking: Common views in the early 19th century were that intense thinking was destructive to health — particularly the digestion.

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.

The Word of Wisdom is different, 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.

E-mail: mdegroote@desnews.com