Wednesday, August 29, 2012


One of the most infuriating things about understanding the Mormon faith is that the greater part of it is simply made up. The opinions with the loudest voices carrying them become common knowledge. Eventually the accretion of opinion, attitude, and conjecture passes as fact.This process is historically more powerful than direct revelation from god.

Take for instance the “Word of Wisdom” (WoW).

It caused a big stir in Utah when Charles Babington of the AP caught Mitt Romney ordering coffee ice cream. Romney’s aides informed the writer that Romney could have “any flavor of ice cream that he wanted”. The other staffers who were eating ice cream with Mitt ordered flavors like vanilla, rocky road, butter pecan and birthday cake. Mitt chose coffee flavor presumably because he liked it. Many people in Utah think that Mitt violated the WoW, and acted as if he was comfortable with having regularly violated it.

The WoW is the aggregation of scripture and direct revelation which forbids the use of tobacco, Coffee, Tea, and alcohol. It is often taken to be synonymous with “the Mormon Health Code”. The MHC may also forbid the use of other drugs that were either not addressed, or addressed equivocally, in the WoW.

One of the most common questions that arises about the Wow is: “Why Coffee and Tea?”. The standard reason given is that caffeine is bad. I have been embroiled in numerous discussions where the “addictive” potential of caffeine has been detailed to me by members of the LDS faith. At least a half dozen of them were with sitting bishops. There is a cottage industry for non-caffeinated beverages in the state of Utah to support the keeping of the WoW. I had never seen caffeine-free Mountain Dew till I was doing some consulting on the BYU campus. Barq’s Root Beer is caffeinated in all other markets, but they manufacture a special caffeine-free variety for Utah.

Pero, Postum – Yes you may.
Mountain Dew –Tasty but no good for you.
Too Too True –But at least I’m not sniffin glue.” -- Word of Wizzum by the mocumentary group Everclean

Anyone with a sense of the ubiquity of caffeine in our diets knows that avoiding caffeine requires a strict attention to dietary intake. The concentration of caffeine in the Barq’s root beer sold outside Utah is slightly less than that in dark chocolate. Caffeine creeps into over-the-counter medications. Keeping caffeine free might easily be seen as requiring the same sort of approval packaging used in the various types of kosher labeling. Look on some of your packaged foodstuff and you will see a little K or P in a circle. These symbols identify the product as having passed some type of Kosher approval process. Why not a little “WoW” symbol on WoW-approved foods?

To many non-Mormons the WoW sounds like an optional type of dietary chastity. I grew up in a mostly Jewish neighborhood, and it was common to hear people talking about “keeping kosher” for this or that amount of time. Some people even “kept mostly kosher”. There were, in fact, whole congregations of people with differing takes on how important certain restrictions were. This self-organization is impossible in the Mormon church.

For the most part, and the exceptions are mostly trivial, one is assigned to a “ward” according to the location of one’s home. The Ward is run by a lay priest called a Bishop and his staff (the Bishopric). A new Bishop is usually “called” from the ward’s lay population every few years. The bishop administers the questions for a temple recommend, and his interpretation of them is how they are applied. One of the questions [Question 11] is: “Are you keeping the Word of Wisdom”.

This means that you are not free to choose the interpretation of the WoW that governs your involvement in the Mormon church. It could be full of slack or it could be strict. Even the asking of the recommend questions varies from one bishop to the next. It is common for some bishops to simply accept a yes-or-no answer without additional inquiry. Others make use of inspired investigation, and others must respond to the amateur investigations some ward members feel they must conduct on their fellows. It is common for people in the Mormon Church to complain about someone in a ward having pried into their private affairs at some point in their life.

Losing a temple recommend in Utah is the same as becoming unemployable to the state’s largest employer, and the state’s largest employer appears to be larger than the next three largest employers combined. So keeping the word of wisdom is a big deal to Mormons, and not in the way that being vegan is a big deal to those who go to the trouble of keeping vegan. Keeping the Wow is a commandment in the most stringent use of the word.

One of the reasons Mormons will give for the Wow is that some angel directly informed Joseph Smith that they should not drink Coffee. This is not exactly correct. Joseph smith related what the angel said to him in the holy Mormon scripture called Doctrines and covenants.

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” —D&C 89:2

Where he fairly specifically says it is not a commandment. In D&C 89 Joseph’s revelation says: “And again, hot drinks are not for the body or belly.” (D&C 89:9). This is the passage which has been interpreted to mean coffee and tea, and nowhere else in the revelation are coffee or tea implied or specifically mentioned.

Interpreting Joseph’s WoW has lead to many issues. For instance: “ if it is not a commandment let’s meet at Starbucks”, or “How can iced tea be a hot beverage and Hot Cocoa is not.

Joseph’s WoW goes on to say that herbs are good a couple times with passages like this: “Every herb in the season thereof, and every fruit in the season thereof; all these to be used with prudence and thanksgiving.” . I would be inclined to believe that this would run afoul of the Mormon church’s stance on marihuana, but since pot does not interest me I’ll be talking about coffee.

Joseph received his direct revelation in 1833, but it took another 90 years for Mormon Church President (and therefore prophet) to receive the revelation that adherence to the WoW was required for a temple recommend. Heber Jeddy Grant was the last Mormon church prophet to have openly practiced polygamy, and he lived another 24 years after establishing the prohibition against coffee. In 1921 the WoW officially became the MHC. Up until as late as 1906 (as recorded, and probably later) some of the highest church officials publically disobeyed the Wow by doing things like regularly drinking brandy.

You would think that such an open line to god would make adjustments to the particulars concerning the MHC easy. The Church is a highly patriarchal authoritative structure. It would be easy for them to have some dark-suited white guy publish a set of standards by which the Wow would be interpreted. Perhaps they could even make it provisional depending on the outcome of future revelation. Heck, they could even make it provisional in retrospect like they did with the whole African-Americans in the Mormon Church deal. Having a living prophet gives the Mormon Church a lot of slack that other churches do not have.

Women have no priesthood status (the status given to young boys when they hit the ripe old age of 8) in the church, but they sometimes make clearer statements about the workings of Mormonism than the patriarch. Olene walker (former governor of UT) famously defined the WoW to an inquisitive Bill Crosby by saying that: “Caffeine is fine as long as it’s cold.”

This makes everything clear. Caffeine is the problem addressed by the WoW, but it is only bad when heated.

I'm surprised that Frappuccino sales did not spike when Olene made things clear. 

Interestingly Coffee and Tea are not the only caffeinated hot drinks Mormons are regularly exposed to. Yerba Mate is very popular in South America, and almost half of all Mormons live in South America (as opposed to North America where only a tenth of all Mormons live). If the WoW is to be interpreted according to Olene’s wisdom it would appear to be imperative that the Yerba Matte issue be addressed, but, as far as I can make out, in the past hundred years that it has been a known issue the Mormon Church has been officially silent.

I doubt the Mormon Church would revoke Mitt Romney’s temple recommend even if he had an espresso machine installed on his campaign bus and started tossing back quads with potential donors. Not only does he donate enough to get what he wants from the official word of god, but he is the face everyone wants Mormonism to look like; perfect hair.


postmormon girl said...

The WoW - and the varying stances on it - make my head spin sometimes. When I grew up, I was forbidden from drinking caffeinated sodas. Now Mormon authorities say caffeinated soda is OK (probably because Thomas S Monson is a Pepsi junkie and they don't want to look bad). As a Mormon girl, I would not have touched coffee ice cream - my parents won't either - yet apparently it's OK.

I grew up as Mormon as you can be and yet their doctrine still confuses me - there is so much back-and-forth, so much white-washing, so many reversals (with no apology or explanation or refutation), that it makes my head spin.

Joshua M. Kreeck said...

You know this made me chuckle. My father worked at the Foothill country club when I was very young. He regularly served alcohol to many of the higher ups in the LDS Church and in local politics. (Fmr. Gov. Bangerter once got drunk enough to tell him to buy land along what is now Bangerter highway as a tip)The Matheson's and Huntsman's were frequent clients as well as a host of others. Hell Jon Jr. doesn't even hide it, openly drinking beer in front of reporters. I suspect though that all these families have no problem with their Temple recommends. But if we are honest the church operates far more like a country club once you reach a certain level then it does as a church.

adult onset atheist said...

Postmormon Girl I just don't understand how a religion which places such emphasis on choosing the right would short-sheet what it touts as a central moral issue. Even the appearance of confusion should be an issue, and for the sake of outsiders it is. I have been told several different versions of the WoW; each time with complete conviction that the particular version they had was accurate "beyond the shadow of a doubt".

As a result of your remarks Joshua I did a little googling and found references to Huntsman drinking "baijiu liquor" in front of the press. He apparently kept the WoW by switching to water after the fist or second round. That is another interesting take on the WoW.

postmormon girl said...

I think they are obtuse on purpose - that way if a doctrine or belief causes bad PR, then they can just claim that it's folk doctrine or just varying interpretations (said with a straight face to the press and a wink to the members).

adult onset atheist said...

So they clarified the WoW, and then clarified the clarification, and now it is clear as mud. I, of course, had to write a post about it. The good thing about being an observer is that I can get off this illogic merry-go-round whenever I get too dizzy. the members have to stay on and hope they don't throw up.