The Word of Wisdom as Early Mormon Commandment and Identity Marker

cuppaMo

The current dominant narrative among Mormon historians is that the Word of Wisdom (D&C 89) didn’t begin to function as a commandment or Mormon identity marker until the early twentieth century. Thomas Alexander argues that although there were “sporadic” attempts to enforce the Word of Wisdom in the nineteenth century, these efforts never caught on. For Alexander, the wine and brandy consumption of top-level leaders like Joseph Smith, Brigham Young, and various apostles shows they viewed the Word of Wisdom as little more than a “principle with promise.”[1] Amy Hoyt and Sarah Patterson are even more forceful: “It is clear that until the turn of the twentieth century, Mormons read the Word of Wisdom more as a set of suggestions than as commandments.” Then the end of polygamy forced Mormons to find new ways of distinguishing themselves from mainstream America, and their solution was strict enforcement of the Word of Wisdom.[2]

I would like to propose a modest modification to this theory: namely, that the Word of Wisdom functioned as a commandment and Mormon identity marker before the formal introduction of polygamy as well as after polygamy’s end. For a brief window in the 1830s, Word of Wisdom observance was treated as a mandate for all Church members, and especially for leaders. The mandate weakened in Nauvoo partly because there were new symbols of Mormon distinctiveness and partly because of Joseph Smith’s non-observance. Smith’s non-observance, in other words, was a contributor to the weakening of the mandate rather than an indication that it was never treated as a mandate in the first place.

This modification of the hypothesis actually strengthens the causal linkage other historians have hypothesized between the end of polygamy and the early twentieth-century strengthening of the Word of Wisdom mandate. It also suggests that the strengthening of the mandate was more authentically Mormon than some historians have allowed; it was in some ways a return to the standards of Kirtland Mormonism.

Admittedly, the Word of Wisdom itself explicitly contradicts my thesis. The revelation’s health guidelines are explicitly presented “not by commandment or constraint, but by revelation and the word of wisdom.” One might expect this caveat to settle the issue. As it turns out, it doesn’t. Early Mormons took seriously the implicit threat in the Word of Wisdom’s last four verses: that those who forget “to keep and do these sayings, walking in obedience to the commandments,” forfeit their spiritual blessings and their protection from the “destroying angel.” Kirtland Mormons did not think the forfeited blessings would be limited to the trivial or superficial. Several early patriarchal blessings were explicitly conditioned upon Word of Wisdom observance.[3] When Jonathan Dunham’s wife moved away from Kirtland while he was away on a mission, he worried that she might lapse in her observance. In a letter, he emphatically advised her to continue keeping the Word of Wisdom in all its “requirements.”[4]

If the Word of Wisdom was not a commandment in Church doctrine, it soon became one in policy and practice. After all, the forfeiture of blessings such as “wisdom” and “knowledge” (v. 19) might render one, as Joseph Smith put it at an 1834 high council meeting, “not capable of passing right decissions.” The council went on to censure Leonard Rich for Word of Wisdom violation, though he repented and was forgiven.[5] A week later, the high council officially decided that “no official member in this church is worthy to hold an office” if he broke the Word of Wisdom.[6] Subsequently, both the elders’ quorum and the Church as a whole explicitly covenanted to obey the Word of Wisdom. Further pronouncements made Word of Wisdom observance a requirement to serve a mission or move to Zion.[7] For all intents and purposes, the Word of Wisdom was now the law of the Church.

With the Church and its leaders covenanted to obey the Word of Wisdom, nonobservance began to be cited in disciplinary proceedings. At a conference in New York in April 1835, Elder Chester L. Heath was excommunicated for “breach of covenant and not observing the Word of Wisdom.”[8] In another case, Joshua Bosley actually showed up to an elder’s quorum meeting while intoxicated. Elder Bosley “had broken his covenant,” and “the hand of fellowship was withdrawn from him.”[9] Word of Wisdom nonobservance was also cited in disciplinary proceedings against several prominent Kirtland dissenters, including W. W. Phelps, Oliver Cowdery, John Whitmer, David Whitmer, and Lyman Johnson.[10]

The Word of Wisdom also served during the pre-Nauvoo period as a Mormon identity marker and source of Mormon distinctiveness. In an 1835 letter to his wife, W. W. Phelps referred to the Word of Wisdom as a symbol of community cohesion. “You are not aware how much sameness there is among the saints,” he said. “They keep the words of wisdom in Kirtland, they drink cold water; they don’t even mention tea and coffee. they pray night and morning and everything seems to say O behold the Lord is nigh!”[11] Similarly, strict observance of the Word of Wisdom became a major symbolic dividing line between the faithful and the “Kirtland dissenters” in 1838. The dissenters’ reinterpretations of and exceptions to the Word of Wisdom’s prohibitions became emblematic of the larger issue in the conflict: the dissenters’ unwillingness to render unquestioning obedience to the prophet.[12]

The mandate to follow the Word of Wisdom seems to have weakened after the formal introduction of polygamy in Nauvoo. Partly this may have resulted from Joseph’s own non-observance, from which others took license. When Almon Babbitt was censured for breaking the Word of Wisdom in 1835, his defense was that Joseph Smith didn’t observe it either. (He was admonished to observe it anyway.)[13] The larger reason, however, was probably that the Word of Wisdom was eclipsed as both a marker of Mormon identity and a reason for dissent. In the midst of violent conflicts over such basic moral issues as sex and marriage, tea and coffee must have seemed trivial. It wasn’t until the other hot-button issues were resolved in the early twentieth century that Mormons again had energy to spare on enforcing the Word of Wisdom.

 

NOTES

[1] Thomas Alexander, Mormonism in Transition: The History of the Latter-day Saints, 1890–1930 (Champaign: University of Illinois Press, 1986), 258–59.

[2] Amy Hoyt and Sarah M. Patterson, “Mormon Masculinity: Changing Gender Expectations in the Era of Transition from Polygamy to Monogamy, 1890-1920,” Gender & History 23, no. 1 (April 2011): 82.

[3] Joseph Smith Sr., Patriarchal Blessings of Jesse Baker, March 22, 1836, and Hannah Elizabeth Adams, May 27, 1837, in Early Patriarchal Blessings of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, comp. H. Michael Marquardt (Salt Lake City: Smith-Pettit Foundation, 2007), 66, 162–63.

[4] Jonathan Dunham to Mary Dunham, June 4, [1837?], microfilm of holograph, Jonathan Dunham Papers, circa 1837–1845, MS 1387, fd. 5, LDS Church History Library.

[5] Orson Hyde, Kirtland High Council Minutes for February 12, 1834, in Manuscript History, 1A:27–29, http://josephsmithpapers.org/paperSummary/minutes-12-february-1834.

[6] Orson Hyde and Oliver Cowdery, Kirtland High Council Minutes for February 20, 1834, Times and Seasons 6, no. 16 (November 1, 1845): 1022–23, http://www.centerplace.org/history/ts/v6n16.htm.

[7] Scott G. Kenney, ed., Wilford Woodruff’s Journal: 1833–1898 (Midvale, Utah: Signature Books, 1983), 1:110; Lyndon W. Cook and Milton V. Backman Jr., Kirtland Elder’s Quorum Record, 1836–1841 (Provo, Utah: Grandin, 1985), October 15 and 29, 1837 and February 26, 1838, http://www.boap.org/LDS/Early-Saints/Kirt-Elders.html.

[8] Warren A. Cowdery, Freedom, NY Conference Report, Messenger and Advocate 1, no. 7 (Apr. 1835): 101–2, http://www.centerplace.org/history/ma/v1n07.htm.

[9] Cook and Backman, Kirtland Elder’s Quorum Record, June 3, 1838.

[10] Samuel Bent, Far West High Council Minutes for January 26, 1838, in Minute Book 2, 97–98, http://josephsmithpapers.org/paperSummary/minute-book-2; Ebenezer Robinson, Far West High Council Minutes for April 18, 1838, in ibid., 131–36.

[11] W. W. Phelps to Sally Phelps, May 26, 1835, photocopy of holograph, W. W. Phelps Papers, Vault Mss 810, box 2, fd. 1, Harold B. Lee Library.

[12] John Corrill, Far West High Council Minutes [for May 1837?], in Minute Book 2, 72–73; Bent, Minutes for January 26, 1838, in ibid., 97–98; Far West High Council Minutes for February 5–9, 1838, in ibid., 98–101; Ebenezer Robinson, Far West High Council Minutes for March 10, 1838, in ibid., 104–8; Robinson, Minutes for April 18, 1838, in ibid., 131–36.

[13] Warren Parrish, Kirtland High Council Minutes, August 19, 1835, in Minute Book 1, 97, http://josephsmithpapers.org/paperSummary/minute-book-1.


Comments

The Word of Wisdom as Early Mormon Commandment and Identity Marker — 22 Comments

  1. Chris, I think you’ll find that Paul Hoskisson’s article “The Word of Wisdom in Its First Decade” (JMH Winter 2012, pp. 131-200) both reinforces and augments your argument here. Very interesting stuff.

  2. There is also Brigham Young’s attempt to use the WoW as a boundary-marker between Mormon and gentile identity, as Leonard Arrington pointed out.

  3. Hey Chris – I enjoyed you post here and wanted to make a few minor comments. Here you suggest that, in contradiction to other interpretations, that the Word of Wisdom was a identity marker prior the introduction of polygamy as a widespread practice in Nauvoo and in the Salt Lake period.

    While I enjoyed your presentation of the evidence, I would note that an identity marker is usually a characteristic that aids to differentiate a person/group from another person/group. In the case of the Word of Wisdom the injunctions don’t seem to differentiate the Mormons from their neighbors, but instead seem to be accommodationist and conformists to the evangelical norms as advocated by Charles Finney and others Christian preachers of the time. In addition, we know that at this exact time that teetotaler societies were becoming very active in the Kirtland community and were likely the greater context for the advent of these revelations amongst the saints. As such the WoW seems to be less an “identity marker” and more of a push to be considered part of the larger Christian context.

    While you provided other evidence that substantially boosts your argument, I would take care in using the cases of W. W. Phelps and Oliver Cowdery as support for an actual strong push to normalize these requirements amongst the saints. It seems to me that the brethren simply threw the book at Phelps and Cowdery trying to come up with anything that would stick. You sited some other cases, and I think before interpreting them as evidence in favor of your position that you should make sure that a similar situation does not exist in these accounts.

    That being said, I think your argument would be aided by looking to see if the strictures of the WoW were actually used to discriminate against candidates to go on a mission or to serve in leadership callings.

    Sincerely,
    George Miller

  4. You make an interesting point about conformity George, but I don’t think you’re entirely correct. The Word of Wisdom went quite a bit further than the temperance movement, even if you’re talking about the teetotaling segment of that movement. Temperance activists weren’t forbidding coffee and tea. Also, note that teetotaling served as an identity marker for the temperance activists, too. It was part of the “holiness” and “Christian perfection” practiced by some revivalists, for instance. It was how they marked themselves as chosen people and embodied the ethic of the coming millennium. So while I think it would be fair to say that Mormons borrowed an identity marker from another group, this isn’t quite the same thing as being “conformist.” They were conforming to a minority position at the most.

    With regard to the Kirtland dissenters, I half agree with you. However, the fact that people like Heath and Bosley were expelled or stripped of office for non-observance too suggests that these charges were not strictly superficial. I don’t think the charges would have been brought if there weren’t larger issues, but it’s not insignificant that the word of wisdom become symbolic of those larger issues.

  5. There is much contradictory data on this. While a quote here or their or a church court action might indicate enforcement of the WoW stronger than what was reality.

    Take today those that (until recently) took Pesi as pariah. In some families kids grew up looking down on neighbors that drank Coke as not being as spiritual as their family or they wished they lived in that other family.

    What is “Official” church policy and what are cultural norms. and which is more important and which is REAL?

    Take Oral sex for example in the early 1980′s a statement from the pulpit was read from the 1st Presidency that Married couples shall not go down. Then 6 months later, they said, never mind!

    We either missed the 2nd meeting or our Bishop was more in favor of 1st announcement. But it was 15 years into our marriage when my wife at the time, talking to a friend, found out that they had never heard of such an prohibition.

    Chris, a little hint into the mind of Mormons, if you are in a temple recommend interview and the Bishop gets to the question, are you morally clean, you COUNT your blessings that he does not elaborate on what he considers morally clean.

    You DO not ask for clarification, you avert your eyes and say, yes, hoping he goes quickly onto another question.

    You do not ask, what about oral sex, is that ok? Is genital kissing ok, Is masturbation ok? If I see some hot babe and imagine her naked, do I have to go a year without such thoughts to HONESTLY answer the question YES, to morality? Didn’t JC say if you lust in your heart, you basically have already done the deed?

    Such guilt feelings flash quickly in your mind and you have to block them else the HG, will betray that you are lying lustful son of perdition!

    At a very young age we are trained as young boys to have duality of official church doctrine and personal practice.

    When the Bishop interviews you and asks do you masturbate, you rationalize that you have “Repented” for you know the interview was coming up on your birthday in a month, so you had week to think about stopping, a week to try to stop and if you were really faithful an entire week of abstinence, so you could rationalize you had repented, therefore you can “truthfully” answer NO. Otherwise you had to quickly rationalize that you were definitely, stop touching this coming week and for the rest of your life, so that is pre-”deathbed” repentance, which is better than deathbed repentance, so we are good.

    Going on a mission, the Bishop AND Stake President ask if you have ever been sexually active, with the opposite sex, your well honed years of rationalization, screen out all the wet dreams you had of Gina Lollobrigida (google images) and again bow your head and say yes…. I mean NO NO NO say NO!

    You don’t say “does levi lovin count? And you don’t say, does sex with a guy count, and ala Will Bagley, you don’t say does sex with animals count, you just avert your eyes and say no, and hope he quickly goes on.

    So coffee and tea, can easily have an hot and cold official declaration and a personal and private interpretation, which can be extremely strict or extremely liberal.

    Men having multiple wives, teenage daughters and wives married to other men, makes the the WoW hardly makes a tempest in a tea pot!

  6. While tea and coffee were not part of the temperance movement, there apparently were precedents to their prohibition. For example, Thoreau was at Walden Pond when the Mormons left for Utah in 1847. In his book on his experience, he condemns alcohol, tea and coffee, and the eating of meat. He does not object to tea and coffee on health grounds. The problems with alcohol were as obvious then as they are today. Tea and coffee create the puzzle. Why prohibit these? Thoreau’s rationale for avoiding tea and coffee seems to have little or nothing to do with human health. He praises the alternative, water, as a higher, purer drink for the spiritually inclined; water is the best and simplest of all drinks for him—in line with the simplicity of his life’s philosophy. This tentative observation may be a further support of your thesis, Chris.

    Thoreau objects to meat because he claims that all flesh is unclean for eating and because it does not conform the higher spiritual side of human nature—having to kill animals to eat. He divides human nature into two sides—the spiritual side and the wild side. And he reverances them both. As he aged he quit hunting birds, and fished less often. Fish was not so much a problem for him as killing higher animals.

    The farmers surrounding him mocked this philosophy of no meat by saying that lack of meat leads to a weakening of the bones. Thoreau responded by pointing out that the farmer’s ox ate no meat and his bones were very strong. I would like to see what other people were saying about tea and coffee at the time. I recall reading a statement by Brigham Young advocating the use of water as the best drink. If in fact avoiding tea and coffee is simply an advocacy of the highest, purest, most spiritual group life by drinking water as the porimary drink— then we have missed the point of the Word of Wisdom. Again, it is a spirtual marker. Avoiding tea and coffee would then actually be an advocacy of the simplicity and purity of water, the other drink. If this is true, Mayor Bloomberg’s prohibition of large sugary soft drinks may be actually in the spirit of the Word of Wisdom. I admit that these comments are based on casual observations from only one near-contemporary source. Any research on this? Any thoughts?

  7. Another thought.

    Member observance vs policy, as an unreliable litmus test, of conformity.

    My GGG…. Grandfather James Henry Rollins

    http://www.ldshistory.us/pc/jhrauto.htm

    James smoked a pipe during much of his life, died February 7, 1899, my home town as a child.

    James moved with the saints from Kirtland, to Jackson, to Nauvoo, to San Bernardino (He was elected City Treasurer in 1854), to Minersville Utah, where he was the first person in Utah to discover Lead) to the first settlers of Lyman Wyoming.

    Was a clerk in JS’s stores in Kirtland, Independence and in Nauvoo. More importantly his sister was Mary Elizabeth Rollins Lightner SMITH Young.

    Mary Elizabeth wrote “Quite a number of the residents of Kirtland accepted baptism. Mother and myself also, in the month of October, 1830.”

    Yet living right there in the house of Sidney Gilbert, (his uncle) he was not baptized for several years.

    From his autobiography

    ==================
    Joseph Smith the Prophet came to Independence about the last of April, or the first of May. He came to my uncle’s house and saluted my uncle and aunt, and then he came to me, and said, “Henry, I want to baptize you if possible before I leave.” I was then working in my uncle’s store and asked him if I could go with him to the Whitmore settlement, that he wanted to baptize me. My uncle said he could not spare me that day for the majority of the people came in on Saturday to do their trading, and he had no other help that he could depend on but me. When Joseph returned from the Whitmore settlement, he authorized Oliver Cowdery to baptize me instead of Him, which he did not get to do. I was finally baptized by John Carroll on the 1st of June 1832, about 1 1/2 miles west of the Temple block.
    ==================

    So your mother is a member and your sister for years, and the Prophet himself asks you get baptized and your uncle a member from the church within the first year vetoed the baptism, because Saturday is a busy work day, and child labor is priceless?

    **

    Adam Lightner, James’s brother-in-law, (Adam the virtual husband-in-law of Joseph Smith) a non member NEVER joins the church, yet following the church around from his marriage to Mary Elizabeth 11 Aug 1835, living in Nauvoo, across the street from JS and on to Utah, Burial 2 Sep 1885 Minersville, Beaver, Ut.

    Adam Smoked much of life, and when asked why he never Joined the church, he, rather than saying, it would be a waste, because he would never be sealed to his wife, because she was sealed to Joseph and in love with him, and currently sealed to the Prophet Brigham Young, (assuming those thoughts had ever crossed him mind or ever left it) he would respond that he could not give up smoking.

    His brother-in-law smokes all the time, but he can’t join, because he might feel pressured to quit smoking?

    Or was the polygamy/polyandry just too much for a non member to swallow?

    Did James Henry never rise to prominence, because of his lack of refinement, or lack of oratory skills?

    Or was it that his family, became part of the cast off Sacred Lonely wives club after the death of JS?

    Seeing the daily behind the public image of JS, working for him in 3 different locations, did James know too little or too much?

    His sister rarely has contact with her “husband” Brigham, who makes promises to move her from (literal) cow town of Minersville to the big SLC , but does not keep his promise. And after the death of her husband, Adam, she partitions, the current Prophet as a widow of the greatest man save Jesus Christ, and the deal millionaire Brigham Young, and months go by without a response.

    Eventually, John Taylor approves $100. one year and again a few years later.

    Seeing the financial and moral hypocrisy from the inside, do you think he is worried about the WoW keeping him from top kingdome?

    Or is it just preaching to keep up appearances of a virtuous religion, while ignoring the man (with multiple wives) veiled behind the curtain of dualistic morality?

    The biggest lie you hear in church, is that the WoW was not ENFORCED, back in the day, because these people grew up in a culture where wine, tea and coffee were part of normal life and it took generations before the members were ready to have it as a commandment.

    Nonsense! Every convert today, coming from the same background, is expected to quit cold turkey, one of the most addictive substances on earth, in a matter of weeks and can’t have a beer to take the edge off the withdrawal!

    The WoW is easily viewed a test of illogical loyalty, to an institution. (tobacco excluded, common sense says it is bad)

    I have been a lifelong abstainer of Coffee, Tea and Tobacco, and have never ever been tempted, never will be, the stuff stinks, how could it possibly taste good?

    Did the WoW come from God? No!

    Brigham Young know that! Emma after one too many times of cleaning up the spittled floor of the school of the “Prophets” she complained to Joseph, why don’t we have refined clergy and codes of conduct like the other religions?

    Don’t mess with someone that talks to GOD. How dare Emma question his piety? Joseph got the last word (of wisdom) in that marital tiff, No TEA for you!

    It is that simple, it really is.

    Perry L. Porter

    [Moderator note: Comment edited to remove profanity. Please don't swear, Perry, or we'll have to moderate all your comments.]

  8. Interesting, Mark. The main rationale I’ve seen scholars give for the prohibition “hot drinks” actually focuses on the heat itself. In the medical science of the day, drinking hot (or cold) beverages could throw the humors out of balance. But since Joseph wasn’t exactly big on conventional medicine (and for good reason), I think your appeal to Thoreau may have merit.

  9. Interesting points Mark T.

    Pure water IS good for the body, but impure water, not so much.

    Imagine the number or Mormons and others that lives would have been saved or made less glad if only they had just boiled their water before they drank it?

    You don’t have to have a MBA from Northwestern University, :)

    to realize that if you wake up each morning hacking your lungs out, that smoking is bad. Common sense was not born yesterday, but the day before.

    There is nothing in the WoW that is not common sense, then or now.

    Distilled Hard drink, too much too often, bad, a little wine turns out is good.

    All meat, little else, bad. Best athletes in the world, vegan? Not so many.

    One of the biggest problem in the world DRUGS? Not mentioned…. why?

    Didn’t exist back then?

    No access? Really?

    Dr. Robert Beckstead’s essay “The Restoration and The Sacred Mushroom”

    While a bit out there on some points, so are drugs out there.

    What things is better for your health promotion than exercise?

    NOT Mentioned!

    (sorry I am getting angry again, but not at you Mark, I like you)

    George A. (Albert) Smith, relative of Joseph,
    Born 1817 Potsdam, New York
    Baptized 1832
    Participated in Zion’s Camp 1834
    Ordained Seventy and called to First Quorum of Seventy 1835
    Ordained Apostle and called to Quorum of Twelve 1839
    First Counselor to Brigham Young 1868-75
    Died 1875 Salt Lake City, Utah

    Was SO FAT at one point in his life he had to be carried on the back of a freight wagon to speak in Logan.

    WoW not heart healthy!

  10. I used to drink strong black tea, love the taste, and though I never drank coffee I did grow up in a country where drinking it is very much a ritual, and the smell is amazing. I don’t think that their supposed bad taste is at all evident, let alone to people who had used it before.

  11. I read the Rollins bit, we are talking about the time-frame of a month. This is not to say that Gilbert’s ecision was necessarily the right one, but it doesn’t appear as negative as you made it out to be.

  12. Christopher, I think you should be careful in extrapolating from the few sources you cite to a generalization that the Word of Wisdom was an identity marker in Kirtland Mormonism. Obviously more work on this needs to be done, but you also have to account for the many instances where Joseph Smith drank wine (described as ‘the fruit of the vine’) at many Mormon social occasions and weddings, with numerous other Mormons also imbibing at those events; this hardly passes the “smell” test for the Word of Wisdom as a early identity marker of activity in the Kirtland Church (this is easily seen in Joseph Smith’s Kirtland journal which is part of the JSP Project, available to all to read online).

    You could still make the case that the Word of Wisdom was an identity marker in Kirtland, but you might better examine the few cases where violation of the Word of the Wisdom is cited in Church courts to see what other circumstances might have influenced those Church courts (as noted above). If it was an identity marker, there should be abundant evidence of this in contemporary letters and journals; I encourage you to seek those out.

    Part of the problem in trying to use Kirtland Mormonism in this case (’20th-century Church enforcement of the Word of Wisdom isn’t new’) is the possibility of lapsing into the philosophical fallacy of presentism – where the moral standards of the present are retrofitted onto the past. Unfortunately, this is also seen in the many appeals of present-day commentators to the morals and virtues of the ‘Founding Fathers.’ In any case, I encourage you to pursue your research, accounting for all of the evidence, including the contradictory ones. Good luck.

  13. It’s not really research I mean to pursue. Just some interesting stuff I’d collected on the subject and thought would be worth blogging about.

    On the subject of Joseph Smith’s non-observance: you’re right that this runs contrary to my thesis, but maybe not as much as you’d think. Leadership of the Church during the Kirtland period was a more distributed affair than later in Nauvoo, and it seems that some of the other leaders pushed this issue much farther than Joseph may have been willing to go. It was Sidney Rigdon, not Joseph, who pushed the Church to covenant to observe the Word of Wisdom. It was Reuben Hedlock who pushed the issue in the Elder’s Quorum. These men lost influence in Nauvoo, and Joseph increasingly centralized leadership in himself. So in a way, I’d say it may not be my argument that’s an example of presentism, but rather the use of Joseph as a counterexample. You’re reading the Kirtland period through the lens of Nauvoo, when Joseph more directly defined the movement.

  14. Hey Chris- I wanted to note that I think your comments on the Kirtland structure of the church and that other members of the church may have wanted to emphasize the WoW more than Joseph is intriguing and cogent. I would also point out that it looks to me like the typical Mormon interpretation of the Word of Wisdom during the Kirtland, Nauvoo, and early Salt Lake period was not an abstinence from alcohol. Instead it made a distinction between low percentage alcoholic drinks (like beer) and higher percentage alcoholic drinks such as wine and other distilled liquors.

  15. It strikes me that maybe another reason that polygamy and the Word of Wisdom seem to have been fairly mutually exclusive identity markers is that they appealed to different types of people. The Word of Wisdom is pretty socially conservative and polygamy pretty… edgy, you might say. So Rigdon, for instance, is a champion of the Word of Wisdom but can’t stomach polygamy, so he gets pushed to the margins in Nauvoo.

  16. The catalyst for lax observance of the Word of Wisdom during the Nauvoo period was likely the sisters, who undoubtedly needed alcohol to help them get their minds around polygamy.

  17. George Miller @17:

    For what it’s worth, wine is not a “distilled liquor.” Like beer, wine is a fermented beverage.

    Wines are usually in the 10-15% ABV range, and beers are usually in the 4-6% ABV range, although significantly more alcoholic beers are not hard to find. 20% ABV is about the most you can practically get out of the fermentation process.

    Typical distilled liquors are 40% ABV or higher.

  18. @Kullervo – Thanks for the comment. As a cell biologist who has worked with brewers yeast for the last eight years I am fully aware that wine is not distilled. My above comment was just badly worded. I appreciate your clarifying things as not to give the audience the wrong impression.

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