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.” 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.
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. 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.”
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. 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. 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. 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.” 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.” 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.
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!” 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.
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.) 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.
 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.
 Orson Hyde, Kirtland High Council Minutes for February 12, 1834, in Manuscript History, 1A:27–29, http://josephsmithpapers.org/paperSummary/minutes-12-february-1834.
 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.
 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.
 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.
 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.
 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.
 Warren Parrish, Kirtland High Council Minutes, August 19, 1835, in Minute Book 1, 97, http://josephsmithpapers.org/paperSummary/minute-book-1.