Members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints are well versed in the Word of Wisdom, the admonition in Doctrine and Covenants 89 which lays out the Lord’s law of health to the Church; however, the vast majority of members of the Church do nothing to implement the Word of Wisdom’s admonition to eat meat sparingly, and only in times of winter, or of cold, or of famine.
Despite the clarification from Church leaders on caffeinated soft drinks, many members of the church would raise an eyebrow to someone bringing Dr. Pepper to the church pot luck, but it is likely that no one would think twice about the barbecued hamburgers.
Two years ago I decided to take significant strides toward improved health and fitness. I started that effort by carefully reading Doctrine and Covenants 89 and seeing what I could do to more perfectly follow the commandment. Verses 12 and 13 stood out to me. Though I had read them many times before, I had never actually made even the slightest effort to implement them.
The following is the result of my study on Doctrine and Covenants 89’s admonition to eat meat sparingly. It contains my best efforts to understand the doctrine of the church, but I fully admit that most of it is based on my own assumptions and current understanding. To understand the doctrine for yourself, you need to seek out the ultimate source of knowledge.
What Doctrine and Covenants 89 Actually Says
“Yea, flesh also of beasts and of the fowls of the air, I, the Lord, have ordained for the use of man with thanksgiving; nevertheless they are to be used sparingly; And it is pleasing unto me that they should not be used, only in times of winter, or of cold, or famine.” Doctrine and Covenants 89: 12 and 13
A plain reading of the text makes any interpretation other than “Don’t eat meat unless it is winter or famine, and even then, do so sparingly” difficult to justify. Any reasonable reader would understand that to be the plain meaning.
But sometimes things are less obvious than they seem. I’m an attorney (non-practicing), so I know something about twisting other people’s words (that’s a joke… sort of).
The Comma and the 1920 Edition of the Word of Wisdom
Like I said, sometimes things aren’t as obvious as they may seem. In the original text of the Word of Wisdom, there is no comma between the words “used” and “only.” Here is a copy of the original text (highlighting the area of interest) that covers two pages in the original manuscript.
Can you see how to, entirely opposite, interpretations can come from the text depending on how this is read? With the comma, it reads “It is pleasing unto me that they should not be used ONLY in times of winter or of cold or of famine.” Which would seem to say we should be eating meat all the time–not only in those conditions.
But without the comma, which is how the manuscript originally reads and how it was written in every edition of the Doctrine and Covenants up to the 1920 edition, it reads “It is pleasing unto me that they should NOT be used–only in times of winter, or of cold, or of famine.”
Two opposite interpretations–all hinging upon a single comma. So why was the comma added? As even a cursory study of the manuscripts of the Doctrine and Covenants will reveal, the documents were written when grammar, spelling, punctuation, and other writing fundamentals were still being standardized, and they were written by fallible men who did not possess perfect abilities to communicate the revelation that Joseph Smith received.
I personally believe the comma is the correct way for the revelation to be written, and that according to our modernized literary forms, it is the grammatically correct version. Without it, the preceding verse makes little sense. Birch, A. Jane, “Questioning the Comma in Verse 13 of the Word of Wisdom” (2014). All Faculty Publications. Paper 1402.
The Plot Thickens…
Whenever I have taken occasion to converse with other members of the church about this topic to try and learn more, many of them have pointed me to Doctrine and Covenants 49:18, the revelation Joseph Smith received for Leman Copley, a former Shaker.
Before we read the verse, it is significant to look at the context of the verses before, which contain instructions to not forbid others to marry.
The verse in question says, “And whoso forbiddeth to abstain from meats, that man should not eat the same, is not ordained of God.” This, at first, seems to be an outright contradiction to the admonition in Doctrine and Covenants 89 to only eat meat in times of winter, or of cold, or of famine, and even then it should be done sparingly.
This is where the plot thickens.
Look at the footnote for this verse for the word “forbiddeth” and you’ll see the footnote says, “biddeth.” These words are often confused, but are opposites. “I forbid you to attend church” means the exact opposite of “I bid you to attend church.” When Jacob finished his portion of the Book of Mormon, surely he did not mean “I FORBID you adieu.” Source: Jim Catano.
As best as I understand, I believe the footnote in this verse to simply be an error.
Leaving the contradiction aside, we can read the actual text more carefully and uncover a possible explanation for the contradiction between 89 and 49. The verse says only that people should not teach others, or forbid others to not eat meat.” While unlikely, it is possible that the text is actually saying that it is wrong to teach others not to eat meat, because the Lord’s law on health is adapted to the weakest of the Saints, and not everyone is ready to live that law. I personally find that to be plausible, but frankly not likely.
What Are the Church Leaders Saying Today?
When you search “eat meat sparingly” on LDS.org, only TWO such admonitions are found in any general conference. TWO!
The first mention is from Ezra Taft Benson in 1983: “In this revelation the Lord counsels us to use meat sparingly. I have often felt that the Lord is further counseling us in this revelation against indiscriminately killing animals, for He has said elsewhere in scripture, ‘Wo be unto man that sheddeth blood or that wasteth flesh and hath no need.” (D&C 49:21.)’
President Benson seems to play down the health benefit and suggest that the commandment may have a deeper root in the protection of human life.
President Packer said in a 1996 conference report: “…the Word of Wisdom counsels us to eat meat sparingly. Lest someone become extreme, we are told in another revelation that “whoso forbiddeth to [eat meat] is not ordained of God.”
Historical Insight from Early Church Leaders
In law, after a plain reading of a law is done and then the text is examined in greater detail, outside information can then be referenced to try and understand what was intended to be written. Here is further information from early church leaders…
- “…it is pleasing saith the Lord that flesh be used only in times of winter, or of famine’-and why to be used in famine? because all domesticated animals would naturally die, and may as well be made use of by man, as not…” Hyrum Smith, “The Word of Wisdom.” Times and Seasons volume 3. 1 June 1842.
- then-Apostle Lorenzo Snow “introduced the subject of the Word of Wisdom, expressing the opinion that it was violated as much or more in the improper use of meat as in other things, and thought the time was near at hand when the Latter-day Saints should be taught to refrain from meat eating and the shedding of animal blood.” (Journal History, 11 March 1897 p. 2)
Elder Snow “was convinced that the killing of animals when unnecessary was wrong and sinful, and that it was not right to neglect one part of the Word of Wisdom and be too strenuous in regard to other parts.” (Journal History, 5 May 1893, pp. 2-3)
- Elder Joseph F. Merrill “When protein is taken in great excess of the body’s need, as is usually the case in the diet of Americans, added work is given the liver and kidneys, the circulation is over-stimulated and the “factor of safety” of these organs is exceeded”
- President Heber J. Grant stated, “I think that another reason I have very splendid strength for an old man is that during the years we have had a cafeteria… I have not, with exception of not more than a dozen times, ordered meat of any kind. …I have endeavored to live the Word of Wisdom and that, in my opinion, is one reason for my good health.” (Conference Report, April 1937, p. 15)
- John A. Widtsoe wrote in a book on the Word of Wisdom, “If one uses meat it must be used sparingly and in winter or famine only…. They who wish to be well and gain the promised reward stated in the Word of Wisdom must obey all of the law, not just part of it as suits their whim or their appetite, or their notion of its meaning.” (The Word of Wisdom, a Modern Interpretation, 1950)
- President Joseph Fielding Smith’s wife, Jesse Evans Smith, said, “my husband doesn’t eat meat” and he felt a “disdain of meat and (a) love of vegetables.” (Brigham Young University Daily Universe, May 6, 1971, p. 1)
- Elder Benson obviously felt some frustration about how well Americans do in their eating habits because he once observed, “To a significant degree, we are an overfed and undernourished nation digging an early grave with our teeth, and lacking the energy that could be ours…. We need a generation of young people who, as Daniel, eat in a more healthy manner than to fare on the ‘kings meat’ —and whose countenances show it.” (Teachings of Ezra Taft Benson pp. 476-7)
- 49:18 is actually a warning to those who would prohibit others from abstaining from eating flesh rather than a condemnation of those who do abstain.
- There is understandable reason for honest confusion on this point. First, there is an error in a footnote in the present edition of the LDS scriptures. “I bid you to come to my house” is the exact opposite of “I forbid you to come to my house.” The inaccurate footnote prompts us to incorrectly believe that the person who asks another to abstain from meats is not ordained of God. However, the original scripture (which was published for 148 years without that footnote) teaches that he who forbids others to abstain from meats is the one who is not ordained of God. Furthermore, if forbid really meant bid it would alter 49:15 to also condemn “whoso ‘biddeth’ to marry.” Source: Jim Catano
- In this revelation the Lord counsels us to use meat sparingly. I have often felt that the Lord is further counseling us in this revelation against indiscriminately killing animals, for He has said elsewhere in scripture, “Wo be unto man that sheddeth blood or that wasteth flesh and hath no need.” (D&C 49:21.) “A principle with a promise” Ezra Taft Benson. May 1983.
I have a tendency to sometimes be a little too pharisaical in my discipleship. President Packer’s conference quote saying that it would be too extreme to refrain from eating meat entirely is instructive to me.
The counsel of the living prophets is most important. I believe they are in communication with our Heavenly Father and that He will guide us when the church gets off course. It is tough to argue with the fact that this clearly is not a point of emphasis in the church right now. That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t care about the scripture, but that we need to be careful about becoming too extreme on a fringe issue.
It appears to me that the Lord’s commandment to eat sparingly may be rooted more deeply in the preservation of animals than in health, and is included in Doctrine and Covenants 89 as it is part of the decisions to be made about what foods to eat. For me personally, I eat meat with restraint (a point strongly supported by heart health now) but do not go so extreme as to refrain from eating meat.
Obviously, this is a personal choice and this blog post should not in any way be considered representative of the church’s counsel on the topic, but I hope by writing these articles that those who would like to further develop their gospel scholarship will be pointed to resources they can study to make good decisions and grow closer to Heavenly Father.