Rich Brown is a member of the Community of Christ (formerly known as RLDS) and gives his perspective on a recent change in their church with regards to Word of Wisdom observance.

What is it about us Latter Day Saints (no matter which branch) that we get so obsessed with booze, particularly the banning of it? Sooner or later, of course, the Word of Wisdom is invoked in some way.

At the end of August, the Community of Christ (formerly RLDS) First Presidency issued its long-awaited official policy, “Consumption of Intoxicants by Priesthood,” along with a pastoral letter, lengthy scriptural and historical interpretation, and a reaffirmation of the existing policy banning consumption of intoxicants at church-sponsored events or on church-owned property. All together the statements take up 12 full pages in the September 2017 issue of the church’s official magazine, the Herald. The church’s 2013 World Conference had requested counsel from the Presidency.

For those who love long reads produced by top church leaders, here’s a link to the documents (a pdf of the Herald pages) :

For the rest of us, the policy is boiled down to this one sentence: “For the well-being of individuals and the church community, especially the most vulnerable, disciples and priesthood members are urged to refrain from drinking intoxicants.” (A couple definitions: “Intoxicant” means any beverage that contains an intoxicating element such as alcohol; “The most vulnerable” includes children, youth, and those prone to addictions or recovering from addictions who are influenced by priesthood member behavior.)

Our two churches take rather different approached to alcohol use, of course. But LDS members might find interesting the approach taken with the Word of Wisdom (Section 86 in the CofC Doctrine and Covenants; Section 89 in the LDS version).

As noted in the new report, the Word of Wisdom generally was understood in the early church period (1830 to 1844) as wise counsel and not strict commandment to be applied literally in all instances. Abstinence from alcohol was not expected during this period.

Here’s what the historical/scriptural background document has to say about the WoW:

Section 86 was brought by Joseph Smith Jr. in 1833 in Kirtland, Ohio. It commonly is known as the “Word of Wisdom.” The historical setting in which Section 86 was introduced included an intensifying temperance movement in the USA. One segment of the temperance movement focused on abstinence from intoxicating beverages; another focused on moderation and self-control and distinguished distilled spirits from other alcoholic beverages.

The preface to the “Word of Wisdom,” while identifying the document as a revelation, tempers its standing by referring to it as “wisdom” and “a principle, with promise” to be “adapted to the capacity of the weak…” It seems the “Word of Wisdom” was not meant as a rigid requirement for all members, but as wise guidance based on principles for healthy living.

Section 86 became the church’s chief instruction on healthy eating and drinking. Other churches in the area, such as Methodists, Presbyterians, and Unitarians, held similar views on tobacco and “strong drinks.” Section 86 incorporates language similar to Owenite and Shaker communitarians and members of the Stone-Campbell movement, some of whom aligned with the Restoration in Kirtland.

There’s nothing in those three paragraphs that should surprise anybody familiar with the WoW’s historical background. But the report continues with historical research from CofC Apostle Lach Mackay, who in addition to his Council of 12 duties also serves as director of Historic Sites and leader of the Church History and Sacred Story Ministries Team:

The temperance movement of the late 1820s and early 1830s was not initially an abstinence movement. The focus was on moderation. The medical community believed stimulants, especially strong stimulants, disrupted the internal workings of the body. As a result, distilled spirits were discouraged unless consumed for medicinal purposes. The use of milder stimulants like wine, cider, and beer generally was not the focus of temperance societies, although by the later 1830s some societies began to lift up prohibition.

“Strong drinks” meant distilled liquors and not fermented drinks. Strong drink “is not good” and “not for the belly, but for the washing of your bodies” (Section 86:1b–c). Cinnamon whisky was used in Kirtland by 1836 for the ritual washings associated with preparation for spiritual empowerment.

Wine was to be drunk “only in assembling yourselves together, to offer up your sacraments before him” and should be “pure wine of the grape of the vine, of your own make.” The reference to “pure” was likely to guard against adulteration. Despite the reference to “the grape of the vine,” the wine used at times during the earliest years of the church, including at the dedication of Kirtland Temple, was made by Elizabeth Whitney from red currants. Some argue the wine would have been “new,” which they interpret as nonalcoholic. However, it was not until after 1869, when a former Methodist preacher, Dr. Thomas B. Welch, adapted pasteurization to grape juice that unfermented juice was available beyond the harvest season. In addition to the use of wine for the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper, the drinking of wine occurred during the 1830s and 1840s following the sacrament of marriage.

Beer was understood to be “good” as a “mild drink.” “All grain is good for the food of man…and barley…for mild drinks and also other grain.

It would appear that the original concern about alcoholic drinks, then, was addiction rather than casual use.

This was reinforced in the Reorganized Church in April 1887 when President Joseph Smith III presented an inspired document at a General Conference in Kirtland, Ohio, which was subsequently included in the church’s Doctrine and Covenants as Section 119. It included various counsel on a similar theme: Priesthood should “lay aside lightness of speech and lightness of manner when standing to declare the word…”; “…they must be without blame in word and deed”; “…not seemly that they indulge in loud and boisterous speech, or in the relating of coarse and vulgar stories, or those in which the names of their God and their Redeemer are blasphemed.” All that makes me wonder just what was going on to warrant such counsel, of course.

The key sentence as far as this discussion is concerned is this: “Avoid the use of tobacco and be not addicted to strong drink in any form, that your counsel to be temperate may be made effectual by your example” (D. and C. 119: 3d).

By the end of the 19th century, the Reorganized Church’s General Conference approved a resolution (GCR 463) which began this way: “Whereas, The Lord has spoken against the use of tobacco and strong drink on different occasions….” Regarding that resolution, Apostle Mackay observed, “We seem by the late 19th century to have lost the earlier differentiation between strong drink (distilled liquors), wine, beer, and [hard] cider.”

Over time, the standard for priesthood members became “refraining from the use of alcohol…” as stated in the Church Administrator’s Handbook: 2005 Edition, “Priesthood Standards and Qualifications” (page 89). It wasn’t until 1913 that the following was approved for use in Communion (Lord’s Supper): “That fermented wine should not be used in the Sacrament services of the church, but that either unfermented wine or water should be used, and so be in harmony with the spirit of the revelations” (see D. and C. 26:1; 86:1, 119:5).

Jump ahead about a century to the now-Community of Christ and discover a distinctly different and widespread cultural approach (at least in Western places such as the USA, Canada, Australia, and Europe) to the use of alcohol. Although prohibition has continued as official church policy, a small but significant number of priesthood and members have indulged in beer, wine, and some forms of distilled liquor. Human nature being what it is, others have felt the need to share specific examples on social media. Hence the call for new counsel on the subject.

After reading through the lengthy scriptural and historical document, more than a few CoC members are expressing surprise at the Official Policy, believing it to be almost the opposite from the direction presented in the historical/scriptural background document. Interestingly, there are no directions from the First Presidency regarding the policy’s enforcement.

Some folks have already noted that total abstinence promoted by institutions (whether it be booze or sexual activity, to cite the two obvious examples) rarely results in the desired effect anyway. It appears safe to assume this new intoxicants policy, which takes effect on October 1, is far from a settled matter in the Community of Christ.

  • How much weight should any of us give to the historical circumstances of the Word of Wisdom?
  • When it comes to “strong drinks,” how much difference is there between beer, wine, and distilled liquors?
  • Should the church just get out of the “prohibition business” and leave this matter to an individual’s free agency?
  • What do you think of “gatekeeper members” who take to social media to essentially rat-out their fellow members?