I had always read about people having this conversation, but it finally happened to me.
There was a co-worker visiting from the Washington DC area. He is a very intelligent engineer (is that redundant?) with several great accomplishments to his name in my field of work. He found out I was Mormon, and with a more than passing knowledge of Mormonism (he has read the BofM), he proceeded to question me.
He started out with asking me if I had been on a mission, where to, and if I liked it. He asked if I wore the “second skin”, and I said yes and showed him my undershirt. He asked if the church had the original hand written BofM from Joseph Smith. I said I didn’t think so. He was aware that the golden plates where taken back by an angel. While he didn’t say so out loud, but I could hear him thinking “how convenient”.
Then came the fun part.
Co-Worker: You don’t drink caffeine, correct?
Me: That’s not right, we can drink caffeinated soft drinks and energy drinks.
CW: Well I had a Mormon friend years ago and he never drank Coke or Pepsi.
M: Well, some Mormons choose not to drink it for personal reasons, but it is not against the church’s rules.
CW: But you don’t drink coffee?
M: That is correct, and no tea either
CW: What about green tea?
M: Nope, comes from same plant as black tea.
CW: So if it is not the caffeine, why can’t you drink coffee or tea?
M: Well, when the prohibition was given in the 1800’s, it said “no hot drinks”, which was coffee and tea at the time.
CW: Oh, so you don’t drink hot chocolate either?
M: Yes, we drink hot chocolate
CW: But it is a hot drink. What is it about tea and coffee that is bad that you can’t drink it. It doesn’t make sense.
M: The way I try to make sense of it is to liken it to the Jewish prohibition against pork. There is nothing wrong with pork, and it won’t make you sick, but practicing Jews don’t eat it because they think God told them not to. Same with Mormons. Some Mormon’s will try to come up with a health explanation for the coffee and tea prohibition, but they fall short, and in the end it is just a matter of faith that you believe God wants you to not drink it.
He started to loose interest at this time, and seemed to accept the Jewish comparison as a plausible explanation, and the subject was changed.
So have you ever had this conversation? How would have you answered his questions? Is there a better explanation for the Word of Wisdom that I could use with a very logical person that I’m missing?
People are usually somewhat approving of lds not smoking, doing drugs, or drinking alcohol, but puzzled by tea or coffee. As a devout lds, it can be hard to explain when you don’t actually believe that tea or coffee are particularly unhealthy. I usually explain that it’s a token or sign of my faith, similar to your explanation. If they dig, I say that health was the spirit of the word of wisdom, and started in line with an 1830’s medical worldview, and that while some aspects have been updated as evidence based medicine has developed, the church stance on tea and coffee simply haven’t.
No – there’s not a better explanation.
I suppose God could ask us to do (or not do) something that is illogical as a test of faith. I think it more likely that such things have been handed down through history by men as a test of loyalty to their authority.
It seems that there are enough very important things to do – like, love your neighbor – that have an actual benefit to God’s children that it would be unnecessary to make up arbitrary and superfluous commandments just to see if we are really, really dedicated disciples.
There’s the tale of a Jew asking God about Abraham’s descendants through Hagar: “They get all the oil and we have to cut off what?”
The health code explanation doesn’t work very well because of the illogic illustrated in the OP. The obedience explanation is not satisfying because most moderns want obedience to tie to a higher principle in some way, to be more than mere obedience. I choose instead the cleanliness or ritual purity explanation.
Many many religions, especially old religions, include cleanliness laws and/or ritual purity laws. Often there is an historic explanation or rationale tied to actual if ancient health or sanitary learnings, but very often the ritual aspects have survived whether or not aligned with modern Western medicine. Talk to the Jews, the Muslims, the Hindus, the Buddhists, the Janes. In that broader world, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and its Word of Wisdom and special clothing and ritual practices fits right in.
It is mainstream Christianity, with its general dismissal of a ritual purity or cleanliness standard, usually by reference to Acts 10, that stands out among world religions. The LDS Church is not mainstream Christian—casually I characterize the Church as Christian of the gospels (cf 3 Nephi), but not Christian of the letters. (That’s a little sloppy. Better would be to say selective about everything after the gospels.) The Word of Wisdom as practiced is one of the ways we see the difference.
Another tag line that sometimes has to be answered is the idea of restoration. Historically Mormonism is part of the 19th century restoration movements. But most of those restoration efforts were about recreating 1st century Christianity (as understood). Joseph Smith’s vision was more on the order of “restoring all things” which makes his work an even further throwback, resulting in an “old” religion in the context of world religious history.
I’ve had similar conversations. In response to a friend telling me it makes no sense, I said sometimes religion doesn’t make sense.
The “ritual” explanation has something to recommend it. I have found it easier and more satisfactory to those who’ve asked me about it to simply say that I don’t drink coffee or tea or alcohol because I agreed not to.
The word of wisdom as practiced in the modern church is sort of silly at best. (e.g. The fairly recent admonition to just avoid going to coffee shops altogether…)
Ultimately as a practicing member the reason to do it is because you’re a practicing member. This is of course a different analysis than the one prompted by the question: Why does the institutional church embrace the word of wisdom as currently practiced? Much more difficult to answer that question without an appeal to inertia or reluctance to admit something was dumb, etc.. . but all is mere speculation and beside the point in any event.
The idea of ritual is the best explanation I know, as well. Since the value of ritual is also not obvious to most modern people, I think it’s helpful to explain that. The Word of Wisdom is a type of devotional practice. It’s a discipline–one of the things we do to orient our lives toward God and the religious community. I have also sometimes described it as an emblem of my personal commitment.
I was in Japan on work for a few weeks and wanted to find out where to go to church on the weekend. I found an address for a church office. So I went there to ask them. I thought it was interesting that here in a church office surrounded by members of the church, the first thing they did was offer me green tea. I though it was considered tea, but figured that since it was church members in a church office building offering it I would drink it.
I think mainstream Mormons (even more: leadership) desperately want to connect the Word of Wisdom to health benefits. Most people would rather be (and appear to be) reasonable and rational as opposed to superstitious or mindlessly obedient. But the truth is Mormons follow the Word of Wisdom because … that’s just what we do when we’re Mormon. Call it habit. Call it just one of those things you do when you’re on the team.
Of course, it’s not just Mormons who do this. Baseball players won’t step on foul lines. People in general avoid cracks on sidewalks, won’t walk under ladders, and think the number 13 is bad luck. Millions of people take astrology seriously. Millions of people attribute a variety of entirely fictitious properties to the food they eat. There’s a billion-dollar food supplements industry that peddles the equivalent of snake oil and placebos for $20 a bottle. Conspiracy theories are more popular than ever these days, worldwide. It’s not like rationality and sincere concern with the real facts of the matter is the normal state of humans, while superstition and irrational beliefs are the exception. It’s the other way around.
In my experience, people don’t even consider judging you (at least not openly) for not drinking coffee, tea or alcohol until they find out it’s tied to religion. Plenty of people who aren’t Mormon don’t drink some or all of those things. People can call me a bad member, but I have a don’t ask/don’t tell approach to religion when I’m at work or other settings, so it honestly rarely comes up.
Random abstinence which I comply with in order to identify with my faith community, who I love, which doesn’t hurt me at all and saves me a fortune.
The trouble with the WoW is that it is billed by the Church as a health code. In the case of coffee and tea, it clearly is not. It is an anti-health-code. As currently interpreted by Church leaders, it drives members toward caffeinated soft drinks which are far worse for members than coffee or tea.
Sorry to change the subject but if you think that conversation was awkward, imagine having to explain the church’s historical and truth claims. Too many to mention here. But what I have discovered is that if you’re embarrassed and skeptical by these claims when explaining them to non-members, that might be a form of personal revelation.
James E. Faulconer explores the coffee crux in his essay, “Why a Mormon Won’t Drink Coffee but Might Have a Coke: The Atheological Character of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints.”
Click to access coke_not_coffee.pdf
My view is that the Word of Wisdom was never meant to serve as gatekeeper for the Lord’s ordinances.
The institution’s employment of the Word of Wisdom as gatekeeper for ordinances is the same administrative sin exemplified by those corrupt money-changers whom Jesus scourged from the temple. It’s an LDS blindspot.
I’m going to hell (or the telestial kingdom) in a hand-basket. I not only occasionally drink coffee (black) and ice tea (unsweetened), but I’ve been selling specialty coffee as a fundraiser to support humanitarian efforts.
I travel to Africa frequently, and particularly like working with the locals in the Rwenzori Mountains, in western Uganda. There, subsistence farmers grow quality coffee beans to provide some cash income, some of which is used to pay the school expenses of their children. I bring back beans in my checked luggage. They are ultimately roasted and sold as specialty coffee. The the subsistence farmers gain twice. We buy their coffee beans and we invest any profits back into the Rwenzori Mountains, mostly to assist their primitive schools.
Does the cause justify the means?
I have a family history of fatal autoimmune disease (Lou Gehrigs) so drink coffee for its concentrated chlorogenic acids and melanoidins, and green & hibiscus & other highly colorful teas for concentrated flavonols. Substituting soft & energy drinks is deeply harmful, leading to a host of negative effects. Virtually all of the health benefits LDS derive from WoW result from not smoking/drinking – which is fortunate because dietary guidelines are completely ignored especially re: meat consumption.
It’s awkward because who can understand it’s logic or meaning? Honestly! It’s a “because I said so” rule. How long to any of us get away with that logic as parents before our kids can see through the hollowness if we can’t defend the advocacy of our rules? How are we supposed to succumb to it as thinking independent adults?
rogerdhansen, the cause would probably justify the means, but also it doesn’t have to because, as you already pointed out, the church has put just about every single WoW egg in the health code basket and now we know that coffee and tea are not detriments to health. Sugar, however, about which the WoW and the church have nothing to say, is lethally toxic in large quantities and harmful in modest quantities. A little flexibility here would be helpful, church leaders, and you could probably add coffee beans to your Hawaii industrial food operations and make some money. Just sayin’…
p, are you saying that had my dad actually not obeyed the WoW he could have avoided that? That those things could have helped him?
It’s also worth noting that incidence of prostate cancer is still significantly higher for LDS males. I don’t believe this is solely incident better screening but reflects real saturated fat intake via meat & dairy (esp ice cream) without offsetting chemicals both coffee & tea (black but more especially green) provide. One really has to wonder why our defacto meat prohibition is not THE emphasis in WoW considering the personal & environmental damage meat consumption/production causes, not to mention the moral issues inherent in factory farming.
All I’m gonna say, Hedge, is your dad should have read the research & drawn his own conclusions.
Think I’m gonna go buy myself some green tea!
I’ve been in a faith crisis for longer than I can remember but still mostly observe the WoW. Mostly because – family. In the meantime I see many around me with Diet Coke or similar addictions. I seriously wish tea and coffee were left out of the WoW but don’t see it happening. I find it a bit galling that it’s tied to temple worthiness when it hadn’t been the case historically. Alcohol and tobacco I can get behind.
Yeah well, I see all those things are also available in other foodstuffs, so it’s not like tea and coffee are the only source. And my parents did plenty of research.
The Word of Wisdom has a lot of baggage — part of the baggage is that it was given as a health code. It was not given as a health code, and yet culturally and even doctrinally we think of it as such. But the real reason, the Lord’s reason, is given in v. 4 of D&C 89.
If we would stop referring to the Word of Wisdom as a health code, we would shake off a little baggage, then we could start to see things a little more clearly, and perhaps the conversation would be a little less awkward.
Is the WoW actually hampering the church’s missionary work?
I wonder how many more might join the church were it not for the prohibition on coffee and tea?
My 91 yr old mother told me many years ago that her mother would drink coffee at times per her doctor’s recommendation as treatment for her migraine headaches.
(There are other health conditions which might be helped by coffee consumption or worsened by coffee consumption).
I simply say it’s one of the ways we stand apart from the world (and then I go refill my 96 oz Big Gulp 🙂
Hedge, I see organic black coffee & organic green tea as preventatives, especially when used in concert w/ a diet consisting of whole grains, colorful fruits & vegetables, and minimal meat & dairy (I would exclude strong Bulgarian-style yogurt from this latter guideline). I’ll eat meat only after a heavy lift for anabolic protein requirement – BBQ ribs if possible!
Zero energy drinks, slow suicide.
Yes, you are going to hell.
There, I said it (we’re all thinking it, right?)
Beautiful sentiments, Marko. (If you were a coffee drinker I would have said “beautiful sediments.” Get it???)
I don’t drink caffeine in my personal life. This has nothing to do with religious belief, I just don’t like feeling a dependency on anything. I rarely drink soda as it is.
When offered coffee or tea, I drink it. When offered alcohol, I drink it. And I don’t drink alcohol. I stop having the conversation. Too ridiculous. Don’t have the energy. Coffee and tea are far healthier than sugary energy drinks and soda. Diet sodas are a sham. Also unhealthy.
Agree with Travis that WOW was never meant as a gatekeeper for the Lord‘s ordinances—great phrase. Also agree with ji that it carries a lot of baggage. Don‘t know if I would agree with Ji that it was not originally meant as a health code. It just would be nice to update the health code in light of 21st Century science.
A few observations:
1. Does anyone complain about WOW proscribing tobacco?
2. Beer and wine in moderation are okay, and even can help good health. The problem is, most people vastly overrate their ability to handle alcohol, and find it hard to stop at just one drink. Having spent decades working with and around the US military, I learned that excess is very common. It was dreary being the designated driver at office functions for years, at which most people made fools of themselves, Besides, alcohol is expensive. I have nothing good to say about hard spirits, having descended from a long line of alcoholics.
3. The problem for many “Prog Mos” is the WOW banning coffee and tea. Before I joined the Church at 22, I followed military custom and drank coffee all day long. and would get the coffee shakes. Drinking coffee in moderation, which I would define as one or two cups per day, seems to be okay with healthy living. But again, I can’t begin to count the number of people in the workplace who simply cannot function without coffee. Particularly women, in my experience, for reasons I don’t understand. If these people did not show up at work with their 16 oz. Starbucks grande vende latte mocha cappuccino Frappuccino Alberto Amoretto Supremissimo, one quickly learned to tread around them, very quietly.
4. Green tea particularly seems to have health benefits—but again, too much of anything is not good.
5. HJG turned the WOW from being advice into a commandment, and it would be nice if Church leaders could get a revelation moving us beyond the Prohibition area. But I am not holding my breath, particularly in light of that story RMN told about being a young boy and smashing all his father’s liquor bottles in the family basement.
6. So in the meantime, I follow the ban on coffee and tea, because I want be an observant member. The WOW serves primarily to make us a peculiar people. But I would rather Focus on Christian charity.
7. “Awkward” conversations about the Church have never bothered me.
Great post and comments. To answer your question, how to handle this conversation, I think you answered honestly and did your best to explain the complexities of the tea/coffee prohibition and the choice to observe it knowing the history and seeming contradictions and ambiguities.
I remember having this same conversation as an intern in Washington, DC with a fellow intern who was drinking an iced tea and asking me why I was drinking Coke. I remember being offended that he said the rule seemed arbitrary and nonsensical. In my mind I was standing up for my beliefs, I’m sure he walked away thinking I was weird.
If it is embarrassing to explain this to someone else, knowing the logical problems and history, shouldn’t this tell us something about this rule? It is essentially a rule because the Church has said it is and it is ridden with fallacies and problems (biggest in my mind is that we have a section in the D&C about it where the Lord himself says it’s not a commandment and does not specifically prohibit tea and coffee). I think it’s fine to take the position you have taken and stick with it as a way to show commitment to God and the Church. I have decided that as an adult, I do not believe in silly rules and will make my own decisions about underwear, what to eat and drink, what to watch and what advice I take from Church leaders. For me, this has made me happy and feel free instead of resentful.
Maybe one answer would be to quote Joseph Smith who said “ a religion that does not require the sacrifice of all things, never has power sufficient to produce the faith necessary unto life and salvation.”
This sentiment behind this quote is repeated in nearly every great religion with different words and requirements. Ghandi noted that religion and specifically worship without sacrifice was a major sin. Sacrifice and discipline is part of Catholic Lent, Ramadan, and many other faiths. Jesus, Budda, Mohammed, Moses, all spoke of sacrifice. In the grand scheme of life, tea and coffee are minor things that allow us to practice focus and faith. That focus on faith- in God, is the ultimate benefit for me.
I like the way Jesus in the New Testament asks us to sacrifice. His parables illustrated to the pharisees what true sacrifice was. When we fast, not to rent our clothes and put ash on our head, when we pray to do so in our closet. Particular rebukes were against outward restrictions such as mosaic restrictions on sabbath activity and to look to those that were in need.
The true sacrifices in our worship are those that inconvenience us but provide service. My choice to not drink coffee, but to walk past the beggar I feel are exactly the types of sacrifices that Christ, Ghandi and Mohammed would have rebuked. Not sure about Moses.
When God reveals truths to his children, it is normally to release the burden on others rather than to raise the burden on self. This may be a good litmus test of whether something is from god.
Chiming in to say: I think the explanation that green tea is bad “because it comes from the same plant” as black tea, is just stupid (and I had never heard that before the New Era article a year or so ago). Do we not drink grape juice because wine comes from the same plant? Or corn? Or potatoes? Or any other number of plants that can be used to make alcoholic drinks? Do they people who give these explanations think them through *at all*? (Not directed at you BB, I know you’re just repeating the party line).
Like others have said, if we choose to follow the current interpretation of the WoW, it’s not because it’s about health, it’s more about obedience, ritual, or because we’ve agreed to do it. Any explanation getting into the details of why quickly gets bogged down in the stupidity of it all.
“Chiming in to say: I think the explanation that green tea is bad “because it comes from the same plant” as black tea, is just stupid (and I had never heard that before the New Era article a year or so ago). Do we not drink grape juice because wine comes from the same plant? Or corn? Or potatoes? Or any other number of plants that can be used to make alcoholic drinks?”
Except, of course, potatoes & grapes are not naturally alcoholic, but green tea does still contain some of the same chemicals as black tea (if you believe that that is the reason for the prohibition).
Generally I think that the recommend questions are pretty much the lowest bar possible. Can you drink Coke/Pepsi? Sure. Should you? Probably not. So tea and coffee (for whatever reason) are prohibited, but they also represent the minimum expected. At least that’s how I view it, for better or for worse.
Doug A, I like your comparison of the “same plant” to grapes and corn. I’d never thought of that before, and will have that in back pocket next time somebody says that in EQ! Thanks!
Green tea and black tea are the same leaf. Black tea is just oxidised to reduce the water content. Quite literally it is just a different flavour. Like a choice between apple squash or orange squash. All delicious.
Time to put the kettle on…
“…the original hand written BOM….” I assume refers to the manuscript. The original was placed in the cornerstone of the Nauvoo Hotel and was mostly ruined by water damage. The 2nd manuscript, used by the printer, was handed down through David Whitmer/Oliver Cowdery’s heirs; and is possessed by the CofChrist.
The tendency and temptations for humans with religion is to make boundary markers and legalistic guidelines to show faithfulness and loyalty and distinguish who is in and who is out. This is what the Jews did with the law of Moses and Jesus and Paul both heavily criticized this approach. We decided to do this with the WOW, we took something that was meant as a useful guideline for health and made it a legalistic test of loyalty. There are all kinds of problems with this approach that show up with tea/coffee, meat sparingly being ignored, etc. What if a doctor recommends the use of tea and coffee? Is this like a beard card at BYU? Legalistic solution to a legalistic problem?