The Word of Wisdom (WoW) calls for:
- A prohibition on tobacco, alcoholic beverages, and "hot drinks" (which refers to coffee and tea according to church leaders).
- Limiting meat intake to "times of winter, or of cold, or famine."
- Wheat to be the "staff of life" for humans.
- A diet rich in fruits and "wholesome herbs."
- Health in their navel and marrow to their bones.
- Wisdom and great treasures of knowledge.
- They shall run and not be weary, and shall walk and not faint.
- The destroying angel shall pass by them, as the children of Israel, and not slay them.
Back in 1833 Joseph Smith, prophet and founder of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints received a revelation about health practices. That revelation is now recorded in Doctrine and Covenants section 89. Verse 2 tells us that the revelation is "To be sent greeting; not by commandment or constraint, but by revelation and the word of wisdom...."
In the early days of the church most revelations from the prophet were commonly called commandments by adherents. For example, when Martin Harris told Joseph that he desired a commandment from the Lord, he meant that he wanted Joseph to receive a revelation on his behalf. The earliest compilation of LDS revelations was titled The Book of Commandments. Unlike most revelations, D&C 89 was specifically designated as an invitation rather than a commandment.
But, as explained in this Encyclopedia of Mormonism article, certain WoW provisions became de facto commandments during the prohibition era when "abstinence from the use of alcohol, tobacco, coffee, and tea had become an official requirement for those seeking temple recommends" and subsequently for holding any position of trust in the church. Modern church leaders have added abstinence from drug abuse and "harmful or addictive substances" to the list.
The Interpreter recently published a scholarly article about a somewhat controversial comma that was mysteriously inserted in D&C 89:13 in 1921. But in reality, the article focuses on the WoW's provision that animal and fowl flesh should be eaten sparingly and only in times of great need.
One theory is that the comma fundamentally changed the meaning of v13 to restrict meat intake to certain limited instances. I believe that the article's author does a fine job of debunking this line of thinking by showing that the comma merely restores the original meaning of the verse, which was needed due to the change in the usage of the word "only" in the English language over time. Besides, it is quite clear that early church leaders repeatedly emphasized eating meat only sparingly; although, Joseph Smith is reported to have said that fish did not fall into that restriction.
After reading through the comment section of the article, it appears to me that Mormons have no shortage of modern day Pharisees (referring to the religious-political sect of Jesus' day that our New Testament criticizes for emphasizing nitpicky religious commands over the weightier matters of loving God and our neighbors).
This can also readily be seen in various internet commentary where some church members are absolutely certain that their purist interpretation of the WoW is the correct interpretation for all other church members.
It has been common practice for some church members (including influential leaders) to extend the WoW to include their own ideas. For example, many members have long considered caffeinated soft drinks to be against the WoW, while others have not. In 2012 the church issued a statement saying that such drinks are not included in the WoW's ban on coffee and tea (see Church Newsroom article).
Back in the 1970s I heard then apostle Bruce R. McConkie clarify that, contrary to the sentiments of some in the whole grain crowd, the WoW was not to be construed to prohibit refined grains or sugars. Both caffeine and sugar have addictive properties, but they are not considered to be strictly banned by the WoW.
Refining one's understanding of the WoW is a good thing. But we go awry the moment we start passing off our personal interpretations as authoritative. Church leaders are not immune from slipping into this trap. But I have also been in many leadership meetings where general authorities have carefully acknowledged that some of the things they say are personal opinions rather than official doctrine. Their authority to pronounce doctrine is limited.
A proper understanding of scripture requires personal revelation so that the scripture can be received as it was intended. The Holy Ghost becomes the teacher. But reason is also required. I find it helpful to place scripture in its historic context and to try to see its placement in the whole picture of available light.
For example, some people are quite certain that the WoW promotes a Vegan diet and that those that eschew meat altogether are living a higher law. Maybe so. But it seems difficult to square that with D&C 49:19, where we told that it pleases the Lord to give his children "beasts of the field and the fowls of the air ... for food...."
Some are adamant that the provision on eating meat sparingly revolves mainly around the deplorable sin of killing animals unnecessarily. Perhaps. Some cobble together various scriptures to support this theory. But the overall record is anything but clear on this point. Besides, what does "sparingly" mean? What does "unnecessary" mean?
Moreover, what about the fact that the various grains we eat today are radically different from the grains available in the U.S. in 1833? We have evidence that our modern grains are making at least some people very sick. What of the fact that artificial refrigeration was generally unavailable in 1833?
It seems more likely to me that no one's pet interpretation of the 21 brief verses that make up the WoW can be generally applied in any satisfactory manner to modern life.
And that's just the point. Many people repeatedly call for the church to clarify certain religious provisions, including those in the WoW. They want everything clearly delineated in black and white. Gray areas bother them. While church leaders speak out on various matters from time to time, they are mostly just offering their well informed opinions. Official doctrine on many issues remains vague.
Part of the reason for this is that in a church of 15 million people and a world with more than seven billion people, only a small handful of very low level provisions can be universally applied. Individual and cultural circumstances vary so widely that local and/or individual interpretation is required. Thus, the church emphasizes the importance of personal revelation to guide one's own life.
By looking at the big picture surrounding the WoW, it should be quite clear that the Lord wants us to understand that our dietary and health practices affect both our physical and spiritual capacities. The Lord longs to bless us with his choicest blessings and we need to understand that even what we choose to consume helps determine how well he is able to do that for us.
I know that when I am asked in a temple recommend interview whether I keep the Word of Wisdom, I am being asked whether I use any of the prohibited substances: coffee, tea, alcoholic beverages, tobacco, or harmful drugs. I am not being asked whether I eat wholesome herbs or consume meat only sparingly. But if I want the blessings listed above, I need to follow both the non-mandatory as well as the mandatory provisions of the WoW.
Which brings us back to the original question I posed of how I am able to square my current diets with the WoW. I do not deny that those that strictly adhere to some of the less followed suggestions in the WoW are better people than I am. They likely enjoy far greater blessings.
However, over the years I have come to know my health conditions very well. I know that I experience more health problems when I eat a diet that includes more than a tiny amount of grain (despite how much I love breads, rice, pasta, and other grain based foods). I know that I have more energy and that I cognate much better when I follow my current diets. This is what works for my body at the present time.
Perhaps most importantly, I know that I was spiritually led to my current diets through a great deal of secular study, spiritual study, prayer, and pondering. I daresay that I have taken a much more thoughtful approach to diet and health than the vast majority of Mormons; not that I judge others to be inferior on this point (see Romans 12:1-4, 10-14). I feel like I am receiving the blessings promised in the WoW and I feel very comfortable answering yes when I am asked whether I keep the WoW, although, my practices seem at odds with certain provisions of the recorded revelation.
Does this mean that everyone ought to follow the diets that I eat? Not at all. Once again, I emphasize study, application of reason, and pursuit of personal revelation. It is quite possible that the diets I follow would be very wrong for somebody else. I only know that they are right for me at the present time.
It turns out that devotion to discipleship is not an easy thing. The Lord provides a good framework, some great tools, and a variety of materials. But a lot of do-it-yourself work remains. It is the only way God can turn us into C.S. Lewis' proverbial mansion.