I recently saw the movie “The Saratov Approach,” based on the true story of two missionaries for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints who were kidnapped in Russia in 1998. At some point during their captivity, one of their captors asks one of the missionaries if he would like a beer. He declines, and the captor offers coffee or tea. The missionary smiles wryly and says, “You don’t know very much about us, do you?”
It seems that most of my friends are aware that Mormons don’t drink alcohol or smoke. However, many people don’t realize that the injunction not to drink alcohol comes from a more general code of health followed by church members today.
In 1833, after experiences that led Joseph Smith to wonder about the use of certain substances, particularly tobacco, he prayed about the matter.
In answer to his inquiry, he received what we now refer to as The Word of Wisdom (published in the Doctrine & Covenants, Section 89). In addition to prohibiting the use of tobacco, “wine or strong drink” (alcohol), and “hot drinks” (clarified later as tea and coffee), the Word of Wisdom encourages eating meat “sparingly,” and counsels that grains, fruits, and vegetables are “good for the food of man.” The revelation promises both physical and spiritual blessings to those who follow the counsel.
These principles were taught and lived in the Latter-day Saint community long before some of the modern medical advancements and research advocated for similar practices.
Recent studies show that these health habits seem to have a positive physical effect. In 2008, the UCLA School of Public Health released data from a 25-year study of a Latter-day Saint population in California. It showed that this group had a lower total death rate than had ever been reported for a group followed for 25 years. They also reported one of the highest life expectancies ever reported in a well-defined group in the U.S. Mormon females had a life expectancy of 86 (5.5 years longer than comparable American females) and Mormon men had a life expectancy of 84 (nearly 10 years longer than other US males).
- Study: James E. Enstrom and Lester Breslow, “Lifestyle and Reduced Mortality among Active California Mormons, 1980-2004,” Preventative Medicine 46 (2008), 135.
Such studies, obviously, do not prove causation. There is nothing to prove that following the Word of Wisdom will improve health or lengthen life. In fact, I know people who are very faithful members of our church who have struggled with health problems throughout life, despite living these principles.
Why, then, do Mormons follow these principles?
It is deeper than a desire for greater health. I can’t speak for everyone I know, but I can explain my personal understanding.
First, and foremost, we believe in modern prophets and revelation. The principles taught in this revelation have come from the same loving God by the same means as the ancient principles outlined in the Old and New Testaments. As such, they take on much greater significance to us than guidelines outlined in a health pamphlet.
Further, the Bible teaches that our bodies are temples. They house our spirits. As 1 Corinthians 3:16 (KJV) says, “Know ye not that ye are the temple of God, and that the Spirit of God dwelleth in you?” There is a definite connection between our bodies and our spirits, and therefore, both are considered sacred to us. We know that our physical decisions can have spiritual repercussions. As we care for our bodies, we also care for our spirits.
From this perspective, then, it makes total sense to us that some of the blessings promised for living these principles are spiritual in nature – blessings such as “wisdom,” and “knowledge,” in addition to being able to “run and not be weary and walk and not faint.”
I know many people who have felt blessed by following the Word of Wisdom.
Recently, a friend of mine who works the night shift as a nurse in an ICU unit shared her experience living this principle. When she first started her job, many of her coworkers gave her a hard time about not drinking coffee to stay awake and alert. Some even told her she would never make it if she didn’t. She felt confident in staying true to her beliefs. After working that shift for the past two years, she says she has never felt too tired to perform her duties and care for her patients.
To her, and to many other members of our faith, the benefits of following these principles are very real.