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Coffee, Anyone?

“So whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do all for the glory of God.” – 1 Corinthians 10:31.

A coffeehouse outreach in Utah, you say? Isn’t that counterintuitive? Isn’t there a ban on coffee for faithful LDS?

The prohibition in question is Section 89 from a book of LDS scripture called the Doctrine and Covenants, a chapter that is commonly called the “Word of Wisdom.” I would not call it a “ban.” I see it as a promise of health and blessing to those who avoid wine and “strong drink,” tobacco, and unspecified “hot drinks” (neither coffee nor tea is named), and to those who eat meat “sparingly…only in times of winter, or of cold, or famine” (89:12-13).

Wine is only allowed when used in the “sacrament,” and then only pure wine “of your own make” (89:6). Also, curiously, barley is said to be good “for mild drinks” (89:17). A plausible case can be made that this verse permits beer (!) as opposed to stronger alcoholic drinks, which are clearly said to be not good for the belly (89:5,7). This might explain why Joseph Smith felt free to drink “a glass of beer at Moesser’s,” as he records in his diary.

However, as practiced today, the Word of Wisdom is seen to rule out all alcohol, coffee, and tea. Some understand this prohibition to extend to all caffeinated drinks (even cold ones), while allowing hot chocolate. To get a permit to enter an LDS temple (called a “temple recommend”), believers must certify to their local bishop (= pastor) that they faithfully observe this Word of Wisdom.

What I could not figure out for the longest time, however, is why today, wine in the LDS sacrament has been replaced by water. One searches in vain to find this change commanded anywhere in LDS authoritative writings. How did this happen?

At the same time, how did the Word of Wisdom go from divine “friendly advice” (as it were) to strict command? In the 1800’s, evidence indicates that observance of this code of conduct was nowhere near as strict as it is today, even by church leaders. How and when did this change happen?

I found my answer in an excellently documented article in Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought ( The change happened in 1905, after a considerable debate between the presiding prophet Joseph F. Smith and his apostles. Some were in favor of strict enforcement of the ban on items forbidden in the Word of Wisdom, while some preferred leniency. The prophet’s opinion prevailed. Leaders at the local level began requiring strict adherence to the Word of Wisdom for those who wished to receive a temple recommend. And at that same time, wine was replaced with water in both the Temple observance of the sacrament and at the local level.

The issue of caffeinated soft drinks was raised in 1924. When representatives of Coca-Cola convinced him that Coca-Cola contains only one-fourth the amount of caffeine found in coffee, LDS prophet Heber Grant declared that he was “sure I have not the slightest desire to recommend that the people leave Coca-Cola alone if this amount is absolutely harmless, which they say it is.” Some LDS today, however, choose to be more cautious than Heber Grant about Coca-Cola and similar drinks.

The Bible’s advice on the abuse of food and drink is far less detailed. It permits wine and beer, but not drunkenness (Ephesians 5:18). God himself commands offerings of wine in the Hebrew Bible, and in Numbers 28:7, God actually commands Israelites to offer him a beer! (The Hebrew word shÄ“ker, usually translated “strong drink,” means “that which makes drunk,” and is actually a form of beer or malt liquor.) Non-kosher food such as pork and shellfish is ruled out for Jews in the Hebrew Bible (Leviticus 11:1-47, Deuteronomy 14:3-20), but is permitted for followers of Jesus in Mark 7:19, Romans 14:14-21, and 1 Timothy 4:3-5.

As for tobacco, all we find in the Bible is Paul’s teaching, “I will not be enslaved by anything” (1 Corinthians 6:12). One cannot dispute that tobacco is a great slavery, at least in its cigarette form. That is why I have stayed as far away from it as I can. Pipes and cigars may appear to be less addicting, but here I still agree with the LDS Word of Wisdom.

Is there room for LDS leadership to change their approach to their Word of Wisdom? Absolutely! The move to strictly enforce these teachings did not come from their authoritative writings. The LDS church can easily go back to reading the passage the way it was first read: as a promise of health and blessing.

I am not bound by its teachings, but it would not be hard for me to keep the LDS Word of Wisdom. Assuming that soda is not covered by the command, all I would have to give up is tea (I drink quite a bit of that), and an occasional half-serving (2 ounces) of wine. I have tried but do not like beer or liquor, and I have never had tobacco or coffee.

God has a sense of humor, to get me to serve in a coffeehouse. I have never had coffee in my life! Would you want coffee prepared by someone who has no idea what it’s supposed to taste like? That’s why a second person will be there to brew it!