Globalizing the Word of Wisdom

I overheard part of an interesting discussion this past Sunday when a member of our ward was discussing traveling to China. Knowing that “tea” would be served at practically every meal, this member wondered what kinds of teas were against the Word of Wisdom. I don’t recall the entirety of the answer, but I do remember one of the people involved in the discussion explaining that “tea” in Chinese could refer to anything from water to black tea.

While the Word of Wisdom has been interpreted differently since its coming forth in the 1830s, the current interpretation holds that “hot drinks” refer to “tea” and “coffee” (CHI, Vol. 1, 185). This seems, at least in the English publication of the Handbook, to be overly vague for application in the Chinese context.

Knowing a few people that served their missions in Asia I asked them how “tea” was understood there in terms of the WoW. Interestingly enough I got two different interpretations, and no one could provide an “official” source for their interpretation other than “this is the way we were told to teach it”.

So I’m wondering, does the Church have an “official” interpretation of the Word of Wisdom (tea in particular) as far as it should be applied in Asia? If so, what is it and where can I find it?

36 Replies to “Globalizing the Word of Wisdom”

  1. I do not have an answer fot you. I served a Vietnamese-speaking mission in California and many of the members interpreted the WoW in their own way. I will check with some of my Asian companions.

  2. As a missionary in Korea (mid 80s) the “official” interpretation was in our mission handbook. We were told the WoW prohibition on tea only referred to ‘black tea’.

  3. The website explains what tea is: Interestingly, “tea” all comes from the same plant. “There are four major types of tea: White, Green, Oolong and Black. Interestingly, all these teas come from the raw leaves of the same tea plant, Camellia sinensis.” So, as we are advised not to drink tea, I believe this should be interpreted to mean that anything made from the Calellia sinesis plant is off limits. Another interesting point: “One term that has become part of our everyday lingo is ‘herbal tea.’ Since you now know that tea only comes from the tea plant Camellia sinensis, you may be wondering how a tea can be herbal. It can’t be. A product has to be either herbal or tea-based. In the tea industry, beverages made with herbs or flower parts instead of tea are often referred to as tisanes, or herbal infusions.”

  4. A similar discussion arose last week in my ward Gospel Principles class, with returned missionaries from various locations chiming in. Ultimately, the diversity of their answers only confused the handful of recent converts and investigators present.

    I wonder if the WoW presents an instance of where “local” leaders (in most of these cases, mission presidents) have a bit more influence in establishing (and changing) norms of orthopraxy that they otherwise do.

  5. As Joseph Smith said, “What is the rule of interpretation? Just no interpretation at all. Understand it precisely as it reads.”

    What does the Word of Wisdom say?

    “A Word OF Wisdom, for the benefit of the council of high priests, assembled in Kirtland, and the church, and also the saints in Zion—
    To be sent greeting; not by commandment or constraint, but by revelation and the word of wisdom, showing forth the order and will of God in the temporal salvation of all saints in the last days…”

    “And again, hot drinks are not for the body or belly.”

    Seems pretty straight forward. The WoW is for our benefit. It is sent not by commandment or constraint. It is for our temporal salvation. It says nothing of our spiritual salvation. The WoW says we should avoid hot drinks.

    Seems straightforward to me.

  6. Japan in the mid-90s was a hodge-podge of local interpretation. A cool chart circulated listing about 100 different drinks going under the appellation “tea” but which were nevertheless approved under the WoW (by whom I do not know).

    The basic rule, though, was that drinks coming from the tea plant, whether green or black, should be avoided. One problem was that many of the herbal infusion teas often contained some green or black tea as a flavor enhancer in the background. I would be surprised if a local authority would take it upon himself to provide interpretive guidance in here, so at some point everyone just draws their own line in there somewhere.

  7. The phrase “hot drinks” in the Word of Wisdom was interpreted by Brigham Young and later prophets to mean tea and coffee. In my opinion, any other hot drink is acceptable. Tea, as it has always been understood to mean, is an infusion of the leaves of the Camellia sinensis plant. This means that black, green, “iced”, oolong, chai, and white teas are against the Word of Wisdom because they are all made from that plant. Coffee, as it has always been understood to mean, is an infusion of the fruit (“beans”) of any of the species of the Coffea genus.

    This topic has been extensively covered in other places. You can find some interesting commentary here:

  8. Brent,

    As Joseph Smith said, “What is the rule of interpretation? Just no interpretation at all. Understand it precisely as it reads.”

    First, where is this quote found? Second, this might not be the blog for you. In a sense, by denying the need for interpretation, you are making a type of interpretation.

    “The WoW is for our benefit. It is sent not by commandment or constraint. It is for our temporal salvation. It says nothing of our spiritual salvation.”

    Since the way in which local leaders interpret the WoW affects the acquisition of a temple recommend, this might not be as temporal in practice as you claim.

  9. Thanks all for your responses. It seems that three major interpretations have emerged:

    A. Tea refers to black tea (#2)

    B. Tea refers to anything coming from the leaves of the Camellia sinensis plant (#3)

    C. Tea refers to black and green tea (#4 and 7)

    Are we to take C as being more authoritative since it comes from the site?

  10. Chris H.,

    Here’s the reference where you can find that quote: D.H.C 5:260-262 (Jan. 29, 1843).

    My so-called temporal claim can be found in D&C 89:2. Can you point to the revelation where God changed His mind?

    Why might this blog not be the place for me? Because I quote from the teachings of Joseph Smith, and the Doctrine and Covenants?

  11. travelling in China wasn`t a problem – restaurants will serve plain hot boiled water (in a tea pot!) for you (I think my Chinese husband said it is called “white tea”) or else (my favorite!) some kind of small white chrysanthemum flowers as “tea” – the latter is supposed to be very good for you health-wise too.

  12. The church does not define “tea” any more than it defines “sand”. Tea has a definition much older than the church. Tea is any drink made by the steeping of parts of the tea plant, or Camellia sinensis, as has already been mentioned. Look up “tea” in any dictionary or encyclopedia, and you will see what it means.

  13. Brent,

    Thanks for the reference. I do appreciate it.

    I am not saying that it is not temporal. However, I think that Mormonism is many ways views the temporal as part of the spiritual. Additionally, since my worthiness to attend the temple (which also impacts me temporallly because it affect my employment) is connected to my adherence to the WoW, it is also a spiritual issue. I might just be my interpretation (wink, winK), but I feel that my spiritual salvation and my spiritual well-being is closely connected to my ability to attend and worship in the temple.

    “Why might this blog not be the place for me? Because I quote from the teachings of Joseph Smith, and the Doctrine and Covenants?”

    No, we like Joseph Smith and the scriptures. However, this blog heavily focuses on the interpretation of scripture and religious culture using a variety of interpretive schools and methods (linquistics, anthropology, sociology, history and philosophy amongst others). Interpretation is what we do. So, given your appartent dislike for interpretation (my guess is that you were specifically talking about this issue) we might drive you crazy. I said this with sarcasm and should have included a smiley-face. All are welcome.

  14. Kim, I think you were right the first time. The word “tea” as it is used in English refers to a drink made with Camellia sinensis. The question of whether or not a drink is made with Camelia sinesis is a concrete issue and does not change depending upon the language we are speaking or the culture in which we are raised. In practical terms, while visiting the Middle East, I was offered a hot drink by some bedouins. I asked if it was made from tea leaves. When they said “yes,” I politely declined and explained that I could not drink it for religious reasons. They seemed to understand and we went on with dinner.

  15. The WoW is for our benefit. It is sent not by commandment or constraint. It is for our temporal salvation. It says nothing of our spiritual salvation. The WoW says we should avoid hot drinks.
    Seems straightforward to me.

    Brent, you are more than welcome to come and post on our blog. Personally speaking, I wasn’t sure how to take your original post. Are you being serious when you say that this seems “straightforward”? That the term “hot drinks” for instance is self evident?

  16. Where does Iced tea fit in?

    One of the other things that this post brings out so well is the that as entrenched as WoW is we do not live by the scripture at all and the actual change to commandment revelation is largely ignored. But it clearly changed around the time of prohibition and I personally believe has more to do with alcohol than anything else. English ladies like my grandmother were never asked to give up their tea but giving up alcohol was required.

  17. Iced tea? As Kim seems to imply, of course it is prohibited. It is “tea.” The thing that becomes confusing is that there are two different things that we refer to as the Word of Wisdom. There is the health code that appears in Section 89, and there are the rules that will prevent one from entering the temple. We may violate some of the provisions of Section 89 (such as those relating to meat) and still be worthy of a temple recommend. However, if we drink tea or coffee, regardless of whether it is hot, chilled or iced, we will not qualify for a temple recommend. Of course, additional confusion arises due to the fact that the temple recommend questions have changed over time. However, if one asks today, may I go to China and drink some things that are called “tea” and still be worthy to hold a temple recommend, I believe the answer is, that depends upon whether the “tea” is made from tea leaves, or Camellia sinensis. This is the meaning of the word “tea” in English and English is the language spoken by Brigham Young when he said the following: “This Word of Wisdom prohibits the use of hot drinks and tobacco. I have heard it argued that tea and coffee are not mentioned therein; that is very true; but what were the people in the habit of taking as hot drinks when that revelation was given? Tea and coffee. We were not in the habit of drinking water very hot, but tea and coffee-the beverages in common use. And the Lord said hot drinks are not good for the body nor the belly.” (Brigham Young, Discourses of Brigham Young, selected and arranged by John A. Widtsoe, p.182)

  18. Hot chocolate is OK and it is Hot. What really matters is whats in a persons heart, not what we put in our bellies.
    My Mother in Law buried in her Temple Garments drank coffee everyday. She lived in Salt Lake all her life and joked that Norwegians were exempt. She helped many people and was loved by many including her Ward, God will accept her because she loved him. Will he hate her for drinking Coffee? God is love and will not hate his children. She lived to be 89 surpassing many of her family in health. She had 10 Brothers and Sisters.

    We will all stand alone before God one day and he will remind us of everything we ever did. He will call us guilty or not and the only thing that will save us will be trusting & knowing Jesus. Did we love others or did we judge them for drinking tea.

  19. It is unfortunate that God could be the author of so much confusion – Of course, that confusion disappears almost completely if we could take Brent Hartman’s comments in #6 a little more seriously.

  20. In Hong Kong, we (i.e., missionaries) considered all tea unacceptable, except for herbal or flower teas (which, of course, aren’t really tea). But different church members had different interpretations. I met a number who thought that green tea was OK.

    In my opinion, a reinterpretation of the Word of Wisdom is long past due. As currently understood and applied, it’s not much of a health code. Prohibiting tea, but not soft drinks or hamburgers, is nonsensical.

    When I hear the WoW discussed in church, two rationales tend to emerge: (i) avoidance of addiction; and (ii) obedience for the sake of obedience.

    I’m fine with avoidance of addiction, but it’s a rather myopic view of health. For many, the risk of addiction is relatively minimal with respect to coffee, tea, and even alcohol. When we focus narrowly on addiction,we tend to overlook many modern health concerns that are arguably more pressing and widespread (e.g., obesity).

    The obedience for obedience’s sake argument never holds water with me. I’m not persuaded that obedience per se is a virtue; the moral value of a particular action does not have much to do with whether it was performed independently or out of obedience to authority. This rationale also implies that morality is arbitrary; rather than flowing from some “higher law,” morality is whatever God (or rather, a church speaking for God) says it is at any particular moment. In a religion that expects its adherents to achieve godhood, I would hope that we could conceive of morality as something more than a checklist.

  21. I have often wished that the Word of Wisdom had a definitions section, although even that wouldn’t be a fool-proof way to avoid confusion across languages and cultures.

  22. smallaxe, I don’t see any response that takes seriously Brent’s comment that the D&C says nothing about tea, but only temperature – rendering moot all the mental gymnastics about the definition tea for WoW purposes. At a minimum, it could have been included in your summary in #10. Tea = tea, hot = hot.

  23. NZ, this is precisely the problem, and why I didn’t take Brent’s comments seriously. Where does he take “hot” as “temperature”? That’s explicitly an interpretive move and he seems to claim that D&C 89 doesn’t require an interpretive move to be made “clear”. Why, for instance, couldn’t hot be a reiteration of “strong” mentioned a few verses before? FWIW, the OED has “strong” listed as one of the definitions of “hot” that appears in the 18th and 19th century. It also explains that “hot” is slang for “drunk” in the same time period.

    My point is, these passages require interpretation to be made “clear”, and interpretation is often a tricky matter. It’s difficult for me to take anyone seriously who pretends otherwise.

  24. From my perspective, hot is hot, and not by commandment or constraint means not by commandment or constraint.

    I feel it’s important that one’s interpretation should not be allowed to contradict the actual scripture they are interpreting, and one should not allow fallible man’s interpretation to create a greater barrier between man and God, than the problem they are trying to solve.

    Is not following the advice given in the word of wisdom going to do more harm than those who condemn you for not following that advice, and prevent you from obtaining the blessings for exaltation based on nothing but fallible interpretation? I don’t think so.

    Here’s some more interesting quotes:

    George Q. Cannon in 1868 stated: “We are told, and very plainly too, that hot drinks–tea, coffee, chocolate, cocoa and all drinks of this kind are not good for man…we must feed our children properly… We must not permit them to drink liquor or hot drinks, or hot soups…” (Journal of Discourses, reported by David W. Evans 7 April 1868, Vol. 12, p. 221,223)

    Brigham Young stated that “…hot drinks are not good. We will use cold drinks to allay thirst and warm drinks for medicine.” (Journal of Discourses, Vol. 12, p. 209)

    Wilford Woodruff said that “it was wisdom to deal with all such matters according to the wisdom which God gave; that a forced abstinence was not making us free, but should [put us] under bondage with a yoke upon our necks.” (Wilford Woodruff Journal, 7 November 1841; History of the Church, 2:35)

    “Some of the brethren are very strenuous upon the “Word of Wisdom,” and would like to have me preach upon it, and urge it upon the brethren, and make it a test of fellowship. I do not think that I shall do so. I have never done so.” (Brigham Young, Journal of Discourses, vol. 9, p. 35)

  25. Brent, thank you for continuing the conversation. I now better understand your position.

    I feel it’s important that one’s interpretation should not be allowed to contradict the actual scripture they are interpreting, and one should not allow fallible man’s interpretation to create a greater barrier between man and God, than the problem they are trying to solve.

    The problem is that whether or not you believe that there is in fact some pure revelation that exists independent of our interpretation of it, as human beings we cannot but interpret. Your position on the WoW is ultimately an interpretation. You read “hot” to refer to temperature and “not by commandment or constraint” to mean, well… I’m not sure what you take this to mean (should the WoW then not be a temple recommend question?). You substantiate your interpretation with the interpretation of earlier prophets.

    There are of course many other interpretations. The bottom line for me, however, is that anyone making an interpretation must provide reasons for their interpretation being the “best” interpretation. Pretending that an interpretation is not an interpretation, which you do in your first post or at least pretend that the passage does not need an interpretation, is ridiculous. The meaning of scriptures are not self-evident and to assert that it is, IMO, is to do a great injustice to them.

    So, with all that said, persuade us that your interpretation is the best one. Citing a series of out-dated GA quotes does not suffice, as there are just as many, if not more providing a different interpretation; and many of those quotes tend to be from more recent GAs who most LDSs tend to take as more authoritative than previous ones.

  26. What’s the alternative interpretation to “not by commandment or constraint”?

    I agree that even something as seemingly clear as “hot” is still open to interpretation. One could say that hot refers to spicy drinks, or even Paris Hilton’s favorite drink (a sure sign of apostasy).

    The fact that so many prophets of this dispensation can’t come up with consistent interpretations is, from my perspective, why this was not given as a commandment but as good temporal advice. Let everyone judge for themselves how they should implement this advice in their lives, and let them deal with the temporal consequences as they come.

    When men start using their interpretation of temporal laws to determine spiritual blessings for others, then we get into a position that I can’t sustain.

    The current interpretation where a man who drinks a glass of tea every now and then, is not worthy of temple blessings, but a man who eats meat for every meal is worthy, is just plain ridiculous. If this so-called “law” of health is so important then why do I see so many overweight, poor-health, sugar addicted temple recommend holders?

    In other words, this arbitrary enforcement of something that was never given as a commandment is what I have a problem with. I’ve never seen a good explanation as to why some parts of the WoW are so important that your spiritual well being depends on living them, but other parts of the very same WoW have no bearing whatsoever on you spiritual well being. I certainly wouldn’t want to be the one defending that position.

    As Eliza R. Snow said, “truth is reason”, and i don’t see any reason in the current interpretation of the WoW. I do see reason in my “interpretation”, but I could be a little biased.

  27. smallaxe, in about a year, my wife and I are planning to put together a prospectus for an edited volume on the Word of Wisdom for a non-Mormon audience. Do you have energy to put together a scholarly manuscript on the global WoW? I would love to read it in any case. When we’re up and running, it’ll be coordinated via

  28. I actually enjoy the recommend interview very much – because the questions seem to beg us to find our own interpretations.

    If the WoW prohibits certain plants (like Camellia sinensis) then ya’ll better stop drinking caffeinated soda. Where do you think they extract the caffeine from?

    I say the ambiguity about the WoW is a strong sign of how the Brethren want us to treat it. You don’t see much confusion about how to posses true charity – for example. Can you imagine Pres. Monson getting up in GC and dissecting the nuances of the WoW? There are weightier matters to focus on.

    Respecting the interpretations of others (even if we disagree) is the real issue here.

  29. In my conversations with GA’s, none have claimed ‘infallibility’. I believe Pres. Woodruff is credited with invoking the requirement of compliance with the WoW for Temple worthiness. Was this really ‘inspired’, when was this and why has this stuck.

    It appears to me that we have become preoccupied with form-over-function in the avowed avoidance of coffee, tea, alcohol and tobacco, while over-eating, drinking caffeinated beverages and such continues unabated. The spirit of the initial revelation has been lost in the zeal for control.

    Basically, I believe that the interpretation of the WoW is splitting hairs and it’s required adherence for Temple attendance is badly in need of review. Do we still need a commandment for things that we know within our selves from our internal operating manual (the light of Christ)?

    I agree with Brent Hartman (see #6 & #33).

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