Methodist Context to the Word of Wisdom

By May 20, 2016

Paul Peterson’s thesis was for a long time the go-to resource for the cultural context of the Joseph Smith (JS) revelation known as the Word of Wisdom (WoW). He focuses mostly on booze, the temperance movement, and health reformers (e.g., Sylvester Graham of cracker fame). The more scholarly of the commentaries typically used by Mormons have generally stuck with that [n1].

Staker, in his Hearken O Ye People (2010) did, I think, offer some of the first primarily religious context for abstaining from alcohol and tobacco. He pointed to the Campbellites and the Owenites. Samuel Underhill, a prominent Owenite who preached in Kirtland before JS arrived, wrote a tract in 1829 that included:

1. Now it came to pass that the sons of men found in the land a certain plant having broad leaves and an acrid taste and it stupified the people.

2. And some burned it and drew the smoke thereof into their mouths & some put it in their mouths and spit forth the juice thereof for it was much & many made it very fine and drew it into their noses…[H]earken unto wisdom & be ye saved.

6. Strong drink is ruin; much wine is an evil, tea is a curse, coffee is injurious, tobacooes disgustful and poisonous and altogther are a great damnation.

6. [sic] Drink water alone, live on simple diet take due exercise and ye shall be happy. [n2]

The editors of the Joseph Smith Papers point to Campbellite publications for examples of religions speaking out against alcohol and tobacco (JSPP, D3, 14). And to be fair a lot of religious folks and church leaders participated in the temperance movement, as Jed Woodworth notes in a piece contextualizing the WoW (2013) published by the LDS Church History Department. Jed also also wrote that “As early as 1784, both Quakers and Methodists were advising their members to abstain from all hard liquor and to avoid participation in its sale and manufacture. [citing Lender and Martin, Drinking in America: A History].”

In reading through some early Methodist documents on an unrelated topic, I stumbled on two sets of rules for early societies. The Nature, Design, and General Rules of the United Societies, in London, Bristol, Kingford, Newcastle upon Tyne is the antecedent to the Methodist Discipline and it compiled letters written by John and Charles Wesley about early societies.

The May 1, 1743 letter describes the “Fruits” of a soul saved from sin as “avoiding Evil in every Kind” including “Drunkenness, Buying or selling Spirituous Liquors; or drinking them (unless in Cases of extreme Necessity).” [n3]

The December 25, 1744 letter to the “Band Societies” included as its first rule:

I. Carefully to abstain from doing Evil; in particular,
1. Neither to buy or sell any thing at all on the Lord’s Day.
2. To taste no spirituous Liquor, no Dram of any kind, unless prescribed by a Physician.
3. To be at a Word in buying and selling.
4. To pawn nothing, no not to save Life.
5. Not to mention the Fault of any behind his Back, and to stope those short that do.
6. To wear no needless Ornaments, such as Rings, Ear-rings, Necklaces, Lace, Ruffles.
7. To use no needless Self indulgence, such as taking Snuff or Tobacco, unless prescribed by a Physician.

What is interesting here is that Methodist rules proscribed spirituous liquors (AKA “strong drink”) and tobacco except for medical reasons. And despite having been written almost ninety years earlier, these statements remained in the Methodist Discipline into JS’s lifetime. Moreover, JS was familiar with the Discipline having sermonized about it in 1834.

Now this isn’t to say that Methodist rules were the most important or significant context to JS’s revelation. Temperance was a thing, and the Campbellites (and Owenites) were proximate. I do think, however, that it is significant and worth thinking about either these proscriptions, or the temperance and reform movements as having a broader religious context. And with JS’s ties to Methodism, it makes sense that he would be familiar with the Methodist proscriptions and ultimately frame them similarly.


  1. E.g., Cook’s The Revelations of the Prophet Joseph Smith doesn’t have much at all but Harper’s Making Sense of the Doctrine & Covenants generally follows Peterson.
  2. Samuel Underhill, “Chronicles, Notes, and Mixims of Dr. Samuel Underhill,” quoted in Staker, Hearken O Ye People, 110.
  3. John Wesley and Charles Wesley, ” The Nature, Design, and General Rules of the United Societies, in London, Bristol, Kingford, Newcastle upon Tyne,” in Rupert Eric Davies, ed., vol. 9 of The Bicentennial Edition of the Works of John Wesley (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1976? ), 70.
  4. John Wesley, “Directions Given to the Band Societies,” in ibid., 79.

The following are articles or chapters that deal with how the Word of Wisdom has been practiced in Mormon history.

Thomas G. Alexander, Mormonism in Transition: A History of the Latter-day Saints, 1890?1930 (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1986), 258-272. [not available online]

Thomas G. Alexander, “The Word of Wisdom: From Principle to Requirement,” Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought 14 (Autumn, 1981): 78-88.

Lester E. Bush Jr., Health and Medicine among the Latter-day Saints: Science, Sense, and Scripture (New York: Crossroad, 1993), esp. 48-59. [not available online]

Edward L. Kimball, “The History of LDS Temple Admission Standards,” Journal of Mormon History 24 (Spring, 1998): 135?176.

Paul H. Peterson and Ronald W. Walker, ?Brigham Young?s Word of Wisdom Legacy,? BYU Studies 42, no. 3 & 4 (2003), 29-64.

Paul H. Peterson “An Historical Analysis of the Word of Wisdom” (MA thesis, Brigham Young University, 1972).

Article filed under Miscellaneous


  1. It’s also important to remember that Americans drank much, much more in the antebellum period than at any later time, and most of what they drank were liquors, not less alcoholic wine or beer.

    Comment by MH — May 20, 2016 @ 8:06 am

  2. MH. That is the big focus of the temperance movement. Though I wouldn’t say that it was most. Beer and Cider were the beverages of choice by volume. Lender and Martin have a fun appendix in their Drinking in America that has the per Capita alcohol consumption in US gallons. 1830 has the highest consumption (though the entire early 1800s are relatively high). For 1830 they give:

    Beverage: 9.5
    Absolute Alcohol: 4.3

    Beverage: 0.5
    Absolute Alcohol 0.1

    Beverage: 27.0
    Absolute Alcohol: 2.7

    By 1840 that consumption had dropped by more than half (as calculated by total absolute alcohol).

    Comment by J. Stapley — May 20, 2016 @ 9:17 am

  3. Drinking untreated water, as recommended back in those days, doesn’t sound like great advice.

    Comment by Wally — May 20, 2016 @ 9:26 am

  4. Nice post, J. Thanks especially for the bibliography

    Comment by Jeff T — May 21, 2016 @ 3:18 pm

  5. You already know how much I love this, J.


    Comment by Christopher — May 21, 2016 @ 7:57 pm

  6. Did any anti-temperance people make use of biblical counterarguments? God required wine and beer.

    Comment by Ben S — May 21, 2016 @ 8:47 pm

  7. Thanks.

    Ben, I don’t remember seeing that in Cosmos Crumbling but that was a very long time ago. I not fluent in temperance sources, so I probably shouldn’t say one way or the other. It is an interesting possibility. But it was booze that was the biggest deal to temperance, and I don’t think distilled alcohol shows up in Deuteronomy, does it?

    Comment by J. Stapley — May 22, 2016 @ 11:04 am


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