When some hear about revelation, I imagine they picture God speaking down from above. Maybe there’s a cloud involved. There might be a burning bush or two. The LDS (Mormon) church recently celebrated the 40th anniversary of the removal of the racial ban on the priesthood. Add to this the many other laundry list of issues church members would like clarity or even change on. Bring up women’s roles in the church and same-sex marriage, and you can quickly become embroiled in any number of debates. For that matter, you can get into even worse trouble if you start talking about whether watching the Super Bowl is okay or if Mountain Dew is on the approved list of beverages.
This post isn’t about any of that.
Instead, it’s a reaction to a piece I came across yesterday about the way the Word of Wisdom has developed over the years in the Mormon religion. The new book I’m working on is a western(!), and I’m having Mormon missionaries play a role in it. I wanted to see what their attitudes toward liquor would have been. I knew the Word of Wisdom was initially viewed more as a bit of helpful advice than an actual commandment, and I didn’t know when it finally solidified into the code we have today.
Imagine my surprise when I discovered just how full of twists that path was.
For those of you who don’t click through to the links I give you (and I know that you are many, judging by my statistics), let me highlight a few points:
- One of the items in the Word of Wisdom to get the most focus at first was that members should abstain from eating meat. In 1898, when the First Presidency and Quorum of the Twelve discussed the Word of Wisdom, both the Prophet (Wilford Woodruff) and President of the Quorum of the Twelve (Lorenzo Snow) said it should be followed as a commandment, and that members should “refrain from eating meat except in dire necessity.”
- Numerous high ranking church members drank coffee, tea, and alcohol into the 1900s.
- Wine was still used for the Sacrament by members of the Twelve up until 1906.
- The Prohibition push had an enormous effect on the teachings surrounding alcohol. Teachings that last to this day.
- In 1930, the Apostle John Widstoe published a tract saying the Word of Wisdom included a ban on refined flours.
I don’t bring this up to say we should all start going out and becoming gluten-free vegetarians (though I’m sure there are some who might look at that advice and interpret it that way), but rather to observe that a church that believes it grows “line upon line, precept upon precept” will have this twisting evolution of its doctrine as an inevitable side effect.
Growing up in the church, it’s easy to assume the Way Things Are has always been the Way Things Are. And the church does, indeed, encourage that line of thinking. We’re taught to believe in revelation, and we’re taught that commandments come by way of revelation. We’re taught we can receive revelation ourselves, but we often don’t make the connection that the way we receive personal revelation (through thought, prayer, inspiration, and debate with other people until we arrive at a decision) often will mirror the way church leaders receive revelation.
Again, I’m not saying God never takes a direct hand in the course of events. I believe He does, but I believe that when that happens, it’s the exception, not the rule.
Look at the path to the present day Word of Wisdom interpretation. At no time in the course of that law was it fine to get drunk or get so hooked on caffeine that you can’t quit it. It was always there to add temperance and mindfulness to what members were putting in their bodies. The exact interpretation evolved as understanding evolved.
Mirror that with the way the church finally ended up removing the priesthood ban, a much more sensitive area. Compare that with the way the church has handled other issues in the past, and how it will inevitably handle issues in the future. The takeaway for me is that it’s a process. That things that seem iron clad in the way they’re taught might not actually be that iron clad in the long run. That doesn’t mean it’s up to me to interpret all of them the way I’d like. There’s enough written by church leaders over the years to justify just about anything you want to justify.
In the end, I believe in following the teachings of the church today, but I keep in mind that those teachings have changed in the past and they will change in the future. I don’t know how they will change, but that flexibility gives me enough space to have a testimony that can take some punches, and I’m really grateful for that.