Relief Society Lesson 19: Temporal and Spiritual Blessings from the Word of Wisdom

When I was young, I was often frustrated that one of the only things my peers knew about our faith concerned the negative aspects of the Word of Wisdom. They had a good grasp of the things that we don’t do, without having the same grasp of the positive things that we do do and believe.

Many years later, and many, many states away from my Oregon homeland, I found myself on the East Coast for grad school. I am still not certain if more people smoke and drink there, or if I was just more aware of it, but either way, I began to feel immense gratitude for the “negative” tenets of the Word of Wisdom that had previously caused me some frustration.

What exactly was I grateful for? That my lungs and liver had the greatest opportunity to be clean and healthy, and that I was free from these specific dependencies. While years and residences have again changed, I feel the same measure of gratitude for the Word of Wisdom–both the negative and positive aspects of it.

From the Life

Lesson 19 begins with a story from the life of a young George Albert Smith. He was very sick with typhoid fever, and his doctor advised his mother that it would not only be good for him to be on bed rest for a certain number of weeks with no solid food, it would also be good for him to be given coffee.

His mother had “brought three children into the world and two had died,” so she was understandably “anxious” about little George. Still, rather than accept the doctor’s coffee prescription, the sick child requested a priesthood blessing. He was well within one day. So well in fact, that the next time the doctor visited, he found his patient “playing outside with the other children.”

George Albert Smith trusted in God and His* Word of Wisdom. He wanted the Saints to know that obedience to this counsel carries physical and spiritual blessings, thus, he recounted the Old Testament story of Daniel boldly refusing the food and drink of the king. Daniel’s life was preserved, but even more vitally, he received “the great spiritual blessing: ‘the inspiration of the Almighty.'”

The W.O.W. as Loving Counsel

How else does President Smith look upon the Word of Wisdom? “As kind advice from our Father in heaven, who desires to see His children become more like Him.”

President Smith also hit on one more very important reason for the Word of Wisdom: “The gospel of Jesus Christ is to preserve souls, of which the body is the tabernacle, for eternal happiness.” We know that everything is spiritual to God, and it may be because everything affecting the body or spirit affects the soul.

Historical Notes

When the Word of Wisdom was given, it was given because of a woman. The story goes that Emma Smith was tired of cleaning the brethren’s cleaning tobacco spit after their meetings, and talked to her husband, Joseph, about it. I would be tired of that too/they should have cleaned their own tobacco spit, but I suppose I’m glad that it happened as it did, because now we have this scriptural gem. (Thank you, Emma!)

It is also important to note that at the time this revelation was given, it really was for a “word of wisdom” rather than “a commandment or constraint.” The latter role would be adopted only later. One instance of this, is that while the Word of Wisdom showed “forth the order and will of God in the temporal salvation of all saints in the last days,” many years would pass before it would be tied to the eternal salvation of all of the saints, by way of a Temple Recommend Question.

Correspondingly, it is relatively well established that both Brother Joseph and brother Brigham (as well as others) drank alcohol post the February 27, 1833 reception of the Word of Wisdom, and at least Joseph continued to smoke cigars well into the Nauvoo years. It is slightly difficult to conceive of this, given its “commandment” emphasis today, but it is true.

So, when did the shift happen? Or maybe better yet, why did the shift happen?

The two answers may actually be related. We know that The Word of Wisdom took on greater weight sometime around the 1880’s after polygamy was no longer legal, and that it became a requirement sometime in the 1930’s. Focusing on the first of those points, one article makes a compelling case that the stricter compliance to the Word of Wisdom following the ban on polygamy was essential to set the saints apart.

Those who were practicing polygamy (often at great sacrifice to their persons and families) saw themselves as living after the same order as the Old Testament prophets, and could subsequently feel confident that they were God’s chosen people. Even those not practicing polygamy (who in fact made up the majority) could feel the same confidence simply by association.

After the polygamy era, Latter-day Saints’ status as the elect was not as clear. How would they be peculiar, if their marriages were like others? The peculiarity they needed had been revealed (fifty or so) years before, making it easy to latch onto.

At that time, General Authorities were particularly concerned about the young men who could no longer look forward to growing up in the image of the Old Testament fathers. This also helps explain why the church became involved with the Boy Scouts of America around 1910. It was to aid this new group of boys to become men.

Many articles were printed in Church publications urging young men to embrace hard work and Word of Wisdom living. Women were not the recipient of these articles for a time, as it was believed that they would naturally steer clear of the discouraged substances.

Positive Aspects

President Smith shares my gratitude for both parts of the Word of Wisdom: “Our Heavenly Father not only tells us what we should avoid, but tells us what we may use with profit.”

Because the Word of Wisdom’s don’ts are so well known, I am going to spend the rest of my attention on the do’s: Do eat fruit and vegetables in their season! Do eat herbs! Do eat grains! Do eat meat in times of Winter and/or famine, and please, please do so sparingly!

Fruits and Vegetables

Fruits and vegetables are always a good idea. Eating them when they are in season? The best idea. Why? When produce is eaten in its season, it is much better for the environment and you, the first because it did not have to travel from the other side of the world. It could be grown much closer, preferably much, much closer. (Buying locally is also a good idea, because it helps ensure that there might be produce for you to buy down the road, that won’t be from even further, and further away.)

The second, because it could be picked closer to ripe, when its nutrients are at their prime, and is also more cost effective. (Thank heavens for cherry season!) This do also celebrates home gardens, which very nearly necessitates that produce is eaten (or at least frozen or canned) in its correct season.

Here is a helpful chart visualizing some popular fruits and vegetables by their season. (To see more clearly:


Herbs add rich flavors without adding a rich number of calories, and have many natural healing elements. They can also be home-grown, even in small-ish spaces. I know because I was growing basil, oregano, and mint in my very small Los Angeles studio. There is something wonderful about growing things yourself (or trying to grow things yourself, as the my case may be). It helps us feel closer to our food, when we know some of the work that went into it.

A day view of my herbs, pre-being gone for five weeks.
A night view of my herbs, post-being gone for five weeks. Oops!


Grains are also great and may be purchased in large quantities which is useful for large families or poor students (or anyone in between). They supplement meals nicely, and stretch out (generally) more expensive proteins.

I understand that many a fad diet discourages either complete, or near complete removal of grains** from one’s diets, and this is where I choose to very consciously trust God rather than man. God told us that grains are good for us, and some were made specifically for us. I particularly trust it when the grains involved are whole grains. My favorites are oats, quinoa, and brown rice.

I also trust the earlier verse explaining that “evils and designs…exist in the hearts of conspiring men in the last days.” It does not seem particularly hard to see this, and not only concerning the most addictive substances like alcohol or tobacco.

It seems clear that factory farms as well as Western food-maker’s collective decision to put corn and sugar in things that should not be sweetened is pretty conspiring, as well as processing things so much that we can no longer pronounce what we put into our bodies.


Remember that it says sparingly. Now this word is admittedly difficult to define, but I am going to go out on a somewhat risky limb and say that I think we would do well as a church to think more thoughtfully about what sparingly means. We may find that our meat consumption is not in line with what God intended or requested, as manifested by his very specific qualifiers.

I was vegan for two years and vegetarian for two more years. Now I do eat meat, but try very hard to be conscious about when and how much. What I decide is the right amount of sparingly may not be the amount of sparingly that you decide is right for you and your family, and that is okay. I just ask that you give thought and even prayer to it.

For added encouragement, many studies show that vegetarians are among the most healthy people in the world, but they also show that people who eat just a little bit of meat are exactly the same level of healthy. I try to fit myself into that second category. Eating less meat is also good for the environment. In fact, it is one of the single best things an individual person can do to reduce their environmental footprint.

For Physical/Mental Health, and More

President Smith observed “that compliance with the laws of health produces mental and physical strength,” which means quite a lot coming from him, a kind individual who was often physically and mentally sick, as I wrote about previously.

Is the Word of Wisdom only for health then, or for the environment? No. Of course not, though those are incredibly worthy blessings. President Smith said,

I am fully convinced that the Lord in His mercy, when He gave us the Word of Wisdom, gave it to us, not alone that we might have health while we live in the world, but that our faith might be strengthened, that our testimony of the divinity of the mission of our Lord and Master might be increased.

Mine has. It truly was ahead of its time. It has blessed the quality of my life, and choosing to ignore its counsel has brought sad consequences to a few individuals I love dearly, including my maternal grandfather who passed away from a lapsed lung from years of smoking. The Word of Wisdom really can protect us if we will let it, and has many more glorious promises, aside.

How have you been blessed by following the Word of Wisdom, physically or spiritually?

How do you think we can give proper emphasis to the positive aspects of the Word of Wisdom?

*It makes special sense to me that the Word of Wisdom may be from Heavenly Father and Heavenly Mother. I can picture Her caring very much that our bodies and spirits are fed well, as I can picture the same of our Father.

**Some diets even discourage fruit consumption because of its sugar content. Remember that the sugar found in an apple is metabolized by the body differently than the sugar found in an apple flavored jolly ranchor. Real fruit (rather than candy or even fruit juices) contains high amounts of fiber that help clean out your body, and communicate when you are full. Win win. 🙂 But with that said, those with diabetes would do well to follow doctor’s counsel, as those allergic to gluten would do well to avoid it.


Rachel is a PhD student in Philosophy of Religion and Theology at Claremont Graduate University. She co-edited _Mormon Feminism: Essential Writings_ with Joanna Brooks and Hannah Wheelwright. She is also a lover of all things books and bikes.

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5 Responses

  1. April says:

    I like your points about how what is healthy for us is also good for the planet. I also like that you brought up that Smith had a testimony of the health blessings available through this commandment, although he had poor health himself. Sort of like people who believe in miracles even when they experience tragedy. I admire people with this kind of optimism.

  2. Diane says:

    I’m glad that you wrote about how the WoW is good for a healthy body rather than placing an emphasis about the size of one’s body.(touchy issue for many, particularly women)

    Personally, WOW has never been an issue for me. I’ve never smoked, or drank alcohol. And since I like to cook eating a healthy diet isn’t particularly a problem. So what’s the problem? I am overweight, and its not from over eating, my weight come on from high doses of steroid use.( I say this because there has been many discussions in the Mormon blog world that a person who is overweight can’t possibly be following WOW) I use to weigh 140lbs and was rock solid. I miss that body. Now, not so much, but, I have to say I know all of my numbers and even my doctors were impressed. Its’ odd isn’t it? two people in a restaurant both eating fried chicken/ mashed potatoes and the thin person won’t get stares from people, yet, someone who is overweight will get glares? Its almost as if a thin person is given a pass because they can’t possibly have issues with diabetes or cholesterol.(I know several friends who are not overweight by government standards and yet, they both have this problem).

    I would think another part of the WOW that wasn’t really touched on in your article is exercise. I walk about five miles a day with my dog(this also helps people with depression/anxiety) It was one of the main reasons for me in deciding to get a dog. To get me up and out.

  3. spunky says:

    Brilliant points! Richard Ian Kimball makes an similar statement in “Sports in Zion,” he attributes a degree of the heavier emphasis on the WoW on a more masculine/streghtening/get the kids off the strees ideology that was common in the start of the Porgressive Era with the onslaught of industrialization, and therefore urbanization.

    Brilliant research, brilliant lesson plan.

    Thank you!!!

  4. Ability Moses says:

    When you keep the word of wisdom you will see the difference in you

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