We have heard considerable of late, especially since twelve months today, on the subject of the Word of Wisdom. Almost every elder who has spoken from this stand has felt the necessity and importance of calling the attention of the people to this subject. 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. (Elder George Q. Cannon, 1868 Journal of Discourses vol. 12, pg 221)

An Historical Analysis of the Word of Wisdom

Masters Thesis by Paul H. Peterson, August 1972

Apparently by the mid-1830’s it was well-understood that “hot drinks” specifically referred to tea and coffee. In 1833 a Sister Brown apostatized from the Church, giving as one of her reasons that Joseph Smith’s wife had offered her a cup of tea or coffee after a long, arduous journey.2 In 1835, two Mormon missionaries, Wilford Woodruff and Harry Brown, surprised a Mr. Jerrew and his wife by not drinking coffee.3 That same year William W. Phelps noted that the Kirtland Saints were living the Word of Wisdom and refraining from tea and coffee.4 The minutes of ecclesiastical trials of prominent Mormons at Far West, Missouri provide additional evidence that abstinence from these articles was stressed. Oliver Cowdery justified drinking tea for health purposes, while David and John Whitmer claimed they used tea and coffee but never considered them to be hot drinks.5 Lyman Johnson was also charged with drinking tea and coffee, as well as whiskey,6 and at Far West the Saints voted to not support stores selling these items.7

While the Saints opposed the common use of tea and coffee, it would appear that they had little objection to its occasional use for medicinal purposes. In an age when these items were frequently used as a relief for a wide variety of ailments, it would have been imprudent to have entirely forbidden their use.8 Incidents usch as Cowdery drinking tea and Emma Smith offering a tired traveler a hot drink for extreme fatigue are understandable when viewed in this perspective.

[2] “Memoirs of George Albert Smith,” entry under 1833, HDC. [3] Journal History of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, January 13, 1835, HDC. Cited hereafter as Journal History. [4] Journal History, May 26, 1835. [5] “Far West Record,” p. 92, document containing minutes of meetings held in Ohio and Missouri, HDC. [6] “Far West Record,” p. 119. [7] Joseph Smith, History of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, ed. B. H. Roberts (2nd. ed. ref.; Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Co., 1967), II, 524, hereafter cited as Smith, History of the Church. [8] Madge E. Pickard and R. Carlyle Buley, The Midwest Pinoeer–His Ills, Cures, and Doctores (Crawfordsville, Indiana: R. E. Banta, 1945), pp. 35-97, provides an excellent treatment of frontier medicinal procedures and curatives.


In 1706 a book by a doctor from Montpelier, France, was translated into English. Its title: Wholesome Advice against the Abuse of Hot Liquors’. Its particular targets were tea, coffee and hot chocolate. In the late seventeenth century, great medicinal claims had been made for hot drinks, including tea, and this book was a response to them, arguing that though while moderate consumption could be beneficial, an excess of hot drinks caused the blood and insides to heat up and that ‘Excess of Heat is the most Common Cause of Sickness and Death’. Indeed, noted the doctor, ‘The name of Phlegeton, one of the rivers of Hell, coming from a word that signifies to Burn, denotes, That the Abuse of Hot Liquors contributes very much to People the Kingdom of Death’. Medical science at the time was so basic that the ‘evidence’ presented in the book was based largely upon vague anatomical knowledge and references to Bible stories and classical Greek and Roman texts. It is noted, for example, that Methuselah, the Old Testament figure who lived almost a thousand years, never drank hot liquors.