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Relationship to Section 89. The relationship of Verses 89:1-3 to the rest of Section 89 is discussed at D&C 89.
Message. Themes, symbols, and doctrinal points emphasized in Verses 89:1-3 include:
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D&C 89:1-3: Key terms
- D&C 89:1: Word of wisdom. This phrase appears only three times in scripture outside this revelation, in each case in reference to a gift of the Spirit, distinguished from but coupled with "the word of knowledge" (see 1 Cor 12:8; Moro 10:9; and D&C 46:17). This gift, especially in uniquely Mormon scripture, seems to be connected very specifically to teaching or instruction. Of importance also is the plural phrase "words of wisdom," which appears in Joseph Smith's revelations more often, most significantly in passages associated with the building of the Kirtland House of the Lord: D&C 88:118 and 109:7, 14. (Other occurrences might well imply connection with the temple as well: D&C 50:1 is about testing spiritual manifestations—something that came to its fullest expression in the Nauvoo endowment—and D&C 78:2 is connected with the law of consecration. D&C 98:20, although it makes reference to "words of wisdom and eternal life," seems less obviously connected to the temple.) The emphasis on spiritual gifts and temple blessings may be of importance in interpreting the Word of Wisdom as well. But such connections aside, it is certainly important that "words of wisdom," as well as "the word of wisdom," are connected with teaching and instruction, guidance in living a good and appropriate life. At the very least, it would seem that what Latter-day Saints call the word of wisdom is to be received as a bit of carefully weighed instruction, a bit of inspired—spirit-directed—counsel.
- D&C 89:1: A word of wisdom. It is only here in all of scripture that the phrase "word of wisdom" is preceded by the indefinite article ("a"). The implication seems to be that this revelation is one among many "words of wisdom," and should be so regarded. Although the revelations contain only this word of wisdom, it would seem that it can't really be isolated from other spirit-influenced counsel to which Latter-day Saints would do well to give heed.
- D&C 89:1: The council of high priests. It should be noted that the high council did not come fully into existence until 1834 (the minutes recording its organization can be found in D&C 102), but there was nonetheless a council of high priests operative in Kirtland in 1833. After the 1832 endowment of power, at which point the first high priests were ordained, it was understood that those who had been endowed or ordained had a certain governing responsibility. It would seem that it was they, collectively, who asked some of the questions that led to this revelation.
- D&C 89:2: Commandment. Heavy emphasis has been laid on this word throughout the history of the interpretation of this revelation. Especially in the last years of the nineteenth century and the first years of the twentieth century, Church leaders were interested in whether or in what sense the Word of Wisdom is a commandment (a question raised in part because of the use of the word "commandments" in verse 18). It is common for Latter-day Saints to designate as a "commandment" anything that would seem to play a role in salvation or, put negatively, anything that would seem, if flouted, to result in the assignation of sin. This would accord, for the most part, with the definition of "to command" that can be found in Webster's 1828 dictionary: "To bid; to order; to direct; to charge; implying authority, and power to control, and to require obedience." Because the word "impl[ies] authority, and power to control, and to require obedience," it would seem to follow that anything with the status of a divine commandment is fully authoritative and obedience to it is required. But it might be noted that what obedience is required for is open to interpretation. Although the text says that the word of wisdom comes "not by commandment," it is nonetheless said to be for "the temporal salvation" of the Saints. Thus, while the revelation is said to be "not by commandment," it isn't clear that obedience to it isn't required for certain purposes, and at least certain sorts of salvation among them.
- D&C 89:2: Not by commandment. The phrase "not by commandment" and its equivalents appear several times in scripture. It appears twice in the Bible, both times in Paul's correspondence with the Saints in Corinth. Thus he clarifies some of his counsel as being spoken "by permission, and not of commandment" (1 Cor 7:6), and he explains that his request that the Saints contribute to the fund for the poor is spoken "not by commandment, but by occasion of the forwardness of others, and to prove the sincerity of [the Saints'] love" (2 Cor 8:2). Similar language appears several times in the Doctrine and Covenants. Oliver Cowdery, for instance, is told "not [to] write by way of commandment, but by wisdom," since he is a spokesman rather than an authoritative prophet (D&C 28:5); indeed, he will "have revelations," but he was to "write them not by way of commandment" (D&C 28:8). On another occasion, the Lord says that He makes his will known "not by way of commandment" because "there are many who observe not to keep [His] commandments" (D&C 63:22). This last reference is different from the others; while the Pauline references and the references connected with Oliver Cowdery concern human beings speaking or writing by way of commandment, the last reference concerns the Lord speaking by way of commandment. Importantly, section 89 seems to be a weave of the human and the divine. The revelation is, of course, a matter of the Lord speaking and giving counsel, but it is something that human beings are to "send greeting," and it is thus they who are not to send "by commandment or constraint." This curious weave may indicate that this revelation is a commandment, but it is not to be sent as one.
- D&C 89:2: Constraint. Constraint, it seems, must be distinguished from commandment. While "commandment" seems to refer to authoritative instruction given by one who has power to control, "constraint" seems to refer directly to the employed power to control—whether through direct action or whether through indirect manipulation of circumstances.
- D&C 89:2: Revelation.
- D&C 89:2: The word of wisdom.
- D&C 89:2: Order.
- D&C 89:2: Temporal.
- D&C 89:3: Principle.
- D&C 89:3: Adapted.
- D&C 89:3: Weak and weakest.
- D&C 89:3: Called.
D&C 89:1-3: Six qualifications of the revelation
- Beginning with the 1835 (first) edition of the Doctrine and Covenants and lasting until Orson Pratt reorganized the volume for its 1876 publication, verses 1-3 of this text were set off from the text as an italicized heading, as if they were not an actual part of the revealed text. This has led many commentators to claim that these first verses were not a part of the original revelation. (Note that even the section heading of the current edition of the Doctrine and Covenants states that "the first three verses were originally written as an inspired introduction and description by the prophet.) That seems, however, to be incorrect. All still-extant pre-1835 manuscripts and publications of the revelation contain these first verses, and none sets them off as merely supplementary or as not a part of the revelation proper. There is, in short, no evidence that verses 1-3 were added only subsequently to an original revelation consisting of verses 4-21.
- That said, it is important to note that there are important differences between the remainder of the revelation and these first three verses. It is only in verse 4 that there is any talk of "thus saith the Lord," for instance, such that it is unclear whose voice is supposed to be heard in verses 1-3. Further, these first verses are characterized by a kind of distance: while verses 4-21 address the reader directly about things she or he should and shouldn't be doing, verses 1-3 address the reader indirectly by talking about the communication to follow. Perhaps most striking is the fact that there are no complete sentences (because there are no verbs) in verses 1-3; instead the reader finds a series of free-floating dependent clauses that serve as notes on or qualifications of the revelation.
- Thus, although it seems that verses 1-3 shouldn't be considered non-revelatory or merely supplementary, they nonetheless sustain a complicated relationship to the rest of the revelation. Section 89 opens with a kind of self-conscious clarification, with a set of qualifications that serve as a set of preliminary notes that prepare the reader for the communication ("thus saith the Lord") that begins in verse 4.
- Verses 1-3 contain six distinct qualifications of the revelation:
(1) A word of wisdom. (2) For the benefit of the council of high priests, assembled in Kirtland, and the church, and also the saints in Zion. (3) To be sent greeting—not by commandment or constraint, but by revelation and the word of wisdom. (4) Showing forth the order and will of God in the temporal salvation of all saints in the last days. (5) Given for a principle with promise. (6) Adapted to the capacity of the weak and the weakest of all saints—who are or can be called saints.
- Each of these "preliminary notes" serves to clarify or qualify the revelation in a distinct way. The first ("A word of wisdom") clarifies what might be called the genre of the revelation. The second ("For the benefit of," etc.) serves to identify the specifiable audiences to whom the revelation is particularly addressed. The third ("To be sent greeting," etc.) clarifies the manner in which the revelation should be employed. The fourth ("Showing forth," etc.) provides a sense of what the revelation means to accomplish. The fifth ("Given for," etc.) makes clear that the revelation is a weave of two distinct forms of discourse. Finally, the sixth ("Adapted to," etc.) states that the revelation itself has been inflected by a certain concern.
- Each of these six preliminary notes deserves close attention.
- D&C 89:1: Qualification #1: A word of wisdom. The word "wisdom" itself relates closely to temple worship. While the "wisdom writings" of the Old Testament were traditionally interpreted as collections of rather common advice shared by Israel and its neighbors, there is a growing collection of evidence that while the wisdom texts certainly do seem to transcend the religio-political concerns of the legal and prophetic texts, the wisdom literature may be connected with the Abrahamic covenant as Christ's universalization of the Israelite promises. According to this view, the wisdom writings are associated with temple rites that extend the blessingsg of Abraham to all the nations--the Gentiles--of the earth. In short, "wisdom texts," might well express the core of the Abrahamic experience of God.
- As a "word of wisdom," section 89 of the Doctrine and Covenants must be seen as clearly tied to temple worship. It is certainly significant that section 89 immediately follows the commandment to build the Kirtland House of the Lord (section 88). As this first verse makes quite clear, the revelation was given for the benefit of the "council of high priests, assembled in Kirtland," who had just received Joseph's first version of the endowment and were preparing to receive the second in the Kirtland House of the Lord (the more complete third endowment wouldn't be revealed until Nauvoo). At any rate, these details suggest that section 89 should not be read more than just a revelation on physical health, but as a revelation closely tied to the ordinances of the temple and that physical health, whatever that means for the Lord, should be taken up with careful attention to the context of the temple ordinances.
- D&C 89:1: Qualification #2: For the benefit of the council of high priests, assembled in Kirtland, and the church, and also the saints in Zion. Three distinct audiences for the revelation are identified in this verse: (1) "the council of high priests assembled in Kirtland," (2) "the church," and (3) "the saints in Zion." This triple identification can be understood in two ways.
- D&C 89:2: Qualification #3: To be sent greeting—not by commandment or constraint, but by revelation and the word of wisdom. The revelation is "to be sent greeting." Although it is somewhat awkward, the phrase echoes passages in the New Testament: Acts 15:23 and 23:26, both of which record the first words of letters. The presence of the phrase here, then, seems to indicate that the Word of Wisdom was originally intended to be sent as a circular letter, not unlike the epistles of the early apostles. (Strengthening this interpretation is the fact that the first actual publication of the revelation came in the form of a newspaper broadside—a stand-alone circular.) This is a most fascinating aspect of the revelation, since most early revelations were either kept for private use (employed in something like the way patriarchal blessings are today) or published in Church periodicals (subsequently to be gathered into officially issued collections of revelations, such as the Doctrine and Covenants). This revelation was apparently understood to be so broadly applicable that it was meant to be sent among the growing membership of the Church.
- The connection to apostolic circulars also suggests that not unlike the advice, answers, and information circulated by the biblical apostles, this Word of Wisdom was not to be enforced "by commandment or constraint, but by revelation and the word of wisdom." Indeed, the very phrase, "to be sent greeting," perhaps indicates that this is a revelation from a rather than the prophet. It may be one prophet's "showing forth the order and will of God" rather than the word of a hierarchical president of the Church.
- While this phrasing may fall short of enforcing anything like a policy on temporal health, it is also clear that this section reveals the "order and will of God." There is something remarkable about an authoritative word like this that does not programmatically impose itself, but is simply sent "by revelation and the word of wisdom." The saints are told the Lord's desires in this regard, but allowed to govern themselves. However, if this section is to be taken "not by commandment or constraint," how many of the others are?
- The careful language in this section may suggest that this revelation is something peculiar, something different from all the others: as a word of wisdom, only those who seek wisdom need follow it. If the commandments and constraints of Joseph's "usual" revelations draw a dividing line between the righteous and the wicked, this revelation and other revelations about the temple (most of which are not published in the D&C) may draw a second dividing line, one that separates the righteous from the exalted. Perhaps revelations like the Word of Wisdom demarcate a boundary between terrestrially mandated obedience and celestially chosen adoption of holy principles? At the very least, the Word of Wisdom provides the opportunity to follow the Lord's counsel beyond simple "commandments" and "constraints."
- D&C 89:2: Qualification #4: Showing forth the order and will of God in the temporal salvation of all saints in the last days. As used in this verse, the word "order" deserves careful consideration. To this point in the D&C, it appears twenty-one times, only one of which (D&C 87:3) does not clearly refer to the priesthood (two are somewhat questionable, in D&C 77:3, though these references to angelic orders could easily refer to heavenly priesthoods). When this revelation was given, the current references to "order" in the revelations were all references to the order of the Kirtland House of the Lord, and to the ordering of the priesthood that would take place in it. The Word of Wisdom assists in this temple ordering of the priesthood by "showing forth" the "order" of the Lord.
- As used in this verse, the word "temporal" or the whole phrase "temporal salvation" is also of great significance. The word "temporal" appears only once in the Bible (in 2 Cor 4:18), where it is opposed to "eternal," though it shows up a number of times in the Book of Mormon as opposed rather to "spiritual." Interestingly, in the 1828 Webster's Dictionary, the first definition explicitly states that "temporal" is "opposed to spiritual," while the second explicitly states that it is "opposed to eternal." There seems, then, to have been a sort of shift of emphasis between 1611 and 1828 from "temporal" as opposed to "eternal" to "temporal" as opposed to "spiritual." Thus, "temporal" seems in Joseph's revelations to be best understood as meaning that which is "pertaining to this life or this world or the body only; secular." However, D&C 29:34-35 may well overturn that understanding in a characteristic redefinition of terms. That revelation seems to redefine the relationship between the temporal and the spiritual: rather than being understood as separate or opposite realms, they are understood as closely connected, the temporal being quite simply an outward or even a "fallen" manifestation of the spiritual. The temporal, in other words, cannot be separated from the spiritual, because it is simply a consequence of the spiritual.
- The phrasing of this second verse clearly suggests that God is here meddling in temporal affairs. However, there may be a structural reason to read the verse otherwise:
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
- If "revelation" is read as an antithetical parallel to "the word of wisdom," the one might be justified in reading "the order and will of God" as a similar antithetical parallel to "the temporal salvation of all saints." This would highlight the word of wisdom as a revelation, and link the "order and will of God" (inevitably temple business, priesthood business) to our "temporal salvation."
- This understanding of the word of wisdom finds a parallel in the "wisdom writings" of the Old Testament, where the revelations are written as temporal words of a father to his son, rather than direct words of revelation or prophecy. As in the temple, revelation and prophecy are more clearly viewed as linked to keys of heavenly communication, rather than as the reception of an absolute word. The "temporal salvation" outlined in the Word of Wisdom is the prophetic--almost patriarchal--linking of the spiritual and temporal realms suggested by D&C 29. If so, the Word of Wisdom is more than a mere "temporal" commandment, as perhaps best confirmed in the closing verses of the revelation.
- Finally, this verse indicates that this revelation is for "all" saints. One might read this to mean that the revelation shows God's order and will for each and every saint. Alternatively, one might read it as showing forth God's order and will for the saints collectively. According to the first reading, the Word of Wisdom can be seen as something for each individual saint to struggle with, something one must work out before God with fear and trembling. The second reading may connect this revelation still more profoundly with the temple, as the revelation becomes a guideline for drawing together, uniting, or sealing all the saints together to effect their temporal, and eternal, salvation.
- Although the Lord does not designate this section as a commandment at the time it was given, it became accepted as such by the Church. In 1834, the High Council of the Church declared "No official member of this Church is worthy to hold office after having the Word of Wisdom properly taught him; and he, the official member, neglecting to comply with or obey it." In 1851, Brigham Young proposed in General Conference that all Saints end the use of tea, coffee, tobacco, and whiskey: this motion was carried unanimously. (See Ludlow, Daniel H., "Companion to Your Study of the Doctrine and Covenants" in the chapter on Section 89.) Thus we have this section becoming a commandment, with special emphasis on the prohibitions we most commonly think about in connection with this setting.
- Why did the Lord not establish this as a commandment when He first gave it? Joseph F. Smith suggested in the Oct. 1913 General Conference that "the reason undoubtedly why the Word of Wisdom was given as not by 'commandment or restraint,' was that at that time, at least, if it had been given as a commandment it would have brought every man, addicted to the use of these noxious things, under condemnation; so the Lord was merciful and gave them a chance to overcome, before He brought them under the law. (cited in Cowan, Richard O., "Answers to Your Questions About the Doctrine and Covenants." Chapter 9: "Spiritual and Temporal Matters.")
- D&C 89:3: Qualification #5: Given for a principle with promise. The singular "principle," with which the revelation again recharacterizes itself, emphasizes the singular "Word of Wisdom." These two singulars carry an interpretive weight: the Word of Wisdom is a single principle, not a set of rules. Or again, the rules as they are proliferated in section 89 might best be read as a series of applications or of adaptations of the single principle. But this just seems to imply that the singular "principle" interprets in advance the meaning of the word "adapted," which follows it: the singular principle is adapted precisely in its proliferation. That is to say, the singular Word of Wisdom is, in section 89, "adapted to the capacity of the weak and the weakest" precisely in that it becomes so many words of wisdom. This interpretation accords well with the most common 1828 meaning of the word "principle": "that from which a thing proceeds," or the "primordial substance" of the matter. The Word of Wisdom, as a singular principle, is the source of so many rules, is the ground of so many adaptations, is the meaning of so many particularities.
- D&C 89:3: Qualification #6: Adapted to the capacity of the weak and the weakest of all saints—who are or can be called saints. The consequence, already hinted at in the above paragraph, of all of this is that the adaptation at work in the Word of Wisdom is the laying out of particular rules. But it is not quite clear at first how the listing of so many rules should be understood as an adaptation "to the capacity of the weak and the weakest of all saints." In fact, if one ignores the first phrase of this verse and attempts only to interpret the phrase "adapted to the capacity of the weak and the weakest of all saints," one might inevitably conclude that the phrase has reference to how much easier the Word of Wisdom as recorded in this section is than other health codes, such as that of the Law of Moses. One might, that is, assume that were it not for the needs of the weak saints, a different (higher, more difficult) law might have been given. But, in the end, such an interpretation does not appear justified: such an interpretation would be grounded in the presupposition that a code with more rules is more difficult to live, whereas just the opposite seems to be true. The health code of the Law of Moses, with its innumberable rules, would have been far easier to obey than the Word of Wisdom: the Law simply listed the forbidden, and Israel simply kept away from the forbidden things. In fact, once one presses the analogy between the Word of Wisdom and the Law of Moses, it becomes quite clear that the two are incomparable: the Law of Moses provided only restrictions, while the Word of Wisdom is far more than that. In the end, the distance between the two suggests, perhaps, that the Word of Wisdom be thought as something other than a health code: the Word of Wisdom is a principle with promise, but, as is clear in the last few verses of the revelation, the promise is not only the promise of health, but also the promise of wisdom.
- Given all the above, the principle seems best understood as adapted to the weak and the weakest precisely in that rules are at all laid out: the Word of Wisdom becomes a far easier thing to keep if there are simple commandments one can follow. Perhaps one final objection ought to be dealt with: doesn't this reading of "adapted" compromise the "principle"? If the adaptation is, in other words, the setting forth of so many rules instead of the principle itself, can anyone truly adhere to the principle, or does everyone end up focused on a series of rules? On the one hand, this objection is insuperable: not only might the saints end up focused on a series of rules, the saints have ended up so focused. On the other hand, the temple context suggested in the comments above (for verses 1 and 2) perhaps makes some sense of the problem: verse 18 summarizes the necessary attitude as regards the Word of Wisdom as "obedience," which might be all that is necessary in order to get one to the temple. There in the temple, one might attend to the principle without so much attention to the rules.
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- D&C 89:1. Why is this word of wisdom "for the benefit" of the several groups mentioned? What sort of benefit is meant?
- D&C 89:1. Does "in Zion" qualify just "the saints" or does it also qualify "the church" ("the church . . . in Zion" and "the saints in Zion")? What difference would that make?
- D&C 89:2. What is the difference between "commandment" and "constraint"? Are these two words for the same thing in this context?
- D&C 89:2. What is the difference between "revelation" and "the word of wisdom"? Are these identical, or is there an implied distinction?
- D&C 89:2. What is the difference between "order" and "will"? How are they distinct, if they are?
- D&C 89:2. What would "temporal salvation" ultimately amount to?
- D&C 89:2. How much emphasis should be put on "in the last days" in this verse? Might an emphasis here obviate the necessity of pretending that Jesus, for instance, didn't drink alcohol?
- D&C 89:3. How is the somewhat odd phrase "given for a principle" to be interpreted? Why not "given as a principle" or "a principle given"?
- D&C 89:3. What does it mean to say that the principle given in this revelation has, already and in advance, been "adapted"? Does that mean that the revelation is in a certain sense incomplete?
- D&C 89:3. What difference is there between "the weak" and "the weakest" of saints? Why should the revelation draw that distinction?
- D&C 89:3. Is "called" attached to both "are" and "be," or only to the latter ("who are called saints or who can be called saints" or "who are saints or can be called saints")? What difference would this make to the meaning of the revelation?
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- In this issue of the Journal of Mormon History is an article by Clyde Ford on the Word of Wisdom that is incredibly helpful for sorting out the situation in which the revelation was received as well as the structure of the revelation's text. It is particularly helpful for making sense of the structure of verse 1.
- Thomas G. Alexander's "The Word of Wisdom: From Principle to Requirement" provides a helpful perspective on the changing attitude of the institutional church on whether this revelation is a "commandment" or a "word of wisdom."
Footnotes are not required but are encouraged for factual assertions that average readers cannot easily evaluate for themselves (such as the date of King Solomon’s death or the nuanced definition of a Greek word). In contrast, insights rarely benefit from footnoting, and the focus of this page should always remain on the scriptures themselves rather than what someone has said about them. Links are actively encouraged on all sections of this page, and links to authoritative sources (such as Strong's Bible Concordance or the Joseph Smith Papers) are preferable to footnotes.