Questioning the Comma in Verse 13 of the Word of Wisdom

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Abstract: The 1921 edition of the Doctrine and Covenants included an additional comma, which was inserted after the word “used” in D&C 89:13: “And it is pleasing unto me that they should not be used, only in times of winter, or of cold, or famine.” Later authors have speculated that the addition of the comma was a mistake that fundamentally changed the meaning of the verse. This article examines this “errant comma theory” and demonstrates why this particular interpretation of D&C 89:13 is without merit.

In 1921, a committee of five apostles who had recently completed a new edition of the Book of Mormon began preparing a new edition of the Doctrine and Covenants (D&C). Elder James E. Talmage, a member of the committee, noted that previous editions of the D&C contained “many errors by way of omission.”1 The most significant change in this new edition was the removal of the “Lectures on Faith,” but the committee also expanded the headnotes, revised the footnotes, and divided the pages into double columns.2 Numerous smaller changes were also made. As one of the many changes published in the revised 1921 edition, a new comma appeared in verse 13 of section 89, [Page 134]also known as the Word of Wisdom. This comma was inserted between the words used and only:

Yea, flesh also of beasts and of the fowls of the air, I, the Lord, have ordained for the use of man with thanksgiving; nevertheless they are to be used sparingly;

And it is pleasing unto me that they should not be used, only in times of winter, or of cold, or famine. (D&C 89:12–13)

In his detailed analysis of the textual changes throughout the history of the D&C, Robert J. Woodford relates the following interesting story:

It [the comma] was never found in any text prior to the 1921 edition of the D&C. According to T. Edgar Lyon [prominent LDS historian and educator], [Apostle] Joseph Fielding Smith, when shown this addition to the text, said: “Who put that in there?” This is a significant statement since Elder Smith served on the committee to publish that edition of the D&C. Thus, the comma may have been inserted by the printer and has been retained ever since.3

This story supports what has become a very popular interpretation of verse 13, namely, that the inserted comma is a mistake that reverses the meaning of the text and that the true meaning is understood only with the errant comma removed. This interpretation suggests that the Lord is instructing us that we should not confine ourselves to eating meat4 only in times of [Page 135]winter, cold, and famine, implying that meat should be eaten at all other times as well.

Not only is this particular interpretation of verse 13 found on numerous websites, but I am aware of at least a few BYU professors who rely on this interpretation in explaining this verse to students. It is also included in a number of D&C commentaries written by LDS scholars. The following is an example from James W. McConkie’s 2010 D&C commentary:

Sometimes the addition or deletion of a comma makes very little or no difference. However, in this case the use of a comma completely changes the meaning. Without the comma after the word “used” in verse 13, the revelation recommends the use of meat year round. The placement of a comma prohibits the use of meat altogether, except “in times of winter, or of cold, or famine.”5

McConkie goes on to suggest that not only is the comma a mistake but that it “could very well be removed” in a future edition of the book.

Notwithstanding the popularity of this explanation and the absence of an official interpretation of verse 13, I believe that this particular reading of the text is without merit. Below I will summarize the reasons why, of all possible explanations of this verse, this one is not a worthy contender.

Use of D&C 89:13 Before and After 1921

The theory that the added comma is problematic rests on the assumption that adding the comma changes the meaning of the text. Those who support this theory assert that the original and true meaning of the verse is clear once the comma is removed: the Lord is not pleased when we use the flesh of beasts and [Page 136]fowls of the air (meat) only in times of winter, or of cold, or of famine. The implication is that it pleases him if we use meat at other times as well.

While it is true that the comma did not appear in this verse until 1921, it is equally clear that the way the text was read without the comma in the decades before 1921 was identical to the way the text is read today with the addition of the comma. In other words, adding the comma did not change the way the text was read. In fact, Latter-day Saints who were adult members of the Church in 1921 did not remark on any change of meaning with the addition of the comma. The assertion that the text should be read differently without the comma is a much later idea, dating back to about the 1960s.6

The following are examples of the way D&C 89:13 was read before 1921:

  1. In 1842, Hyrum Smith was Patriarch to the Church at the time he gave a lengthy sermon on the Word of Wisdom. He states:

    Let men attend to these instructions, let them use the things ordained of God; let them be sparing of the life of animals; ‘‘it is pleasing saith the Lord that flesh be used only in times of winter, or of famine” — and why to be used in famine? because all domesticated animals would naturally die, and may as well be made use of by man, as not.7

  2. [Page 137]In John Jacques’s popular 1854 Catechism for Children, Mormon youth are asked, “Why should flesh be eaten by man in winter, and in times of famine, and not at other times?” They are instructed:

    Flesh is heating to the human system, therefore it is not good to eat flesh in summer; but God allows his people to eat it in winter, and in times of famine, because all animals suffer death naturally, if they do not by the hand of man.8

  3. In 1857, Apostle Heber C. Kimball said:

    In a revelation which God gave to Joseph Smith, he says, “It is not pleasing in my sight for man to shed blood of beasts, or of fowls, except in times of excess of hunger and famine.” Go and read it for yourselves.9

  4. In 1868, President Brigham Young counseled:

    Flesh should be used sparingly, in famine and in cold.10

  5. In 1868, Apostle George Q. Cannon said:

    We are told that flesh of any kind is not suitable to man in the summer time, and ought to be eaten sparingly in the winter.11

  6. [Page 138]In 1895, Apostle Lorenzo Snow (then President of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles) stated:

    Unless famine or extreme cold is upon us we should refrain from the use of meat.12

There is no evidence for the idea that, before 1921, any of the literate, well-read Church leaders or Church members read D&C 89:13 in the way later supporters of the “errant comma theory” suggest the text should have been read without the comma.

Further, after the comma was inserted in 1921, no one noticed that the addition of the comma made their previous reading of the text problematic. Church members continued to interpret verse 13 the way they had before, including those who were old enough to have noticed the change. No one spoke of the meaning of the text having been “changed” by the added comma. Here are a few examples after 1921:

  1. Apostle John A. Widtsoe and Leah D. Widtsoe wrote The Word of Wisdom, a Modern Interpretation. Elder Widtsoe, born in 1872, became an apostle in 1921, the same year the comma was added. In the original 1937 edition of this book and also in the revised 1950 edition, they wrote:

    The Word of Wisdom … deals only with grains, fruits, vegetables—nature’s products—and with meat to be used sparingly in cold or famine.13

  2. Apostle Joseph F. Merrill, born in 1868, would have been fifty-three years old when the comma was added. In a general conference address on the Word of [Page 139]Wisdom, he emphasized the importance of not eating meat as “freely as many Americans are doing” and stated:

    [Quoting from a book] “Under conditions of extreme exposure to cold the heat [from consuming excess protein in meat] might be of service. On the other hand, in case of fever, and in hot weather, the heat excess induced by too much protein may do great harm.”Now I read again the words of the revelation to the Prophet:“… they [meats] are to be used sparingly; And it is pleasing unto me that they should not be used, only in times of winter, or of cold, or famine (D&C 89:12–13).”14

  3. President George Albert Smith, born in 1870, was fifty-one years old in 1921. President Smith was apparently careful about his consumption of meat. In the 1950 Improvement Era devoted to honoring his 80th birthday, his son-in-law reported:

    President Smith’s meals are simple and nourishing. In the summer he eats no meat, and even in the winter months he eats very little.15

Why Was the Comma Added?

If the inserted comma did not change the way the text was read, why was it added? While there is no definitive evidence of [Page 140]who inserted the comma and for what purpose, there are only two ways the comma could have got into that verse: either it was added intentionally or by mistake.

If it was added intentionally, Apostle James E. Talmage is the person most likely to have inserted this comma, and he is the person most often cited as being responsible for it. Because of his attention to detail, the editing of scriptural text was often entrusted to him. The manuscript containing the revisions for the 1920 Book of Mormon are all in his hand; of the hundreds of punctuation changes made to the 1920 Book of Mormon edition, all of them came from Talmage, and none was due to a typesetting error.16 As Talmage was also on the same committee when they revised the D&C in 1921, it is likely he directed the punctuation changes in that edition as well, including inserting the comma into 89:13. Whether or not it was Apostle Talmage, if the comma was added intentionally, it was undoubtedly done by (or under the direction of) one or more of the original committee members assigned to the task, though apparently without the knowledge of Joseph Fielding Smith (if we assume Woodford’s telling of the story is correct).

If we take Woodford’s story at face value, Elder Smith had not seen the comma before it was shown to him, but this is not evidence that the comma was put in by the printer or even evidence it was put in by mistake. It is not even evidence that Elder Smith believed the comma changed the meaning of the text, especially given that he himself wrote the following in his 1947 commentary on the Word of Wisdom:

Neither is it the intent of this revelation to include grains and fruits in the restriction placed upon meats, [Page 141]that they should be used only in famine or excess of hunger.17

Without definitive records explaining the change, what can we know about why it may have been added? Modern linguists can provide a significant clue. LDS linguistics scholar Royal Skousen explains how the natural evolution of language can cause problems for our understanding and interpretation of certain verses:

A number of passages from the scriptures … have caused misunderstanding and confusion. In each of these passages the source of the difficulty has been the language of the passage itself. Sometimes archaic words or changes in word meaning cause misunderstanding.… Much of our confusion over these passages can be resolved when we seek to determine what the words in the scriptures originally meant.18

One of the examples Skousen uses is the word only in D&C 89:13. He explains how the meaning of the word only changed over time, making it useful for the comma to be added so that modern readers would not misunderstand the verse. Skousen writes:

Now let us turn to a couple of examples from the Doctrine and Covenants. First, consider the use of the word only in that part of the Word of Wisdom that deals with eating meat: “Yea, flesh also of beasts and of the fowls of the air, I, the Lord, have ordained for the use of man with thanksgiving; nevertheless they are to be used sparingly; and it is pleasing unto me [Page 142]that they should not be used, only in times of winter, or of cold, or famine” (D&C 89:12–13, 1921 and 1981 editions). In editions prior to 1921, the comma before only was missing: “And it is pleasing unto me that they should not be used only in times of winter, or of cold, or famine” (1879 edition). A reader might interpret this as meaning that meat could be used at any time, not only in times of winter, cold, or famine.

Of course, the real problem here is in the meaning of only. In the last century the word only very often had the meaning “except.” For example, the Oxford English Dictionary quotes a use of only that undoubtedly means “except”: “For many years the following notice was painted up at Bolton railway station: “Do not cross the line only by the bridge.” Clearly, this is the appropriate sense of only in this verse from section 89. James E. Talmage put the comma in the 1921 edition, but not in order to change the meaning of only. Instead, the meaning of only had changed and the comma was put in so that the modern reader could read the verse and still get out its original meaning.19

In fact, there are many other examples throughout the scriptures where the word only means “except.” According to Skousen:

There are at least 10 clear instances of “only” with the meaning “except” in the Book of Mormon text.… The 1830 typesetter put a comma before 7 of the 10.… But for three instances he missed the need to put the comma.20

[Page 143]The following are two examples from D&C 121 where the word only clearly means “except.” Note that the first example does not include a clarifying comma:

That the rights of the priesthood are inseparably connected with the powers of heaven, and that the powers of heaven cannot be controlled nor handled only upon the principles of righteousness. (D&C 121:36)

No power or influence can or ought to be maintained by virtue of the priesthood, only by persuasion, by long-suffering, by gentleness and meekness, and by love unfeigned. (D&C 121:41)

Because there is no comma before the word only in verse 36, could we interpret it to mean that the powers of heaven can be controlled and handled on principles other than righteousness? Do we need some principles of unrighteousness to assist the priesthood? Clearly this does not make good sense, so we simply understand the word only to mean “except.”

In the second example, a comma comes before the word only, but even if we discovered that this comma was absent from this verse before 1921, no one would assert that the original meaning of this scripture was that such principles as persuasion, long-suffering, and love unfeigned are somehow insufficient to maintain the power of the priesthood. We would not be arguing that the addition of the comma reversed the meaning of the text. We’d simply interpret the word only to mean “except.”

Greater Internal Consistency

Looking at verse 13 from a different angle, another reason cited for discounting the “errant comma theory” is that the addition [Page 144]of the comma creates greater internal consistency in D&C 89. As Stephen Robinson and Dean Garrett note:

The difficulty in verse 13 lies in the comma following the word “used.” Depending upon the presence or absence of this comma, contradictory meanings may be ascribed to the text. Between 1833 and 1921, there was no comma in the text at this point in the revelation. The comma was first inserted in the revelation in the 1921 edition of the Doctrine and Covenants.

However, insertion of the comma brings verse 13 into agreement with the clear sense and intent of verses 12 and 15, and without it, these would seem to contradict verse 13.21

This explanation is especially interesting in light of the fact that internal consistency is the most-cited reason for asserting that the comma is a mistake. This following example from McConkie’s D&C commentary is an example of this reasoning:

The placement of the comma in section 89 is inconsistent with some of the other revelations Joseph received. For example, in section 49 the Lord explicitly states that a person who “forbiddeth to abstain from meats … is not … of God.” (D&C 49:18.) Furthermore, meat is “ordained for the use of man for food and for raiment, and that he might have in abundance.” (D&C 49:19.) Timothy in the New Testament also warns that in the last days some, not of God, will forbid eating meat, “which God hath created to be received with [Page 145]thanksgiving of them which believe and know the truth.” (1 Timothy 4:3.)22

The assertion that the meaning of verse 13 with the added comma is in conflict with other scriptures is a matter of interpretation. The meaning of D&C 89 with the inserted comma does not “forbid” the use of meat. Rather, it seems to say that meat is ordained for the use of man, but it is to be used sparingly, only in times of winter, cold, or famine.

No Changes to D&C 89:13 after 1921

Just as significantly, the punctuation in verse 13 has not been altered since 1921, not even during the major revision of the D&C done in 1981 when many changes were made and the footnotes were completely updated. Apparently, this was not an oversight, as verse 13 was specifically reviewed by the First Presidency and the Quorum of the Twelve, who, after asking Elder Bruce R. McConkie to research the matter, “decided that the comma as it now stands was in the proper place and should not be removed.” Here is the complete account as it appears in a biography of Bruce R. McConkie:

The Brethren carefully examined the revelations in the Doctrine and Covenants for printing errors and mistakes, including details as small as the placement of a comma. For example, during the committee’s work on the Doctrine and Covenants, the subject of the comma in section 89, verse 13, came up for discussion. The presence, or lack thereof, of the comma between the words ”used” and ”only” can drastically change the meaning of the verse. Earlier publications of the Church which contained this verse were ambiguous, as some included the comma and others did not. Elder [Page 146]McConkie said that the subject had been discussed by the First Presidency and the Twelve a year or two earlier. At that time they asked Elder McConkie to research the subject, which he did. His findings were then approved, and it was decided that the comma as it now stands was in the proper place and should not be removed. Therefore, the Scriptures Publications Committee did not take any further action. Elders Monson and Packer, both of whom were at this meeting, concurred with the decision to leave it as is.23

Finally, it seems wise to base our interpretation of verse 13 on the current edition of the scriptures, especially in light of the fact that there is no evidence to suggest the alternative “errant comma” interpretation warrants merit. As Robinson and Garrett note in their 2004 D&C commentary:

[S]ince 1921, several different First Presidencies have had the opportunity to correct the reading of verse 13 in subsequent editions of the Doctrine and Covenants and have specifically declined to do so. At present, given our firm conviction in continuing revelation, we need to follow the reading of the most recent edition. There is no commandment or constraint on this issue, and Church leaders seem content to let the Saints apply the principle as stated here individually as guided by the Spirit.24

Robert Woodford, who in 1974 had suggested the comma was a printing error, conceded in 1979 that we should “accept the verse [D&C 89:13] as written.” He still held to the view that the comma “reverses the meaning of the verse” but noted: “[I]n [Page 147]actuality most Latter-day Saints’ lifestyle is lived as though the comma were not there.”25

Historical Interpretations of D&C 89:13

If the “errant comma theory” is not plausible, what does D&C 89:13 mean? To date, there is no consensus of opinion. In fact, during the last eight decades the number of interpretations has multiplied. This is in contrast to the first 100 years after 1833 when there actually was a consensus on the meaning of this verse among Latter-day Saints who addressed the issue. It was a literalist interpretation that took the verse at face value: it is pleasing to God if we do not use the flesh of beasts or fowls of the air, except in times of winter, cold, or famine.26

The standard interpretation of D&C 89:13 during the first 100 years did not have a widespread impact on the dietary practices of the Saints during this time, but this is not because the Saints found this verse too ambiguous. The fact is, many Saints had a difficult time abiding by even the clearest counsel found the Word of Wisdom.27 After the revelation was given in 1833, there were Saints who promoted abstinence from alcohol, tobacco, coffee, and tea as the official standard for keeping the Word of Wisdom.28 But the clarity of a standard of abstinence is quantitatively easier to understand and assess as compared to admonitions to use wholesome plants with “prudence and thanksgiving,” make grain the “staff of life,” [Page 148]or eat meat “sparingly” and “only in times of winter, or of cold, or famine.” Even so, the process of lifting the general Church membership to even the basic standard of abstinence from alcohol, tobacco, coffee, and tea took almost 100 years, and even now (181 years later) the task is not complete. LDS Church leaders are still working to help the Saints become fully obedient to this basic standard, even though the counsel in section 89 was specifically “adapted to the capacity of the weak and the weakest of all saints” (D&C 89:3).

Because Church leaders have never made verses 12–17 of section 89 part of the standard for Church worthiness, discussion of these verses has not played as prominent a role in the Word of Wisdom literature. This is particularly true of verse 13. In fact, Latter-day Saints who have addressed the Word of Wisdom during the last few decades have been more likely to emphasize the fact that meat is “ordained of God” and “not forbidden” than to suggest that Latter-day Saints should curtail their consumption, much less forego it other than in times of winter, cold, or famine.

It may be because of a disconnect between a straightforward reading of verse 13 and the dietary practices of the LDS people that alternative interpretations of verse 13 have flourished. Like the “errant comma theory,” most of the explanations of verse 13 (both before and after 1921) have been asserted without much evidence and have subsequently never been carefully analyzed for veracity.29

While it is clear that the meaning of D&C 89:13 is not critical to keeping the Word of Wisdom in terms of the worthiness standard of the Church, it may be of value to anyone who wants to better understand the Word of Wisdom, as well to those who hope to claim the full measure of the promises [Page 149]contained therein for those who “remember to keep and do these sayings” (D&C 89:18).

1. Richard E. Turley Jr. and William W. Slaughter, How We Got the Doctrine and Covenants (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 2012), 101.

2. Turley and Slaughter, How We Got the Doctrine and Covenants, 105.

3. Robert J. Woodford, “The Historical Development of the Doctrine and Covenants: Vol. II,” (PhD diss., Brigham Young University, 1974), 1175–76.

4. Note that while I will often use the word meat, the text actually refers to “flesh also of beasts and of the fowls of the air.” The terms are not necessarily equivalent.

5. James W. McConkie II, Looking at the Doctrine and Covenants Again for the Very First Time (West Valley City, UT: Temple Hill Books, 2010), 353.

6. The first reference I have seen in print is in the first edition of Richard O. Cowan’s Doctrine & Covenants: Our Modern Scriptures (Provo: Brigham Young University Division of Continuing Education, 1966). Dr. Cowan does not recall where this idea came from (e-mail message to the author, January 30, 2013).

7. Hyrum Smith, “The Word of Wisdom,” Times and Seasons 3, no. 15 (June 1, 1842): 801.

8. John Jacques, Catechism for Children Exhibiting the Prominent Doctrines of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Liverpool: F. D. Richards, 1854), 63.

9. Heber C. Kimball, “Shedding Blood—God’s Provision for His Saints,” in Journal of Discourses, 6:50, November 15, 1857.

10. Brigham Young, “The True Church of Christ—the Living Testimony—Word of Wisdom,” in Journal of Discourses, 12:209, May 10, 1868.

11. George Q. Cannon, “Word of Wisdom—Fish Culture—Dietetic,” in Journal of Discourses, 12:221–22, April 7, 1868.

12. Dennis B. Horne, ed., An Apostle’s Record: The Journals of Abraham H. Cannon (Clearfield, UT: Gnolaum Books, 2004), 424.

13. John A. Widtsoe and Leah D. Widtsoe, The Word of Wisdom: A Modern Interpretation (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1937), 178–79.

14. Joseph F. Merrill, “Eat Flesh Sparingly,” in Conference Report, April 1948, 75. This reads “[meats]” in the original article.

15. Robert Murray Stewart, “A Normal Day in the Home of George Albert Smith,” Improvement Era 53 (April, 1950): 287.

16. Royal Skousen, e-mail message to the author, February 2, 2013.

17. Joseph Fielding Smith, Church History and Modern Revelation, vol. 2 (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1947), 148.

18. Royal Skousen, “Through a Glass Darkly: Trying to Understand the Scriptures,” BYU Studies 26, no. 4 (1986): 1.

19. Skousen, “Through a Glass Darkly,” 5.

20. Royal Skousen, e-mail message to the author, February 2, 2013.

21. Stephen Robinson and Dean Garrett, A Commentary on the Doctrine and Covenants, vol.3 (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 2000), 149.

22. McConkie, Looking at the Doctrine and Covenants, 353.

23. Dennis B. Horne (2000). Bruce R. McConkie: Highlights from His Life and Teachings (Roy, UT: Eborn Books, 2000), 190.

24. Robinson and Garrett, Commentary on the Doctrine and Covenants, vol. 3, 149.

25. Robert J. Woodford, “A Survey of Textual Changes in the Doctrine and Covenants,” in Seventh Annual Sydney B. Sperry Symposium: The Doctrine and Covenants (Provo, Utah, Brigham Young University Religious Instruction, January 27, 1979), 33. [unpublished manuscript]

26. This is based on my own analysis of the Word of Wisdom literature (published books, articles, and, more recently, websites) from 1833 to the present day.

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

28. Paul Y. Hoskisson, “The Word of Wisdom in Its First Decade,” Journal of Mormon History 38, no. 1 (winter 2012): 132.

29. This is based on the author’s analysis of the Word of Wisdom literature from 1833 to the present. The author is also doing research to explore the multiple ways D&C 89:13 has been interpreted since 1833.

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About A. Jane Birch

Jane Birch is the author of Discovering the Word of Wisdom: Surprising Insights from a Whole Food, Plant-based Perspective (2013). She graduated from Brigham Young University with a BA in History and a PhD in Instructional Science. She currently serves as Assistant Director for Faculty Development at the BYU Faculty Center. Her accomplishments include creating BYU’s premiere faculty development program for new faculty, which she directed for 15 years. Her current work includes assisting BYU faculty in combining religious faith with academic discipline. Her academic publications and presentations cover a variety of topics, primarily related to faculty development.

44 thoughts on “Questioning the Comma in Verse 13 of the Word of Wisdom

  1. If you stop wrangling and get as close to the source as possible you will have less trouble interpreting this phrase. “I was at Joseph Smith’s when the word of wisdom was given and have strictly harkened to the precepts from that day to the present, by not using tobacco, drinks of any kind, tea or coffee, and but very little flesh.”—Joel Hills Johnson

  2. Hi. I am relatively new to the church and I enjoy reading the scholarly and not so scholarly comments. Personally I know that my health is better the more I restrict my intake of red meat in summer and eat grains and vegetables. One of the truly great things about the church is that everyone grows into their own understanding of doctrine and principles. I wish everybody the kind of health as is stated in verse 18.

  3. Verses 14 and 15 can also be used to strengthen either side of this discussion.

    14 All grain is ordained for the use of man and of beasts, to be the staff of life, not only for man but for the beasts of the field, and the fowls of heaven, and all wild animals that run or creep on the earth;

    15 And these hath God made for the use of man only in times of famine and excess of hunger.

    These two verses can be interpreted as reiterating verses 12 and 13, but if you like verse 13 without the added comma, then verse 15 can be interpreted as clarifying the restriction of “in times of famine and excess of hunger” to apply to the addition of “wild animals” in verse 14, which were not specifically mentioned in verse 12.

    That still leaves in place the general admonition to eat all meat sparingly and with thanksgiving.

    • I lean toward a high protein/saturated fat diet over a high carbohydrate food plan, myself. It allows me to keep my weight down and does not spike my blood sugar. My cholesterol stays at historically healthy levels and eating this way gives me energy, plus an overall sense of well-being.

      I like verse 9 without the added comma because I read that it pleases God for us to eat meats sparingly (in moderation and with wisdom), no matter what time of year it is.

      I also interpret verse 15 as describing grains and fruits as foods good for us, though best to indulge in during ‘times of famine and excess of hunger’.

      Perhaps God is trying to tell us that grains and fruits are to be eaten more when there is less food available (grains store better than meats) since grains cause us to put on excess weight (that is how we fatten livestock, isn’t it?) which is what we would need during a famine.

      Perhaps the Lord has written section 89 in such a way that forces each of us to take the matter to Him so he can aid us in charting a way of eating that is best for our personal body make-up.

      Thoughts to consider.

  4. “While it is clear that the meaning of D&C 89:13 is not critical to keeping the Word of Wisdom in terms of the worthiness standard of the Church, it may be of value to anyone who wants to better understand the Word of Wisdom, as well to those who hope to claim the full measure of the promises [Page 149]contained therein for those who “remember to keep and do these sayings”

    Same goes for all the other verses, like the one which instructs that “mild drink,” aka beer, is good for the body 🙂 The WOW should be interpreted in the context in which it was delivered, the 19th century. Members were never meant to abstain from meats. What didn’t they have in the 19th century? Refrigerators. Meat spoils quickly. It’s sensible to eat it sparingly when there is no way to keep it. Modern food and diet is nothing like the 19th century. Properly observing the WOW is about a heck of a lot more than 5 simple rules, and requires a lot of research. For instance, just consider wheat. WOW says wheat is good, but is it? In the 19th century wheat was prepared a lot differently than it is today, soak, sprouted, fermented. Today we have a genetically-engineered plants that go through extensive industrial processes and all sorts of people are developing (often severely) negative side effects which are increasingly being traced to gluten. Even autism, ADHD, and a host of other mental disorders are starting to be traced to modern diet. The letter of the text of the WOW is really quite irrelevant for today, and is only useful for establishing the principle, which is that what we eat effects us spiritually. The best popular example of someone striving to live the WOW is Chris Traeger from Parks and Recreation. That’s what truly living the WOW looks like. [link to Youtube removed, feel free to search for it]

    • Bob,

      Refrigeration is an interesting issue. One I recall my parents making in the 60s and 70s. I look forward to Dr. Birch’s additional article on the subject.

      In favor of modern refrigeration changing the situation, one could argue that animal and fowl flesh can be preserved and not wasted in the summer because of refrigeration. If the concern is waste (as D&C 49 states) than refrigeration solves that issue.

      Hyrum Smith stated another reason and that flesh heating the body, which may not have been healthy when people lived outside climate controlled environments. When it is hot outside and I am not in air conditioning, I have found that I have been more likely to through away much of a hamburger because it hasn’t been satisfying. So, another change is the modern climate controlled environment.

      Both good arguments. However, I am not convinced that these are the only reasons for refraining from eating meat outside of periods of winter, cold, or famine.

      I note that pioneers crossing the plains by necessity needed to eat a lot of meat. Fruits and vegetables would not last (except beans, which are also high in protein). Grain was also eaten, but they had to carry all they would have to eat for the duration of the trip. Meat sustained them through the crossing of the plains. I wonder if this experience led to a reduction in the number of people trying to live this aspect of the revelation.

  5. Log, I have no issues with your definitions. My issue is with you interpretation. All writing gets filtered through our own cultural and environmental circumstances whether we believe that or not.

    How about this as a possibility? Just as section 89 required the addition of a comma to render it in a way that our modern minds could properly understand the meaning, is it possible that section 49 needs something similar? What about this possibility?

    18 And whoso forbiddeth (to abstain from) meats, that man should not eat the same, is not ordained of God;

    “To abstain from” then is merely a clarification of forbiddeth. Is that something you could accept as a possibility?

    • Or, try this one (the original, of course, lacked punctuation).

      “Whoso forbiddeth to abstain from meats that man should not eat, the same is not ordained of God.”

      Would you accept this as a possibility?

      I am not starting from a conclusion and working backwards to garner support for it – as it stands, D&C 49:18 literally says the opposite of what it is taught to say, as codified in footnote A, which brings it into direct conflict with D&C 89 and JST Genesis 9 wherein the Lord biddeth to abstain from meats; surely the Lord is ordained of God.

      It is kind of like how we have a common cultural understanding, and are taught, that immediately following his resurrection, the Lord manifested himself in the flesh to the Nephites, when the text itself says it was 9 to 11 months later (3 Nephi 8:1-5; 3 Nephi 10:18-19).

      • Loren’s is a decent attempt to clear up issues that have emerged in the 170 years since D&C 49 was received because of greater precision in grammar rules. And is consistent with how almost everybody has interpreted it over the past 170+ years.

        Log’s goes the other way, continuing the language that has become problematic in current usage so that interpretations, which because of tightening grammar rules over time, are possible suggesting a different way from how it has always been understood.

        Log, I have written and deleted several responses to your previous response to my post. What has been clear in my mind, hasn’t looked right when written. Suffice it to say, your insistence that your interpretation is the original intent cannot be sustained. It varies from everybody’s interpretation from the 1830s to the present. It isn’t a very meaningful interpretation. Further, it conflicts with an explanation of the effect in the same verse. It conflicts with the reason the Lord states the action in not ordained by Him in the next verse. It goes against the stated purposes for the revelation (to correct false teachings of the Shakers). For all your defensive responses, it is a double negative and it is far more likely to be an intensified negative than a convoluted positive. When somebody says “I ain’t got no money” they are not claiming to have money, they are making it very clear they don’t have money. That has long been the usual and common meaning of a double negative and it is only recently that grammar rules lead us to consider another possibility.

        Continued claims that the original meaning was to “command people to not voluntarily refrain from eating meats” is the sticking point in this discussion. I and apparently others don’t accept that interpretation because of many stated reasons. Your repeating to state that claim just makes me realize the discussion isn’t coming to a satisfactory conclusion. So, I’ll allow you the freedom to interpret as you wish, but demand the same courtesy in return. I think we are just going to have to agree to disagree.

        • Your repeating to state that claim just makes me realize the discussion isn’t coming to a satisfactory conclusion.

          If you can only be satisfied by compelling my assent to your view without a demonstration [as opposed to mere assertion] of an error in mine, then you are correct – this isn’t going to come to a satisfactory conclusion for you. My supporting arguments for the integrity of the literal (as opposed to the footnoted) reading of D&C 49:18 have not been substantially addressed.

          So, I’ll allow you the freedom to interpret as you wish, but demand the same courtesy in return.

          I literally have not power to affect your – or anyone else’s – freedom to interpret as you wish. Such a demand is therefore purely rhetorical.

          I think we are just going to have to agree to disagree.

          I am not seeking to compel your assent.

          • I love the lively discussion on D&C 49:18, a very interesting verse. As indicated in my article, I personally am more persuaded by the interpretation Loren and Mike have presented. But I do very much agree with Log that D&C 49:18 has deep resonance with both Genesis 9 and D&C 89. In fact, it is partly because of this resonance that I believe the reading Loren and Mike are offering makes more sense.

            Note how the Lord allows the use of meat in each of the following sections of scripture, but then in the last verse of each set He provides conditions on that usage:

            JST Genesis 9:9, 11
            Every moving thing that liveth shall be meat for you; even as the green herb have I given you all things. . . .
            And surely, blood shall not be shed, only for meat, to save your lives; and the blood of every beast will I require at your hands.

            In D&C 89:12–13
            Yea, flesh also of beasts and of the fowls of the air, I, the Lord, have ordained for the use of man with thanksgiving; nevertheless they are to be used sparingly;
            And it is pleasing unto me that they should not be used, only in times of winter, or of cold, or famine.

            In D&C 49:18–19, 21

            And whoso forbiddeth to abstain from meats, that man should not eat the same, is not ordained of God;
            For, behold, the beasts of the field and the fowls of the air, and that which cometh of the earth, is ordained for the use of man for food and for raiment, and that he might have in abundance. . . .
            And wo be unto man that sheddeth blood or that wasteth flesh and hath no need.

            I conclude the flesh of animals is ordained for our use…under conditions.

            I actually feel there are other, perhaps more interesting questions we could ask about D&C 49:18. For example:

            (1) What is the meaning of “meats” in this verse? Clearly the verse echoes 1 Timothy 4:3, but in the King James Bible, “meats” means “food.” (“Meat” has long meant “food” in the English language. The word “flesh” is used to refer to animal meat.) D&C 49:18 speaks of “meats” and then appears to define it in verse 19 as not only the “beasts of the field and the fowls of the air” but also “that which cometh of the earth,” which would be plant foods. Using Biblical language, both animal foods and plants foods are considered “meat” or simply food. What implications might this have for how we interpret this verse?

            (2) D&C 49 was directed to Shakers, but they were not strict vegetarians, especially at the time of this revelation (in a later period more of them were vegetarian, but it was never the general practice).

            Interesting to think about…

            Please stay tuned for the next article on D&C 89:13!

  6. The relevant OED entry is [only, adv., conj. (prep.) B1]. The most fitting definition of the seven given there seems to be “with this exception only”. Because this is now an obscure usage, I recommend that that phrase be provided as a marginal gloss for “only” to make the scripture plain.

  7. While I appreciate the article, I have to disagree with a few commenters here. The Word of Wisdom may be interpreted as endorsing a semi-vegetarian diet (the text is silent regarding the consumption of fish), with allowances for distress and winter; I don’t think it can be interpreted as endorsing a “whole foods, plants based diet,” which, from everything I’ve read, is just a euphemism for “vegan diet.”

    Doctrine and Covenants 89:12-13 does not contradict Doctrine and Covenants 49:18-19. Section 89 addresses the consumption of “flesh.” It does not restrict the consumption of dairy, eggs, honey (or making shoes from animal skins (leather), or wearing clothes made from animal hair (wool))–which the people who received the Word of Wisdom did on a daily basis, and continued to do daily long after.

    Put another way, a land flowing with milk and honey would be a strange prospect for a people who refused to enjoy either milk or honey.

    • Russell, excellent points.
      You are correct that the interpretation of 89:13 that the Lord is pleased when we restrict consumption of the flesh of beasts and fowls to winter, times of cold, and times of famine, does not conflict with D&C 49. I would submit, that the interpretation that the Word of Wisdom is a Vegan diet does conflict with D&C 49.

      One other point I want to address. Today, we use the word “meat” to mean animal flesh. It may also mean the flesh of fowls. Sometimes, we think of fish as meat. In the King James Version of the Bible, “meat” usually means meal in general and often of grain. The word “meat” doesn’t occur in D&C 89, so we don’t need to define “meat” to understand the Word of Wisdom.

      • The modern interpretation of D&C 49 is problematic, as I pointed out in comment #1, because “bid” and “forbid” are antonyms.

        18 And whoso forbiddeth to abstain from meats, that man should not eat the same, is not ordained of God;

        The straightforward meaning, as the text actually stands, is: “Whoever forbids men to voluntarily cease eating meats is not ordained of God.” This is consistent with D&C 89 and JST Genesis 9.

        • Log, thank you for your interesting comment. I am inclined not to accept your “straightforward meaning” of D&C 49:18. However, I recognize the logic behind it.
          In effect, you are looking at a double negative: “to forbid” meaning “to command not” to do something and “to abstain” meaning “to not partake.” “To command not to not partake” is a double negative, so what does that mean? Logic would say that in mathematics -(-1) = 1 or 2 negatives make a positive. However, my experience looking at 19th century writings as well as hearing double negatives in slang or rural usage almost never means a positive, but rather is used to intensify the negative. The rule, in this case, is more of “two wrongs don’t make a right.”

          For me, two negatives being an intensifier makes sense in this case, in part because forbid comes from old English with the prefix “for-“ being an intensifier and not an inverter. I can see where you are coming from considering forbid as the antonym of bid. An archaic usage of bid—the one used in forbid—is to command. And forbid means to command not to do something. The Websters 1828 dictionary says it literally means “to command against.”

          So does “forbiddeth to abstain” act as a double negative producing a positive or does it act as an intensifier of the negative? It is this dilemma that has caused efforts to eradicate double negatives from the language.

          I think in this case, it is the intensifier of the negative for several reasons, in addition to the fact that double negatives almost always are used to intensify the negative:

          1. The phrase “that man should not eat the same” is the result of the forbidding to abstain. This would seem to indicate the double negative is an intensifier and not a simply a convoluted way to make a positive statement about commanding the consumption of meats.

          2. Verse 19 explains why the individual that “forbiddeth” is not ordained of God with “For, behold, the beasts of the field and the fowls of the air, and that which cometh of the earth, is ordained for the use of man for food and for raiment, and that he might have in abundance.” This explanation doesn’t fit the idea that the forbidding to abstain means mandating the consumption of meats. Instead, the explanation makes sense in the context of a mandate not to eat meat.

          3. In the history of the world, I can’t think of a single recorded instance where somebody attempted to mandate the consumption of meat. While I would condemn any attempt to do so, it simply isn’t a problem we need to be warned about. On the other hand, there are plenty of people attempting to mandate that we not eat meat, which may result in confusion about what is permissible by the Lord. Is the Lord warning us about a non-problem or about something that by its frequency could be a problem?

          Nothing in any of these scriptures mandates that we eat meat, which is the simple way of saying your interpretation.

          Now, having stated in D&C 49:19 that animals are ordained for food and raiment for mankind, D&C 49:21 pronounces woe to those who kill (presumably animals) and waste flesh and also don’t have a need to do so.
          I think both D&C 89 and 49 state that animal flesh is ok for man to eat, but warns us about going to the extreme of eating too much, when there isn’t a need, and being wasteful. Thus, I see both sections as being consistent in this regard. They are there for you to eat in moderation.

          • Mike, I tend to agree with your interpretation of D&C 49:18. I only take exception with the last word that your used – moderation. That word gets thrown around a lot when we discuss the WoW, but it is found nowhere in section 89. In fact, it only occurs once in our scriptures (Philip 4:5), and even there it is not a really good translation from the Greek. “Sparingly” and “only in times of winter, or of cold, or famine” do not really fit the definition of moderation. By modern standards (judging by the limiting our consumption of “flesh” to “times of winter, or of cold, or famine” ) moderation is not a good fit.

            While it is difficult to estimate how much meat is consumed per month in the US, we do know how much is slaughtered every month. According to the USDA ( an average of 4,100,000,000 (4.1 billion) pounds of red meat (beef, veal, pork, lamb and mutton) was slaughtered every month in the US during 2013. That average varied by no more than 10% every month. In other words, monthly production remained fairly consistent throughout the year. In fact, the lowest production month was February (middle of winter). If we assume that consumption parallels production, then advocating abstinence except “in times of winter, or of cold, or famine” would hardly be considered a moderate approach by your average American. Moderation, by definition, means to avoid extremes, and I believe that most Americans, judging by slaughter statistics, would view the WoW as an extreme diet.

          • Log, thank you for your interesting comment. I am inclined not to accept your “straightforward meaning” of D&C 49:18. However, I recognize the logic behind it.
            In effect, you are looking at a double negative: “to forbid” meaning “to command not” to do something and “to abstain” meaning “to not partake.” “To command not to not partake” is a double negative, so what does that mean? Logic would say that in mathematics -(-1) = 1 or 2 negatives make a positive. However, my experience looking at 19th century writings as well as hearing double negatives in slang or rural usage almost never means a positive, but rather is used to intensify the negative. The rule, in this case, is more of “two wrongs don’t make a right.”

            As my “straightforward meaning” merely replaces “abstain from meats” with “voluntarily cease eating meats”, which a quick consultation with Webster’s 1828 dictionary abundantly justifies, it seems to me that those who wish, in effect, to insert a “not” into the text (or to erase one) bear the burden of proof of correctness, and this not by assertion, but by the production of evidence.

            Let us begin by seeing how words work in D&C 49.

            D&C 49
            15 And again, verily I say unto you, that whoso forbiddeth to marry is not ordained of God, for marriage is ordained of God unto man.

            16 Wherefore, it is lawful that he should have one wife, and they twain shall be one flesh, and all this that the earth might answer the end of its creation;

            17 And that it might be filled with the measure of man, according to his creation before the world was made.

            It seems, from the outset in D&C 49, that “forbiddeth” clearly means “forbiddeth.”

            What of “abstain”? Here is where things get interesting.

            You see, the Lord himself has bidden, or asked (D&C 89:1-3, “not by commandment or constraint”), us abstain from meats unless our lives are at stake, that being the principle which justifies bloodshed.

            In a passage which mirrors some of the same concerns, thematically, as D&C 49:15-21, we get this.

            JST Genesis 9
            JST, Genesis 9:10–15.
            Compare Genesis 9:4–9
            10 But, the blood of all flesh which I have given you for meat, shall be shed upon the ground, which taketh life thereof, and the blood ye shall not eat.

            11 And surely, blood shall not be shed, only for meat, to save your lives; and the blood of every beast will I require at your hands.

            12 And whoso sheddeth man’s blood, by man shall his blood be shed; for man shall not shed the blood of man.

            13 For a commandment I give, that every man’s brother shall preserve the life of man, for in mine own image have I made man.

            14 And a commandment I give unto you, Be ye fruitful and multiply; bring forth abundantly on the earth, and multiply therein.

            15 And God spake unto Noah, and to his sons with him, saying, And I, behold, I will establish my covenant with you, which I made unto your father Enoch, concerning your seed after you.

            And this is consistent with D&C 89.

            D&C 89
            12 Yea, flesh also of beasts and of the fowls of the air, I, the Lord, have ordained for the use of man with thanksgiving; nevertheless they are to be used sparingly;

            13 And it is pleasing unto me that they should not be used, only in times of winter, or of cold, or famine.

            14 All grain is ordained for the use of man and of beasts, to be the staff of life, not only for man but for the beasts of the field, and the fowls of heaven, and all wild animals that run or creep on the earth;

            15 And these hath God made for the use of man only in times of famine and excess of hunger.

            Why flesh in times of cold, winter, or famine? It is not because consumption of flesh becomes fashionable to heaven seasonally. It is because lives are at stake in those times.

            As the Lord has bidden us to abstain from meats except under certain clear circumstances according to an explicit principle, to alter “forbiddeth” into “biddeth” in D&C 49:18 produces a direct conflict with the rest of what the Lord has said on the subject of eating meats.

            For myself, I do not understand what could motivate someone to effect that alteration.

          • Log,

            I do not propose that the scripture translators always get it right [in fact, there are many cases where they do not], but here is how the church has translated D&C 49:18 in Portuguese and Spanish, two languages in which I am fluent.

            (Portuguese) E todo o que manda que se abstenha de carne, que o homem dela não faça uso, não é autorizado por Deus;

            (Spanish) Y quien manda abstenerse de la carne, para que el hombre no la coma, no es ordenado por Dios;

            A rough translation from Portuguese says: “And all that order/command to abstain from meat, that man not make use of it, is not authorized by God.” Spanish basically says the same except instead of “make use of” it says “eat.”

          • Loren,

            I’m not sure what your point is – if I had to guess, it would be that since the Church has published foreign-language editions of the scriptures which do not correspond to the English original of D&C 49 (replacing the English “forbiddeth” which should be “prohibir / proibir” [per Google Translate], with “mandar”, or “command / mandate”), therefore we should accept that the English original of D&C 49 is erroneous and should be interpreted in a sense contrary to the text, as per footnote A to verse 18.

            That may be a convincing argument to some.

            The corruption of scripture was a subject of some concern to the Prophet.

            TPJS p.327

            I believe the Bible as it read when it came from the pen of the original writers. Ignorant translators, careless transcribers, or designing and corrupt priests have committed many errors. As it read, Gen. 6:6, “It repented the Lord that he had made man on the earth”; also, Num. 23:19, “God is not a man, that he should lie; neither the Son of man, that he should repent”; which I do not believe. But it ought to read, “It repented Noah that God made man.” This I believe, and then the other quotation stands fair. If any man will prove to me, by one passage of Holy Writ, one item I believe to be false, I will renounce and disclaim it as far as I promulgated it.

            TPJS p.348

            I shall comment on the very first Hebrew word in the Bible; I will make a comment on the very first sentence of the history of the creation in the Bible–Berosheit. I want to analyze the word. Baith–in, by through, and everything else. Rosh–the head. Sheit–grammatical termination. When the inspired man wrote it, he did not put the baith there. An old Jew without any authority added the word; he thought it too bad to begin to talk about the head! It read first, “The head one of the Gods brought forth the Gods.” That is the true meaning of the words. Baurau signifies to bring forth. If you do not believe it, you do not believe the learned man of God.

            Luckily, we know what the inspired man, Joseph, had written for D&C 49:18. The original is available to examine:!/paperSummary/revelation-7-may-1831-dc-49&p=2

            And Joseph had many opportunities to correct the text, if he believed it required correction; historically, he did so to many passages of the D&C.

            I find it interesting that the modern “correction” to D&C 49:18 is nestled snugly in a footnote, which is a “study help,” and not part of the canon, however the foreign-language editions may read. I also note that the footnote references the KJV of Genesis 9, rather than the relevant JST of Genesis 9 which settles the case in favor of the original wording (“forbiddeth,” rather than “biddeth”), which is well-attested.

            Maybe someone with a greater breadth of learning in the ways of the ancient Jews can correct me on this, but is it not the case that the Jews produced commentary which guided the interpretation of scripture among the teachers of the people, the rabbis? And is it not the case that this codified cultural understanding of the meaning of the scriptures grew increasingly divergent from that which the Lord had spoken that Jesus himself leveled this charge against the teachers of the people?

            JST Luke 11:53 52 Woe unto you, lawyers! for ye have taken away the key of knowledge, the fullness of the scriptures; ye enter not in yourselves into the kingdom; and those who were entering in, ye hindered.

            It is to be understood that the kingdom here referred to is the spiritual, not the earthly, kingdom; after all, the lawyers spoken of were Jews, and the Jews held the keys of the kingdom until John (D&C 84:27).

            This concern was echoed by Joseph, oddly.

            TPJS, p. 9
            The Lord would cut short his work in righteousness and except the Church receive the fulness of the scriptures that they would yet fail.

            And Moroni (Mormon 8:33). One needn’t alter the text to transfigure it – one need only alter the understanding of it.

            I find it interesting to see the patterns of history repeated in my day.

            After all…

            John 8:29
            29 And he that sent me is with me: the Father hath not left me alone; for I do always those things that please him.


            Doctrine and Covenants 89:13
            13 And it is pleasing unto me that [the flesh of beasts and fowls of the air] should not be used, only in times of winter, or of cold, or famine.

          • Dear Log,

            I think your unique reading of Doctrine and Covenants 49:18 may be in error. Much like the errant comma theorists–though to the opposite extreme–I think you may be using modern language assumptions to turn the plain, received meaning of the passage on its head.

            In context, section 49 is a mission call to reclaim the errant Shakers who (as the chapter heading explains) claimed that Christ had come again in the form of Ann Lee, forbade marriage, and (in some cases) forbade the consumption of meat. The revelation refutes those beliefs, it does not support them. Section 89:13 says that “it is pleasing unto [God] that [the flesh of bird and beast] should not be used” except in winter and distress. That verse does not forbid man’s consumption of meat. Rather, as expressed in 89:12, “flesh also of beasts and of the fowls of the air” was “ordained for the use of man with thanksgiving,” though it ought to be used sparingly.

            Now I may choose to edge closer to a vegetarian diet–refraining (if not outright abstaining) from red and white meat while still enjoying dairy, eggs, etc.–and I may think such a diet is good. But when I try to compel others to follow that same diet, I run afoul of Section 49:18, which I think is clear in the context of the whole verse (rather than lifting a single clause from a single sentence), not to mention the passage as a whole.

            A final point: I feel confident that we can trust that the general, correlated understanding of scripture (which I understand is what we use when we translate the scriptures) is likely the correct understanding of scripture until the President of the Church, who has the exclusive right to offer binding, authoritative interpretations on scripture, says otherwise.

          • Loren, your point about my use of moderation is well taken. I appreciate the correction.

          • Russell, excellent points about D&C 49. Thanks for adding to the discussion.

          • Dear Russell,

            You say:

            I think your unique reading of Doctrine and Covenants 49:18 may be in error. Much like the errant comma theorists–though to the opposite extreme–I think you may be using modern language assumptions to turn the plain, received meaning of the passage on its head.

            To which I reply: the only “assumptions” I make, if they can be called “assumptions,” is that “forbiddeth” means “forbiddeth,” and “abstain” means “abstain.” If you wish, I can cite Webster’s 1828 Dictionary to establish that “forbid” indeed does mean “to command against” and “abstain” indeed does mean “to voluntarily refrain”. Therefore, plainly speaking, my “reading” is the literal, primary meaning of the text.

            And this conforms to Joseph’s teachings about the interpretation of scripture.

            TPJS p. 276
            What is the rule of interpretation? Just no interpretation at all. Understand it precisely as it reads.

            “Forbiddeth” is therefore to be understood as “forbiddeth,” and “abstain” is to be understood as “abstain.” There’s no “modern language assumption” about it.

            Is it so surprising, in a Church that teaches truth may be found outside of its hallowed halls, that other religious communities are not wholly in error, but possess some truth? I remember President Hinckley extending the invitation to others, saying something to the effect “bring all your truth and let us see if we can’t add to it.” The Shakers were not entirely in error.

            I cannot agree with this statement.

            “I don’t care what the scriptures say; I care what the current prophet says they say.” – Paul H. Dunn

            There was once a time when the common teaching in the Church concerning the scriptures vis-a-vis the General Authorities, including the President of the Church, was the polar opposite: “If I say anything that is contrary to the scriptures, the scriptures prevail,” said President Joseph Fielding Smith. President Smith’s teaching has not been heard for many years.

            The scriptures are the united voice of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. We have agreed, by common consent, that their teachings are binding upon all, for both doctrine and reproof. No calling in the Church places anyone above the authority of the scriptures, and no manual or handbook has been accepted by common consent. The General Authorities give counsel concerning the current circumstances we find ourselves in, which we should obey unless counseled otherwise directly by the Lord, but they may not pronounce binding doctrine or scriptural readings merely on their own say-so. The only way to make such pronouncements binding upon all would be by the common consent of the Church, thus making it scripture (or, at least, canon) and the united voice of the Church.

            This much seems clear, at least to me. President Smith’s teaching was correct when he was alive, and there is no reason to suppose anything has changed to invalidate it.

            TPJS, p. 237
            President Joseph Smith read the 14th chapter of Ezekiel — said the Lord had declared by the Prophet [Ezekiel], that the people should each one stand for himself, and depend on no man or men in that state of corruption of the Jewish church — that righteous persons could only deliver their own souls — applied it to the present state of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints — said if the people departed from the Lord, they must fall — that they were depending on the Prophet, hence were darkened in their minds, in consequence of neglecting the duties devolving upon themselves, envious towards the innocent, while they afflict the virtuous with their shafts of envy.

  8. I am interested in how people define the meaning of words. If the quotation “…He said fish was much healthier for us to eat than meat…” it indicates that the Prophet made a distinction between fish and meat. I think it’s a fair thing to assume that the Prophet knew that fish are animals and contain meat, but this quotation indicates he drew a distinction between the two. We are left to speculate if the Prophet also drew a distinction between e.g. red meat quadrupeds (cattle, sheep, horse etc.) and white meat bipeds (poultry, game birds etc) as food for the purposes of the Word of Wisdom.

    • Alan

      Section 89 itself identifies “red meat” and “white meat” animals separately, but it does not separate them as to their usage. In verse 12 it specifically mentions the “flesh also of beasts and of the fowls of the air,” and in verse 14 it talks about “the beasts of the field, and the fowls of heaven, and all wild animals that run or creep on the earth.” Verse 17 says “corn for the ox, and oats for the horse, and rye for the fowls and for swine, and for all beasts of the field, and barley for all useful animals.” In verse 15 all of these “animals” fall under the same restriction: “And these hath God made for the use of man only in times of famine and excess of hunger.” But, there is no mention at all of the “fish of the sea” or anything similar to that in the section. You will also notice that there is no mention of the word “meat” in the section, only “flesh.”

      On that note, Webster, in his 1828 dictionary, gives the following definition for flesh: “The body of beasts and fowls used as food, distinct from fish.” Today’s Oxford dictionary defines flesh as “the flesh of an animal or fish, regarded as food.” So, it appears that the definition of “flesh” has changed somewhat over the last 200 years. Best to use the definition in use at the time the revelation was given.

  9. I appreciate your interesting article. I have an additional citation which supports the view presented, from Joseph Smith himself through George A. Smith. During the Kirtland Camp march George A. Smith wrote the following in his journal:

    We passed through Greencastle, and Joseph here directed us to get a supply of dried codfish. He said fish was much healthier for us to eat than meat, and the use of fish in warm weather was not prohibited in the Word of Wisdom. We drove to within 3 miles of Belleville and camped in a patch of wild grape vines. It rained considerable.
    The Instructor 81:323

  10. Thank you for this insightful article. I agree. I have never seen an explanation before 1921 of the verse that did not interpret the verse as anything but the way we interpret it with the comma. And I had seen several that did interpret it as we do. Thank you for the explanation of how usage of “only” has changed over time and that changed usage probably drove the decision (probably by Elder Talmage) to put in a comma to preserve the way it had already been long interpreted.

    I remember growing up in the 1960s and 1970s and hearing my parents speculate that maybe the reason the Lord wanted us to eat meat sparingly and only in times of winter, cold, or famine, was because prior to refrigeration, meat spoiled more quickly in warmer weather. Of course, that could just be another rationalization to support use of meat throughout the year, which is a common part of our culture. But, at least, with proper refrigeration, meat doesn’t spoil as fast as it otherwise would.

    • Thanks, Mike (and others), for your very thoughtful comments! I’ve written a second article (forthcoming) that analyzes the various interpretations of D&C 89:13 since 1833. I address the refrigeration question in that paper. I hope it will elicit equally thoughtful comments.

      • The Word of Wisdom clearly outlines a WFPB diet, except in very unusual circumstances. As Americans, we simply never face those circumstances. The meaning of verse 13 is really also pretty clear. However, the Lord knows our weaknesses, so to make sure we understand what we should do in relation to animal flesh, he repeats the counsel in verse 15. And certainly the promises of the WOW are abundantly fulfilled when we adhere to that counsel.

  11. Eliza R. Snow wrote the hymn “In our lovely Deseret”, (Hymns, no. 307) and in verse two, it says “Drink no liquor, and they eat / But a very little meat.” She died in 1887, so it seems clear that she and the Saints who sang this song in the 19th Century understood the Word of Wisdom as restricting meat consumption, consistent with the meaning verse 13 has WITH the comma.

  12. I would think that the words of Hyrum Smith should be enough to demonstrate the meaning. To then have Heber C. Kimball, Brigham Young, Lorenzo Snow, and the example of President George Albert Smith confirm is what I would call a witness of doctrine. No need to go back to dictionaries and grammar lessons.

  13. This kind of stuff drives me crazy. It’s obvious what the message is. It says right above that they should be used sparingly. Really over thinking the comma here.

    • Jennifer, I share the frustration with arguing about the meaning of scriptures with grammatical arguments like this. That said, in my opinion, it is bigger issue. A claim has been made for many years that the meaning of a verse changed to an opposite meaning, because of an inadvertent or erroneous comma. This theory has been taught in Sunday School classes. BYU professors have taught it in their classes. In my opinion, the ramifications that a doctrine could change because of such a grammatical change should bother a lot of people; it bothers me. There are been plenty of opportunities to “fix” this error, but the First Presidency and Twelve have chosen not to do so every time. And when I looked into it, all I could find were quotes, long before the comma, supporting the interpretation with the comma. No, I am convinced that this is a case of a comma being put into the text to prevent a possible misinterpretation of the verse that would originate from the evolution of grammatical rules.

  14. Thank you for this. When the comma didn’t change in the new edition of the scriptures it really got me thinking that it was probably correct. I think that because it is so different than how we currently view meat and diet (for Americans) that it is a hard idea for us. And because meat is much more readily available than it was for early saints– and we don’t kill it ourselves or realize the sacrifice of the animal– I think it makes it hard for us to understand what God was probably trying to explain. Not that eating meat is bad, but that there is a “higher” way to live and that doing so will give you greater spiritual power.

    I think your analysis is fascinating and it really resonates with me. I might just have to make a few changes in my life!

  15. As someone who enjoys a little meat with email meal (and a bunch of vegetables to go with it), I’d really like to see what would happen if Pres. Monson got up and asked us for the next year to only eat meat in times of duress or winter.

    Part of me wonders if the meat in winter makes sense because you couldn’t get vegetables/grain in winter in sufficient quantity. But if that’s the case we can get them now, so even then we shouldn’t be eating meat in winter either!

    If the goal is respect for animal life and to avoid killing (which would fit in with a pre-Fall Garden of Eden state) then we should really consider this as Latter-day Saints.

    Personally, I feel a lot of truth to this by the spirit, and I suppose I’m duty bound to act on it. But it sure would be nice to have that confirmed from a modern authority!

    • The comma wasn’t removed in the 2013 edition of the Scriptures, so I’d personally still consider the older doctrine as the prophet and apostles’ answer today. Though I’d be okay with a change in the wording to say ‘except’ instead.

    • I agree. I have sat in dinning rooms with modern day Apostles during summer months and they have enjoyed the meat dishes provided – including Elder Nelson who is a heart specialist. I would really like to hear them speak about this controversy over the pulpit.

      • Our leaders do not tell us “eat like we eat.” They tell us: read the Word of Wisdom and get your own answers (see for example this reply from Elder Bednar to the question about meat, at the bottom of this page:

        Our leaders are not likely to give us any more details on diet. The Lord has given us the principles in the Word of Wisdom, and they are more than enough for any who want to care for their body temple. If we receive the light we’ve been given, we’ll be given more, and that light will grow brighter and brighter until the perfect day.

  16. Hi Jane, this is an insightful article. Thank you!

    I disagree with your interpretation of the “only” in D&C 121:36. I think it *can* mean “exclusively”, and I believe that interpretation is supported by the text.

    First some background: when the word “only” is preceded by a comma, its part of speech is a conjunction and means “were it not that”, “however”, “but”, “except”, etc. This is how we usually read this verse.

    When it is not preceded by a comma, “only” is almost always an adverb meaning “merely”, “solely”, “exclusively”, “simply”, etc. If you search through the scriptures for instances of the word “only” to check out their parts of speech, you’ll find that with rare exception, every instance of “only” follows this rule (assuming it’s not an adjective, like “Abraham’s only son”). In the one or two places where “only” does not follow this rule, it is clear from the context what the interpretation should be.

    In my opinion, the context is not clear as to what the interpretation of “only” should be here, and so, lacking that context, we should default to interpreting it according to the rules of the language. If we go down that route, we have this as the language of the verse:

    “…the powers of heaven cannot be controlled nor handled exclusively upon the principles of righteousness.”

    I appreciated your interpretation that reading it this way would imply that you need principles of “unrighteousness” in order to access these powers. However, I have never read it that way. There are many instances where righteousness alone is deemed to be insufficient.

    For example, the 10 virgins all had “righteous” desires to attend the feast of the bridegroom. The servants of the master all had righteous desires to guard the talents given them. But in these cases, righteousness alone is insufficient; more is required.

    I spent a long time wondering “what lack I yet”, until I came across a verse near the end of the Book of Revelation. In chapter 22, the angel is showing John the final states of men after Judgement, and observes:

    “He that is unjust, let him be unjust still: and he which is filthy, let him be filthy still: and he that is righteous, let him be righteous still: and he that is holy, let him be holy still.” (verse 11)

    I think it is really interesting that the angel differentiates between righteousness (which we would ascribe to a Terrestrial state) and holiness (a Celestial state). I believe this is what D&C 121:36 is implying: the principles of righteousness, in and of themselves, are insufficient to *control* the powers of Heaven. The powers may be conferred upon us by obedience to these principles, but to control them requires more. What that “more” is is Holiness. In order to control these powers, instead of simply being party to them is for us to become like the Man of Holiness, who also has control over these powers. That process of sanctification is a unique process, which is why the remaining verses seek to explain in very rough terms what is required. In is encapsulated in verse 45:

    “Let thy bowels also be full of charity towards all men, and to the household of faith, and let virtue garnish thy thoughts unceasingly”

    If you can accomplish this, then you receive the blessings of Holiness and sanctification: you are admitted into the presence of God (else how could your confidence wax strong?) and you are granted dominion, power, and control.


    Binary Search Tree

    • Interesting observations about D&C 121:36, but I think it misses the author’s prior point: when the revelation was written, “only” often meant “except”. So simply interpreting it according to the rules of our *current* language use might be the wrong move in this case.

      Indeed, I think when you look at the larger context of that revelation, from verses 36-46, there is a strong and vibrant theme of the importance of using gentleness, NOT priesthood authority, to influence others. Even though it is true that gentleness (etc.) is not sufficient for salvation without priesthood, that just doesn’t happen to be the theme of this part of the scriptures.These verses from 35-45 are making the point that priesthood shouldn’t be used to control or dominate others, which suggests that the “only” of verses 36 and 41 should indeed be read in the more archaic “except” sense, and stand in support of the author’s point.

    • Binary

      While I do not agree with your interpretation of the usage of “only” in section 121, I found your comments interesting. One thing to consider: I agree that we need to use the “rules of the language” in our interpretation of scripture. However, the rules that we use should be those from the time that the scripture was first given or translated rather than those in use today. I do not know the source that you used for your definition of “only,” but I assume that you used a modern one. Consulting two dictionaries in use during the early 19th century – Webster’s American dictionary of the English Language (1828), and John Walker’s Critical Pronouncing Dictionary (1823) – gives us, perhaps, some different insights. For example, neither dictionary gives “exclusively” as a definition for “only.” However, Walker does define “except” as “exclusively of, without inclusion of; unless.”

  17. The “errant comma” theory makes hash out of JST Genesis 9:10-15 and D&C 49:18-21.

    As a related aside, the word “bid” in no case ever means “forbid.” They are literally antonyms.

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