Of Curious Workmanship
by Edgar G. Snow, Jr.
A Word on the Word of Wisdom
[p.29] I would wager that most NMs (not-yet-baptized.-Mormons) know the title but not the substance of the Book of Mormon, while they know the substance but not the title of the Word of Wisdom (WoW—sounds like a wrestling league).
The name “Word of Wisdom” is a bit misleading and may in part be responsible. It sounds, according to a source I can’t remember, like the title of a ponderous creed, like “the seven—fold path,” “the seven pillars of wisdom,” or even “the seven habits of highly effective people.” But it’s not. In fact, notwithstanding a couple of important exceptions, the text of the WoW doesn’t sound especially profound and can be easily distilled into a commonsensical, straightforward phrase used by a creative scout master from my youth: “Don’t drink, smoke, or chew, and don’t go out with girls who do.”
Even though the WoW was initially “to be sent [by] [p.30] greeting; not by commandment or constraint” (D&C 89:2), there was always a feeling it was important advice—who could discount the value of a revelation after all? But after the WoW became a strict requirement, this early season of “non-constraint” was eventually viewed as a grace period so that early Saints who were addicted to “noxious habits” would not come under immediate condemnation (see Joseph F. Smith, Conference Report, Oct. 1913). When the WoW became a commandment is the subject of some debate of course (see McCue, “Did the Word of Wisdom Become a Commandment in 1851?” Dialogue, Fall 1981). One way to gauge eventual acceptance of the WoW as a commandment would be to chronicle the disappearance of spittoons from early Mormon photographs. Now there’s a master’s thesis just waiting to be approved.
We Saints have had some interesting excuses to break tbe WoW, both officially and unofficially sanctioned. For instance, it seemed to bother Porter Rockwell’s conscience that he had occasional bouts with drinking, but he blamed it and his inability to control his swearing on a haircut and his subsequent loss of strength (remember his Samsonesque blessing from Joseph Smith). He cut his hair to make a wig for a sister who’d lost hers (see Old Port’s entry in Walker & Van Wagoner’s A Book of Mormons). Admittedly, Porter, [p.31] whose picture suspiciously looks like it was clipped from a ZZ Top album cover, was no master of syllogisms, but there is some logic in what he said, I guess.
“For medicinal purposes” remains a valid excuse for non-compliance as well. I recall my mother once forcing me to sip black tea for a stomach virus. I would have felt like I was getting away with something except for the fact that I hated the taste. By this experience I understood at an early age wickedness never was happiness. A more striking, although certainly no longer acceptable, example of medicinal use of otherwise prohibited WoW practices is James Talmage’s occasional cigar smoking—at the suggestion of a doctor and the First Presidency—to soothe his nerves, insomnia, and constipation. This incident apparently led to untrue rumors that Salt Lake temple janitors swept up barrels full of cigar butts from Brother Talmage’s work room in which he was writing Jesus the Christ (see Harris, The Essential James E. Talmage, pp. xxxii-xxxiii). I must stress that no one should use this as an excuse to participate in the cigar fad, even if you have a valid prescription. All jesting aside, I’ve had some first-hand experience watching the ill effects of tobacco, especially the part about “tobacco is not for the body, neither for the belly” (D&C 89:8). My high school football teammates demonstrated this principle for me when I watched [p.32] several of them inadvertently swallow wads of chewing tobacco and “juice” during scrimmages when they got hit by opposing players. Before observing its effects on the faces of my friends, I had believed chartreuse was a color not found in nature.
Of course, there are other permitted uses for otherwise prohibited items under the WoW. For instance, when beer shampoo was marketed in the 1970s, I remember my family bought some bottles for near-religious reasons since “strong drinks are not for the belly, but for the washing of your bodies” (D&C 89:7). The product worked well and produced a wealth of lathered-up foam on the top of your head, much like a beer mug. The only side-effect was the slight sense afterward that you’d been rubbing your head in a bag of yeast. And although we had no sick cattle growing up in a modern suburb (see D&C 89:8), my family was introduced to an alternative use of tobacco that, even though not suggested in the WoW, was not prohibited. You know that slimy smear that gets on your windshield that won’t Come off even with windshield wiper fluid? My sister’s boyfriend demonstrated to our satisfaction that a block of chewing tobacco (unchewed of course), when swabbed across the windshield, would easily remove this nasty film. We were all sold on this alternative use for tobacco and kept a couple of cellophane-[p.33] wrapped blocks in each car. Later, when my LDS date discovered a couple of unopened chaws of tobacco in my glove compartment, she refused to believe the explanation of my intended righteous alternative usage. So based on my experience, it’s a rough ride to be a Mormon alternative tobacco user.
Finally, no meditation on the WoW would be complete without at least some mention of white bread, refined sugar, or chocolate. Somehow, one or all of these items show up in someone’s extracanonical list of prohibited WoW items on any given Sunday in a foyer discussion. A kind sister once showed me some quotes from Elder John A. Widtsoe (a scientist by profession) about the harmful effects of chocolate and why it should be prohibited by the WoW. I quickly remembered that Ezra Taft Benson, as president of the Quorum of the Twelve, used to visit the mission home in my mission in Switzerland and the only request he made when spending the night there was for a large box of Lindor chocolate balls at his bedside. He would eat the entire box in one evening. I related this story to this sister who had quoted Widtsoe, expecting that since President Benson was then the prophet, she’d relent.
After she thought about my story for a moment, she exercised considerable wit that would have been the envy of Porter Rockwell himself. To this day I still don’t [p.34] know if she was serious when she replied, “You know, come to think of it, President Benson has been sick lately,” before she walked away.