A conscience is what hurts when all your other parts feel so good.
Question #93312 posted on 10/08/2020 10:14 a.m.

Dear 100 Hour Board,

I heard on a church history podcast that on the day he was killed in Carthage jail, Joseph Smith and his companions partook in wine and tabacco and that our missionaries serving at the Carthage jail running tours will confirm this if asked directly. I have never had the opportunity to visit this site. Is there official church approved documentation of this or is it made up/slander?



Dear Hie-C,

Yes, they did. You can find documentation of this in Volume 6 of the official History of the Church hosted by BYU at this link.

It should be noted that the Word of Wisdom wasn't interpreted or practiced by Joseph and the early Saints in the way we practice it today. It was made a requirement to enter the temple during the tenure of President Heber J. Grant. Until then, it was largely considered more of an advisory guideline than a strict commandment. You can find more detailed information from FairMormon here. The long and the short of it is that it would appear that the early Saints viewed the Word of Wisdom as prohibiting hard liquor and the recreational use of tea and coffee, but not medicinal use, or moderate use of what the revelation calls "mild drinks." Verse 17 of the Word of Wisdom, for instance, expressly permits the use of barley for the purpose of mild drinks. Is that at odds with modern church practice, which forbids all kinds of alcoholic drink? Absolutely. Such is the nature of an ongoing and continually changing church with open access to revelation. Rather than be distressed by the apparent contradiction, I think we can comfortably recognize that church practice has changed over time (and that the exact particulars of the Word of Wisdom are not necessarily eternal, unchanging principles). When God gave the Israelites the dietary restrictions of the law of Moses, there were no restrictions or provisions suggesting that God's people would one day go back to eating shellfish and other unclean foods--but today we don't prohibit the foods the Mosaic law did, and we prohibit some things the law did not. It's comfortable and easy to say the law of Moses was always a temporary system intended to be fulfilled and done away with, but for some reason we're much less comfortable saying similar things about the particular commandments we live today. The fact that we have more knowledge and understanding about many things does not necessarily mean that we also have possession of the ultimate, timeless truth of those things.

I'm not saying you should go get drunk or abuse prescription drugs, or that the Word of Wisdom is uninspired and about to become passé. Whether any of the currently prohibited substances ever become acceptable or not--and I rather doubt they will--it will have no bearing on my convictions of the restored gospel. But I am trying to provide some historical context. It's helpful to recognize that although this is the way things are done now, that doesn't mean that they were always done this way in the past, or that they will always be done this way in the future. The Word of Wisdom, such as it is, didn't operate the same way in ancient Israel that it does today, and it's entirely possible it won't operate the same way in the far future.

We have a cultural tendency to try and retrofit a modern 21st-century understanding of the gospel on peoples and cultures who simply did not live the gospel in the same way we did or with the same commandments that we live. We don't have to harmonize the question of why ancient Israelites drank wine in the Bible with 21st-century temple recommend questions, as if the Word of Wisdom ought to have been in operation 2,000 years ago. We don't have to invent an explanation that Joseph refused wine for his surgery as a child because he somehow had premonitions of a revelation to come decades later in his life. That just sets people up to fail when they discover, as you just have, that the same prophet who didn't drink wine as a child well before the Word of Wisdom did drink wine years later as an adult. The Saints of the New Testament or those in 1840 were not under strict commandment to refrain from wine; we in 2020, however, are. If that's distressing, then we probably ought to do a better job of teaching about Church history and doctrine. 

I also want to comment on your last question: while you certainly ought to be careful about your sources, and there does exist a considerable amount of both distortion and flat-out falsehoods about the Church out there, your presented dichotomy of "official church approved documentation" on one hand versus "made up/slander" on the other is a little concerning to me. The Church can't publish or personally approve every single factoid and facet of church history. It's up to scholars and historians to write comprehensive, exhaustive works on the history of the Church, and while the Church's direct treatment of its history has gotten drastically better with time, it's still not going to be able to tell you everything there is to know. That is to say, you can find plenty of good and perfectly factual information about the Church from both believing and unbelieving sources, both in and out of the Church, and not everything you hear will neatly fit into the binary categories of "Church-approved" or slanderous. How you interpret that information is up to you, and the Church has a dizzying array of resources to help you do it--but be careful that you don't get caught up in rejecting everything that doesn't have "official church approved documentation" as malicious slander. The Church can only do so much.

I hope this helps. Feel free to write in if you've got more questions.