Related Posts: The Word of Wisdom
Summary: The Mormon code of health is called the Word of Wisdom. It states that we should abstain from “hot drinks,” tobacco, and alcohol; that we should enjoy wholesome foods and eat meat sparingly.
Hot drinks are taken to mean caffeinated coffee and tea. But then, why would coffee and tea be prohibited? It is usually posited that it is their caffeine content. But if they are prohibited because of caffeine then shouldn’t other caffeinated drinks also be avoided? such as Coke and Pepsi? Many Mormons believe so. Others not.
Officially, caffeinated coffee and tea are prohibited. As for Caffeinated sports drinks and colas, some Mormons will tell you the Word of Wisdom prohibits them, others will say not. Your answer will vary from person to person, but officially they are not.
In this post I shall explore the caffeinated soft drinks issue and go a little into its history.
(For a discussion about the caffeine issue see Gregory Smith, “The Word of Wisdom in a Caffeinated World,” at Mormon Times; and “Teas” by Kaimi Wenger at Times & Seasons; and “Health Practices” from LDS Newsroom.)
The turn of the 19th century
Throughout most of the nineteenth century adherence to the Word of Wisdom was not required for members. At the turn of the nineteenth century adherence to it began to be more stridently preached. By 1930 adherence to its proscription of coffee, tea, tobacco, and alcohol was required for church leaders and members who desired to attend the temple. (See Encyclopedia of Mormonism, “Word of Wisdom”; and “Temple Recommend.”) In the decades prior to this the potentially harmful effects of caffeine were discovered. So it was posited that the reason behind the proscription of coffee and tea was their caffeine content.
The earliest reference to caffeine that I have found in church magazines is from 1913, but it does not discourage the consumption of caffeinated beverages. The next reference is from 1917. Apostle John A. Widstoe wrote in the church’s Improvement Era magazine,
Hot drinks against which the people are warned have been and are understood to include tea and coffee, and the inhibition was preached and published prior to the discovery by chemists that theine, caffeine and kindred alkaloids are of pronounced deleterious and actually poisonous effect. Here again has ‘Mormonism,’ as a living teacher, led the way to the paths of a better life, not for the hereafter alone, but for this world (“The Vitality of Mormonism,” Improvement Era, Vol. 20, No. 4, Feb. 1917).
The following year an LDS Professor of Geology at the University of Utah, Dr. Frederick J. Pack, wrote in the same publication,
At noon recess of a recent general conference of the Church, while waiting by appointment for a friend at one of the city’s principal drug stores, the writer became very much astonished to witness a large number of brethren and sisters step up to the soda water counter, drink a glass of coca-cola, and then walk away as if it were a regular practice… Recent inquiry seems to indicate that the ‘Mormon’ people in general are quite unfamiliar with the chemical composition of this drink and that its physiological effect is very much the same as that of tea or coffee. (“Should Latter-Day Saints Drink Coca-Cola?,” Improvement Era, Vol. 21, No. 5, March 1918).
These objections to caffeine coincided with and were likely influenced by a short lived anti-caffeine movement in the United States. In 1906 the Pure Food and Drug Act was signed by Theodore Roosevelt. Also called the “Wiley Act”, it allowed Dr. H.W. Wiley, Chief Chemist at the Bureau of Chemistry at Washington and “the most famous food-chemist in the world” according to one New York Times article, to pursue a much sought after investigation of the Coca-Cola Company’s primary product, which was caffeinated. In October 1909 federal authorities seized forty barrels and twenty kegs of Coca-Cola syrup on its way to a Chattanooga bottling plant. The trial, humorously referred to as United States v. Forty Barrels and Twenty Kegs of Coca-Cola, began on March 16, 1911. One of the witnesses for the government “swore to the dangers of caffeine, saying it disguised fatigue and led to exhaustion, overstimulated the heart, overworked the kidneys, brought addiction, nervous debility, sometimes—though rarely—death.” The trial eventually went to the Supreme Court who, in 1916, remanded the case back to the district court. Soon after Coca-Cola changed its formula and pleaded nolo contendere, arguing that the suit was based on a formula that was no longer used. Dr. Pack mentions this suit as well as some of the controversy surrounding it in his 1918 Improvement Era article.
It appears that Elder Widstoe was a driving force behind the LDS’ anti-caffeine sentiment which continues today. Twenty-two years after his 1917 Improvement Era article he wrote,
[cola drinks] invariably exert a stimulating effect upon the body and leave a desire for more…This has made observers of the Word of Wisdom question the propriety of using cola drinks.” He then lists some general information about the effects of caffeine, then concludes, “every argument used against coffee and tea, and some other arguments, may be used against cola drinks, and all other beverages containing caffeine…They are determined habit formers, and may lead to the coffee and tea habit. They injure human health.” The cola drinks he lists as containing caffeine are Braser, Bromo-Kola, Shero, Cleo-Cola, Coca-Cola, Dandy Cola, D. C. Cola, Double Cola, Dr. Pepper, LaVida Cola, Lime Cola concentrate, Par-T-Pak Cola, Pepsi-Cola, Royal Crown (R-C) Cola, Western Cola, Wynola. (“Caffeine in Cola Drinks,” Improvement Era, Vol. 32, No. 10, Oct. 1939.)
This 1939 article was reprinted in the Improvement Era in 1942; He repeated his reasons against drinking caffeinated beverages in his book The Word of Wisdom: A Modern Interpretation published in 1950.
How some Mormons view caffeine
The church has never come out and said that caffeine is behind the prohibition of hot drinks mentioned in the Word of Wisdom. Nor has is said caffeinated soft drinks are prohibited. From 1899 to 2006 the word “caffeine” is mentioned only eight times in the Semi-annual General Conference reports of the church. Because this is not an official position General Authorities are generally careful not to give the impression they are forbidden by the church—hence in 100 years of General Conference there are only a handful of references to caffeine. This cautiousness, however, does not extend to devout members, many of whom preach that caffeinated soft drinks are prohibited by the Word of Wisdom. Thus Dr. Pack says, “caffeine is shown to be a true stimulant (literally a whip) goading the system on to abnormal activity, which is paid for by general impairment of health.” And instead of coming out positively against caffeinated soft drinks he ends with the question, “Should the Latter-day Saints or, for that matter, anyone else, drink coca-cola?” A 1950 Improvement Era article about diet says, “TOTAL ABSTINENCE from alcoholic beverages, caffeinated beverages (including all cola drinks) and tobacco cannot too strongly be urged” (“Handout Diet Chart,” Improvement Era, Jan. 1950). In 2008 one William T. Stephenson, MD, writes in the July Ensign,
While the Word of Wisdom does not specifically mention caffeine, it is commonly understood in the medical community that higher doses of caffeine are associated with infertility, Meniere’s disease (a disease affecting balance), insomnia, sudden infant death syndrome (with maternal consumption in utero), and fibrocystic disease of the breasts. In addition, gastric acid disease (ulcers of the stomach and duodenum) may also be linked to consumption of both caffeinated and decaffeinated coffee, lending credence to the Word of Wisdom’s advice to avoid “hot drinks.” From the perspective of medical science, most investigators who have examined the effects of caffeine suggest that caffeinated beverages should not be consumed in large quantities. (“Cancer, Nutrition, and the Word of Wisdom: One Doctor’s Observations,” Ensign, July 2008).
A paper published in BYU Studies asks this question, “What is the relationship between Xanthines and the Word of Wisdom?” It concludes,
The medical research referred to in this article stands as a witness of the validity of the “hot drink” instruction in the Word of Wisdom. When this revelation was given in 1833, caffeine had been discovered as a substance, but its physiological effects were not known and the announcement of its discovery was buried in scientific publications. “It is very unlikely that the Prophet Joseph had heard of it.” But even if he had, no one at that time knew of its harmful effects. (Clifford J. Stratton, “The Xanthines: Coffee, Cola, Cocoa, and Tea,” BYU Studies, Vol. 20, No. 4, Summer 1980).
How Church leaders view it
Church leaders are more cautious. From time to time they make statements from which it is clear they interpret the Word of Wisdom as proscribing all caffeinated beverages, but they carefully avoid statements that could be construed as saying the church prohibits caffeinated soft drinks. In 1962 Apostle Spencer W. Kimball (b. 1895, sustained as President of the church in 1973; d. 1985) said,
I never drink any of the cola drinks and my personal hope would be that no one would. However, they are not included in the Word of Wisdom in its technical application. I quote from a letter from the secretary of the First Presidency, “But the spirit of the Word of Wisdom would be violated by the drinking or eating of anything that contained a habit-forming drug.” With reference to the cola drinks, the Church has never officially taken any attitude on this but I personally do not put them in the class as with the tea and coffee because the Lord specifically mentioned them…I might say also that strychnine and sleeping pills and opium and heroin are not mentioned in the Word of Wisdom and yet I would discourage them with all my power. (The Teachings of Spencer W. Kimball, edited by Edward L. Kimball, p. 202.)
President Hinckley also viewed the Word of Wisdom as proscribing all caffeinated beverages. During his tenure as President he gave two interviews in which he was asked about caffeine and the Word of Wisdom. In a 1996 interview with Mike Wallace he mentioned that “Mormons adhere to a very strict health code.” Wallace then asks, “No alcohol, no tobacco, no coffee, no tea, not even caffeinated soft drinks…” President Hinckley responded, “Right.” (60 Minutes, April 7, 1996.) In a 1998 interview on Larry King Live he also mentions caffeine.
Gordon B. Hinckley: …You’ve read a part of the word of wisdom. The word of wisdom covers many things. It covers the excessive use of meat, as I see it. It covers, in a very particular way, the use of tobacco and alcohol.
Larry King: By saying no?
Gordon B. Hinckley: By saying, by proscribing those things.
Larry King: No to caffeine?
Gordon B. Hinckley: No to caffeine, coffee and tea.
(Larry King Live, September 8, 1998)
I know some Mormons who took President Hinckley’s statements about caffeine as definitive proof that the church officially proscribes all caffeinated beverages.
I suppose there are three positions a Mormon could take on caffeinated soft drinks: (1) its unofficially prohibited so one avoids them completely, (2) it’s not officially prohibited so one doesn’t worry about it, and (3) it’s not “officially” prohibited, and since there is nothing important about them there’s no reason to be attached to them, so one abstains.
One must be careful not to take an individual’s understanding of the Word of Wisdom as a statement about church policy. Many Apostles have come out against caffeinated soft drinks; consequently many Mormons are convinced that amounts to an unofficial or semi-official proscription. Others, including myself, see the proscription as cultural.
Personally, I avoid caffeinated soft drinks if I’m around Mormons who would be offended if I had a Coke or Pepsi, but otherwise I don’t worry about it. I rarely drink carbonated beverages anyway; I much prefer a glass of good tasting cold water. When I was growing up there were never caffeinated soft drinks in our home—my mother rarely purchased soda drinks at all. There was a strong sense of wrongness attached to Coke, Pepsi, Dr. Pepper as well—names so avoided they were practically associated with apostasy.
At a time when sensibilities about adherence to the Word of Wisdom were becoming more sensitive, chemists had demonstrated the harmful effects of caffeine, providing confirming evidence that the Word of Wisdom is inspired. Elder Widstoe’s influence also helped to promote abstention of caffeine. Consequently many Mormons believe caffeine is the reason behind the proscription of coffee and tea, which was unofficially extended by some to include caffeinated soft drinks. Finally, subsequent medical research has further confirmed the potentially harmful effects of caffeine.
 An Improvement Era article from 1913 written by an LDS chemist reads,
In modern medicine, the chemical compounds prepared by the chemist which have found a use therein are too many to be counted. One of the most recent discoveries is of exceedingly great interest. A new compound known as Veronal, which is a very powerful hypnotic, has recently been synthetically prepared in the laboratory. This is very effective in exceedingly small quantities, and sends one off to sleep almost immediately. A very simple antidote to the action of this compound is found in a cup of the ordinary tea, which will offset readily the action of this drug. The characteristic ingredient of tea and coffee, of course, is caffeine, which acts as a stimulant upon the nervous system and upon the heart. This stimulant itself is now being prepared by the chemist on a large scale. It has been found in chemical study of the uric acid, the characteristic excretory product of birds and reptiles, that it differs from caffeine only in containing one less methyl group. Very easily, therefore, the chemist can introduce this lacking methyl group in uric acid, and the result is the artificial product of caffeine, the characteristic ingredient of tea and coffee and the substance used in large quantities as a component in headache medicines. It is possible, therefore, that as soon as we discover a substance which gives to tea and coffee its flavor we shall be enabled to prepare artificial tea and artificial coffee. (Improvement Era, Vol. 16, No. 3, Jan, 1913.)
This article ends with, “These are a few of the many ways in which the modern chemist is trying to be of benefit to the human race, and in this latter day we must regard the chemist as a benefactor of mankind, and not as one who is practicing the ‘black art,’ and supposed to be in league with the Evil One.”
 See “WE ARE A NATION OF SUICIDES,’ SAYS DR. H.W. WILEY,” Sunday, 19 March, 1911.
 See United States v. Coca Cola Co. of Atlanta, 241 U.S. 265 (1916).
 L.T. Benjamin, A.M. Rogers, A. Rosenbaum, “Coca-Cola, Caffeine, and Mental Deficiency: Harry Hollingworth and the Chattanooga Trial of 1911,” Journal of the History of the Behavioral Sciences, Jan. 91, Vol. 27, No. 1, pp. 42-55.
 Dr. Pack writes,
Some few years ago the United States government chemists brought suit under the Pure Food and Drugs law against the Coca-Cola Company, charging that this drink is deleterious to health. A long and hard-fought suit followed. The judge ruled that the Pure Food and Drugs law does not cover such a case as presented and dismissed the matter. Since that time much has appeared in certain newspapers and privately published pamphlets to the effect that the harmless nature of coca-cola has been vindicated. It should be noted, however, that the judge reported nothing of the kind; his ruling simply shows that the Pure Food and Drugs law needs amending.