A Soupy Story

In every religious group, it’s far easier to pharisaically focus on sins that people can see and smell than it is to follow the Savior’s admonition to avoid judgment of others.

I remember, back in the 1970s, that the standard of all righteousness among the LDS Pharisees was whether or not you drank Coca-Cola. I can remember going over to a (Mormon) friend’s house and opening up his fridge and discovering large, two-liter bottles of Coke and gasping at their audacious display of wickedness. This has since declined as the standard of righteousness, the decline coinciding almost perfectly with the rise of Diet Coke in the ‘80s. Nowadays, it’s been said that you can gauge the faithfulness of a Mormon by the temperature of their caffeine.

For those outside the faith, the question is obvious: what’s the big deal, anyway? Can Mormons drink Coke or can’t they? That’s a question that Mormons don’t fully understand themselves a lot of the time.

The answer boils down to two simple words: “hot drinks.”

Those are the words that appear in Section 80 of the Doctrine and Covenants, the health code for Mormons that was given as a revelation to the Prophet Joseph Smith back in the early 19th century. The revelation said that this was not to be observed “by commandment or constraint,” but rather as good advice, or a “Word of Wisdom.” It also said to avoid “tobacco” and “strong drinks,” as well as to eat meat sparingly and enjoy grains and wholesome foods. The Word of Wisdom, as it has come to be called, was observed sporadically by the church membership at large until the 1930s, when then-LDS Church President Heber J. Grant made it mandatory for all Mormons wishing to attend the temple to live the Word of Wisdom, especially the explicit taboo on tobacco, booze, coffee, and tea.

Of course, the Word of Wisdom never says “coffee and tea.” It says “hot drinks.” Now at the time the revelation was given, Joseph Smith made it clear that “hot drinks” was a euphemism for coffee and tea, and given the 19th century context, that makes perfect sense. But for the pharisaical, this poses a number of problems. For instance, is the temperature the issue? What about cold coffee or iced tea? And what about, say, hot chocolate?

At one point, that last question was not just academic.

The story I’m about to recount is told in family circles and may well be apocryphal, but it’s worth telling, nonetheless. It involves the previously mentioned Heber J. Grant, although it takes place long before he assumed the mantle of the church presidency. In this story, Heber J. Grant is a young man in his twenties, called to serve as the junior member in the church’s Quorum of the Twelve Apostles.

At one of his first meetings with his eleven brethren, Heber J. is asked to consider whether or not hot chocolate should be included in the Word of Wisdom prohibition, given the fact that it, too, is a hot drink.

This is a major problem for Heber J. As the junior member, he will be the first polled on the issue, and he worries that if he says yes when everyone else says no, he will look like a zealot. If he says no and everyone else says yes, he will look faithless. He looks to church president Wilford Woodruff for some kind of guidance, but President Woodruff is a very old man, considerably frailer than he once was, and he’s sitting unobtrusively in a far corner of the room, very likely asleep.

Heber J. looks to the heavens for inspiration and receives none. So he considers the issue and, using his best judgment, decides to vote yes. Yes, Heber J. says – hot chocolate should be against the Word of Wisdom.

They poll each apostle in succession. Each time, the answer comes back in the affirmative. To a man, each of the twelve apostles agrees with Heber J. They unanimously affirm that hot chocolate, as a hot drink, should be prohibited.

Then President Woodruff stirs, and, with his eyes closed, mutters under his breath, “Ugh… next time it’ll be soup.”

And that’s it.

Discussion ends; the vote is ignored, and the whole matter is dropped.

Inspiration works in remarkable ways.

So to answer the earlier question – is Coke prohibited by the Mormon’s code of health? The short answer is no – according to the official interpretation of Section 89, only coffee and tea are prohibited. But anyone with any intelligence can look at the reasons for that prohibition and extrapolate that caffeine probably isn’t good for you. So with that mindset, they can reasonably decide to incorporate that principle into their dietary habits and shun Coke, too. Which is fine by me. But what’s not fine is to look down your nose at me if I hold to the letter of the law rather than your interpretation of the spirit thereof.

Take that kind of nonsense too far, and next time, it’ll be soup.

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