vegetarian mealOn Saturday afternoon I made butternut squash soup and spinach calzones, two of my favorite dishes. We were eight for dinner that night, and at least two of the guests were vegetarians.

Every time I have vegetarians to my house I feel ashamed of myself. If you’ve read Flunking Sainthood, you’ll know that I tried for that book to be a vegetarian because I believe in it: it’s better for animals, obviously, but also better for the planet and for me.

I’ve never been quite able to do it, though. I’ve cut back some on meat consumption, but it’s like I can progress only so far and then I just have to devour a cheeseburger.

I feel bad about this. In addition to the moral and health benefits of vegetarianism, I have an additional reason why I should stop eating meat, and that reason is that I’m a Mormon.

We Mormons have a remarkably selective interpretation of the scripture that makes up our Word of Wisdom, the dietary code that we follow religiously. We obey the restrictions against hot drinks, alcohol, and tobacco but studiously ignore a key component of the scripture passage: that meat is only for rare circumstances.

Word of Wisdom vegetarian

As you can see from the scripture, the Word of Wisdom emphasizes not once but twice that meat is to be reserved for unusual situations like famine or winter—when, in pre-Kroger days, garden produce and even some grains would be unavailable. Verse 15 functions like a reminder: “Did you catch what we said in verse 13? That we should only be eating animals if there’s nothing else around to prevent us from starving?”

And yet the Mormon-American subculture is all about meat: the ward’s annual chili-cookoff and turkey dinner at Christmas; the slow-cooked pot roast that you can put in the oven at 300 degrees before leaving for church and take out four hours later when you arrive home, tired and hungry.

That’s a great recipe, by the way. The beef comes out so tender and delicious you don’t even need a knife . . . . But there I go again, thinking rapturously about eating something that used to be a sentient cow with thoughts and feelings, an animal that my Mormon scripture specifically tells me not to eat because I already have plenty of pinto beans in my damn food storage and therefore no excuse.

The Mormon people have always been a little bit divided about the meat question. Some of our leaders tried mightily to get people to stop eating animals:

  • President Lorenzo Snow preached multiple times about his preference for vegetarianism, saying that “it was not right to neglect one part of the Word of Wisdom and be too strenuous in regard to other parts.” In 1897 he “introduced the subject of the Word of Wisdom, expressing the opinion that it was violated as much or more in the improper use of meat as in other things, and thought the time was near at hand when the Latter-day Saints should be taught to refrain from meat eating and the shedding of animal blood.”
  • Also in the 1890s, First Counselor George Q. Cannon wrote, “Am I or my family hungry? If so, of course man is justified in killing animals or birds to satisfy his or his family’s hunger. But if he has not any want of meat he ‘sheddeth blood,’ and he exposes himself to this wo which the Lord has pronounced.” (Juvenile Instructor 34 [Oct 1,1899]: 592; my thanks to Dr. Foster at ldsveg.org for these quotes.)
  • Joseph F. Smith designated the last Sunday of every month as “Humane Day,” emphasizing kindness to animals, a tradition that has apparently been revived by the new BYU Vegetarian Club.

But another strand within Mormonism seems to have carried the day, one that emphasized our people’s carnivorous devotion. My well-worn Mormon cookbooks contain untold recipes for 100 things to do with a chicken, an unqualified predilection that carries over into more official realms. For example, a 1977 Ensign article on the Word of Wisdom balanced D&C 89’s heavy restrictions on meat with D&C 49, which taught that “the Word of Wisdom does not advocate total vegetarianism.” Meat, the 1977 article clarified, was an important source of protein, while “a diet which relies totally on grains, fruits, and vegetables usually means protein deficiency.”

Joseph Smith once taught that his policy was to give the Mormons good principles and let us govern ourselves. I love that theory and its emphasis on trust and individual agency; in practice, however, I also know how quickly my vegetarian ideals get thrown out the window when I catch a whiff of bacon.

 

 

31 Comments

    • Jana Riess

      Ha ha. Well, here goes: put a roast on top of a lot of aluminum foil. Salt and pepper it liberally. Then you take a giant family-size can of cream of mushroom soup (hey, I’m from the Midwest and we’re not proud) and dump it on top. Wrap the whole thing up in the alum foil tightly and put it in a casserole dish. (After all, it has cream of mushroom soup in it, so it is required to put it in a casserole dish of some kind.) Bake at 275 or 300 degrees for 4 hours.

      One of the nice things about this recipe is that I can easily take the leftover roast and make great hot sandwiches the next night, or beef stew. I find that it’s harder to make over vegetarian recipes for another supper. I should learn more about how to do this.

  1. There’s a new book out exploring the connection between the Word of Wisdom and a vegan, whole-foods diet: Discovering the Word of Wisdom by Jane Birch. I haven’t finished it yet, but I’ve been very impressed with how well-researched the chapters I’ve read so far are. The author has also set up a website that includes stories from LDS people who have made changes to their diets, and resources for people interested in a whole-foods plant-based diet: http://discoveringthewordofwisdom.com/. Both are really great resources for people interested in exploring the vegetarian angle of the Word of Wisdom.

  2. I grew up in California in a valley filled with produce and farmer’s stalls and sometimes I’m amazed at how much meat and sugar Mormons eat when they come from Idaho (as my parents did) or Utah or Wyoming. I think it’s more of a cultural thing based on geographic location. When I went to Ricks College in the early 80s I had been a vegetarian for three years and I was treated like some kind of museum exhibit. My Wyoming roommate used to say, “This is the one I told you about, you know…. the VEGETARIAN….. from CALIFORNIA.” Much eye rolling accompanied this. Then she would take a home-canned bottle of elk meat, dump it in a pot, add home-canned carrots and corn, and make elk stew for dinner. Then she would top it off with about a dozen chocolate chip cookies. I was definitely not in California any more!

  3. I’ve happily eaten meat and all kinds of yummy processed foods my entire life as a Mormon. I was certainly well aware of the cautions in the Word of Wisdom, but hey, the prophet eats meat! Then suddenly I became aware that a whole food, plant-based diet doesn’t just reduce our chance of getting chronic illness, but actually ELIMINATES the possibility for getting MOST of these illnesses! It was then that I decided I had better take a second look. It was only through this conversion that I realized all of this great counsel is already contained in a document I’ve grown up with: the Word of Wisdom.

    Fast forward two years, I’ve now completed a book detailing my “discovery” of the Word of Wisdom: Discovering the Word of Wisdom: Surprising Insights from a Whole Food, Plant-based Perspective. You can read my story here: http://discoveringthewordofwisdom.com/wfpb-story-jane-birch. If you are interested, please check out the book!

  4. Lydia Soderberg

    To eat meat is not a sin if you really have to, you depend on it. But I consider it a sin when it’s just lazy old habits preventing an individual from actually really reading The World of Wisdom with prayer and open mind and heart and do a lifestyle-change!
    Prioritize wiser…

    • LOL! Yeah, parts of the WoW are just no big deal… I mean, why is it even part of the WoW anyway, it’s no big deal… it’s just the Word of God is all… no big deal.

  5. I loved, loved, LOVED the article! Bringing up the vegetarian point of the Word of Wisdom for discussion in an adult Sunday School is like dumping a garbage can of gasoline on a scout troop’s campfire. While my family, like yours tries to live by these words of wisdom, other ward members look at us like we’re heretics, perhaps even worse. It’s nice seeing that there’s other enlightened members who feel the same way. Continue on in this mission…

  6. (to the author) You are forgetting the fist part of the Word of Wisdom:

    “To be sent greeting; not by commandment or constraint, but by revelation and the word of wisdom, showing forth the order and will of God in the temporal salvation of all saints in the last days.” (D&C 89: 2)

    The Word of Wisdom isn’t a commandment, and only the “shalt nots” (so to speak) can keep people out of the temple. We should read the Word of Wisdom, and pray for our own revelation on how to live it. Technically, the Lord didn’t give ANY of it to us as a commandment, we went above what the Lord asked of us when we sustained, as a Church body, to live it like a commandment. At any time the prophet could tell us that it’s off the list of temple questions and life would go on.

    The whole point of the Word of Wisdom is to save our bodies, not our souls. This is why it is up to personal interpretation as to how we live it. You want to go Old Testament and skip pork? Go for it. You want to skip meat all together? Why not? But that’s your will, or if you prayed about it, the Lord’s will for you. It’s not what we all have to do.

    To be blunt, the real harm in the Word of Wisdom isn’t people not following the letter of the law, it people forgetting it’s not law at all.

    • Dave, it is true that the Word of Wisdom was not originally given as a commandment (some people believe that the Lord gave the people a period of time to make the adjustment), but on September 9, 1851, Brigham Young proposed at the General Conference of the Church that the Word of Wisdom be accepted as a commandment binding on all the members of the Church and the motions was accepted unanimously (“Minutes of the General Conference”, Millenial Star, p. 35 (February 1, 1852).

    • Dave, you are correct that the Word of Wisdom was not originally given as a commandment (some people think the Lord wanted to give the people a period of time to make the adjustment), but on September 9, 1851, Brigham Young proposed at the General Conference of the Church that the Word of Wisdom be accepted as a commandment binding on all the members of the Church and the motion was accepted unanimously by the members (Minutes of the General Conference, Millennial Star, p. 35 (February 1, 1852).

      • It is not entirely clear that that is actually what happenned in1851 (Young himself didn’t stop using tobacco until many years later). And whether it was commandment for the entire church, or the oath of those present, or something in between, it was in the context of alcohol, tobacco, coffee and tea, and not in the context of meats and grains. And so it was until Grant made it clear, not only that it IS a commandment, but WHAT that commandment is.

        D&C 89 is the counsel known as the WoW. Grant (and maybe prophets before him) and the prophets after him have given us the commandment known as the WoW. Never have we been commanded to abstain from meats or eat it sparingly and only eat grains, etc.

  7. I currently serve as Primary Chorister. [What a GREAT calling!!!] Two quick fun stories:
    1) When I ask “my kids” what the WoW tells us to do, their first response is “eat lots of fruits and vegetables and get lots of sleep.” So there’s hope for the next gen.
    2) We recently worked on a song about the WoW. [It's in the song book.] I went off on a rhapsodic rant about the beauty of “the promises,” and now many of them are busy memorizing the final four verses of Section 89. [Did I mention I LOVE my calling?]

  8. Two scriptures: “Now the Spirit speaketh expressly, that in the latter times some shall depart from the faith, giving heed to seducing spirits, and doctrines of devils; Speaking lies in hypocrisy; having their conscience seared with a hot iron; Forbidding to marry, and commanding to abstain from meats, which God hath created to be received with thanksgiving of them which believe and know the truth. For every creature of God is good, and nothing to be refused, if it be received with thanksgiving” (1 Timothy 4:1-3). And, “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. But it is not given that one man should possess that which is above another, wherefore the world lieth in sin. And wo be unto man that sheddeth blood or that wasteth flesh and hath no need” (D&C 49:18-21). As one of your commenters pointed out, what is eating meat “sparingly” is somewhat relative to the culture: Argentinians eat meat three meals a day and Asian Buddhist monks don’t eat it all. For me, the justification of eating meat more than just when there is a famine is that we are no longer a hunting society; most of our meat comes from animals which are farm bred.

  9. If you are feeling the Savior’s love, repenting, applying the atonement, serving your fellow man, and so on, does it really matter what you eat?

    Word of Wisdom in a nutshell: Don’t harm your body. Don’t be a glutton.

  10. Years ago, before he was Prophet, Ezra Taft Benson came to my stake (Lexington) and, among other things, taught about this part of D&C 89. He explained that the injunction to eat little meat was not repeated twice for some kind of emphasis. The first time (v. 12-13), refers to meat generally and the instruction is to use it “sparingly … only in times of winter, or cold, or famine”.

    The second time (v. 15) has somewhat more stringent restriction that applies to “these”. Then Elder Benson pointed out that “these” in v. 15 referred, as it typically would, to the immediately preceding noun. In this case, that is “all wild animals” from v. 14. So verse 15 gives a restriction regarding not meat generally but, rather, wild animals. And the instruction that follows is “only in times of famine and excess of hunger”. This restriction is not the same as the first one – it’s more restrictive because it doesn’t include the “winter” clause.

    So there is a fairly strict restriction given about meat generally, and then an even more strict restriction given regarding meat from wild animals (and Elder Benson pointed out that this revelation was given to a people not many years before their exodus to the wilderness of the American West where hunting for game was an integral part of the culture and there was no Kroger just around the corner).

    Bottom line, he taught that section 89 teaches precisely what Jana mentioned about meat generally (and which we too often elect to conveniently ignore). But more than that, he explained that section 89 also leaves very little room to justify hunting or the eating of wild game.

  11. …Buenos todos los comentarios. Aun asi la carne de hoy en dia no es tan buena.
    Compañia Monsanto tiene los transgenicos hasta en las carnes, asi que comer poca carne, muy poca. Mejor verdura.

    • Jana Riess

      Good point (if I am reading this correctly). I didn’t bring up in this post the many ethical issues around factory farming, and it’s important to consider what it means, morally, to support companies like Monsanto.

  12. I vaguely remember a seminary class discussion in which the teacher stated the historical context of “in times of winter” involved food preservation in large part. Since meat was harder to preserve in summer at the time, it was therefore not advisable to eat. While that does make sense to me, my wife and I have made greater efforts to lessen meat in our diet in general.

    I come from a fairly huge hunting family on both sides. So far I’ve only been along for the ride. However, when I hear more and more about the animal abuse at many factory farms and the living conditions these animals live in, there’s a part of me that can’t help but think that gaining some good hunting skills for moderate meat consumption, while avoiding the market, wouldn’t actually be more of the morally correct thing to do. I would definitely do this in a spirit of thanksgiving, leaving little or no waste. Plus, if a major disaster hits and the stores close, I’m only going to be able to eat so much canned wheat and peaches before going completely crazy.

  13. I have to agree with the author and disagree with many of the commenters.

    “….and it is pleasing to me that they should NOT be used, only in times of….”

    If it pleases Jesus Christ that I NOT use animal flesh except in times when plants are not available, then I will please Him. It’s no different than pleasing Him by attempting to live my life according to His example. I gladly and mightily try to do all I can to please Him that died for my sins.

    BTW-Jane Birch’s book is wonderful and clear. http://discoveringthewordofwisdom.com/#sthash.qrviwu3h.dpuf

  14. You can be a healthy whole foods vegan, even a competitive athlete. (Read the “Thrive” magazine if you do not believe me). Since you can be why wouldn’t you? Think about it.

    Yes, it takes time to get used to living without meat and dairy, but it is worth it in lowering your chance for heart disease, diabetes, cancer and a host of other diseases that come from eating the “king’s meat” (see Daniel 1:9-19). Here are some steps that I borrowed from Dr. Neal Barnard on how to do it:

    1. Get a few whole food vegan recipes and begin to try them out
    2. Try vegan options at restaurants, e.g. tostadas without the cheese, v.s. tacos
    3. When you are ready try the diet your body was designed for — a whole foods plant based diet, for three weeks
    4. If you are diabetic and on blood sugar lowering drugs inform your doctor you are planning on changing your diet and keep his number handy. This diet quickly restores insulin sensitivity quickly, so have a glucose monitor handy and be prepared to be amazed!
    5. Take a daily multiple vitamin and use meat substitutes to ease the transition

  15. I’ve got a list of things I’m working on to become a better person. I think you have to work on that list day by day. We all fall short. The goal is to fall a little less short each day! I’ve got some pretty big stuff on my list and I think it’s going to be a very long time before I can get through a day where the worst thing I do is eat a cheeseburger.

    And tiramisu isn’t a hot drink. It’s not even a drink. ;)

  16. Your post here was very helpful in my search for a greater understanding of the Word of Wisdom. My small family has finally realized the blessings of living a plant based life as so many in the scriptures had. I compiled everything I could find on the topic and put it together to help explain our life changing decision to our loved ones and friends. Thanks for your help in getting there. Here is all I could find, and I hope it can help others: http://theinmanclan.wordpress.com/2014/09/10/why-im-a-mormon-who-eats-plant-based/

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Comments with many links may be automatically held for moderation.