Tuesday, January 21, 2014

The Vengeance of Clio

Clio is a pretty nasty one, she likes to trip up people who project their current interpretations into the past and treat them as an unchanging status.

Case in point: Mormon attitudes on coffee and tea.

Joseph Smith Jr had a revelation in 1833, informally known as the Word of Wisdom, or technically known as D&C 89, which states
(v9) And again, hot drinks are not for the body or belly.
Fair enough as that goes; however that revelation is not very specific. So we need, unsurprisingly, a community of interpretation, that knows that "hot drink" here means coffee and tea, but not hot chocolate, or soup in a mug. We have such a community in the Mormon FAQ site for bodily health, this is specifically interpreted to mean "tea and coffee", as indicated by some of the comments.

For example, Molly writes:
God gave us the ability to choose. There are substances in coffee, tea, alcohol, tobacco and other harmful drugs that limit our ability to choose. The intent of the law of health we follow is to preserve our ability to make good choices. ...
Similarly, Ben writes:
Three years after the church was organized (1833), God gave a law of health to Joseph Smith (the first president of the church) that discouraged the use of tobacco, alcohol, coffee and tea. Those who observe this code of healthy eating (called "the word of wisdom") are promised to have better physical and mental abilities, and an improved ability to connect with God. 
Today, the adverse effects of alcohol and tobacco on health are well-known. This was not the case when mormons first began observing the word of wisdom. Whether tea and coffee are bad for one's health is similarly unknown. Like mormons in the 19th century, we observe the word of wisdom as a matter of faith rather than science. 
A few other points:
- the word of wisdom is not just about not eating certain things, it's more about taking care of your body
- some members abstain from caffeine, while others do not---it's an individual decision
- herbal teas are generally considered to be ok
The fact of the matter with herbal teas is interesting, because herbal teas are clearly a "hot drink"; the problem is that the remainder of D&C 89 explicitly talks about the proper use of herbs as medicinals, arguing strongly that herbal tea should be fine.

Which brings us to the remaining issue, that however much strength the current participants of mormon.org draw from this interpretation, this was not as interesting to the wives of Brigham Young back in 1849.

In a letter to Marinda Hyde at Kanesville from April 8th, 1849, Louisa Beaman Young writes (in the expressive spelling of the time):
sister p mentioned in her letter she drank a cup of tea occasionally for me I am quite glad she does for it is verry seldom that I get the chance to drink a cup for myself, tea and, coffee, and shugar is verry scarse with us ... (in: Todd Compton, In Sacred Loneliness, p.66)
Clearly some of this tea was herbal; Louisa Beaman Young made ginger tea for Zina Huntington Young on June 28th, 1849 (Compton, p.68). The tea that Joseph Smith Jr made for the Huntingtons in the early days of Nauvoo, when his adopted daughter Julia was taking care of the family, most likely was herbal as well (Compton, p.78).

But we have evidence from the great exodus to Utah that coffee was part of the trip, as Todd Compton's summary of Zina's personal journal indicates.
Zina [Huntington Jacobs, later Young, RCK] remembers that it was so cold that night [after the birth of Henry Chariton, RCK] that in the morning the cattle's feet had to be chopped out of the frozen mud. Mother Lyman prepared coffee and a biscuit for Zina and the journey continued. (Compton, p.87)

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