But why? You may ask. Why is drinking coffee such a big deal to begin with? Why did I violate this most sacred rule in front of my deeply committed Mormon family members?
Last week at my family reunion, I performed a rebellious act. I made and drank coffee every morning. Those who aren’t Mormon will not understand how defiant of everything holy and decent this act was. Obeying what Mormons call the Word of Wisdom is one of the most fundamental aspects of the religion today. Stories of turning down coffee or alcohol while under the influence of societal pressure to imbibe have formed a part of more Mormon sermons (although Mormons would call them “talks” rather than sermons because Mormons have no paid local clergy and messages are given in church from regular members rather than a minister or pastor) than I care to remember. Whether you obey the Word of Wisdom is one of worthiness questions Mormons have to answer to enter their temples. Openly violating these rules is a sure sign of apostasy.
We’ll get to both of these things. The Word of Wisdom is the Mormon health code. It is supposed to assure good health and long life. This is a picture of my siblings and me at the reunion. If you count, there are only seven of us. There should be eight. Instead of joining us, my brother Roy was at home, dying of cancer. I visited him the week before the reunion, and seeing just how ill he’d become was heartbreakingly difficult. He is only 57, two and a half years older than me, and he doesn’t have long left. Roy first got cancer of the tongue about 25 years ago. With periods of remission, he has been battling cancer of the mouth and throat ever since.
The vast majority of the time this type of cancer comes from smoking or using smokeless tobacco, but my brother never did either. Still, the cancer has so consumed his body that there is now an open wound in his throat exposing several vertebrae that the doctors have no way of treating. If a god is behind the Word of Wisdom, he has a lot to answer for as far as my brother goes.
The Word of Wisdom is a product of 19th century folk medicine that dominating some sectors of American society during the lifetime of Joseph Smith, the founder of the Mormon religion. Not using tobacco is about the only part of it that still makes sense. Mormons like to see what is known today about the detrimental effects of tobacco, as a sign that Smith was inspired by god, since science didn’t definitely establish these until decades, if not more than a century, later. Remember Mormons see Joseph Smith as a prophet in the same way that Abraham and Moses were prophets. Not using tobacco remains the only portion of the Word of Wisdom I still follow.
The rest of the “revelation,” found in section 89 of the Doctrine & Covenants, consists of cautions thoroughly debunked by science, misinterpreted or ignored by Mormons, or all of the above. Nothing illustrates this more strongly that the Mormon prohibition of coffee and tea. First, coffee and tea aren’t mentioned specifically in the doctrine. The doctrine prohibits “hot drinks.” This prohibition was based on 19th century folk medicine beliefs that drinking hot liquids was bad for you, and it meant any hot liquid. This is, of course, ridiculous according to modern science, and later Mormon leaders interpreted it to mean just coffee and tea, no matter if they were drunk hot or iced. When I was younger, I was taught that this was because of the caffeine in these beverages. More austere Mormons wouldn’t drink caffeinated sodas either. My parents wouldn’t buy caffeinated soda, and my first major act of rebellion was drinking Diet Coke. But more recently, Mormon leaders have come out and said that caffeinated soda is just fine, and faithful Mormons, without the slightest bit of guilt or sense of hypocrisy, will even drink things like Monsters or 5-hour energy concoctions that are not only full of caffeine, but a shit ton of other unhealthy things. But still, somehow coffee and tea are bad. The doctrine in this matter went from unscientific to incoherent and just weird. Why hate on coffee and tea? These aren’t unhealthy substances, but don’t try to tell a Mormon that.
I had just been to see my dying brother. I wasn’t going to give up my morning coffee. So I made coffee and drank it, and nobody said anything because we are a conflict-avoidant family.
I’ll have more to say on the Word of Wisdom later, but I think that’s enough for now. As always, let me know what you think in the comments, and if you have any questions about Mormons, you’d like answered, post them as well.