George A. Smith
Photograph by Gisbert Bossard 
June 1, 1844 - Drank a glass of beer at Mooessers This entry was written in the personal journal of Joseph Smith eleven years after the Word of Wisdom was revealed to the Prophet. Instances like this may surprise some members of the LDS Church who, perhaps, remain unfamiliar with the "line upon line" process in which the Word of Wisdom developed over time. Other members, learning about the relaxed approach to the Word of Wisdom common during the early period of Church history feel history vindicates current disobedience to the Word of Wisdom, as well as other commandments as taught by the Church. Today the Word of Wisdom is taught as a commandment, and a requirement for entry to the temple, though this was not always the case.
Even at Carthage Jail the brethren, according to John Taylor, sent for some wine:
Sometime after dinner we sent for some wine. It has been reported by some that this was taken as a sacrament. It was no such thing; our spirits were generally dull and heavy, and it was sent for to revive us. I think it was Captain Jones who went after it, but they would not suffer him to return.These incidental occurrences are slight in comparison to Joseph Sr.'s struggles with alcohol; an aspect of the prophet's father I was unfamiliar with until I read Richard Bushman's biography of Joseph Smith. Fortunately he seems to have eventually put this habit down.
I believe we all drank of the wine, and gave some to one or two of the prison guards. We all of us felt unusually dull and languid, with a remarkable depression of spirits. In consonance with those feelings I sang a song, that had lately been introduced into Nauvoo, entitled, 'A Poor Wayfaring Man of Grief', etc. (History of the Church, Vol. 7, p.101).
Outside influences (temperance movements the opinions of physicians etc.) likely helped the Word of Wisdom along. Today it may be claimed that the Word of Wisdom preceded medical knowledge regarding the substances mentioned therein. Some scholars have argued otherwise. For example, in the 1830s temperance societies flourished, including one near Kirtland, helping to shut down a distillery. In New York, a society spearheaded by Sylvester Graham of "graham cracker" fame, spoke out against tobacco, alcohol, tea, coffee and harmful substances. It is very likely Joseph would have been familiar with the movements. Other influences included common physician opinions on temperance in eating habits, etc.
This brings us to 1833 when, in the School of the Prophets, Emma had complained about the smoke-filled room and was tired of cleaning up tobacco juice. She importuned Joseph, who importuned the Lord, and Section 89 was born. 
The Word of Wisdom was instituted as counsel and "breaking" (in our modern understanding of the Word of Wisdom) was not extremely uncommon. Still, members of the Church were often called before a High Council over various offenses, the Word of Wisdom among, but not the chief, reasons. One such example was David Whitmer, who was excommunicated based on 5 different charges, one of which was breaking of the Word of Wisdom.
The Journal of Discourses occasionally contains references to the Word of Wisdom. On March 18, 1855 George A. Smith related the story of a particular family who apostatized after seeing what they believed was inconsistency in the application of the Word of Wisdom:
I know persons who apostatized because they supposed they had reasons. For instance, a certain family, after having traveled a long journey, arrived in Kirtland, and the Prophet asked them to stop with him until they could find a place. Sister Emma, in the mean time, asked the old lady if she would have a cup of tea to refresh her after the fatigues of the journey, or a cup of coffee. This whole family apostatized because they were invited to take a cup of tea or coffee, after the Word of Wisdom was given (JD 2:211).In 1842 a small controversy over part of the Word of Wisdom led to an editorial written at Nauvoo by Hyrum Smith delineating tea and coffee as the specific substances referred to as "hot drinks" (see Times & Seasons, 3:800) indicating that the revelation was still being understood differently by various members of the Church.
The revelation was still seen as 'non-binding' to the Church as the Saints prepared to migrate from Iowa to the Salt Lake Valley in 1847 the Word of Wisdom was still seen as non-binding; on the list of required items for the journey tea and coffee were present. Because of the poor harvest of 1849 in the Salt Lake valley, a regulation prohibiting the use of corn in making whiskey was passed, any corn intended for that use was to be "given to the poor." (Leonard J. Arrington, Great Basin Kingdom: An Economic History of the Latter-day Saints, 1830-1900, p. 59.) By 1850-51 overland travelers headed for the gold in California were stopping off in Utah, where the Saints accommodated them by establishing, or allowing for the establishment, of "a great many grog shops," selling locally brewed whiskey, a "valley tan" rum, green tea, and a "very light and wholesome beer." (ibid., 70).
At a conference of the Church September 9, 1851, John Smith, Patriarch to the Church and uncle of the Prophet, spoke on Word of Wisdom. Brigham Young stood during the address proposing that all Saints abstain from “all things mentioned in the Word of Wisdom.” With a "unanimous vote" the Word of Wisdom became binding on the Church. Still, even after that Pres. Young recommended tobacco be grown in the southern part of the territory to eliminate giving money to outsiders for the product, in addition to wine being manufactured in St. George (some for use in the sacrament) as late as 1861. The precise alcoholic content of wine prepared there is not known, as far as I have learned. In the 1860s especially, use of coffee, tea, tobacco, and alcohol were strongly discouraged. In several sermons by Brigham Young he tended to emphasize the economic aspect above the health aspect; using such products, which were usually imported, was wasteful and the money should be better used elsewhere.
For years President Young and others struggled to adhere, and to get all Saints to adhere to the principle. Because the Word of Wisdom took time to implement fully, Brigham encouraged youth not to follow the bad example of those who broke the Word of Wisdom (additionally, he indirectly clarifies the commandment given through Moses, "Thou shalt honor thy father and mother, etc."):
"Why," say you, "I see the older brethren chew tobacco, why should I not do it likewise!"In April 1855 President Young discouraged mothers from using alcohol:
Thus the boys have taken license from the pernicious habits of others, until they have formed an appetite, a false appetite; and they love a little liquor, and a little tobacco, and many other things that are injurious to their constitutions, and certainly hurtful to their moral character. Take a course that you can know more than your parents. We have had all the traditions of the age in which we were born to contend with; but these young men and women, or the greater part of them, have been born in the Church, and brought up Latter-day Saints, and have received the teachings that are necessary to advance them in the kingdom of God on earth.
If you are in any way suspicious that the acts of your parents are not right, if there is a conviction in your minds that they feed appetites that are injurious to them then it is for you to abstain from that which you see is not good in your parents (July 4, 1854, JD 2:16).
Some mothers, when bearing children, long for tea and coffee, or for brandy and other strong drinks, and if they give way to that influence the next time they will want more, and the next still more, and thus lay the foundation for drunkenness in their offspring. An appetite is engendered, bred, and born in the child, and it is a miracle if it does not grow up a confirmed drunkard (JD 2:266).In December of the same year, apostle Amasa Lyman, in his typically blunt and animated prose, gave this secret to success regarding the promise in the Word of Wisdom that those who obey will walk and not be weary, run and not faint:
...if you want to run and not weary, walk and not faint, call upon me and I will tell you how-just stop before you get tired...Elder Lyman said the Word of Wisdom ought to encompass the entire gospel, or that the gospel encompasses it:
The Word of Wisdom was given for a principle, with promise; as a rule of conduct, that should enable the people so to economize their time, and manage and control themselves, as not to eat and drink to excess, or use that which is hurtful to them; that they should be temperate in all things, in the exercise of labor, as well as in eating and drinking. Clothe yourselves properly if you can. Exercise properly if you can, and do right in everything...In 1867 Brigham Young discussed his personal difficulties with the Word of Wisdom::
Do not stay the work of improvement and reform to pay attention to small things that are beneath your notice, but let it extend through the entire circle of your being, let it reach every relationship in life, and every avocation and duty embraced within your existence…
The Word of Wisdom would itself save you, if you would only keep it, in the true sense and spirit of it, comprehending the purpose for which it was given (JD 3:176).
It is our right and privilege to live so that we may attain to this [being of one heart and mind], so that we may sanctify our hearts before the Lord, and sanctify the Lord God in our hearts, but it is not my privilege to drink liquor, neither is it my privilege to eat tobacco.Indeed, Young returned to chewing after his toothaches came back, until eventually he had them all pulled and wore a set of false teeth for the rest of his life.
Well, bro. Brigham, have you not done it?
Yes, for many years, but I ceased its habitual practice. I used it for toothache; now I am free from that pain, and my mouth is never stained with tobacco. It is not my privilege to drink liquor nor strong tea and coffee, although I am naturally a great lover of tea. Brethren and sisters, it is not our privilege to indulge in these things, but it is our right and privilege to set an example worthy of imitation (JD 12:27).
It wasn't until about 1921 that Heber J. Grant made observance of the Word of Wisdom a requirement to enter the Temple. Joseph Lynn Lyon surmised the prohibition movement, "spearheaded by the Protestant Evangelical churches in America, focused on alcohol consumption as a political rather than a moral issue," and brought the Word of Wisdom into Church limelight.
Some people I've spoken with express concerns that the Word of Wisdom isn't applied equally in all areas; that more emphasis could be put in the aspects of eating right, exercising, etc. I believe these aspects should be attended to by each individual, but the minimum requirements in the Temple recommend interview stick to the "spirit of the law" as was lived in the early days of the Church. Some early Church leaders put more importance on the issue of eating properly than others. For example, John A. Widtsoe wrote an entire book, The Word of Wisdom: A Modern Interpretation, which contained extensive chapters on diet. What about caffeine? (See FAIR's "Ask the Apologist" selection by Suzanne Armitage regarding caffeine.) What about fad diets? I believe if one must listen to the Spirit, as well as pay attention to one's body, to find the proper balance.
Finally, what's a post about the Word of Wisdom without a J. Golden Kimball anecdote?
Uncle Golden's struggles with the Word of Wisdom sometimes forced him into ironic circumstances. On one occasion, he was asked to go to Cache Valley where the stake president had decided to call all the Melchizedek priesthood holders together for the purpose of emphasizing the importance of the Word of Wisdom. Uncle Golden didn't realize this was going to be the theme until he got there. As a matter of fact, he didn't know what he was to speak about until the stake president announced it in introducing Uncle Golden: 'J. Golden Kimball will now speak to us on the subject of the Word of Wisdom.'As I discover more sermons regarding the Word of Wisdom I'll continue to add them to this post.
Uncle Golden didn't know what to say. He stood at the pulpit for a long time waiting for some inspiration; he didn't want to be a hypocrite and he knew he had problems with this principle. So finally he looked at the audience and said, 'I'd like to know how many of you brethren have never had a puff on a cigarette in all your life. Would you please stand?'
Well, Uncle Golden related later that much to his amazement most of the brethren in that audience stood. He looked at them for a long time and then said, 'Now, all of you that are standing, I want to know how many of you have never had a taste of whiskey in all your life. If you have, sit down.'
Again, to Uncle Golden's amazement, only a few of the brethren sat down. The rest of them stood there proudly looking at him and then there was a long silence. I guess Uncle Golden thought they looked a little too self-righteous, because his next comment was, 'Well, brethren, you don't know what the hell you've missed' (J. Golden Nuggets, More Words Of Wisdom By James N. Kimball, Sunstone 10:3/41 [Mar. 1985]).
An excellent overview of criticism- as well as the development of- the Word of Wisdom was written by Michael Ash, and can be found on the FAIR website. My post is a very brief sketch of a complex issue.
This photograph was taken in 1911 by Prussian convert Gisbert Bossard, who after becoming disaffected from Church leaders, was convinced by a man named Max Florence to sneak inside the temple at night to take photographs. Bossard and Florence attempted to blackmail the Church, demanding the First Presidency pay them $100,000, or they'd publish the pictures. Joseph F. Smith responded, saying "I will make no bargain with thieves or traffickers in stolen goods. I prefer to let the law deal with them." Thus, James E. Talmage was commissioned to write The House of the Lord, which the Church promised would contain full color photographs, and more information about temple worship. This was calculated, it seems, to eliminate interest in the photographs elsewhere. It has been claimed the photo depicts white spittoons at the foot of several chairs. As today's post explains, compliance to the Word of Wisdom in order to enter the Temple was not required until 1921. For more on the photograph episode, see "Explaining the Temple to the World: James E. Talmage's Monumental Book, The House of the Lord," by David R. Seely. See also, Kent Walgren,“Inside the Salt Lake Temple: Gisbert Bossard’s 1911 Photographs,” Dialogue 29 (3) Fall 1996: 1-43.
Source: The Diaries and Journals of Joseph Smith, edited by Scott H. Faulring, Signature Books, Salt Lake City, Utah, 1989, pg. 486
Regarding the wine at Carthage Jail, Lester E. Bush, Jr. refers to a medical opinion of Joseph's day stating that a "moderate quantity of wine" could be helpful in warding off sickness and distress when one is under the "influence of anxious and depressing watchfulness." See Bush, "The Word of Wisdom in Early Nineteenth-Century Perspective," Dialogue 14 (Autumn 1981): 47-65; especially p. 51. Richard Bushman discusses Joseph Sr.'s intemperance:
"The vicissitudes of life seem to have weighed heavily on Joseph, Sr. In a patriarchal blessing given to Hyrum, Dec. 9, 1834, Joseph, Sr., commended Hyrum for the respect he paid his father despite difficulties: 'Though he has been out of the way through wine, thou hast never forsaken him nor laughed him to scorn.' (Hyrum Smith Papers, Church Archives.) Since there is no evidence of intemperance after the organization of the church, Joseph, Sr., likely referred to a time before 1826 when Hyrum married and left home" (Richard L. Bushman, Joseph Smith and the Beginnings of Mormonism, p. 208)
See Lester E. Bush, Jr. "The Word of Wisdom in Early Nineteenth-Century Perspective," Dialogue 14 (Autumn 1981):47-65; Whitney R. Cross, The Burned-Over District, 235; Paul H. Peterson, "An Historical Analysis of the Word of Wisdom," M.A. Thesis, Brigham Young University, 1972, p. 13.
This story regarding the Word of Wisdom in the school of prophets was recounted by Brigham Young, though he was not in attendance at the time, (see JD 12:157-158).
David Whitmer told a slightly different account in a newspaper article 50 years after the meeting.
Quite a little party of the brethren and sisters being assembled in the Smith's house. Some of the men were excessive chewers of the filthy weed, and their disgusting slobbering and spitting caused Mrs. Smith...to make the ironical remark that 'It would be a good thing if a revelation could be had declaring the use of tobacco a sin, and commanding its suppression.' The matter was taken up and joked about, one of the brethren suggest that the revelation should also provide for a total abstinence form tea and coffee drinking, intending this as a counter dig at the sisters. Sure enough the subject was afterward taken up in dead earnest, and the 'Word of Wisdom' was the result (Des Moines Daily News (Des Moines, Iowa), October 16, 1886; as quoted by Peterson, "An Historical Analysis," 20-21, fully notated in 6 below).It should be noted Whitmer had apostatized at the time of the articles publication, but the general feeling of his statements agree with Brigham Young's account that Emma had some influence in the reception of the revelation.
Zebedee Coltrin, who was present at the school when the revelation was presented, recounted his experience in 1883 when the School of the Prophets was revived by President John Taylor:
When the Word of Wisdom was first presented by the Prophet Joseph (as he came out of the translating room) and was read to the School, there were twenty out of the twenty-one who used tobacco and they all immediately threw their tobacco and pipes into the fire.According to Coltrin, it took longer for the school to refrain from tea and coffee:
Those who gave up using tobacco eased off on licorice root, but there was not easing off on tea and coffee, these they had to give up straight off or their fellowship was jeopardized. [Coltrin]never saw the Prophet Joseph drink tea or coffee again until at Dixon about ten years after (Source: Minutes, Salt Lake City School of the Prophets, October 3, 1883).It has been suggested that President Taylor revived the school, in part, to encourage the brethren to obey the Word of Wisdom.
“Minutes of the General Conference,” Millennial Star, 1 Feb. 1852, p. 35
Peterson, op. cit. p. 64. A brief online historical sketch of St. George also mentions the wine. See Utah's Dixie History, accessed Sept. 12, 2007. See also the online article by Joseph Lynn Lyon, "The Word of Wisdom," accessed on Jeff Lindsay's Light Planet, September 12, 2007. Leonard J. Arrington discusses the economic aspects in Great Basin Kingdom, p. 223, and in "An Economic Interpretation of the 'Word of Wisdom."' BYU Studies 1 (Winter 1959):37-49.
See "Healthy Outlook: Fad Diets and the Word of Wisdom," by Dr. Stan Gardner. Accessed on the Meridian Magazine site, Sept. 12, 2007.
Leonard J. Arrington, "An Economic Interpretation of the 'Word of Wisdom," BYU Studies 1 (Winter 1959): 37-49.
Paul H. Peterson, "An Historical Analysis of the Word of Wisdom," M.A. Thesis, Brigham Young University, 1972.
Lester E. Bush, Jr. "The Word of Wisdom in Early Nineteenth-Century Perspective," Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought 14:3 (Autumn 1981):47-65;
Thomas G. Alexander, "The Word of Wisdom: From Principle to Requirement," Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought 14:3 (Autumn 1981) pp. 78–88.
Clyde Ford, “The Origin of the Word of Wisdom,” Journal of Mormon History 24:2 (Fall 1998), 129–54.
Paul H. Peterson and Ronald W. Walker “Brigham Young’s Word of Wisdom Legacy,” BYU Studies 42:3-4, 2003.
Orig. posted 9/12/2007. Updated and revised 7/2008.