Brigham Young University, a school owned and operated by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, made international news on Thursday with its announcement that the school would lift a decades-old ban on caffeinated beverages being sold on campus.
The change was widely discussed, including on late-night television, because many had assumed that Mormons were religiously prohibited from consuming caffeine. So how is that soda fountains at BYU will now flow with rivers of Diet Coke? Was this major religious news?
BYU’s previous stance stemmed from the ‘Word of Wisdom’
The answer to that question can be found in the “Word of Wisdom,” which Mormons consider a revelation from God given to Mormon prophet Joseph Smith in 1833.
Since canonized as scripture by the church, it can actually be found as Section 89 of a book titled Doctrine and Covenants. The book includes scores of revelations received by Smith in the early years of Mormonism. The revelation is written in the first person as if it were God speaking, and not the prophet.
The revelation begins with a preface that the principles contained therein are not to be received “by commandment or constraint,” but rather as a “word of wisdom,” which suggest this is more like heavenly advice than an eleventh missive from Mount Sinai.
The revelation is the heart of the Mormon health code, in that it outlines things people ought to be eating (“grain is good for the food of man”), things that people out to be eating a lot less of (“flesh of beasts and of the fowls of the air … are to be used sparingly”), and substances that it is best to avoid altogether ( “tobacco is not for the body, neither for the belly, and is not good for man, but is an herb for bruises and all sick cattle, to be used with judgment and skill”).
These days, the positive prescriptions in the Word of Wisdom don’t get as much attention as the prohibitions. The list of proscriptions includes one aimed at “strong drinks,” tobacco, and a sentence stating that “hot drinks are not for the body or belly.”
It’s that last phrase that has perplexed Diet Coke aficionados for a very long time.
At first glance, it’s difficult to see the problem with Coca-Cola. Caffeine isn’t mentioned at all in the Word of Wisdom, and only a crazy person would drink hot Diet Coke.
The aversion to soda stems from the way the church has interpreted the phrase “hot drinks.” Despite the plain language of the phrase, temperature hasn’t really been the issue for Mormons who enjoy a nice, steaming cup of cocoa.
Rather, the phrase “hot drinks” has been interpreted as a 19th Century euphemism for coffee and tea. It was subsequently defined as specifically referring only to those two items, and not to hot chocolate and herbal tea.
The debate over caffeinated beverages is where theology meets practice
No scientific reason was given at the time for this ”hot drinks” – or indeed, any – of the prohibitions in the Word of Wisdom. Mormons were expected to comply with this as an act of faith.
And, for the most part, they didn’t. At least not at first.
Early Mormons, including Joseph Smith himself, would take an occasional glass of wine with their meals. After all, the revelation was “not by commandment or constraint.”
When the Mormons began their trek west to the Salt Lake Valley, Brigham Young included coffee as one of the staples that the pioneers needed to include in their provisions. And the Beehive State was home to many breweries, beginning as early as 1850.
It wasn’t until early in the second or third decades of the 20th Century that church leaders effectively made the Word of Wisdom mandatory by including compliance with the revelation as a prerequisite for participating in ceremonies in Mormon temples. That remains the policy of the 21st Century church as well.
Where does Diet Coke come in to all of this?
Caffeinated sodas got pulled into the mix with speculation over the reasoning behind the coffee/tea prohibition. Despite no direct guidance from the church on the subject, some Mormons decided that it was the caffeine in coffee and tea that made those beverages objectionable. Therefore, they saw abstinence from Coke and Pepsi, et. al., as a way to better live the spirit of the law.
This became the informal cultural norm within the church –despite there being no actual church teaching to justify it.
Old habits die hard. BYU’s unwillingness to sell caffeinated sodas gave the cultural practice a veneer of officialdom.
In recent years, as the LDS Church has issued several specific statements making it clear that there is no doctrinal basis for prohibiting Dr. Pepper. For the past few years, BYU has said that they didn’t sell caffeinated Coke because there was no demand for it. But BYU finally acknowledged the new reality on Thursday, allowing students to finally buy caffeinated beverages on campus.
So, no, this is not the equivalent of Vatican II or Martin Luther nailing the 95 theses to the door of the church at Wittenburg Castle. But it might be one step closer to bringing back the part about heavenly exhortation. At the very least, it means that BYU students cramming for exams can pull their all-nighters a little bit easier.