Wednesday, January 01, 2003

Happy New Year!

A final note of the earlier Word of Wisdom discussion:

There is an excellent article on 19th century medical interpretations of the WofW in Dialogue 14, 3 p 46 by Lester Bush. He points out that there was no scientific medical establishment until late in the 19th century, so by definition science could not have proven smoking is harmful and so forth. Nevertheless he shows that the WofW prohibitions are very much in line with medical thinking of the time, both popular reformist thinking and the orthodox medical establishment (such as OW Holmes Sr.). Galen had been left behind, but the thinking was that all disease was a manifestation of an 'imbalance in the vital nervous energy' caused by overstimulation. Fever, inflammation, dyspepsia etc were all seen as symptoms of this one problem, and spirits, wine, beer, etc., coffee, tea, meat, and spices were thought to be harmful stimulants; blood-letting etc was thought to relax the vital energy.

So in 1833 the medical establishment and popular opinion would have fully supported the injunction against strong drinks and alcohol; tobacco was on its way out (previously thought to hold all sorts of curative properties); and hot drinks were thought harmful, as was red meat since both were considered stimulating. A mormon 'catechism for children' published in 1854 expressly made the link between the WofW and these prevailing heath ideas.

Bush points out that the average life span in 1830 was 35 years, so death from cancer was not a problem, death from contaminated water and cholera was. If the Lord had intended the WofW to be a health code then it would have been a failure, since it made little or negative impact on 19th century Mormon health. He notes, though, that 19th century Mormon obedience to the WofW was variable, tracking with the current medical opinion, until the very late 19th and early 20th century when it was re-emphasized and became the hallmark of Mormon life it is today. About that time there were two developments in public health: 1) the average life span increased to 50+ years and cancer/heart disease started becoming leading causes of death and 2) cigarette production by manufacturing plants started, leading to an increase in tobacco use in the most dangerous way. Bush notes: "that this development--the implications of which were not apparent to the medical scientists for decades--coincided with a decision by the church leadership to require firm adherence to the Word of Wisdom is quite remarkable. It may well represent their most demonstrably prescient insight to date in helping assure that the "destroying angel" of disease will "pass us by."

To me, all this reinforces that the WofW is not a health code but a spiritual commandment, perhaps to set us apart, perhaps to keep us from addictive substances and spiritually free to act. It is also a warning to the Widtsoe 'Joseph Smith as Scientist' type of scientific proof of revelation (natural theology), and should restrain us from a mormon triumphalism where we say, 'Joseph prophesied these things were bad 100 years before science proved them to be so.'