If there is any topic that gets the most regular attention on Formspring, I think it is caffeine. There is a whole lot of confusion out there, and I think this post was a long time coming.
Disclaimer: This post expresses my own opinions about things, much more so than I usually do on LDS Sunday posts where I try to represent the official position of the Church. Unless you see something cited and written with quotation marks please assume this this is one person’s attempt to explain what we believe, what our teachings mean, and how it should be applied. Also, please keep in mind that these standards are set for members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, because we agreed to follow them. I don’t think people who do things differently are “bad people”.
You’ve probably heard that Mormons don’t drink alcohol, coffee, or tea. My new favorite blog has an excellent concise definition of the Word of Wisdom, which is a passage of scripture found in the Doctrine and Covenants. Avoiding alcohol and coffee altogether might seem strange to some, but I think they make sense from an LDS standpoint.
One of the core doctrines of the Church is the idea that we are sent to the earth by God to exercise our ability to make right or wrong choices, known as free agency. God does not force us to do things, He lets us choose for ourselves. Free agency is so important to God that He cut off Satan and a third of all of our spirit brothers and sisters in the premortal world when Satan proposed that we should live all be living a life without free agency (as in the life we are living right this very moment, but with no power to choose what we want to do with it).
What do alcohol, coffee, and tea have in common? When overused and abused they can be addicting. It’s not that the substances themselves are inherently bad, but that men and women have the tendency to overuse them. And when that overuse occurs, judgement and choices are impaired. If I am an alcohol addict I might drink too much and then not have control over my actions. Or I may drink so much coffee that I can no longer function normally without it. Does everyone drink so much coffee that they can’t function? Certainly not, but I’m sure you know someone like that, and God decreed that the Word of Wisdom was given to help the “weak and the weakest of all” of His saints. (We as LDS members call ourselves saints, and in this context it means a follower of God.)
The story behind the Word of Wisdom was told by Brigham Young:
“The first school of the prophets [a special school for the early leaders of the Church] was held in a small room situated over the prophet Joseph’s kitchen. … [This was the room where] the prophet received revelations and in which he instructed his brethren. The brethren came to that place for hundreds of miles to attend school in a little room probably no larger than eleven by fourteen [feet]. When they assembled together in this room after breakfast, the first [thing] they did was to light their pipes, and, while smoking, talk about the great things of the kingdom, and spit all over the room; and as soon as the pipe was out of their mouths, a large chew of tobacco would then be taken. Often when the prophet entered the room to give the school instructions he would find himself in a cloud of tobacco smoke. This, and the complaints of his wife at having to clean so filthy a floor, made the prophet think upon the matter, and he inquired of the Lord relating to the conduct of the elders in using tobacco, and the revelation known as the Word of Wisdom was the result of his inquiry” (in Deseret News [Weekly], 26 Feb. 1868, 18).
I believe the Word of Wisdom to be brilliant and inspired by God because this was brought forth during a time when the harmful effects of tobacco were unknown by science. I think it’s important to keep the time-period in mind when thinking about what substances were to be avoided, because this is where some confusion sets in when we talk about caffeine.
Some of the questions about the topic of caffeine/coffee/tea/soda/etc that I currently have sitting in my Formspring inbox include:
I know that Mormons do not drink alcohol coffee or tea, the last 2 because of the caffeine and you will not drink tea with caffeine but you drink dark pop. Could you please explain the difference?
Why is it that you can’t have coffee or tea but you can have soda? Seems like it should be the opposite since coffee and tea are the more natural options.
and anyone who has read my responses knows that I’ve answered sever other questions as well. These questioners bring up good points that I would love to answer with this post, in part so I can point other people here when they ask the same thing!
The reason that I brought up the story of the origin of the Word of Wisdom above is that I think the fact that we were instructed not to drink coffee and tea, but soda pop was left off the list, makes more sense when you think about the time period. Joseph Smith revealed (began talking publicly) about the Word of Wisdom in 1833. This was long before soda pop with caffeine, like Coca Cola, was commercially available. The substances that were spoken of in the Word of Wisdom were all available and used commonly during that time period, but several years would pass before men would start combining sugar and caffeine to create a product that would hook people by the millions.
So do Mormons drink caffeine? Yes, we do. Do we ingest caffeine? Yes, we do. Caffeine is found in drinks, medication, chocolate, and a host of other things, and all of these things are items which members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints consume on a regular basis with no disciplinary actions necessary by spiritual leaders. I think the Lord put coffee and tea off limits because those were abused during that time period. As science evolves, caffeine and other addictive substances will be used in a variety of new ways, and what Mormons should be doing is thinking about the reasons behind the Word of Wisdom and analyzing whether their own actions are inhibiting their freedom of choice in any way. Moderation in all forms is key, and in my opinion averaging 50 ounces of caffeinated soda every day (accompanied by signs of withdrawal if the soda isn’t acquired) is just as bad for the body/free agnecy as drinking coffee or tea would be.
The Church’s official position on caffeine is:
“With reference to cola drinks, the Church has never officially taken a position on this matter, but the leaders of the Church have advised, and we do now specifically advise, against the use of any drink containing harmful drugs under circumstances that would result in acquiring the habit. Any beverage that contains ingredients harmful to the body should be avoided.”
In my own life, I avoid soda altogether for the most part, not only because I want to avoid dependency on drugs like caffeine, but because I think food should be real and consuming too much sugar is terrible for us. I do indulge a few times a year though (like on the plane, I love drinking ginger ale), sometimes choosing a caffeinated beverage and sometimes not. I eat dark chocolate, which contains caffeine, but I eat it in small amounts because I’m trying to lose/maintain my weight, and because I think it’s difficult to eat enough chocolate that you become physically addicted and dependent on it. I have a diverse collection of herbal tea, much of it gifted to me by my husband’s family in Poland, which I love to sip on throughout the day. For me, following the Word of Wisdom means knowing what the text says, understanding the rules that need to be followed, and working to avoid behaviors and substances that could negatively affect my body and my free agency.