One of the paradoxes about the Word of Wisdom is that the name (drawn from the opening line of the text from the 27 February 1833 revelation) indicates that it is good advice while it’s treated as a commandment in the Church today. I’ve discussed this in detail in the past, so I’ll leave the full subject to that treatment as well as the historians of the Joseph Smith Papers Project, but the short version is that it’s not clear when the revelation became a commandment for members of the Church. It may have been intended as a commandment all along, it may have been accepted as a commandment by Church membership in general conference in the past, or it may have become a commandment at the time it began to be enforced as part of temple recommend interviews.
The interesting part of the history is that all three of these versions of commandment-ification are rooted in the others. The Word of Wisdom began to be enforced during the early 20th century because Church leaders believed that it had become a commandment in the time of President Brigham Young, mostly pointing to a vote at a conference in 1851. That vote was used to legitimize the belief that the Word of Wisdom had been declared to be in force as a commandment to Latter-day Saints as it became a requirement for temple recommends in the early 20th century. Yet, when Brigham Young spoke about the Word of Wisdom, he generally indicated that he believed it was a commandment to begin with, even if he didn’t follow it consistently himself. This indicates that a variety of beliefs about the revelation’s status that gradually led to it being viewed as a commandment.
Looking a little more closely at the option of it being a commandment from the start, many Church members embraced it as something that should be followed from the very beginning. Recollections of Kirtland and the eastern United States during the 1830s include many accounts where people threw their tobacco pipes in the fire or gave up coffee, tea and liquor for life. At a meeting of the Kirtland High Council on 20 February 1834, Joseph Smith declared “that no official member in this church is worthy to hold an office after haveing the words of wisdom properly taught to him, and he, the official member, neglecting to comply with, or obey them” which was confirmed by vote. In the 1840s, Hyrum Smith argued that:
Every word of God is of importance, whether it be the word contained in the Bible, in the Book of Mormon, or in the Book of Doctrine and Covenants, for ‘man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceedeth from the mouth of God.’ …
The Lord has told us what is good for us to eat, and to drink, and what is pernicious; but some of our wise philosophers, and some of our elders too, pay no regard to it; they think it too little, too foolish, for wise men to regard (fools)! … Listen not to the teaching of any man, or any elder who says the word of wisdom is of no moment; for such a man will eventually be overthrown. …
Let these things be adhered to; let the saints be wise; let us lay aside our folly and abide by the commandments of God; so shall we be blessed.
If God is a wise and all-knowing being, we should probably listen and obey His advice, even if it isn’t explicitly stated that it’s a commandment.
President Brigham Young made similar statements. For example, on one occasion he stated that: “I know that some say the revelations upon these points are not given by way of commandment. Very well, but we are commanded to observe every word that proceeds from the mouth of God.” President Young also stated elsewhere that: “This Word of Wisdom which has been supposed to have become stale, and not in force, is like all the counsels of God, in force as much today as it ever was. There is life, everlasting life in it—the life which now is and the life which is to come.” Despite the revelation being framed as good advice, President Young felt that the Word of Wisdom was a commandment that was in force by virtue of it being the word of God.
Give the above, what are we to make of the recent First Presidency statement, urging Latter-day Saints to wear face masks when needed and get vaccinated against COVID-19? Can or should it be regarded in a similar light to the Word of Wisdom in its early years? The statement in full is as follows:
Dear Brothers and Sisters:
We find ourselves fighting a war against the ravages of COVID-19 and its variants, an unrelenting pandemic. We want to do all we can to limit the spread of these viruses. We know that protection from the diseases they cause can only be achieved by immunizing a very high percentage of the population.
To limit exposure to these viruses, we urge the use of face masks in public meetings whenever social distancing is not possible. To provide personal protection from such severe infections, we urge individuals to be vaccinated. Available vaccines have proven to be both safe and effective.
We can win this war if everyone will follow the wise and thoughtful recommendations of medical experts and government leaders. Please know of our sincere love and great concern for all of God’s children.
The First Presidency
Russell M. Nelson
Dallin H. Oaks
Henry B. Eyring
How does this statement compare with the Word of Wisdom?
Now, right off, they are different in that the Word of Wisdom is presented as a revelation in the voice of God while this statement is presented as the words of the First Presidency. That alone makes this a bit of an apples to oranges comparison. There is no indication in the 2021 letter that it was created by the urging of any member of the Godhead, only the sincere concern of Russell M. Nelson, Dallin H. Oaks, and Henry B. Eyring for the welfare of humankind. On the other hand, both are documents giving advice related to healthy living by men that are accepted by the Church as prophets, seers, and revelators, which can blur the boundaries a bit about how we view a statement like this.
Part of what blurs the boundaries here is that the style in which Church leaders present information has changed since the time of Joseph Smith. With the outlier of John Taylor, Church presidents from Brigham Young onwards have generally chosen to present instructions in the form of sermons, advice, and official messages or letters rather than as revelations expressed in the voice of God. That’s why many Church leaders emphasize the importance of listening to the prophet regardless of how it’s expressed, such as when President Ezra Taft Benson taught that: “Sometimes there are those who argue about words. They might say the prophet gave us counsel but that we are not obliged to follow it unless he says it is a commandment. But the Lord says of the Prophet, ‘Thou shalt give heed unto all his words and commandments which he shall give unto you.’ (D&C 21:4.)” President Harold B. Lee likewise taught that “We don’t have to depend solely upon what is in the standard Church works. In addition to what the scriptures have told us, we have what the prophets today are telling us here and now, and it is for us if we want to be saved on Zion’s hill, when these perils come, to hear and obey.” These messages make it a bit difficult to dismiss the recent letter as insignificant when compared to the revelations from Joseph Smith.
A general principle of listening to Church leaders is to see if their statements are repeated, which seems to be the case here. As Neil Anderson stated: “There is an important principle that governs the doctrine of the Church. The doctrine is taught by all 15 members of the First Presidency and Quorum of the Twelve. It is not hidden in an obscure paragraph of one talk.” Similar messages to the recent statement have been repeated over the last year. President Dallin H. Oaks stated that:
How are you handling the COVID-19 pandemic, including the legal restrictions and the counsel of your leaders? … Please do your part in what is required in these unusual circumstances. And remember that some of the burdensome restrictions, including even the wearing of masks, are not only for your immediate protection but also for the well-being of those around you.
Elder Dale G. Renlund taught that:
The savior taught that the second great commandment after loving God was, ‘Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself.’ As it relates to this pandemic … that means social distancing, wearing a mask and not gathering in large groups. These steps demonstrate our love for others and provide us a measure of protection. Wearing a face covering is a sign of Christlike love for our brothers and sisters—COVID-19 is serious. Its consequences are not yet fully understood.
Earlier this year, when it was advertised that members of the leading quorums of the Church above 70 received the COVID-19 vaccine, a First Presidency Statement was released, stating that:
As appropriate opportunities become available, the Church urges its members, employees and missionaries to be good global citizens and help quell the pandemic by safeguarding themselves and others through immunization. Individuals are responsible to make their own decisions about vaccination. In making that determination, we recommend that, where possible, they counsel with a competent medical professional about their personal circumstances and needs.
This is in line with the Church Handbook, which declares that “Vaccinations administered by competent medical professionals protect health and preserve life. Members of the Church are encouraged to safeguard themselves, their children, and their communities through vaccination.” Taken together, these statements form a repeating pattern of strongly encouraging Church members to value the advice of competent medical professionals and to take precautions like wearing masks and being vaccinated to reduce the spread of COVID-19.
Beyond accepting the authority of the document by virtue of the signatures of the First Presidency, it’s a principle of the Church to look for and obey truth wherever it can be found, including from scientists and medical experts. The Prophet Joseph Smith taught that: “The grand fundamental principles of Mormonism is to recieve thruth let it come from where it may.” Revelations that he recorded encouraged Church members to “study and Learn and become acquainted with all good books and with Languages tongues and people &c &c.” President Brigham Young also stated that “It is our duty and calling … to gather up all the truths in the world pertaining to life and salvation … to the sciences, and to philosophy, wherever it may be found in every nation, kindred, tongue, and people and bring it to Zion.” He added on another occasion that: “God has revealed all the truth that is now in the possession of the world, whether it be scientific or religious,” and that “I … believe positively that there is nothing known except by the revelation of the Lord Jesus Christ, whether in theology, science, or art.” Hence the First Presidency’s recommendations to “follow the wise and thoughtful recommendations of medical experts and government leaders” and “to counsel with a competent medical professional about their personal circumstances and needs,” can be seen as being rooted in these teachings, since the act of uncovering knowledge through science is a form of revelation in and of itself.
One could even argue that sound advice from medical experts, including wearing masks and being vaccinated, should be treated as an extension of the Word of Wisdom itself. There are aspects of how the Word of Wisdom is observed in the Church today that are not in Section 89 such as avoiding “substances that are harmful, illegal, or addictive or that impair judgement.” This includes the policy that “the Church opposes the use of marijuana for non-medical purposes.” As Elder Boyd K. Packer taught in general conference:
Members write in asking if this thing or that is against the Word of Wisdom. It’s well known that tea, coffee, liquor, and tobacco are against it. It has not been spelled out in more detail. Rather, we teach the principle together with the promised blessings. There are many habit-forming, addictive things that one can drink or chew or inhale or inject which injure both body and spirit which are not mentioned in the revelation.
Everything harmful is not specifically listed; arsenic, for instance—certainly bad, but not habit-forming! He who must be commanded in all things, the Lord said, “is a slothful and not a wise servant” (D&C 58:26).
While also not considered addictive, COVID-19 can be just as harmful as arsenic. Thus, if COVID-19 is a bad thing for our health and the health of our neighbors, we should probably do what we can to avoid it, in line with the general principles of health we learn from the Word of Wisdom.
While the two documents (the 27 February 1833 revelation and the 12 August 2021 First Presidency letter) are different, with the former being presented as the words of God and the latter as a group of Church leaders pleading with Church members, both should be weighed carefully. Both can be called words of wisdom for the benefit of the Saints. COVID-19 is serious, which is why Church leaders have repeatedly urged members do what they can to limit the spread of the virus, not only for our immediate protection but also for the well-being of those around us. We have what the prophets today are telling us here and now, and we do well to listen to what they say. Now, there are some circumstances in which individuals may not be able to practice social distancing, wear masks or be vaccinated (which is probably part of why Church leaders haven’t been more forceful), but those cases are relatively few. So, while the First Presidency letter isn’t really a commandment or revelation, and thus probably shouldn’t be regarded in a similar light to the Word of Wisdom in its early years, it’s still wise words to obey. As President Hyrum Smith said: “Let these things be adhered to; let the saints be wise.”
 For example, in April 1908 President Francis M. Lyman of the Quorum of the Twelve stated that: “In the beginning, [the Word of Wisdom] was not laid down as a strict commandment. I do not know whether or not the Lord took into account the fact that our forefathers, and our fathers, had been so used to many things forbidden in the Word of Wisdom that it might be difficult for them to order their lives in harmony with those requirements: so we were given . . . years of training and experience before the Lord announced, through His servant the Prophet Brigham Young, that the Word of Wisdom has now become a commandment of the Lord. President Young laid it down very strictly and exactly from this stand that from that time henceforth the Word of Wisdom is a commandment from the Lord, and all Latter-day Saints are required to observe it.” (Francis M. Lyman, CR, April 1908.)
 “Minutes, 20 February 1834,” p. 40, The Joseph Smith Papers, accessed September 27, 2019, https://www.josephsmithpapers.org/paper-summary/minutes-20-february-1834/2. When Church leaders in Missouri were brought up for trial, one of the main accusations made against them was a failure to observe the Word of Wisdom. Note, however, that Joseph and Emma Smith didn’t always strictly observe the Word of Wisdom themselves, which may have undermined this decision.
 Times and Seasons, Vol. 3, No. 15, pp. 799-801
 Remarks by President Brigham Young, delivered in the New Tabernacle, Salt Lake City, May 10th, 1868, Journal of Discourses, vol 12, https://journalofdiscourses.com/12/44. See also https://www.churchofjesuschrist.org/study/manual/teachings-brigham-young/chapter-29?lang=eng.
 First Presidency letter, 12 August 2021, https://newsroom.churchofjesuschrist.org/article/first-presidency-message-covid-19-august-2021
 Teachings of the Presidents of the Church: Ezra Taft Benson (Salt Lake City: Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 2014), 151, https://www.churchofjesuschrist.org/study/manual/teachings-of-presidents-of-the-church-ezra-taft-benson/chapter-11-follow-the-living-prophet?lang=eng
 Teachings of the Presidents of the Church: Harold B. Lee (Salt Lake City: Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 2000, 2011), 84, https://www.churchofjesuschrist.org/study/manual/teachings-harold-b-lee/chapter-9?lang=eng
 Neil L. Anderson, “Trial of Your Faith,” CR October 2012, https://www.churchofjesuschrist.org/study/general-conference/2012/10/trial-of-your-faith?lang=eng
 Dallin H. Oaks, “Racism and Other Challenges,” BYU Speeches, 27 October 2020, https://speeches.byu.edu/talks/dallin-h-oaks/racism-other-challenges/
 Dale G. Renlund, “Our Brother’s Keeper,” Church News, “First Presidency announces first 4 temples moving to Phase 3, reopening for proxy work,” 7 December 2020, https://www.thechurchnews.com/temples/2020-12-07/phase-3-temples-reopening-first-presisdency-apostles-videos-principles-adjustments-199402.
 “The First Presidency and Apostles Over Age 70 Receive the COVID-19 Vaccine,” Church News 19 January 2021, https://newsroom.churchofjesuschrist.org/article/church-leaders-covid-19-vaccine.
 Church Handbook 38.7.13, https://www.churchofjesuschrist.org/study/manual/general-handbook/38-church-policies-and-guidelines?lang=eng¶=title_number131-p2382#title_number131. Retrieved on 19 Aug 2021.
 Cook, Lyndon W. (2009-09-03). The Words of Joseph Smith (Kindle Locations 4598-4604). Deseret Book Company. Kindle Edition
 “Revelation, 8 March 1833 [D&C 90],” p. , The Joseph Smith Papers, accessed August 19, 2021, https://www.josephsmithpapers.org/paper-summary/revelation-8-march-1833-dc-90/2
 Church Handbook, 38.7.9 and 38.7.14, https://www.churchofjesuschrist.org/study/manual/general-handbook/38-church-policies-and-guidelines.title_number219-p2326?lang=eng#title_number219#title_number219. Retrieved on 19 August 2021.
 Boyd K. Packer, “The Word of Wisdom: The Principle and the Promises,” CR April 1996, https://www.churchofjesuschrist.org/study/ensign/1996/05/the-word-of-wisdom-the-principle-and-the-promises?lang=eng. See also “The Instrument of Your Mind and the Foundation of Your Character, BYU Speeches 2 February 2003, https://speeches.byu.edu/talks/boyd-k-packer/instrument-mind-foundation-character/