“Whoso forbideth to abstain from meats”

It’s a well-known grammar joke that punctuation can save lives, since there is a difference between saying: “Let’s eat, Grandma!” and: “Let’s eat Grandma!”  Punctuation and grammar do make a difference, as Oakhurst Dairy found out the hard way a few years ago.  In a legal case about overtime for drivers and a state law in Maine, the debate centered on the grammar of the law, which required time-and-a-half pay for each hour worked after 40 hours, with exemptions for:

The canning, processing, preserving, freezing, drying, marketing, storing, packing for shipment or distribution of:

(1) Agricultural produce;

(2) Meat and fish products; and

(3) Perishable foods.

The lack of a comma after “shipment” allowed the truck drivers to argue that the law only made an exemption for packing for distribution (along with packing for shipment) rather than distribution of the products being part of the exemption, which meant the company hadn’t been paying them appropriately for overtime.  They won the case, costing the dairy company $5,000,000.  Perhaps it shouldn’t be surprising that the law was changed soon afterwards to read that the exemptions included “storing; packing for shipment; or distributing of” the products.[1]

Discussion of whether the Doctrine and Covenants endorses eating or not eating meat can come down to grammar and punctuation choices.  The two main sections that come into the debate are Section 49 (a 7 May 1831 revelation) and Section 89 (a 27 February 1833 revelation).  In the present edition of Doctrine and Covenants 49, we read that:

And whoso forbiddeth to abstain from meats, that man should not eat the same, is not ordained of God; for, behold, the beasts of the field and the fowls of the air, and that which cometh of the earth, is ordained for the use of man for food and for raiment, and that he might have in abundance. But it is not given that one man should possess that which is above another, wherefore the world lieth in sin.  And wo be unto man that sheddeth blood or that wasteth flesh and hath no need.[2]

In Section 89, we read that:

Yea, flesh also of beasts and of the fowls of the air, I, the Lord, have ordained for the use of man with thanksgiving; nevertheless they are to be used sparingly; and it is pleasing unto me that they should not be used, only in times of winter, or of cold, or famine.[3]

Both of these texts have points of grammatical tension that can lead to different conclusions on when or if we should be eating meat.

In the first, the wording is odd.  The sentence in question is: “Whoso forbiddeth to abstain from meats, that man should not eat the same, is not ordained of God.”  In effect, it isn’t clear whether it’s not of God to forbid abstinence from eating meats (i.e., God endorses teaching people to not eat meat) or whether it’s not of God to teach abstinence from eating meat (i.e., God opposes teaching people to not eat meat).  Taken alone, the sentence seems to indicate the former, but in the setting of the full text of the revelation (with its statement that “the beasts of the field and the fowls of the air … is ordained for the use of man for food and for raiment”), the latter seems to be the case.

The latter reading is also supported in the context of the revelation being written in opposition to Shaker beliefs and practices.  While vegetarianism wasn’t universally supported among the United Society of Believers in Christ’s Second Appearing, there had been some discussion among the Shakers about opposing eating meat, especially pork (based on the biblical prohibition observed by the Israelites).  It seems possible that vegetarianism may have been embraced by the North Union Shakers that the revelation was delivered to in 1831.  Similar beliefs seem to have also been discussed among the Latter-day Saints around the time of the 1831 revelation, with Levi Hancock later recalling that “the Preaching in Kirtland once was against the use of Pork,” though Joseph Smith apparently raised and ate pigs (and thus did not support the prohibition on pork).[4]  Given the historical context of the revelation, the idea that it is saying that God opposes teaching people to not eat meat seems accurate.

In the later revelation (the Word of Wisdom revelation), the debate centers on punctuation added later on that possibly affects what the revelation states about when we can eat meat.  In the current edition, it reads that: “It is pleasing unto me that they should not be used, only in times of winter, or of cold, or famine.”  The comma after “used” splits the sentence in a way that indicates that God only wishes people to eat meat in cold seasons or times of famine. Earlier versions of the text, however, omit the comma, which could be read to mean that God wants us to eat meat all the time, rather than only during cold seasons or times of famine.  For example, in the Sidney Gilbert copy of the original revelation (the earliest extant edition), it reads that: “It is pleasing unto me that they should not be used only in times of winter or of famine,”[5] and the 1835 edition of the Doctrine and Covenants reads that: “It is pleasing unto me, that they should not be used only in times of winter or of cold, or famine.”[6]  The comma was added for the first time in the 1921 edition of the Doctrine and Covenants, which has led to some debate about whether the original intent was to say that God wants us to eat meat all year round (which would align better with what most members of the Church actually practice) or whether we should only eat meat in specific circumstances.[7]

Taking into account the broader context of the 1833 revelation and how it has been used by Church leaders since the early days of the Church, it seems likely that the original intent of the text was to say that God wants us to only eat meat in specific circumstances.  The revelation itself states that flesh is “to be used sparingly” and that “these hath God made for the use of man only in times of famine and excess of hunger,”[8] which is an indication that the text is focused on restricting meat consumption rather than enabling it (a reading supported by Eliza R. Snow’s “In Our Lovely Deseret,” with its statement that Latter-day Saint children “eat but a very little meat”).[9]  Early Church leaders support the interpretation that meat should be used only in times of famine and cold.  For example, President Hyrum Smith taught that: “Let men attend to these instructions, let them use the things ordained of God; let them be sparing of the life of animals; ‘it is to be used only in times of winter, or of famine’ and why to be used in famine? because all domesticated animals would naturally die, and may as well be made use of by man, as not.”[10]  Likewise, Lorenzo Snow taught that: “Unless famine or extreme cold is upon us we should refrain from the use of meat.”[11]  Other examples could be cited, but it seems likely that what happened was that Church leaders consistently understood the verse to be restricting meat consumption to cold seasons and famine and the comma was added in 1921 to preserve that interpretation.

Putting the two revelations together, however, we are posed with an interesting situation.  The 1831 revelation seems to be coming out against putting prohibitions on eating meat while the 1833 revelation seems to be putting in place restrictions on eating meat.  The former is frequently used as a proof text for wholesale acceptance of a carnivorous diet while the latter is sometimes used to advocate for a plant-based diet.  In reality, however, a closer reading of what the texts say can be put together to create a somewhat more nuanced understanding of the messages being presented.

The 1831 text technically only prohibits people from teaching abstinence from meat and also notes that animals were created for use by humankind.  It states that: “Whoso forbiddeth to abstain from meats, that man should not eat the same, is not ordained of God.”  After taking into account the discussion about the odd grammar, this seems to indicate that what is being forbidden is forbidding people from eat meats.  To me, this still leaves open the option as a member of the Church to choose to practice vegetarianism so long as I am not actively encouraging other people to do the same.[12]  The reason Section 49 gives for this is that animals were “ordained for the use of man for food and for raiment.”  Section 89 revelation agrees on this point, noting that meats are “ordained for the use of man with thanksgiving,” but then adds a point of clarification to this idea when it follows that statement with: “Nevertheless they are to be used sparingly; and it is pleasing unto me that they should not be used, only in times of winter, or of cold, or famine.”  That clarification doesn’t state that we should completely abstain from meat, only that we should limit the amount and timing of meat consumption.  Thus, the two aren’t contradictory—while they take a stance against actively promoting vegetarianism, they also shouldn’t be understood as endorsing frequent consumption of meat (except in limited circumstances) either.

That being said, there was a real possibility that restricting meat consumption could have become a part of the Word of Wisdom that the Church emphasized.  The Torah-based idea that Latter-day Saints shouldn’t eat pork didn’t die out in Kirtland but continued to be expressed by Church leaders throughout the nineteenth century.[13]  When Church leaders began to emphasize the Word of Wisdom more strongly around the turn of the twentieth century, meat consumption was a bigger focus for some Church leaders than the things we associate with the health code today.  For example, during a meeting of the Quorum of the Twelve and the First Presidency on 5 May 1898, the thing Brethren agreed on about the Word of Wisdom was that they should teach members to refrain from eating meat.  Lorenzo Snow was particularly emphatic about this, while Wilford Woodruff felt that eating pork was a more serious infraction than drinking tea or coffee.[14]  It presents the possibility of an interesting alternative history where Latter-day Saints might have been known for avoiding meat (or at least pork) rather than tea and coffee.

In any case, all this hair splitting about grammar and if or when we should eat meat is probably not important in the grand scheme of things.  As Paul wrote, “the kingdom of God is not food and drink but righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit.”[15]  Perhaps the more important principles taught in connection with statements about eating flesh are that we are to use the foods we have available “with thanksgiving,” that we should not shed blood or waste flesh when we have no need, and that “it is not given that one man should possess that which is above another.”  Those principles seem a bit more closely tied to our exaltation than the specifics of our diet.



[1] See Daniel Victor “Oxford Comma Dispute Is Settled as Maine Driver Get $5 Million,” New York Times, 9 February 2018, https://www.nytimes.com/2018/02/09/us/oxford-comma-maine.html.

[2] D&C 49:18-21, https://www.churchofjesuschrist.org/study/scriptures/dc-testament/dc/49?lang=eng.

[3] D&C 89:12-13, https://www.churchofjesuschrist.org/study/scriptures/dc-testament/dc/89?lang=eng.

[4] Hancock, Levi. Autobiography, ca. 1854. Photocopy. CHL. MS 8174.  See also “Revelation, 7 May 1831 [D&C 49],” p. 81, The Joseph Smith Papers, accessed May 16, 2021, https://www.josephsmithpapers.org/paper-summary/revelation-7-may-1831-dc-49/2, footnote 12.

[5] “Revelation, 27 February 1833 [D&C 89],” p. [114], The Joseph Smith Papers, accessed May 16, 2021, https://www.josephsmithpapers.org/paper-summary/revelation-27-february-1833-dc-89/2

[6] “Doctrine and Covenants, 1835,” p. 208, The Joseph Smith Papers, accessed May 16, 2021, https://www.josephsmithpapers.org/paper-summary/doctrine-and-covenants-1835/216

[7] For one discussion, see A. Jane Birch, “Questioning the Comma in Verse 13 of the Word of Wisdom,” Interpreter: A Journal of Latter-day Saint Faith and Scholarship 10 (2014): 133-149, https://journal.interpreterfoundation.org/questioning-the-comma-in-verse-13-of-the-word-of-wisdom/

[8] D&C 89:12, 15.

[9] See https://books.google.com/books?id=6i5OAAAAYAAJ&pg=PA86#v=onepage&q&f=false.

[10] Times and Seasons, Vol. 3, No. 15, pp. 799-801.

[11] Dennis B. Horne, ed., An Apostle’s Record: The Journals of Abraham H. Cannon (Clearfield, UT: Gnolaum Books, 2004), 424.

[12] I am going to make the disclaimer here that I am omnivorous and not a vegetarian myself.

[13] See George Q. Cannon, 7 April 1868; Journal of Discourses 12:221-223, Discourses of Brigham Young, 189; Thomas G. Alexander Mormonism in Transition: A History of the Latter-day Saints, 1890-1930, 3rd ed. (SLC, Greg Kofford Books, 2012), 275.

[14] Alexander, Mormonism in Transition, 273-280.

[15] Romans 14:17, NRSV.

7 comments for ““Whoso forbideth to abstain from meats”

  1. “whoso forbiddeth to abstain from meats, that man should not eat the same”
    Another interpretation is that this has a diction problem — essentially the same problem as a double negative not intended to negate the negation — that it meant “whoso forbiddeth eating meats should not eat the same.”
    Whatever it meant, the analysis suggests to some that JS was not acting as God’s stenographer [which idea does not eliminate revelation from his experience] or that God couldn’t be bothered with clarity [or punctuation] even about simple instructions, but would rather create confusion and promote arguments among the 12 and the first presidency, and others.
    I think I’ll go with JS not being God’s stenographer. He wouldn’t be the only reporter to misquote a participant in an actual conversation on which he took notes but had no transcript. Oh, well.

  2. Once upon a time, there was a ward welfare council that consisted of the bishop, his two counselors, and the Relief Society president. During the two years I served on such a council, I was the only meat eater of the five who, at one time of another, served with me.

    And while we’re parsing confusing scriptural language, try inserting a synonym for “amen” into D&C 121:37 and try to make sense of it.

  3. “But it is not given that one man should possess that which is above another”,

    This struck me as the most important message from these verses, in a country with the highest level of inequality in the first world, and no appearent concern from the church. And members voting to increase the inequality.

  4. Why only in winter or in dire need during famine? It’s just as easy to read food storage safety motivation in that sentence as anything else. Eat meat in small amounts unless it’s winter time, where you can preserve it easier. Or unless it’s a famine and both the animal and you lack food anyway. We can just as readily pull a quote about delivering our surplus to the bishop and him consecrating it back to see the practical relevance of this verse.

    In other words, it has none.

    You can make whatever argument you like. Personally, I think we have all kinds of bigger fish (or vegetables) to fry (in olive oil?).

    The wow is more significant in health guidelines for what it leaves out that is plaguing our society than for what convoluted council it gives on meat. You’d be better off cutting out the sugar, alcohol, tobacco and eating your meat and veggies with sparing grains than having a vegetarian diet that chased dinner down with milkshake and tiramisu (it’s not hit after all). Vegetarianism is not expressly sanctioned or recommended, only the notion of sparingly eating meat.

    If you’re being strict here, eat meat in abundance in the winter then veg and grain up the rest of the year?

  5. Ll,
    So be it (or, referencing earlier line that the priesthood as well as the heavens are withdrawn), to the priesthood of that that brother is withdrawn.

    Seems clear.

  6. Another wrench to throw in there: what is meat? Is it only the flesh of mammals? Or mammals and birds? All vertebrates?

    Almost entirely due to the convenience of it, I have come to assume that the revelation means mammals. I have some reasoning for that, but I freely admit that I am backing into that position.

  7. Punctuation matters. But how much does it matter?

    Lamoni Call wrote a book about 2,000 changes in the Book of Mormon. He obsessed over it. Drove him bonkers. At the same time, there is something valid about how we receive the sanctity of a text. A Jew holds a high regard for Torah because the Jew is always looking beyond the text (at least four layers deep), whereas Christians tend to look to the text as ends (sola scriptura).

    Joseph Smith seemed to employ a kind of negative theology, even pre-Derrida-deconstruction approach to text. More abductive/retroductive insights than deductive or inductive.

    Underlying the problem of punctuation is this dichotomy of revelation: was the power of revelation in the translation of language (such as an ancient text), or was the power of revelation in the translation of vision, into a language/text?

    This example of the 89th Section perfectly expresses how the true revelation is beneath the text: it’s not a dietary or health code–though that is how we have come to [mis]understand it.

Comments are closed.