Joseph Smith and Alcohol

Did Joseph Smith drink alcohol?

Yes, but probably not habitually[1] and mostly wine.[2] He also occasionally drank beer.[3] Drinking was a common practice in his day (though drinking until drunk was frowned upon).[4]

Did he drink after the Word of Wisdom was revealed?

Yes. The Word of Wisdom was first revealed on February 27, 1833.[5] Joseph himself recorded sharing wine with fellow Church members multiple times after that date.[6]

What’s up with that? The Prophet couldn’t keep the revelation he received? 

At the time, the Word of Wisdom was viewed as more of a guideline than a strict code.[7] The language in Doctrine and Covenants 89 was that it came “not by commandment or constraint, but by revelation and the word of wisdom” (Doctrine and Covenants 89:2). However, Joseph did teach that willfully neglecting to follow the Word of Wisdom may disqualify members from holding leadership positions, and violation might lead to disciplinary action.[8]

Weren't early Mormon societies alcohol-free?

No. Early Church communities were temperate[9] but not completely dry. Nauvoo, for example, had taverns and breweries.[10] The sale of liquor in the city was regulated but not prohibited.[11]

Was Joseph a drunkard?

No, probably not. Joseph’s clerk, who saw him daily at the office, swore he never saw him drunk.[12] Critics accused him of excessive drinking,[13] but other historical records indicate Joseph was an infrequent and moderate drinker.[14] Close associates noted Joseph sometimes drank wine at the dinner table.[15]

What did Joseph Smith think about alcohol?

Joseph Smith seems to have thought wine and other alcoholic drinks as a tool for lifting spirits[16] and as a symbol for religious communion.[17]

Was wine used in the sacrament after the Word of Wisdom was revealed?

Yes.[18] But a revelation given to Joseph Smith in 1830 indicates that it isn't important what is used for the sacrament.[19]

What about that story where, as a child, Joseph refused liquor for a leg operation?

It could be accurate, or it could be an embellished recollection of Lucy Mack Smith.[BIO] According to Lucy, Joseph refused brandy or wine as painkillers for the surgery, saying, "I will not touch one particile of liquor."[20]

This account was recorded decades later[21] and the details may have been influenced by Lucy's later adoption of the Word of Wisdom.

Didn't Joseph Sr. drink excessively at one point?

Possibly. Some sources accused Joseph Sr.[BIO] of being a "drunkard,"[22] but other accounts contradict these claims.[23] However, there is some indication that Joseph Sr. may have had a drinking problem, which is possibly alluded to in the recording of blessings given to his sons.[24]

Did Joseph Smith and his companions drink wine in Carthage?

Yes. John Taylor[BIO] said they sent for some.[25] His account specifies that they didn’t drink it as a sacrament but to lift their spirits.[26] Willard Richards[BIO] also recorded that Joseph paid for some wine to be brought to the prisoners.[27]

When was the Word of Wisdom consistently enforced?

While the Word of Wisdom was taught and emphasized throughout the nineteenth century,[28] its enforcement didn't really pick up steam until the twentieth century.[29] Strict adherence to the Word of Wisdom did not become a requirement for temple entry until the 1934 Handbook of Instructions.[30]

Some People Say . . .

"The 'wine' that Joseph Smith drank was probably just non-alcoholic grape juice, so it's not a big deal."

— overheard in Sunday School

The Facts

  • Joseph Smith recreationally drank beer and wine, even after the Word of Wisdom was revealed.

  • The Church communities in Joseph's time were temperate but not alcohol-free.

  • Enemies of Joseph frequently accused him of being a drunkard, but others contradict this claim.

  • Joseph Smith's father likely had some kind of a drinking problem.

  • The Word of Wisdom did not become a requirement for temple entry until the twentieth century.

Our Take

The Word of Wisdom is one of the most visible parts of modern-day discipleship, so it’s odd that the prophet of the Restoration drank alcohol, even in moderation. Was the prophet a hypocrite? Does this mean that the Word of Wisdom doesn't really need to be followed quite as strictly as it's taught today?

The early Saints understood the Word of Wisdom to be a guideline, but they still took it seriously when alcohol was taken to excess. Joseph's critics often accused him of being a drunk, but the historical evidence indicates that Joseph was moderate in his use of beer and wine.

Today, the application of the Word of Wisdom is very different. We shouldn't fault the early Saints for following their understanding of the gospel in their time, but we also shouldn't use it as an excuse to disregard the direction our current leaders give us for our time.

What's Your Take?

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These takes are curated for a general audience and may contain minor edits when posted.
  • Mike
    Its reasonable to think that if moderation were actually feasible for 99.9% of us, perhaps alcohol and other substances would not be an issue for God. But anyone who has been a substance addict knows from experience why God would take issue with it.
  • Thomas S
    The unknowable nature of the translation process should not interfere with our understanding and appreciation of the end product. The Book of Mormon is one God’s gifts to us. My only concern might be the general fallibility of man, but Joseph Smith was inspired by God.
  • Parker P
    The early Word of Wisdom is strange because it didn't go into effect all the way? Do some commandments start as suggestions? You'd think if God told you "alcohol is bad, use in moderation" that you'd be more correct if you just stopped using it.
  • Derek B
    I mean I'd drink if God said it was okay, so go off king. Get your drinks in while you can.
Footnotes