Joseph Smith and Alcohol

A silver sacrament goblet from 1847 depicting Joseph Smith standing among wine grapes.

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 drinking alcohol multiple times after that date.[6]

Isn't that hypocritical? Couldn’t he keep the revelation he received? 

At the time, the Word of Wisdom was viewed by many saints as more of a guideline than a strict code.[7] The language of the text was that it came “not by commandment or constraint, but by revelation and the word of wisdom” (Doctrine and Covenants 89:2).[8] 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.[9]

Weren't early Mormon societies alcohol-free?

No. Early Church communities were temperate,[10] but not completely dry. For example, Nauvoo had taverns and breweries.[11] The sale of liquor in the city was regulated but not prohibited.[12]

Was Joseph a drunkard?

No, probably not. Joseph’s clerk, who saw him daily at the office, swore he never saw him drunk.[13] Critics accused him of excessive drinking,[14] but other historical records indicate Joseph was an infrequent and moderate drinker.[15] Close associates noted Joseph sometimes drank wine at the dinner table.[16] Joseph reportedly listed whiskey as one of his temptations.[17]

What did Joseph Smith think about alcohol?

Joseph Smith's revelation stated that drinking "wine or strong drink. . . .is not good, neither meet in the sight of your Father," but "barley" could be used for "mild drink."[18] It was reported that Joseph stated that drinking whiskey as "sinful" and that it was a personal "temptation."[19] Joseph indicated that wine was an exceptions for religious purposes.[20]

He also seems to have accepted the idea that alcohol was an appropriate means to "revive" spirits that were "dull and heavy" while in Carthage jail.[21]

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

Yes.[22] But a revelation given to Joseph Smith in 1830 indicates that it isn't important what is used for the sacrament.[23]

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

According to Lucy Mack Smith,[BIO] Joseph refused brandy or wine as painkillers for the surgery, saying, "I will not touch one particile of liquor."[24] However, Lucy's account was recorded over 30 years after the incident[25] and her memory of the events may have been influenced by the Word of Wisdom, which had been around for over a decade by the time she wrote her memoirs.[26] Joseph Smith's 1842 account of the surgery made no mention of him refusing alcohol.[27]

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

Possibly. Some sources accused Joseph Sr.[BIO] of being a "drunkard,"[28] but other accounts contradict these claims.[29] However, Joseph Sr. may have alluded to a drinking problem that he may have had in blessings given to his sons.[30]

Did Joseph Smith and his companions drink wine in Carthage?

Yes. John Taylor[BIO] said they sent for some.[31] His account specifies that they didn’t drink it as a sacrament but to lift their spirits.[32] Willard Richards[BIO] also recorded that Joseph paid for some wine to be brought to the prisoners.[33]

When was the Word of Wisdom consistently enforced?

While the Word of Wisdom was taught and emphasized throughout the nineteenth century,[34] its enforcement didn't really pick up steam until the twentieth century.[35] Strict adherence to the Word of Wisdom did not become a requirement for temple entry until the 1934 Handbook of Instructions.[36]

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.
  • Eric T.
    I served a mission to France. Many foods and especially desserts are made with liqueurs. It was a long time ago, but I remember our Mission President saying at zone conference not to be too concerned with it. The alcohol would be mostly cooked out of whatever thing we would have.
  • Street Rat
    Section 89:3 mentions being adapted to the capacity of the weak and the weakest of all saints who are or can be called saints. For me, I understood this as greater restrictions being imposed since many could not handle their alcohol.
  • Travis
    If Joseph was half as disheveled as critics and defectors make him out to be, the whole restoration movement would have crumbled real quick. The churches survival is evidence enough that his character was at the very least generally inspiring.
  • Garden
    I really needed to read this. It's nice to know that Joseph Smith was more imperfect than I thought he was made out to be. We can all strive to be better while knowing the Lord walks with us through our trials.
  • 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.