The Case of a Comma, a Question on D&C 89:12-13

January 14, 2011    By: Matt W. @ 8:12 am   Category: Mormon Culture/Practices

D&C 89:12-13 reads:

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.

Recently I heard that the comma after “used” is a later insertion done by James E. Talmage, so this verse should actually be:

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.

Is there any truth to this? I could find very few references to such a change via the usual googling but all of them are pretty questionable in terms of veracity.

Interestingly, I’d say the norm is to practice the second reading, although the scriptures currently state the first.

31 Comments »

  1. According to Woodford (I do’t have time to quote right now, but hopefully will later), it was a typesetting mistake and JFS said something like “How did that get there?” when he saw it.

    The reality is however, that not eating meat was long viewed as part of the WoW, since the beginning really. E.g., Lorenzo snow viewed not eating meat as more important than not drinking tea. And BY thought Hyrum smith was a bit hypocritical in his application of the WoW, because he ate so much meat.

    Comment by J. Stapley — January 14, 2011 @ 8:27 am

  2. I think the Talmage correction is obviously correct. The “let’s eat meat a-go-go” interpretation without the comma to me is really strained; if that were what the section meant to say, I suspect it would have said so more directly.

    Of course, I’m a carnivore, so I’m something of a hypocrite. But I don’t think that removing the comma solves my hypocrisy.

    Comment by Kevin Barney — January 14, 2011 @ 8:41 am

  3. I wonder, if Joseph had lived longer, if he would ever have gotten around to revising this revelation too. I’d like to think so. :)

    Comment by Clean Cut — January 14, 2011 @ 8:46 am

  4. Of course, being the meat eater I am I suppose I can simply justify it by turning up the AC and saying I’m “cold”, or simply say “I’m famished” and charge right ahead. After all, it’s only a problem during several months of the year. :)

    Comment by Clean Cut — January 14, 2011 @ 8:51 am

  5. Fortunately, there is no comma in D&C 121:36.

    That the rights of the priesthood are inseparably connected with the powers of heaven, and that the powers of heaven cannot be controlled nor handled only upon the principles of righteousness.

    This has permitted me control and handle the powers of heaven upon principles other than righteousness.

    Or perhaps “only” actually means “except” in this context, in which case the presence or absence of a comma is entirely irrelevant.

    Comment by Last Lemming — January 14, 2011 @ 9:08 am

  6. Without the comma it does sound like God is, strangely, insisting that meat be eaten more often. This would be an extremely odd injunction, and excessive within the context of the rest of the revelation.

    Comment by Jacob B. — January 14, 2011 @ 9:27 am

  7. …let’s also remember that there was no commas, or punctuation of any sort in the original, so I think the best interpretation lines up with the historical usage (here is the earliest text, which is located in RB2). Also as Last Lemming points out, other similar grammatical constructs in the revelations of the period.

    Here is the relevant text from Woodford’s dissy (1175-1176):

    According to T. Edgar Lyons, Joseph Fielding Smith, when shown this addition to the text, said: “Who put that in there?” This is a significant statement since Elder Smith served on the committee to publish that edition of the D&C. Thus, the comma may have been inserted by the printer and has been retained ever since.

    Comment by J. Stapley — January 14, 2011 @ 9:33 am

  8. In reality, it means whatever the current leadership of the Church wants it to mean. They currently don’t ask about eating meat, so it doesn’t really matter.

    Other random interpretations from the “original” revelation, yet heard in the modern Church:

    - “Hot drinks” being interpreted by some members as Coke, although Monson and McKay clearly enjoy(ed) their Coke

    - “..and barley for all useful animals, and for mild drinks” which was interpreted as beer in JS time, and which he drank. This has been reinterpreted by subsequent people as meaning Postum or some other drink, which makes little sense

    - Regarding wine, we are told that we SHOULD use it “… in assembling yourselves together to offer up your sacraments before him” as instituted by the Savior Himself in the Bible and also as given in the Book of Mormon by JS. This has also been changed by later leaders to the point where they actually subordinated one of the fundamental ordinances Christ established to a later interpretation of the WofW not given by JS

    - “To be sent greeting; not by commandment or constraint…” This has also been completely reinterpreted. The revelation was changed from a suggestion to a commandment by subsequent Church leaders for various reasons

    So, at the end of the day, it doesn’t really matter what the WofW says and where commas may or may not be. How it is followed in the Church today is completely different from when it was given, and it basically up to whoever is currently in charge.

    Comment by Mike S — January 14, 2011 @ 9:43 am

  9. The following is in “A Commentary on the Doctrine and Covenants” vol. 3 http://deseretbook.com/Commentary-Doctrine-Covenants-Vol-3-Sections-81-105-Stephen-E-Robinson/i/4024828

    “13. They should not be used, only in times of winter. The difficulty in verse 13 lies in the comma following the word ‘used.’ Depending upon the presence or absence of this comma, contradictory meanings may be ascribed to the text. Between 1833 and 1921, there was no comma in the text at this point in the revelation. The comma was first inserted in the revelation in the 1921 edition of the Doctrine and Covenants.

    However, insertion of the comma brings verse 13 into agreement with the clear sense and intent of verses 12 and 15, and without it, these would seem to contradict verse 13. Moreover, since 1921, several different First Presidencies have had the opportunity to correct the reading of verse 13 in subsequent editions of the Doctrine and Covenants and have specifically declined to do so. At present, given our firm conviction in continuing revelation, we need to follow the reading of the most recent edition. There is no commandment or constraint on this issue, and Church leaders seem content to let the Saints apply the principle as stated here individually as guided by the Spirit.”

    Comment by Larrin — January 14, 2011 @ 9:55 am

  10. Clean Cut, #4: or you can simply justify your meat-eating by suggesting that this commandment does not apply to us today—that it had something to do with the scarcity, quality, etc. of meat back then and that today things are totally different.

    Comment by BrianJ — January 14, 2011 @ 9:58 am

  11. In reality, I’m not that concerned about justifications for the WofW for me personally. They just come in handy when other members who are more strict about it try to tell you what you should or shouldn’t be doing. While I wouldn’t go so far as Mike S and say “it doesn’t really matter” what the WofW says, he’s right that modern interpretations are quite different than before. Perhaps because I’m a historian at heart and feel a kinship to those who’ve gone before, I don’t feel guilt about being less strict about WofW observation because I know I’m not doing anything that earlier prophets weren’t okay with. :)

    Well, check that. I doubt earlier prophets would have conceived of trying a McDonald’s Mocha Frappe, but hey, it’s a COLD drink!

    Comment by Clean Cut — January 14, 2011 @ 10:24 am

  12. Matt the revelations were spoken not written so where would commas go they wouldn’t read it without punctuation to know the meaning thereof.

    Comment by Howard — January 14, 2011 @ 10:29 am

  13. Since there is no other mention of cold and famine in the rest of the section, the interpretation with the comma is the only one that makes sense. If there had just been talk of eating meat especially in times of cold and famine, then the no-comma version would make sense as a modification of that statement, but since there isn’t, it doesn’t. Why mention cold and famine unless the purpose is to tell us that those are the times when it is more appropriate to use meat?

    And here’s my anthropomorphic reasoning: more pure spirits, like my 7-year-old daughter, who are more like Heavenly Father in their natural feelings than the rest of us, dislike any killing of animals. Otherwise we worry about psychopathy in later life.

    Comment by Owen — January 14, 2011 @ 10:57 am

  14. Nothing to add to what has been said other than that a BYU Studies article by Royal Skousen comes to mind here. He takes the view noted by Last Lemming:

    In editions prior to 1921, the comma before only was missing: “And it is pleasing unto me that they should not be used only in times of winter, or of cold, or famine” (1879 edition). A reader might interpret this as meaning that meat could be used at any time, not only in times of winter, cold, or famine.

    Of course, the real problem here is in the meaning of only. In the last century the word only very often had the meaning ‘except’. For example, the Oxford English Dictionary quotes a use of only that undoubtedly means ‘except’: “For many years the following notice was painted up at Bolton railway station: ‘Do not cross the line only by the bridge.’” Clearly, this is the appropriate sense of only in this verse from D&C 89. James E. Talmage put the comma in the 1921 edition, but not in order to change the meaning of only. Instead, the meaning of only had changed and the comma was put in so that the modern reader could read the verse and still get out its original meaning. A similar difficulty with only occurs in my patriarchal blessing, given by William R. Sloan in 1957: “Counsel with your dear parents, and they shall never direct you only in paths of righteousness and truth”–and without a comma! As a youth I thought the word never was a mistake, and I was tempted to cross it out. But I was wrong. Now when I read my blessing, I mentally replace only with except.

    Comment by Justin — January 14, 2011 @ 12:35 pm

  15. Clean Cut:

    They may not have tried the Mocha Frappe – but not because of the coffee (which earlier prophets not only drank, but also included in pioneers’ rations, for example). Earlier prophets may have worried about the artificial ingredients.

    That being said, they would probably have really enjoyed it as a delicious way to drink their coffee, especially on a hot summer day in Utah after working outside.

    Comment by Mike S — January 14, 2011 @ 2:30 pm

  16. Who cares? It says in verse 15 you can eat meat when there’s an “excess of hunger.” That means you can eat meat when you’re hungry!

    This revelation deserves the most liberal interpretation possible. For example, it says to not drink wine except in offering up your sacraments to the Lord. Form the historical record Joseph Smith clearly drank it outside of the Church liturgy. I think we can assume from this that sacrament can be interpreted as communion; so clearly for him he drank wine to have a good time. He was always in communion with the Spirit.

    Comment by cadams — January 14, 2011 @ 4:22 pm

  17. Don’t forget D&C 49 which has priority because it came first.;)

    Comment by WVS — January 14, 2011 @ 5:37 pm

  18. For me, the way I interpret the text is dependent on the assumptions that were brought to the text.

    Why would God possibly have wanted meat eaten in the cold? Was it because God didn’t want the meat to be spoiled and the food to be wasted? Could that be accomplished when everyone was so hungry (because of famine) that ALL of the food was consumed even when it wasn’t cold? Or could it be that in cold environments the meat doesn’t spoil as quickly?

    I personally believe that God has a rational reason. And until his authorized prophet chooses to make following certain pharisaical interpretations of the Word of Wisdom necessary, I reserve the right to look at the context of the time, and make an interpretation of my own.

    In my refrigerator, it is always cold. The meat does not spoil. I am able to consume protein found in meat. I do not make meat my “staff of life” as many were proclaiming at the time the Word of Wisdom was revealed. Grain is still my staff of life, but we all know that balance is necessary, and meat can be balanced part of eating healthy.

    Comment by psychochemiker — January 15, 2011 @ 3:00 pm

  19. Matt, Further, we also don’t eat our fruits and vegetables only in the season that are ready in. Some of us eat dried, frozen, or canned fruits and vegetables. Sometimes we eat food that is in season in other countries. These are just contingencies brought about by modern life, that I don’t think God was trying to cover then. As such, I feel no need to parse and worry about a comma.

    Comment by psychochemiker — January 15, 2011 @ 3:07 pm

  20. …except, psychochemiker, it had nothing to do with it being cold outside. People stored their meat by salting it. “Saltpork” was kept in barrels and was very stable. The reason that winter was mentioned was that salted foods (including meats and pickles of all sorts) were one of the most stable forms of food available (remember canning hadn’t been invented yet).

    Comment by J. Stapley — January 15, 2011 @ 5:32 pm

  21. No more steaks off the grill for you, Matt.

    Comment by mondo cool — January 15, 2011 @ 7:47 pm

  22. Mondo, the best part about that is I just got back from the steakhouse, and it was good.

    Comment by Matt W. — January 15, 2011 @ 7:52 pm

  23. The original manuscript read:

    “yea flesh also of beasts and of the fowls of the are [air] I the Lord hath 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 famine,”

    See http://beta.josephsmithpapers.org/paperSummary/revelation-27-february-1833-dc-89#2

    Comment by Nate J — January 16, 2011 @ 6:48 pm

  24. J Stapley. I don’t think it is logical to claim that it had “nothing to do with it being cold outside.”

    While I had forgotten to think of “saltpork” as possible way of preservering meat, I don’t think it negates a “cold” argument at all. How healthy do you feel it is to eat meat with very high concentrations of salt in it? Do you see any difference at all in preserving via salting and preserving via freezing? In the end though, I think I agree your context, and feel that it kind of proves my point. Some things weren’t available yet, and the revelation described what to do during that time and during that context. I’m certainly not saying I have the 100% perfect interpretation, I just don’t see the literalness of the passage jumping out at me as some others do, that’s all. Thank you for your contribution regarding saltpork.

    Comment by psychochemiker — January 17, 2011 @ 9:26 am

  25. My copy of the D & C. Commentary published in or about 1919 reads: 89:12-13 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;
    13. And it is pleasing unto me that they should not be used, only in times of winter, or of gold, or famine.

    If there was a change made, it was made long ago.

    Comment by Stepheny — January 23, 2011 @ 5:52 pm

  26. Oops it is obvious that slipped and hit a g rather than a c so it should read cold and not gold in the last line of previeous comment.

    Comment by Stepheny — January 23, 2011 @ 5:59 pm

  27. Stepheny – I am happy to accept your editorial change and plan on eating meat only in times of winter, gold, or famine.

    On a more serious note, I believe that the fact that I eat meat maybe once a day falls into the category of eating meat sparingly.

    Comment by Alex T. Valencic — January 25, 2011 @ 9:20 pm

  28. Here is what I have written on the subject:

    “Meat during winter/famine in the Word of Wisdom”

    There exist contradictory readings of the Word of Wisdom concerning eating meat only in winter, cold or famine. The current version of the text appears to teach this concept,[13] and that is the most common interpretation. However, few people are aware that there was a change in punctuation when converting the text into columns in the year 1920. This simple change in punctuation reverses the meaning of the text in question, and it is unclear whether or not this addition of this comma compared to the original versions of the text [14] was purposeful or accidental. The phrase originally stated that meat “should not be used only in times of winter, or of cold, or famine.” This would indicate that, while meat should be consumed sparingly, it should not be eaten only in times of winter, cold or famine. This implies that it should be consumed in other times as well. This is supported by section 49 of the Doctrine and Covenants, verses 18 and 19[15] (See also 1 Tim. 4:1–3).

    “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.”

    Also, many scriptures are cited teaching that the beasts of the field should be differentiated from wild animals [16] Therefore, according to this interpretation of verse 15, “these” refers to ‘wild beasts’ specifically, which should only be consumed during winter, cold or famine, while beasts of the field and fowls of the air may be consumed sparingly all year round.

    13) The Doctrine and Covenants|book=Section 89|verse=12|range=–15}}
    14) [http://josephsmithpapers.org/paperSummary/doctrine-and-covenants-1835?locale=eng&p=216]
    15) The Doctrine and Covenants|book=Section 49|verse=18|range=–19}}
    16) (See 2 Nephi 2:15; D&C 59:16; 88:14; 101:42; Moses 5:1; Ex 23:11; Deut.7:22).

    Here is a great article which is comprehensive on the Word of Wisdom, written in about 1970 which has great information. The interesting thing is that the Author of the article, didn’t seem to see how eating meat in winter only is supposed to fit in with health, but maybe it is the wrong interpretation to begin with:
    https://www.lds.org/ensign/1977/04/the-dos-in-the-word-of-wisdom?lang=eng

    I have never seen a general authority teach that we should eat meat only in winter. I always wrote it off and thought that it only applied to those pioneers in the 1800s, when they didn’t have proper refrigeration and so forth. If you read the Word of Wisdom closely, it also says it is o.k. to drink wine for church services. Clearly, we don’t have the same requirement for the Word of Wisdom as when it was originally given. We actually have a stricter standard when it comes to alcohol and tobacco than when it was originally given. I just recently found out about the comma thing.

    The author of the Word of Wisdom article in the Ensign article is Lora Beth Larson, an instructor in the Department of Food Science and Nutrition at Brigham Young University. She didn’t know what to make of the winter/famine concept. The article is comprehensive, but when it comes to meat in only winter/cold/famine, this is all she has to say about it:

    “We are told in Doctrine and Covenants 89:12–13 [D&C 89:12–13] that the use of meats is more appropriate during times of winter, cold, or famine. Why? We’re not certain. Our present knowledge about the body’s protein requirement suggests that we need the same amount of protein throughout the year, although we can certainly emphasize different sources in different seasons. In this area as in others, there’s definitely room for additional research.”

    If I interpret the original punctuation correctly (I provided a link to a copy of the original in #14), then the meaning of the text would be consistent with the portion in bold above. I just don’t think that people are aware of the comma change to begin with.

    I understand that the theory I am presenting here is theoretical. It is just something to consider, because I have never seen a restriction of meat outside of winter ever taught. We had ward BBQs all the time in Missouri (summer time). I even have gone to the Bishop’s house here in El Paso, and we grilled Kabobs. He still gave me a temple recommend.

    I remember the Stake President in Columbia Missouri making a comment about that passage. He said, and I am paraphrasing, “I have had meals with the general authorities, and see that they eat meat even when it is not winter, this has led me to believe that it is o.k.”

    Comment by Stephen — March 3, 2014 @ 9:36 pm

  29. I recently wrote the following paper, which sheds light on this subject:

    A. Jane Birch, “Questioning the Comma in Verse 13 of the Word of Wisdom,” Interpreter: A Journal of Mormon Scripture 10 (2014): 133-149.

    http://www.mormoninterpreter.com/questioning-the-comma-in-verse-13-of-the-word-of-wisdom/

    Abstract: The 1921 edition of the Doctrine and Covenants included an additional comma, which was inserted after the word “used” in D&C 89:13: “And it is pleasing unto me that they should not be used, only in times of winter, or of cold, or famine.” Later authors have speculated that the addition of the comma was a mistake that fundamentally changed the meaning of the verse. This article examines this “errant comma theory” and demonstrates why this particular interpretation of D&C 89:13 is without merit.

    Of course the Church policy on the Word of Wisdom does not restrict the consumption of meat to times of winter, cold, or famine. However, restricting the use of meat in this way appears to be the Lord’s counsel to us in the last days. It is given “not by commandment or constraint” (D&C 89:2). It is interesting to reflect on why the Lord would give this counsel and why it pleases Him that we follow it (D&C 89:13).

    Comment by Jane Birch — May 31, 2014 @ 4:48 pm

  30. Thanks for the link, Jane.

    Comment by Geoff J — June 1, 2014 @ 5:39 pm

  31. I find if very helpful to study words independently using a dictionary. I like to use dictionary.com. It has opened up the scriptures to me in a way that the Spirit has testified to me. Heavenly Father is the best person to ask if you have a question. He’ll answer and clarify for you. After reading your comments and feeling very lost on the matter, I looked up the word “only” in the dictionary. I was aware of D&C 89 verses 13 and 15 being connected in the footnotes. This was powerfully insightful when inserting the various possibilities for defining “only”. He gave me an answer… now I just have to apply it… That part is trickier. But God is faithful and will help me.

    Comment by Elley — July 15, 2014 @ 2:41 pm

Leave a comment

RSS feed for comments on this post.