The Word of Wisdom as a Boycott of the Free Market

August 23, 2016    By: Jeff G @ 8:34 am   Category: Ethics,Happiness,Life,Money and getting gain,Mormon Culture/Practices

A Word of Wisdom … showing forth the order and will of God in the temporal salvation of all saints in the last days… In consequence of evils and designs which do and will exist in the hearts of conspiring men in the last days… And, behold, this should be wine, yea, pure wine of the grape of the vine, of your own make. (D&C 89)

Market demand is not the same as moral evaluation – and the production and consumption habits of the saints should conform to the latter rather than the former.

Up until the turn of the 19th century, the Chinese held a significant trade balance against the British.  Chinese tea had become extraordinarily popular within the British Isles, but the Chinese refused to trade anything other than silver for their tea.  The British, however, eventually solved their trade deficit with China by providing them with an even more addictive combination of American tobacco and Indian opium.  By 1804 the trade deficit had reverse direction in favor of the British as opium addiction spread widely (50% of men and 25% of women) throughout China.  This trade deficit along with the social effects of widespread addiction together led to a Chinese prohibition on the substance and, eventually, to the opium wars against the British (1839).

It is in this light, I suggest, that we ought to understand the importance of the Word of Wisdom (WoW). While we currently focus on the social effects of addictive stimulants, I would like to argue that the economic effects are at least as relevant.  The British addiction to tea had given the Chinese so much economic power over them that the only way in which the British could reverse this power relation was through an even more addictive stimulant.  Understood this way, the WoW can (and perhaps should) be understood as an economic boycott, and as such being much more pro-active in its moral intent than the passive “abstaining” from consuming various substances.

Before continuing, I must acknowledge that I am not the first to put an economistic spin on the WoW.  While I had not known of its existence until after I had formulated my main thesis, Leonard J. Arrington formulated many, but not all of the central points that I wish to advance in this post.  His paper is a fantastic source for statements by early church leaders regarding the economic intent behind the WoW.  That said….

Section 89 declares itself to be protection for the saints against “conspiring men” and the “evils and designs” which exist in their hearts.  I believe we can put a name on these conspiring men: The British East India Company (BEIC) and the international trade-market generally speaking.  This company was THE reason why the British empire was so vast and so wealthy.  It was their trade in three types of commodities, in particular, that were responsible for their vastly disproportionate wealth and power: luxury goods, slaves and stimulants.  Indeed, it is not too great of an exaggeration to claim that a) these three types of goods were mostly acquired though international trade, and 2) that most international trade consisted of these three types of goods.  In other words, supporting international trade and purchasing these three things were almost one and the same thing.  While the WoW is primarily aimed at the purchase and consumption of stimulants, the highly interconnected nature of international trade meant that there was no way to entirely isolate trading in one of these types of goods from trading in the other two.

I thus wish to advance 6 theses in favor of an economic interpretation of the WoW.  The first three will focus on the three types of trade mentioned above, arguing that they are each commodity types in which competition is most obviously not for the common good.  The last three theses will focus more on interpreting the WoW within the context of the united order and its rejection of free-market capitalism.

  1. Luxury goods. While the defenders of the free market tend to focus on the benefits of allowing producers to compete with each other to better serve “the consumer”, it also introduces competition among consumers.  This quest on the part of consumers for “conspicuous consumption” inevitably distorts the competition among producers, in that the latter will divert time, energy and resources to satisfying a consumer demand that has nothing at all to do with “needs” – to the extent that doing so is profitable.  It is along these lines that we should understand Brigham Young’s thunderous denunciations of “lace” and other such luxury commodities.  The BEIC held a very strong hold on the markets for silks, wines, dyes, spices, oils, porcelain and furs.  These commodities served no function within the united order other than stratifying the “haves” above the “have-nots”. (See Justus Moser’s incisive criticisms regarding how the trade in luxury items tends to subvert traditional morals and social roles.)
  2. Slavery. The trading of African slaves lay at the very heart of the BEIC’s overseas trade.  The mass production of cotton garments had been the industry that essentially started the industrial revolution, and the cotton supply for these garments came primarily from American slave plantations.  The hypocrisy of this system became obvious when, in the same year the WoW was revealed, the British passed the anti-slavery act (it didn’t take effect until a couple years later), thus making it illegal to own slaves within the UK (with the notable exception of territories controlled by the BEIC).  This act, combined with the division of responsibility (the shady flip-side of the division of labor) did nothing more than oblige many these merchants to “outsource” their slavery to the American South who continued to produce the same cotton, for the same merchants for pretty much the same price.  The international trade thus allowed these merchants to morally condemn the very practice that they were supporting through trade.  Calling each and every one of these merchants a “hypocrite”, however, is too simplistic due to the logic of the competitive market.  Any cotton plantation that decided to rely upon rented (wage) labor rather than owned (slave) labor would quickly go under as the British merchants would then buy from the cheaper, slave-produced cotton.  The same logic applies at the level of the British merchants, for any merchant that – for moral reasons – decided to only buy non-slave cotton would similarly go out of business.  In this way, moral ideals became quite helpless in the face of the competitive slave-market.
  3. Stimulants. The third type of good which was sold within the transatlantic market was stimulants, including coffee, tea, wine, rum, tobacco and opium.  It is not a coincidence that this list is almost an exact match for the WoW.  As noted above, the BEIC had figured out that they could make enormous profits by trading in addictive stimulants for the simple reason that their addictive qualities made them compelling exceptions to the law of diminishing marginal utility.  In other words, the more people consumed them, the more they demanded to consume them – thus ensuring a very stable and hugely inflated market for these merchants that had nothing whatsoever to do with the practical needs that these stimulants might legitimately serve.  In a very real sense, the BEIC were the first drug-dealers, and no country was powerful enough to block their drug trafficking.

The three theses above are aimed at illustrating how the three types of goods that lay at the very heart of the international trade-market were a) morally dubious, b) clear examples of how the market is not “need-oriented”, c) tightly interconnected through the Atlantic Triangle trade-market and, as such, were d) collectively implicated by the WoW. To support one of these markets just was to support all of them, no matter how well the division of responsibility disguised this fact from our moral protests to the contrary.

The next three theses, by contrast, will be aimed at the reasons why the early saints were told to boycott the BEIC and the international trade-market, in general, within the context of the united order.  Put differently, while the above is about the active boycott of various goods and people within the free-market, the following is about an active boycott of the free-market as such:

  1. An economic siphon. The early 19th century American economy was largely subsistence in nature, being geared toward agriculture and (at most) cottage industry that was traded at the local level.  For this reason, local towns very closely mirrored the manorial villages of the medieval economy.  The united order, then, was an attempt at creating one large, self-sufficient household (oikos) for the saints.  Consequently, to purchase imported goods – and essentially all stimulants were imported – was to siphon money and goods out of the community in the exact same way that China had done to the British before the latter turned the tables on them.  It is for this reason that Section 89 does not condemn drinking wine as such, but drinking imported It is this point that Arrington’s article really drives home.
  2. Economy independence. Financial dependence can enslave men or women far more than tea ever will.  It is for this reason that the economic independence of the united order was the primary motive for the WoW, and not the psychological independence from addiction.  Yes, drunkenness was, and always had been considered a sin, and the coming industrialization of would later lead many workers into the open arms of alcoholism, but these do not seem to have been what the WoW was about.  Rather, it was about the saints collectively owning their own land and the products of their own labor without having to depend upon outsiders who might leverage their power and influence over them through economic means.
  3. The profit motive. While the socialists’ state-sponsored remedies to the ills of capitalism are totally contrary to the united order, their criticisms of capitalism are pretty spot on.  One such criticism has always been that capitalism is organized according to the rational, self-interested pursuit of profit rather than the satisfaction of actual needs within one’s community or collective oikos.  These free-market values are, of course, totally at odds with the united order.  Instead, the united order more closely mirrored the collective reciprocity studied by Karl Polanyi than it did the self-interested exchange studied by Adam Smith (although Smith had nothing but contempt for the BEIC).  The Korihorian doctrine that we should be able to consume whatever we can “earn” and “enjoy the rights and privileges” that correspond to our strength or genius just is the doctrine of the newly emerging money-market.  It says that profits and rewards are achieved within the free-market rather than collectively distributed and morally ascribed within a moral community.  Joseph Smith and Alma both condemned all such self-interested pursuits of profit by means of international (impersonal) trade.

To summarize, the WoW is an active rejection of the profit-motive and economic dependence that both lay at the heart of the international trade in stimulants.  Even if one is inclined to reject to the united order in favor of free market trade (the early saints definitely did not endorse the latter), stimulants are as clear a case as any of how market demand and moral demand can be two very different and incompatible things.  Furthermore, the international trade in stimulants was, in the early to mid-19th century, inextricably bound up with that of luxury goods and, worse still, slaves.

It is for these reasons that the WoW should be read as more than the passive refusal to indulge in stimulants for recreational purposes.  Rather, it is an active boycott – a collective effort to realign, to the extent that it is possible, market demand with moral values.


  1. Interesting take. I wouldn’t take it as the final word, but that Arrington article is a really important contribution to a thorough understanding of the W of W.

    BTW, alcohol is, I think, a depressant, not a stimulant, but your point is more about addictive potential, not stimulants, so I don’t think it changes your main point.

    Comment by JKC — August 23, 2016 @ 9:19 am

  2. I was under the impression that depressants were (technically speaking) a subset of stimulants as a whole. It’s very possible that I’m wrong about that.

    Comment by Jeff G — August 23, 2016 @ 9:22 am

  3. It would be cool if it were true, but I’m having trouble abandoning my lifelong assumption that the WoW is about physical and spiritual health, the “conspiring men” being merely those who profit off of our ill health and addiction. Your evidence linking this to the economics of the Law of Consecration seems circumstantial. Is there anything in the document itself that supports your thesis, other than this distinction between homegrown wine and the wine of the conspiring men?

    And I think its important to note that the Law of Consecration (and the WoW) is isolationist, and has nothing to say about the broader economic structures of the Gentiles. Whether its Capitalist, Socialist, Monarchist, early Mormons could care less. They weren’t even abolitionist. They were creating their own thing in preparation for the 2nd coming, which was right around the corner.

    Comment by Nate — August 23, 2016 @ 12:02 pm

  4. Nate,

    I’m pretty big on not providing references or proof-texts. I would much rather offer an interpretation that one is free to take or leave rather than try to compel others to see things as I do.

    That said, Arrington’s paper has plenty of evidence in it. If his piece doesn’t convince you, than my post never will either. One of the points that he makes is that the transition from the WoW being mere counsel to it being a commandment in the Utah period was tightly connected with economic trade relations.

    My argument, such that it moves beyond Arrington’s, is based in the tight historical connection between

    1) the new international market for stimulants, and
    2) the role that they played in creating and maintaining economic power relations,
    on the one hand, and
    3) the WoW rejection of the very stimulants mentioned in (1), and
    4) the united order rejection of the economic relations mentioned in (2),
    on the other hand.

    The connection between (1) and (2) is rock solid – and is morally relevant of its own right. The relation between (3) and (4) is historically certain – but may or may not generalize very well to our current practices. The connection between (2) and (4) is also rock solid since the united order just was a rejection of (2). The only connection that is (admittedly) circumstantial is that between (1) and (3) that is based in an otherwise strange coincidence.

    How strange and miraculous would it be if the saints rejected slavery, rejected luxury goods and – as a matter of pure coincidence – they also happened to reject the third and final type of traded good around which British international trade revolved? If you would rather leave this remarkable parallel unexplained and miraculous, that’s fine.

    In general, I think reading the entire section in terms of this four-way connection answers a lot of lingering questions. For example, why should we limit our meat consumption? (Answer: Within the subsistence economy of the united order, there was no market for meat, and they needed their own animals to grow their own food.) Why is there no mention at all of sobriety or addiction? What do conspiring men have to do with anything, unless we are discussing trade? Why is drinking home-grown wine okay? Why do hot drinks include all and only coffee and tea?

    To be clear, I am not arguing against the addiction oriented explanation for the WoW. Not by any means. Rather, I’m saying that there is more to it than just that. Most importantly, I am trying to give the WoW a bit of moral chutzpah, by seeing it as a morally-based form of active protest against the accepted practice of exploiting addiction for profit in addition to an ascetic and somewhat arbitrary form of distinction from the world. (If anything, the left-wing hippies should all respect this angle!)

    Comment by Jeff G — August 23, 2016 @ 12:42 pm

  5. Nate again,

    To summarize my reply to your comment:

    1) You don’t have to abandon that psychological interpretation.

    2) I fully agree that this boycott was aimed at isolationism rather than taking down the whole capitalist system or some such thing. My thesis is that WoW was a means of purifying the saints from the emerging, capitalist economy, not trying to take it down. (I admit that my post waffles between these two, but I don’t think there’s that big a difference between the two, in practice.)

    Comment by Jeff G — August 23, 2016 @ 12:50 pm

  6. Well I can see it applying maybe to the Heber J. Grant period when WoW became a commandment. I seem to remember that Rough Stone Rolling places the WoW within the context of 19th century health fads but I can’t remember the details.

    I thought the saints didn’t reject slavery until the Nauvoo period, well after the WoW was published. Didn’t they stay agnostic on the subject to try to keep peace in Missouri?

    And is it really true that early Mormons categorically rejected the notion of luxury? While a subsistence economy that is trying to live the law of consecration doesn’t lend itself to luxury items, luxury is certainly part of temple building. And the concept of luxury is metaphorically used in the scriptures to denote abundance and esteem, the pearl of great price, my jewels, put on your beautiful garments, etc.

    Comment by Nate — August 23, 2016 @ 4:00 pm

  7. I’m not totally sure about the slavery thing. I’m not saying that they were marching against it or anything, but maybe their abstaining from it had more to do with them being from the north more than anything. I”m not sure. Maybe they never really had to take a stand either way until Missouri.

    As for luxury, they were okay using luxury materials and furnishings for temples, that’s for sure. But that is by no means inconsistent with subsistence economies where there were, at most, two luxurious buildings in the entire village: (possibly) the Lord’s castle and the church.

    Comment by Jeff G — August 23, 2016 @ 4:47 pm

  8. Nate,

    If there is anything that my posts convince you of, I hope it’s to read the book “The Mind and the Market” by Jerry Z. Muller. I easily one of the best books I’ve read in years. Here’s a quote regarding “luxury” which should be read in conjunction with all the quotes that Nibley mines up in “Approaching Zion” and “Brigham Young Challenges the Saints”:

    To us, the argument for material well-being might seem uncontroversial. But in the eighteenth century, material prosperity was frequently condemned as ‘luxury’ by religious and civic moralities. It was not a morally neutral word but a pejorative one, connoting not comfort but excess, the possession of nonnecessities. The notion of luxury was intricately connected with the existence of a recognized social hierarchy: what was necessary for those of high status was regarded as excessive for those of low status. Luxury meant the enjoyment of material goods not appropriate to one’s station in life. Critics of luxury saw it as confounding social ranks. -Pg. 40

    Thus, I building luxury into the Lord’s house is largely consistent with the denunciation of luxury, as was JS’s living in somewhat better conditions than others.

    Comment by Jeff G — August 24, 2016 @ 3:45 pm

  9. I think the conspiracy aspect of the Word of Wisdom is discounted too much. Obviously looking at the history of tobacco companies in the 20th century there were real conspiracies. Your point about opium is well made too.

    Thanks for that Arrington link. I’d never seen that paper before. I didn’t realize people were trying to poison the early Mormons view their wine.

    Going beyond all that it’s worth looking a central America and South America and how drug cartels look so much like the Gadianton Robbers.

    I’d finally add that while alcohol and drug prohibition led to a knee jerk criticism of criticism of alcohol, there were compelling reasons why the prohibition movement was able to get a constitutional amendment. While things aren’t as bad today as they were at the dawn of the 20th century, alcohol and drugs remain a key component in most crime and violence.

    Comment by Clark — August 25, 2016 @ 7:58 am

  10. Nate (3) while Brigham Young was isolationist I don’t think there’s anything inherent to united orders that is isolationist. Looking at other communal groups many often produce goods sold to outside markets to get items they can’t make for themselves.

    Jeff (7) I think we have to be careful how we analyze luxury. If we treat as luxury anything beyond our needs then of course luxuries are fine. We’re not puritans. If we define luxury as items not had for enjoyment on their own terms but to mark our prestige then of course they are problematic. The problem is most (but not all) luxury goods fulfill both items. A luxury yacht for instance is undoubtedly fun to sail and allows many other enjoyable activities.

    To defend Smith a bit here, I think his genius insight was how making a system that makes use of the unethical can benefit the whole society. Since we’ll always have the morally impure around us, that’s important. However his Theory of Moral Sentiments clearly suggests he thinks morals are important. Capitalism within a system that’s more moral than an other system will always function better though.

    Comment by Clark — August 25, 2016 @ 8:07 am

  11. Adam Smith absolutely had the best intentions. That said, he was well aware that he was attempting a trans-valuation of morals – and it was the value from before not after the transvaluation that we find in the scriptures.

    “If we define luxury as items not had for enjoyment on their own terms but to mark our prestige then of course they are problematic.”

    That’s pretty much how I look at them too. That said, a lot of BY’s denunciations of luxury were anything but moderate.

    Comment by Jeff G — August 25, 2016 @ 8:25 am

  12. Yes but Brigham valorized a largely agrarian society. In that sense he was like the landed conservative elites in England railing against entrepreneurs and rising business. My sense is that was mostly his personal preferences. Although unlike many conservatives of the early 19th century Brigham didn’t mind specialization. Indeed he often encouraged it. Likewise unlike most conservatives he was far more open to say women in the industry and the like.

    Comment by Clark — August 25, 2016 @ 4:40 pm

  13. Chalking up BY’s teaching regarding how society should be organized to “personal preference” seems like a pretty aggressive move.

    Comment by Jeff G — August 25, 2016 @ 6:40 pm

  14. I don’t see any sign it was by revelation but was him more pragmatically organizing things based upon what he thought was right. Again this may reflect on how we view things. I don’t automatically assume that because an Apostle does something it’s inspired. If they present it as inspired they have the benefit of doubt and thus to think them wrong requires meeting a burden of proof. So far as I am aware Brigham didn’t present his ideal agrarian society as revealed.

    Comment by Clark — August 25, 2016 @ 7:46 pm

  15. I guess I just don’t see any of those qualifiers within the scriptures.

    Comment by Jeff G — August 25, 2016 @ 9:54 pm

  16. But they are points both Brigham and Joseph taught.

    Comment by Clark — August 28, 2016 @ 1:47 pm

  17. Just so we understand each other, are you saying the following:

    Both JS and BY claimed that their ideas regarding how Zion should be socially/economically organized were nothing more than personal preference?

    If this is what you’re saying – and I don’t think you are – I would be very interested in seeing those quotes.

    Comment by Jeff G — August 28, 2016 @ 4:59 pm

  18. Both JS and BY claimed that there wasn’t a de facto assumption of acting like a prophet. Therefore their ideas about cities, towns and social structures should be assumed to be prophetic.

    Comment by Clark — August 29, 2016 @ 5:16 pm

  19. Okay, but a significant portion of the D&C – not to mention their public sermons, which probably should carry the de facto assumption that you reject – were specifically dedicated to socio-economic organization. Zion, consecration, united order….. these were all revelations that were 1) the main focus of the restoration and 2) concerned with socio-economic organization.

    Comment by Jeff G — August 29, 2016 @ 5:38 pm

  20. Yes, but those are clear accepted revelations and don’t touch upon the points I made.

    Comment by Clark — August 29, 2016 @ 8:07 pm

  21. In my reading of Section 89, the language used seems to favor more of a health-related interpretation over a socio-eonomic one. While it’s true that the revelation can be viewed through the “conspiring men” clause, it seems to veer away from that and gets more specific. For example, wine is only acceptable in sacrament observance and not recreationally in verse 5. And then in verse 7 the pronouncement is that “strong drinks are not for the belly.” Tobacco is “not for the body, neither for the belly.” Vs. 9 says hot drinks are “not for the body or belly.”

    So there is a case to be made for the economic interpretation, especially when looking at external sources. But internally, wouldn’t you agree that the actual language in the revelation is more health-specific? In other words, if the saints were completely independent and were able to make their own wine, tea, liquor, and tobacco, do you still think that consuming these things would be compatible with Section 89?

    Comment by Pierce — August 30, 2016 @ 2:46 pm

  22. I don’t disagree that the text places a large emphasis on health related issues.

    Perhaps a lot of our differences boil down to how big of a separation exists between the economic and the health related. In a subsistence economy (as in the early 19th century west, and even more so the United Order) the difference was VERY small. In other words, the claim that the WoW is more about personal health than it is economics, depends upon the a separation between the two that simply did not exist for most LDS pretty much until the church abandoned the united order.

    The commandment to not consume something has be very different meaning for a household that produces 95% of what it consumes vs. one that only produces 5% of what it consumes.

    Comment by Jeff G — August 30, 2016 @ 3:01 pm

  23. Fair point. I just don’t see why the language about importing, supporting evil people, wasting sacred funds, or living lavishly would be non-existent in lieu of “this stuff should not enter your belly at all.”
    Also, in the case of wine they had the ability to make it on their own, but were still prohibited from using it recreationally. In your view, why do you think this is?

    Comment by Pierce — August 30, 2016 @ 3:51 pm

  24. I don’t think they were prohibited from using drinking it recreationally. JS and others continued to drink beer and wine after the revelation. The question then becomes, why did the wine that they were still allowed to drink have to be home grown?

    I guessing that we both agree that drunkenness was accepted as a sin by the saints. But a prohibition against drunkenness is not the same as a commandment against consumption.

    Comment by Jeff G — August 30, 2016 @ 4:01 pm

  25. In my mind, the economic approach helps me understand why the church leaders continued to consume these substances. The answer that this interpretation makes possible is that consumption as such was not necessarily the issue.

    Comment by Jeff G — August 30, 2016 @ 4:11 pm

  26. It seems like there was a weaning process that took place when it came to the WoW, and the leadership became increasingly interested in it over time. Plus, it was not given as a commandment–it was a principle with a promise that the saints could fully embrace and be blessed for or not. So naturally, many wouldn’t. If this had to do more with the economy of the United Order, why wouldn’t it come as a commandment, since each person’s choice would affect the balance and moral of the Order? Why were the blessings at the end also health-related? The blessings portion are individual rather than communal in nature and reinforce the theme of health.

    Beer seems to be prescribed in the WoW, so I don’t think they viewed it as a prohibition and they continued to brew it. But if you go to the source on wine, it does say

    “inasmuch as any man drinketh wine or strong drink among you, behold it is not good, neither meet in the sight of your Father, only in assembling yourselves together to offer up your sacraments before him.

    And, behold, this should be wine, yea, pure wine of the grape of the vine, of your own make.”

    So they have the ability to make wine rather than importing it, but were admonished pretty clearly that they were to only use it for the Sacrament. The issue that I see with viewing it economically is that 1.) the textual evidence is limited and 2.) this whole doctrine becomes more diminished today, as trade is much different and we aren’t living in frontier America in a commune.

    Comment by Pierce — August 30, 2016 @ 4:38 pm

  27. Jeff (22) I think economic vs. health is a bit of false dichotomy. The conspiracy angle isn’t just economic conspiracies but more. So, say how tobacco companies functioned from the 50’s through 90’s. It’s a blurry line at best.

    I’d add though that the Word of Wisdom as implemented and practiced ends up having a slightly different history and (I think) function than the historic D&C 89. It gets made a requirement for temple recommends in the era after the end of united orders and polygamy. I’d argue it ends up functioning as a kind of group identity signal that’s quite important.

    Comment by Clark — August 30, 2016 @ 5:01 pm

  28. “I think economic vs. health is a bit of false dichotomy.”

    I assume you’re agreeing with me when you say this.

    “It gets made a requirement for temple recommends in the era after the end of united orders and polygamy. I’d argue it ends up functioning as a kind of group identity signal that’s quite important.”

    This is very much how I’m trying to construe it. Within the context of the united order, the WoW was largely an attempt at preventing integration within mass-production, commercial society. Once the united order had been given up, the WoW then served the social function of blocking integration within those circles of civil society that formed around tobacco, wine, beer, tea, coffee, etc. – in other words, lodges, clubs, pubs, coffee-shops, salons, etc.

    In other words, I think that WoW was at least as geared toward (against would be a better word) social integration within and dependence upon “civil society” as it was toward the personal health/independence of the individual member.

    I do not deny that there is almost certainly an element of personal health at play. I just think that there are both social and economic elements at play as well.

    Comment by Jeff G — August 30, 2016 @ 5:40 pm

  29. Yup I was agreeing in depth.

    Comment by Clark — August 30, 2016 @ 7:44 pm