Friday, April 5, 2013

Caffeine Controversy: When Even The Insiders Can't Explain Doctrine


“Mormons don’t drink coffee or tea because caffeine is a mind-altering substance, right?  That’s what I was told.”

          I was sitting with a group of students waiting for class to begin; we were talking about our different obsessions.  I brought up my coffee obsession – I spend a lot of time and energy thinking about brewing methods and roast qualities.  This discussion then segued into the Mormon taboo against coffee and tea. 
          My classmate’s statement was entirely right – at least, correct according to the interpretation I grew up with. 
         “I grew up thinking that it was the caffeine in coffee and tea that you needed to avoid – we were also told to avoid caffeinated sodas,” I said.  “But now caffeinated soda is OK.” 
          The proscription against coffee and tea owes to the Word of Wisdom, which proscribes against the consumption of hot drinks.  I said as much to my classmates.
          “So no hot chocolate?” said another classmate.
          “We-e-ell…no, hot chocolate is OK.” 
          Mormonism is confusing, even to people who grew up in it.  The reason that Mormonism is so confusing is because it changes all the time and once it changes, there is a collective denial that the policies were ever any different.  A more serious example would be the priesthood ban on blacks; until 1978 black men were banned from holding the priesthood, a policy that effectively barred them from the majority of church life.  Church officials have never offered an apology or explanation for the ban.  Nor have they refuted the words of earlier leaders, who taught some truly reprehensible teachings on race in the name of God.  There is just a collective denial.  
         While conducting research for this post, I came across a commentary in the Deseret News about the caffeinated sodacontroversy.  The author began by saying that everyone knows what the stance is on Coca-Cola, that the Word of Wisdom doesn’t specifically mention Coca-Cola.  She then tells an anecdote from her childhood where her mother poured caffeine-free Coca-Cola down the drain, to “avoid the appearance of evil.”  The author’s conclusion was that she would still avoid Coca-Cola.  Reading this article brought back memories of a youth camp counselor who told our group of girls that she would not marry a man who had touched a cup of coffee.  All of this must seem very silly to outsiders but following the Word of Wisdom – whatever the current interpretation may be – is a serious issue within Mormon circles. 
         I grew up thinking that caffeinated soda was bad, a teaching that was echoed by the members around me.  In her memoir “Book of Mormon Girl,” author Joanna Brooks writes that she felt like a “root beer among colas.”  Brooks was raised to avoid caffeinated sodas; she writes about being a child at non-Mormon birthday parties, worrying about finding the root beer among cola drinks. 
Then, somewhere along the way, caffeinated sodas became acceptable.  Perhaps it was the Monson effect - the current church president drinks a lot of Pepsi.  Perhaps people became used to the idea of caffeinated sodas.  But all of this was unofficial.  Then, last summer, the Mormon Newsroom released a statement saying the Word of Wisdom only applied to coffee and tea, creating a huge controversy within Mormon circles.  
          As a Mormon, I was a pretty anxious personality.  Now, based on the fact that I can’t even explain the rationale behind a policy that is so integral to Mormonism, I am beginning to understand why I was so anxious.  We were raised to take this all very seriously.  We were promised that Mormon doctrine was infinite and unchanging.  But whatever it was that we were supposed to do and why, we really didn’t know.  Or rather, we did know, at least until someone came along and told us we were wrong. 
         We just knew we had to follow no matter what.  


  1. This is so on point. Growing up I had no idea what to say when confronted about this particular matter of doctrine (or was it culture?). And it happened a lot, because caffeine no-no is a piece of information lots of people outside the church are aware.

    1. Yeah, it's always been a tough one to explain.

  2. The Mormon Word of Wisdom doesn't mention coffee or tea either.

  3. Ironically, this kind of controversy is the kind of thing that Joseph Smith claimed was being circumvented by the restoration. With the fullness of the gospel restored, we didn't have to quibble over varying interpretations of the scriptures like he said all his local churches were doing.

    The only difference is that Mormons don't argue Faith vs. Works or Trinity vs. One Being with each other--they get to argue Caffeine vs. No Caffeine and Coffee vs. Hot Chocolate.


    1. That's a good way of framing the issue - that this was supposed to lessen the confusion but has just resulted in making us all more confused. Which it most certainly has. :)

  4. :: chugs a big mug of morning coffee ::

    I don't understand how the prohibition against hot drinks became a prohibition against caffeinated products. The evolution of that stance would make a great historical book.

    As for caffeine being a "mind-altering substance", I could understand the discomfort with caffeine if it dulled the senses, altered mood, or slowed thinking. However, it does none of those things, so it isn't really a psychotropic. Many medications have far greater mind-altering effects, and yet I don't see the LDS outlawing them. Sheesh!

    1. I'm not sure how the stance against coffee specifically came about. To be honest, from what I understand it used to be that people didn't take these proscriptions seriously but somehow along the way it became a serious matter. Which would also be interesting to find out.

  5. This is such a good example of how the small arguments have played such an integral part of our lives growing up in the church. These topics sound so funny to people outside the walls of the church.

    When I left the church and started drinking coffee I felt sooooo liberated. Now I realize it is exactly what I needed to replace the Holy Ghost I had just lost. I feel inspired by coffee. :o)

  6. You can thank Heber J. Grant for the Word of Wisdom becoming a litmus test for worthiness. Prior to that it was treated like it was written in section 89: as advice. During his presidency it became mandatory if you wanted a temple recommend and has stayed that way ever since, effectively making abstinence from coffee a roadblock from exaltation for Mormons.

    1. Why hasn't the church reversed this?
      It could be modern day revelation.

  7. Yes, I fell victim to the anxious society of avoiding caffeine. I even went so far as to avoid chocolate for a while just to be "extra" safe in my faithfulness. Since leaving, I have found a love for coffee (latte or any coffee with sugar... just coffee and milk... mmm). I love that growing up we never drank caffeine, but we ruined our bodies with too much ice cream, snacks, or general overeating. I recently found out that I have a lot of ADD qualities, and caffeine actually calms me down and helps me concentrate on my work. :)


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