Several months ago, one of my daughters sent me an email asking about how members of the LDS Church should interpret the Word of Wisdom regarding herbal tea. For those who may not know, the Word of Wisdom is the Mormon dietary code, similar to Kosher rules for Jewish people, or Halal rules for Muslims. As someone who has actively studied and used herbs in my family for roughly 20 years, it’s not uncommon for me to be asked to explain this, so I thought it might be helpful to others if I posted my response here.
Some of my roommates/friends and I got into a discussion about herbal tea the other day, and I was just wondering how you respond when people bring up concerns about the fact that the Word of Wisdom doesn’t specify what types of tea are appropriate.
There are several things to keep in mind when discussing tea and herbs, and The Word of Wisdom.
The first thing is that it’s important to give some consideration to the context of the culture when the Word of Wisdom was given. At that time, plant-based medicine was a common and important part of a doctor’s toolkit in treating illness. Chemical-based pharmacy was gradually becoming more common, but it generally involved dangerous and harmful elements, including mercury (which killed Joseph Smith’s brother – calomel: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mercury(I)_chloride), arsenic, chloroform, laudanum, and many others. The Word of Wisdom was not a revelation intended to take away people’s needed medicines, plant-based or otherwise.
Second, the Word of Wisdom has been very specifically interpreted by Church leaders to mean that the “hot drinks” refer only to tea and coffee. Not hot chocolate, or soup, or hot malt beverages like Postum, or hot apple juice, etc. This is important, because just as coffee is a specific plant, so also is tea. Many people, especially members of the Church, don’t realize this. Tea comes from the tea plant. It can be processed in many different ways, black, grey, red, green, darjeeling, etc. I don’t really know all the ways.
This brings us to ask, “What is herbal tea?” Herbal tea is not really tea. The word “herbal” refers to other plants that are NOT tea from the tea plant. It gets euphemistically called “tea” simply because the method of preparation is very much the same as the preparation method for tea. The correct word for the preparation technique is an infusion, which simply means to steep or simmer in hot water, oil, or alcohol. (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Infusion) To be precisely correct, you would never “make tea” any more than you would “make grapes”, you would make “an infusion of tea” or “make wine or juice from grapes”.
To be considered a person who keeps the Word of Wisdom, for the purposes of worthiness to enter the temple, the Church focuses only on the “don’t” parts of it – no coffee, tea, tobacco, or drinking alcohol. If they ever start focusing on the “do” parts for determining temple worthiness, we will lose 1/3 of our members, easily. 😉
There are some situations that we have in our modern world that did not exist when the Word of Wisdom was given, and some people use these as reasons to be more flexible in the way they interpret the Word of Wisdom. One perspective that commonly shows up today, is that green tea was not available in Joseph Smith’s day, so there could have been no discussion about it. Science has shown that green tea has many beneficial effects for improving metabolism, reducing free radicals, and many other things. Therefore, they will say that green tea and green tea extract is not included in the “don’ts” of the Word of Wisdom.
Similarly, there are some recent studies that show green coffee extract may also be of benefit. Personally, I choose to leave these variations in the “don’t” category until I hear otherwise from Church authorities. Besides that, I learned the hard way when the formula of my vitamins got changed, that I don’t respond well to these substances. But everyone is not me, and I understand the reasoning of those who say they are fine to use, and I don’t pass judgement on them or question their worthiness regarding the Word of Wisdom.
Doctrine & Covenants 42:43 “And whosoever among you are sick, and have not faith to be healed, but believe, shall be nourished with all tenderness, with herbs and mild food, and that not by the hand of an enemy.”
Regardless of an individual’s personal views on this particular topic, my philosophy is that until it’s commonly taught from the pulpit in General Conference, or made by special announcement from the First Presidency, I would exercise caution about looking beyond the mark. That having been said, we are still expected to use good reasoning skills and not do stupid things like insist on just one form of cure or remedy for what ails us when it is proving to be insufficient or making things worse. This goes for “Western Medicine” as much as it does for herbs and “Alternative Medicine”.
Also, here is an article that sheds a little light on the historical perspective which Joseph Smith may have had. http://www.ldsmag.com/article/1/12345
I hope this helps clear things up a little.