Monday, March 07, 2005

Scripture Study: Mormonism and Vegetarianism

A few years ago I was involved with a group of LDS people who-- how can I put this without inciting people's prejudices-- are very interested in preparing for the Second Coming of Christ with large reserves of food and ammunition. A lot of them were politically very far to the right and form the model for the class of people I lovingly refer to on this blog as "people who think Clifford the Big Red Dog is a Communist plot" (I should note that I refer to them thusly with my tongue in cheek and a friendly grin on my face, but it's only funny because it's not too far from the truth). These were some of the friendliest, nicest, most generous people I ever met. They could rant like lunatics about how the unprepared will perish at the end times, but they would give you the shirts off their backs. And they had some intriguing insights into LDS doctrine and the nature of prophecy.

Anyway, one of the topics we discussed was vegetarianism and its compatibility with Mormon doctrine. The Mormon dietary code, the Word of Wisdom, is popularly known for its prohibitions against alcohol, tea, coffee, and tobacco. What is less well known, though, is that it is a complete dietary code that enumerates just as many foods that are good to eat as it does foods that are bad to eat, even going so far as to recommend drinks made from barley (verse 17).

Here's what the Word of Wisdom has to say about eating meat: (verses 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;

And it is pleasing unto me that they should not be used, only in times of winter, or of cold, or famine.
Another passage from the Doctrine and Covenants on the eating of meat is this from D&C 49, which I just came across today as I was re-reading the D&C, put me in mind of this discussion. It was debated quite thoroughly, and in particular the part I've emphasized: (verses 18-19)
And whoso forbiddeth to abstain from meats, that man should not eat the same, is not ordained of God;

For, 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.
Since the Word of Wisdom is quite clear that God intended meat to be a human food, and since practicality would dictate that in times of famine all bets are off when it comes to what people will eat, the debate largely centered around how much meat should be eaten in the everyday diet in times of plenty. Some maintained that meat was a food solely for times of famine, and our everyday diet ought to be a vegetarian one. Others thought the comma in D&C 89:13 was extraneous and the passage meant that meat "should not be used only in times of winter," but should be used regularly so that when the times of famine came, our digestive systems would be accustomed to eating it. Still others interpreted the phrase "forbiddeth to abstain" in several competing ways, some saying the Lord wanted us not to interfere with those who choose to eat meat, others saying that it meant we were not to interfere with the choices of vegetarians, and still others thought the phrase "that man should not eat the same" meant that man should not eat meat because it is not ordained of God. The debate got quite lively, and since many of the people in the group were very much into herbal and vitamin supplements and organic foods, was full of references to nutrients and pesticides.

As I was re-reading Section 49, though, I finally realized what it was that the debaters were missing. If you read the section from the beginning instead of focusing on those couple of verses, it becomes clear exactly what the Lord meant to say. The section is a mission call for three specific members to go preach the gospel to the Shakers. The part about forbidding to abstain from meat is #2 on a list of three specific Shaker doctrinal points the missionaries are to address. The others are celibacy and the reincarnation of Christ as a woman, which (along with vegetarianism) were tenets of Shaker doctrine. The section provides a point-by-point refutation of all three of these beliefs. So it is clear to me that the Lord was intending to say that (in contrast to Shaker belief) people can indeed eat meat, but nothing more elaborate than that. And that is entirely consistent with what is laid out in the Word of Wisdom, which is that meat is a food that man can eat without any moral qualms.

Ultimately the group came to the consensus, as in the New Testament debate over whether people who didn't keep kosher could be good Christians, that it really doesn't matter so much what you eat as it does that you are keeping the more important commandments, and that quibbling over exactly how much one eats of which food is divisive and detracts from the real mission of the Church. As long as one strives to do the Lord's will and to bring our will in line with His, He will forgive us our more whimsical interpretations of ambiguous words.