By Jane Birch
Note: The following is a work in progress. I’m currently doing research on this topic and welcome feedback.
In 1st Timothy we read:
that in the latter times some shall depart from the faith, giving heed to seducing spirits, and doctrines of devils . . . Forbidding to marry, and commanding to abstain from meats, which God hath created to be received with thanksgiving of them which believe and know the truth. (1 Timothy 4:3)
In D&C 49, we read:
And whoso forbiddeth to abstain from meats, that man should not eat the same, is not ordained of God. (D&C 49:18)
Note that the rather awkward phrase, “forbiddeth to abstain,” is an English idiom meaning “commandeth to abstain.” So both Timothy and D&C 49 condemn commanding others to abstain from meats.
The word “meats,” however, is ambiguous as the primary meaning was not “the flesh of animals” as it is today. Throughout most of the history of English, and certainly throughout the Bible, “meat” is the common term for what we now call food. This can include the flesh of animals or even refer specially to the flesh of animals, but the term means food more generally. Note that D&C 49:19 describes “meats” as not just the “the beasts of the field and the fowls of the air” but also “that which cometh of the earth,” which of course are plants. “Meats” refers to both plant and animal foods, or simply food in general. Various Bible translations render the phrase “command to abstain from meats” as follows:
order them to abstain from certain foods (New International Version)
require abstinence from foods (English Standard Version)
stop people from . . . eating certain foods (International Standard Version)
commanding to abstain from foods (World English Dictionary)
So the phrase in D&C 49:18, in more straightforward, modern English, could be read as:
And whoso commands [others] to abstain from [certain] foods . . . is not ordained of God.
What Does This Verse Mean?
First note that, even if the word meats meant animal flesh, nothing in this verse tells us we must eat the flesh of animals or forbids us from voluntarily choosing a vegetarian lifestyle! Nor does it forbid us from encouraging others to eat a healthy, plant-based diet! Rather, it appears to say that those, presumably Church leaders, who command others to abstain from foods (whether animal flesh or other foods) are “not ordained of God.”
Section 49 was revealed to Joseph Smith in response to questions regarding some of the teachings of the United Society of Believers in Christ’s Second Appearing (the “Shakers”). In reference to food, the Shakers had developed a number of rules to regulate how and what their members ate, and leaders had specifically “prohibited eating raw or unripe fruit and nuts, cucumbers without salt or pepper, and freshly baked bread” At the time of the revelation, some Shaker leaders had spoken “against the use of meat, particularly pork” but “the principle of vegetarianism was not in general practice among the Shakers”. In other words, some Shaker ecclesiastical leaders had condemned the use of various foods—both plant and animal.
The injunction in D&C 49 regarding “commanding” or “forbidding” others appears to directly reference ecclesiastical leaders who are in a position to “forbid” or “command” others to eat in a particular way, since those not in ecclesiastical positions are not ordained of God and do not have the moral authority to do so. No matter how vigorously a lay member preaches whatever doctrine they support, it is clear that person is simply voicing their personal opinion. Nevertheless, I think it is also safe to say that none of us should be forbidding others from eating certain foods, whether those foods are plant- or animal-based.
I personally have never met a vegetarian who commands others about what they should eat. The ones I have interacted with are polite people who choose their diet based on deep convictions of its benefits and are often willing to share their opinions with others. I don’t hear any of them imposing their will on other people. Nor should they (or anyone else)!
God has ordained the flesh of animals for our use (D&C 89:12) so it would be contradictory for us to forbid others from consuming meat. But God does ask us to use the flesh of animals sparingly and adds that it is “pleasing” to Him if we reserve it for times of need (D&C 89:13, 15). In other words, even God does not forbid us from eating meat, but He does tell us what His preference is! Having given us this wisdom, He allows us to choose what we will do. Hopefully we will not deny ourselves the blessings of eating a healthy diet simply because we are not commanded to do so. The Lord tells us, “it is not meet that I should command in all things” (D&C 58:26).
Doesn’t God Want Us to Have an Abundance?
In the next verse (D&C 49:19), the Lord explains that plants and animals are “ordained for the use of man for food and for raiment, and that he might have in abundance.” Does this mean that the Lord wants us to eat an abundance of these foods? Since this is a prescription for obesity, this is not likely to be the Lord’s intent. He has richly blessed us with an earth full of food sources, both plant and animal, but in the next two verses in D&C 49 the Lord explains how we are to treat this rich abundance:
But it is not given that one man should possess that which is above another, wherefore the world lieth in sin.
And wo be unto man that sheddeth blood or that wasteth flesh and hath no need. (D&C 49:20–21, emphasis added).
God has given us rich abundance, but He expects us to be wise stewards. Not only is it contrary to the Lord’s will that some of us have more than others, He specifically warns us against shedding blood or wasting the flesh of animals if we have “no need.” Clearly D&C 49 does not encourage us to eat meat freely or warn us against a plant-based diet since God Himself tells us to not shed blood or waste flesh if we have “no need.”
I can’t speak for anyone else, but I must admit that there has never been a time in all my years of eating meat when I have “needed” animal foods. No doubt there are people in the past (and even some today in certain situations) who have a need for animal foods. But does this apply to us today in this food-saturated environment? Science is clear: we do not need any animal foods for optimal health (in fact, the consumption of animal foods leads to worse health). Given that, and given a society where we have plenty of alternatives, what do these verses imply about how we should eat?
D&C 49 Is in Harmony with Genesis 9 and D&C 89 about How We Should Eat
The admonition in D&C 49 has deep resonance with Genesis 9 and D&C 89, and each of these scriptures help us better understand the role of animal foods in our diet. Note how the Lord allows the use of animal flesh in each of the following scriptures, but then in the last verse of each set (italicized below) He provides conditions on that usage. (Note also that the word “meat” consistently means food.)
JST Genesis 9:
Every moving thing that liveth shall be meat for you; even as the green herb have I given you all things. But, the blood of all flesh which I have given you for meat, shall be shed upon the ground . . . (vv. 9–10)
And surely, blood shall not be shed, only for meat, to save your lives; and the blood of every beast will I require at your hands. (v. 11)
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. (vv. 18–19)
And wo be unto man that sheddeth blood or that wasteth flesh and hath no need. (v. 21)
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; (v. 12)
And it is pleasing unto me that they should not be used, only in times of winter, or of cold, or famine. (v. 13)
I conclude that the flesh of animals is ordained for our use . . . under conditions. Although the choice is ours, these scriptures suggest that the conditions pleasing to the Lord are times of need, times when there are not enough plant foods.
What Do LDS Ecclesiastical Leaders Teach Us?
Note that our modern prophets preach the sanctity of the body and the importance of good diet and exercise, but they do not command us to make certain foods a part of our diet or forbid us from eating other foods. Instead, they direct our attention to the Word of Wisdom for counsel and guidance.
The following example shared by Elder David A. Bednar in 2013 is helpful in explaining how the Brethren view this issue:
I was in a large priesthood leadership conference, and we opened it up for questions, and [there was] a new convert who had come from a denomination where they had a very strict dietary code—things you could and could not eat. So his question was, “Elder Bednar, can I eat pork?” And I said, “Let me recommend that you read the 89th section of the Doctrine and Covenants. That contains what’s called the Word of Wisdom, and you’ll find your answer in there.”
He said, “That’s not a very good answer. I just want to know if I can eat pork.” And I said, “You have a copy of the Doctrine and Covenants?” and he said, “Yes,” and I said, “Section 89 is where you’ll find the answer.” And he almost started to get angry. And he just kept saying, “Look, this isn’t a hard question. I just want a yes or no. Can I eat pork?”
After about three or four minutes, people were starting to get pretty nervous in the congregation, and I just said, “Look, let’s just call this a truce. You’re going to keep asking for a yes or no answer, and I’m not going to give you one, and the only way this is going to work out is you’re just going to have to go read Section 89 and that’s where you are going to find the answer.” And he was not happy; he was really not happy. And I was concerned that maybe he was offended or he thought I was being too hard on him or something.
The next day, when we came for the general session, one of the folks who was there helping with the sound system came up, and he said, “That gentleman from the priesthood meeting came up to me this morning, and he said, ‘I don’t know that I’ll get to see Elder Bednar, but he said you tell him, I found my answer.’”
Now, few things tickle me more. He didn’t say, “I got an answer,” he said, “I found my answer.”
In truth, Elder Bednar was asked a very simple question. But his answer was not, “Of course you can eat pork” or “No, the Word of Wisdom forbids it.” Instead, he sent the questioner to the scriptures. The Lord Himself has given us His wisdom in the 89th section of the Doctrine and Covenants, and it is our privilege to ponder these words and pray to receive our own answer from the Lord.
I know the Lord wants to help and bless us, and He will, if we are willing to receive the answer He will give us. I pray each of us will go to D&C 89 with a sincere desire to find that answer.
Notes You can contact me here. See also related writings, Jane Birch, “Discovering the Word of Wisdom: The Flesh of Beasts, Part I” and “Part II” and “Part III,” Meridian Magazine (2014). See complete list of the Discovering the Word of Wisdom articles here.  According to LDS New Testament scholars, “latter times” in this context primarily refers to the end of the first century A.D. (rather than the “last days” we consider ourselves to live in, though some of the same signs of apostasy may also appear there as well). See, for example, Kent P. Jackson, “Early Signs of the Apostasy” Ensign (December 1984).  Loren Spendlove, “Whoso Forbiddeth to Abstain from Meats,” Interpreter: A Journal of Mormon Scripture 14 (2015): 17–34.  Webster’s Dictionary in both 1828 and 1844 lists the primary definition of meat as “food in general.” See 1828 & 1913 entries here.  Stephen J. Stein, The Shaker Experience in America: A History of the United Society of Believers (New Haven: Yale University, 1992), 156.  Michael Hubbard MacKay, et al., The Joseph Smith Papers, Documents, Volume I: July 1828-June 1831 (Salt Lake City: The Church Historian’s Press, 2013), 302. See also the 2013 edition section heading to D&C 49.  This is well documented in the scientific literature. For an excellent summary which cites hundreds of these studies, see T. Colin Campbell and Thomas M. Campbell II, The China Study: The Most Comprehensive Study of Nutrition Ever Conducted and the Startling Implications for Diet, Weight Loss, and Long-term Health (Dallas: Benbella, 2006). See also the DVD documentary Fork Over Knives.  David A. Bednar interviewed by Russell T. Osguthorpe, “The Importance of Teaching in the Gospel, Part 2, Episode 16” Teaching, No Greater Call podcast series, 16 (2013).
See also: Discovering the Word of Wisdom: Surprising Insights from a Whole Food, Plant-based Perspective by Jane Birch
Last updated November 24, 2015