What does it mean to “command to abstain from meats”?

By Jane Birch

Note: The following is a work in progress. I’m currently doing research on this topic and welcome feedback.[1]

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)[2]

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.”[3] 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.[4] 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”[5] 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”[6]. 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).[7] 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)

D&C 49:

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)

D&C 89:

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.”[8]

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

[1] 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.

[2] 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).

[3] Loren Spendlove, “Whoso Forbiddeth to Abstain from Meats,” Interpreter: A Journal of Mormon Scripture 14 (2015): 17–34.

[4] Webster’s Dictionary in both 1828 and 1844 lists the primary definition of meat as “food in general.” See 1828 & 1913 entries here.

[5] Stephen J. Stein, The Shaker Experience in America: A History of the United Society of Believers (New Haven: Yale University, 1992), 156.

[6] 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.

[7] 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.

[8] 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

Comments

  1. You have an interesting take on D&C 49, but in the header it is pretty specific on the definition of meat: “Some Shakers also forbade the eating of meat.” The Shakers forbade the eating of meat and some of the Saints were former Shakers. This revelation clearly states that eating meat can be OK, even if it is eaten “sparingly.”

    • Hi Chris, Thanks for comment!

      I agree with you that eating meat can be OK. It says so both in D&C 49 and also in D&C 89. However, there are also conditions set on that consumption. For D&C 49, they are spelled out in verses 20 & 21. In D&C 89, they are spelled out in verses 12-13 and 15.

      The header to section 49 does not set out to define the word “meats” in verse 18. Forbidding meat (as in the flesh of animals) is forbidding certain foods. Forbidding “that which cometh of the earth” (plants) (see vs. 19) would also be forbidding certain foods.

      I welcome your thoughts on the subject.

      Blessings,
      Jane

  2. Hi Jane –

    This is a great website! Thank you so much! Since my family changed our diet several years ago we’ve gotten several questions from others but it’s been hard to express to them why we have made this change without them getting upset. Have you found that problem? Your website is such a great reference to send others to so there is less confrontation. Thank you!!

    Jessica

    • Thanks, Jessica! It is not easy to be a pioneer! When you act different than others, their knee jerk reaction is sometimes to feel offended and be critical. We need not worry! Some of the people who are most critical at first are the most supportive in the end! Do you remember how Saul became Paul?

      Never been offended by people’s reaction. Just express joy at what you are learning and answer their questions with a warm and inviting spirit, with no expectations that they’ll act in a certain way.

      When people act in the least negative toward my diet, I always feel a big smile inside me. That smile is a feeling of gratitude that I get to be a good example and plant a good seed and that I may very well live to see the day when they experience a big change of perspective. They just don’t know it yet! 🙂

  3. Thank you so much for this article Jane and for your support to all of us. Everytime I feel down because the bad reaction from some people about my way to eat and think about it, I close my eyes and I remember that I’m not alone in this, we are a big group already, so then I smile and I continue because I am not alone. God bless you for all the good you do.

  4. I grew up in a home were pork was not consumed. My mother was Seventh Day Adventist and my father was LDS
    he lived to be 100.Last week while I was walking up the driveway, my son in law was helping an elderly
    Gentleman load some Ebay purchases into his pick up ,when the elderly gentleman turned to my son in law who is almost 20 yrs my junior and said, ” why dont you get your son to help us” . And I assisted.
    I live the Wof Widom by eating meat sparingly and have little take away…maybe twice a month and never eat pork, andI have been blessed…note…my wife has been a vegetarian for over 45 yrs

  5. Great site here – thanks Jane. I am not a animal flesh-eater today, but I have been most of my life until a serious heart attack at age 62, A few of the doctors that attended me said that meat-eating did cause heart attacks and recommended that I abstain. I now get all my protein from plants, nuts, avocados, and a tasty piece of salmon occasionally.

    I learned at the time of my hospital stay that cooked and processed animal flesh contains “oxidized cholesterol” that clogs the arteries and causes strokes and circulation problems. (I suggest doing personal study on oxidized cholesterol.) My parents too were regular flesh-eaters, as was the whole family. My sweet dad had two major surgeries because of heart attacks before age 60, then died of spreading cancer at 70. Mom had bypass heart surgery also at about 55, then suffered the rest of her life with diabetes, bone deterioration, numbness in her feet, back problems, and blindness to name a few of her many ailments. She continued to eat animal flesh all her life, but lived to age ninety with the aid of many (15 or so) daily medications.

    Not many realize that just last year the World Health Organization (after researching over 800 scientific studies) proclaimed that red and processed meat-eating causes cancer in humans, and using processed meat was just as carcinogenic as smoking regularly. That’s pretty shocking information. I am very grateful for a loving Lord who gives us our agency to choose. And I am even more grateful that He lets us know what pleases Him in D&C 89 – that animals an birds are ‘foods’ for times of famine and emergency – as when Nephi and family were struggling in the Saudi desert for several years. This suggests that God loves his animal and bird creations too, that He cares for them, and He is pleased when we let them live and find joy in their creation. I appreciate those words very much.

    • Steve: Thank you for your beautiful words, well stated! I very much agree. Thanks for taking the time to share. I hope you’ll continue to share this precious message with those around you. Blessings, Jane

  6. I’ve seen a lot of those documentaries but one of th main things that held me back was that God says, “I give you these things” (animals) “for food and for raiment”. And though I figured it meant food, I thought the portion about abstaining from meat certainly meant to not abstain from it. Also in Doctrine and Covenants it says:

    “14 All grain is ordained for the use of man and of beasts, to be the staff of life, not only for man but for the beasts of the field, and the fowls of heaven, and all wild animals that run or creep on the earth;

    “15 And these hath God made for the use of man only in times of famine and excess of hunger.”

    From what I see grains are meant to be the food of emergency. And a “staff of life”? Well as I understand, a staff is only used when one is injured or weak, not as a constant support. Taking the analogy a step further, to constantly use a staff or crutch or what have you, unnecessarily, will only weaken you.

    I don’t see how one can live on just a plan-based diet. After all the major building blocks to the body are proteins, fats and cholesterol and you can only get a few of these from plants, the rest must be gained from meats.

    I can see how we all eat a lot, but, that doesn’t mean that you need to totally or almost totally cut out meat. I’ve been eating a diet of mostly meat and fat and my hunger’s gone down, I feel healthier, I go to sleep easier. . . . I think I’ll let Mark Sisson take it from here. I think you’ll like what he talks about: http://www.marksdailyapple.com/definitive-guide-primal-blueprint/; http://www.marksdailyapple.com/why-grains-are-unhealthy/; http://www.marksdailyapple.com/definitive-guide-to-the-primal-eating-plan/; http://www.marksdailyapple.com/hormesis-how-certain-kinds-of-stress-can-actually-be-good-for-you/;
    http://www.marksdailyapple.com/should-you-eat-periodic-cheat-meals/; And the Weston A. Price Foundation: http://www.westonaprice.org/about-the-foundation/about-us/; http://www.westonaprice.org/health-topics/

    • Hi Damion! Thanks for sharing your thoughts. I think the Lord tells us plainly in D&C 89 that the flesh of animals is ordained for our use, and as you point out other scriptures support that. But He also asks us to use it sparingly and only in times of winter, cold, and famine, so we each get to interpret that as we think best.

      In my opinion, there is no question but that vs. 15 refers to animals and not to grain. If you are interested, here is my reasoning. It is support by Elder Joseph Fielding Smith who said it does not refer to grains: http://discoveringthewordofwisdom.com/about/the-word-of-wisdom/wow-faqs/pronoun-these-in-verse-15/

      You may not realize that we can get all of the essential nutrients we need from plant foods. Animals cannot of themselves actually create any of the nutrients needed by the human body. Every carbohydrate, protein, fat, vitamin, mineral, and phytochemical all come from the plants that the Lord created and designed for our constitution, nature, and use.

      The Paleo diet Mark Sission promotes is high in animal foods and contains no grains. This seems to contradict the counsel in D&C 89 from my point of view. On this page you can find some articles I’ve written on Paleo diets for Meridian Magazine (much of it also applies to the WAP diet): http://discoveringthewordofwisdom.com/meridian/#paleo

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