In 1997 I was starting out as a new missionary in the Taiwan, Taichung mission. I had just moved into my second area and was assigned as a junior companion to Elder Olmstead, a muscular football player from Oregon. Elder Olmstead was on his last assignment before heading home so he was getting up early each morning to run on a track at a nearby school to get back into shape before heading back to football. It was while I was running on the track early one morning that I first noticed it: a slight aching sensation on the right side of my lower back that radiated into my right hip. It felt a little like a charley horse so I didn’t think much of it and figured I must not have stretched enough before running. But stretching had nothing to do with it.
The pain continued throughout the remainder of my mission. In fact, as time went by, the pain intensified and spread. My ribs began aching too. After a while, breathing became painful and sneezing caused so much pain that my vision would temporarily go black and I would see stars for a few moments.
After returning from my mission, my mom noticed me limping up the stairs and saw me wincing whenever I breathed deeply or sneezed. She told me I moved like a 90-year-old man. She made me see doctors and after a few frustrating visits to a number of doctors without getting any answers, I made my way to a rheumatologist office where I first learned the term “Ankylosing Spondylitis” or “AS.” AS is a disease of the immune system that causes severe inflammation throughout the spinal column and the adjoining tendons. If untreated, it leads to the fusing of bones in the spine, eye and skin problems, difficulty breathing, and possibly heart problems.
I was devastated by the diagnosis. The doctors were very familiar with the symptoms and possible complications, but none of them really knew how to treat it. Their solution was to throw anti-inflammatory drugs at it for the rest of my life because there is no known cure. My first prescription was for Vioxx (which was pulled off the market right after I filled the Rx for its deadly side effects).
I struggled all through my college years, taking large amounts of Advil and Motrin to treat the pain. I was even exercising as often as possible and learning to work through the pain in order to keep my joints mobile. Most nights I would toss and turn because of pain and sometimes I would swell up so badly that I would have to flop out of bed onto the floor and drag myself by my forearms to the medicine cabinet for pain killers. Then I would lie on the bathroom floor in a fetal position until the pain killers started working enough to allow me to stand up and limp back to bed.
The symptoms continued into the first few years of marriage, which really caused concern to my wife. She was understandably worried about the amount of drugs I was taking to deal with the pain, but at the same time, she shared my frustration with the utter lack of alternative answers.
Then, in 2006, I was sitting in a Sunday School class, trying my best to stay awake because I had not gotten much sleep the night before. The topic was the Word of Wisdom. I can’t remember much about what the instructor said, I just recall thinking to myself that I didn’t remember ever reading Section 89 of the D&C straight through. So I did. I was in law school at the time, which probably explains my sudden desire for context. It also likely explains why I was more focused on the exact words and punctuation of the section. I came to verse 12, which I had read hundreds of times before as a missionary and as a child raised in the Church. It’s the verse often cited to justify the consumption of meat, as long as it is done “sparingly.” This time however, I realized that verse 12 does not end with a period but a semicolon, which means that the whole thought of the verse continues into verse 13. Verse 13 concludes the thought of verse 12 by saying:
and it is pleasing unto me that they should not be used, only in times of winter, or of cold, or famine. (emphasis added)
I was shocked. But my astonishment didn’t stop there. The Lord re-states his position in verse 14 after discussing the “beasts of the field, and the fowls of heaven, and all the wild animals that run or creep on the earth” (D&C 89:13). In verse 14, the Lord says (again after a semicolon):
and these hath God made for the use of man only in times of famine and excess of hunger. (emphasis added)
I have always been taught in Sunday School that when the Lord uses repetition, we need to pay extra heed to what he is saying.
Finally, I came to the promise at the end, in verses 18 through 21. I so desperately wanted “health in [my] navel and marrow in [my] bones.” I also longed to “run and not be weary, and walk and not faint.” (The relationship between the Word of Wisdom and the temple covenants also began to take root in my mind at that time, but that is another story.)
I resolved right there in that meeting that if I really had faith in the Lord and his promises, I needed to follow his counsel with strictness. I went home and talked to my wife about a drastic diet change. I was raised in a meat and potato home. It was difficult for me to even imagine a meal that did not include a meat dish. But I was tired, and I was desperate, so my desire for bodily comfort overrode my childhood programing. From that time forth, I stopped eating all meats (except fish very occasionally). I also increased the amount of grains, fruit, and vegetables (wholesome herbs) I ate at each meal.
I am not a scientist, and I have no studies or sources of authority for the results I saw, but all I know is that from that time forward, I have been able to live a normal, pain-free life. I am a recipient of the promises found in the Word of Wisdom.
In case anyone may think my experience was coincidental rather than correlative, I have tested my theory a few times since going cold turkey (sorry about the bad pun) and have eaten meat here and there. Every time I do, the swelling returns along with the pain.
In addition to the blessings I have received directly from living the Word of Wisdom more perfectly, I have also grown to appreciate the creations of God more and have developed a deeper appreciation of what it means to be a caretaker and lord of all the earth. Now that I have discovered that meat is an unnecessary element of our diets, my eyes have been opened to the waste of life and resources that go into producing a “product” just to appease our taste buds.
I am grateful to God every morning after a full night of sleep that I was inspired to discover a deeper meaning of the Word of Wisdom. My only frustration is that I can’t share what I have learned with anyone. Any time I bring it up, people argue with me and try to convince me I am a fanatic and following false doctrine. So I move about quietly in the Church knowing the full blessings that people could experience for themselves through following the Word of Wisdom. I hope people are inspired to read the Word of Wisdom more closely and ask themselves, “Do I believe the Lord means what he says?” Most of all, I sincerely hope people discover the blessings I have found through seeking to understand and live the Word of Wisdom more perfectly.
Samuel Swenson is 36 years old and lives in Orangevale, California where he practices law. He teaches early-morning seminary and enjoys spending time with his wife and four daughters.
Sam Swenson was interviewed on this episode of Mormon Vegetarian.