“Do I believe the Lord means what he says?”

Sam SwensonBy: Sam Swenson

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.


  1. Really loved your story Sam as you pretty much read the same verse in D&C as myself and came to the same conclusion (my journey is posted on Jane’s site too). I haven’t touched meat or any animal protein (I know of) in over 4 years and have never felt better. Really pleased you got your health sorted out. The hidden treasures are truly all around us but we just need to look for them. Cheers Kev T

  2. Samuel, I’m really impressed with how you allowed the Lord to assist you in solving your extremely difficult medical problems by helping you open your heart and mind to the point that you now really understand the crucial importance of what He is telling His children here on earth through His Word of Wisdom how we should eat!

    As you may already know after having studied my eldest child, Jane’s book and reading my story recorded on pages 146 and 147, I began eating exactly as the Lord advises us to in Section 89 of the Doctrine and Covenants soon before I turned 80. I’m now in my eighty third year and have also been exercising very regularly and energetically. I’ve never even had a cold, a headache, or any kind of illness since making eating the Word of Wisdom way a regular part of my life. As you may know from reading Jane’s book I am in my eighty third year and I actually expect to live to at least one hundred years of age! The Lord bless you as you continue eating the way you are now eating!

  3. Sam, thanks for sharing your story! It is incredibly inspiring! I’m so excited, and grateful, to be stepping into this new world of “pleasing the Lord” by following his counsel. It feels closely related to L. Tom Perry’s counsel in his General Conference message (April 2014):

    “We must be sensitive to our spiritual bits. Even with the slightest tug from the Master, we must be willing to completely alter our course. To succeed in life, we must teach our spirit and body to work together….. If we heed the gentle promptings of the Holy Ghost, it can unite our spirits and bodies in a purpose that will guide us back to our eternal home to live with our eternal Father in Heaven.”

    I love reading how you, and many others, have completely altered their course of eating, at the “slightest tug” from the Master!

  4. Thank you for sharing. Your story and so many others I’ve read through Jane’s book and site mirror mine amazingly. Like you, many of us have been taught through the Spirit about those lines in section 89. We should only use enough meat to sustain our lives if nothing else is available. One line especially in your essay stood out to me, because I’ve experienced the same effect…”Every time I do, the swelling returns along with the pain.” I’ve not had any meat that I know of, but if I eat dairy or any of my other many allergens, the swelling, pain, and other symptoms return. Through inspiration God told me in my worst time of illness if I would only do what He told me I would live with health and vigor as long as my mission on earth allowed. The Word of Wisdom and temple promises ring in my ears every time I begin to crave what I should not consume. In 2010, when I learned of whole-foods, plant-based, low-fat, I slept 20 hours a day and only got up to cook and clean for my family. Now, I sleep deeply for eight hours, exercise without pain one to two hours most days, and have enough energy to do most things I want to do. God’s word is true. It’s there for the reading and experimenting if we so choose. The rewards speak for themselves. Thank you again.

  5. Thanks Sam for sharing this story online. I was impressed when you shared it with me one day after choir, and like you, I have also experienced better health with dietary changes. A couple of years ago I was having a lot of pain from tendonitis in various places, and like you, was prescribed a lot of ibuprofen and other things. After seeing a Facebook post from a friend who changed her diet, I was intrigued, read some books, then changed to a whole foods plant based diet. My pain subsided and actually went away. But lately I started sliding, and now this last month my pain has been terrible with my body completely overreacting to an impact on my hip by a car door. I couldn’t sit or walk much for over a month. I did as the doctor prescribed, and took a lot of ibuprofen. Then I realized that was also part of the problem. So this last week I’ve been back to eating healthy, with no drugs, and feeling so much better, it is astounding. Although some people may say they “feel fine” eating meat and dairy, I think it is like a frog placed in pot of cold water, the heat is turned on, and he doesn’t jump out and is boiled to death. Things will sneak up on people, cancer/heart disease/high blood pressure/diabetes, etc., and much of that would’ve been prevented with diet. But people can’t be forced to change, they have to find it out for themselves. I am very grateful for the Word of Wisdom.

  6. Finally, this is being addressed. My husband and I have always believed this way & have practiced “eating meat sparingly” if at all for many years now for reasons spiritually and ethically. Thank you for putting this belief in words beautifully. This has been something we have always questioned in our belief and have always wondered what the church standings were on this very conversation. Thank you!

  7. Wonderful story, Sam!

    My parents joined the church in 1985, already vegetarians, and were so excited after they read D&C. They thought everyone would be (or almost) vegetarian. Boy were they horrified at their first church activity! I grew up this way, hiding my beliefs because of persecutions and getting persecuted anyway. I live in the Midwest, so it isn’t easy being a veggie family. I applaud your open honesty and am so grateful that you have found health. I know so many people who suffer, but do not want to listen and try the change.

    Much blessings to you and your family!

  8. Dear brother Swenson. You say in your story “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.” If you need some scientific source of authority for your results I recommend you read Dr Campbell’s book “The China Study”. It explains the temporal salvation of our mortal body from a scientific perspective when we change our diet to a WFPB program. But of course as you mentioned, the real proof is that it works.

    Keep up the good work.

    Forever Strong in life;

    Larry Strong

  9. I, too, have walked this path. I had breast cancer and was searching for a way to fight recurrence. I started with the Word of Wisdom and came to the same conclusion. I have lectured on this and it’s funny to see people’s reactions (especially members). I just read it word for word and they can’t think of anything to say. I ask, “If you were to eat okra sparingly, how often would that be?” The answer is usually a few times a YEAR. 🙂
    I loved “China Study” and also “Life Over Cancer” by Dr. Block. I was hardcore vegan for 2 years and this year haven’t been as diligent. BOY can I tell the difference! No sleep, hot flashes, 25 pound weight gain, aches, etc. Yeah, THAT didn’t work!
    Back to mostly vegan diet! I do eat eggs and a little fish. The results are amazing. I just need to get back to disciplined eating — my body has been yelling at me for a few months now. 🙂

  10. Thank you, everyone, for your comments. I’m inspired when I read these comments. I’m just starting to walk this path and I need all the encouragement I can get. I find, like many of you, that there is little support at church for eating a plant-based diet.

    • Let’s not be discouraged, friends. Let’s be of good cheer. The Lord has chosen us to be pioneers in more fully following the Word of Wisdom. What an honor to get be an example to our brothers and sisters at Church! By our faithfulness and diligence, many more will be brought to the great blessings we are enjoying.

  11. This is an inspiring story, and it rings perfectly true to me. Although I still have a long way to go in applying all of my knowledge to action, I have also received inspiration and blessings regarding the Word of Wisdom – for the health of the earth, my body, my mind, and my spirit. I also relate to what you said about the frustration of not being able to talk about this with many church members, due to immediate criticism. The time will come, and is arriving little by little – as it does with all good revelation – where the truth will transcend the outdated cultural patterns. In fact, I have actually received more acceptance than resistance recently when I talk about my diet at a church function.

    I am also really, REALLY motivated by all of the comments from this post. Although my children and I are relatively healthy and active (we are all vegetarian), I feel we need to eliminate sugar, dairy, and overly processed foods from our diet to be truly healthy.

    I keep finding inspiration from the wonderful stories on this blog, so thank you for sharing your thoughts!

  12. I am so glad that you were able to find health and healing. I did too for a time when I made the same discoveries and made a drastic change and I would have said much of what you said at the time. Unfortunately it did not last. This was a good diet for healing, but not for sustaining in my case but it would be seven years before I recognized that. It has been a difficult turn around. And since I have had even greater insights into the word of wisdom and other scriptures the Lord has given us. I am so grateful. Yes, I do eat meat more often than what you define here as sparingly, but it is still less than I once did and with much greater reverence and gratitude for the life of the animal who like the Savior has given his life to save mine.

    I urge all who resonate with your thoughts and experience not to judge all people who eat meat as ones who have not discovered the word of wisdom. We are all on individual journeys.

    • Dear Janiece: Bless you! You have offered a very valuable reminder that I strongly support would like to re-emphasize. We are brothers and sisters here to love and help and bless each other. Our position is not to judge the choices of others or to condemn them in any way. I applaud your efforts in seeking God’s guidance in your health and am sure you are on the path back to Him. Yes, you are keeping the Word of Wisdom, and I know you are receiving the promised blessings. Thank you so very much!!

      That said, for the sake of other readers (and should you ever want to try again to approach your diet totally without animal foods), I want to be clear that I believe every single person, without exception, can be successful on a whole food, plant-based diet. There are NO magical substances in animal foods that our body needs. None. There is nothing we need that we must get from animal sources. The science is absolutely clear on this point.

      However, there are a few individuals who may need extra guidance from an expert to be successful in fine-tuning their diets (partly because we live in a world awash in both very bad foods and very bad advice). One person I know who provides consulting is Jeff Novick (http://www.jeffnovick.com/RD/Services.html). He is a registered dietician who has worked with over 25,000 clients during his life, including a great many with multiple, severe health problems. During decades of doing this work and collaborating with other plant-based experts, he has never found a person who needed the addition of animal foods of any kind in order to optimize their health (except in very rare cases, for example: those very rare individuals who can no longer produce cholesterol).

      Most people who fail on a vegan diet fail for lack of knowledge and guidance. There is a lot of bad information out there, and it is easy to get confused. But there is also plenty of information from a solid group of plant-based experts. Most people can get all the information they need to be successful by studying the best experts, along with D&C 89 and with the guidance of the Holy Sprit.

      Again, to all readers: let us never judge one another. As Janiece wisely put it, we should not “judge all people who eat meat as ones who have not discovered the word of wisdom. We are all on individual journeys.”

  13. I’m trying not to judge other members who seem oblivious of the Word of Wisdom, when it comes to meat. It’s so clear. Other parts of the W of W are strongly practiced and they aren’t as clear as the eating meat part. Why?

    • Hi Nancy: I think there is an easy answer. The Lord, through his prophets, has made some parts of D&C 89 a requirement for us to understand and obey, so we are doing a good job with those things. The rest is still wise counsel, but it is not a commandment. The Church does not emphasize it, and most Church leaders do not appear to be setting a good example with following it. It is no wonder that Church members are clear on the prohibitions, but do not pay much attention to the rest. I hope as more of us set a good example and share the joy we experience as we do, more of our brothers and sisters will see the wisdom in D&C 89 and desire to join us!

  14. Greetings Sam

    I joined the church back in 1972. The bishop came around to explain basics including the Word of Wisdom. He said we only now had to consider the big four, tea, coffee, alcohol and tobacco and nearly every talk I have heard or read has only mentioned them. While I was studying to be a naturopath I thought to read the Word of Wisdom in depth and came to the same conclusions as you and others on this page have. But I also found a lot more. For instance, the bit about tea and coffee was confusing, especially as they are nowhere mentioned in scripture. The advice was that hot drinks are not good for the belly. That is good advice, but most LDS I know still drink hot drinks. They are still not good for the belly, no matter what they are called. At one stage a lot of LDS started drinking decaf coffee, believing tea and coffee were banned because of the caffeine content.

    I did a lot of research into this and looked from a church members viewpoint and also that of a qualified nutritionist. I wrote a book on the whole Word of Wisdom and I can tell you that there are hidden treasures of wisdom just waiting for those who take the time to look deeply into this scripture and live by it as best they can, Yes. other members will call them fanatics and cranks, but one prominent member said that and he died of cancer, a nutritional disease. It is easier for them to go out to a breakfast bar and eat junk than to grow fresh organic food and eat in a healthy manner. And when tribulation strikes and the breakfast bars have to shut down and meat is not available, it is the people who are wise enough to learn with nature who will survive.

    The real fanatics are not the people such as you and Jane. The real fanatics are those who do no research yet ridicule people like you. These are they who condemn without thoroughly investigating. They will condemn a man who drinks green tea because it is a great herb for a liver in trouble. Unlike liver drugs, it has no side effects. I read in the Ensign years ago where a RS president really gave it to a member who asked if it was OK to use herbal teas. She told this woman that tea is tea so even herbal teas were against the Word of Wisdom. That was pure ignorance on the part of the RS president. in this case, “tea” is the shortened form of the word tisane. Being appointed a leader does not endow anyone with any specialised knowledge.

    It is so pleasing to read the comments here because it shows we do have some open minded free thinkers.

    • Thanks, Gary! You make some great points. I especially love your mention of the “hidden treasures of wisdom” we can find by following the counsel in the Word of Wisdom. I also agree that we may well discover that all “hot drinks” are not health-promoting, although I have not yet been persuaded by that evidence.

  15. Wonderful story – thank you for sharing it. It is so amazing how something so simple as changing our diets to a healthy WFPB can have such positive life changing effects.

    Most people think I am simply crazy following a vegan diet. After I lost a bunch a weight people started asking me “how did I do it?” Thinking it was some new diet on the market. I said I didn’t go on a diet, I just changed my diet. It wasn’t until I changed from being vegetarian to vegan (low fat) that I really noticed health improvments.

    I started following Dr. Esselstyn’s heart healthy plan and one day I realized the arthritis pain in my fingers was gone. I still had the stiffness, but no pain. I was shooting for low cholesterol and as a bonus lost my arthristis pain. Many nights my fingers hurt so bad I had to take Advil to sleep.

    More changes to be made, but reading stories like yours gives me inspiration to carry on. Looking forward to Jane’s book to arrive!

  16. Hi — I am struggling with the “wheat for man” part of the Word of Wisdom. My son has Celiac’s disease, and I am very gluten intolerant. We cannot eat wheat or products with wheat, barley. or rye in them…they make us very sick, and actually destroy my son’s colon. Any words of advice for us? We eat a very healthy diet otherwise….raw food, smoothies, natural, organic, etc.

  17. I have not read Jane’s article so this maybe repetitive but I had the same questions several years ago. I have two children with a gluten allergy. The conclusion I came to was that there are so many grains available not just wheat. Some are even more nutritious then wheat. Millet, for example, is very nutritious and makes a great GF bread. I think, and this is just my own personal conclusions, that the term wheat can mean grains. When I looked deeper into this I was amazed at how many different grains there are and we have acces to them in our modern age.

  18. I whole heartedly agree. I chose to be a vegan more than 20 years ago and it has made a great difference in my life: my cholesterol levels are those of an athletic individual even though I sit 10 hours a day as a computer programmer. My allergic reaction to the local flora dropped amazingly. Where I used dread the coming of spring and the hay fever, now I barely notice and instead enjoy bike rides and morning walks. While I continue to struggle with weight it’s more because I love to eat a lot rather than what I eat.

    While my evidence is anecdotal at best, the times I’ve felt chest pains etc. are when I wasn’t as rigorous in being vegan. While I’m approaching 60, I feel like a much younger man. I do miss the cheesy pizza’s, ice cream and steaks, but I don’t miss the bloated stomachs, the allergies, and nausea that went along with the “typical American diet.”

  19. Ken, I just re-read what you wrote just above and especially appreciated this:

    “While my evidence is anecdotal at best, the times I’ve felt chest pains etc. are when I wasn’t as rigorous in being vegan. While I’m approaching 60, I feel like a much younger man. I do miss the cheesy pizza’s, ice cream and steaks, but I don’t miss the bloated stomachs, the allergies, and nausea that went along with the “typical American diet.”

    Neil Birch

    P.S. to Sam Swenson, I’ve been wondering since I read what you first wrote many months ago, that you live in Orangevale, California. Is that the Orangevale that is close to Roseville, California. I, Jane’s father, graduated from Roseville, Joint Union High School in 1950 but have never lived again in Roseville or Sacramento where my daughter Jane was born in the Fall of 1961.

  20. Sam Swenson, I really appreciate you sharing your experience. I am a few months into this journey and am really enjoying feeling better. I, too, am saddened when I hear of people suffering from diseases which would be helped or reversed by a WFPB way of eating but instead it is spurned as radical and extreme. If they only knew how much better they would feel it would not seem so extreme! But alas, I will happily endure ridicule and strange looks because I know in my heart and by how my body feels that it is right!

  21. I am also very frustrated that I can’t go to a church function and find something I can eat unless I brought it myself. And when I tell people about what the Word of Wisdom really says, I hear things like, “moderation in all things”, or “vegetarians are weak and sickly”, while they take another bite of Spam. And they are fat and sickly. But they absolutely don’t want to hear it.

    I admit it makes me want to howl. But as Sister Birch has taught us in her book, we can’t bulldoze people with the truth.

    Thank you for your testimony.

    • Joann: I certainly can sympathize with your feelings! However, these are also grand opportunities for us to say a kind word, ask a good question, or just express joy in what we are doing. By doing so, we are planting a good seed that may grow into a beautiful plant in the heart of that person one day. We are all learning line upon line. Let us be patient and full of respect for the agency of others, and we will witness miracles. Thanks again!

  22. Thanks for sharing Sam

    I too was led to understand more fully what the Word of Wisdom really means thanks to Jane’s column on Meridian Magazine which I first read a couple of years. It’s a long story.

    It wasn’t until April this year after I received a setting apart blessing which told me that I would be healed, that I was led back to Discovering the Word of Wisdom. I love how marvelous the Lord is.

    Thanks to Jane and her dedication, I am on the road to recovery. I call it the WOW diet 🙂

    I’ve been trying to share what we have been blessed to know but alas some of our dear brothers and sisters are ready to listen and some are not.

    • Glen: Thanks for your comment! I’m so excited to hear you have started down this path. Please keep me posted, if you can. I’m happy to help in any way I can. You’ll be a powerful voice for good as you continue to discover the hidden treasures in the Word of Wisdom. Don’t worry about people who are not fully ready. As you share with joy and respect of agency, you’ll be planting good seeds that will continue to grow!

      • Thanks Jane

        I have been able to share what I’ve learned with my daughter and son-in-law who have joined me on this journey as well as friends in AZ and TX. We live in Perth Western Australia.

        The links and videos on your website have been very informative. I am extremely grateful to you for what I have learned and how it has changed my life.

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