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Commentary: Latter-day Saints will soon drink coffee? Debunking a dubious General Conference rumor

(Illustration by Christopher Cherrington | The Salt Lake Tribune)

For weeks now I’ve been seeing a persistent rumor circulating in social media: that the prophet of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Russell M. Nelson, is about to lift the ban on members drinking coffee and tea.

Now before I go on the record as saying that I think this rumor is, at best, wishful thinking on the part of people who would like to gulp down a guilt-free frappuccino, let me out myself as an utter failure at giving credence to other early rumors when those rumors did, in fact, wind up bearing fruit.

To wit: I wrote a column nearly a year ago saying that people who believed that the church was about to shorten its Sunday services to two hours instead of three were completely off base, and if I was wrong, I would eat my hat.

Here is the follow-up post in which I described what it tasted like to eat my hat.

The point is that I’ve been 100 percent wrong before, so you should take what I’m about to say with a grain of salt in your aforementioned coffee: I do not believe this rumor.

One of the reasons I don’t believe it is that my own research, which does not have any bearing on the matter, has been cited on social media as proof that the prophet is about to loosen the church’s restriction against coffee.

Say what? If I had been drinking coffee, I would have spit it out in surprise when I saw that.

For the record, the Next Mormons Survey did find that:

  • Four in 10 millennial and Generation X Latter-day Saints in the United States said they had consumed coffee at some point in the past six months. Benjamin Knoll and I found this to be surprisingly high, as you can see in this Dialogue article that unpacks the study’s findings about Word of Wisdom observance.

  • 62 percent of temple recommend holders affirmed that they had not consumed any of the substances forbidden by the Word of Wisdom (alcohol, coffee and tea, tobacco, or illegal or recreational drugs) in the past six months. The other 38 percent of recommend holders had consumed one or more.

  • In a separate question, younger Latter-day Saint were less likely to say that it was “essential” to avoid coffee and tea to be a good member. Fewer than a third of millennials or Gen Xers said this was an “essential” part of a Mormon identity, compared to 52 percent of baby boomer/silent Saints.

(Read a past Salt Lake Tribune story here about the Word of Wisdom and how it has changed through the years and could in the future.)

So is there softening about Latter-day Saint attitudes toward Word of Wisdom adherence in the United States? Clearly, particularly for younger generations. Does this mean that the prophet is about to announce a Starbucks in every temple? No, though that idea made for a fun April Fools’ column a few years ago.

Leaving aside the argument that Mormonism is a global religion that is not wholly buffeted by the shifting sensibilities of some of its U.S. adherents, the Word of Wisdom has become a significant piece of our tribal identity the world over.

Yes, there are challenges in various areas of the world when missionaries and church leaders have to figure out whether a particular beverage is in keeping with the spirit of the Word of Wisdom, but that’s nothing new. The church has been navigating those questions for nearly a century, ever since adherence to the Word of Wisdom became a requirement for temple admission in 1921.

And even before that, when adherence was far from standardized and many members drank coffee — it was on a list of suggested provisions for pioneers to bring with them when crossing the plains — the ideal existed.

I have yet to hear anyone I know who works for the church confirm this rumor. Moreover, I don’t see a particular reason for it to be true; nothing vital has changed. No scientist has suddenly discovered the lifesaving benefits of a daily cuppa joe. No pressure is being exerted from outside the church insisting that Latter-day Saint abandon their java-avoidant ways and join the blocklong line at Peet’s.

Rather, what I see from the outside world is a begrudging admiration, like when Garrison Keillor did his “Prairie Home Companion” show in Utah and remarked upon how industrious the Mormon settlers had been — before imagining how much more they could have accomplished if they’d only consumed coffee.

So, I’m putting this particular General Conference rumor in the dustbin category, fully aware that I may have to eat my words because 1) I’ve been spectacularly wrong before and 2) Nelson likes to keep us guessing. He has warned us that more surprises are coming and that we should eat our vitamins to prepare for all the changes.

Vitamins, at least, are Word of Wisdom-approved.

Editor’s note • The views expressed in this opinion piece do not necessarily reflect those of Religion News Service.

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