When Allison Zenger moved from Colorado to Utah for college, she expected most of her peers to avoid coffee shops and have hot chocolate rather than a latte. But she found herself surrounded by people who were doing just the opposite.
The 22-year-old Zenger is a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, a religion whose members are taught to abstain from coffee and tea along with tobacco and alcohol. Since Salt Lake City is the headquarters of the global church and the Beehive State is predominantly Latter-day Saint, Zenger assumed her time at Logan’s Utah State University would mean full immersion in the religion’s Word of Wisdom health code.
That didn’t happen. Zenger, in fact, tried coffee for the first time in college as an attempt to fit in.
“It was definitely more of a jump-on-the-bandwagon kind of thing,” Zenger said. “I was like, ‘I want to hold the Starbucks cup, I want to look cool.’”
Though Zenger didn’t like coffee after trying it a few times, her experience is shared by plenty of younger U.S. Latter-day Saints, according to a 2018 study. Only a third of millennial members said that abstaining from tea and coffee was essential to being “a good Mormon,” compared to 52% of baby boomers.
Roughly a quarter of active U.S. Latter-day Saints said they had consumed coffee, tea or alcohol in the past six months. One in 5 temple recommend holders — which requires interviews with church leaders affirming their adherence to the Word of Wisdom — reported consuming coffee or tea in the past six months.
Zenger now drinks coffee sparingly and typically gets a chai at coffee shops. Though her parents always wanted her to heed church tenets on such drinks, Zenger said times have changed. People her age are more comfortable pushing the boundaries and finding their own interpretations of church dogma.
“When my parents were my age,” she said, “it was definitely frowned upon. You just didn’t do it. No questions asked. In today’s generation, a lot more people are asking those questions.”
The Word of Wisdom in the early church
Food and drink restrictions originated during the church’s early years with founder Joseph Smith. He reported receiving, by revelation, the Word of Wisdom, which is now canonized. It declares that “hot drinks are not for the body or belly.” Top church leaders have said that means coffee and tea.
In the 1800s, members saw Smith’s guidance as exactly what it stated — a word of wisdom, not a commandment, said Patrick Mason, chair of Mormon history and culture at Utah State University. Earlier Latter-day Saints drank, smoked and consumed coffee and tea. In the early 1900s, the faith’s leadership began to examine the Word of Wisdom anew, with debates surrounding coffee, tea and even caffeinated soft drinks.
It eventually ended with coffee and tea being proclaimed off-limits.
The 43-year-old Mason grew up with a stigma around caffeinated sodas — despite the church never openly forbidding them. Older members told him drinking soda wasn’t a good idea. Many of his Latter-day Saint friends, however, drank Coke and Pepsi.
The Utah-based faith has reaffirmed in recent years that caffeinated soft drinks are not prohibited under the Word of Wisdom.
“My sense,” Mason said, “is that a lot of young people today feel very much the same way about coffee and tea that people of my generation did about drinking Coke.”
A coffee culture emerges
The owners of Sandy’s Sunset Coffee Co. have witnessed that cultural shift since opening in 2008. The location has been a coffee shop for 45 years, but it mostly catered to older people, said co-owner McKenzie Norton.
When her husband, Neil, bought the place after working for the previous owners, she said, he hoped to reach a younger crowd.
“Where do you hang out in Sandy?” Norton asked. “There’s not a whole lot out here. And so that was one of his biggest things when he took it over — teens having somewhere to go.”
The goal was to create a welcoming space for everybody, Norton said, but not everyone understood that.
More than a decade ago, a few years after they had opened, Norton recalled, a local Relief Society (the church’s organization for Latter-day Saint women) spread flyers around the neighborhood falsely stating that Sunset Coffee was selling alcohol and illicit drugs over the counter. The women warned parents not to let their kids come to the shop.
“That is so beyond outrageous,” she said. “For them to look at us like that, it was hurtful.”
Norton took those allegations to the Sandy City Council and put a stop to the leaflets, she said. She believes the stigma around coffee is what caused the rumors to spiral years ago — despite Sunset Coffee having noncoffee options on its menu.
She also believes that stigma has faded. The church eased its counsel on tattoos and multiple piercings this past year, and she has seen more and more customers enter the coffee shop to get a chai, like Zenger, or a lemonade or an herbal tea. She has even served some who are sipping their first coffee.
“The church is changing,” she said. “I would have never guessed they would have picked tattoos over coffee, though.”
Will coffee prohibition end?
The likelihood of the church lifting its restrictions on coffee and tea is nebulous, Mason said. There have been times in history when leaders have examined alternative interpretations — the Word of Wisdom, for example, also calls for members to use meat sparingly, which then-President Lorenzo Snow pushed for the church to adhere to in the 1890s. But there haven’t been any formal expansions on that policy since then.
“The language of the revelation itself is not nearly as locked down as the current policy and practices are,” Mason said. “It’s very clear the current policy is an interpretation of scripture. And interpretations can change.”
It’s not outside of the realm of possibility that drinking coffee and tea could become accepted by the church, he said. The probability of the actual scriptural verses changing is seen as far less likely.
Globally, Latter-day Saints have also combined culture and religious practices where formal doctrine does not fill in the blanks. Missionaries report substances like yerba maté in Argentina, masala chai in India, kvass in Russia and airag in Mongolia are seen by many as appropriate for members to drink, although missionaries often abstain.
Despite a shifting culture, many younger churchgoers still stick to the Word of Wisdom, including the prohibition on coffee.
Maggie Cowdell used to drink coffee from time to time when she was in high school, the 22-year-old said. She would buy one at Starbucks with her friends or sample her nonmember aunt’s coffee. Since serving a Latter-day Saint mission, however, she’s been stricter about avoiding it.
Cowdell said coffee is more nuanced than alcohol. It’s difficult for some members to understand why they shouldn’t drink it, she said, especially for those her age.
“It’s definitely one of those things,” she said, “that I believe God asks us to do that we don’t fully understand the reasons for now.”
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