In ancient Rome, where few sweeteners beyond honey were available, grape juice, or must, was boiled in lead pots to produce a reduced sugar syrup called defrutum, which was concentrated again into sapa. Most lead salts are sweet to the taste, and this syrup, likewise, was used to sweeten wine and to sweeten and preserve fruit. Unfortunately, it's likely that lead compounds leached into the syrup, causing lead poisoning in anyone who consumed it.
In 1878, Constantin Fahlberg, a chemist working on coal tar derivatives at Johns Hopkins University, noticed a sweet taste on his hand and connected it to the substance he had been working on that day. Fahlberg was awarded a patent for the substance, named it saccharin, and became wealthy from this sweetener with almost zero calories. In the 1970's, saccharin was linked to bladder cancer in rodents, leading to the United States government requiring a warning label be placed on all products containing it. However, as of 14 December 2010, the EPA stated that Saccharin is no longer considered a potential hazard to human health.
Aspartame was first synthesized in 1965 and is now commonplace as a non-nutritive sweetener. Though it has been the subject of various internet hoaxes and is dangerous to people with phenylketinouria, it is approved for sale by the FDA and the European Food Safety Authority. Nevertheless recent research suggests that people who drink diet soda sweetened with Aspartame are at greater risk of heart attack and stroke than people who don't drink soda.
Coffee was first discovered in Ethiopia, and from there its cultivation and use spread to the Arab world, to Italy, to the rest of Europe, and eventually to the rest of the world. Coffee is rich in antioxidants and has been shown to reduce the risk of being affected by Alzheimer's disease, Parkinson's disease, heart disease, diabetes mellitus type 2, cirrhosis of the liver, and gout. Researchers involved in an ongoing 22-year study by the Harvard School of Public Health state that "the overall balance of risks and benefits [of coffee consumption] are on the side of benefits."
So why, then, according to what I had been taught was God's law of health, would coffee be forbidden while consuming by the bucket full drinks sweetened with Aspartame, such as Diet Coke, was not? I don't have the healthiest diet in the world, but I am conscious of what I put in my body, and, as an athlete, try to put the best fuel I can into my system while avoiding those things that are most harmful. In the fall of 2009 this incongruity between what I had been taught was a divinely-inspired code of health and the best available medical research resulted in significant intellectual conflict.
Before I go further, let me state that I am well aware that one solution would be to not consume Diet Coke or any other artificially-sweetened foodstuff and to forgo coffee as well and that indeed, the LDS scriptures as well as modern teachings offer nothing in the way of exhortations to consume Diet Coke and that many of the members choose not to consume it or similar because it's not in the spirit of the canon. I commend anyone whose convictions lead to the espousal of this approach. Nevertheless, the conflict for me extended from the culturally-accepted attitudes towards consumption of these various substances. In practice, faithful church members, myself included, consume huge quantities of Diet Coke or similar, to say nothing of the rampant disregard for maintaining a healthy weight for which church leadership's only response was installing double-wide seats at the temple. Regardless of what an individual determines is in his or her own best interest, I found it odd that men who claim a conduit to the divine remained more or less silent rather than offering clarification, especially when the health of their adherents was at stake.
Let me go on a further tangent and state that the only reason I bring this up is so that anyone who cares to know can hear my story from the only appropriate source. Indeed, I would see no point in bringing this up except that it has come to my attention that certain individuals have been misinformed regarding my motivation to stop attending the LDS church. Worse, in some situations, those with no first-hand knowledge of the situation have spoken as if they had such and have offered explanations to others that were patently false. Therefore, in order that anyone interested might have a true account of events, I am offering an explanation here. If you are a believer in the LDS faith and happy as such, allow me to offer forewarning that the things I am about to describe were enough to completely destroy the faith of previously orthodox believers, and as Daryl said to Dwight when Dwight suggested going to a strip club at noon on a Monday, "you can't un-see that."
When my internal conflict about the incongruity of the Word of Wisdom came to a head, I was already aware that in Joseph Smith's time, it was counsel rather than commandment and that moderation was emphasized over abstinence. I knew that Joseph Smith, his brother Hyrum, along with Willard Richards and future church president John Taylor consumed a bottle of wine in Carthage Jail on the day the Smiths were assassinated. And it was not sacramental wine but intended to improve their spirits. I also knew that when Brigham Young led the pioneers across the plains, he encouraged them to bring coffee and tea to help keep their energy up for the long journey.
Somewhere between then and now, however, the emphasis of the Word of Wisdom changed from moderation of potentially harmful substances and eating healthful substances to a more black and white approach wherein coffee, tea, alcohol, and tobacco were forbidden, but everything else was more or less fair game. This, even when the text states that "barley [is] for all useful animals, and for mild drinks," which certainly suggests that beer is encouraged rather than forbidden. Through a complicated series of political and organizational events, this somehow led to where we are today, where amongst so many church members, Diet Coke consumption begins first thing in the morning, overweight men with type 2 diabetes who require supplemental oxygen just to make it through church feel as if they are living God's law of health, yet someone who sips a cup of coffee or a bottle of beer is excluded from full participation and fellowship.
Alcohol is considered evil but the most Mormon state in the country also leads the nation in anti-depressant use. One of my friends told me about a particularly stressful situation when her mother suggested she "just take a Xanax" when a glass of wine would have been adequate. Is this really what the Almighty intended, especially considering Jesus's first miracle was to turn water into wine? I didn't think so, so I began to research church history to find out who clarified the revelation found in Section 89 and when this clarification occurred.
What I found was this:
"There is, however, no known contemporary evidence...that a separate new revelation changed the Word of Wisdom from a 'principle with promise' to a 'commandment' necessary for full participation in all the blessings of church membership. One author on the subject has argued that the vote in 1880 sustaining the Doctrine and Covenants as binding on church membership was equivalent to a vote making the Word of Wisdom a commandment. If, however, the members were voting on the words contained in the book, what they did was to agree that the Word of Wisdom was a 'principle with promise' and not a 'commandment.'"
Unfortunately--for my faith at least--finding this information, which would have led me to the simple conclusion that the interpretation of the Word of Wisdom was flawed even if other doctrinal claims may have remained sound, was not a direct course of action, and along the way I encountered other facts that Boyd K. Packer described as "true" but "not very useful." I guess that depends on how you define useful.
Not very useful truth #1: the "official" account of the first vision is just one of many somewhat inconsistent tellings of the most important foundational story in Mormonism. As former church president Gordon B. Hinckley stated, "All that we have, all that we do hinges on the truth of that account of the boy Joseph Smith. If it is true, then everything that we have in this Church is true and is more precious and worth more than anything else on earth. If it is false, we are engaged in the greatest fraud that was ever perpetrated on earth."
The question, though, is on which version of the story does "all that we do" hinge? The one where it was a single angel, a light, or both God and Jesus? Was it the version where Joseph was told not to join any churches (even though he subsequently attempted to join the Methodists), or the one in which he was simply told his sins were forgiven? It seemed to me that if someone experienced something so miraculous and profound that the telling of it would be significant (it wasn't emphasized for the first half century of the church's existence) and consistent and wouldn't become more spectacular with each subsequent credibility crisis.
Not very useful truth #2: polygamy in the early church was not a means of providing single frontier women who otherwise wouldn't have one with a husband. Were it so, Joseph Smith would have had no need to tell married women that God had commanded they become Smith's polygamous wives. I have read a great deal about polygamy/polyandry, and the only conclusion I can reach is that its purpose was to gratify the lustful desires of a leader with sufficient charisma to pull off the ruse.
Not very useful truth #3: the Book of Abraham is a "translation" of Egyptian papyri that were acquired by the church after Joseph Smith claimed that the scrolls in a traveling antiquities display were the Book of Abraham, "written by his own hand." The scrolls were donated after Joseph's death to a museum in Chicago and were believed to have been destroyed in the Chicago fire. In 1966, however, several fragments of the papyri were found in New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art.
Their discovery was a source of excitement for church members anxious to see their scripture validated with verifiable evidence. The scrolls turned out to be nothing more than common funerary texts known as the Book of Breathings, a guide for the deceased in the afterlife, and had nothing whatever to do with the contents of the Book of Abraham. Apologists are quick to claim that Joseph may have been inspired by the scrolls to receive a revelation that became the Book of Abraham rather than making a direct translation, but if that were the case, why make the claim "written by his own hand"?
At this point, I was done. Nevermind the Kinderhook Plates, Book of Mormon anachronisms, or the Kirtland Safety Society. For me, if these three issues gave the church's foundational claims such a credibility problem, I simply could no longer bring myself to believe many of the other claims, either. The spiritual experiences I had had in church had heretofore been enough to sustain me through the inconsistencies, but I also realized that many people outside the LDS church have had spiritual experiences, I had had them in a non-church context, and just because one has a spiritual experience at church, that doesn't have any bearing on the truthfulness of an organization--it simply means they felt good because they were doing good. Its claims to the contrary notwithstanding, the LDS church does not have a monopoly on spiritual feelings (which may, physiologically, be nothing more than an emotionally-driven release of endorphins).
I was left wondering what to do with what I had learned. Let me pause here and state that my wife and I were orthodox, believing members of the LDS church. Ours was not a particularly complex testimony--for better or for worse, we took the church leaders at their word, we trusted them, and were diligent in trying to follow their counsel. We were not cultural participants who didn't really believe but participated due to social expectations or family pressure. I was unsure how my wife would respond to my loss of belief and chose, initially at least, to keep it to myself.
This caused tremendous internal conflict, to the point that I had difficulty sleeping and was visibly stressed. Finally, one night in December 2009, my wife asked me what was eating at me. I unloaded on her. She was shocked, but the next day she began researching, hoping to prove me wrong, but ultimately concluded that I wasn't.
For the next several weeks, we persisted, attempting to find a "middle way" wherein we could participate in the church as active members even if we didn't believe the doctrine. (Incidentally, we have been shocked since to find out just how many people in the church don't believe some or even any of the doctrine but participate nonetheless.) Perhaps had this process been more gradual, we could have eased into this approach to church participation, but for us there were just too many situations where we didn't feel like we could do what was asked of us while keeping our integrity intact.
About the same time, certain experiences led us to the point where we were less convinced that exposure to the church's teachings was in our family's best interest. We asked to be released from our callings, a process that was effected after a meeting with our bishop one Sunday a year ago February. We did not return, a decision each of us reached on our own but agreed upon at essentially the same time.
Since leaving the church, I have not been struck by lightning, lost my job, nor afflicted with a horrible disease. My children have not been ostracized, and our friends who were our friends before are still our friends. Indeed, it's been among the best things that have ever happened to our social lives. We've found other families who have gone through the same thing (we are legion), felt isolated, wondered what life would be like on the other side, and discovered that especially after finding other like-minded people that life is pretty damned good.