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 Mormons' drinking caffeinated 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 LDS 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% 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 spat it out in surprise when I saw that.
For the record, the Next Mormons Survey did find that:
- Four in ten Millennial and GenX Latter-day Saints in the United States said they had consumed caffeinated coffee at some point in the last 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% of current temple recommend holders affirmed that they had not consumed any of the substances forbidden by the Word of Wisdom (alcohol, caffeinated coffee and tea, tobacco, or illegal or recreational drugs)* in the last six months. The other 38% of recommend holders had consumed one or more.
- In a separate question, younger Mormons were less likely to say that it was "essential" to avoid coffee and tea in order to be a good Mormon. Fewer than a third of Millennials or GenXers said this was an "essential" part of a Mormon identity, compared to 52% of Boomer/Silent Saints.
So is there softening about Mormons' 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 Fool's 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 Mormons 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 life-saving benefits of a daily cuppa joe. No pressure is being exerted from outside the Church insisting that Mormons abandon their java-avoidant ways and join the block-long 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 drunk coffee.
So, I'm putting this particular General Conference rumor in the dust bin category, fully aware that I may have to eat my words because 1) I've been spectacularly wrong before and 2) President 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.
* The full survey, with original wording, is available as a free PDF download here.