There is no doubt that very few would appreciate the irony of the modern practice of prohibiting members from temple attendance for breaking the “Word of Wisdom” (WoW). There is a connection between the WoW and the temple, which even those within the Mormon church, rather especially many of those within the church are not aware of. The temple, with its secrecy and hidden practices including wearing the garments, which is related to a dark side of Mormon history.
I’ll get to that in a moment, but some background information is necessary. The WoW has become a defining point for Mormons, allowing easy differentiation from other Christian sects. “We do not drink alcohol or coffee or smoke tobacco,” is a clear external practice which allows Mormons to visible show they are the chosen people, as they preach, and hence is taken far more seriously than the early Saints, who were clearly different than their neighbors and didn’t require the external trappings.
Even the official history of the Mormon church, as well as recorded teachings and journals of early leaders show the disregard for this advice by the faithful, especially Joseph Smith, the founder of the Mormon faith held to be the prophet who revealed this word of God.
There are numerous recorded incidence of Smith drinking wine and beer. He opened a bar in his own home, a boarding house / hotel and called the “Nauvoo Mansion” with a friend as bar tender, and only shut it down when his wife discovered it upon return from a trip. She objected to the bar on grounds of it being unseemly for the leader of a religion, and because she didn’t want her children growing up with drunks in the house, and not because it was prohibited by God.
Even to the end, when Smith and his close associates were held in the Carthage jail, they drank wine on the eve of Smith and his brother Hyrum’s final day when they were killed by a mob.
Now for the garments, as the special Mormon underwear is called, you must appreciate the seriousness which Mormonism takes the temple and the hidden ceremonies and ordinances which are performed within it. Mormons believe that they have the fullness of the gospel which no other religion has, and through the secret ceremonies within the temple obtain the keys to an eternal life as a family and the ability to become gods and goddesses themselves.
To be a Mormon then, is to strive to live strict lives and to frequent the temple, in order to be with your family in the next life. There is no other way. Hence, wearing the garments and abstaining from alcohol, coffee, tea and tobacco is a small price to pay for an eternal salvation.
Now, what is the connection which I alluded to above? None other than polygamy, or in the case of Joseph Smith, Brigham Young and other early leaders, some of whose polygamous relationships were also polyandrous, in that they married women who were concurrently married to other men, as well as marrying girls as young as 14 to 16 years old.
In the early days, Smith and other leaders practiced polygamy in secret, and kept it a hidden teaching even from most Mormons, even going as far to publicly deny the practice. He couldn’t keep the secret from his first wife, Emma, especially with his first plural wife, a 16-year-old girl who living with his family.
Eventually, Smith required a revelation from God in order to justify the repeated practice. Polygamy was revealed as necessary to obtain exaltation, and the select few who were taken into the inner group were initiated with the secret temple ceremony and given these special garments which where made according to Smith’s instructions. Initially then, the temple, its hidden ordinances and the sacred garments were inseparable from polygamy.
The origin of the Mormon legends of them being “magic” (although Mormon’s themselves never refer to them with this term) is tied directly to Smith. In the Carthage jail, with Smith, was his brother and two others: John Taylor, who would go on to become the third president of the church, and William Richards.
Smith, seemingly eager to hide evidence of polygamy removed his garments before surrendering himself in Carthage, and ordered the other three to do so as well. Hyrum and Taylor did so, Richards refused. In the attack, where Smith and his brother were killed, Taylor was also wounded but Richards was left unscathed, which then became the myth that the garments would serve to physically protect the wearer.
The strict emphasis on the WoW did not occur until well after the Mormons arrived in Utah. Some scholars believe it served as a public replacement for the symbolic nature of polygamy of the separateness of Mormonism.
Some other notes. Early Mormonism did teach about not drinking hot chocolate or soups, and it wasn’t until later that this was clarified as being limited to coffee and tea which contains caffeine.
While the church has not held an official stance on the “coke” question, it certainly did give hints that members were encouraged to refrain from that as well. We were prohibited, as missionaries in the early 80s, from drinking coke and other caffeinated beverages.