In reading the journals of three members of the Willie handcart company, I was very surprised to see repeated references to the Saints consuming coffee and tea on the journey from Britain/Europe to Salt Lake City. Why were the Saints in the Mormon Church still drinking coffee and tea at this time?
Let’s try to put things into perspective a bit on two counts. First, imagine what it was like when the Mormon Church was first organized in the 1830s. Although the revelation relating to “hot drinks” was received in February of 1833, the first issue of the Doctrine and Covenants was not printed until 1835. It is not be expected that everyone who was baptized into the Mormon Church immediately became conversant with all the principles of the gospel, and adopted them immediately.
Secondly, the members of the Mormon Church in England had even less to go on. The members of the Willie handcart company left England on May 4, 1856–most of them new converts to the Church. The scriptures had not yet been published in England, so the only written doctrinal word that the English members of the Church had during that time were the scriptures that Mormon missionaries brought with them.
Also, the Word of Wisdom–the revelation with the proscription against hot drinks–was given, not as a commandment, but, as explained in the second verse,
To be sent greeting; not by commandment or constraint, but by revelation and the word of wisdom, showing forth the order and will of God in the temporal salvation of all saints in the last days–
It was only accepted as a commandment after a vote at a general conference after the Church had moved to the Salt Lake Valley. However, even on the plains en route to the Salt Lake Valley, the leaders encouraged the Saints to abstain from tea and coffee. Following is a word of counsel from Brigham Young during the trek, as reported by Richard E. Bennett,
“I think to propose to the pioneers to leave out ten pounds [of] coffee and take twenty of flour. . . . The Word of Wisdom says tobacco is good for cattle . . . is temperance in all things, this eating and drinking in a great measure is the misery of men. . . . There is no food, drink, vegetable, mineral or anything that is not attached to it without his death in it, but tobacco, opium-the end thereof is worse than the beginning. . . . When you go to a Stake of Zion you will have to quit it. . . . I am for a reformation. You don’t go to a stake of Zion and prosper with these habits.” (Richard E. Bennett, Well Find the Place: The Mormon Exodus 1846-1848 , p.165)