Word of Wisdom akin to Gettysburg address in beauty, conciseness

The Word of Wisdom is akin to Lincoln's Gettysburg Address in its beauty and succinctness, according to John M. Matsen, newly appointed vice president of health sciences at the University of Utah.

"We think of Abraham Lincoln on the train going to Gettysburg and writing down this absolutely classic piece of literature. And in many respects, I look at the Word of Wisdom as being similarly succinct and similarly beautiful in that it tells us what we need to know and understand about the way in which we live life as it relates to health and well-being," he remarked."We are warned about the modern day in which `evil and designing' individuals will attempt to persuade us. " He said he sees an application of that warning in the proliferation of advertisements for alcohol and tobacco products despite a general understanding that those products are harmful.

"[The revelation] defines what you and I should do," he said. "It tells us what we should avoid, it tells us how we should eat, it promises us that if we follow it, we shall `run and not be weary, and shall walk and not faint.' "

Though the Word of Wisdom contains no explicit warning about the chemical abuse so prevalent today, an inference can be drawn from the warning against "hot drinks," Dr. Matsen commented.

"I think one needs to extrapolate a bit from that. When the Word of Wisdom was revealed, coffee was the leading habituator of the time, other than nicotine and alcohol. From the warnings in the Word of Wisdom, we may draw the lesson that we should avoid prescription drug abuse, analgesic abuse, caffeine abuse because they modify the pure form of our body, this temple that we know about.

"This section of the Doctrine and Covenants is not only beautiful, but it is so powerfully important because it tells us how to live."

Dr. Matsen, whose appointment as vice president was effective Jan. 4, agreed that the Word of Wisdom is prescriptive as well as restrictive.

"It's prescriptive in the sense that it tells us to concentrate on fruits, vegetables and grains in the season thereof,' and to eat meatsparingly,' " he noted. "That's essentially what medical science now tells us, and that's what the Word of Wisdom clearly spelled out all those years ago.

"My guess is that if the Lord were giving us the Word of Wisdom at this point, He might modify the words because of the fact that He speaks `unto men according to their language, unto their understanding.' [2 Ne. 31:3.T And our understanding is different now, so He might be a little more elaborative at this point than He was 160 years ago.'

That suggests the need for ongoing counsel from living prophets, he said.

"We can read what our current prophet and the apostles tell us. They add to that which we have in the Doctrine and Covenants in ways that tell us to be physically fit, to do things in moderation, in ways that warn us about the traps that designing and evil individuals would have us fall into."

In verse 3, the Lord says the Word of Wisdom is "a principle with promise, adapted to the capacity of the weak and the weakest of all saints who are or can be called saints."

"Having been in the building where the School of the Prophets was held, and recognizing that it is indeed hallowed ground, I sense those people were good people who didn't have a complete understanding," he commented. "Therefore there was a period of necessary transition. I think verse 3 reflects the gentle, loving way in which the Lord, in effect, said: `I'm not going to tell you you're bad. I'm going to tell you that you should modify your behavior to adjust to this.' And therefore, that modification came.

"But I think most of us understand that successive living prophets have told us that it is indeed at this point a commandment and given in stronger language than that verse, which came from a gentle, loving, caring Father who didn't want to denigrate or come down too hard on those people who, through no fault of their own in the sense of their understanding, were habituated."

Dr. Matsen, 50, is in charge of the health sciences portion of the university; that is, the College of Medicine, College of Nursing, the College of Pharmacy and the College of Health, as well as the university hospital and all its related programs.

The health sciences include approximately 900 faculty members - including those working in pediatrics at the Primary Children's Medical Center adjacent to the University Hospital - and a staff of more than 600. Dr. Matsen administers a half-billion-dollar budget.

Born in Salt Lake City, he moved with his family to Los Angeles at age 13. He attended the University of California at Los Angeles and BYU, where he graduated in 1958. He attended medical school at UCLA, and also fulfilled his internship and residency there.

Thereafter, he served a fellowship at the University of Minnesota in the study of infectious diseases and clinical pathology. He eventually became a professor on the faculty at the school, where he served until he was recruited to come to the University of Utah in 1974.

At the time of his appointment as vice president, he was serving as professor and chair of the Department of Pathology.

A member of the Church since he was baptized by his father at age 8 in the Salt Lake Tabernacle, Dr. Matsen served a mission in Norway. He currently serves with his wife, Joneen, as a stake missionary in the Monument Park 17th Ward, Salt Lake Monument Park North Stake. He recently completed a two-year term as ward mission leader.

The couple are the parents of 11 children, one deceased.

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