“The Tobacco Habit”

General Conference Address (April 1895)

by James E. Talmage

Delivered on Saturday, April 6, 1895, during the General Conference of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, held in the Tabernacle, Salt Lake City. 

My brethren and sisters and friends: This indeed is an inspiring sight, these thousands of people gathered from all parts of Utah, and probably from adjoining states and territories also, for a common purpose, and particularly as that purpose is one of the most exalted that mankind can have in all its works. I esteem it a particular favor to be permitted to stand before you for a short time, though, as has been stated, I do it without premeditation, not knowing that this privilege and courtesy would be extended to me.

I am quite sure that all who are present will admit the importance of the subject that President George Q. Cannon has just announced (the tobacco habit, and its effects on the physical and moral nature of man); and, finding myself in the stand, I shall take the opportunity of speaking for a few moments from the standpoint of an educator and a teacher amongst the people. I doubt if there is any necessity, indeed, of urging upon you the necessity of observing the laws of health—those laws which have been found by man oft-times through study, investigation, and experiment, and those rules that have so often been revealed of God for the governing of His children. We all profess to be observers of these laws to a greater or less extent, while many of us in our carelessness, forgetfulness, and selfishness are apt to tread them under foot and to feel that the penalties that have been threatened will never fall upon us. I do not believe, however, that we should shun this habit merely because of the penalty, but for the higher purpose that we know it is unmanly and that it is contrary to the will and the purposes and the laws of God. The using of tobacco has been denounced for reasons that are good, founded on physiological grounds, and others of an intellectual nature; and there are objections from a moral standpoint which have been, and are, repeatedly urged. Many of those present will remember that at the last Conference of the Church, the general authorities devoted a great deal of attention to this subject, and their efforts were applauded, not only by members of the Church, but by those who do not profess the faith that the majority of those before me hold and revere; for it is recognized not alone as a religious principle, as a physiological, as an ethical, but as a moral principle, that we should take care of our bodies. Every year the discoveries of learned men, wise and earnest investigators, convince us that the words of the great prophet were true when he declared that the body of man is fearfully and most wonderfully made. No mechanism that man has ever shaped or framed can be compared to it in delicacy and in efficacy. This organism that has been given unto us, (for the majority of those here believe that it has been given us to do with as we choose, except with the provision that we shall be answerable for the consequences) for a divine purpose, can be disorganized very readily, thrown into confusion, made unfit for its exalted purpose. What that purpose is many people will answer differently. I take out one answer for the present, from one of the wisest men whose words have come down to us from a former age: It is indeed the temple of God, and for that reason ought not to be defiled.

Physicians have been telling us for many years of the ill effects manifesting themselves, particularly in the young, from the use of tobacco. They tell us that many of the vital organs are affected, and affected in a manner that is most serious and permanent. It is true the body has within it that tendency, God-given in His mercy, to right itself, to repair itself, and to recover from injury to a very great extent. But there are some assaults from which the body cannot recover, and the effects of tobacco are among those from which it is most difficult to recover. The injury wrought by it is amongst the most serious and far reaching of injuries, affecting not only the immediate users, but their posterity; for the weakening of the vital organs, the impairment of the senses, particularly sight and hearing-these weaknesses are transmitted from generation to generation, and truly do we realize the fulfilment of the great declaration that the sins of the fathers should be visited upon the children even unto the third and fourth generation.

But closely associated with these physical or physiological weaknesses are the intellectual troubles, weaknesses, depravities that assert themselves. I have declared many times, and do it again, that I know not where you can find another community of men and women amongst whom are to be found so many children of promise—promise because of their physical perfection, or a condition approaching perfection, because of their intellectual power, because of their high moral beliefs and sentiments, as amongst the Latter-day Saints. I believe that we have here a chosen people, physically, intellectually, and morally; and I believe, too, that this being chosen in this sense, being distinguished as a community because of these elements and perfections, concerning them the Lord our God will allow no trifling, no trampling under foot of those laws that He has established and that you have accepted as true and binding. As a teacher I can testify to the fact that those who come to us having been born perhaps with this tendency toward the use of such things, this stimulant of the appetite, they come with a burden on their backs that it will perhaps cost them the greatest effort of their lives to escape from. What would you think of starting a boy upon a race, tying his hands and legs so that he could scarcely move, and then expect him to keep pace with his free competitors? Yet in such a way are many of those who are in the habit of using these things placing an incubus upon their children and bringing them into the world with a curse from the time of their birth. But I address my remarks not so much to their parents for their own sakes as for the sake of their children born and unborn. These young boys and girls who have been appropriately termed the pride of Utah are indeed choice sons and daughters of God, and as such they should be guarded most jealously from temptation in the first place, and from these weaknesses that are liable to assert themselves, the germs and seeds of which may be implanted within them through the indiscretions of parents and through the weaknesses of associates and professed friends.

There is one point in the philosophy of the nineteenth century that I have never been able to master—indeed one among many; but there is one that appeals to me as being particularly illogical and absurd, although it is defended oft-times with many so-called arguments. It is this, that if we know a thing to be wrong, if we know a certain habit to be injurious, if we know that it works evil to the state, to the community, to the family, to the individual, that then we will countenance it any way directly or indirectly. I do not mean that I would recommend any effort to destroy the liberty of the man who chooses to kill himself in that way, but I do say that if the Latter-day Saints know that these things are wrong, if, as they profess in their testimonies from time to time, revelations of God have denounced them, and the Lord has told you that tobacco is not good for the body, then why do we sanction its use, why do we permit it to be brought before the children in a manner that will deceive them? We see oft-times our dealers who claim good standing amongst us offering these things in the most attractive and alluring manner possible. Their advertising devices are in many instances calculated to lead on those who have never yet contracted the habit and to confirm those who have adopted it; and even the newspapers of our day, local and general, fill their advertising columns with recommendations, telling you where you may find the best brands of tobacco, what houses sell the best liquor for family and table use, and where you can get drunk for the least money.

I can only speak of this because of the effect produced among the children. I have had a great deal to do with these children, and if I could take you into my confidence and tell some of the fathers and mothers of the young Latter-day Saints that have come to me, in the capacity of students, concerning the heart burnings that I have witnessed and the tears that I have seen fall from those who have told me that if only their fathers and mothers had warned them against these weaknesses they would not have come to me bound in chains from which it required more than human effort to escape. I do not believe I say too much—if I do there are those here who can temper what I say and correct my words—when I declare that these sins will be upon the heads of the parents if they will persist, by means direct or indirect, in leading their children on to sin in this manner and to adopt these enervating, soul-destroying habits with which they stand scarcely a chance in the fierce competition that is growing every year fiercer and stronger in this world of ours. We have heard oft-times much misrepresentation of the so-called principles of evolution; but there is this principle of evolution which I believe is declared as much by the words of God, through revelation, as by the works of nature—the fittest will as a rule survive. When disaster and pestilence stalk through your town, although there may be some who are permitted by the Lord to fall because of wise purposes of His and not because of any weakness of their own or any sins of their parents, depend upon it if He does not stretch forth His arm of miracle, the weak and the sickly and those whose bodies are predisposed to disease are the ones that will fail. During the terrible cholera scourge in Tiflis a few years ago an English observer, who was sent there to take notes of that fearful pestilence and to report home, sent across the wires these terrible words: In the town of Tiflis alone thousands had gone to their graves during the last week, and amongst them every intemperate man had fallen, not one remained. I want to repeat a statement referred to a minute ago that this stimulant of the appetite, this desire for narcotizing effects, once established in the system, is like a monster that has been let loose that will require all the skill and the physical strength of manhood, assisted by the power of God, to subdue. When once let loose you know not what it will do, and the boy that begins with a cigarette will perhaps end in the opium joint, ruined in body, in mind, and in soul by that for which there is no excuse in the first using. The testimony of college presidents and other officers of our great institutions of learning throughout the country is unanimous in declaring that as a rule they scarcely can find a man using tobacco standing near the head of his class. Our great philosopher Franklin, in answer to a question as to what was his opinion concerning tobacco, said he had never used it much and he could not speak from an extended experience, but he did not believe it could be good because he had never found an honest man who had used it and would recommend a true friend of his to adopt the habit.

My brethren and sisters, let the children learn of this in their homes and in that school of the family that never can be dispensed with, though you were to establish your public schools on every block; put them right at your doors, multiply them till they be numbered by the hundred where now you can count but the tens, they can not take the place of that family school without which your children can never be properly trained. In that family school see that you do not annul the efforts that are being made in the public schools by the teachers of your children to instruct them in these things that tend to their physical and their intellectual as well as to their moral development. When I hear people denouncing these things and at the same time directly or indirectly countenancing them, I am reminded of the liquor dealer who was converted through the efforts of some temperance advocates that came into his town. Next day an advertisement appeared in the paper announcing that he had learned of the error in his ways and had determined to desert the business and to reform, and then he gave a list of all the choice wines and liquors that he had on hand and announced that to clear out his stock he would sell them at half price for a week, “come one, come all.”

I believe that these physical weaknesses and these intellectual weaknesses are very closely associated. Although none can doubt that sometimes God for His wise purposes has placed one of His master minds in a misshapen and weakened body; though He has permitted some of His choicest spirits, for reasons that man with all his philosophy cannot fathom, to be clothed in a body far from perfect; yet I do not believe there is a single instance on earth of a body originally strong that has become weakened by a violation of the laws of health in which there resides a normal and a healthful mind. These physical weaknesses that we bring upon ourselves are steps towards insanity, and a great many of the inmates of our insane asylums are those who have been led on from one depraving habit to another, because of this unmanageable stimulant taste and appetite that has been planted within them perhaps while they were children.

I do not know whether the Latter-day Saint fathers and mothers know how extensive is this practice amongst their children. I made it a rule a few years ago to go out at night upon the streets and wander about, and whenever I saw a little knot of boys or young men gathering I watched them from a distance and then mingled with them, and talked with them, and I came to the conclusion that at that time in the town in which I lived, nearly three-fourths of the boys under sixteen years of age were addicted to the use of tobacco. And do you know what that carries with it? The love for unholy associations. The tobacco users among the boys are in many instances the profane boys, the boys who have no love for home nor for anything that is good. If I find a boy whose delight it is to use tobacco or who has become addicted to any other of these destructive habits I do not need to ask much about his home-life, much about his moral nature. I believe with the great Ruskin that if you can find out what a person’s tastes are you know what his religion is and you will know just about what his spiritual status is.

But these physiological and these intellectual objections are to a very great extent but stepping-stones to the great objection that can be urged from a moral standpoint. I am not prepared to say that every man who smokes is a criminal, but I am prepared to say that every boy who smokes is more likely to become a criminal than he would be if he did not smoke. We only need to look at a smoker when in a company of others to see in the first place how every feeling of regard for his fellows is Stamped out by that terrible habit. Selfishness is cultivated, and with selfishness come a host of weaknesses and a horde of minor and major sins. The unselfish man cannot sin as can the one who puts himself before all others. These children’s bodies are like a vessel upon the potter’s wheel, of plastic clay, taking every impression and mark of his finger, the shape of his nail, the imprint of a pattern that is laid upon it. He can shape it and change it as he will. But if it has been put in the fire and hardened and stamped, every mark and imperfection will be there, and it will require a miracle to alter it, to cause the flaws to disappear. The day is speedily coming when these children will be beyond your power to control. These vessels will have been hardened and will have taken the form that they will hold through life, stamped with honor or stamped with shame.

I look upon it as a very significant thing, though I care not to refer to special advertisements or particular companies, that the people who are advertising the sale of cigarettes have taken this very time and occasion, when people are gathered here from other places by the thousands, to advertise their wares. Not content with that, they have turned one of the greatest inventions of modern times, the powerful electric search light, into a recommendation for the use of that which the Lord has declared to be an abomination and a curse among a people. I want simply to ask you to beware of these things. Work with those to whom you are entrusting your children. I believe there should be a closer association between the teachers and the parents. I have often felt to cry shame to the parent who allows the teacher wholly to take the place of a parent. Work with your teachers, assist them by your counsel, by your example and precepts at home, by your admonishings to your children. See to it that while they are young and plastic they are properly shaped, that they may become vessels fit to be used in the service of God. This is to me an all important subject, I trust it will appeal to every one, for remember that we are answerable to the Lord for these spirits that have come to us, and when we stand before the bar of God to answer for the deeds that we have done and to receive the reward or the condemnation that will follow, I believe that among other questions, these will be put to you, “Where are those choice spirits that were given to you? Where are my sons and daughters that were held back in my providence until the day of the great dispensation of the ruiness of times, and then were sent forth with all the powers and elements of leadership and mastership within them? What have you done with them? Have you guarded and attended them until they became fit to walk alone, or have you exposed them to all the temptations of a false civilization? Have you permitted them to be led astray by these glittering attractions that have been spread for them, every one of which was a trap for their feet and a pit-fall in their path?” Among all the great possessions God has given to His people the greatest of all is the children with which he has blessed them; and of all things for which they will be called to give an account in the strictest terms for their stewardship, is the account of these same children that are with you, sons and daughters of God. Guard them, protect them, shelter them, cast the influence of your counsel and your precept about them. These forbidden things are offered in this attractive and alluring manner and they are being cheapened every year so that with but a few cents one may procure enough of them to ruin his soul. All the more need is there of this care and this jealous guardianship on the part of parents who call themselves Latter-day Saints, and all others. May the blessings of God be with you in your labors, and may this practical lesson that is set before us by the authorities whom we have this day raised our hands in promise to sustain and to follow, be heeded in its full significance, that we may be able to give an account in good terms of the stewardship of those whom God has committed unto our care. This I ask in the name of Jesus. Amen.