The biggest Mormon church-owned university in the world — a place that bans beards and wins the title “stone cold sober” school literally every year — is about to get a bit more lit.
Brigham Young University stunned students Thursday when it announced that it would begin selling caffeinated drinks. The Provo, Utah, school is run by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, better known as the Mormon church, and hadn’t previously sold caffeinated drinks since the 1950s.
While Thursday’s announcement was celebrated (with a multitude of memes) across much of Mormondom, it represents the end of an era for the school, and for Mormons more broadly, some of whom had been avoiding caffeine on religious grounds. The decision is the latest move from a church inching further into the mainstream.
Mormon dietary restrictions trace their origins to scripture and what’s called the “Word of Wisdom,” which the faithful interpret to prohibit things like coffee, tea, and alcohol. The Word of Wisdom doesn’t mention anything about caffeine, but Steve Evans, founder of the Mormon blog By Common Consent, told BuzzFeed News that members of the church are “naturally inquisitive, and some have engaged in their own sort of rabbinical analysis of why no coffee or tea.”
“Their answer: caffeine, of course,” Evans said. “So this led to a small but vocal group banning caffeinated drinks.”
Though the church clarified in 2012 that caffeine was not prohibited, the belief has persisted. Its unknown how many Mormons actually avoid caffeine, but Evans said everyone was familiar with the idea.
“My mom wouldn’t let us drink Coke growing up,” Evans said. “I distinctly remember my first Coke, and it was deliciously rebellious.”
As a child, this reporter — who is Mormon and whose first caffeinated soda was a Pepsi in 6th grade — was also left with the distinct impression that people who avoided caffeinated soda were definitely more righteous than those who partook.
Variations of this attitude within Mormonism were bolstered in part by some church leaders, such as Bruce R. McConkie, who advocated for a “retrenchment” within the faith that produced a variety of implied rules such as avoiding caffeine and not using playing cards, according to Matt Bowman, a Mormon and history professor at Henderson State University in Arkansas. The idea was to keep Mormonism distinct from the mainstream.
“The interest of retrenchment era Mormonism is to set Mormons apart again,” he added. “They felt that Mormons had become too assimilated into American culture.”
But the pendulum is now swinging the other way, with many (especially younger) Mormons yearning to assimilate more into the mainstream, not less, Bowman said. BYU’s decision to start selling caffeinated drinks is part of that, along with things like recent dress code changes and the “I’m a Mormon” ad campaign.
“I think this is perhaps one more step, one more move in this larger process of increasing comfort with the world that has characterized Mormonism for the last 20 years,” Bowman added.
BYU plays a significant role in that process as well. Not only is it owned by the church, but it evolved into its current form as a large university under leadership of a president, Ernest L. Wilkinson, who wanted it to help set the tone for Mormonism generally.
“The idea was that BYU would be an engine for maintaining a coherent Mormon culture,” Bowman said. “People would come there and learn about the Mormon lifestyle.”
Now, that lifestyle is officially a caffeinated one.
Though BYU students were never barred from drinking caffeinated soda — gas stations just off campus have long done booming business by selling cases of Mountain Dew — there was much rejoicing Thursday at the prospect getting it on campus.
In a fact sheet, BYU said the the decision to sell caffeinated soda on campus came after “consumer preferences” changed and the school received more requests for it.
Kevin Auernig, CEO of Sodalicious — a Utah-based chain of shops that specialize in “dirty soda” — told BuzzFeed News he has seen those preferences first hand. He owns several stores in Provo, and they’re often “jammed packed” with students who couldn’t get caffeinated drinks on campus. He suggested the drinks are particularly appealing to students who might be cramming for exams.
“People enjoy their caffeine, it helps them get through,” he added.
“You have to understand the frustration of studying late at night and not being able to get a Mountain Dew or a Diet Coke on campus,” he said. “Or worse yet, only finding caffeine free Diet Coke.”