A Brief History of Tithing
The Lord instructed the Saints to pay tithing in the early years of Restoration, but he did not fill out a specific procedure on how to do this. The early Saints in 1831 (see D&C 64:23) understood the word tithing differently that we (members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints) do today. For many decades, saints have interpreted this passage to refer to tithing as we understand it in our time. It is important to understand that at the time the revelation was given (1831), the Lord was speaking of those saints who were willing to offer their properties as part of the greater law of consecration, not the lesser law of tithing as practiced today.
As the Church grew and went west, the Saints came to learn to live the law of tithing as currently constituted. The Lord commanded that we live this law, but once again, he did not give a blueprint on how we should implement his will. This is something we see throughout his dealings with his children: he gives commands, but leaves mortals up to figure out how to do his will. We see this throughout scripture and Church history. This is evidence that the Church is both human and divine, a delicate dance between the blessings and will of the Lord as implemented by his fallen children in a fallen world.
Here’s a short history of tithing and how it has been implemented over the years since the gospel was restored with the formation of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints:
1837 – The Presiding bishop defined tithing as two percent of one’s net worth, after deducting debts. This was voluntary and not forced, to quote, “Believing that voluntary tithing is better than Forced taxes” 1
1838 – D&C 119 redefines tithing as all surplus property and then 1/10th of interest annually.
1844 – Official proclamation for all saints to immediately pay a one-time tithe of 1/10th of their property and money to the church. Exemptions are not made for those who paid at conversion. 2
1845 – The church emphasizes the need to pay 1/10th of all possessions when entering the “new and everlasting covenant.” 3
1846 – Apostle John E. Page, exempt from the rule as he was an apostle, left the Quorum of the Twelve over what he felt was an unjust and mandatory tax. He further stated that many paid at the cost of necessities for life. 4
1847– Orson Hyde describes tithing as 1/10th all of one’s property at the start and 1/10th of one’s annual income thereafter. This appears to be the first known instance of tithing being called 10% of one’s income. Elder Hyde also teaches that the poor are exempt from having to pay tithing. 5
1851 – Brigham Young instigated a vote that would allow excommunication for members not paying tithing or following the Word of Wisdom. 6
1873 – Multiple statements declaring tithing as 1/10th of one’s income that should “be gladly paid,” also emphasizing that everyone should pay their tithing. 7
1874 – Elder Orson Pratt teaches that tithing is an inferior law than the Law of Consecration. 8
1878 – Bishop L.W. Hardy teaches that a widow who receives her full support from the church must pay tithing on those funds. 9
1879 – Lorenzo Snow agrees with Presiding Bishop Hardy, explaining the situation of a widow having to pay tithing is a product of the lesser law (tithing). Had the Saints been following the celestial law (consecration) there would be no hardship for the widow. 10
1881 – President John Taylor instructs stake presidents that Church members “must be tithe payers” in order to have recommends for the temple. 11
1896 – The First Presidency announced the end of salaries for local officers of the Church. 12
1898 – Paying your tithing and living the Word of Wisdom is a means to keep you strong in the faith. 13
1898 – The Church is $2.3 million in debt, much of which is due to the confiscation of Church properties during the persecution from the U.S. government. 14
1899 – Lorenzo Snow stated that everyone must pay tithing, prompting a dramatic increase in tithe payers. This was about the same time he issued a total of $1 million in two separate $500,000 bond issues (Encyclopedia of Mormonism 3:1370). He received a spiritual manifestation and stated, “This is the answer to our financial problems. Even though as a Church we are heavily in debt, I say unto you that, if this people will pay a full and honest tithing, the shackles of indebtedness will be removed from us.” 15
1899 – May 1899 Lorenzo Snow publicly announced a revelation which limited the law of tithing to one-tenth of annual income with no substantial payment upon conversion. As President of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, President Snow is best known for his emphasis on observance of this new definition of tithing. 16
1900 – Lorenzo Snow commissioned a list of non-tithe payers in all stakes. “Snow told the apostles that non-payment of tithing ‘was worse than the non-observance of the Word of Wisdom’” 17
1907 – The church is now free from debt. 18
1908 – Tithing can no longer be paid in livestock, property, labor, or produce. This is the end of what was called the scrip system. 19
1910 – Tithing is now required for a temple recommend. This was also stated by President Taylor in 1881. 20
1914 – The Church releases its first official report on how tithing is being used. 21
1940s – The words “income,” “increase,” and “interest” are used interchangeably in publications from the leaders of the Church. 22
1944 – The principle of paying the Lord first is emphasized. This is specifically meant to curb the practice of deducting taxes and living expenses (farmers are still allowed to deduct their operating expenses) before paying a tithe. 23
1958 – The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has a $7 million surplus from tithing funds. Despite this, the Church manages to go $8 million dollars into debt over the next year and a half. 24
1959 – The Church stops publishing its financial reports. 25
1962 – “The Church was deficit-spending $32 million annually. New York financiers had to advise against the First Presidency’s proposal ‘to finance such spending by selling Church securities for the next fifty years.’ The new year looked no better. By the end of February, there was already a $5 million shortfall, and 1963 threatened to equal or exceed the spending deficit of 1962” 26
1963 – In this version of the general handbook of instructions, tithing was clearly stated as gross income. 27
In 1963, N. Eldon Tanner revamped the financial structure of the church and “step by step the Church was introduced to corporate financing” 28
1965- Another book, The Principle and Practice of Paying Tithing, by Ernest L. Wilkinson, published in 1965 states that tithing is gross, and not net. Notice the trend away from increase entirely and the full acceptance of income. 29
1969 – Another conference talk emphasizing tithing as gross income. 30
1970 – Joseph Fielding Smith and the rest of the First Presidency sent out a letter formalizing that interest is defined as income, as well as leaving it up to the members to decide what is owed. This went to bishops, stake presidents, and mission presidents. 31
1985 – First Presidency member Gordon B. Hinckley stated that “the living allowances given the General Authorities, which are very modest in comparison with executive compensation in industry and the professions, come from this business income and not from the tithing of the people.” 32
Today – All fast offerings and tithing donations are sent directly to Salt Lake and distributed as the church sees fit (2010 General Handbook of Instructions). Income, interest, and increase are often used interchangeably.
Conclusion: The Lord instructed the Saints to pay tithing, but he did not fill out a step-by-step formula on how to do this. This is something we see throughout his dealings with his children: he gives commands, but leaves mortals up to figure out how to do his will. We see this throughout scripture and Church history. Those who wish to disparage the Church and its leaders will find fault whether the Church is successful in financial matters or in times when it has struggled. I have read criticisms on both sides of this issue. When the Church has struggled financially, critics use this evidence to point out that the prophet at the time must have been flawed, or that the Lord, if he existed, would not have allowed this to happen. This is flawed logic. The Lord allows his servants to use their agency to execute his will. There is an important principle of the gospel which need to be noticed here. That which we have the ability to accomplish, the Lord will require of us. On the other extreme are those that say that when the Church has been financially successful, that the Church is only interesting in obtaining money. This is also incorrect. How can any organization effectively take the gospel to the entire world as directed by Jesus Christ himself without serious financial backing? To preach the gospel of Jesus Christ will require significant sacrifice, in time and money!
To say that the Church is not led by the Lord when humans are involved in financial matters is irresponsible. The Church, like the scriptures, has both human and divine elements. Both the Church and the scriptures show evidence that the Lord took part in its formulation. Nevertheless, it is impossible to divorce human prophets with all their imperfections doing their all to bring about the purposes of the Lord from this process. Add to this the fact that the Saints have been slow to pay tithing at times, and the Church has had times of financial challenges. Some of the ideas as to how to implement tithing have evolved over time, like other invitations and commands from the Lord, and the Lord has been patient with the Saints as they have worked to follow him. Changing circumstances have also necessitated adaptation. For us the issue is whether or not we will follow his counsel, listen to his designated servants, and obey. Circumstances may change, but our willingness to follow the Lord will always be required by him.
- Donald Q. Cannon and Lyndon W. Cook, eds., Far West Record: Minutes of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 1830-1840 (Salt Lake City, Deseret Book, 1983), 131. See also Howard D. Swainton, “Tithing,” in Encyclopedia of Mormonism 4:1481.
- History of the Church 7:251.
- History of the Church 7:358.
- John E. Page statement at meeting of Strangite high council. Voree. Wisconsin. 6 April 1846. Document 6. James J. Strang Manuscripts, Western Americana, Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Yale University, New Haven, Connecticut. For a history of Strang and his breaking away from the Church, see Roger Van Noord. King of Beaver Island: The Life and Assassination of James Jesse Strang (Urbana: University of Illinois Press. 1988).
- “The celestial law requires one-tenth part of all a man’s substance which he possesses at the time he comes into the church (See D&C 119:1), and one-tenth part of his annual increase ever after (See D&C 119:4). IF IT REQUIRES ALL MAN CAN EARN TO SUPPORT HIMSELF AND HIS FAMILY, HE IS NOT TITHED AT ALL. The celestial law does not take the mother’s and children’s bread, neither ought else which they really need for their comfort. The poor that have not of this world’s good to spare, but serve and honor God according to the best of their abilities in every other way, shall have a celestial crown in the Eternal Kingdom of our Father.” (The Millenial Star, 1847. Orson Hyde, editor).
- Hosea Stout diary 9 Sept. 1851, in Juanita Brooks. ed., On the Mormon Frontier: The Diary of Hosea Stout, 1844-1861, 2 vols. (Salt Lake City: University of Utah Press, 1964), 2:403; Robert J. McCue, “Did the Word of Wisdom Become a Commandment in 1851?” Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought 14 (fall 1981): 677. For enforcement of the Word of Wisdom, see Lester E. Bush Jr.. “The Word of Wisdom in Early Nineteenth Century Perspective.” and Thomas G. Alexander, “The Word of Wisdom: From Principle to Requirement,” Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought 14 (fall 1981): 46-65, 78-88). This suggested penalty was erractic and not often applied.
- Orson Pratt – March 9, 1873: “Let us go down another scale in the ladder of obedience, and inquire if we are carrying out a law inferior to the Order of Enoch, that is, the law of Tithing? Do the Latter-day Saints comply with that… do they consecrate their surplus property to the Lord, placing it in the hands of the Bishop of his Church, and after that pay one-tenth of their annual income into the treasury of the Lord? Where is there a person carrying out this law which was revealed in the year 1838 and which has never been revoked? It is one of the most simple and inferior laws, far below the order of full consecrations and far below the Order of Enoch, but have we as a people complied with this? I think not. Can you find one out of a hundred persons in Salt Lake City who has carried out this law? Have you done it? The Bishops, whose duty it is to collect the tithing can answer this question better than I can, but I very much doubt whether the records of the Bishops would show that the people have complied with the latter clause of this law—namely to pay one-tenth of their annual income, to say nothing about their surplus property. Are we under condemnation or are we not? Judge ye for yourselves. What will become of this people unless we reform, and repent of our sins in these respects? That which I have already spoken will be fulfilled upon their heads—they will lose the spirit of the Gospel.” (Orson Pratt, Journal of Discourses 15:359-360. Hereafter referred to as JD) Orson Pratt – April 7, 1873: “Where there is a law there is a penalty, and when we transgress the law we incur the penalty; but having been relieved, for a period, from the execution of that law, we were placed under another law, which, in some respects, may be considered an inferior law. When was that law given? In 1838, some five years after we were driven forth from our stewardships. What is that law? It is called the law of tithing. What is the law of tithing? Part of that law enjoins it upon the Saints as a duty to pay into the Lord’s storehouse one-tenth of all their annual income. But let me refer you to the fulness of the law of tithing, for, although an inferior law, I fear that as a people we have not kept it.” (Orson Pratt, JD 16:6, emphasis added. Note that three times in his talk Elder Pratt used the phrase “annual income” to describe tithing.) Brigham Young – May 18, 1873: “Yet the Christian world whine about our paying tithing. The Saints should pay the tenth of their income with glad and thankful hearts, and help to bring home the poor. We have supported and helped the poor to the amount of millions… Everybody should pay their tenth. A poor woman ought to pay her tenth chicken, if she has to draw out ten times its value for her support. It is all the Lord’s and we are only his stewards. (Brigham Young, JD 16:45, emphasis added. President Young emphasizes tithing as a source of assistance to the poor, as well as pointing out that all should pay tithing, not just the well-to-do.)
- Orson Pratt – June 14, 1874 “What next? He gives an inferior law, called the law of Tithing, suited and adapted to us. After we had been driven for neglecting to comply with the greater law of consecration of all we had, he thought he would not leave us without a law, but he gave us an inferior law, namely, that we should give in one-tenth part of our annual income. This law was given in May, 1838, I do not remember the exact date, and I believe that we have tried to comply with it; but it has been almost an impossibility to get the people universally to comply with it.” (Orson Pratt, JD 17:103, emphasis added, delivered in the New Tabernacle, Salt Lake City, Sunday Afternoon, June 14, 1874).
- Bishop L.W. Hardy – May 15, 1878: “Tithing is a law of God which we are required to obey, and it is binding upon all the Latter-day Saints, the poor as well as the rich. In some places the widow, who depends upon the Church for support, pays one-tenth of her income as Tithing. And this course I would recommend to all in similar circumstances, for it is only in compliance with the law that we can expect to obtain the blessings promised.” (Bishop L.W. Hardy, JD 19:334-336, emphasis added. Leonard W. Hardy was the Presiding Bishop of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints from 1856-1883. The Presiding Bishop and his two counselors serve under the direction of the First Presidency to administer the temporal affairs of the Church).
- Said Lorenzo Snow – October 19, 1879: “But as regards the law of tithing, it is in force upon the poor as well as the rich, and it seems that it acts almost unequally in some respects. There is a widow, whose income is ten dollars; she pays one for tithing, and then has to appeal to the Bishop for support. Here is a rich man who has an income of one hundred thousand dollars, and pays ten thousand for his tithing. Now what would be the operation of the celestial law? The widow has not enough for her support, therefore nothing is required of her by the celestial law, or the law of the United Order. This rich man, with his ninety thousand dollars, continues to increase his riches, pays his tithing fully, and yet wholly disregards the law of stewardship, or the law of temporal union. I cannot believe that a Latter-day Saint is justified in ignoring the higher law. For, as we have read, “behold none are exempt from this law who belong to the Church of the living God.” There is not a man within the sound of my voice who is exempt from this law, nor will he ever be until Jesus, the Son of God, comes in the clouds of heaven to set all things right: “yea, neither the Bishop, neither the agent who keepeth the Lord’s storehouse, neither he who is appointed in a stewardship over temporal things.” This will apply to the Bishops who reported here yesterday, and to every Latter-day Saint. We are under this law. We should act in the spirit of this law according to the light of God that is within us.” (This is an example of how tithing approaches consecration, but doesn’t quite meet the needs of the poor. Under consecration, this poor widow would owe nothing, but since the Saints were not living this higher law, but rather the lesser, she is still required to pay one tenth, which is overly burdensome to her in comparison to the rich man. You can see Elder Snow struggle with this inequality in his address. I would add that Elder Snow is also inviting those with means to pay more than tithing, to consecrate themselves to the Lord. Those that do will be blessed. While it is not a requirement for entrance into the temple today (2016), it would seem that this inequality that Elder Snow is pointing out is remedied when the Saints choose to love the Lord and live consecration, and give their all, both physically, and financially, to building up Zion. [JD 20:369, emphasis added].)
- Journal History, 8 Jan. 1881, 5; quote from Heber J. Grant diary, 2 Apr. 1881. LDS archives; JD 22:20748 (Woodruff 1881); Swainston, “Tithing,” Encyclopedia of Mormonism 4:1482.
- Journal History, 7 April 1896, 4. Marriner W. Merrill diary, 2 April 1896, LDS Archives, also Journal History, 2 April 1896, 2-9, for minutes of the meeting at which salaries for church officers were discussed.
- Heber J. Grant: “I know of no individual among the Latter-day Saints who has been faithful in attending to his family and secret prayers, in attending to his public and his quorum meetings, who has been ready and willing to pay one-tenth of his income annually as a tithing to the Lord, who has observed what is known among us as the Word of Wisdom — I know of none such, I say, who has fallen by the wayside.” (In Collected Discourses, 5:400).
- During President Snow’s administration, the Church faced serious financial difficulties that had been brought about by the federal government’s legislation against plural marriage. (Our Heritage: A Brief History of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 1996, 92–104. See also: Encyclopedia of Mormonism – under Lorenzo Snow).
- MFP 3:322; See also Journal History entry for May 8, 1899. See also Encyclopedia of Mormonism 3:1370.
- Our Heritage: A Brief History of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, (1996), 92–104. Richard O. Cowan, The Church in the Twentieth Century (Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1985), 16-17; Richard Edgley and Wilford G. Edling, ‘Finances of the Church,’ and Maureen Ursenbach Beecher and Paul Thomas Smith, ‘Lorenzo Snow,’ in Ludlow, Encyclopedia of Mormonism, 2:508, 3:1370; E. Jay Bell, ‘The Windows of Heaven Revisited: The 1899 Tithing Revelation,’ Journal of Mormon History 20 (Spring 1994): 45-83).
- Anthon H. Lund diary, 2 May, 27 June 1901, microfilm, LDS archives.
- Our Heritage: A Brief History of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, (1996), p. 92–104.
- Thomas Wilson, The power to “coin” money: the exercise of monetary powers by the Congress, p. 167. From the text we read: “The Presiding Bishop of the Church in 1888 commenced issuing scrip to alleviate a currency shortage. Tithes were paid in kind at the Bishops Storehouse, and scrip was used to pay half the wages of person working on the temple in Salt Lake City. Other payments were also made in scrip in denominations ranging from five cents to ten dollars. By 1908, when cash was more abundant, the issuance of scrip was terminated and slowly retired.”
- William H. Smart diary, 5 Apr. 1910, Manuscripts Division, Marriott Library. Smart was a stake president in Utah.
- April 1914 Conference Report, p. 8.
- John A. Widtsoe, Evidences and Reconciliations, pg.285-286.
- Elder LeGrand Richards, Conference Report, April 1944, p.45.
- Ernest L. Wilkinson diary, 4 Dec. 1959. Marriott Library; Condensed Financial Report to the Corporation of the President 12 Apr. 1961 for summary from 1950 to 1960. The above diary entry said that the Budget Committee announced ‘the Church last year had spent $8,000,000 in excess of its income,” which leaves the impression that he referred to 1958. However, the Financial Department reports show that deficit in 1959, which means Wilkinson’s diary reference to “last year” referred to the year that was just ending-December 1959.
- Michael Quinn, LDS Church Finances from the 1830’s to the 1990’s, Sunstone Magazine accessed 12.01.16.
- Gottlieb and Wiley, America’s Saints, 101-02. 135; Ernest L. Wilkinson diary, 6 Mar. 1963.
- There is no reference to interest or increase (also quoted in The Messenger, September 1963, No. 87). September 1963, No. 87 (The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints). “What Is a Tithe? A tithe is one-tenth of a wage earner’s gross income; a tithe is one-tenth of a professional man’s income after deducting standard business expenses; a tithe is one-tenth of a farmer’s income after deducting standard business operating expenses. A farmer should not include as standard business operating expense the produce which is used to sustain his family. A tithe is one-tenth of an individual’s interest.” (General Handbook of Instructions,page 67, emphasis added.)
- Homer Durham et al., N. Eldon Tanner His Life and Service (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Company, 1982), 208-209.
- Ernest L. Wilkinson was the president of BYU in 1965. He said, “I am simple enough, also, out of this and many other experiences, to believe that even in the financial affairs of life it pays one to pay tithing. May I therefore plead with each member of this faculty to make sure that you pay a full tithing, not only for your own blessing but for the blessings that will inevitably be showered on this institution, which needs divine protection and development. And when I say full tithing, I mean one tenth of all that you make, without any deductions for your personal expenses. I mean one tenth of your entire salary, not what many call “take-home” pay, for in my opinion the obligation to pay tithing to the Lord exceeds in importance the obligation to pay taxes to Caesar. Ernest L. Wilkinson, The Principal and Practices of Paying Tithing, p. 22-23.
- Bishop Victor L. Brown, Conference Report, 4 April 1969, p. 34.
- 19 March 1970 letter: First Presidency (Joseph Fielding Smith, Harold B. Lee, N. Eldon Tanner), letter of 19 March 1970. To Presidents of Stakes, Bishops of Wards, and Presidents of Missions.
Inquiries are received at the office of the First Presidency from time to time from officers and members of the Church asking for information as to what is considered a proper tithe.
For your guidance in this matter, please be advised that we have uniformly replied that the simplest statement we know of is the statement of the Lord himself, namely, that the members of the Church should pay “one-tenth of all their interest annually,” which is understood to mean income. No one is justified in making any other statement than this.
We feel that every member of the Church is entitled to make his own decision as to what he thinks he owes the Lord and to make payment accordingly.
- Elder Gordon B. Hinckley, Questions and Answers, Ensign, December 1985, 50.