The Evils of Gambling
November 1972

“The Evils of Gambling,” Ensign, Nov. 1972, 42

The Evils of Gambling

Montana recently adopted a new constitution that legalizes gambling. Last year the governor of Illinois signed a law legalizing bingo in the state of Illinois, when operated by charitable, religious, and fraternal organizations. New York City, through its legalized Off-Track Betting Corporation, is catering to hundreds of thousands of eager bettors—executives, cab drivers, secretaries, and housewives. Pennsylvania, Illinois, California, and Connecticut have all sent representatives to study New York City’s management of what is expected to be a popular and profitable source of local revenue. Last year, after decades of opposition on moral grounds, the Massachusetts legislature gave in to economic pressure by establishing a state lottery, thus making the once-puritanical Bay State the fifth state to enter the lottery business.

Government interest in gambling is spurred by the need to obtain additional sources of tax revenue to finance the increasingly expensive and widespread activities of state and local governments. Individual interest is doubtless stimulated by the additional free time and cash in the hands of our increasingly affluent society. But gambling’s basic attraction for the individual has always been the lure of “getting something for nothing.”

In its simplest form gambling is the act of risking something of value on the outcome of a game or event that may be determined in part or entirely by chance. The attitude of the Church toward gambling is clearly set forth in the following statement by President Heber J. Grant and his counselors in the First Presidency on September 21, 1925:

“The Church has been and now is unalterably opposed to gambling in any form whatever. It is opposed to any game of chance, occupation, or so-called business, which takes money from the person who may be possessed of it without giving value received in return. It is opposed to all practices the tendency of which is to encourage the spirit of reckless speculation, and particularly to that which tends to degrade or weaken the high moral standard which members of the Church, and our community at large, have always maintained.

“We therefore advise and urge all members of the Church to refrain from participation in any activity which is contrary to the view herein set forth.”1

Subsequent statements by leaders of the Church have elaborated on the reasons for this strong position.

Gambling is an old evil, long recognized as such. Some Oriental gambling games have been traced back to 2100 B.C. In ancient Egypt persons convicted of gambling were sent to the quarries. Gambling is denounced in the Hindu code, the Koran, and the Talmudic law. Aristotle denounced gamblers.

Gambling was widespread in the Middle Ages, especially among the nobility. But even those who practiced games of chance were willing to recognize evil in the games, at least for others. Legislation in England and France attempted to counteract the detrimental effects of gambling on servants, because it induced them to idleness or caused them to neglect archery practice, thus endangering national security.

One of the most popular forms of gambling was the lottery, which was permitted among working-class people and was common in the English-speaking world in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Queen Elizabeth proclaimed the first state lottery in England in 1576. In 1660 a lottery was even held to ransom Englishmen held in slavery in Tunis, Algiers, and on Turkish galleys. Lotteries were so widespread in the United States in the early 1800s that there were almost two hundred lottery offices in the state of New York alone. In 1832 the gross sale of lottery tickets was over $60 million, which was five times the total national budget of the U.S. government.

It has been suggested that lotteries were a popular way to finance large projects because there were few reliable banks during this period. Therefore, no regular means were available for obtaining huge sums of money except by aggregating a large number of small amounts from citizens of limited means.

Whatever the merit of that suggestion, in the first half of the 1800s there was a public revulsion against the lottery. By 1850 many state constitutions had provisions forbidding lotteries and other forms of gambling. In many states these same constitutional provisions stand as barriers to legal gambling today, and they are under attack.

Opposition to lotteries first came in England in 1773, when the city of London petitioned the House of Commons to abolish lotteries because they were hurting the commerce of the kingdom and threatening the welfare and prosperity of the people. In 1808 the Commons appointed a select committee to inquire into the evils attending lotteries. The committee report, which helped to abolish lotteries in England a few years later, is so current that it could have been written last week instead of over 160 years ago.

The committee reported cases in which people living in comfort and respectability had been reduced to poverty and distress; cases of domestic quarrels, assaults, and the ruin of family peace; and cases of fathers deserting their families, mothers neglecting their children, wives robbing their husbands of the earnings of months and years, and people pawning clothes, beds, and wedding rings, in order to indulge in the speculation.

“In other cases,” the committee reported, “children had robbed their parents, servants their masters; suicides had been committed, and almost every crime that can be imagined had been occasioned, either directly or indirectly, through the baneful influence of lotteries. …”2

In its final report the committee concluded that the foundation of the lottery system was so radically vicious that no method of regulation could be devised that would permit Parliament to adopt it as an efficacious source of revenue and at the same time divest it of all its attendant evils.

At a time when state lotteries are being touted as an attractive way to raise badly needed public funds, it is well to recall that a lottery is the most regressive of all revenue measures. Even more than the unpopular sales tax, its burdens fall most heavily on the poor, who are the principal patrons of this type of gambling.

There can be no doubt that gambling is big business in the United States. Expert estimates of the annual amount of illegal gambling vary from $7 billion to $50 billion a year, with $20 billion being the most popular estimate. That figure amounts to approximately $100 for every man, woman, and child in the United States. The estimated total annual profits amount to about $6 to $7 billion a year. This figure is 50 percent more than the combined 1970 profits of American Telephone and Telegraph, General Motors, IBM, and Standard Oil of New Jersey.

In 1962 United States Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy called attention to the overwhelming cost of gambling:

“… the American people are spending more on gambling than on medical care or education; … in so doing, they are putting up the money for the corruption of public officials and the vicious activities of the dope peddlers, loan sharks, bootleggers, white slave traders, and slick confidence men. Investigation this past year by the FBI, Internal Revenue Service, the Narcotics Bureau, the Post Office Department, and all other federal investigative units has disclosed without any shadow of a doubt that corruption and racketeering, financed largely by gambling, are weakening the vitality and strength of this nation.”3

Today there are many proposals to legalize gambling. Some urge this as a way to obtain new tax revenues, citing the examples of Spain, Norway, Sweden, France, Australia, and twenty other governments whose national lotteries provide significant revenues to state treasuries. Others propose to legalize gambling because they contend that this would weaken organized crime by drying up one of its principal sources of financial support. It is also urged that legalized gambling would reduce the amount of graft and illegal payoffs to public officials.

Still others want to legalize gambling because they feel that it is impossible to enforce laws against it. According to this line of argument, the only effect of laws against gambling is to raise the price of gambling and therefore increase the profits of those of the criminal element who conduct the illegal enterprise.

Closely examined, none of these arguments for legalized gambling is persuasive. When the late Thomas E. Dewey was governor of New York, he answered these arguments, declaring:

“The entire history of legalized gambling in this country and abroad shows that it has brought nothing but poverty, crime and corruption, demoralization of moral standards, and ultimately lower living standards and misery for all the people.”4

The late J. Edgar Hoover, director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, is quoted as saying: “If you think legalizing games of chance starves out the criminals, look at Las Vegas, where the games are legal, yet the hoods still deal themselves in and related vices flourish.”

In urging the state of Alaska not to legalize gambling as an economic panacea, Senator Alexander Wiley of Wisconsin gave these additional financial reasons: The idea that gambling would increase revenues is an illusion. Every dollar raised from gambling would mean five dollars spent in “higher police costs, higher court costs, higher penitentiary costs, and higher relief costs.”5

In addition to all of these reasons, gambling should not be legalized because it is immoral. The law is, of course, too imperfect an instrument to condemn all immoral conduct. Although to hate is immoral, the law cannot efficiently condemn that sin. But gambling is different. Its evils can fairly be measured in the lives of those who are affected by it.

Few would urge that the law promote gambling; yet to legalize gambling would have just that result. The law has an important standard-setting function. A law legalizing gambling would, in the eyes of many, be understood as a formal declaration that this kind of conduct is moral, proper, and expected. Persons now deterred from participating in gambling because they believe it to be illegal and immoral would be encouraged to participate.

Gambling is especially pernicious when it is administered by government or when government relies on it for a substantial source of tax revenues. In times when our government’s appetite for taxes seems insatiable, government officials who depend on gambling for a share of the public budget would have a strong temptation to promote gambling and to protect it from opposition.

Those who doubt the force of this argument should consider the history of efforts to impose more stringent government controls on that deadly product—tobacco. These efforts are commonly and forcefully resisted on the grounds that the vitally needed health measures would reduce essential tax revenues, disrupt the economics of certain states, and cause much unemployment.

Let us not allow gambling to obtain the same hold on our government and lawful businesses. Government should work to refine the moral sensitivities of its citizens, not pander to their weaknesses.

There are at least five reasons why our Church leaders have urged us to avoid gambling and to fight this evil practice in our communities.

First, gambling weakens the ethics of work, industry, thrift, and service—the foundation of national prosperity—by holding out the seductive lure of something for nothing. By the same token, gambling encourages idleness, with all of its resulting bad effects for society.

President Joseph F. Smith, sixth president of the Church, gave this emphasis to the importance of the ethic of work in the gospel of Jesus Christ:

“We do not feel that it is possible for men to be really good and faithful Christian people unless they can also be good, faithful, honest and industrious people. Therefore, we preach the gospel of economy, the gospel of sobriety. We preach that the idler shall not eat the bread of the laborer, and that the idler is not entitled to an inheritance in Zion.”6

President Stephen L Richards of the First Presidency (1879–1959) said that gambling “proceeds upon the assumption that one has to lose for another to gain.” He then declared that the element of chance in gambling leads those who indulge in it to believe that chance is the controlling and dominant influence in life. “And so obsessed do some people become with it that they cannot contemplate or think of any other way in which to increase their means and their income except by taking the chance that gambling affords.”7

A second evil of gambling is that it promotes greed and covetousness and inevitably involves and encourages the base practice of overreaching and taking from one’s neighbor. A Methodist minister, Lycurgus M. Starkey, Jr., of the St. Paul School of Theology in Kansas City, Missouri, concluded an attack on gambling with words that every Latter-day Saint should recognize as familiar doctrine:

“The good Christian’s love of neighbor will stand against every practice which hinders the growth of the human spirit toward the likeness of Christ or which breaks down the structures of justice in society. The Christian will himself refrain from gambling and from publicly endorsing it in any form, realizing that gambling is detrimental to the purpose of life as revealed in Jesus Christ.”8

A third evil of gambling is its tendency to corrupt the participant. We are all familiar with cases in which trusted employees have ruined their lives and brought disgrace and tragedy upon themselves and their families by stealing their employer’s money. All too often the sordid story is traceable to a desperate attempt to pay gambling debts or to finance further gambling activities.

The temptations of the gambler are such that persons in responsible positions in government and private industry will not hire or retain as employees those who are known to gamble. In recounting the undesirable side effects of gambling, mention must also be made of the fact that gambling is often accompanied by indulgence in alcohol and other vices.

A fourth disadvantage, one cited by persons not concerned with the moral effects of gambling, is the extraordinary waste of time involved in it. Those who while away their hours gambling frequently do so to the neglect of family and work.

Time wasted in gambling becomes more significant when we reflect that many persons who indulge in gambling become addicted to it. The late Elder Richard L. Evans of the Council of the Twelve (1906–1971) made this statement:

“The spirit of gambling is a progressive thing. Usually it begins modestly; and then, like many other hazardous habits, it often grows beyond control. At best it wastes time and produces nothing. At worst it becomes a ruinous obsession and fosters false living by encouraging the futile belief that we can continually get something for nothing.”9

The fifth and final condemnation of gambling follows from other disadvantages already discussed. Whenever we as Latter-day Saints engage in any kind of conduct that is inconsistent with the companionship of the Spirit of the Lord, we pay an enormous price. Left without the sustaining influence of that Spirit, we are vulnerable to temptation, prone to criticize, and subject to being tossed to and fro and buffeted by the forces of the world and the works of the evil one.

There can be no question that gambling dulls the spiritual sensitivities of those who participate in it. In that terrible effect we may identify gambling’s most far-reaching and evil influence. Elder John A. Widtsoe of the Council of the Twelve (1872–1952) gave vivid expression to this thought:

“They who gamble, who walk with chance, suffer degeneration of character; they become spiritually flabby; they end as enemies of a wholesome society. A gambling den, however beautifully housed, is the ugliest place on earth. The tense participants live in a silence broken only, over the tables, by the swish of the wings of darkness. There is an ever-present brooding spirit of horror of an unknown evil. It is the devil’s own home.”10

What I have said about gambling should be understood to include playing cards for money, betting on horses and athletic contests (including office pools on the world series), casino gambling in all its forms, lotteries, raffles, bingo for money, and dice.

I further suggest that the same spirit of gambling, the same reckless wagering on the chance turn of events, characterizes some forms of investments. The same evils that attend a throw of the dice for money can attend the person who casually puts his money on a highly speculative stock or commodity investment. I know of no better test in this area than that suggested by President Joseph F. Smith, who remarked:

“The element of chance enters very largely into everything we undertake, and it should be remembered that the spirit in which we do things decides very largely whether we are gambling or are entering into legitimate business enterprises.”11

One type of gambling that has been vigorously criticized by our leaders is card playing. Cards may, of course, be played without playing for money, but the relationship between card playing and gambling is so close and the practice of card playing itself partakes of so many of the disadvantages of gambling that card playing has come under condemnation regardless of whether or not gambling is involved.

Elder Widtsoe criticized card playing on the grounds that it was habit forming and a waste of time. He declared:

“It has been observed through centuries of experience that the habit of card playing becomes fixed upon a person and increases until he feels that a day without a game of cards is incomplete.

“After an afternoon or evening at card-playing, nothing has been changed, no new knowledge, thoughts, or visions have come, no new hopes or aspirations have been generated, except for another opportunity to waste precious hours. It leads nowhere; it is a dead-end road. … Dull and deadly is a life which does not seek to immerse itself in the rapidly moving stream of new and increasing knowledge and power. Time is required to ‘keep up with the times.’ We dare not waste time on pastimes that starve the soul.”12

Today, with increasingly common and persuasive proposals to legalize gambling, we need a broader resolve. All of us should use our influence as citizens to combat all attempts to use the evils of gambling as a means of accomplishing some supposed social good. We should also heed the counsel of our Church leaders, who are “unalterably opposed to gambling in any form whatever” and who ever counsel us to keep ourselves clean and unspotted from the sins of the world.


  1. “Editors’ Table: Gambling,” Improvement Era, vol. 29 (September 1926), p. 1100.

  2. Francis Emmett Williams, Lotteries, Laws and Morals (New York: Vantage, 1958), pp 26–27.

  3. Robert F. Kennedy, “The Baleful Influence of Gambling,” Atlantic Monthly, April 1962, p. 76.

  4. Lycurgus M. Starkey, “Christians and the Gambling Mania,” Gambling, ed. Robert D. Herman (New York: Harper and Row, 1967), p. 232.

  5. Ibid. p 228.

  6. Joseph F. Smith, Gospel Doctrine 5th ed. (Deseret Book Company, 1939), p. 208.

  7. Stephen L Richards, Where Is Wisdom? (Deseret Book Company, 1955), pp. 54–55.

  8. Starkey, pp. 232–33.

  9. “On Taking a Chance,” Improvement Era, vol. 49 (December 1946), p. 793.

  10. “Should Latter-day Saints Play Cards?” Improvement Era, vol. 43 (April 1940), p. 225.

  11. Gospel Doctrine, p. 326.

  12. Improvement Era, vol. 43 (April 1940), p. 225.