Church History
Church Finances

“Church Finances,” Church History Topics (2022)

“Church Finances,” Church History Topics

Church Finances

From the earliest days of the Restoration, revelation outlined aspects of the Church’s mission that would require temporal means, including caring for the poor, publishing scriptures and other Church materials, and building houses of worship. Joseph Smith followed revelation as well as then-current business models for financing these important endeavors. Subsequent Church leaders followed this same pattern, adapting Church finances to meet the changing needs of the Church. Over time, the Church has experienced seasons of financial distress as well as seasons in which it was able to build reserves.1

Revelations in 1831 established the “law of consecration and stewardship,” which instructed Church members to devote their property to further the Lord’s work and alleviate poverty. These revelations also established the office of bishop to receive and distribute consecrated properties.2 Joseph Smith and other leaders also followed revelations advising them to manage the Church’s mercantile and publishing activities through an entity called the United Firm.3

1830s bank note

A bank note of the Kirtland Safety Society Bank signed by Joseph Smith and Sidney Rigdon and used as currency between 1836 and 1837.

Like other churches in early America, Latter-day Saint leaders made use of financial tools such as promissory notes, bills of exchange, loans, stocks, and bonds.4 In 1836, in Kirtland, Ohio, Church leaders established the Kirtland Safety Society, a banking institution funded by the purchase of stock. The purpose of this institution was to expand Latter-day Saints’ access to capital and to fund Church objectives. Unfortunately, a financial crisis in the United States and Britain in 1837 depleted bank reserves, disrupted land sales, and led to the collapse of numerous banks, including the Kirtland Safety Society.5

Two revelations in 1838 marked a change in the Church’s approach to funding its operations. They emphasized the importance of tithing as a means of financing the work of the Church and instituted a council to oversee tithing expenditures, which became known as the Council on the Disposition of the Tithes.6

Beginning in 1841, Joseph Smith transacted business on behalf of the Church as “Trustee-in-Trust,” or the person legally responsible for the Church’s assets.7 This was a common organizing model for many churches and other institutions at the time.8 After Joseph Smith’s death, Church members sustained the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles “to dictate about the finances of the church” until the First Presidency could be reorganized.9

During the remainder of the 19th century, the Trustee-in-Trust acted in concert with Church councils to acquire property and transact other business on behalf of the Church, invest in building Latter-day Saint communities, and fund the gathering of Saints to the North American West.10 For example, the Church helped facilitate Latter-day Saint migration to the North American West by extending loans through the Church’s Perpetual Emigrating Fund.11 In 1877, in an effort to ensure careful and consistent accounting, President John Taylor organized an auditing committee that reviewed all transactions conducted under the Trustee-in-Trust.12

Antipolygamy laws enacted by the United States government in the 1880s targeted Church finances, eventually disenfranchising the Church and confiscating its funds and properties. Fluctuating markets and poor investments further depleted the Church’s remaining resources, presenting Church Presidents Wilford Woodruff and Lorenzo Snow with significant debts. After the 1890 Manifesto, President Woodruff worked with lawmakers and court officials to recover Church property and transition many Church-affiliated enterprises into private businesses, a process his successors continued. In 1899, President Snow called on Latter-day Saints to increase their commitment to tithing contributions, which in time helped return the Church to financial solvency.13

In the early 20th century, Church President Heber J. Grant and Presiding Bishop Charles Nibley, who worked previously as businessmen, incorporated Church operations formerly administered solely by the trustee under three entities. In 1916, the Corporation of the Presiding Bishop was created to manage donations and expenditures for “works of charity and for public worship,” including local meetinghouses. In 1923, President Grant established the Corporation of the President, which oversaw all other Church assets used for religious purposes. He also founded the Zion Securities Corporation to manage remaining taxable and non-ecclesiastical entities and properties. During this period, Bishop Nibley worked to bring Church financial records in line with modern accounting standards. As the Church’s financial situation improved, Church leaders began to supply up to 50 percent of the costs of building local meetinghouses, leaving the remainder to local budgets. Financial policies implemented by President Grant remained largely intact until the 1960s.14

Between 1915 and 1959, annual reports of the Church’s income and expenditures were announced in general conference. These reports showed that most funds were directed to ward and stake buildings, headquarters office buildings, Church schools, missions, and welfare.15 After 1959, auditors presented in general conference only the results of an annual general audit, assuring the public that leaders had followed financially responsible procedures and dealt honestly in their use of Church funds.

Deficit spending on the Church’s ambitious international program of constructing ward and stake buildings during the 1960s drained Church accounts. N. Eldon Tanner, formerly a business professional, was called to the First Presidency in 1963 and introduced strict budgetary controls on Church operations. He outlined a financial plan that encouraged building a surplus, maintaining a strict budget, and spending from reserves. Within a short period, the Church was able to meet its operational budgets and pay its debts.16

This improved financial condition allowed the Church to more effectively support many aspects of its mission. For example, since the early 1900s, local wards and stakes had operated their budgets through a mixture of local donations and tithing funds. In 1990, the Council on the Disposition of the Tithes announced that all operating expenses of local units would be paid from general tithing funds. The following year, a consolidated missionary fund allowed the monthly expenses of full-time missionary service to be equalized across missions.17

After decades of surplus spending and careful planning, the faithful contributions of Latter-day Saints resulted in the Church building significant reserves, much of which Church leaders reinvested, saved for future needs, or used for humanitarian and urban renewal projects around the world.18 Beginning in 2013, the Church produced an annual report detailing its spending on humanitarian efforts.19

In 2019, Church President Russell M. Nelson directed the merger of the Corporation of the Presiding Bishop and the Corporation of the President, and the resulting corporation was renamed The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.20 That same year, the First Presidency reiterated their commitment to using sacred Church funds wisely: “We take seriously the responsibility to care for the tithes and donations received from members. The vast majority of these funds are used immediately to meet the needs of the growing Church including more meetinghouses, temples, education, humanitarian work and missionary efforts throughout the world.”21

Related Topics: United Firm (“United Order”), The Kirtland Safety Society, Bishop, Consecration and Stewardship, Tithing, Settlement of Joseph Smith’s Estate, Cooperative Movement, United Orders, Wilford Woodruff, Lorenzo Snow, Heber J. Grant

  1. See Matthew C. Godfrey and Michael Hubbard MacKay, eds., Business and Religion: The Intersection of Faith and Finance (Provo, Utah: Religious Studies Center, 2019).

  2. See Topic: Consecration and Stewardship.

  3. Doctrine and Covenants 4142; see Topic: United Firm (“United Order”). See also Max H Parkin, “Joseph Smith and the United Firm: The Growth and Decline of the Church’s First Master Plan of Business and Finance, Ohio and Missouri, 1832–1834,” BYU Studies, vol. 46, no. 3 (2007), 4–66; Nathan B. Oman, “‘Established Agreeable to the Laws of Our Country’: Mormonism, Church Corporations, and the Long Legacy of America’s First Disestablishment,” Journal of Law and Religion, vol. 36, no. 2 (2021), 212–13.

  4. Amanda Porterfield, John Corrigan, and Darren E. Grem, eds., The Business Turn in American Religious History (New York: Oxford University Press, 2017), 4–8; see also Robert E. Wright and David J. Cowen, “An Historiographical Overview of Early U.S. Finance (1784–1836): Institutions, Markets, Players, and Politics” (Washington, DC: National Park Service, 1999), 3–15.

  5. See Topic: The Kirtland Safety Society; Oman, “Agreeable to the Laws,” 213–14.

  6. David W. Smith, “The Development of the Council on the Disposition of the Tithes,” BYU Studies Quarterly, vol. 57, no. 2 (2018), 131–55. See Topic: Tithing; see also Doctrine and Covenants 120.

  7. Joseph Smith, “Appointment as Trustee, Nauvoo, Illinois, 2 February, 1841,” in Record Book of Mortgages, Title Bonds, Leases, Deeds of Trust and Sales of Personal Property, Hancock County, Illinois, vol. 1 (1840), 95,

  8. James Hudnut-Beumler, In Pursuit of the Almighty’s Dollar: A History of Money and American Protestantism (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2007), 10–14; Mark A. Noll, ed., God and Mammon: Protestants, Money, and the Market, 1790–1860 (New York: Oxford University Press, 2001), 8–15, 271–82.

  9. Minutes, Nauvoo, Illinois, stand, Aug. 8, 1844, 7–8, Historian’s Office General Church Minutes, 1839–1877, Church History Library, Salt Lake City.

  10. See Samuel D. Brunson, “‘To Omit Paying Tithing’: Brigham Young and the First Federal Income Tax,” in Godfrey and MacKay, eds., Business and Religion.

  11. See Topic: Emigration.

  12. John Taylor, Remarks, Oct. 7, 1877, in Journal of Discourses, 26 vols. (London: Latter-day Saints’ Book Depot, 1854–1886), vol. 19, 122.

  13. See Topics: Antipolygamy Legislation, United Orders, Wilford Woodruff, Lorenzo Snow. See also Thomas G. Alexander, “Church Administrative Change in the Progressive Period, 1898–1930,” chapter 13 in David J. Whittaker and Arnold K. Garr, eds., A Firm Foundation: Church Organization and Administration (Provo: Religious Studies Center, 2011), 295–98; Leonard J. Arrington, Great Basin Kingdom: An Economic History of the Latter-day Saints, 1830–1900 (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1958), 383–86, 400–9.

  14. Alexander, “Church Administrative Change,” 298–99; see also Charles W. Nibley, “The ‘Mormon’ Finance System,” The Improvement Era, vol. 16, no. 9 (July 1913), 941–43; Joseph F. Smith, Anthon H. Lund, and Charles W. Penrose, Letter to Reed Smoot, Sept. 7, 1916, in James R. Clark, ed., Messages of the First Presidency, 6 vols. (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1965–1975), 5:36; “Amendment to the Articles of Incorporation of the ‘Corporation of the Presiding Bishop of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints,’” June 1, 1917, Church History Library, Salt Lake City.

  15. See Joseph F. Smith, Tithing Report, 4 Apr. 1915, in Conference Report (Apr. 1915), 8–9; “Statistical and Financial Report—1958,” in Conference Report, Apr. 1959, 91–93.

  16. G. Homer Durham, N. Eldon Tanner: His Life and Service (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1982), 208–9; John P. Livingstone, “N. Eldon Tanner and Church Administration,” chapter 21 in Whittaker and Garr, eds., A Firm Foundation, 485–501.

  17. James B. Allen and Glen M. Leonard, The Story of the Latter-day Saints, 2nd ed. (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1992), 657; Samuel D. Brunson, God and the IRS: Accommodating Religious Practice in United States Tax Law (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2018), 147–68.

  18. Tad Walch, “Church Finances: Presiding Bishopric Offers Unique Look Inside Financial Operations of Growing Faith,” Deseret News, Feb. 14, 2020,

  19. Latter-day Saint Charities Annual Reports,

  20. Oman, “Agreeable to the Laws,” 227, note 163.

  21. First Presidency, Statement on Church Finances, Dec. 17, 2019,