“Tithing,” Church History Topics
In 1838, Apostle Thomas B. Marsh informed Joseph Smith that the Saints in Far West, Missouri, desired further instructions on how to fully live the law of consecration.1 On July 8, Church leaders in Far West met together and petitioned the Lord to “show unto thy servants how much thou requirest of the properties of thy people for a tithing.”2 Joseph Smith received two revelations about how much would be required and how the funds should be administered.
Before this time, the words tithe and tithing as used in the Church referred to any voluntary offering, regardless of the amount. Following an 1831 revelation to Joseph Smith on consecration and stewardship, Saints in Missouri and Ohio donated surplus goods, parcels of land, tools, furniture, and sometimes cash.3 The Church’s system for administering donated resources varied. Sometimes the bishop used funds to purchase land or to assist the poor and needy. For projects such as constructing buildings and printing Church literature, the United Firm or the high council managed donated funds.4
In the July 8, 1838, revelation, the Lord answered the Saints’ question with these instructions: first, the Saints should make a one-time donation of all their surplus property; “and after that,” the revelation said, “those who have thus been tithed shall pay one-tenth of all their interest annually.”5 An additional revelation given that day directed Church leaders to establish a council that would be tasked with deciding how to use these consecrated resources. This council originally included the members of the First Presidency, the bishop’s council, and the Far West high council. Today, the council is composed of the First Presidency, Quorum of the Twelve, and Presiding Bishopric and is called the Council on the Disposition of the Tithes. On July 26, the council met for the first time, but persecutions in Missouri prevented the Saints from fully carrying out the directions of these revelations in Far West.6
In the early 1840s, Church leaders emphasized the payment of tithing to help build the Nauvoo Temple and made tithing a requirement for access to the temple. This requirement was renewed in the 1880s when temples were dedicated in Utah. Church debts mounted later in the 19th century after the United States government seized the Church’s assets in an attempt to pressure the Church to cease the practice of plural marriage, and some members became reluctant to pay tithing for fear their donations would be confiscated.7 In 1899, almost a decade after Church leaders reached an understanding with the U.S. government, the Church remained mired in debt. President Lorenzo Snow received a divine manifestation during a sermon in the tabernacle in St. George, Utah, prompting him to emphasize obedience to the law of tithing. “The time has now come,” he declared, “for every Latter-day Saint, who calculates to be prepared for the future and to hold his feet strong upon a proper foundation, to do the will of the Lord and pay his tithing in full.”8 He traveled to settlements throughout Utah, pleading with members to pay an honest tithe and promising both spiritual and temporal blessings. President Snow’s efforts led to increased commitment, and within just a few years his successor, Joseph F. Smith, was able to pay off the Church’s debts.9
Over time, the Saints’ tithing practices have changed as the economy most Saints lived in has shifted from being based on land and property ownership to cash. In the 19th century, Saints often made in-kind donations, such as animals or produce. Many Saints in Nauvoo donated one day in ten to work on the temple. Salt Lake City had a tithing office and yard that served as places to store donated goods, such as grain, vegetables, merchandise, cut stone, lumber shingles, and livestock.10 In outlying settlements, local bishops’ storehouses were similarly used to pool the community’s resources.11 In calculating their annual tenth as outlined in the 1838 revelation, Church members sometimes counted things like land appreciation as increase since many people were not earning wages.12 In the 20th century, cash earnings and donations became more common.13 Throughout these changes, tithing has remained one of the most conspicuous ways that Latter-day Saints fulfill the commandment to consecrate their lives to God’s work. Today, tithing funds are used, among other things, to build temples and meetinghouses, support family history research, share the gospel with others, and provide humanitarian service.