Church History
Welfare Programs

“Welfare Programs,” Church History Topics (2022)

“Welfare Programs,” Church History Topics

Welfare Programs

Shortly after arriving in Kirtland, Ohio, in 1831, Joseph Smith received a revelation calling upon the Church to “remember the poor, and consecrate of thy properties for their support that which thou hast to impart unto them, with a covenant and a deed which cannot be broken.”1 The Lord continued with directions for the Church’s bishop and his counselors to collect surplus donations into a “storehouse, to administer to the poor and the needy.”2 As Latter-day Saints gathered in Ohio, Missouri, and Illinois over the next decade, supporting the poor and needy remained a vital aspect of building Zion.3 Providing for the poor constituted a major theme of the Doctrine and Covenants, and successive generations of Latter-day Saints have continually focused on this Christian responsibility.4

Latter-day Saints responded to welfare needs in various ways during the 19th century. As its name indicates, the Female Relief Society of Nauvoo took on as a primary objective “to relieve the poor,” and the women coordinated donations for the needy while also looking after poor immigrants arriving in the city in the 1840s.5 By the 1870s, Relief Society members were assisting bishops in the North American West by identifying welfare needs, mobilizing support, storing grain, and providing medical care.6 For 40 years, the Church administered the Perpetual Emigrating Fund to provide immigrant converts with travel loans to “bring the poor” to the Salt Lake Valley.7 At Church headquarters in Salt Lake City, a tithing yard stored donated goods for bishops to distribute, and in outlying settlements, local bishops’ storehouses similarly pooled community resources. Wards and stakes regularly participated in “fast days” by abstaining from meals and donating the food to tithing yards and storehouses.8 As the regional economy expanded into new industries in the late 1800s, wage-based jobs increased and a flood of merchandise imported from the eastern United States created new market competition, which threatened to raise expenses for poorer farmers and workers. Brigham Young and his associates promoted cooperatives between Latter-day Saint producers and merchants as well as local United Order organizations to protect the region’s industry and insure poorer residents against predatory business practices.9 Together, the Church’s many welfare approaches in the 1800s improved conditions not only for the Saints but also for others in their community. On average, the poor enjoyed a higher standard of living in Latter-day Saint areas than in the rest of the United States.10

At the turn of the 20th century, charitable societies in Europe and the United States developed more elaborate and systematized welfare operations, and government institutions developed programs for providing welfare services. Amy Brown Lyman, a Latter-day Saint civic leader and later General President of the Relief Society, undertook university studies in social work and implemented new welfare methods in the Relief Society’s new Social Service Department. Like other social reformers of the Progressive Era who were confident institutions could deliver welfare solutions, Lyman and her associates in the Relief Society sought to assist the disadvantaged by collaborating with other charitable organizations and providing social service training.11

At the outset of the Great Depression in 1929 and 1930, the Relief Society and bishops’ storehouse programs provided direct aid to families affected by devastatingly high rates of unemployment. Four years into the Depression, the First Presidency mobilized Harold B. Lee, the president of the Pioneer Stake and city commissioner in Salt Lake City, and other leaders to develop a Churchwide plan that fostered financial independence while providing aid.12 Announced in 1936, the resulting Church Security Program called for stake presidencies to organize regional councils and cooperate on preparing for local emergencies, encouraging fast offering donations, helping the unemployed find work, and running dozens of work projects.13


Front of an early Deseret Industries store in 1938.

In 1938, the General Welfare Committee, which had been established by the Church Security Program, led efforts to salvage and demolish several condemned buildings in Salt Lake City to construct Welfare Square—a central campus of storehouse facilities, including an industrial-sized cellar, a cannery, a produce and clothing dispensary, a dairy plant, a grain elevator, a chapel, and administrative offices. When meeting with impoverished individuals and families, bishops across northern Utah provided them with storehouse orders they could fulfill at Welfare Square free of charge. In the late 1950s, a bishop was called to manage Welfare Square and provide walk-in orders and employment assistance. Surplus inventory was routed to bishops’ storehouses throughout the world.14

Welfare Square

Aerial photograph of Welfare Square in 1957.

After World War II, the Church launched a massive campaign to collect food and clothing for areas of Europe devastated by the conflict, and Church President George Albert Smith secured permission from the United States government to ship the donations to several European countries. As President Smith observed workers at Welfare Square prepare shipments, the volume of donations brought him to tears. He removed his winter coat and placed it in the cargo. President Smith dispatched Elder Ezra Taft Benson, an experienced agricultural administrator before his call to the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, to coordinate the complex relief effort in Europe. For 10 months, Elder Benson traveled over 61,000 miles (approximately 98,000 kilometers) on his arduous circuit of European countries, where he found severe food shortages and homelessness at every stop. “No one who has not seen it can comprehend the devastation,” he said upon returning home, resolved to expand the Church’s welfare program and enhance Latter-day Saints’ preparation and resourcefulness. The Church sent over six million pounds (approximately three million kilograms) of food and clothing to Europe between October 1945 and December 1949.15

Throughout the rest of the 20th century and into the 21st, the Church continued to develop additional welfare programs and augment the scale of humanitarian and other social services. Expanding from its first store in 1938 to nearly 50 by 2022, the nonprofit thrift store Deseret Industries sold donated goods and provided employment, career training, job placement, technical education, and humanitarian aid. Under the Church’s welfare program, several stake welfare committees began purchasing farmland in the 1940s to provide work and grow produce for bishops’ storehouses and canneries. Many farms were sold in later years because they exceeded storehouse and cannery needs, while the remaining farms shifted to operate with increased volunteer labor.16 Beginning in 1971, health professionals were called on missions to offer assistance to developing hospitals, clinics, and other community health organizations. The Welfare Services missionary program soon expanded to include missionaries of many professions assisting in health care, agriculture, education, business development, immigrant and refugee resettlement, and direct disaster relief.

In 1985, in response to a devastating famine in Ethiopia, the Church established the Humanitarian Aid Fund to collect donations and Latter-day Saint Charities to coordinate and deliver aid. As the result of two worldwide fasts, Church members donated more than $11 million USD to the Humanitarian Aid Fund. Soon Latter-day Saint Charities began partnering with other humanitarian organizations in dozens of initiatives to relieve food insecurity, improve access to clean water and sanitation equipment, eliminate disease through immunization, respond to emergencies, support refugees, and provide wheelchairs and eye care services. In 2020, Latter-day Saint Charities and its affiliates sponsored more than 3,600 projects in 160 countries and territories.17 Welfare services provided by the Church also include Family Services, which offers counseling and addiction recovery, and Self-Reliance Services, which offers help with employment, education, and finances.

Related Topics: Consecration and Stewardship, Fasting, Relief Society, Great Depression, Amy Brown Lyman, United Orders, Emigration