Resource Constraints & Shifts In Religious Behavior Patterns

The recent issue of BYU Studies contains a paper written by my co-blogger Jonathan Stapley regarding the Relief Society’s burial services the early 1900’s.  The paper addresses a decline in Relief Society burial preparations, and largely attributes this decline to the Relief Society’s inability to compete with professional burial service providers. I think this is reasonable, but found it somewhat incomplete when I looked at the data.  In particular, I was curious about the speed of the decline in burial preparations over time, and wondered if there might be more to the story than an inability to provide equally good burial services. In any case, it seemed like an excellent opportunity for rampant speculation.

The data used by Stapley in his paper reflects the impact on death and burials that the 1918 influenza outbreak had: the population shrank and burials spiked dramatically. Notably, prior to 1918, the number of RS burials per 100 members was increasing each year–some apparent evidence that the RS was actually gaining ground in the battle against gentile funeral home operators. However, the subsequent years demonstrate that 1918 was something of a last hurrah for RS burial services, as the popularity seemingly declines rapidly. Why?

I think it’s possible that one-time, catastrophic events like 1918’s influenza can fundamentally alter patterns of religious behavior in a community, even if no teachings or beliefs are altered at all. The church is a volunteer organization, dependent on donations of time and money and skill from its membership. As such, it’s plausible that the influenza outbreak during 1918 destroyed the Relief Society’s burial services: in an ironic twist, the surge in demand for burial services simply overwhelmed the resource-constrained Relief Society, and effectively forced people to use professional care instead. Once that barrier was breached, it’s easy to see how a once-despised market became instantly viable, visible, and popular.[1]

In the Church and other areas of life, we often do things the way we do for no other reason than that, at some point in the past, we adopted a practice or belief consistent with our resources at the time, and simply haven’t had a compelling reason to change. When a disaster takes place that exposes the limitations of those resources, we scramble to find ways of ensuring that we’re not exposed again–like turning to professional funeral services. Thus, an overdrawn budget may simply force changes in religious behavior, regardless of religious beliefs or preferences.

The current economic difficulties for many members of the Church presents an excellent opportunity to test this idea.  In time past, there are many traditionally conservative Mormons who would strongly prefer to not rely on the public dole during financial hardships.[2]  Similarly, despite my youth, I have known many Bishops[3] who, being of this same political persuasion, would consider sending those in their stewardship to the County Food Stamp Office an act of religious treason.  In short, my experience has been that, other things equal, we don’t prefer counseling members to flee to the government for welfare assistance.

However, during the past couple of years, I’ve been told multiple times in various Ward and Stake meetings that the chest of fast offerings is empty, or running on fumes.  Not surprisingly then, I’ve also seen an unprecedented level of support for sending welfare cases to local government/charity programs.  Indeed, an individual in my own ward was recently called as a Public Services Specialist, with a specific charge to become familiar with, and disseminate information about, all of the publicly available services in the area.

Sending members of the Church to the local Welfare Offices in 2011 corresponds to the RS President telling you to dig your own grave in 1918 because she’s already swamped.  However, what remains to be seen is what will happen in 2012 and beyond. The permanent shift away from Relief Society burial preparations after 1918 suggests that either a) the professional services offered something of value that earned repeat customers, or b) local Relief Society leaders, wary of the previous year’s strain, unofficially became less accommodating generally, or c) both.

What are the possible implications for Church welfare?  This could portend a shift away from Church assistance in favor of public welfare programs, and the reason is fairly simple:  People who are referred to public welfare programs after previously going to the Church will make a few startling discoveries.  First, they can go back again without going through the Church–there is no requirement of an interview with a Bishop, or a detailed analysis of needs (in many cases).[4]  Second, it’s cash/food stamps, not food–that means a greater degree of freedom in terms of food choices, stores, and timing.  Lastly, and perhaps most importantly, it is less likely that a person would experience complex feelings of guilt or shame that can easily accompany mixing our spiritual lives with our financial lives.[5]

If I am super gloomy and doomy, it is possible that this shift would then have it’s own negative impact on Church welfare programs: Fewer users could translate into decreased appreciation (or “testimony” if you will) for the Church welfare program generally, leading to a decrease in donations, and starting the cycle all over again.

Alternatively, it is possible that the economic mess that we’re mired in will not change anything permanently, or at least not noticeably. However, the theory underlying the post is more general: Sometimes changes in our patterns of religious behavior may not be a function of changes in our religious beliefs as much as they are a function of changes in resource constraints and tipping points.


[1] Not only does a spike in deaths benefit existing professional service providers, but the surge in demand also likely attracted additional providers to the industry, further accelerating the growth of the market. Simultaneously, the existing RS would be experiencing shortages of labor as its own death rate rose.
[2] To say nothing of  members of the Church (like me!) who exhibit a strong preference for condemning those who do rely on the dole!
[3] To say nothing of the countless men I’ve heard say, “Well, if I was Bishop…”
[4] The requirements for public welfare and charity-funded services vary widely. While my observation of certain programs match the description above, another friend indicated to me that the requirements are often quite stringent and, for lack of a better term, anal-retentive. YMMV.
[5] This is not to say that I think these outcomes are desirable. As suggested in Footnote 2 above, I am BCC’s resident government-welfare-hater.


  1. This is really insightful stuff, Scott.

    I doubt that you had to have an interview with the RS President before they prepared a family members body for burial. If they did, I would imagine that the decline would have been even more precipitous. As you say, I’ve also noticed a shift in the last couple of years in the US (which really is where this conversation makes sense) regarding acceptance of government welfare services. Is it possible that the emphasis on the 75th anniversary of the Church Welfare services in the last General Conference was an attempt to reassert some internal primacy?

    And how I wish I would have talked to you sooner to point this out in the paper!

  2. Thanks J. I hadn’t thought about the recent GC addresses, but that kind of fits into the picture. You’re also correct that this is a very US-centric post, and I should have clarified that in the post to avoid any confusion from other readers.

  3. In fact, as my brother pointed out to me a moment ago, this is really more of a Utah-politic-centric post. I think that the further you get from the conservative hive, the less likely the mentalities discussed above are to appear.

  4. I know many members of the bloggernacle would love to see private moving companies be the next private burial preparers. No more EQ moves!

  5. (For the record, I don’t have a horse in the EQ move race since I am not a member of the EQ. I do think it has a certain barn-raising kind of charm as a cultural practice.)

  6. Interesting idea Scott. Dramatic bifurcation under stress is seen in all kinds of places where energy budgets get plundered somehow. Wonder if this is a manifestation of that kind of thing. Anyway, cool.

  7. Scott, this is very interesting for me for a number of reasons. Living in England, with a very active welfare state, the dynamics you highlight have a direct bearing upon how these ideals are practised here. Anecdotally, welfare is most often given to those people who are not already on state welfare but who are, in general, financially stable but who for various reasons are struggling in the short-term. Because in order to receive welfare in the UK there is an interview and a quite rigorous assessment of resources, Church Welfare (although spiritually and emotionally more difficult) is actually probably easier to receive in the short-term. For example, to receive unemployment welfare you need to actively seeking work for a specific period of time and limited financial resources available to you in savings, for example.

    Great thoughts and interesting questions.

  8. WVS, were you thinking of something like this? Or perhaps something larger scale, less pristine, and more dramatic?

  9. A good example of religious practice changing due to constraints is the move to the 3 hour block.

  10. Fletcher says:

    Ezra Taft Benson is rolling over in his non-R.S. dug grave.

    It would be an interesting thought question to consider what would happen if there were more competition for charitable relief, rather than have a state-run program. Then again, if the state-run programs didn’t exist (or the tax burdens that come with them), then fast offering coffers may not be running dry.

  11. Peter LLC says:

    I think that the further you get from the conservative hive, the less likely the mentalities discussed above are to appear.

    Probably, unless your ward’s leadership is populated with conservative expats who think the relatively round wheels already in place need some reinventing.

    Anyhoo, as a net contributor to the social welfare system of my country of residence, I have two things to say to those who’ve fallen on hard times:
    1. Get a job, slackers!
    2. In the meantime, please avail yourself of the vast stores of state-managed wealth and expertise made available specifically for people in your situation. You didn’t spend your adult life paying half your salary in taxes to let it all go to some truly workshy sluggard, did you?

  12. I have a real problem with asking already financially burdened members to ante up fast offerings to be used in place of government assistance which we’re already paying for with our tax dollars. Fast offerings should go outside our country to the destitute in countries with no social network.

  13. Brian-A says:

    In the linked data, what is present membership? (It’s about but not exactly a factor of 10 lower than the membership numbers the Deseret News Church Almanac lists.) I assume burials means RS burials. When I tried to compute the proportion of Mormon burials performed by the RS (burials/[present_membership*10*utah_death_rate]), the results were a steady 99%-100% market share over the whole 1914-1934 period. The declines in (RS?) burials per member after 1918 reflect the declines in deaths per member, not a structural shift.

  14. Brian-A, note that it was burial preparations (basically the cleaning and dressing of the corpse preparatory to burial). On p. 110 of the article, I state: “In 1914 alone, Utah recorded certificates for 4,633 deaths;[73] that same year Relief Society members across the world prepared only ‘1,490 bodies . . . for burial.'[74]”

    Something I didn’t mention in the article is also the rise of life/burial insurance in the church. Paul Reeve treats the early period of this history quite excellently. Basically non-Mormons on the frontier relied on fraternal organizations which supplied a small amount of life insurance benefits to pay for burials to its members. Mormons relied on their coreligionists. However by the early 20th century a large portion of the Saints had join one of the various fraternal groups (secret societies), much to the dismay of church leaders. So the Church created Beneficial Life and there was a huge push to get members to sign up for the Church sponsored insurance.

  15. Scott, I think your thoughts on what happened to RS burials following the 1918 flu may not take in all the facts. More than just the large numbers of dead, there were also issues of contagion and new burial codes/laws.
    Fast offerings should cost members nothing.
    While the Church does have a fine Welfare obediLeave a Reply Cancel reply
    Enter your comment here…
    Scott, I think your thoughts on what happened to RS burials following the 1918 flu may not take in all the facts. More than just the large numbers of dead, there were also issues of contagion and new burial codes/laws.
    Fast offerings should cost members nothing.
    While the Church does have a fine Welfare Program, members have always been big users of government welfare.

  16. “I know many members of the bloggernacle would love to see private moving companies be the next private burial preparers. No more EQ moves!”

    Moving people as part of my EQ is on of my favorite aspect of being a member of the Church. I have a draft of a post on the topic. However, since it does not deal with Rawls or Gender…it will have to wait.

    Chris H.

  17. Bob, do you have any pointers to examples of these laws? I’d be very interested.

  18. Peter LLC says:

    However, since it does not deal with Rawls or Gender…it will have to wait.

    Tsk, tsk! You don’t want the blood of unmoved households on your hands, do you?

  19. hehe, Peter, I am helping people move….just not writing blog posts about it.

  20. Hmmm… this is not the first time that many members had to settle for finical help from the government. As far as I understand, in the church’s welfare system proved inadequate in the Great Depression and members of the Church, in Utah especially, relied heavily on government support. Instead of starting a new period of acceptance of government welfare, it seems like this was the beginning of condemnation of government welfare.

  21. Interesting insight, Scott. Even in a relatively affluent stake, we have our own issues with fast offerings, primarily due to higher than average housing costs and food prices here in the Seattle area. Normally we should be contributing large surpluses to the general church fast offering funds due to higher incomes, but when things turn south, the high rents and cost of medical services here can quickly suck up that surplus and leave our stake and ward fast offering funds deep in the red.

    I’ve seen little of the negatives views some associate with government services here, especially in terms of medical services. I’ve known ward members who have only been able to get urgently needed and expensive medical care through the state’s services that would not have been possible through normal church channels, and no bad reflections on the members seeking those services. However, the ongoing economic pressures and budget cuts have forced thousands off of the state’s plan who now have no recourse. The increased demand for services in the public sector have not offset the decreased ability of our church, other churches, or secular charitable organizations who have traditionally provided those services.

    In other words, the public sector is also undergoing resource constraints as well, so I see a lot of people in need just left out in the cold (literally as well as figuratively). So if there is a shift away from church services, there isn’t as much in terms of outside resources for this demand to shift to.

    I’m also not convinced that there is greater guilt or shame associated with church welfare services than with public sector services, and perhaps even less from what I have observed in my church service.

  22. Interesting. How did the RS get involved in embalming/burial in the first place? Was this since the pioneer days?

  23. #17: Google as a great deal on laws passed during the Flu of 1819. Some laws were passed on wearing masks, no spitting, schools were closed. Quarantines were put in place for the living and dead.
    The flu lasted about two months than stopped on it’s own.
    Drinking of alcohol was recommended.

  24. Mark Brown says:

    Good insight, Scott. I hadn’t thought of fast offering assistance in connection with the current financial hard times, but I have wondered if the recent changes in policy for senior missionaries have anything to do with 401(K) accounts losing half their value in the past few years. It appears to me that as the financial future for people nearing retirement age has grown murkier, the church has moved to make senior missions more affordable and created guidelines so people can plan for how much a mission will cost.

  25. Glenn Smith says:

    Bob’s (#15) comment about burial codes and laws and Jonathon’s (#17) qustion for details sent me looking for laws governing burials in Alberta. The following article is a good summary of Canadian practices. Note the comment about Mormon special rituals under the Post-Burial Rituals sub-title, I had thought there was an embalming requirement, etc., but perhaps not – more cultural than a requirement. Still looking…

  26. Glenn Smith says:
  27. Naismith says:

    “How did the RS get involved in embalming/burial in the first place? Was this since the pioneer days?”

    Even today, RS has some responsibility regarding burials. At least in my stake, in an area without a church distribution center, if someone dies without burial clothing that fits (and some diseases cause swelling at the end), the RS is charged with providing the clothing. Our stake RS maintains a selection of clothing, but this means driving an hour or more to pick it up.

    As an RS president and bishopric, my husband and I have spent a lot of time worrying about health care for members because that is something that the church could not provide. We did send people to various clinics and talked providers into free procedures. We wondered what it would be like to live in Canada or Australia, where access to health care is not an issue.

  28. Obolus, you need to check out the article, which addresses this. Note too that men also participated in preparing corpses for burial. Basically this was an extension (expansion, perhaps) of standard American death culture. Morticians weren’t part of the picture until the latter half of the 19th century. Before that, often it was family, friends, and in the case of Mormons, their coreligionists.

  29. Glenn Smith says:

    The comments about the 1918 infulenza outbreak are highlighted by a true story retold by Elder Vaughn J Featherstone IT is found in the Aaronic Priesthood Manual 2, under Lesson 30 Charity. It is my favourite story about priuesthood service, but it addresses the family burial role during the outbreak.

  30. Burials: In what used t
    o be ‘the mission field’, temple burials are still ‘overseen’ by RS presidents or HPGLs who direct non-LDS morticians. Their work is more ‘checking’ than ‘doing’.

    Welfare: We are told that tithing is the first check we should write each month, but the church is the last place you should go to if you need help. Who is supposed to be the ‘storehouse’, the bishop or the government? Don’t we loose a little too much of ‘pure religion’ if we stand aside and let government do it? What is the doctrinal explanation for the switch?

  31. j.a.t.,
    There isn’t a doctrinal explanation–that’s kind of the point. Sometimes societal currents alter behaviors, despite constant religious policies or stated beliefs.

  32. Scott, great post. From what I understand, the change in Church policy regarding public welfare came during the mid-90s under President Hinckley. It began with the Church’s hospitals (making sure all uninsured patients who qualified for public insurance programs were enrolled) and the same idea eventually made its way into the handbook regarding fast offerings. I wonder if the Bishops you knew were politically inclined, as you say, to ignore this shift (which was probably within their discretion to some extent). This doesn’t nullify your argument here (and perhaps even strengthens it) – it’s just that it could be a change taking place specifically at the ward level, while actual Church policy has been in place but ignored for years now.

    As far as predictions for the future go, I’ll bet that this would decrease the number of members receiving long-term assistance from the Church, while members in need of short-term assistance will continue to come to the Bishop first.

  33. Steve_G says:

    Great article Scott.

    I’ve been trying to think of another policy that gets changed due to financial circumstances. The burial vs cremation dilemma outside of the US probably fits. Burial is very expensive in Europe and other places. At least that was my impression while serving my mission there. Even when plots could be afforded, it was hardly ‘until the resurrection’ as here in the states. Over there burial plots often got turned over every 40 years to make room for more.

    Another example might be the shift in the 80’s regarding birth control. As the cost of raising a passel of kids grew, large families became more unsustainable and the stigma against birth control decreased. Bow you rarely if ever hear anything said against using birth control. Vasectomies are still the current taboo, but I wonder if even that will disappear in time.

  34. Anon for this one says:

    Reading the post got me thinking that, if you’re right, Scott, it would still require that private burial services turn out to be a lot less odious than Mormons at the time imagined. In other words, they didn’t use private services because: 1) it was provided at zero price; and 2) there was something improper about using the services. Once people were forced to use private burial services, the market broadened and prices came down, and they found out that it wasn’t as [insert demeaning adjective] as they imagined. The resource constraint pushed them into the services, but they only stayed there, and allowed the private market to thrive, because the private market was beneficial.

    I’m not sure the same thing applies with government welfare. All of my experiences with government services have been decidedly negative in nature.

  35. Scott B. says:

    anon (34),
    Well, I think that there are some positives about the government welfare–I noted them in the post–relative to church welfare. The most important one is that people can keep their financial problems out of the ward’s business–keep spiritual life separate. This can be a very valuable thing in a society (like Mormon society) with a tendency to place a high premium on both appearances and self-reliance (as well as the appearance of self-reliance!). Failure to provide for oneself is often a source of massive guilt and feelings of unworthiness.

    A second one is that government welfare can be more versatile in terms of timing and choice than a food order from the bishop’s storehouse.

  36. justkidding says:

    Scott (35),

    There are some positives of government welfare, but there are also negatives. Most of the costs and benefits are going to the type that are subject only to personal valuation. For example, the ability to keep temporal well-being out of the religious realm will be more valuable to some than to others. Likewise, the fact that government services usually have the customer service quality of the DMV will be more costly to others. In the market, there are many incentives for good customer service and a wide variety of options for customers. In government, the incentives are to standardize everything and there are very few incentives for good customer service. For that reason it is far less likely that we will reach a tipping point going from cultural to government than we would going from cultural to market. Some will switch, but far fewer, I think, than we might fear.

  37. Scott B. says:

    I think you’re right–I think that it is unlikely to happen simply because everyone loves the guilt-free ride of a government program. Longer term, the change in leaders’ willingness to send cases to public programs sooner rather than later is likely to have a larger impact, IMO.

  38. Scott B. says:


    the same idea eventually made its way into the handbook regarding fast offerings.

    See, I had this same discussion yesterday with one of my fellow bloggers, and I think it’s a myth. I even spent time yesterday reviewing the current handbooks (both–the publicly available one and the bishops/stake presidents one), and there is no such language anywhere.

    In the Bishop/Stake manual, it says only that church members _may choose_ to pursue government aid, but it does not recommend it, encourage it, or endorse it in anyway beyond a very weak “local leaders should be aware of these things.” Even then, it is immediately followed by a statement that Bishop’s should take care to ensure that church members do not become reliant on government welfare programs.

    In the book that is publicly available, it says zilch. The same thing that has always been present is all that is there: 1. Self-help. 2. Family help. 3. Church help. There is certainly an argument to be made that “Self-help” could include seeking out public funds, but that is only one way to read it, and doesn’t have much support from any other welfare materials.

  39. justkidding says:

    Rachel (32): I was not aware that the Church still owned any hospitals. I know it divested itself of its IHC holdings years ago, and I thought that it even divested itself of any holdings in Primary Children’s a while ago, as well. Am I wrong about that? Does the church have other, non-investment holdings in hospitals?

  40. justkidding (39): It’s possible I’m wrong about the hospitals – I thought this change took place in the late 80s but maybe they were already run by IHC at the time.

    Scott (38): As far as Bishops and Stake Presidents counseling members to apply for government programs, I only know that this is what my dad was taught as a member of a bishopric in the mid-90s. It came as a big surprise to him, since it seemed a complete reversal from the days of Ezra Taft Benson. That’s why I assumed the language was fairly clear.

  41. Rachel,
    I’ve heard the same thing you’ve heard several times, and yet I’ve also heard differently several times–Bishops telling me that there is no general counsel on the matter as far as they were aware. I was (in the early 2000’s) called to be a welfare specialist in a ward, and being the libertarian-type myself, I took it upon myself to study all of the recent manuals, handbooks, etc…of the time and could find no support anywhere for turning to the government. It wasn’t condemned at all–just never mentioned one way or the other (though there were plenty of “evils of the dole” type quotes…).

    Yesterday, because this issue came up again (as mentioned in 38), I thought, “Surely it will be in the brand new handbooks,” but…nope.

  42. Scott,
    In the July 2009 Ensign, there was an insert called “Surviving Unemployment.” It’s not in the PDF available online, but it’s text is here.. What really jumped out at me was that, in discussing ways to increase income, the insert said:

    File for unemployment and other available government benefits.

    It struck me as a happy change, and one that I’ve broadly seen adopted in areas that I’ve been in: even my most politically conservative bishop has encouraged members with long-term needs to apply for government assistance.

    There are constraints on people’s seeking that assistance, ranging from inability to comprehend the forms to immigration status to worries that, if they apply for government aid, they’ll be disqualified from something that they really want. These may not actually be issues, but sometimes are perceived as being issues.

  43. LDS Employment Services has been proactively recommending that job seekers file for every benefit available to them since 2001, at least.

    And while ETB may be rolling over in his grave, he hasn’t been president of the modern-day church for almost 20 years…

%d bloggers like this: