The Presiding Bishopric. Your April Conference Prep. Part 4. Early Mormon Bishops and the Evolution of Tithing.

Back to part 3, forward to part 5. Here’s a page with all parts.

With the revelations of November 1 and 11, 1831 helping to define the role of the bishop,[1] you can see that the road was being paved for more bishops in the Church. As temporal ministers, it was only a matter of time before more were called as Church population increased (when Partridge was called there were about 150 members in Ohio). At first, two population centers developed: Zion (Missouri) and Kirtland (Ohio). Bishop Partridge was a leading voice in governance in Zion. At the end of 1831, another bishop, Newel Kimball Whitney, was called for the Kirtland area (by that time Ohio membership numbered about 1,500) and among other things to work in tandem with Partridge in the United Firm (UF — the Church “corporation” if you will). Partridge, Whitney and their counselors formed an important financial administrative body in the firm. Whitney was relatively well off and his business operations in Kirtland became the heart of the firm there.[2]

The two bishops had no real ecclessiatical relationship beyond their work in the UF and one didn’t supervise the other in any sense.

As events in Missouri developed, more bishops were anticipated and Partridge’s two counselors, John Corrill

Letter to Corrill and Morley in Missouri.

Gustavus Hills's map of Nauvoo. Hills was a musician and reported a sermon of Joseph Smith. That makes him first class. On the other hand he tried to recruit spiritual wives a la Bennett, and ended up in trouble for it.

and Isaac Morley, were designated as new bishops. But it didn’t happen. The expulsion of the Mormons from Jackson County, Missouri in 1833 put the expansion on hold. With the collapse of Kirtland and the eventual exit from Missouri, both Partridge and Whitney became “city” bishops in Nauvoo, Illinois. In 1839 the city was divided into three civic zones called “wards.” These wards were not ecclesiastical units as we think of them today.[3] The two men each took a ward for the purpose of assisting the poor and distributing goods to those in need.[4] Partridge died in May 1840. In a January 1841 revelation (D&C 124) Vinson Knight was declared to be a bishop and to act as supervisor of the other bishops (including Whitney and new bishop George Miller). The proposed office didn’t materialize in fact, apparently because Knight jumped the gun before the matter was formally announced. In any case, Knight died a year later.[5] (Kirtland had Aaronic Priesthood quorums but no wards — Nauvoo had Aaronic Priesthood men but they weren’t confined to the wards. Instead, the bishops seemed to have “shared” them in a sense. This would be a policy followed in Utah.)

The ground for a “presiding” bishop was broken, but instantiation of the office awaited future need and wouldn’t be filled for some time. There may have been an interim ordering of bishops in Nauvoo after Joseph Smith’s death. Whitney and Miller were sustained as “first” and “second” bishops in Nauvoo. But it’s not clear whether this was an acknowledgement of seniority in office, an indication of their assignments or something else. There doesn’t seem to be any evidence that one told the others what to do. (By that time there were more than three wards in the city.[5])

The original point of bishoprics in the restoration was caring for the Saints (part 6 will have a little more on this I think). The poor needed assistance, and in general the Church needed a supervisory body(s) for its real-world assets. With provisions for and supervision of outflow of resources, an inflow was needed. The original plan, outlined in what is now D&C 42 and its revelatory and policy amendments was a colocation of Church and member assets. Members would donate everything they had to the Church. In return, the bishoprics in consultation with the donators deeded back property that most fit the needs, wants and productivity alignment of the member. These sorts of schemes were common at the time and it is probable that the Kirtland “Owenite” influence had some effect on both member expectations and Church leader’s walk toward optimal regulation. The issue with the system was its need for a nearly perfect cooperation with each signatory in its early form. It was not a closed system, exactly. It was fine to draw in economic input from outside the system (and revelations indicated that this was an expectation) but economic output had to mostly remain within the system for flexible solvency, meeting the unexpected and things like building needs and support of full-time leaders (mainly the First Presidency and others in UF and LF – indeed, these were mini-systems themselves).

Equilibrium would never happen in the foreseeable future for several reasons: converts were rarely wealthy – “the gospel was preached to the poor” and gathering usually took place with huge sacrifice. A semi-closed system like this looked good on paper but it was geared to rural/semi-isolated economies and conversely, when tiny, too sensitive to change. Pressures resulting from outsiders (law suits and debt holders were an ever present threat) and inside dissension made it impractical (members were bound by strict covenants with dreadful spiritual consequence for violation in an attempt to minimize dissent) and it was abandoned — but not in principle.

What was needed was less sensitivity to the resource flow paradigm and dissension, not a principle modification. The same goals had to be preserved but accomplished with more resiliency. Hence the 1838 revelation on “tithing.” The revelation is now canonized as D&C 119. Initially the tithing system required a “buy-in” of “surplus” property and then ten percent of the member's annual “interest.”[6] This system didn't face contamination risk but it did require some regulation and collection procedures. Enter the bishops again. Since Nauvoo, the bishops have been involved in collection and accounting for Church funds and goods and the Presiding Bishopric still has this portfolio. In Utah, there were variants of closed system experiments. I won't go into those here. One of the best introductions to early Utah economics is still Leonard Arrington's Great Basin Kingdom (U-IllP). I’ll just say that tithing has gotten a bad name as a “secondary” un-celestial law. I think this reflects the early hope of “going back to Missouri” and associated millennialism. Tithing is in many ways an ideal flat tax system. It depends on member interpretation as to what “interest” means and therefore preserves much of the earlier closed system principles. Don’t knock it. It’s permanent.[7]

Next time, I look more to Utah developments.

[1] The term “Bishop” probably derived in Mormonism from its New Testament occurrence, but certainly its presence in Protestant organization was known and understood. As noted already, it evolved to have an Old Testament character too, in particular with patrilineal descent rules and connections to the family of Aaron the brother of Moses. Those rules were injected (as new material) into both the November revelations when they were published in the 1835 Doctrine and Covenants. (See part 3.)

[2] His experience and work in Kirtland is a complex story. A good source for that story is Mark L. Staker’s volume, Hearken O Ye People (Kofford, 2011)

[3] See for example, Hosea Stout’s diary, Feb. 8, 1845.

[4] I’m leaving out Relief Society, sorry. Relief Society was a Mormon version of the cross-denomination-women-take-the-lead-in-something-please benevolence organizations in the east. Indeed, “Relief Society” was a well-used title by 1842.

[5] By 1842 ten wards were in operation in the city proper. August 20 high council minutes: “Resolved that the city of Nauvoo be divided into ten wards . . . and that there be a bishop appointed over each ward; and also that other bishops be appointed over such districts immediately out of the city and adjoining thereto as shall be considered necessary.”

[6] A nod to the former consecration-surplus scheme. The buy-in was abandoned nearly immediately in practice, but had various resurgences. Not required now, though I have heard urban legends of new converts taking it seriously. We don’t teach it to converts however. The buy-in worked something like a negotiation between the bishop and the member. If they couldn’t come to any agreement, a council of high priests was supposed to work out the details. With the Missouri War, the system was short-lived. Tithing was not a new idea in July 1838. It was a tendered policy well before that time. (Check out Minute Book 2 pp. 39, 91-94 for example.) The use of tithing to provide support for Church leaders was a sensitive issue at the time. JS and Rigdon petitioned the Far West high council for a salary after they arrived in 1838. They approved, but when the general membership got wind of it there was firey criticism (paid ministry!). The high council rescinded their vote and a few days later the tithing revelation came. The resolution of Church leader salaries was a long time in coming, but modern life and the requirements of office made it inevitable. (Minute Book 2, pp. 143-4, Ebenezer Robinson The Return [Sept, Oct. 1889].)

[7] Take a read of D&C 119. There have been various tithing adjuncts. These were usually local fundraising things like the “fast offering” (the associated fast days were good Protestant practice — but reversing the “warning out” of the poor) and building funds. Since a financial consolidation that took place several decades ago, local funds were abolished. This simplified things for a time. But over intervening decades the line items on Church donation forms multiplied. (Recently line items were reduced on new donation forms in favor of giving Church headquarters more flexibility of use.)


  1. No comments on the post calling tithing a permanent practice above and beyond a return to out-and-out consecration? Yeesh!

  2. Also, why footnote the bit where bishops are called to preside over each individual Nauvoo (civil) ward? That seems a important development.

  3. BHodges, no one reads these things. They just keep the blog page active so the lawyers can take a breath. (g)

  4. “others in UF and LF” — can’t figure out these acronyms.

  5. united firm and literary firm are my guesses.

  6. #5, correct.

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