GD Lesson No. 17, The Law of Tithing

We didn’t have anyone signed up to do this lesson, but since I just taught it today I thought I’d give a report on what transpired here in case it is useful to those of you who have not had it yet.The lesson manual had an attention activity where you show a piece of money and ask what it might represent.  I normally don’t like the suggested attention activities, but I thought this one was pretty good, so I did it (with a $20).  The main point of the discussion was to convey the point that there is nothing inherently good or evil about that piece of paper, but it is our own attitudes towards money that color what it means for us.  (I often circulate pictures, articles, or books of interest for a topic, and several suggested I should pass around the sawbuck.  I replied that I can’t even count on getting my pen back, so I wasn’t going to pass around a $20 bill!)

I then had someone read D&C 119 (including headnote for context).  I suggested that the unusual terminology such as “increase” and “interest” resulted from tithing originally being revealed in a Law of Consecration context.  We pointed out that originally you were supposed to contribute all your “surplus” first, and then tithe thereafter.  I asked what “surplus” even means–it’s not at all clear to me.  So in the 19th century pretty soon that morphed into a requirement that one contribute 10% of all you possess (assets), to be followed by annual tithing of income.  We talked about what a challenging proposition this was, which resulted in very low rates of compliance.  Imagine the drag on missionary work if upon baptism you had to contribute 10% of your assets!  A class member insightfully pointed out that this was a cash-poor society, so doing this would be very hard.  I translated it to trying to do it today.  Let’s say my house is worth $200,000; I’ve got to contribute $20,000 cash.  Where does that come from?  Do I have to liquidate my house?  What about my 401k?  That’s not designed to be tapped for this purpose, so I’d have to pay a 10% penalty for the withdrawal.  But my 401k is subject to market fluctuations (over time I’ve lost a quarter of a million dollars at various times, making it up at other times; reifying the position of the fund at a single point in time like that is a problem).  So this just didn’t work, it wasn’t well thought out.  When Lorenzo Snow did away with that aspect of it in 1899 tithing started to take off, because the annual 10% of income donation was much simpler and easier to do in practice.

We also talked about older practices of things like ward budget allocations and building funds.  The point I wanted to drive home was that it is a blessing to be a member of the Church in 2013!

Then we read D&C 120 (again, with headnote).  We pointed out you have to “translate” the ecclesiastical offices there to modern church polity to come up with the Council on the Disposition of Tithes, which is the 1P, Q12 and Presiding Bishopric.  Then I asked what tithing is spent on, and we talked about the various categories of expenditure.  I talked about GBH keeping a widow’s mite in his office as a constant reminder of the responsibility involved in the expenditure of tithing funds.

Then we talked about the word tithe itself, how it derives from West Saxon teotha, where the th is spelled with the thorn, which looks like a p with an upward extender on the tail.  (I wrote the word “thorn” this way, “porn” [with the extender], and it looked like “porn,” which gave everyone a good laugh.  I’m glad people had a sense of humor; Mormons aren’t usually given to laughing about porn.)  [I had to take the opportunity to point out that in the comics, “Ye Olde Shoppe,” that y is not our letter y but a handwritten form of the thorn, and the “ye” was pronounced “the.”]  I pointed out that “tithe” was the original ordinal (we distinguished cardinals from ordinals), and that ‘tenth” was a developed form influenced by the cardinal “ten,” but tithe continued simultaneously in English from its use in ecclesiastical contexts.

I read the 1P statement that no one is authorized to say anything more than that interest or increase means income, a policy I fully support.  We talked about how GBH hailed this honor system and our lack of a tithing code.

We then talked about how challenging it can be to define “income.”  The 10% part is easy, the “income” part is not.  We then covered some of the information from my post on Tithable Income.

So that was the gist of it, and I thought it turned out very well.

How did this lesson go in your wards?


  1. Mark B. says:

    How did that Jackson suddenly turn into a sawbuck?

  2. Not all of us are long time members, some have joined the Church within the last year and while I can understand your shortcuts you might want to write out Gordon B. Hinkley and 1st Presidency and Quorum of the 12 to make this post more accessible to everyone. You also might want to go into the fact that when we were a more rural and farm community the tithe would often be paid in crops and labor rather than cash. But a good basic lesson.

  3. Great lesson, Kevin. I didn’t realize the Lorenzo Snow was the one who did away with the up front 10%.

  4. Kevin Barney says:

    Oops, thanks for the correction on “sawbuck,” it’s not a word I use often and I was careless with it. I’m going to leave it in the OP so the comment will continue to make sense.

    bubbamike, of course I used the full terms in the class itself. I generally use abbreviations like that when blogging, though. You’re right, I did intend to talk about how our conception of tithing changed when we moved from donating commodities in-kind to monetized contributions, but I quite ran out of time.

  5. Really enjoyed your Tithable Income post. Would like to pose the question: Why can we not ask President Monson to inquire of the Lord? If the early saints could do so, why should we not expect a similar and specific answer? They were not required to hammer it over and over in vagueness. It was made quite clear to the early saints what was expected of them.

  6. Kevin Barney says:

    Personally, I prefer the vagueness and appreciate the Church’s policy here. The upshot is *you* get to decide how to do it. The bishop just asks you whether you’ve paid a full tithe; he doesn’t micromanage how you calculate it. To me that is a very good thing. But I realize that means that the responsibility falls on us, and I know a lot of people would rather be told how to do it with specificity so that they don’t have to accept that responsibility.

  7. Here in New Zealand we get to claim back 33% of our tithing and fast offering as part of our tax return – if we are lucky the timing is such that we get the refund in time for our temple trip which costs several thousands of dollars to pay for flights, transport and accommodation.

  8. A Turtle Named Mack says:

    Let’s just say that a Bishop SHOULDN’T micromanage how you calculate tithing. Unfortunately, this is not always the case. In any event, just remember that after you have answered the Bishop’s question about paying a full tithe, you should leave it at that. If additional probing questions are asked, you don’t have to reply.

  9. Thanks for this. Our lesson began with the mousy question, “So, what is tithing?” That was followed by a few questions about the blessings of tithing. No discussion about ‘increase’ or ‘income.’ And we read exactly zero scriptural passages. In other words, the lesson was neither informative nor inspirational. We didn’t learn much about tithing yesterday. (I think our Ward needs to rename the course from “Gospel Doctrine Class” to “Group Chit-Chat Hour Where Classmembers Raise their Hands and Share Whatever Quasi-Inspirational Thoughts Happen to Come to Mind and Where No Principles Are Actually Taught Class.”)

  10. Kevin Barney says:

    Turtle, good reminder that the ideal is not always practiced. And I agree with your advice to just declare you’re a full tithe payer and not go into detail.

  11. Thanks for this write-up. What a great lesson!

    The “Þorn” joke was funny!

  12. Kevin Barney says:

    john f., now you’re just showing off by actually producing a thorn font here! How cool…

  13. grhammjr says:


  14. Randy Rummler says:

    Where did you get your information that the up front 10% was the practice at the time of Lorenzo Snow’s proclamation. I have read “Latter Leaves” and find no such reference. The only reference I find is D. Michael Quinn and he has no reference to back this up-thanks

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