Tithing and Zion

If one characteristic of Zion is that there are no poor (Moses 7:18), and if one means to improve the lot of the poor is to place fewer financial burdens on them (Isaiah 3:15), then the law of consecration and tithing as given in D&C 119 seems to be perfectly aligned with that vision. 

God tells the Saints that “I require all their surplus property to be put into the hands of the bishop” (v.1). Those without “surplus property” (i.e. the poor) are thus exempt from this form of consecration. This accords with JST Genesis 14:39 where Abram, a wealthy man, tithes his surplus property.

God then requires that on the property we thereafter retain we are to “pay one-tenth of all [our] interest annually; and this shall be a standing law . . . forever” (v.4). Sam Brunson has demonstrated, by reference to how Bishop Edward Partridge explained “interest” at the time, that this was to be worked out as an imputed interest (i.e. if property were to be liquidated and then invested, how much interest would it earn?). As they may own little to no property, the poor’s tithing would thus be small to perhaps nothing.

Consecration has gone as a practice but tithing remains. If the Partridge-explicated tithing on one’s annual interest were retained, it would look something like this:

Person A is “worth” £1,000,000. The imputed annual interest on that worth is £1,000,000*5% = £50,000. Tithing would thus be £5000 per annum.

Person B is worth £100,000. Tithing would be £500. This would be the average tithing demand on the average UK member with the average net worth. In the current de facto system of tithing on income, the average UK member on the average income pays £2600.

Person C is worth £10,000. Tithing would be £50.

Person D is worth £0. Tithing would be £0.


Notes:

  1. Clearly this is not the de facto way tithing is understood today. The majority of Mormons would prejudice the current understanding as reflecting God’s will and would thus tithe on 10% of their “income.”
  2. Partridge does not tell us what “worth” means in his context. If I were calculating my worth, I might say that it is the equity in my house, my other property if liquidated, and the value of my savings and investments.
  3. Calculating the interest is tricky. I chose 5% to be illustrative. I could choose the Bank of England base rate +3% (the best savings account rates on offer), or house price inflation in the West Midlands region in 2015 (4%), or some other metric. Partridge chose 6%, which was a common interest rate at the time.
  4. It is a matter of fact that the D&C 119 system places a heavier burden on the rich whereas the current system places a heavier burden on the poor. If that is the will of God, it still demands some reflection.

Comments

  1. It seems like I’ve seen a lot of references to section 119 recently. It’s an odd section that seems to start in the middle of a conversation. It was interesting to see a contemporary interpretation of “interest”. It would also be interesting to find a contemporary understanding of “surplus”.

    In the absence of a contemporary interpretation, here is what i make of it. The section heading indicates this section marks a transition from a system where saints lived the law of consecration. Thus, there would have been a number of saints who had given all they had to the church and received back a “stewardship”. So it seems that returning the “surplus” may mean the portion of their stewardship that they didn’t need and that wasn’t considered theirs in the first place. It may also mean that verse 1 was never intended to apply to people after that particular time and place.

    This interpretation is in contrast to the interpretation I often hear at church and in the Bloggernacle, that implies that tithing as originally instituted was a great sacrifice because supposedly the early saints were supposed to give up all they could (the surplus) and a little bit more (ten percent).

  2. John Mansfield says:

    Sam Brunson’s demonstration was a helpful link to an essay on tithing on the LDS church’s website by Stephen C. Harper, part of its Revelations in Context Series, and a quotation of a footnote from that essay which quoted a letter by Bishop Partridge. In the body of Harper’s essay, the part to which that footnote is attached, Harper wrote: “Bishop Partridge understood ‘one tenth of all their interest’ annually to mean 10 percent of what Saints would earn in interest if they invested their net worth for a year.” It was helpful of Brunson to point out Harper’s essay and that piece of its content.

  3. Tithing isn’t used to help the poor in any shape or form today, though, correct?

    Manuals, buildings, etc.

  4. I know a couple who are empty nesters – they saved carefully over the years, they have a good home with no debt, and so forth. They don’t do lavish trips, aren’t hitting the expensive clothing stores, mow their own lawn, and so forth.

    They pay 10% of their income on tithing, and about five times that amount in fast offerings. They also contribute to their ward missionary fund with a regular commitment to cover young women and men from their ward who have the desire to serve but not the resources.

    Just because we aren’t expected to live the law of consecration today doesn’t mean we can’t do it.

  5. Considering the poor have free use of the buildings temples, don’t have to purchase their own manuals, access to budgeted activities within the ward like scout camp and girls camp then yes. Contrast that with other organizations where dues are collected to participate. Add on access to Fast Offering funds and Bishop’s storehouse via their Bishop, which operate on the basic level from tithing, then yes it does help the poor. Whether it helps the poor more than the nonpoor, I’d say its equal or more skewed to helping the poor. The reason is that even though the nonpoor have the same access they could manage without access to the fast offering funds can send their kids to camp, pay dues etc, but the poor absolutely could not.

  6. Steve G., I’ll confess to not entirely following your point. Sure, the poor can freely use our church buildings (on Sundays when they’re open, at least). But they can freely use most church buildings that I’m aware of; I’ve never been asked to pay to attend Mass or to visit another church. Which makes sense, if we claim some sort of salvific nature to the church.

    And we do provide fast offerings. But other churches provide soup kitchens or places to stay or job training or other services. And, in fact, the Chicago Public Schools provide free breakfasts and lunches for all students, and the public parks will provide the same over vacations and snow days.

    Although, to be completely clear, the poor don’t have free use of the temples; to get a temple recommend, one must be a full tithepayer, subject to the proportional assessment Ronan mentioned in the OP.

    That’s not to say that what the church provides isn’t beneficial, just that it isn’t unique. But arguing that the church uses some of its tithing funds to provide aid for the poor (which, honestly, isn’t completely clear) doesn’t significantly impact the normative question of whether a proportional assessment is fair or just.

    Look, Ronan’s not arguing that the fact that the original meaning of section 119 was as a property assessment (making it more or less progressive) means that we’re doing it wrong today as a scriptural-interpretive matter. He is arguing that, in building Zion, proportionality isn’t the best system we could implement.

  7. I’m not following the point of some of these comments either, including Steve G.’s comment. These comments aren’t addressing the central question Ronan is asking here: It is a matter of fact that the D&C 119 system places a heavier burden on the rich whereas the current system places a heavier burden on the poor. If that is the will of God, it still demands some reflection.

  8. Tim Jones says:

    Keep in mind that the society described in 4th Nephi also had no poor. More surprisingly, it also had no rich. That’s more line with D&C 119 than our current tithing program. It’s more in line with the empty nesters Michael mentions who donate most of their money to the poor.

    It has nothing in common with how things work now–where many (most) upper and upper middle class members of the church donate 10% tithing plus a little bit of fast offering and maybe a little bit else to other causes, and live in their McMansions with their boats and new trucks and 4-wheelers, and visit their cabins on the weekends.

  9. The question was posed by Christian Kimball in a comment Sam’s article on JI what were the steps that led to the current interpretation? If we stop in the 19th century then we lose the connection for where we stand today. What more could be provided in understanding our current interpretation and whose influence caused the shift? Christian proposes it might be related to Lorenzo Snow’s declaration in St George – that oft quoted miraculous story that brought the rains. Was he the first to recommend the shift or was there a cultural adjustment already ongoing among the leadership of the Church or within society?

    Michael Quinn provides substantial evidence behind the context of how tithing was viewed as the Church migrated to, settled, and evolved within the Mountain West. The best summary of his writings is covered here (I’ll admit my ignorance to the author of the weblog but the historical content appears accurate):http://lds-church-history.blogspot.com/2010/12/lds-history-summary.html

    It is evident that the original system had few participants and the Church has preferred the transition to Snow’s method simply because it provided a simple metric for encouraging participation. Whether or not it was fair, as Ronan suggests, is another question entirely.

    I home teach a woman who barely makes ends meets on her meager income and we regularly discuss the impact on tithing and her struggles to pay it. There are two different perspectives to take about how tithing leads to blessings or tithing extracts an extraordinary toll. The underlying question is whether that faith is rewarded by the Lord or not? I have not interest in diving into prosperity gospel thinking but therein lies the rub.

  10. As I have said elsewhere, I think the current system is almost entirely about raising money, about supporting the Church as it operates in the world, and not about rich or poor, equity, doctrine, scripture, or principle. (Paint me a cynic, but there is some historical support.)
    I would point out that Ronan’s interesting rich vs poor observation makes some assumptions about the economic system in which the Church and tithing is embedded. It would take some further analysis to consider tithing in an agrarian or strongly socialist or feudal society. We see the flavor of that in countries with a very high nominal income tax rate, where the net vs gross discussion can take on a possible vs impossible aspect.

  11. It appears the page I linked to is a direct quotation in its entirety of the article Quinn wrote for Sunstone in 1991. Here’s the original reprint along some additional insights into the Church’s finances during that period:
    https://www.sunstonemagazine.com/pdf/102-17-29.pdf

  12. Clark Goble says:

    Christian, given that the Church nearly went bankrupt several times I’m not sure it’s inappropriate to focus on earning money to pay for buildings and so forth. That seems perfectly fine although it appears tithing isn’t just used for such things.

    The progressive aspect is supposed to come from fast offerings which perhaps was a church we don’t do quite as well with. I also worry that fast offerings are almost too local. In areas where there are many Mormons this means offerings from the rich never reach the poorer wards. (Obviously in places where there’s more economic diversity within a ward this is less of an issue) Although I confess I’ve just not kept up with the details of how the church distributes money to wards. So I might be completely out of date. Certainly the more unified building fund dispersion is much more progressive.

  13. Last Lemming says:

    Tithing isn’t used to help the poor in any shape or form today, though, correct?

    I believe Bishop’s storehouses and employment centers are funded with tithing. The poor are the target population to be served by both (unlike church buildings, which serve both rich as poor).

    As for Clark’s concern about fast offerings being too local, I recall when I served in a bishopric (early 90s) we could turn to the stake when we ran out of fast offering funds and it would raid another ward’s surplus. Whether the stake had similar recourse or not when no wards had a surplus, I don’t know.

  14. Fast offerings are not kept local at all. All fast offerings get swept immediately to Church headquarters as does tithing. All Bishops write checks out of a fast offerings account that is fulfilled from church headquarters. The Bishops monthly statements show the amount that his ward contributed to fast offerings and the amount spent from fast offerings among other financial information. Mileage may vary, but in my Stake there is no push to make the two numbers come close. Bishops only see the metrics for their own ward, and have no idea how much is actually donated and spent in the general fast offering account.

    What I was trying to get at above and failed is that the poor benefit slightly more than the rich in the current system because they can access Fast Offering funds and all other aspects of the church program minus Temple worship even if they never pay anything in.

    To Ronan’s point of if its enough to actually make no poor among us, certainly it isn’t. If those who could, truly donated all of their excess to fast offering rather than just two generously expensive meals, we might see a change. There is a conflict between the scriptural command to have no poor among us and the doctrine of prosperity which seems to be the norm. Its not the collective culture of the church to have no poor among us right now, but it is interesting to think what might happen were that to shift.

  15. Last Lemming that isn’t how it works right now. All fast offering funds are automatically swept into a general fund at church headquarters, same as tithing. When Bishop’s write checks out of fast offerings it shows on their monthly statements along with their ward contributions, but there is no effort made to bring the two numbers in reconciliation.

    (btw I may have a comment in moderation for some reason, so apologies if this answer shows up in two different comments…or not at all depending on the whims of the mods.)

  16. Clark Goble says:

    I believe the Presiding Bishopric also works closely with the United Way although I don’t know the details of that relationship – especially its financial aspects.

  17. Tim Jones says:

    Local bishoprics in my area work with various service organizations. They don’t provide funding, but they do provide assistance in letting the organizations know who needs help. They may also sometimes deliver needed items which were paid for by other organizations. They play a very small (yet still vital) role in the overall picture. Bigger roles are played by local civic groups, local companies, and the general public, who respectively organize, advertise to the public, and actually pay for the assistance.

    I wouldn’t be terribly surprised if the Presiding Bishopric assists the United Way in a similar fashion.

  18. Is there any direct lines of communication with the JS History project, assuming this is where the information came from, and the leaders? Will they ever see this information?

    I would like to believe that when reliable historical information is discovered that brings significant new insights related to the restoration that there would be a mechanism for informing them.

    I have no problem with them making new policies that better adhere to the current circumstances as they see fit, as has been done overtime on numerous issues, but I’d like to believe that those that are making these policy decisions would want to do that with the best possible information.

  19. As someone in a position to see tithing receipts, it’s amazing the variation in tithing among members. For example, take a family that has its own business, and plows all its revenue (after covering business and living expenses, which are sometimes very tangled together) back into the company. Their company is worth more, but they may not think of that “increase” as net income, but something more like increased equity, which most members don’t tithe on. So they pay very little tithing. Or take a sophisticated investor with a flush retirement account, who is able to donate appreciated stock in-kind, and avoid the tax consequences of the capital gains of that stock (as well as taking the charitable deduction which further reduces their tax bill). Tithing may be relatively painless for that person.

    Meanwhile, someone living paycheck to paycheck, renting their home and not saving for retirement (i.e., not accumulating capital), may end up paying a substantial portion of their discretionary income to the Church.

    I’m not criticizing my hypothetical business owners or investors for their actions, nor criticizing our current understanding of tithing, just pointing out the variation in how it plays out.

  20. Glenn Thigpen says:

    Tithing is a matter of faith and spirit. What actually we are supposed to pay tithing on has not been rigidly defined. I pay on my gross income. Others have other ways of determining their “increase” or interest. I haven’t heard of anyone getting the Ananias and Sapphira treatment lately during tithing settlement.

    Jesus did not get all embarrassed about tithing being harder on the poor than the rich. But He did have something to say about the widow and her mite. So, maybe tithing is something for the next life after all.

    Glenn

  21. Jesus and tithing:

    Luke 18:12 — a Pharisee is careful to pay his tithing; Jesus is fairly unimpressed.
    Matthew 23:23/Luke 11:42 — the Pharisees pay tithing but neglect the important matters of the law.

    I’m not sure what you mean about Jesus not being “embarrassed about tithing being harder on the poor than on the rich.” Given that he uses the paying of tithes has a feature of the empty piety of the Pharisees; given what he makes clear throughout the gospels regarding the burdens placed on the poor; and given that canonised scripture in the Doctrine and Covenants offers a system of tithing that is demonstrably harder on the rich than the poor, I think it is reasonable to at least wonder about this.

    Also, regarding the widow’s mite: the preceding verses condemn the pious for “devour[ing] widows’ houses.” Given that the widow is now rendered destitute by her donation, I think we have to acknowledge two interpretations of the story. First, yes, the generosity of the widow but second, a condemnation of a system which makes her pay in the first place.

    As has been said by Sam and John above, all I am saying is that because the church clearly believes today that God wants members to tithe on their income rather than on the interest of their worth, and because that represents a proportionally heavier burden on the poor than was historically the case, it is reasonable to think about why this is so.

    The economy of Zion in the 21st century mirrors the economy of the world: for the poor it is financially harder to be a citizen of the kingdom/the world than it is the rich. Given the vision of Zion offered by the gospels and by the early Latter-day Saints, it is — to labour the point, perhaps — entirely fair to ask why God has turned things upside down.

  22. I haven’t heard of anyone getting the Ananias and Sapphira treatment lately during tithing settlement.

    How many church employees do you know?

    Anyway, for a lot of us, wages are the only skin we’d be able to put in the game, so I have no problem considering the invitation to the wage slaves to reap the blessing of the tithe as an inclusive gesture, in theory at least. In practice, however, it seems that wages are all that matter and will be used, as necessary, as an anvil to reshape a recalcitrant spirit, as if the working poor weren’t already being humbled by the yawning chasm of economic inequality.

  23. Tim Jones says:

    “I pay on my gross income.”

    Do you also pay on the entirety of your benefits? The value of your employer-offered health insurance? The full value of social security, including the matching portion your employer pays for you? Your employer’s contribution to your 401k? Are you really paying on your gross income?

    Consider that most poor people don’t get benefits from their work (the kind of benefits that aren’t typically considered “income” but that are just as valuable, like health insurance and matching 401k contributions). And the poor self-employed have to pay the full 15% social security tax, even if they’re just pulling in $20,000 a year. Also, the poor don’t get extra tax help for paying a gross tithe because they’re taking the standard deduction on their taxes.

  24. No poor among us. Was a bit of a mantra in my mind that I repeated over and over again during my time as Bishop before I was released recently. After putting so much effort into helping the poor to not be poor any more and seeing some of my efforts work and some of my efforts fail. I have come to the conclusion that its going to take a lot more than just money to make zion a reality for the poor.

  25. That’s not to say that more money given by the rich wouldn’t be helpful or welcome either though. I spent a decent amount of time getting people to give more of their surplus to help the poor also.

  26. The widow’s mite wasn’t tithing.

  27. Good post. Obviously a flat tax (tithing as currently taught) is harder on the poor than rich. This comes up about every four years in American politics when a conservative proposes a flat tax. So Ronan does lay out a very good point which is hard to dispute.

    As it already has been stated, the poor tend to benefit when viewed in other areas. Whether that is fast offerings, bishop’s storehouse, etc. I do think the church does quite a bit to help the poor which would be hard to dispute.

    Yet I remember something my missionary companion once taught me that I always found to be true. Tithing is often a harder commitment to make for the rich. The poor tended to commit to paying a tithe readily. Now that may have to do more with humility, but I would be interested to see whether the poor tend to pay a more full tithe than the rich.

    The whole gross versus net thing drives me nuts. Whenever you bring up tithing, in the US at least, you have people jumping over each other to say they pay a gross tithe. Yet this is likely rarely true (in terms of benefits, market gains, gifts, etc.)

  28. Ronan, perhaps it isn’t God who has turned things upside down. We all see through a glass darkly, I suppose.

  29. Clark Goble says:

    Marc, just to note but the flat tax for conservatives also involves eliminating most deductions which is why most rich don’t pay much by way of tax. i.e. don’t confuse tax rate with tax payment. I’m personally against a flat tax for a variety of reasons, but I’m not sure it’s commensurate with tithing – especially when the church doesn’t enforce tithing nor really offer any checks or balances on it.

    If we’re talking offerings then at best one could say the Church should make fast offerings, which are where those more well off are expected to pay more, more defined. i.e. the fast offerings are more akin to marginal rates for rich people in taxes, which are how taxes are supposed to be progressive.

    As for who pays tithing better, the poor, middle or rich, I don’t know. I’m skeptical the rich pay it worse than the poor myself. For a variety of reasons. However I’ve no idea how to measure this so I’m not sure it’s too relevant a question since we just have our gut instincts for answers.

    In any case the Church leave tithing as primarily a personal matter. It seems like a minor test of faith in many ways. That is primarily tithing is about getting ourselves right with the Lord more than just a way to pay for buildings. If I don’t pay my tithing the Church isn’t going to start shutting down temples.

  30. Clark, the argument against the flat tax is not how it affects the rich but how it affects the poor. So, to Ronan’s point on tithing, a flat rate of taxation, as often proposed by conservatives, is more likely to cut into the poor’s money for essentials like housing and food. That was the aspect I was focused on. Yes, those same plans often call for elimination of deductions but they still generally result in the rich paying less and the poor paying more (unless your paying Mitt Romney’s rate) :)

    But politics aside, I agree that tax rates and tithing is not a perfect comparison.

    I do remember on my mission teaching a woman in poverty about tithing. She asked me whether she had to pay on the government benefits she received. I asked our mission president and his answer was, “of course.” Anyway, that has always bothered me a little.

  31. Clark Goble says:

    Right, and I was responding to the tax as proposed by conservatives which usually has a lower limit so the poor pay no taxes. So for example Rand Paul’s flat tax proposal excerpts the poor and actually includes the EITC so that there is an effective negative tax for many of them. Most flat tax proposals I’ve read leave the poor paying no tax and arguably less tax than now since they often eliminate the payroll tax that the poor pay into. Again, I disagree with the flat tax, but I think many have erroneous ideas about it. But getting into the politics is probably off topic and I better shut up before I incur the wrath of the moderators. (grin)

    With regards to the poor and tithing I suspect the question is what a fair “tithing” would be for the poor. The presumption seems to be that 10% is too high. I’m not sure I buy that. I think it’s too low for the middle class and above. But as I noted they are supposed to be paying generous fast offerings and other donations in addition to tithing.

  32. Clark Goble says:

    BTW – in my view you shouldn’t pay on government benefits for a variety of reasons but that’s up to each person. In the same way I don’t pay tithing on the value of gifts. Others may do it differently. One thing that’s interesting is how the church leaves it largely up to the individual conscience. I do think we perhaps all should give more (myself definitely included). One thing to keep in mind is how ridiculously wealthy we are in our country compared to most of the world. Most of us could easily cut our spending and donate more to both fast offerings but also other charities. Again, myself included.

  33. I found that as my income increased over the years (from student to first job to salary-and-benefits-with-years-of-experience), it actually became more painful to pay tithing, because I saw how much more was going out the door and I thought of all the sincere things I could do with it (home repairs, a car built in this century, etc.).

    Over the years my philosophy of what income should be tithed has changed, too. I now essentially pay tithing on what I have immediate control over. Yes, that means I don’t currently pay tithing on taxed money, partly because that begins a slippery slope of trying to impute the value of government benefits received (roads, police, libraries, parks, etc., all of which I benefit from, not to mention the value of benefits I don’t even recognize). I also don’t pay on my employer’s contribution to insurance premiums or their share of social security tax, in part because I don’t expect to use those benefits (I’m generally healthy and rarely if ever go to the doctor), and in part because I think adding those amounts would make paying tithing prohibitively expensive. (Also relevant are discussions of paying “gross” tithing in socialist countries where taxes are much higher.)

    I choose to defer paying tithing on retirement investments, too, because that money doesn’t really belong to me either — it is set aside for a grey-haired version of myself, and he’ll happily pay tithing on the amount invested *and* whatever earnings accrue when he withdraws them.

    There are lots of other little details I left out, but I think the point is: our modern financial world is so complex and each situation so nuanced, it’s impossible to say that one way is wrong and the other is right. I thought long and hard about each specific decision in my current tithing philosophy, and many potential scenarios (after consulting an accountant who was also a bishopric member, and consulting my wife who often has a better perspective than I do), and how I do it now feels right and makes sense to me. But I’m not saying it’s right for everyone or that someone is wrong if they don’t do it my way.

    The past is interesting and should definitely inform our decisions today, but it shouldn’t necessarily dictate how we do things. After studying the history, the original meaning, and the evolution of the Church’s practice with tithing (on this site, the Juvenile Instructor, the Church’s article, and others), it seems the 1972 letter from the First Presidency is probably the best guidance we have: teach the principle and let each member decide how to practice it.