Poverty in the scriptures: An introduction

D.T. Bell lives in Salt Lake with his wife and three kids. He works in technology, but used to work in international aid and development. He first developed an interest in issues relating to poverty while serving a mission in Argentina. He was into the Bloggernacle before it was cool. Just kidding, it will never be cool. 

I’ve jesus-and-the-poorbeen trying to read the Book of Mormon sequentially, which is something I don’t usually do as part of my scripture study. As I’ve read sequentially, I’ve been surprised by the amount of scriptures I’ve encountered that deal with how the disciples of Christ are to treat those who are poor, as well as by the intensity of the content of these scriptures.


Curious to see whether my impression of the frequency and intensity of poverty-related scriptures was borne out by a more analytical approach, I cracked open my old friend, the Topical Guide.


It turns out it was.


I’ve posted my analysis below, wherein I looked at every scripture in the Topical Guide for Poor, Almsgiving etc., as well as scriptures I found by looking at every footnote for every verse I read. I then created a framework that could contain the concepts I found in those scriptures. There are obviously different ways to approach it, but almost all the scriptures I found fall into at least one or more of the following categories:


  1. Commandments for how we are to treat the poor;
  2. Promises of what will happen to us based on how we treat the poor (both blessings and punishments);
  3. Statements of fact with regard to our treatment of the poor.


I’ll dedicate some successive posts to some of the main ideas found in these categories, as well as some of the thorny issues they present to the modern Latter-day Saint who seeks to follow the Lord’s counsel regarding the poor. But for now, I’ll leave you with the scriptures I found and the categories they fall into. (If you’d like to read all of the scriptures I used in my analysis you can go here):





  • The wicked persecute the poor (Psalms 10:2)

  • Despising the poor is a sin (Proverbs 14:212 Nephi 9:30)

  • To oppress or mock the poor is to reproach God (Proverbs 14:31Proverbs 17:5)

  • To have mercy on the poor is to honor God (Proverbs 14:31)

  • To have pity unto the poor is to lend unto God (Proverbs 19:17)

  • The purpose of the fast is to give bread to the hungry, bring the poor to your house, and cover the naked (Isaiah 58:7)

  • One of the sins of Sodom was failing to strengthen the hand of the poor and needy (Ezekiel 16:49)

  • He who has goods and sees others in need does not have the love of God in him and is not a disciple/saint of Christ  (1 John 3:17D&C 52:40D&C 105:3)

  • Persecution or robbery of the poor is a sign of pride (2 Nephi 28:12-13)

  • Failure to help the poor is hypocrisy and a denial of the faith (Alma 34:28)

  • Failure to help the poor is one of the sins that results in societal and military destruction (Helaman 4:11-13Helaman 6:39-40)

  • In the latter days many people will love material things more than they love the poor (Mormon 8:37, 39)

  • It’s sin for one man to possess more than another (D&C 49:20)

  • Failure to help the poor correlates to lack of obedience and evil (D&C 105:3)

  • There are no poor in Zion (Moses 7:18)

If you know of other scriptures – or key concepts – that I’ve missed, please weigh in in the comments. Thanks!


  1. I’m not enough of a “scriptoriian” to be able to tell you if you missed any particular passage, but a recitation such as this neglects to take into account the context in which these admonitions were given or the complexity of the problem they seek to address.

    I, for one, am not confident that the Savior would give a 21st century North American or European the same counsel he gave to the folks in Palestine, many of whom were trapped by their ethnic, economic and social circumstances with few opportunities for enhancing their education or changing jobs. The church’s own welfare program seems to acknowledge this difference by placing an emphasis on self-reliance and requiring some demonstration (albeit modest) that you are doing what you can to improve your lot in life. And it’s worth noting that the scriptures you cite from the D&C are quite general, providing few if any details regarding the best way to assist the poor.

    On a macro scale, there are numerous studies showing that financial aid to struggling third-world countries sometimes does more harm than good, fueling corruption and strengthening the grip of despots on power. And when we ship our surplus foodstuffs to developing nations, we typically do not take into account unintended consequences, such as depressing the price of local commodities, thereby threatening the survival of resident farmers.

    Finally, though I think Bill Gates has done many good works through his foundation, I seriously doubt that his eleemosynary gestures will rival the benefits that countless individuals and countries continue to reap from the company he founded. Frankly, I wish he had used some of the money he put in his foundation to start a new business.

    I make these observations for the sole purpose of arguing against a simplistic reading and application of the scriptures when addressing poverty. It is not my intent to discount in the least the importance of this issue or excuse myself for not having done more in the past to help those less fortunate than myself. That item is on a very long list of things for which I need to repent.

  2. Troy Cline says:

    Thanks for this. I have, for a number of years now, been of the mind that the scriptures speak far more about our treatment of the poor than they do on any other topic. From this notion, I have come to the conclusion that the single most important thing we can do to please the Lord is care for the impoverished, while the one thing for which our failures will bring upon us the Lord’s wrath is to ignore the poor. Thank you for compiling this list. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if church curricula (Gospel Essentials, Gospel Doctrine, seminary, etc.) had entire lessons dedicated to this topic?! It is, after all, the very essence of Christian theology.

  3. Same Troy. As I read the NT, BoM, and D&C, the dominant themes really do seem to be:

    1. God is our Father and Jesus Christ is our Savior
    2. They expect us to take care of the less-fortunate among us

    Everything else is a distraction.

  4. D.T. Bell says:

    FarSide – you raise some good points, but I think you’re getting a little ahead of me. The intent of this post was simply to show what the scriptures say on the topic, full stop. How we apply them to us is a critically important question, and one I’ll seek to address in subsequent posts. I would agree with you that context is important, and I’m grateful that we have prophets, seers and revelators, as well as the Holy Ghost, to help us make sense of the scriptures.

    Troy – I’m not sure I know that the scriptures speak more on this topic than any other. That would require much more analysis than I was able to do. But I definitely do agree with you that it’s a critically important thing to do to please God.

    Kyle M – I was told to keep a close eye on the comments, and I feel that I should delete yours and ban you. Can you take care of that for me?

  5. Fair point, D.T. I look forward to your future posts on the subject and I’m glad you have chosen to address this topic.

  6. Should verses like 4th Nephi 1:3 be included in your Facts section?

  7. The topic of caring for the needy is deeply embedded in my soul. My first voluntary act in that direction came when I was 4 or 5 years old. I say that not to brag, but to demonstrate that it was innate. No one talked me into, no General Conference talk brought me to tears about it. Likewise no church lesson changed me to a more compassionate person. My struggle, as a Christian, even more as a Latter Day Saint, is how little we truly live, teach, encourage, model the practice.

    I concur with the previous points made. I will add that I sit on a Just Serve committee, and we have gone around the table “reading the scriptures” on this matter but can’t move forward. I believe a large part is, we have loaded our lives with other things, temple duties, callings, Visiting and Home Teaching which we have used as our justification for caring for others. (And it does in some means). Now we are suddenly pushing (2nd time around) a website with a plan, but we are burdened. Church and all it’s Sunday Dress and quiet is unavailable. Monday is Family Home Evening. Week nights include Scouts, YM/YW, Activity Days, Relief Society Midweek, Stake meetings, Presidency Meetings, Friday nights maybe available, but really we all need a day off. Saturday is Temple in multiple forms. Then it’s Sunday again. I could go on.

    I work at a homeless shelter. I have guided a ward for 4 years in genuine Service Projects to the needy – and my ward was fantastic. If service to the needy is so vital, we are miles behind. I have often read the Ezekiel reference in meetings. It has been met with tone deafness. Everyone can recite Mosiah but Ezekiel’s has deeper ramifications. I hope to hear more from you. I do warn everyone I may rage on the page a bit. It’s an area I wish the church would embrace, put other stuff on the back burner for a long season and run with this. I believe we could so many things, including ourselves, if as a faith we fully embraced, practiced, and made this the center point of our lives and homes.

    Thanks for the references, I will be using them as often as I can.

  8. I dare you to try, Brother Bell.

  9. BCC conscience says:

    Perhaps the scriptures about the idler shall not eat the bread or the laborer… Somehow the liberals always skip over that one…

    Further by prooftexting these examples, it makes it very easy for people to read in their own context… For example, in the great commission, Jesus sends his church leadership out, without purse or scrip, and Jesus tells the rich scriptorian (only) to sell everything he has… In a temple recommend interview with that young man he listed out the commandments, the only one not listed was to not covet.. Jesus was teaching the perfection of the law of Moses, not a general rule for everyone.

    Deception by omission of context is something you liberal Mormons have no problem accusing church leadership of doing, yet also seemingly enjoy doing yourselves… I think Jesus had as word about that too…

  10. N.Bailey says:

    Aguante Argentina, You forgot Luke 14:12-14, This is probably too long of a response and makes extra-curricular preachy points, but there is another layer to the “poverty” question- beyond just proving ourselves merciful or avoiding the wrath of the Lord, it has to do with seeing- something God wants for and from us.
    “The veil shall be rent and you shall see me and know that I am” (D&C 67:10)
    What is man to do when he can no longer see his maker?  What can you do when you can not feel God’s influence in your life?
    For those who hope to “see” their maker, or even glimpse evidence of his hand in their lives, they must build that hope on the cornerstone of meekness.  This is not a hope derived from a surety of your own fleshy arm.  This is not a hope that is felt upon arrival of luxury and worldly comfort.  This is a hope that only those with an awe for life and a willingness to submit to its corresponding trials can possess.  Many blessings are encompassed in His repeated promises to show himself to the faithful. God’s promises are sure; though we be asked as Abraham to be patient in their fulfillment, and “against hope believe in hope”. (Romans 4:18)
    How can this hope be illuminated, and even fortified?
    Participation in service that none can repay, is true charitable use of time. “When thou makest a dinner…call not thy friends…lest they also bid thee… and a recompense be made thee.  When thou makest a feast, call the poor, the maimed, the lame, the blind: and thou shalt be blessed for they cannot recompense thee: for thou shalt be recompensed at the resurrection…”. (Luke 14: 12-14)  Are there not many who have sojourned through this life spiritually poor, maimed, lame and blind?  How can we call them to sit down and eat with us at our feast?
    True charitable use of time illuminates this hope in such a way that it that it can be sensed and felt; “you know it”.
    This extraordinary hope we seek, built upon meekness and illuminated by charity might be what keeps the earth from being “utterly wasted at his coming” (D&C 2:3).  “Therefore, the keys of this dispensation are committed into your hands; and by this ye may know that the great and dreadful day of the Lord is near, even at the doors.” (D&C 110:16) Elijah’s delivery of priesthood keys has opened up the possibility of a work that has the power to help us stand in this life with the “veil… rent and see Him and know that He Is”.  These keys open to us, the power to invite the poor, maimed and blind to our feast.  The redemption of the dead is a work that refines and illuminates your hope in a way that no other work can; it is pure and thankless.  You are choosing to believe in hope (extraordinary) against hope (ordinary), (Romans 4) and this is specifically what God requires of you to be seen. (Ether 12:7)
    “Peace I give unto you: not as the world giveth, give I unto you. Let your heart not be troubled, neither let it be afraid.” (John 14:27) If you are able to feel and sense Christ’s triumph over death, by participating in ordinances for those who have lived, what other fears are left to intimidate you in this life?

  11. I like Mormon 8:39 ” why do ye..suffer the hungry and the needy and naked, and the sick and afflicted to pass by you, and notice them not.”

    Cat, there are seasons/ times for everything including how much and often and who we serve

    I’ve been pondering how much we should use laws and government programs to help the poor and needy? I believe programs should encourage self reliance, but in seems government programs can reach more people

  12. BCC conscience, you can quote a few lines to defend your position, but there are entire books of scripture written against it. It’s one of the only details we have of a Zion community. It’s the hymn that Joseph asked to be sung in Carthage Jail. It’s the basis of the Savior’s life and ministry.

  13. Sparks – I agree. Times and Seasons. But 35 years ago the church moved to the block system that we now have. In it’s original inception all weekly meetings were canceled or reduced to just one time a month, with the idea that the members fill those days with family and community. Now we are fuller than ever. I don’t mind temple attendance or other things, but we guilt people into so many things that time to serve the needy is unavailable. All the things I listed are basic requirements for most active LDS families. It really limits time to go do something of the things required to care for the needy.

    I have been impressed with my ward and other wards who do make it happen.

    We also weren’t so temple filled until Pres. Hinckley’s temple boom. Due to his PR ability temple attendance and opportunities to attend blossomed.

    A decade ago, President Thomas Monson, added a 4th mission to the church’s 3 fold mission. “Care for the Poor and the Needy.” But he isn’t the PR genius his predecessor was. Barely anyone noticed the addition. Most standard members have the 3 fold mission down pat. Because the 4th never got a strong roll out, we have haven’t had a chance to try a different agenda in this season. It may be a loss we wish we didn’t have in our lives.

    Yes – to everything a season. I just feel we could make room to make the season now, and I believe President Monson would too.

  14. BCC conscience's conscience says:

    BCC conscience, Nibley argued that “the ancient teaching that the idler shall not eat the bread of the laborer has always meant that the idle rich shall not eat the bread of the laboring poor, as they always have.” So it may be that you’re proof-texting without context yourself.

  15. Yes, BCCCC is right. It condemns those who receive their salary based on the work of the laboring poor instead of their own labor.

    Honestly, how we react to scriptures like these is a test. Will we be cheerful givers, our will we immediately try to justify ourselves and give, if at all, grudgingly?

  16. For concepts, I’d add the identification question. Who are the poor? Without doing my own search, just top of mind, we’ll end up referring to the story of the Good Samaritan, the leper, widows and orphans, the last worker in the vineyard, the chronically ill, the fatherless.
    I can set this up in the abstract. I’d genuinely like to know, in the analytic, list making sense of the OP. I also set this as a predicate to discussion and arguments that are coming, with respect to how we treat the poor. My impressionistic view of the scriptures is that they make a point of the “poor” including groups and classes of people that we’d rather not think about, who are “other” in some important way, who are awkward to help.

  17. BCC conscience says:

    Kyle m, I am just overwhelmed by the convincing power of your argument… I was completely unaware that Jesus had called the sainted Hugh to receive Revelation for the church… I mean, who needs priesthood authority when you have pseudo scholar cred, amiright?

    I also liked how he added the word “rich” into the phrase. Where would the DnC be without hughs corrections anyhow.

    Seriously, that is by definition eisigetical prooftexting….

  18. BCC conscience's conscience says:

    Given that the welfare state is a pretty recent phenomenon, I’d be interested to hear why you think the idle poor eating the bread of the laborer was such a problem that God needed to speak out against it. It seems to me, as Saint Hugh suggested, that anciently idleness was a luxury only the rich could afford. Idleness amongst the poor meant starvation. But I look forward to seeing what sources you have to back up your reading of the verse. Btw, I’m not Kyle M – this anonymity thing can make us look silly, right?

  19. jaxjensen says:

    D&C 104… There is enough to take care of the poor, It is the Lord’s purpose to do so, they way HE wants it done is to lift the poor by bringing down the wealthy

  20. Can we have a discussion about the long term effects our attempts have had on poverty? The toxicity of inappropriately administered charity. I cannot imagine the Lord blessing the creation of a giant underclass that has been stripped of dignity. I believe that it matters HOW you are contributing to the alleviation of suffering not just whether you are engaged in doing good to those less fortunate. Social psychology has shown us the damage done when charity is provided in the wrong context. The Lord fed the 5000. He could have very easily done this the remainder of his days and yet he did not. He knew that would not serve them.
    When I hear the words, “give to the poor” I hear the challenge to be with them, treat them as equals, include them in everything and last of all work to give them genuine/lasting relief. And I’m not talking about making sure everyone hears the Gospel. Handing people things is toxic once you get past the third go round. Not only that but how humiliating do you think it is for a man to watch people give his family what he cannot provide? Dignity has been factored out of the equation of relief. The equivalent of giving a thirsty person a glass of ocean water. It may alleviate our temporary cognitive dissonance, but denies the receiver of the basic human need-dignity.
    I hear the Lord’s admonition to innovate. Look deeper than who is trying and who isn’t. It is more difficult because it requires so much more time and attention. Far too often the intention to help does absolutely nothing to address what is truly wanted and needed for communities, families, and individuals. I hold up the example of the Deseret Industries model for rehabilitation. It is amazing. The argument of to give or not to give falls far short of HOW you give. Just as the Lord worked outside of the nine dots to give people power and agency, we must use the truths that have been revealed for truly healing the human psyche. Just like you can’t pray away your problems, you cannot hand people enough things that will heal the damage from a loss of dignity. Plus I find there is way too much virtue signaling in the giving parts. “Toxic Charity” is a great book addressing these concerns. I highly recommend it.

  21. BCC Conscience,
    I can’t speak for everyone here, of course, but it seems like you’re sitting on my left shoulder, not my right.

  22. Don’t forget to dust off your feet on your way out. And sorry about your small flatscreen.

  23. The Lament of the Thirty-Inch Flatscreen. That one got me to laugh out loud. Thanks, “conscience”!

    Seriously, though, lancomejobatmacys has a comment worth thinking about. Dignity must always be one of our considerations in helping others. However, those who talk about dignity often skip a few steps. (Not necessarily you, lancomejobatmacys.) They forget how much more dignified it is to have a bed than to sleep in the gutter, regardless of who gave you the bed. Yes, it is necessary to have work and to become self-reliant. But having money and food and shelter also provides dignity, even though we need more than that. Giving people these necessities is good, even when it is not enough.

    So the problem is not to figure out how we can do less in order to give people dignity. The problem is to figure out how we can do more.

  24. BCC conscience does a lot of judging of poor people here and what they do and don’t do. Isn’t there some scripture that says something about that? You know, something about not saying they bring upon them their own poverty? Oh wait, that was in the OP. Oh, I know, let’s be snarky and say, ‘more scripture to increase e conservative tears.’ Please, can we stop with these terrible comments already? Calling people who disagree apostates?

  25. jaxjensen says:

    Is the word “dignity” ever used in the scriptures? I’m not familiar with that being a relevant thing to the Lord, ever. The only word I can think of that would be a reasonable synonym is “pride” and that is used as something to avoid.

  26. Part of helping is knowing what is available in your community or what you can offer. Loursat hit the nail on the head. A hungry, cold, sleep deprived person can not begin to process all the things necessary “to get on with life”. I have spent the past 4 years learning as I volunteer about the multiple styles of poverty that exist. Yes just handing someone a full life and walking away doesn’t help. But neither does deciding you won’t help because they are really not doing their part. i.e. they live on the streets or in their car, they gamble too much, etc.

    A full belly, a warm bed, and friendship can be the first step to truly helping a person. Our county has plan called Aspire. The plan models Habitat for Humanity in the idea that the recipient is required to work on their “life building” as much as the volunteer. It is a 2 year “get on your feet plan”. Very few people in our county know about it or care to help because it’s a big undertaking. Yet it fits the scriptures listed above. Right now I am just trying to get church members to pack lunches for hungry kids. Aspire will come later.

    I know this is a rambling response.

  27. It never occurred to me before that concern for the poor was evidence of a conscience that was past feeling.

    Also, I read the Atlantic article BCCC linked to. I didn’t quite get the same meaning from it as he did. At any rate, maybe if we were to do more to grind the faces of the poor, they would be more motivated to not be poor.

  28. CircusPeanutter says:

    I think we all can agree that there is a spectrum of needs. I hear the part about bringing people out of the gutter. What I advocate. is figuring out a way for those receiving it to participate/contribute to the process to grant them dignity. I’m not talking about a job. There are far more practical and accessible exchanges that can be made. Cat gives that example. The value is in the exchange..the goodness happens there. Handing stuff out hurts people. This isn’t about stopping from helping people it is about adding to those efforts the elements that give tangible long term relief instead of intermittent exhales. For that very reason Christ fed the 5000 and then stopped. There were very brief benefits to that activity. Something as simple as requiring 50 cents for a food order makes a profound difference psychologically. Then you are actually healing the wounded. Dignity is the beginning.

  29. Jason K. says:

    This whole “BCC Conscience” vs. “BCC Conscience’s Conscience” thing is straight out of 17th-century pamphlet wars. I love it! Now we just need some “Animadversions upon BCC Conscience’s Reply to His True Conscience’s Confutations.”

  30. “For that very reason Christ fed the 5000 and then stopped.”

    I don’t imagine Jesus meant for us to read grand meaning into that particular miracle. He might’ve fed the 5,000 to communicate ideal welfare policies; or it was simply lunchtime.

    Also, God bless me that if my family falls onto hard times we aren’t in a ward with a bunch of BCC commenters. Y’all are cold.

  31. All of us Kyle M.? I read dissent but I don’t read cold. Struggling to understand or gain scope possibly?

  32. I invite readers to google “LDS Self-Reliance,” “LDS Welfare,” and “LDS Humanitarian Services.” While more can always be done, the Church, collectively and individually, has not been idle.

  33. never forget says:

    For ye have the poor with you always, and whensoever ye will ye may do them good: but me ye have not always. Mark 14:7

  34. Kristine N says:

    Leo, I went through the LDS self-reliance curriculum on starting and running a business. It’s… pretty basic. I’m not sure how truly useful it’d be to someone running a real business. Much of it seemed so obvious as to border on patronizing.

  35. Perhaps too many people, especially in the US, don’t know how to live within their means. It doesn’t matter how much income you have, you will be more susceptible to crisis if you don’t have any savings set aside. More people need to learn the lesson of sacrificing current consumption for future demand. Is it really impossible to save $100 a month?

  36. “Is it really impossible to save $100 a month?”

    If you’re supporting a family on or near minimum wage, yes.

  37. Kristine N

    Yes, the self-reliance materials are fairly basic. It is not a Harvard MBA program (see below). But you might be surprised about how many people in the developed world and in the 3rd world really need and benefit from these basic principles, especially when working with a mentor.

    I recommend talking to someone serving as a full-time self-reliance missionary. https://www.lds.org/topics/pef-self-reliance/missionary-service?lang=eng

    Cf. “M.B.A. programs train the wrong people in the wrong ways with the wrong consequences,” said Henry Mintzberg, a management professor at McGill University in Montreal. “You can’t create a manager in a classroom. If you give people who aren’t managers the impression that you turned them into one, you’ve created hubris.”

    In 2003, Professor Mintzberg tracked the performance of 19 students who graduated from the Harvard Business School in 1990 and were at the top of their class academically. Ten of the 19 were “utter failures,” he said. “Another four were very questionable, at least,” he added. “So five out of 19 did well.” http://www.nytimes.com/2006/06/11/business/yourmoney/11harvard.html

  38. “So certain are you! Always with you it cannot be done. Hear you nothing that I say?”

  39. There are many people who believe something can’t be done… until someone else actually goes and does it. Can you be absolutely, 100% certain that it can’t be done? Just because you believe you can’t do it, doesn’t mean someone else won’t be able to accomplish it. Maybe you should try changing your thinking and listen to the people who believe that you CAN do it.

  40. Just out of curiosity, what is the debate between BCC Conscience and the others really about? Isn’t the obvious response to the argument about the negative incentive effects of welfare that whatever safety net there is, it needs to be incentive compatible? In other words, BCC Conscience, are you actually opposed to something like the “earned income tax credit,” and if so, why?

  41. Sorry about that last post. I wasn’t clear. I am familiar with and understand the economic arguments for and against the eitc. I guess I was curious as to whether you were objecting to an incentive compatible welfare program in theory (which I thought maybe you were because of the comment about just deserts) or just in practice. Based on the Cato article, it sounds like it’s the latter. I was curious because the former position seems to me at least to be really difficult to square with a Christian ethic. The latter position is not as difficult. One thing to note about the Cato position is the realism with which it tries to assess top-down solutions (this program creates a deadweight loss of $X) and the frankly fanciful assessment of the bottom-up solution (we’ll just push the magic button for economic growth). This of course happens on both sides of the debate, but it’s worth being sensitive to.

  42. Leonard R says:

    Thanks for this post and look forward to future instalments.

    Currently living in India, so this topic is constantly, often overwhelmingly on my mind.

  43. BCC Commentator and people like him are just selfish and mean. They hate the idea that someone might get something that the person doesn’t “deserve”, that the person might not be “worthy”. What they forget is that none of us deserve anything, none of us are worthy–we are all sinners in the eyes of God. And as God shows compassion for us poor sinners, so should we show compassion for the poor among us.

    We have enough wealth and resources in the US to feed and house every single person. The fact that we don’t is a the sort of sin that lead to the fall of Israel.

    In theory, humanity could do the same thing for everyone on the planet, but that’s massively more difficult. Still, we should at least try.

  44. Vincent Bates says:

    Thanks for this article. There are quite a few scriptures in Isaiah about caring for the poor. In fact, in my reading of Isaiah at least, one of the reasons Israel was scattered was that they didn’t adequately care for the poor.

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