Lesson 17: The Law of Tithing #DandC2017

Learning Outcomes

At the end of class, students will be able to

  1. Describe the roots of tithing in the Hebrew Bible and in American Protestantism.
  2. Assess how scriptural text relates to contemporary practice in Mormonism.
  3. Explain how the blessings from tithing compare to Prosperity Gospel ideas.

Hebrew Bible

The Hebrew Bible mentions three different types of tithes/taxes:

  1. Temple tax: each male over the age of 20 paid a half-shekel, irrespective of wealth. Ex. 30:11-16. Went toward the upkeep of the temple. This was paid to atone for one’s own soul
  2. Agricultural tithe: paid in-kind; 1/10 of the produce of the field. Deut. 14:22. Why? The Levites didn’t inherit any land; this was meant to support them where there was no land. Num. 18:25-26.
  3. Another tithe that was meant to be taken to Jerusalem and consumed, or given to the poor, depending on where in the 7-year cycle you were. Deut. 14:23-29. Years 1,2,4, and 5 it was to be eaten in Jerusalem at the temple. Year 3 and 6, given to the poor. Year 7, the land lay fallow, and obviated the need for tithes.

American Protestantism

Tithing basically didn’t exist in American Protestantism until the late 1800s. [See Beumler, In Pursuit of the Almighty’s Dollar]

In colonial America, settlements generally weren’t big enough to support more than one physical church. Once new churches came in, that represented a significant trauma, because it represented the breakdown of the communal life that existed.

Tithing was fairly unnecessary: initially, the established church in each colony/state was supported through public taxes. And once we had disestablishment, most churches raised money through offerings, through pew rents.

Post-Civil War, Protestantism rediscovered the tithe.Advantages: it had a biblical precedent, so it was a spiritual law, and thus was “unappealable as the laws of motion, force, and gravity.” (p. 51.)

They focused on different texts, sometimes from Genesis, sometimes Leviticus, sometimes Deuteronomy, and sometimes Malachi.

Two big problems: one is the idea of Gospel of Prosperity. Once you refer to Mal. 3:10, what do you do about the promises? Do you tithe merely to become rich yourself?

Second: the gross-vs.-net debate: that’s not unique to Mormonism. In fact, the question came up popularly in the late 1950s. Why? It’s not until, say, the 1940s that the federal income tax became a mass tax, and it suddently hit most Americans.

LDS Church

In 1831, Joseph adopted a type of consecration, which was not unpopular among groups in the 19th century. For various reason, though, it didn’t work terribly well. By 1837, the church was deeply in debt and the country had slumped into a depression.

At that time, in the church, the term “tithing” referred to any free-will offering/consecration to the church.

In late 1837/early 1838, the bishop of Missouri tried to make “tithing” more specific: he proposed that each household should offer a tithe of 2% of its net worth after paying off its debts. (Makes sense: the idea of income taxation started in England in 1799, but didn’t hit the US until the Civil War.)

Joseph moved to Far West, Missouri. The church was facing a daunting task of raising money for the temple, among other things. In July 1838, Joseph met with a group of church leaders, prayed. D&C 119.

How did it function? First, every member was to contribute their surplus property to the bishop. After that, they were to tithe one-tenth of their “interest” annually.

That’s raised a number of questions: what is “interest”? The Encyclopedia of Mormonism defines “interest” as “increase”; President Kimball said “interest” meant “income.” It turns out that both were wrong.

Basically, “interest” meant that the payor of tithing calculated their net worth, assumed a return on that (6% according to Bishop Partridge), and then paid 10% of that. Essentially, then, tithing was calculated as a percentage of net worth (essentially a property tax). Which again, makes sense: Americans at the time were used to property taxes.

Reading Scripture

So one interesting thing this does is illustrates our relationship with the actual text. The tithing we pay is not what D&C 119 says. But is that wrong? I’d argue that it’s not: the point of continuing revelation is to adjust things as we go. So we don’t pay Section 119 tithing; rather, we pay tithing in the way that’s more amenable to the kind of economy we have today.

Back to Blessings

Note that I don’t believe that paying our tithing helps ensure that we have enough money. Rather, it forces us to economize more carefully. Maybe there’s a loaves-and-fishes thing that occasionally happens, but for the most part, I don’t think it does. Rather, it forces us to be more careful with our money.

Avoiding Prosperity Gospel

So how do we negotiate tithing without falling into the trap of the Gospel of Prosperity?


Update: Shoot, I meant to include a link to Kevin Barney’s lesson plan from four years ago. It has some spectacular ideas, and you should definitely look at it, too!


  1. Kevin Barney says:

    I love your “Learning Outcomes” section. It mirrors the style of the manual, but with more substantive outcomes suggested.

    I agree it’s important for people to understand the historical meaning of “increase,” that what we do today is not what was contemplated then, and that that’s ok. In fact, more than ok; tithing didn’t really take off for us until it became an income-based concept.

    I forget the context, but some time in the past year I tried to raise a discussion of prosperity gospel ideas in the Church. It didn’t go well; no one was interested.

  2. The history is fascinating. I’m bemused by the memory of people expressing certain knowledge of ‘tithing’, in a net vs gross discussion, or otherwise.
    Discussions of tithing are often 20th century U.S.-centric. It doesn’t need to be that way. Since tithing is not just one thing for all time, but has demonstrably been tailored to the economy, tax, and government of time and place, wouldn’t it make sense to further explain, country-by-country (by ‘tithing regulation’?) our relatively uninformative “one-tenth of interest annually”?
    Separate topic–the teacher’s guide includes a section on spiritual AND temporal blessings to those who pay tithing. A setup for a prosperity gospel conversation, if one chooses.

  3. J. Stapley says:

    This is great, and I still count your linked post at the JI to be one of my favorites. I think that the idea of tithing being calculated differently based on the economy would be a radical shift for most people, but it is crucial to understanding what is going on.

    So how do we negotiate tithing without falling into the trap of the Gospel of Prosperity?

    We not only have tithing but the BoM that easily lends itself to this type of reasoning.

  4. My favorite tithing-related member question was written by a man in the mid-20th century who wanted to adjust his tithable increase to take into account both the depreciation in value of his Sunday suit because it was now a year old, AND the increase through inflation it would cost him to replace that suit with one of similar quality. Can you imagine that kind of accounting to avoid paying the Lord one cent more than you absolutely had to in order to meet the “legal” requirements??

  5. Ardis, that is absolutely awesome. Was it a question written in to a church magazine’s advice column? Or was it him trying to get some sort of dispensation from his bishop/stake president/general authority? (Though I’m an attorney, I find this kind of legalism w/r/t tithing antithetical to the whole purpose of tithing.)

    And thanks, J, Chris, and Kevin!

  6. Wow, this is wonderful, a lot of new information for me. I really like the question of how we avoid Prosperity Gospel.

    Speaking of which, where do fast offerings fit in? (I’m especially interested in this right now because for Reasons, I currently pay fast offerings but not tithing.) It seems like this could perhaps be a good stepping-off point for talking about the non-temporal blessings.

  7. cahn, I think that’s a great idea. The lesson includes both tithing and fast offerings, but I decided to narrow it to just tithing for blogging purposes.

  8. Ardis – do you have a reference for your story about the man and his coat? I’m moderating a discussion on tithing and I would like to use this story!

  9. It’s a letter written to a general authority (probably John A. Widtsoe). I’ve started searching through my transcriptions … but you might be amazed at how many times the word “suit” turns up in those tens of thousands of pages of transcription …

  10. In 1960, Church members were told that tithing is “one-tenth of their interest (income)” (General Church Handbook, Number 18 [Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 1960], p. 59). Three years later, Church leaders were more explicit: “A tithe is one-tenth of a wage earner’s gross income; a tithe is one-tenth of a professional man’s income after deducting standard business expenses; a tithe is one-tenth of a farmer’s income after deducting standard business operating expenses” (General Handbook of Instructions, Number 19 [Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints 1963], p. 67). In 1968, however, Church officials referred members, without elucidation, to the Doctrine and Covenants Section 119 (General Handbook of Instructions, Number 20 [Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 1968], p. 102). Today, members are instructed: “The simplest statement we know of is the statement of the Lord himself, namely, that the members of the Church should pay ‘one-tenth of all their interest annually,’ which is understood to mean income. No one is justified in making any other statement than this” (Handbook 1: Stake Presidents and Bishops 2010, p. 125).

    The above comes from an article I wrote several years ago about the enforcement of tithing payments at BYU during the 1950s and 1960s.

  11. In my ward we’ve had several brief prosperity gospel discussions in Sunday School. They went well, perhaps largely because they were introduced through a discussion of adversity and judging. Some Zoramite-like adherents of the prosperity gospel seem to judge those without apparent temporal prosperity as unrighteous. On the other hand, at least Apostle Merrill in the 1899 general conference taught “people who pay their tithing will have an increase of faith and an increase of prosperity. It is the shortest and easiest way to extricate ourselves from debt and to redeem the mortgages on our homes.”

    It seems President Lorenzo Snow, like President Kimball later, used “income” in place of “interest” as the basis of tithing. “…I plead with you in the name of the Lord, and I pray that every man, woman and child who has means shall pay one tenth of their income as a tithing…”
    Conference Report Oct 1899 page 28, http://archive.org/stream/conferencereport1899sa/conferencereport692chur#page/28/mode/2up
    I found it also interesting to note President Joseph F. Smith’s speech in that same conference. He stressed the importance of the function of tithing as allowing the Church to take care of the temporal and opportunity needs of widows and orphans. That purpose seems to have changed.

    Though the terms surplus, income, increase and interest may be uninformative, I would prefer leaving them that way to having country-by-country tithing regulations. For tithing purposes I wouldn’t want to see a definition of income, for example, controlled by anything even remotely approaching the US tax code and regulations. But, heck, maybe I’ll try dealing with capital gains, realization, loss-carry forwards, etc. in Sunday School and see how inspiring that is. Oh, and perhaps I should also allow not only for capital losses, but also for an inflation adjustment in order to get closer to real increase! It seems best to me to leave the definitions of “income” and “full tithe” up to the tithepayer and general counsel about stewardship, gratitude, and honesty, etc. But for my part, I would like to see us go back to President Snow’s plea and not insist on the ellipses that appeared in the Pr/RS manual on his teachings. I wonder if there is any value in pointing out that kind of change in Sunday School. Perhaps the ellipses represent the result of subsequent continuing revelation. The ellipses may appear to some to be dishonest in the context of a manual on President Snow’s teachings, but may have been merely intended to avoid dealing with the change from his teaching to current teaching on tithing obligations.

  12. Damn. If we flush the prosperity gospel, what am I gonna do with Ernie Wilkinson’s faith promoting story of the opera singer who injured her shin in a streetcar accident, who won a big judgment because he, her attorney, was faithfully paying his tithing?

  13. Mark B., You could consider substituting the story of Florence Foster Jenkins who fancied herself a singer, was injured in a taxi accident, and did not sue the driver because she found she could sing a higher F than ever before. Seems to me to have just as much to do with paying tithing and its far more entertaining. Consider listening to Ms. Jenkins recording of the Queen of the Night’s aria from Mozart’s Magic Flute.

  14. Kevin Barney says:

    I love the suit deduction guy! That is truly awesome. That’s the whole reason President Hinckley used to talk about the genius of our tithing system, in that we leave it between the individual and the Lord, which obviates the need for some sort of tithing code and regulations. I agree with his perspective. In this case, if the man thinks that’s the right basis on which to pay tithing, all he has to do is do it that way, no questions asked. The only catch is he has to be the one responsible for that determination, and that he’s trying so hard to slough the responsibility on to some leader is perhaps a comment on how reasonable or not his legalisms really are…

  15. Not a Cougar says:

    Gary, please, please, please post a link to your articles! Thanks!

  16. Kevin Barney says:

    I had never seen that tripartite formula from the 1963 Handbook that Gary quotes above. Very interesting. (Notice professional “man”; apparently there is no such thing as a professional woman; we’re in Mad Men territory here.)

    A wage earner is supposed to pay on gross income, and that’s it, no deductions allowed. A professional man pays on “income” (gross not specified) after standard business deductions.

    Well, I’m a “professional man” (I’m a partner in a law firm, which makes me an owner.) But what is this supposed to mean? What are “standard business deductions”? Does this mean my taxable income after itemizing? But many wage earners can itemize; why are they being treated differently? Are wage earners just screwed because they’re not “professional men”?

    That language just illustrates what a terrible idea it would be for the Church to get into the weeds on what is titheable income.

  17. Aussie Mormon says:

    With things like this I always feel the “surplus” part would be hard to define.
    You’d get into the situation where you are picking the line between this is my food-storage/ money for emergencies/provident living supplies, and stuff that will never likely be needed.
    You’d also have to decide whether your family does actually need a second car.

  18. This is great, Sam. Re: farmer payment, I remember hearing a Mississippi farmer (ca. 1980) explain tithing computation. It worked out very similar to the Partridge formula in the end. I wonder if there is some kind of formula for Social Security payments.

  19. “the point of continuing revelation is to adjust things as we go.”

    President Kimball’s modern interpretation was incorrect, as you pointed out. So does it still count as “continuing revelation” when the prophet’s stated rationale is off-base?

  20. Regarding prosperity gospels and the Book of Mormon. Typically the text defines what is meant by prosperity: not being in war or taken captive. i.e. Mosiah 2:31; Mosiah 12:15; Alma 48:15 etc. When you are subsistent farmers under constant threat of war and slavery prosperity takes a very different meaning than what it has today where even the poorest aren’t in danger of starvation in the west.

    This seems a non-trivial point. Prosperity gospel in the American Evangelical tradition appears to have two important characteristics. First it is individual prosperity tied to a Calvinist idea of God choosing people and all choices ultimately being due to God. (They are determinists) Second the prosperity is interpreted in terms of amassing individual wealth which is consistently condemned in the Book of Mormon. So I’ve never quite understood how someone could read Benjamin’s address which deals with prosperity and come away with a prosperity gospel like interpretation.

  21. John Mansfield says:

    A line in the 2012 Pew study of Mormons in America that caught my attention, but as far as I can tell didn’t interest anyone else, was the observation that, “Nearly two-thirds of Mormon college graduates (65%) view evangelicals as unfriendly toward Mormonism, compared with roughly half of those with some college education (52%) and roughly one-third of those with a high school education or less (35%).” It seem likely that reciprocal feelings of unfriendliness by Mormons towards evangelicals follow the same education-level trends as perceptions by Mormons of unfriendliness toward Mormons.

    That line comes unpleasantly back to mind while reading here scoffing by the well-employed toward some less well-off Latter-day Saints who may latch unto prosperity gospel concepts.

  22. John, I don’t think most Evangelicals buy into the prosperity gospel at all. However the prosperity gospel as discussed culturally is a phenomena within the Evangelical movement. Most Evangelical theologians and pastors condemn it wholesale though. It especially arose relative to TV Evangelists but has sadly become exported to Africa and heartily embraced by far too many there.

    I should correct myself somewhat, in that I used Evangelical loosely. While I think it’s primarily associated with them many of those espousing it technically consider themselves part of the Pentacostal movement. To what degree one distinguish those or whether one conceivably could separate them is perhaps a different discussion. The main figures people associate with the movement are TV Evangelists like Oral Roberts or Joel Osteen. Although to be fair I’ve met some Evangelicals who dispute Osteen preaches the prosperity gospel. (Having never watched him I don’t have an opinion)

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