Brigham Young, John P. Taggart, and the Federal Income Tax

On January 3, 1871, Brigham Young sent a telegram to  his counselor Daniel H. Wells. The LDS Church History Library only has the first page of the letter, but even the absence of subsequent pages can’t disguise the story lying under the surface. The first page of the telegram reads:

We think it will be wisdom for the Latter Day Saints to omit paying tithing Some of the Officers of the government seem determined to rob us of our hard earnings which are donated to sustain the poor and other charitable purposes We will carry on our public works and assist the poor by some other method If this agrees with your feelings have Bro Cannon[fn1]

I’m not sure I can emphasize enough how crazy this is: Brigham Young suggested doing away with tithing. While I don’t know the church’s revenue in 1870, in 1880, about $540,000 of the church’s $1 million in revenue came from tithing. And yet Brigham Young was willing to get rid of it in response to some kind of robbery. So what’s going on?

I’ve spent a good portion of the last six months or so digging into precisely that question. The story starts roughly on August 27, 1869, when Francis M. Lyman, an assistant assessor of internal revenue and eventual member of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, wrote to Brigham Young to tell him that John P. Taggart, the Assessor, told him to assess an income tax on tithing received by the Mormon church. (In 1862, the U.S. enacted its first federal income tax to help fund the Civil War. That tax was still in effect at the end of the decade.)

The next year and a half involves various legal arguments between Taggart, Young, and O.J. Hollister, the Collector of Internal Revenue in Utah. Interestingly, given the time, neither polygamy nor questions of territorial sovereignty play an explicit role in the conflict—in fact, neither come up in any of the letters—but they seem to be an underlying context for the dispute.

Whatever the explicit dispute, though, on December 3, 1870, the New York Times reported that Brigham had lost his case. Brigham had argued that tithing was not taxable because it was a voluntary gift, and that even if it were taxable, an 1880 1870 [ed.: oops] revision of the tax law meant the church got a $1,000 exemption for every five members. The church had 50,000 members, Brigham said, so even if tithing were income and thus taxable, the church could exclude its first $10 million.

The Commissioner of Internal Revenue determined that church members didn’t hold all of their property in common, which was prerequisite for the $10 million exemption. Further, he decided that tithing was not a voluntary donation because members who didn’t pay were subject to serious penalties, including excommunication (and possibly death as an apostate, per some of Brigham’s 1850s statements).

Of course, those are only bookends of the story (and the New York Times article is a premature bookmark). In the article I’ve been working on, I’ve filled in how Brigham got from August 27, 1869, to December 3, 1870, as well as what happened next. If you’re interested in this snippet of Mormon/federal government conflict, I’ve posted the current draft of my article for download here. Tell me what you think.[fn2]

[fn1] Unknown sender [probably Brigham Young] to Daniel H. Wells, 3 Jan. 1871, Box 73, Folder 33, Brigham Young office files: President’s Office Files, 1843-1877, Communications, 1854-1877, Letters and telegrams, 1870 December-1871 January, 1870 April. Church History Library, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Salt Lake City, Utah.

[fn2] Note that, in addition to a really fun story and some history of the Civil War income tax, the article has pretty awesome photos of Taggart, Hollister, and Young.


  1. Glad to see you’re pursuing this research, Sam! Fascinating stuff!

  2. Thanks! It’s been a lot of fun to pretend to be a historian!

  3. Great article. Fascinating history. For a Mormon audience I think the tease of doing away with tithing is going to be frustrating, without some idea of what next or instead? We have so strongly taught tithing or the collection plate (which I view as the same thing notwithstanding disparaging remarks about collection plates in my Sunday School education) as the only way to support a church that the very idea of alternatives is shocking.

  4. Very interesting article. Is there any evidence from which to learn whether BY consulted with others or was merely using the royal “we” in “We think it will be wisdom for the Latter Day Saints to omit paying tithing” ?

  5. JR, that’s a really good question. I know that he was wintering in St. George, and I know that Wells was taking care of his Salt Lake obligations (financial and otherwise) at the time, but I don’t know enough precisely who would have been with him at the time. The LDS Church History Library doesn’t have the rest of the telegram; in other telegrams BY wrote that week (including to Wells), though, he uses “I.” So I suspect that “we” here meant BY and some other counselors/confidantes.

  6. Matt Godfrey says:

    Great stuff, Sam.

  7. Last Lemming says:

    Brigham had argued that tithing was not taxable because it was a voluntary gift, and that even if it were taxable, an 1880 revision of the tax law meant the church got a $1,000 exemption for every five members.

    If the Times article appeared in 1870, it is unlikely that Brigham was citing an 1880 revision of the tax law to support his case. (Or is this the part where he demonstrates his prophetic chops?)

  8. Thanks. Fixed.

  9. Kevin Barney says:

    Since the pagination begins on page 102 does that mean it has been accepted somewhere for publication?

  10. Not yet. I’m just playing around with formatting and numbering conventions.

  11. This is really interesting work, Sam. Thanks.

  12. Cool!

  13. I think the Commissioner of Internal Revenue was on to something about the definition of “voluntary donations” when he declared “that tithing was not a voluntary donation because members who didn’t pay were subject to serious penalties, including excommunication.”

    I can’t go to the temple if I don’t pay my tithing; I can’t confirm my daughter if I don’t pay my tithing. Is it really voluntary?

  14. Tithing and temple don’t really fit into what the Commissioner (and what Hollister and Taggart) were talking about. Their view (based on statements by church leaders, including BY, but which BY disputed) was that non-tithepayers were apostates. The church embraced killing apostates, so you totally didn’t dare not pay your tithing.

    Hollister acknowledged that he didn’t think anybody had actually been killed (as far as he knew) for nonpayment of tithing, but also argued that, in Utah territory, being branded an apostate and excommunicated was almost the equivalent—spiritual, social, and economic death. Thus, he said, it’s not voluntary. (He also argued that, because it was a “law,” there was moral force—for the most part, at the time, church contributions weren’t thought of as a mandatory obligation of churchgoers, but rather a thing they ought to do.) Had the only rhetorical consequences nonpayers faced been the inability to bless a child or go to the temple, I don’t think the Bureau would have made the voluntariness argument for why tithing was income to the church.

  15. Just Sayin! says:

    To be fair… What Todd said is not 100% accurate…
    I can’t go to the temple if I don’t CLAIM to pay my tithing… I can’t confirm by daughter if I don’t CLAIM to pay my tithing….

    When the church starts investigating your finances to determine whether or not you pay your tithing and then punishes you for not doing so, then we can have that discussion.
    Until then, you choose to pay, you choose to be honest in your responses, both in a voluntary manner supported by a capitalistic society…

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