#taxday 2019: Henry P. Richards and Hawaiian Personal Taxes


Henry P. Richards, public domain.

Today is April 15, which means it’s Tax Day! And, as always, on Tax Day, I wanted to bring you a story of Mormonism and taxes.[fn1]

I didn’t have anything particular in mind, though.[fn2] So I ran a quick Westlaw search,[fn3] and, before I had a chance to rearrange the results chronologically, the first result caught my eye: Kupua v. Richards, an 1879 decision from the Supreme Court of the Kingdom of Hawaii.

The Richards in that case was Henry P. Richards, brother of apostle Franklin D. Richards. But, while today we remember Franklin D. better than Henry P., it turns out that Henry P. Richards played a critical (and heralded!) role in missionary work in Hawaii.

Before we get to that, though, some background information: Richards was born in 1831, son of Phineas Richards and (the aspirationally named?) Wealthy Dewey. His life seems to mirror the church’s moves: he was baptized at about 8 years old. His family moved to Nauvoo in 1843, and he was ordained an Elder. In 1846—at the age of 14—he received his endowment in the Nauvoo temple. In 1854, he left on a three-and-a-half-year mission to Hawaii. In 1876 (when he was just a little older than I am), he left on a second mission to Hawaii. And on this second mission, two notable things happened, one of which is relevant to this post, and the second I’m going to relate in spite of its irrelevance.

Queen Kapiolani, public domain.

The second was this: he gave a custom-bound copy of the Hawaiian translation of the Book of Mormon to Queen Kapiolani.

Which leads us to another quick discursion: in 1879, Hawaii wasn’t in any way part of the United States; it was its own independent kingdom. Almost 15 years later, in 1893, the Hawaiian monarchy was overthrown. The coup was led by a group of white businessmen, who wanted the United States to annex Hawaii, and who set up a provisional government. In 1895, Queen Liliuokalani formally abdicated and dissolved her government. In 1898, the U.S. annexed Hawaii as a territory, and in 1959, it became the fiftieth state.

Back to the world of taxes and Mormonism, though: while Richards was in Laie, the local tax assessor and collector assessed Richards for $5 of personal taxes. Though the case doesn’t say what tax or taxes that $5 assessment represents, I looked through the Civil Code of the Hawaiian Islands. As best I can tell, those personal taxes would have been made up of a $1 poll tax (imposed on males between the ages of 17 and 60), $2 of school tax (imposed on males between the ages of 21 and 60), and $2 of road tax (imposed on males between the ages of 17 and 50).[fn4]

The assessor had routinely assessed these taxes on Mormon missionaries, and they had routinely paid the tax assessment. Richards, however, refused to pay. It turns out that the Civil Code provided a handful of exemptions to these personal taxes, including an exemption for “[a]ll clergymen of any Christian denomination regularly engaged in their vocation.”[fn5] Richards claimed to be Christian clergy, and thus exempt from the personal taxes.

Richards was arrested. The district court judge found that he was not Christian clergy, so he appealed. I’m not going to discuss the full decision (it’s only six pages, including one paragraph that is purely the Articles of Faith), but I wanted to highlight a couple points:

At the Supreme Court, the Attorney-General made two main arguments for why Richards was not Christian clergy. First, he said, Richards claimed the title “Elder,” not “Rev.” By using a title other than “Rev.,” he disclaimed his role as clergy. The court dismissed that argument, pointing out the Baptists and Methodists often styled their ministers “Elder,” and the Catholics used “Father.” The title “Rev.,” the judge wrote, could not be the statute’s test of the class of persons exempted.

The Attorney-General also argued that Mormons were not Christian, an assertion that, in the first instance, the court greeted with skepticism. After all (and to Pres. Nelson’s point!), the church’s name included “Jesus Christ,” Richards believed in and preached Jesus, and the church professed belief in the Old and New Testaments.

Still, the Attorney-General made two specific assertions for why Mormon ministers were not Christian ministers. The first was, they accept revelations outside of the normal Christian canon. The court replied that the Catholics accept extra-scriptural revelation, too, including infallible statements from the Pope, as well as other sporadic revelations, including, “for a modern instance, the revelations to a nun at Lourdes, in France.” The court determined that

[i]If the Mormons accept the Bible and believe in Christ, and believe also in the revelations of Joseph Smith, they must equally as Roman Catholics be considered a Christian denomination.

Second, the Attorney-General argued that the Mormon practice of polygamy meant that Mormon ministers were not Christian ministers. The court acknowledged that polygamy would be unacceptable in Hawaii. But, it said, there was no evidence that Mormons in the Kingdom of Hawaii were practicing polygamy. Again, the court turned to Catholicism, this time looking at the Inquisition:

The doctrine of their church supports an inquisition which shall force men by unspeakable tortures and death to profess an accord with their faith. The civil power of this Kingdom does not permit the exercise of this coercion here. It has been suppressed for the most part in all countries, yet this church, which professes immutability and infallibility, must be considered to hold to the theory.

But because the Catholic church did not use its Inquisitional powers in Hawaii, the Kingdom of Hawaii did not consider the fact that they might elsewhere disqualifying of their treatment as Christian in Hawaii. For similar reasons, as long as Mormons didn’t practice polygamy in Hawaii, the fact that they did believe in polygamy didn’t affect their status as Christian in the kingdom of Hawaii.

As a result, Mormon missionaries in Hawaii going forward qualified as exempt from Hawaiian personal taxes, reducing the costs of missions to the islands.

[fn1] Also, importantly, if you haven’t filed your taxes yet (and you’re a U.S. taxpayer, and you haven’t filed for an extension, &c., &c.), stop reading and file them! This post will still be here when you get back.

[fn2] I mean, there’s New Zealand’s decision that payments to the church’s missionary fund by missionaries and their parents aren’t deductible, but I blogged that last month.

[fn3] “adv: (Mormon OR “latter-day saint”) /p tax!” in the All States database, if you’re interested.

[fn4] Here are the respective provisions of the Civil Code:

The Civil Code allowed those subject to the road tax to pay either in money or labor. If a resident of Hawaii chose to pay his road tax in labor, six eight-hour days would fulfill his tax obligation.

[fn5] All of the exemptions from personal taxes are here:

And what about the Establishment Clause’s prohibition on favoring religion? Remember, at this time, Hawaii wasn’t part of the United States, so the First Amendment didn’t have any bearing on its laws. And even if it were, though, the Establishment Clause wasn’t incorporated against the states until the mid-20th century.


  1. Such a cool post — I love historical judicial decisions!

  2. Kevin Barney says:

    Some real Tax Day goodness; thanks!

  3. Fascinating — so much fun to see present arguments argued in the past.

  4. I really like this, Sam. Clearly “not Christian like my Christian” is a much easier argument than “not Christian like any Christian.”

  5. J. Stapley says:

    Love it.

  6. So fun to read! Can’t wait for next year’s episode. Thanks!

  7. Great post, Sam.

  8. Bless you, Sam, and may your own taxes be consecrated to useful causes and not squandered on separating families at the border or funding Trump’s frequent trips to Mar-a-Lago.

  9. Thank you. Articles like these are the reason I stick around BCC (while having left some of the other bloggernacle sites).

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