Summary: The History of Tithing


[Note: Click here to read the chronology on tithing]

From D. Michael Quinn, "The Mormon Hierarchy: Extensions of Power," chapter 6

Since 1831 LDS bishop Edward Partridge and his counselors had presided over all Mormons in Missouri, which had equal status with church headquarters in Ohio.7 In December 1837 they defined tithing as 2 percent of one's net worth, after deducting debts. 'Believing that voluntary tithing is better than Forced taxes,' the Missouri bishopric defined it as 'two cents on the dollar or one fiftieth of what we are worth after deducting what we owe.'8 Until 1908 Mormons were allowed to pay tithing in labor, personal property, livestock, and produce in addition to cash.9

In July 1838 Joseph Smith dictated a revelation which required a more stringent financial sacrifice from Latter-day Saints. It defined the law of tithing as a donation of all the individual's 'surplus property' at first, and then a tenth of annual income thereafter (D&C 119:1, 4). In November 1841 the Quorum of the Twelve made the first liberalization of the 1838 tithing revelation: the initial donation was reduced to only 'one-tenth of all a man [possesses, and] 1/10 of increas[e]' afterwards.10

In August 1844 the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles issued an epistle which required all Mormons to immediately pay 'a tenth of all their property and money . . . and then let them continue to pay in a tenth of their income from that time forth.' There was no exemption for Mormons who had already paid one-tenth of their property upon conversion.11 In January 1845 a Quorum of Twelve's epistle reemphasized 'the duty of all saints to tithe themselves one-tenth of all they possess when they enter into the new and everlasting covenant: and then one-tenth of their interest, or income, yearly afterwards.'12 However, two weeks later the Twelve voted to exempt themselves, the two general bishops Newel K. Whitney and George Miller, and the Nauvoo Temple Committee from any obligation to pay tithing. This was due to their services to the church.13

Apostle John E. Page's enforcement of the full-tithing requirement for the rank-and-file led to his disaffection from his own quorum. Exempted from tithing himself, Page felt guilty about collecting tithing from others such as one Mormon who gave $4 which was 'the tenth of all' the man and his impoverished family possessed. Upon abandoning the Quorum of the Twelve in 1846, Page complained that he 'believes that many paid tithing & in consequence of [this, were in] want of money enough to procure misc. necessaries of life.'14

Five years later Brigham Young provided a penalty for those Mormons who did not comply with the published definitions of the law of tithing. In September 1851 a special conference at Salt Lake City voted to accept excommunication as punishment for non-payment of tithing and non-observance of the Word of Wisdom's prohibition of tobacco and spirituous alcohol. Neither requirement was enforced consistently or often.15 Nevertheless, in 1854 the Deseret News printed a notice by the bishop of the Salt Lake City Nineteenth Ward that Enoch M. King was disfellowshipped 'for repeatedly refusing to conform to the rules of said Church, in the law of Tithing.' In October 1858 a bishop's meeting asked Presiding Bishop Edward Hunter: 'Are all to be cut off who do not pay their Tithing? Answer, deal according to circumstances, and the wisdom God gives.'16

On this matter Apostle Erastus Snow was more zealous than most. In 1868 he gave orders to southern Utah bishops to excommunicate everyone 'who will not keep the word of wisdom, Pay their Tithing & donate of their substance to help bring the Poor Saints from the old country.' A local Mormon estimated that enforcement of Snow's instruction 'would cause 3/4 of this community to be cut off from this church.'17

For the church as a whole, Brigham Young publicly estimated that Latter-day Saints had paid less than 10 percent of their 10 percent tithing obligations from 1847 to 1870.18 In other words, adult Mormons were contributing, on average, less than 1 percent of their net worth at conversion, less than 1 percent of their net worth upon arrival in Utah, and less than 1 percent of their annual income. However, pioneer definitions of tithing delinquency varied radically. In Cache Valley during the same period, local bishops concluded that 90 percent of people who could pay tithing were full-tithe payers. The difference in perspective was due to the fact that these Cache Valley bishops 'excused' a large portion of the population from tithing due to poverty. The church president's report made no such distinctions.19

After President Young's announcement of tithing delinquency, LDS general authorities gave sermons to remind church members that the law of tithing was 'one tenth of all we possess at the start, and then ever after one tenth . . .'20 Apostle Erastus Snow even reinvoked the 1838 revelation's original requirement to donate all surplus property at first.21 These sermons were futile efforts to reverse a nineteenth-century trend of financial non-compliance. Otherwise faithful Mormons withered before an overwhelming tithing obligation. Young told the October 1875 general conference that neither he nor anyone else 'had ever paid their tithing as it was revealed and understood by him in the Doctrine and Covenants.'22

John Taylor tried to increase church donations by liberalizing the law of tithing for the first time since 1841. On the fiftieth anniversary of the church's organization, he declared a biblical Jubilee Year in which he forgave half of the delinquent tithing and half of the debts owed to the Perpetual Emigrating Fund.23 After the Jubilee year of 1880 failed to bring in the unforgiven half of delinquent tithing, the church president offered a carrot-and-stick approach to tithing in 1881. On 8 January 1881 Taylor said he did not care whether Mormons paid the 'one-tenth of the property of the new comers' to Utah, as required by Brigham Young. However, the Presiding Bishopric's tithing clerk recorded that, on motion of the LDS president, the assembled priesthood holders voted unanimously to sustain the requirement of 'one tenth of the property on entering the Church, and one tenth of the increase afterward.'24 At this stake conference in January and again at general co
nference in April 1881, President Taylor instructed stake presidents that church members now 'must be tithe payers' in order to have recommends for temple ordinances.25

The early tithing requirements of Mormonism give added significance to the numbers of immigrants to Utah before 1881 and to the numbers of LDS converts prior to 1899. At a personal level, any Mormon who paid a full tithing by nineteenth-century definitions (like the man who gave $4 in 1845) was deserving of awe and veneration. Then in May 1899 Lorenzo Snow publicly announced a revelation which limited the law of tithing to one-tenth of annual income with no massive payment upon conversion. As an LDS church president, Snow is best known for his emphasis on observance of this new definition of tithing.26 This was the last LDS liberalization of the 1838 revelation on tithing. From then until the present, Mormons have been allowed to decide whether to pay tithing on their gross income or net income.27

Lorenzo Snow's announcement was undoubtedly the cause for a significant increase in the percentage of Mormons who paid at least some tithing (see Table). In 1890, 17.2 percent of LDS stake membership had paid some tithing, and the percentage hovered around 15 percent for seven years. In 1898 the percentage of stake members who paid some tithing was only 1 percent higher than in 1890. In 1899, the year of Lorenzo Snow's announcement, the number of tithe payers in the stakes jumped to 25.6 percent.28

In early 1900 President Snow asked the Presiding Bishop to prepare a list 'of non-tithe payers and about 10,000 names were in the record.'29 Snow told the apostles that non-payment of tithing 'was worse than the non-observance of the Word of Wisdom' prohibitions against tobacco and alcohol. The time had long since passed when general authorities were exempt from the obligation to pay tithing, and one apostle was shocked to learn that Apostle John W. Taylor's 'name is on the Non-Tithing List!'30

In April 1910 the church president announced it was necessary to comply with this greatly reduced law of tithing in order to have temple recommends.31 This 1910 announcement was a reincarnation of the poorly enforced First Presidency announcement in 1881. Since 1910 bishops and stake presidents have given greater attention to the requirement of tithing for temple recommends. Higher expectations of tithing compliance were possible because twentieth-century Mormons have had it easy regarding their tithing obligations compared with nineteenth-century Mormons.

Table 1.
LDS Stake Members Who Paid Some Tithing, 1890-1925

(per capita for total membership)
1890 17.2% 1900 27.0% 1910 21.6% 1920 21.9%
1891 15.1% 1901 28.9% 1911 21.0% 1921 20.7%
1892 15.8% 1902 28.2% 1912 20.6% 1922 28.4%
1893 14.9% 1903 28.5% 1913 21.0% 1923 27.3%
1894 15.7% 1904 27.6% 1914 20.1% 1924 25.1%
1895 15.3% 1905 26.4% 1915 20.0% 1925 25.3%
1896 15.1% 1906 26.1% 1916 20.1%
1897 15.6% 1907 26.8% 1917 21.8%
1898 18.4% 1908 26.0% 1918 21.3%
1899 25.6% 1909 25.0% 1919 22.3%

Of course the figures in this Table were significantly higher than the percentage of stake members who paid a full tithing. During the pre-Depression first quarter of the twentieth century, the highest percentage of full-tithe payers was in 1910. In that year 16.5 percent of the church's total stake membership of men, women, and children paid a full 10-percent tithing.32 However, neither of the above measures adequately assesses individual compliance by Mormons concerning their church's requirement for tithing.

The annual reports did not regularly list the number of wage-earners or consistently show the percentage of wage-earners who actually paid tithing. The 54,346 full-tithe payers in 1910 were a much higher percentage (though unquantifiable) of the wage-earners among Latter-day Saints in the stakes that year. For example, in the very next year 59.3 percent were full-tithe payers of the total wage-earners. Likewise, the highest percentage (28.9 percent) who paid any tithing in that quarter-century amounted to 74,625 tithe payers in 1901. That had to be an impressive record for the Mormon wage-earners in the stakes that year, for the lowest rate of tithe paying during that quarter-century was 20 percent of total stake population in 1915. In that latter year 73 percent of wage-earners paid at least some tithing.33 The praise of Mormon leaders for the financial devotion of LDS church members has never been exaggerated.

Tithing donations from the widow's mite to the rich man's abundance have always been the essential source of LDS church revenues. When Esquire magazine's August 1962 cover story claimed the church's revenues were $1 million a day,34 tithing revenues were actually about $100 million that year instead of $365 million.35 This 350+ percent error was due to careless research and a wild guess by Salt Lake City's non-Mormon mayor, J. Bracken Lee: 'I do know that the net income exceeds a million dollars a day.'36 With far more attention to available details, a carefully researched estimate of 1991 was probably closer to the mark in claiming that the LDS church received $4.3 billion in annual tithing revenue.37 The accuracy of this estimate is debatable, since recent tithing figures are unavailable for research.

However, annual tithing revenues for the decade prior to the Esquire estimate are helpful for estimating recent LDS church income. In 1962 tithing revenues were about $56.62 per capita for total LDS membership that year, nearly double the per capita tithing revenues of $28.65 in 1952. In real dollars (a term in economic history), the 1962 tithing equalled $253 per capita in 1990 dollars.38 Therefore, assuming similar tithing observance in 1990 (without including the observable annual growth rate), this would translate to $1.96 billion in tithing revenue during 1990. From that perspective, LDS Public Affairs in 1991 rightly dismissed the estimate of $4.3 billion of annual tithing income as 'grossly overstated.'39 However, by including the growth rate of the earlier reports by LDS headquarters, it is difficult to regard $4.3 billion as a 'grossly overstated' estimate of annual LDS revenues in the 1990s.

A nearly 100 percent growth rate in the actual dollars of per capita tithing from 1952 to 1962 cannot simply be ignored when estimating the LDS church's present income. That decade included the explosive growth of LDS conversions outside the United States and Canada. There is no reason to discount similar growth in tithing rates during the three decades since 1962. With the 1952-62 period as a basis of comparison, the church's tithing revenues for 1990 would be far in excess of the estimate of $4.3 billion. From this perspective that estimate seems conservative.

However, it is important to recognize that tithing from Mormons outside the United States has rarely ever been transferred to church headquarters in America. Except for the early years of the British Mission (established in 1837) and of the Canadian settlements of Mormons (begun in 1887), Mormon tithing funds have remained in the countries of their origin. The first reason for this is that foreign outposts of Mormonism have been financial drains on the church's general funds, which typically supplement local tithing collected outside the United States. In the nineteenth century it was more practical to use foreign tithing for the immediate needs of the missions and branches in each country where it was collected. Physical transfer of overseas funds required months of travel to and from headquarters in the United States.

The second reason for keeping tithing in the country of its origin was that the church lost money in exchange fees for every transaction involving U.S. dollars and foreign currency. The third reason is that (particularly in the twentieth century) laws of some countries either complicated or prohibited transfers of tithing to the United States. The bottom line is that the net flow of tithing funds has been from Salt Lake City to other countries where Mormons have converted and eventually built chapels and temples.

Both the definition of tithing and the extent of its payment have evolved since 1831. The LDS church could not have become the international organization it is today without the development of regular tithe paying.

6. Robert Gottlieb and Peter Wiley, America's Saints: The Rise of Mormon Power (New York: G. P. Putnam's Sons, 1984), 97, 128.
7. Quinn, Mormon Hierarchy: Origins of Power, 13-14, 59-61, 70-72. Except when otherwise indicated, biographical sketches of all general authorities named in this chapter can be found either in the above book or in an appendix of the present volume.
8. Donald Q. Cannon and Lyndon W. Cook, eds., Far West Record: Minutes of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 1830-40 (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Co., 1983), 131; compare to Howard D. Swainston, 'Tithing,' in Ludlow, Encyclopedia of Mormonism, 4:1481.
9. Arrington, Great Basin Kingdom, 134-36, 409.
10. Meeting of seven members of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles with English immigrant Joseph Fielding at Nauvoo, Illinois, 31 Nov. 1841, minutes, archives, Historical Department, Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Salt Lake City, Utah (hereafter LDS archives); Arrington, Great Basin Kingdom, 18, and Swainston, 'Tithing,' in Ludlow, Encyclopedia of Mormonism, 4:1482, overlooked this as a liberalization of the requirement in the 1838 revelation.
11. Joseph Smith et al., History of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Period I: History of Joseph Smith, the Prophet, and . . . Period II: From the Manuscript History of Brigham Young and Other Original Documents, ed. B. H. Roberts, 7 vols. (Salt Lake City: Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 1902-32; 2d ed. rev. [Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Co., 1978]), 7:251 (hereafter History of the Church). Arrington, Great Basin Kingdom, 18, 428n58, overlooked the double-jeopardy dimension of the epistle's tithing requirement.
12. History of the Church, 7:358.
13. Heber C. Kimball diary, 29 Jan. 1845, in Stanley B. Kimball, ed., On the Potter's Wheel: The Diaries of Heber C. Kimball (Salt Lake City: Signature Books/Smith Research Associates, 1987), 94; Nauvoo Trustee-in-Trust Tithing and Donation Record, 220-222 (29 Jan. 1845), LDS archives. For the term general bishop and its meaning in early LDS history, see Journal of Discourses, 26 vols. (Liverpool and London: Latter-day Saints' Book Depot, 1854-86), 22: 34 (O. Pratt/1880); D. Michael Quinn, 'Evolution of the Presiding Quorums of the LDS Church,' Journal of Mormon History 1 (1974): 34; Dale Beecher, 'The Office of Bishop,' Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought 15 (Winter 1982): 103; Quinn, Mormon Hierarchy: Origins of Power, 69-71.
14. John E. Page statement at meeting of Strangite high council, Voree, Wisconsin, 6 Apr. 1846, Document 6, James J. Strang Manuscripts, Western Americana, Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Yale University, New Haven, Connecticut. For a history of Strang and his schismatic alternative to Brigham Young, see Roger Van Noord, King of Beaver Island: The Life and Assassination of James Jesse Strang (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1988).
15. Hosea Stout diary, 9 Sept. 1851, in Juanita Brooks, ed., On the Mormon Frontier: The Diary of Hosea Stout, 1844-1861, 2 vols. (Salt Lake City: University of Utah Press, 1964), 2:403; Robert J. McCue, 'Did the Word of Wisdom Become a Commandment in 1851?' Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought 14 (Fall 1981): 66-77. For enforcement of the Word of Wisdom, see Lester E. Bush, Jr., 'The Word of Wisdom in Early Nineteenth-Century Perspective,' and Thomas G. Alexander, 'The Word of Wisdom: From Principle to Requirement,' Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought 14 (Fall 1981): 46-65, 78-88.
16. 'Notice,' Deseret News [weekly], 26 Oct. 1854, [3]; Bishops' meeting minutes, 28 Oct. 1858, LDS archives. Arrington, Great Basin Kingdom, 456n21, argued that excommunication for delinquent tithing was an unfulfilled threat.
17. John D. Lee diary, 25 Jan. 1868, in Robert Glass Cleland and Juanita Brooks, eds., A Mormon Chronicle: The Diaries of John D. Lee, 1848-1876, 2 vols. (San Marino, CA: Huntington Library, 1955), 2:96.
18. Journal of Discourses, 13:279 (B. Young/1870).
19. Leonard J. Arrington, 'The Mormon Tithing House: A Frontier Business Institution,' Business History Review 28 (Mar. 1954): 29, and Arrington, Great Basin Kingdom, 137. Larry M. Logue, A Sermon in the Desert: Belief and Behavior in Early St. George, Utah (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1988), was a demographic analysis that gave brief discussion of tithing (18, 120).
20. For example, Journal of Discourses, 15:308 (O. Hyde/1873), 15:359 (O. Pratt/1873), 16:157 (O. Pratt/1873).
21. Journal of Discourses, 19:337 (E. Snow/1878).
22. Brigham Young sermon, 8 Oct. 1875, in 'Semi-Annual Conference,' Deseret Evening News, 9 Oct. 1875, [2].
23. Arrington, Great Basin Kingdom, 355.
24. Journal History of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (1830-1972), 246 microfilm reels, Special Collections, J. Willard Marriott Library, University of Utah, Salt Lake City, Utah (hereafter cited as Marriott Library), 8 Jan. 1881, 5, quoted John Taylor's statement about the lump-sum tithing requirement of Utah 'new comers,' but did not mention the similar requirement for new converts; George Goddard diary, 8 Jan. 1881, LDS archives, emphasized the lump-sum tithing upon conversion, but did not mention the tithing requirement for new immigrants to Utah; Journal of Discourses, 22:5-16 (J. Taylor/1881), was the church president's sermon on 9 January 1881 as an addition to his 'remarks yesterday afternoon, in answer to certain questions which have been put to me in relation to the principle of Tithing.' This second sermon did not refer to the obligations of tithing upon baptism or emigration to Zion.
25. Journal History, 8 Jan. 1881, 5; quote from Heber J. Grant diary, 2 Apr. 1881, LDS archives; Journal of Discourses, 22:207-208 (Woodruff/1881); Swainston, 'Tithing,' in Ludlow, Encyclopedia of Mormonism, 4:1482. While 'diary' is the standardized term I use to identify personal documents with daily entries, Grant kept several different kinds of such records, which must be identified separately in order to locate the quotations.
26. Richard O. Cowan, The Church in the Twentieth Century (Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1985), 16-17; Richard Edgley and Wilford G. Edling, 'Finances of the Church,' and Maureen Ursenbach Beecher and Paul Thomas Smith, 'Lorenzo Snow,' in Ludlow, Encyclopedia of Mormonism, 2:508, 3:1370; E. Jay Bell, 'The Windows of Heaven Revisited: The 1899 Tithing Revelation,' Journal of Mormon History 20 (Spring 1994): 45-83.
27. Swainston, 'Tithing' in Ludlow, Encyclopedia of Mormonism,4:1481.
28. Presiding Bishopric 1909 cumulative report, 58, LDS archives. Before 1894 the report did not itemize the percentage of tithepayers in the stakes. The PBO did not receive tithing from missions. I calculated those percentages by comparing itemized numbers of tithepayers from 1890 through 1893 with stake membership for those years as contained in Deseret News 1995-1996 Church Almanac (Salt Lake City: Deseret News, 1994), 419.
29. Journal History, 29 Mar. 1900, 2.
30. Anthon H. Lund diary, 2 May, 27 June 1901, microfilm, LDS archives, available to all researchers by stipulation of its donor.
31. William H. Smart diary, 5 Apr. 1910, Manuscripts Division, Marriott Library. Smart was a stake president in Utah.
32. Presiding Bishopric Office 1909 cumulative report, 58, 1910 report, 32, 1915 cumulative report, 1916 report, 1924 cumulative report, 1925 report.
33. Presiding Bishopric Office cumulative report for 1915. The rest were 'exempt' by reason of being non-wage earning children or adults, impoverished, or full-time missionaries. By this time the PBO reports implied (but did not specifically state) that the itemized figures applied to tithepayers for the stakes only. Each report compared those numbers with the total church membership of stakes and missions. Percentages here consistently reflect the population of the church's stakes and wards, rather than its missions and branches.
34. Neil Morgan, 'Utah: How Much Money Hath the Mormon Church?: A million dollars a day . . . what with tithing, real estate and commerce,' Esquire, Aug. 1962, 86-91.
35. Condensed Financial Report to the Corporation of the President (Salt Lake City: LDS Church Financial Department, 12 Apr. 1961) and Condensed Financial Report to the Corporation of the President (Salt Lake City: LDS Church Financial Department, 20 Dec. 1962), copies in LDS archives.
36. Morgan, 'Utah: How Much Money Hath the Mormon Church?' 90.
37. 'Income of Mormon Church Is Put at $4.7 Billion a Year,' New York Times, 2 July 1991, A-14. The headline amount included income from sources other than tithing.
38. Condensed Financial Report to the Corporation of the President [12 Apr. 1961]; Condensed Financial Report to the Corporation of the President [20 Dec. 1962]; the 1990 dollar amounts were calculated according to the Consumer Price Index for December 1990, as derived from Statistical Abstract; Economic Trends: August 1991 (St. Louis: Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis, Aug. 1991).
39. Don LeFevre's statement in 'Income of Mormon Church Is Put at $4.7 Billion a Year,' New York Times, 2 July 1991, A-14.