Successors of Consecration: Tithing and Fast Offerings

I’ve learned a lot about consecration in the last few books.  While most of us know that tithing was instituted as a “lower law” because the early saints weren’t capable of the “higher law” of consecration, I have still learned some interesting things about both tithing and fast offerings.  For example, Fast Offerings were instituted due to the grasshopper attacks in 1855.  Those of us who live in Utah are all familiar with the famous seagull invasion where the seagulls saved the crops of the saints in 1848.  However in 1855 and 1856, the grasshopper attacks were much worse, and the seagulls were overwhelmed.

According to Establishing Zion, Chapter 8 says,

The following summer the Saints experienced another bad grasshopper attack, and the 1856 harvest was less than that of 1855. So the Law of Consecration and Stewardship of the mid-1850s suffered the same fate that it had experienced in the 1830s, and for a similar reason: it simply was not given a chance at success. However, it did stimulate the spirit of self-sacrifice and helped to increase public willingness for greater contributions to the public purse.3

[p.144] The attempt to obey the law of consecration also led to a practice that still remains in the Mormon church: “fast offerings” (see chap. 10). During the winter of 1855-56, church leaders asked members to fast for twenty-four hours on the first Thursday of each month and to contribute the food thus saved to help the poor. Fasting was a time-honored practice for purifying the soul and communing with God, and when combined with a free-will offering to less fortunate brothers and sisters and with a “testimony” meeting in which the Saints could give extemporaneous expressions of thanksgiving and religious conviction, the monthly “fast meetings” became an accepted regular practice among the Mormons.

Chapter 10 goes into a little more detail about fast offerings.

Another practice during the Saints’ first years in the Great Basin was fasting and using the food saved to help the less fortunate. On [p.179] Sunday, 30 May 1847, while still en route to the valley, Howard Egan wrote in his journal, “Tomorrow is set aside as the last Sunday was, for fasting and prayer.” Sunday lent itself to the practice since the pioneers did not travel on Sundays and could more easily fast when not engaged in vigorous activity. Apparently not until 1849 were fast days regularly observed. Thursday, 26 April 1849, according to the Journal History, was set aside as a fast day, and the following Thursday was also a day of fasting. At the April 1852 General Conference, Young announced that from “henceforth we should hold meetings regularly each Sabbath at 10 a.m. and 2 p.m. and in the evening several quorums of the priesthood would assemble to receive instructions. On Thursdays the brethren and sisters would come together at 2 p.m. for prayer and supplication and on the first Thursday of each month at 10 a.m. for the purpose of fasting and prayer.” This pattern was followed until November 1896 when the First Presidency decided that Fast Day would be the first Sunday of the month.14

Mormons had always been admonished to give to the poor; but not until 1855-56 did this become associated with fast meetings when Mormons were asked to bring their “fast offerings” to the meetings.15 Sources for 1856 are replete with evidence that members brought donations for the poor to monthly fast meetings. The scribe of the Salt Lake Eighteenth Ward recorded on 7 February 1856 that “meeting opened by prayer by Brother George Works, Saints who met for fasting and prayer and who brought corn beef and cabbage and seed for the relief of the poor bore their testimonies, and the [p.180] meeting was closed by prayer.” During this year some wards even instituted two fast days a month. However, many members seemed to resent this, and the practice was discontinued after a few months. By 1857, fast days had become a permanent institution in the church.

Footnote 3 from Chapter 8 gives some interesting points about consecration as well.

3. Although 40 percent of family heads manifested a willingness to live the “higher” law, three-fifths failed to comply with the request. This brings into question the seriousness of the millennial expectations of the members and their dedication to the building of the Kingdom of God. Such reluctance may also have been a factor in Young’s inability to push the program successfully. Young’s usual approach was to threaten excommunication, as he did in 1851 when he called for obedience to the Law of Tithing or in 1855 when he called the people to a voluntary rationing program. But when 60 percent of family heads failed to comply with the program of consecration and stewardship, Young may have decided to give the plan some second thoughts.

Regarding Tithing, it was not initially successful either,

Instituted in July 1838 to replace the largely unsuccessful law of consecration and stewardship, the Law of Tithing was officially accepted by church members in 1841. As initially implemented, it required that members donate to the church the equivalent of one-tenth of their possessions at the time of their conversion and one-tenth of their annual increase thereafter. Because of the unsettled conditions and the fact that many pioneers experienced a decrease rather than an increase during the trek west, the system proved rather ineffective during the early years, from 1846 to 1849, even though efforts were also made to collect donations in England and elsewhere.

As I have mentioned, due to the nationwide financial panic of 1873, the United Orders were reinstituted, rather succesfully to help combat poverty.  The church was in good financial shape, and generally enjoyed creditor, rather than debtor status. I remember the movie called “Windows of Heaven“, where Lorenzo Snow receives a revelation that if the saints would pay their tithing, then the drought of 1899 would cease.  The movie goes on to state that since that time, the church has never had financial difficulty again.

I found it interesting to see why the church was in financial difficulty in 1899.  According to Great Basin Kingdom, Leonard Arrington states that the church was in a strong financial position in the 1870’s and 1880’s.  However, when the US government started confiscating property during the polygamy raids, the church finances suffered.  Many members quit paying tithing, because they didn’t want the tithing funds turned over to the government.

Following The Manifesto, prohibiting polygamy under Wilford Woodruff, combined with Pres Woodruff’s ambitious plans to fund some hydroelectric dam projects and other industrial projects, the church was strapped for cash.  Pres Snow was apparently shocked to see the debt of the church, and he sold off many of these assets to gain better control of the church finances.  It was interesting to learn some of these facts in relation to the Windows of Heaven.

You may want to review Part 1 and Part 2 of my consecration series as well.

So what do you think of the purpose of fast offerings?  Were you surprised to see how early they were implemented, and that they continue to this day?


14 comments on “Successors of Consecration: Tithing and Fast Offerings

  1. Interestingly enough, I’m not surprised about either of the questions you asked (both the how early question and that they continue to this day).

    At the same time, like with every post here, I learned a whole lot. I’ve realize that my understanding of LDS history after the migration is super fuzzy. Of course, that’s a lot of historical ground to be fuzzy on, as well.

  2. Very interesting, MH.

    The 1841 interpretation of tithing was in effect in our denomination until recently, although compliance was always poor. Old timers (even compared to me) considered it a life’e milestone to pay off one’s tithing, and often made it the first thing to be taken from their estates in their wills.

    I’ve always thought that form of tithing was one of the more progressive things we did, since “necessary living expenses” exempted a higher fraction of income from the poor and middle classes and placed more responsibilities upon the rich.

    We’ve never had fast offerings as such, but it was also standard practice that offerings not desognated by the giver on the first Sunday of the month were “oblation” for the care of the poor.

  3. Andrew, thanks for stopping by, and I’m glad to hear you were able to learn something. I must say I really enjoy your comments, and I appreciate your ability to show different perspectives on various topics. If only certain anti-mormon and pro-mormon (say over at MM) commenters could be as respectful as you are…..

    FireTag, can you expound a little more on the 1841 definition? I know that Brigham Young asked converts to give 10% of all their current possessions upon baptism, as well as 10% increase as well. During certain financial difficulties, another 10% assessment was given to all members of the church to help get church finances in order. Obviously, we have it much easier today.

  4. I had not known what we did was the 1841 law until I read the description here, but it clearly was.

    The principle was that 1/10th of everything you had in excess of your basic living needs and “necessary wants” was tithable, as was a tenth of your annual income, subject to the same limitation. When baptized at 8, I dutifully filed my initial tithing statement indicating the value of my worldly goods, including toys, at $150 and accepting a tithing due of $15.00. This was quite a sobering sum for one whose allowance was 25 cents per week.

    I suspect it was really sobering to adult converts!

    The saving grace, of course, was that we taught tithing within a scheme that went something like:

    …become an accounting steward — acknowledge your responsibility to God.

    …become a self-sustaining steward — become someone who can support yourself and your family by yourself

    …become an increase producing steward — someone who produces excess of ones own needs to give to others

    …become an inherentance producing steward — become someone who can maintain your own and family’s needs and just wants for the rest of your life

    …become a surplus producing steward who can gather excess beyond their needs to the “storehouse”.

    It was a simpler concept for a simpler and less economically interdependent time.

    I’m sure paying a lot more than 10% today, using the government rather than the church as the agent to help the poor.

    In general, we’ve moved toward the concept of “generosity” in our teaching, with tithing supposedly not limited to church giving, but to any org we feel as a matter oc conscience is doing Christ’s work, but we do want the world church to be first among equals in practice.

  5. Wow FireTag, it looks like your $15.00 at age 8 was a real sacrifice, and exemplifies the 1841 law of tithing well. It seems that through the end of the 1800’s, the LDS church under Brigham Young practiced this same law. I’m greatly impressed with your contribution at age 8!!! I did not do anything like that at age 8. Frankly, with that big of a financial commitment required at baptism, I’m amazed at how quickly the church grew in those days, (as well as in your days)!

  6. I didn’t get it paid off immediately. As I said, paying off one’s tithing was a lifelong commitment that was often completed in one’s will. But what it did drive home immediately was how much I had been given from God in the first place, and what stewardship really meant.

  7. I like the idea of fast offering because you are literally taking the food from your plate and giving it to someone else, as opposed to giving ur surplus. Both are good BTW.

  8. We also collected “oblation” offerings for the poor of the church and for others the first Sunday of each month (our observance of the Lord’s Supper). I think this is similar to what you do, but was not specifically connected to missing a meal.

  9. I’m not a fan of scheduled fasting. I feel that it should be undertaken on one’s own schedule. Just me.

    MH – Does the Church still follow that line of thinking regarding tithing or has there been an official divergence? It doesn’t quite sound like what we are practicing today.

  10. Bishop Rick, certainly the church does not follow the 1841 definition of tithing anymore, and does not require new converts to turn over 10% of all earthly assets at baptism. I wish I could answer when that position officially changed. Great Basin Kingdom really covers the time period of 1847-1900. It is evident to me that Brigham Young promoted the 1841 definition, and he died in 1873. After that, I don’t recall Arrington talking about tithing very much. The United Orders lasted through the 1890’s, so I suspect the 1841 definition was still in effect. I haven’t finished Establishing Zion, and perhaps it is in there.

    The polygamy raids happened in the 1880’s and literally brought the church to its knees. I know some people act like the church wimped out–I guess that’s the case, but I think people who make that claim don’t understand or care to understand how much pressure the church was under. If someone is strangling you, and you capitulate rather than suffer yourself to be strangled, is that really wimping out? I digress.

    Anyway, in the 1880’s people quit paying their tithing because they didn’t want to turn it over to the government. The Manifesto came in 1890, statehood in 1898, the drought in 1899, and I suspect that it is about this time that Lorenzo Snow may have been happy just to get 10% from everyone, rather than follow the 1841 definition.

    Brigham Young, John Taylor, and Wilford Woodruff were interested in starting industries. Brigham invested in sugar, coal and iron mining, silk production, and many other capital-intensive projects, so the tithing receipts were very critical to start these operations. Some industries succeeded, many did not. Wilford Woodruff used tithing to help fund a hydroelectric dam project in Ogden–Utah was one of the first areas with electricity in the nation.

    When Lorenzo Snow took office, he was pretty dismayed at all these expenditures and the debt of the church. He pretty much put an end to many of these projects, though things like ZCMI, and investment in hospitals (which later became IHC) still continued. As such, I think the needs for tithing were not as great as under Brigham Young, and the change to current tithing practices probably happened at this time.

    Now I want to state that I’m speculating on this point–I don’t know exactly when the definition of tithing changed from the 1841 definition–I haven’t done much church history in the 1900’s (though my book club is heading there eventually.) I’ll have to ask one of the other guys–he seems to be pretty well-versed on some of the church economics in the 1900’s. (Sanford, are you reading this?)

  11. I think your assertion that the change possibly happened with Snow’s tithing promise makes sense. The gap is sufficient to to eliminate the up front 10%. The thing that I find interesting is that after the initial 10%, you are only expected to pay against increase which seemed to have a different definition than it does today. Back then increase was after basic living expenses are subtracted, but today it seems we all start at zero on Jan. 1 and any income is considered increase. The basic living expenses (like taxes, rent, and groceries) are not part of the equation. If we were going off 1841, we would be paying tithing on a much smaller amount than we do today.

  12. I too thought that one of the big differences between LDS and RLDS was paying tithing on increase rather than income.

  13. I don’t know if I agree that we would pay tithing on a smaller amount. FireTag has said on several occasions that many CoC members consider it a lifetime achievement to pay a full tithe–so excluding the initial 10% is a pretty big exclusion. Also, does a rich person like Steve Young or Dale Murphy count his million-dollar mansions as legitimate living expenses the same way I do? What about a person who spends beyond their means and declares bankruptcy–are they entitled to a tithing refund? I think not. So it seems to me that there can be a lot of leeway on defining “basic living expenses.” A person can buy too big of a house, too big of a car, buy groceries on credit card, and figure they don’t have to pay tithing because they’re in debt so bad.

    It is also interesting to me that when the church was in difficulty, Brigham Young would ask for a “special assessment”, and ask a member to give another 10% based on current assets. So, if it happened today, and I was baptized 10 years ago with a $150,000 house, I’d have to pay $15,000 at baptism. Then, 10 years later, Brigham needs another special assessment. By now, real estate prices have gone up, and my house is now worth $200,000, so I owe an additional $20,000 special tithing assessment. (I haven’t included cars, furniture, etc.) Ouch. Even if I’m paying tithing on a smaller amount–subtracting out mortgage, food, taxes, etc, these 2 special assessments are going to really hurt under this 1841 definition.

  14. […] then pulled up my post on the history of fast offerings, and we discussed that fasting in the 1850s was a way to help the people starving due to the huge […]

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