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.
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?