Tithing and the Law of Consecration - Steven C. Harper
Steven Harper points out that one of things the Church History Department’s Revelations in Context series was designed to do was to encourage study of the history and doctrine of the LDS Church in order to move members past folk doctrines.
One of these misunderstandings that has developed over time is the relationship between the law of consecration and tithing.
The law of the Lord is given in D&C 42, and it is to love God and love one’s neighbor. All are encouraged to give of their time and temporal means to relieve the suffering of others.
It is not a law governing ownership but rather one that asks us what we are willing to do with what we have. The law is also about agency, accountability, and stewardship.
Tithing didn’t replace the law of consecration; it is simply one way in which it is practiced. The law is eternal and does not change but the way followers practice it does. In the early days of the LDS Church, any freewill offering was considered tithing. This has changed over time. How we consecrate has also changed.
LDS Perspectives Podcast
Episode 31: Revelations in Context — Tithing and the Law of Consecration with Steven C. Harper
Nick Galieti: Hello and welcome to this episode of the LDS Perspectives Podcast. My name is Nick Galieti. I’m host of this episode, and today’s guest is Steven C. Harper. Steven Harper is married to Jennifer Sebring, and they have five children. He works as a historian in the Church History Department of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. He earned a PhD in early American history from Lehigh University and was on the history and religion faculties at BYU–Hawaii for two years before joining the faculty of the Department of Church History and Doctrine at BYU in Provo for ten years. He has worked on the Joseph Smith Papers project as a document editor and for BYU Studies, and is the author of a book on colonial Pennsylvania titled Promised Land, and of Making Sense of the Doctrine and Covenants, and Joseph Smith’s First Vision, among other projects. He is currently at work analyzing how Joseph Smith’s First Vision has been remembered over time.
Well, Steven is a tremendous source on many topics relating to church history. In this episode, we’re going to spend some time on the subject of tithing and the law of consecration, his two essays in the Revelations in Context section of the church history’s portion of lds.org. We’re going to be talking about sections 42 and then sections 119 and 120 of the D&C, so welcome Steven Harper. Thank you for coming in.
Steven Harper: You bet, thank you.
Nick Galieti: We’re giving people a podcast coupon two-for-one today. The first essay that we’re going to talk about is the one that you entitled “The Law” in section 42, which was a revelation in 1831. Please, if you could take a moment just to give us a brief historical background on how section 42 came to be.
Steven Harper: The revelation was given to Joseph Smith in Ohio, but we need to go back to New York to get the background on it. Late in the year 1830, the Lord told the Saints who were in New York to move to Ohio. Missionaries had been through the corner of Northeastern Ohio and in a period of just a few weeks converted about 130 people, and then those converted others and very quickly there were more Latter-day Saints in Ohio than in New York. In Doctrine and Covenants section 37, the Lord said, “Move to Ohio.” That was a challenging commandment for the saints as you might imagine. Joseph Smith found it relatively easy to go. He could move, but families like the Knights who were propertied in the Colesville area, or the Whitmers in the Fayette area, Martin Harris in Palmyra, for them it would mean probably making financial sacrifices. One of the Knights wrote, “We were required to make great sacrifices of our property.”
There was some concern about the revelation and early in 1831, at a church conference, Joseph Smith sought and received in front of the whole congregation the revelation that’s now in section 38 of the Doctrine and Covenants. In this one, the Lord gives a rationale for His commandment to move, and some promises, and included in those promises is the law, “If you go to Ohio, there I will give you my law, and there you will be endowed with power.” For these reasons, the saints in New York packed up their belongings and overwhelmingly followed their very young prophet and made great financial sacrifices. His own wife went with him as she had been commanded in section 25, “Go with him at the time of his going.” She went with him. She was about five months pregnant with twins. Dead of winter, difficult trip.
The most remarkable thing to me about these stories is that these people believed Joseph Smith. One easy way to remember that is to recognize that the people who knew him best, believed him most. It’s absolutely remarkable if you think about it, that these people followed him at great cost, and I mean that in several different senses. That’s how we get to Ohio and not long after Joseph gets there, he receives section 41, which calls a bishop for the church and several times says, “My law, my law, my law.” That bishop will enact the law, he will do the things that the law commands the bishop to do and thereby facilitate the saints’ efforts to live the Lord’s law. A week later, in February of 1831, Joseph seeks and receives the revelation, really a series of revelations that comprise what’s now section 42 of the Doctrine and Covenants, which the early saints called simply, “The Law.”
Nick Galieti: That section goes over many more things that doesn’t include necessarily or directly the law of consecration, or that portion of it.
Steven Harper: Right.
Nick Galieti: What are some of the other things that people might encounter in that revelation that perhaps doesn’t directly relate?
Steven Harper: For teachers of the gospel one of the most memorable parts of it is that if you don’t have the spirit you shall not teach. That’s a law. It tells you what to teach — teach things that are in the scriptures, teach the things that are revealed to the prophets, teach the truth, how to teach by the spirit. People who are getting immersed in the new teaching curriculum for the church will recognize that those are two of the four main points, is to teach the truth or teach the doctrine, and teach it by the spirit. The law also reviews the commandments, the Decalogue. It talks about chastity, it talks about observing the Sabbath. It talks about what should be done in case saints commit civil crimes and how they should be church disciplined. It reviews missionary work a little bit, but the heart of it really is what we have come to call the law of consecration, but I would like for folks to think about consecration as part of the law. There’s just one law of God really in a sense, or one legal code.
The law of consecration wasn’t new in the early months of 1831. It had been revealed before in earlier dispensations, and it hasn’t gone anywhere. It didn’t get revoked or suspended or rescinded or anything else, it’s still there. We often, though, get confused because we’ve heard lots of times, “Well the law went away,” or, “They couldn’t do it so God took it away.” He doesn’t do that, so the law is still there, but what changes over time is what we might call tactics, or methods for carrying out the law, ways of enacting the law. That changes all the time, and that can be shown easily by history, but the laws of God remain. Think of it … I sometimes with my students will show them how silly it sounds to substitute the law of chastity, right? If we told the same story we tell with consecration but using chastity, it would go like this: God gave the law of chastity, but the early saints had a hard time living it, so He rescinded it and gave them a lower law. “Sorry I gave you too much there, I’ll give you a lesser law.”
Nick Galieti: Oh, my.
Steven Harper: Yeah. It sounds silly that way.
Nick Galieti: It almost sounds like God made a mistake.
Steven Harper: Yeah, and that’s not what happens, rather He gives a law and then the saints get to act on it using their agency. Some saints in the early days obeyed the law of consecration as faithfully as could possibly be, including Edward and Lydia Partridge, and including a lot of others, but some didn’t. That’s going to be true whenever you give it. I don’t think God gives laws based on the percentage of the people that are going to be true and faithful to it. It seems odd to me theologically. He gives a law and that gives the people at any time and place the power or agency to act for themselves.
Nick Galieti: All these other things that we may think of: chastity, the Sabbath day — while we may separate them, they actually are connected.
Steven Harper: That’s the law.
Nick Galieti: It is the law.
Steven Harper: Right.
Nick Galieti: When we talk about the law of consecration, and as your essay continues, there is a key component to this in a sense of financial matters and consecrating our properties. It kind of funnels down to that for many people with the law of consecration. Is that problematic as far as understanding the principles behind it?
Steven Harper: It sure can be. There’s just so much misunderstanding about what the law of consecration is. It’s helpful to separate the law, to boil it down as efficiently as possible from all of the related commandments or instructions that go with it, that are changeable. Before I get to that, let me try to use an illustration. You remember in the New Testament Jesus says, “What are the great commandments?” The conclusion is: love God, which is Deuteronomy 6, and love your neighbor, which is Leviticus either 18 or 19, I always can’t remember. The two great commandments in the law, literally, Leviticus and Deuteronomy —
Nick Galieti: And the Hebrew law.
Steven Harper: Right, they’re there. They’ve been there from the beginning, they’re not a higher law or a lower law, they’re just the law. Jesus having this conversation with a lawyer, meaning a great … A student of the scriptures, a student of the Hebrew law, and they come to this conclusion that those are the two commandments, and then you remember what the New Testament says, “On these, hang all the law and the prophets.” If we start to think about things that way, we’ll realize that there’s the law and then there’s a whole bunch of fine print we might say or I don’t know, terms and conditions that go along with the law. You might think of it this way: in the Decalogue, the Ten Commandments, the first four are about how to love God: don’t have any false gods, don’t have any graven images, don’t take the name of God in vain. The next ones are all about how to love your neighbors as yourself: don’t steal, don’t commit adultery, don’t covet your neighbor’s property. It’s very similar to the way the law of consecration works.
We could say that the law of consecration is in verses 29 through about 33 of D&C 42, and pretty much it’s simply, “Remember the poor and consecrate of what you have for their support.” Relieve poverty or love God with all you have, with all your might and strength, that includes your spiritual gifts, your time, your physical means, whatever temporal means we have. That’s the law. It’s really that simple: love God, love your neighbor, love your neighbor so much that you do everything in your power to relieve suffering. One fundamental premise to consecration is that the earth is the Lord’s and the fullness thereof. Everything’s His, including us, and He invites us to use the stuff He has given us to serve Him. That’s where consecration comes from. Consecration doesn’t mean to give your stuff away. It means to be sacred, to make it sacred, and we make ourselves and our stuff sacred by consecrating it to the purposes that God has commanded us to.
Nick Galieti: In fact, you actually have in the essay, I’d like to quote that, it says, “The law clarified that consecration did not envision communal ownership of property,” which is what a lot of people kind of … A socialized almost idea.
Steven Harper: Right.
Nick Galieti: “Rather, it required the willing to acknowledge that the Lord was the owner of all and that each of the saints was to be hardworking “Stewards over his own property and thus accountable to the actual —
Steven Harper: “Owner of the stewardship.”
Nick Galieti: To the Lord.
Steven Harper: Yeah.
Nick Galieti: When we talk about consecration, is that the first thing to correct? That this isn’t about ownership, it’s about what we’re willing to do with what we have been given —
Steven Harper: Yeah. It definitely is. We all live in a culture, right? We live in … The analogy is in a goldfish bowl, and the goldfish is the last to recognize that they live in the bowl. They’re confined by that environment. Well, we are all acculturated by whatever culture it is we live in, and the one we live in puts a huge premium on the private ownership of property, and on individualism. Those were articles of American faith that were at least as strong in Joseph Smith’s time as they are in ours. In that sense, the law of consecration is counter-cultural, and this is one reason that the Mormons have so much trouble with the Jacksonians in Missouri in the early 1830s. What the Lord is asking them to do is completely counter to their own fallen natures, and to the culture in which they live. To cooperate instead of to compete, both financially and politically. To look to the poor and relieve suffering, and so on. To be one, and if you’re not one, you’re not mine.
Those lines are given by the Lord in a particular culture, and when you realize that he’s speaking into that culture, it helps you appreciate what He’s asking us to do. He acknowledges our fallen nature and the covetous, materialistic, individualistic world in which we live, and He says we’ve got to obey His law and therefore rise above those things. In D&C 38 for example, He gives an analogy, “What man is there,” He says, “Among you, has twelve sons and will say to half of them, “Be clothed in robes and sit over on this side,” and to the other half, “Be clothed in rags and sit on that side”?” Well, He’s talking to a group of saints in New York, some of whom are haves, and some of whom are have-nots, and He tells them, “I want you all to go to Ohio,” and He knows very well that some of them have the means to do that and some of them don’t, and He wants them to cooperate.
This is like the preliminary test of whether they’re going to receive the law once they get to Ohio. Will they cooperate? Will they go together? Will they pool their resources? Will they make it so that the poor and the sick can go on the Exodus with them? They do, they marvelously do. We know some of their shortcomings from Lucy Smith’s terrific memoir of the trip, but the amazing thing is not that they stumble a bit, the miraculous thing is that they follow the revelations of Christ through their very young prophet, at enormous personal sacrifice and with stunning unity. “Be one, and if you’re not one you’re not mine,” and they were one. They went to Ohio, and they received the revelation. They learned to do things that would purge from them over time their individualistic impulses, their selfishness, their materialism, material goods or gain for its own sake, as an end in itself. They learned to put those things away, so they could love God and love their neighbors.
Nick Galieti: The challenge when you talk about anything financial as it meets religious principles is this idea that you’re making a worldly currency, the currency of heaven, or the currency of our spirituality. We have over and over again quotes, well, you’ve given a great setting for that, with the idea of loving God and loving your neighbor. The implication is loving God and loving your neighbor by not loving your material possessions, and that those can stand in conflict with each other. The conflict that we now have today, of course, is the understanding that some people think that the law of consecration may have been done away. You give a quote in your essay from President Hinckley that, “The law of sacrifice and the law of consecration have not been done away with and are still in effect.”
When we have this setting of the early saints, that myth that they couldn’t live it so it went away, and so now they’ve instituted … In fact, I think even Doctrine and Covenants section 119 says that the Lord gave them the law of tithing to fill in where they failed on the law of consecration. I’ve heard that story for a lot of my life. How much merit is there to that? That the saints really just failed on the law of consecration, so we got tithing instead.
Steven Harper: Well, that’s the narrative we’ve constructed. It would sound odd in Joseph Smith’s ears, it would sound odd in Edward Partridge’s ears, and it would sound odd in Wilford Woodruff’s ears, for example. I don’t know quite how we got here. I’ve been studying it for years and haven’t figured out the whole story, but it’s quite clear to me that tithing is not instead of consecration. I know we use that word in the heading. You said something very interesting a minute ago. You said what D&C 119 tells us, but when you said it, you did what we all do, and I think you were doing that on purpose. You didn’t say what the revelation actually says, you said the way the revelation is understood.
Nick Galieti: Interpreted, yeah.
Steven Harper: And interpreted, and popularly retold. When we look at what the revelation actually says, especially in context, it’s not the popular … The folk history as some historians have called it. Tithing as it was taught in D&C 119 was not instead of consecration, it was consecration. First we have to obliterate our false understanding of what consecration means. If in your mind consecration means, “That’s when I give all my stuff away.”
Nick Galieti: Signing the deed over to the church.
Steven Harper: Yeah, “Never have any joy after that.” That’s not consecration. That was never, ever, ever intended, or taught, or commanded. If we would think of consecration as making ourselves holy and as part of that making anything we have stewardship over holy, and available to God for His purposes, including feeding my children, or getting me to church, or getting me to work, or whatever it may be, then we have consecration. It’s like flipping on a switch in your brain. Imagine two families. They live right next door to each other in suburban homes that look exactly alike. They drive the same Corolla to work, and they shop at the same grocery store and buy the same things. Their kids wear the same clothes and attend the same schools. One of these families could be aligned with the law of consecration, and one not. It has very little to do with stuff. It has everything to do with how a free agent acts upon the stuff or the stewardship that God has given them to act upon.
We have to get past the idea that consecration is something other than what it really is, and to do that we have to study history. We have to study the history of it and the doctrine that’s embedded in the revelations and get past the accumulated folk doctrines and folk history that we’ve invented. That’s what these essays are designed to begin to do.
Nick Galieti: Absolutely, and yours do a very good job of that. In fact, one of the things that came up as I was going through reading the actual revelations of D&C 119 and 120 were, now we’re switching over to that principle of tithing. There are verses in section 119 that talk about the funding of the church as an organization. There is a principle not just necessarily in discipleship alone, but how the church was supposed to be paid for, how it was supposed to accomplish those works. How then does section 119, and to a certain extent 120, function as a revelation on how the church as an organization is to function?
Steven Harper: Great question. Let me back up just a bit. You said something a minute ago that made me think about, “Where your treasure is there your heart will be also,” right? We do find sometimes there is this conflict in people’s minds about, “Well, prophets should stay out of my finances and pocketbooks and Jesus should, too, and render to Caesar what’s Caesar’s and to God what’s God’s,” but it’s also the case of where your treasure is there your heart will be. The prophets and the Lord will … It seems likely to me that they’ll always have something to say about how we should act on the things we have to act upon.
Well, in the summer of 1838, the church is in tough shape. The bank that the saints started in Ohio the year before, or a little more, has failed, and the national economy has tanked. The church still has expensive projects to do, the Lord has commanded the saints to do, including building a temple now in Far West, Missouri. How should we do that, is the question. The bishop in Ohio, Newel Whitney, proposes one possible way of going about raising revenue. The bishop in Missouri, Edward Partridge, proposes an alternative to that. Leaders of the church council about it, and Joseph Smith asks the Lord, “Show on to us how much you require of the properties of thy Saints as tithing.” It’s helpful to know that tithing, or tithes, in the revelations thus far is not meant as 10%. The early saints think of a tithing or a tithe as any freewill offering, anything we give to the church.
If you were an early Latter-day Saint and you said, “I consecrated $5 to the church,” or, “I tithed $5 to the church,” you would mean the exact same thing. Tithing is consecration to an early Latter-day Saint. All right. Joseph asks the question in the summer of 1838, and the Lord answers with D&C 119. That revelation uses the word tithe or tithed three times, and every single one of those three times is consistent with the law in D&C 42. In other words, this is not a new … It’s not a separate.
Nick Galieti: Law.
Steven Harper: It’s not separate. Think of it as an amendment. Think of it as further direction in different historical circumstances appended to D&C 42. That’s what it is. It’s not a temporary law, a lower law. It doesn’t say lower or higher anywhere, not only in those sections but anywhere in the Doctrine and Covenants regarding the laws of God, alright? It’s not a lower law, nor is it temporary. The revelation says, “This shall be a standing law unto them forever, saith the Lord.” It doesn’t appear that it’s going away, so what is it then? Well, it is a way to do what Doctrine and Covenants section 42 said the law of consecration should do, which is to provide houses of worship for the saints and to relieve poverty and pay the debts of the presidency of the church, not the personal debts of their families but the debts that the leaders of the church incur by funding the church. At this point, there’s nothing quite like the corporations: the Corporation of the Presiding Bishop or the Corporation of the President of the Church.
If the church has debt, Joseph Smith has debt, and he’s incurred a lot for the temple in Ohio. The church has bills to pay and one of the ways that they’re going to be paid is by the saints to tithe, voluntarily, nobody’s ever been forced to tithe. It’s always been voluntary, that’s one of the three doctrines of consecration, is agency or free will, along with stewardship and accountability to the actual owner, to God for what we do with His stuff. The revelation comes, D&C 119, it says, “We’re going to do what D&C 42 said, which is to offer freely our surplus property to the church. Then after that we’re going to pay one tenth of our interest annually, every year, and this shall be the beginning of the tithing of my people.”
The offering of the surplus, if we’re reading the revelation for what it actually says, the offering of surplus property is the beginning of the tithing in 1838, and after that a tenth of our increase or interest annually. As far as the revelation goes, that will go on forever, unless and until there’s more revelation to direct us, and there always will be.
Nick Galieti: Yeah. In your essay, there was one early practice that came, I guess at the end of 1837, so just prior to this revelation, where a bishopric in Missouri did a, like a 2% annual worth tithing. Did we see other practices pop up until this corrected them all and brought the church under one, I’ll use the word “correlated” practice?
Steven Harper: Right. Not so much practices but proposals, so that was a proposal from Bishop Partridge. He proposed that everybody should pay their own bills and debts and so on, but also offer 2% of everything they had.
Nick Galieti: Where did that number come from, do you know?
Steven Harper: I’m not sure, that’s a great question.
Nick Galieti: Kind of a random number.
Steven Harper: Yeah, it is. Bishop Partridge was attuned to finance. He was in the know, much more than I am. He was a sophisticated thinker that way, and he was informed, so I’m not sure how he calculated that or how he arrived at it, but you can bet that it was based on his best work on what the problem was and what it would take to get it resolved.
Nick Galieti: How has this practice or principle of tithing evolved should we say in the church since 1838?
Steven Harper: Well, Bishop Partridge understood it on the day it was given differently than we do, and that has caused some people just a little bit of heartburn since that essay came out. I got several people who responded and said, “Wait a minute. You mean the bishop understood that revelation differently than we do today?” The answer to that is, “Yes. Yes, and that’s history.”
Nick Galieti: That’s continuing revelation.
Steven Harper: Yeah. For some reason, we tend to assume that things are the way they’ve always been. Well, that’s absolutely not true, and any student of history knows that’s not true. It makes me cringe every time I hear that, and in church or other settings, things are not the way they’ve always been. There’s a famous saying from a novel, “The past is a foreign country, they do things differently there.” Well, the past of church history is a foreign country, they did things differently there. People might say, “Well, it can’t be true then. It can’t be right then. That’s just silly.”
What remains consistent through church history is some very fundamental principles of the restored gospel, and what changes all the time are some of the ways we think about those fundamental principles, some of the ways we behave regarding those fundamental principles. That changes all the time; it has, does, and I would guess it will continue. Bishop Partridge calculated the 10% in a way differently than we do today. When exactly that change happened, I don’t know, but it was quick. They’re offering 10% or they understand it to be 10%, the same way we do today.
Nick Galieti: The First Presidency has since come out with some further clarification. With regards to the tithes, one of the things that I find interesting in Section 120, which is just one simple verse, whereby revelation there is the establishment of the council and the disposition of tithes. What is that council, what’s its purpose, and what makes it perhaps unique as far as even the revelation process regarding the use of tithes?
Steven Harper: That’s what we call it today, the Council on the Disposition of the Tithes, and it was established, or at least the preliminary precursors to today’s council were established by the revelation in D&C 120. It called for the presidency of the church, and for the bishopric, and for the high council in Missouri to compose this council, and for them to receive the tithing revenue and to make decisions about how it would be spent based on what the Lord said there, “My own voice unto them,” so based on revelation. Since then, the council has become composed of the First Presidency, the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, and the presiding bishopric. Not exactly the same bodies as in D&C 120 because they didn’t all exist, or at least not in the same way, but the same spirit of what D&C 120 says. That is, the presiding councils of the church at church headquarters, composed of the Committee on the Disposition of Tithes or Council on Disposition.
I’m certainly no insider into the way that council works today, but every now and then we get a glimpse into it. Elder Hales of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles spoke a few years ago. He’s been on that council for decades now as a member of the presiding bishopric as well as —
Nick Galieti: And Quorum of the Twelve.
Steven Harper: Quorum of the Twelve, and he spoke about that experience in General Conference and bore his testimony there, that the tithes are spent as the revelation directs. There are some critics of that. There are people who would like every decision made by that council to be available on social media for critique and review and so on. That’s not going to happen nor in my mind should it. I put faith in that council myself. I trust them more than I trust myself. I feel like when I hand my tithing envelope to my bishop, that’s my part, and I do that with a great deal of faith.
Nick Galieti: That’s your consecration.
Steven Harper: That’s my effort. Paltering as it may be, I make my offering, and then the rest is up to him, he and those who are appointed to serve with him. Get that money to the Council on the Disposition of the Tithes, and they decide what to do with it, and I have great confidence in them. You can look around and see that they’ve made great decisions with those resources. I know from my time at BYU, just a little bit about some things there, and I know that they often will not use tithing revenues to build new buildings. Those revenues will have to come from other sources for example. I know that they’re extremely careful about decisions about where to build chapels, and that much money that comes in from centers of church population will be diverted to build chapels and temples in places where they’re needed. I watch from the perspective that anybody can, what the church does with its spending, and I can’t imagine an institution being better run, more wisely managed, and so forth.
That’s my faith. I put my faith in that council and the Lord’s direction to them, and I haven’t been disappointed by that. Besides, I live on church welfare. They pay my salary, and I’m definitely not overworked or underpaid, gratefully, and I’m thankful for the way that they’ve provided my family a way to live. I get to study church history all day every day, and I get to do that for my living. I’m absolutely serious now, that is a great blessing to me and to my family. That would be absolutely impossible if there weren’t millions of Latter-day Saints willing to tithe, of their own free will, and then to leave it with the Council on the Disposition of the Tithes to decide how best to use it. I am a huge beneficiary of these revelations.
Nick Galieti: We will be putting links to these two different essays on the posting for this episode at ldsperspectives.com. I’m greatly appreciative to you, Steven, for coming in and sharing your insights on these, and giving some greater context, some history to these things because in essence for me at least, they’ve really helped the principles come to greater truth in my life, knowing that history, so thank you.
Steven Harper: You’re very welcome, and I’m thankful for the opportunity.
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