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What is a Proper Tithe?
The following essay from an LDS member shows that the definition of tithing within the LDS Church may have evolved from its original interpretation.Special thanks to Sarony for composing this (note: some minor edits were added).
Binding authority in LDS doctrine and policy, to declare what is a proper tithe, can probably be prioritized as first: the canonized scriptures and second: signed statements of the First Presidency.
II. LDS scripture states plainly that tithing is to be paid on any surplus beyond a person's needs.
Joseph Smith and Sydney Rigdon produced D&C 119:4 (1838). It states (emphasis added):
And after that, those who have been thus tithed shall pay one-tenth of all their interest annually; and this shall be a standing LAW unto them FOREVER, for my holy priesthood, saith the Lord.
Webster's 1828 Dictionary defines "interest" as
5. Any surplus advantage.
Webster's defines "advantage" in pertinent part, as
7. Interest; increase; overplus.
In the 1820's, the word "interest" was synonymous with the phrase "surplus advantage."
A plain reading of the text leads to a harmony of meaning between the word "interest" and the phrase "surplus advantage".
But what about scriptural harmony? Can one find the scriptural meaning of "interest" to be "surplus"?
There are at least two passages of scripture that explicitly teach a proper tithe is one-tenth of surplus.
1. The first passage of scripture is D&C 119:5, which is the next verse (emphasis added):
Verily I say unto you, it shall come to pass that all those who gather unto the land of Zion shall be tithed of their surplus properties, and shall observe THIS LAW, or they shall not be found worthy to abide among you.
Significant meanings should be observed from verse 5. The phrase "this law," can only refer to the previous usage of the word "law" in verse 4, which states in pertinent part, "and this shall be a standing law". And the phrase "this law," namely "one-tenth of all their interest annually" in verse 4, is expounded in a clarifying manner as surplus properties in verse 5.
2. The second passage of scripture comes from the Joseph Smith Translation (JST) of the Bible. Smith and Rigdon also produced the JST. It is mostly in Rigdon's handwriting. JST Genesis 14:39. (emphasis added)
Wherefore Abram paid unto him tithes of all that he had, of all the riches which he possessed, which God had given him more than that which he had need.
This passage of scripture from the JST is not a mere relic of early Mormonism. The passage can be found in the current scriptures in the section Joseph Smith Translation. Although the Church avoids several of Smith's translations in the Joseph Smith Translation, they have included this one as authoritative commentary.
Scriptural harmony between D&C 119, and JST Genesis 14:39 also resides in the concept that "interest" (D&C 119:4) is expounded as "surplus properties" (D&C 119:5), or in other words, "more than that which he had need" (JST Genesis 14:39). To understand the meaning of what is to be tithed, we are fortunate to find a simple, elegant harmony in meaning, between a plain reading of the text and LDS scripture; "interest" (v. 4) means "surplus properties" (v. 5). LDS tithing is defined as "one-tenth of their surplus properties annually" (D&C 119:4,5), which means "more than that which he had need" (JST Genesis 14:39).
III. Official LDS policy
On March 19, 1970, the First Presidency sent a letter to presidents of stakes and missions, bishops of wards, and presidents of branches in answer to the question, What is a proper tithe?
For your guidance in this matter, please be advised that we have uniformly replied that the simplest statement we know of is that statement of the Lord himself that the members of the Church should pay one-tenth of all their interest annually, which is understood to mean income. No one is justified in making any other statement than this. We feel that every member of the Church should be entitled to make his own decision as to what he thinks he owes the Lord, and to make payment accordingly.
The General Handbook of Instructions quotes from the March 19, 1970 letter from the First Presidency sets forth a definition of what is tithed. Here is a portion of the General Handbook of Instructions from that section:
The simplest statement we know of is the statement of the Lord himself, namely, that the members of the Church should pay "one-tenth of all their interest annually," which is understood to mean income. No one is justified in making any other statement than this.
First Presidency letter, 19 Mar. 1970; see also D&C 119:4).
Because the General Handbook of Instructions quotes the 1970 letter from the First Presidency, the 1970 letter remains the official written policy on tithing.
Can one harmonize the statement of the First Presidency with canonized scripture?
The phrase "one-tenth of all their interest annually, which is understood to mean income," has harmonious meaning with "one-tenth of all their surplus properties annually, which is understood to mean surplus income."
In short, yes, the First Presidency's letter and scriptures match.
IV. Elder Daniel L. Johnson's speech on tithing from the October 2006 Conference
Elder Johnson went directly to D&C 119:4.:
So what is a tithing? The Lord has given us His definition: "And this shall be the beginning of the tithing of my people. And after that, those who have thus been tithed shall pay one-tenth of all their interest annually; and this shall be a standing law unto them forever.
So far, so good. But when he expounds on this verse, does he skew the meaning? No. Not yet.
Please note that the tithe is not just any freewill offering, nor is it a 20th or some other fraction of our annual interest or income.
That is acceptable, as he is focused on "one-tenth" (D&C119:4) not meaning "a 20th or some other fraction ...."
Elder Johnson diverges from our harmony, by quoting Howard W. Hunter from 1964:
Conference Report, Apr. 1964, 35.
This quotation has significant problems. Howard W. Hunter may have "stated it" that way, but how has LDS scripture "stated it"? Nowhere in Hunter's original words, is there a statement regarding "interest" or more generically, "surplus", and more specifically, "surplus properties". Hunter's definition ("Interest means . etc."), is sandwiched between two portions of Verse 4, including the quotation of "a standing law unto them forever" (D&C 119:4) as if his definition is the scriptural meaning. Is Elder Hunter's definition harmonious with LDS scripture?
If Elder Hunter's definition, from a 1964 speech, is current policy, why then does a more authoritative source, the 1970 First Presidency letter, state each member should "be entitled to make his own decision as to what he thinks he owes the Lord"? How can each member make his own decision, if Hunter's definition takes that privilege away?
Elder Hunter's definition does not seem to be harmonious with current policy and interpretation of LDS scripture. Therefore, it appears that Elder Johnson's reliance on Hunter's interpretation is also inaccurate.
Does willingly paying a tithe require faith, and if not faith, a benevolent heart? Certainly.
If the Saints should pay the tithe according to the "standing law forever" which is seen by the scriptural and logical harmony of the word "interest" to mean "surplus properties," should not the Brethren also consider having the faith to let the Saints pay their tithes according to scripture? Will not the Lord bless both the Saints and the Brethren for exercising faith in the scriptural definitions of tithing?
Franklin D. Richards, Nov. 6, 1882. JD 23:313. (emphasis added)
Appendix A - D&C 119 full text
Appendix B - Jeffrey Holland's Speech on Tithing
In the October 2001 General Conference, Apostle Jeffrey Holland delivered a speech on tithing.
Apostle James Talmage published a brochure entitled "The Lord's Tenth" that speaks to the harmony of scripture we have discussed. Holland's lengthy quotation of Talmage, as it appears in the November 2006 Ensign, is so riddled with ellipses and square brackets, one wonders what Talmage actually wrote.
Holland's quotation is not what Talmage meant, particularly regarding the amount to be tithed. Talmage referred to surplus. Holland referred to ten percent. Could Holland's quotation of Talmage cause one to misunderstand Talmage?
Talmage's writing supports current official policy and the two scriptures cited above, but does Holland's quotation of Talmage do the same?
Below is a full text, alternating-paragraph quotation of both Talmage and Holland.
I have highlighted differences with ALL CAPS, and I have set forth enumerated comments. Talmage's text comes from "The Lord's Tenth, Pamphlet, 1968", as cited by Holland. Elder Talmage passed away in 1933. The year 1968 must be a re-publication date.
(1)TALMAGE: "You have need of many things in this world-food, clothing, and shelter for your family AND YOURSELF, the common comforts of life, AND THE THINGS THAT SHALL BE CONDUCIVE TO REFINEMENT, TO DEVELOPMENT, TO RIGHTEOUS ENJOYMENT. YOU DESIRE MATERIAL POSSESSIONS TO USE FOR THE ASSISTANCE OF OTHERS AND THEREBY GAIN GREATER BLESSINGS FOR YOURSELF AND YOURS.
(1) HOLLAND: 'You have need of many things in this world-food, clothing, and shelter for your family . , the common comforts of life.
(1)COMMENT: Holland leaves the individual out: "YOURSELF", and the following needs: "THE THINGS THAT SHALL BE CONDUCIVE TO REFINEMENT, TO DEVELOPMENT, TO RIGHTEOUS ENJOYMENT". In harmony with the above-cited scriptures, Talmage taught these are legitimate needs. But lest Holland give a hint that tithing should be calculated after needs are met, he has dropped these lines. In other words, it appears the Church used to semi-officially (Talmage) clarify the tithing requirement based upon a recognition that personal and other legitimate needs were not to be tithed. Semi-officially ( Holland), no more.
(2)TALMAGE: NOW, you shall have the means of acquiring these things; but remember they are mine, and I require of you the payment of a rental upon that which I give into your hands. However, your life will not be one of uniform increase IN SUBSTANCE AND POSSESSIONS; YOU WILL HAVE YOUR LOSSES, AS WELL AS YOUR GAIN; YOU WILL HAVE YOUR PERIODS OF TROUBLE AS WELL AS YOUR TIMES OF PEACE. SOME YEARS WILL BE YEARS OF PLENTY UNTO YOU, AND OTHERS WILL BE YEARS OF SCARCITY.
(2) HOLLAND: You shall have the means of acquiring these things; but remember they are mine, and I require of you the payment of a rental upon that which I give into your hands. However, your life will not be one of uniform increase .
(2)COMMENT: Holland truncates the quotation probably because phrases like "years of plenty" "years of scarcity" flesh out the meaning of an increase, that tithing should be paid after a calculation of "surplus properties" (D&C 119:5).
(3) TALMAGE: AND, NOW, instead of doing as mortal landlords do-require you to CONTRACT WITH THEM to pay in advance, whatever your fortunes or your prospects may be-you shall pay me NOT IN ADVANCE, BUT when you have received; and you shall pay me in accordance with what you receive. If it so be that in one year your income is abundant, then YOU CAN AFFORD TO PAY ME a little more; and if it be so that the next year is one of distress and your income is not what it was, then YOU SHALL PAY ME LESS; AND SHOULD IT BE THAT YOU ARE REDUCED TO THE UTMOST PENURY SO THAT YOU HAVE NOTHING COMING IN, YOU WILL PAY ME NOTHING."
(3) HOLLAND: [so] instead of doing as mortal landlords do-requir[ing] you to ... pay in advance, whatever your fortunes or . prospects may be-you shall pay me . [only] when you have received; and you shall pay me in accordance with what you receive. If it so be that in one year your income is abundant, then . [YOUR 10 PERCENT will be a] little more; and if it be so that the next year is one of distress and your income is not what it was, then . [YOUR 10 PERCENT will be] less. . [WHATEVER YOUR CIRCUMSTANCE, THE TITHE WILL BE FAIR.]'
FIRST, Holland deletes the phrase "not in advance" since that contradicts current declarations to "pay the Lord first" or even as Gordon B. Hinckley suggested to pay even in the face of disaster; the story of the woman who needed to pay her tuition, but paid tithing instead.
SECOND, Holland inserts "YOUR 10 PERCENT" where Talmage clearly did not write "ten percent". Rather, Talmage's statement is in harmony with the First Presidency letter dated March 19, 1970 which states in part, " We feel that every member of the Church should be entitled to make his own decision as to what he thinks he owes the Lord, and to make payment accordingly."
THIRD, Holland pulls the following "quotation" out of thin air: "whatever your circumstance, the tithe will be fair". The problem is his delivery at General Conference made that statement appear to be quoted from Talmage. It is not. And how can Holland's tithe, which is a regressive income tax, be fair for a destitute individual who is struggling to support themselves and their dependents?
FOURTH, Holland drops the phrase, "you shall pay me nothing." The reason is this would have destroyed impetus of the story he told of the destitute Mary Fielding Smith. Because, to quote Talmage, she was "reduced to the utmost penury so that [she had] nothing coming in". An anecdote like the Mary Fielding Smith story, even delivered by an apostle at General Conference, carries less authority than the scriptures cited above, and also and less authority than a signed statement of the First Presidency, as cited above.
(4) TALMAGE: Have you ever found a landlord of earth who was willing to make that kind of a contract with you? When I consider the liberality of it all, and the consideration that my Lord has had for me, I feel in my heart that I could scarcely raise my countenance to his heaven above if I tried to defraud him out of that just rental.
(4) HOLLAND: "Have you ever found a landlord on earth who was willing to make that kind of [EQUITABLE] contract with you?" Elder Talmage asks. "When I consider the liberality of it all," he says, ". I feel in my heart that I could scarcely raise my countenance to . Heaven . if I tried to defraud [GOD] out of that [WHICH IS RIGHTFULLY HIS]."
(4)COMMENT: Holland's insertion of "EQUITABLE", "GOD", and "WHICH IS RIGHTFULLY HIS" may inspire awe and guilt. It also minimizes the thought that one might have an "indifferent" or neutral landlord (See Matthew 5:45).
Summary. Talmage meant "pay on your surplus". Did Holland mean "pay ten percent across the board, regardless of your income"?
Appendix C - Earl Tingey's April 2002 General Conference Speech
Tingey showed from his first childhood journal, that he had earned $7.00 gross, and that he paid a $0.70 tithe.
But as a child, Tingey owed no taxes. Although it appeared he was paying a tithe on his gross, he was actually paying a tithe on his net since they were the same.
But Tingey was also paying a tithe on his excess beyond his needs. Tingey was a legal minor according to LDS scripture, and his parents were obligated to meet his needs; the obligation was to his "parents for [his] maintenance until [he becomes] of age." (D&C 83:4).
It is remarkable that Tingey's $0.70 from a gross of $7.00 was a tithe on his gross, his net, and his excess!
Summary: Tingey's talk although it may be misunderstood, was also consistent with the original meaning in JST Genesis 14:39 where Abram paid a tithe on "that which God had given him, more than that which he had need." I wish he had explained it better!
Appendix D - Robert Hales' October 2002 General Conference Speech
Let us review Hales' pertinent statements regarding tithing. They are listed as (1)Hales through (7)Hales:
(1)Hales: In the Old Testament, Abraham proved his faith by paying tithes to the great high priest Melchizedek. (See Genesis 14:20.)
(1)Comment: The amount Abraham paid is not clear, and this statement oversimplifies that Abraham paid tithes of his excess. See JST Genesis 14:39, as cited above.
(2)Hales: Abraham's grandson Jacob vowed to the Lord, "Of all thou shalt give me I will surely give the tenth unto thee." Genesis 28:22.
(2)Comment: This verse indicates Jacob vowed to pay a tenth. What he actually paid is not stated. But to harmonize Jacob's statement with D&C 119:3-5 and Joseph Smith's inspired translation of the Bible, since it is clear Abraham paid a tenth of his excess, Genesis 14:39 JST, if Jacob was paying what Abraham paid, it was a tenth of his excess.
(3)Hales: The strict observance of the law of tithing not only qualifies us to receive the higher, saving ordinances of the temple, it allows us to receive them on behalf of our ancestors. When asked whether members of the Church could be baptized for the dead if they had not paid their tithing, President John Taylor, then of the Quorum of the Twelve, answered: "A man who has not paid his tithing is unfit to be baptized for his dead. . . . If a man has not faith enough to attend to these little things, he has not faith enough to save himself and his friends." (History of the Church, 7:292-93.)
(3)Comment: This paragraph is targeted to the youth who are being taken to the temple almost monthly nowadays.
(4)Hales: The law of consecration was then withdrawn. In its place the Lord revealed the law of tithing for the whole Church. (See historical introduction to D&C 119.) On July 8, 1838, He declared:
"And this shall be the beginning of the tithing of my people.
" . . . Those who have thus been tithed shall pay one-tenth of all their interest annually; and this shall be a standing law unto them forever." (D&C 119:3-4).
(4)Comment: This passage has been dealt with, as cited above. The scriptural meaning of "interest" is surplus properties or surplus advantage. But take a closer look at THREE different meanings of what is a proper tithing: First, in D&C 119:1, it was "all their surplus property . . and after that, those who have thus been TITHED . . . ." Hence, a proper tithe at one time was all surplus property. The second and third proper tithes were set forth in verses 4 and 5, at paragraph 2d.
Here is more of verse 1: "Verily I say unto you, it shall come to pass that all those who gather unto the land of Zion shall be tithed of their SURPLUS PROPERTIES . . . "
Did "tithed of their surplus properties" mean all of their surplus properties? Just look at what Hales does with his next statement, which cites to a reference. And then, for a surprise, read what the reference actually says.
(5)Hales: The law of tithing prepares us to live the higher law of consecration-to dedicate and give all our time, talents, and resources to the work of the Lord. Until the day when we are required to live this higher law, we are commanded to live the law of the tithe, WHICH IS TO FREELY [endnote reference affixed here] GIVE ONE-TENTH OF OUR INCOME ANNUALLY. (Emphasis added. See Joseph Fielding Smith, Church History and Modern Revelation, 4 vols. [ Salt Lake City: The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 1946-1949], 3: 120.)
(5)Comment: There are two significant problems with the statement and the endnote reference.
FIRST, the 1970 letter of the First Presidency, as a newer pronouncement from an authoritative source, supersedes a 1946 book such as Church History and Modern Revelation.
To repeat, the 1970 First Presidency letter states:
"We feel that every member of the Church should be ENTITLED TO MAKE HIS OWN DECISION as to what he thinks he owes the Lord, and to make payment accordingly."
SECOND, even the book Church History and Modern Revelation, from which Hales quotes, indeed from the same page, indicates a tithing is a tenth of the surplus and not a tenth of gross income:
"In more recent times the Church has not called upon the members to give all their SURPLUS property to the Church, but it has been the requirement according to the covenant, that they PAY THE TENTH." (Emphases added. Joseph Fielding Smith, Church History and Modern Revelation, 4 vols. [ Salt Lake City: The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 1946-1949], 3: 120.)
What could this passage have meant? The implication is that less is required than in previous times. Look to D&C 119:1 and 4, as cited above, for an authoritative historical confirmation of a previous "all their surplus", and a current "pay the tenth". Is there any scenario where the statement by Joseph Fielding Smith would imply to "pay the tenth" is to pay more than all one's surplus?
It appears that this concept was believed and practiced earlier. Here is a statement from Orson Hyde in 1847.
"The celestial law requires one-tenth part of all a man's substance which he possesses at the time he comes into the church (See D&C 119:1), and one-tenth part of his annual increase ever after(See D&C 119:4). IF IT REQUIRES ALL MAN CAN EARN TO SUPPORT HIMSELF AND HIS FAMILY, HE IS NOT TITHED AT ALL. The celestial law does not take the mother's and children's bread, neither ought else which they really need for their comfort. The poor that have not of this world's good to spare, but serve and honor God according to the best of their abilities in every other way, shall have a celestial crown in the Eternal Kingdom of our Father."
(The Millenial Star, 1847. Orson Hyde, editor)
Let us now return to Elder Hales' talk. Since Elder Hales' talk does not quote from the 1946 book Church History and Modern Revelation, rather it only lists a citation to it at page 120, he did not make clear what he was referring to on page 120. No similar statement was found, "to freely give one-tenth of our income annually". But this statement was found:
"We call it a free-will offering, and so it is, for everything in the Gospel is by free will, but nevertheless it is a law of God which to us is everlasting. (As cited above. pp. 120-121).
In Hales' General Conference text, his endnote reference follows the word "freely". This is a well-placed endnote reference regarding a "free-will offering", as cited above, not a definition of the amount to be tithed.
(6)Hales: Members who freely give a full 10 percent of their annual income receive all of the promised blessings of tithing, whether the amount is a widow's mite or a king's ransom.
(6)Comment: This is a difficult statement that needs parsing. This essay and even Hales' cited reference in the book, Church History and Modern Revelation, make it clear a proper tithe is scripturally defined as a tenth of surplus. A tenth of surplus is probably always less than "a full 10 percent of their annual income". Perhaps members who pay "a full 10 percent of their annual income" will be blessed as Hales indicated, but will not also members who freely give a tenth of their surplus "receive all of the promised blessings of tithing"? They are complying with the letter of the law, after all.
In defense of Hales' statement, the question must be posed, "Why pay 'a full 10 percent' of one's annual income if that is more than what is scripturally and officially required?" Perhaps Hales is repeating Bishop Brown's suggestion: "Pay your tithing on the basis on which you wish to be blessed." (April 1974 Ensign, Bishop Victor L. Brown)
(7)Hales: When a friend of President George Albert Smith asked him what he thought of his friend's personal plan to take what would have been tithing and donate his tenth in charitable donations of his own choice, President Smith's counsel was:
"I think you are a very generous man with someone else's property. . .
" . . . You have told me what you have done with the Lord's money but you have not told me that you have given anyone a penny of your own. He is the best partner you have in the world. He gives you everything you have, even the air you breathe. He has said you should take one-tenth of what comes to you and give it to the Church as directed by the Lord. You haven't done that; you have taken your best partner's money, and have given it away." (Sharing the Gospel With Others, sel. Preston Nibley (1948), 46; see also 44-47.)
(7)Comment: This is an interesting anecdote, but since it is not controlling authority over the scripture: " . . . when you are in the service of your fellow beings, you are only in the service of your God", Mosiah 2:17, the issue must be considered that one is not taking the tithing money away from God by tithing outside of church channels.
In any event, the following is attributed to Jesus of Nazareth. Regarding a man who did good works in the name of Jesus, but the man would not follow his apostles when commanded to by the Apostle John. Jesus said, "Forbid him not: for he that is not against us is for us." (Luke 9:49).
Appendix E - Sister Sidney Sperry's October 2003 General Conference Speech
Sister Sperry told a pathetic story of a man blinded in an accident and impoverished because he could not work, who hawked his wife's engagement ring to pay tithing. How does this story square with LDS scripture and official policy? Here is a quotation from her speech:
"Many years ago John Orth worked in a foundry in Australia , and in a terrible accident, hot molten lead splashed onto his face and body. He was administered to, and some of the vision was restored to his right eye, but he was completely blind in his left. Because he couldn't see well, he lost his job. He tried to get employment with his wife's family, but their business failed due to the depression. HE WAS FORCED TO GO DOOR-TO-DOOR SEEKING ODD JOBS AND HANDOUTS TO PAY FOR FOOD AND RENT.
"One year he did not pay any tithing and went to talk to the branch president. The branch president understood the situation but asked John to make it a matter of prayer and fasting so that he could find a way to pay his tithing. John and his wife, Alice, fasted and prayed and determined that the only thing of value they owned was her engagement ring-a beautiful ring bought in happier times. AFTER MUCH ANGUISH THEY DECIDED TO TAKE THE RING TO A PAWNBROKER AND LEARNED IT WAS WORTH ENOUGH TO PAY THEIR TITHING AND SOME OTHER OUTSTANDING BILLS."
Does one "forced to go door-to-door seeking odd jobs and handouts" have a surplus that should be tithed? It cannot be told from the story details. Although the details of this man's personal finances are not revealed, Sperry's message glossed over the scriptural meaning of a proper tithe is paid on surplus. And it insinuated that even the impoverished should pay.
Is this insinuation in harmony with scripture and official policy?
Appendix F - Lynn Robbins' April 2005 General Conference Speech
The title of Elder Robbins' speech as it appears in the May 2005 Ensign Magazine is:
"Tithing-a Commandment Even for the Destitute".
Elder Robbins stated, "Among those who do not sacrifice there are two extremes: one is the rich, gluttonous man who won't and the other is the poor, destitute man who believes he can't. But how can you ask someone who is starving to eat less? Is there a level of poverty so low that sacrifice should not be expected or a family so destitute that paying tithing should cease to be required?"
Robbins appeals to one's sense of shame by equating all who are unwilling to pay tithing with Dicken's infamous, but fictitious character, Scrooge. Robbins next tells the extreme story of the widow of Zarephath, and insists that the "Lord often teaches using extreme circumstances to illustrate a principle".
But do these examples matter if they contradict LDS scripture and official policy?
No. They are misleading.
Robbins also states that "[n]o bishop, no missionary should ever hesitate or lack the faith to teach the law of tithing to the poor. The sentiment of "They can't afford to" needs to be replaced with "They can't afford not to."
Maybe the principle of tithing within Mormonism can be taught, but it should not contradict LDS scripture.
Robbins also uses the term "firstfruits" extensively to bolster the notion that the destitute should pay tithing. But this contradicts Mormon scripture and the previous teaching of Apostle Talmage, misquoted by Apostle Holland that "you shall pay me NOT IN ADVANCE" (Talmage as quoted above).