Finances of the LDS Church: The Foundations of the Church Welfare Program

Todd Noall

Todd Noall

Source Expert

Todd Noall is an author and religious scholar at Mormonism Explained with a focus on the history and theology of religion.

Fact Checked by Kevin Prince

(Image Source: Church News)

In a previous article it was discussed how the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints was almost destroyed as a result of skirmishes with the federal government of the United States. At the dawn of the 20th century, it became necessary for the Church to stress anew the importance of tithing in an effort to stabilize LDS Church finances.

The pressure that emanated from the Edmunds-Tucker Act marked the end of the era of plural marriage. This conflict was not merely about discontinuing plural marriage. More broadly, it was a clash over the secular dominion of the LDS Church with regard to its members as perceived by the United States Congress. The goal was to abolish not only polygamy, but communal systems that the saints had established in numerous communities of the Mountain West. The government prevailed in this conflict. Plural marriage was abolished. Additionally, nearly all Church-led cooperatives and communal organizations dissolved by the early 1900s.

During this period, Church members became very wary of donating funds to the Church, fearing the government would seize any and all contributions. This state of reluctance hovered in the air, leaving Latter-day Saints unsure how to support the Church’s declared mission, which was to build and consecrate the concept of a latter-day Zion. After the internal turmoil associated with Official Declaration 1 and the cessation of plural marriages subsided, Church leaders emphasized the Law of Tithing.

Simultaneously, the organization of the Church began to more closely align with mainstream American life. After the Manifesto, it worked its way back into “polite” society, though as an institution it continued to grapple with issues of supporting the needy. Consecration persisted on local levels. Bishops called for fasting and used its surplus funds to assist parishioners. Faithful members organized projects to help with agricultural harvests or perform other community services. This spirit of Christian charity remained alive and well.

However, the catalyst for creating the modern ideas of Mormon Church finances that became the Church Welfare Program was the Great Depression of 1929 and the 1930s. This was the deepest economic downturn in American history and also adversely affected the economies of many other countries. While Black Tuesday marked the beginning of the crash, the Church’s heartland was already in a state of suffering. By 1929, a significant percentage of the Latter-day Saints populace was unemployed. They were struggling long before the national crisis accelerated. Church leaders expressed enthusiastic support for President Roosevelt’s New Deal to revive the economy, but they also concentrated on Church-based solutions.

During this period Harold B. Lee, President of the Salt Lake City Pioneer Stake, initiated work programs that focused, not only on generating income,  but on maintaining the ideals of human dignity through labor.

In a General Conference talk in April 2011 titled “Opportunities to Do Good,” President Henry B. Eyring reminded Church members, “The Lord has invited his children to consecrate their time, their means, and themselves, to join with him in serving others. His way of helping has at times been called living the law of consecration. In another period, his way was called the United Order.” President Eyring was borrowing Brigham Young’s terminology. He said further, “In our time it is called the Church Welfare Program. The names and details of the operation are changed to fit the needs and conditions of people, but always the Lord’s way to help those in temporal need requires people who out of love have consecrated themselves and what they have to God and to His work.”

President Eyring explained that Brigham Young had once referred to this program as the United Order. It was known today as the Church Welfare Program. As he indicated, this program is merely the modern iteration of the Law of Consecration.

When President Eyring clarified that in our time this program was the Church Welfare Program, he made it a point to highlight the program’s focus as caring for the poor, tying it back to the foundational scriptural vision that the people of God’s kingdom should have “no poor among them.” 

This continued to be a driving force behind the question: What are donations to the LDS Church used for? The Deseret beehive metaphor of “Let’s get to work,” and “Work will win when wishy-washy wishing won’t,” captured the prevailing attitude. President Lee set up a storehouse according to the long-established practice of pooling resources. If someone was in need, this person or family could receive food and commodities. President Lee and his counselors established warehouses, a farm, and several other enterprises, kickstarting a program to aid members of the Pioneer Stake in downtown Salt Lake City. Some structures from this program continue to this day.

Church leaders, impressed by the efforts of this energetic young Stake President, decided to further expand Harold B. Lee’s ideas. They invited President Lee to publish an article explaining his initiatives. In his careful words, President Lee wrote, “The Church security plan is not something new to the Church, neither does it contemplate a new organization in the Church to carry out its purposes, but rather it is an expression of a philosophy that is as old as the Church itself, incorporated into a program of stimulation and cooperation to meet the demands of Church members in the solution of present-day economic problems.” President Lee underscored his efforts with the Church’s foundational principles, defining them as a modern application of the Law of Consecration.

Collecting surplus food and commodities into a storehouse mirrored principles outlined in the Doctrine and Covenants. Harold B. Lee was well known for his deep scriptural knowledge, in particular of the Doctrine and Covenants. He worked from the ground up. Church leaders took note of his accomplishments and sought to implement these practices from the top down in systems of LDS finances

A new counselor was called to the First Presidency. This was J. Reuben Clark, a former U.S. Ambassador to Mexico and a State Department veteran. President Clark bypassed the traditional manner in which a member of the First Presidency would be called from the midst of existing members of the Quorum of the Twelve. He was actually called into the First Presidency and only then ordained an Apostle.  

Church records from April 18th, 1936, note a significant meeting wherein President Heber J. Grant expressed his desire that the Church as whole emulate what President Lee had done for the Pioneer Stake of Salt Lake City. President Grant prioritized the Church’s duty to assist needy members above all else.

In collaboration with Harold B. Lee, J. Reuben Clark devised a Church-wide welfare program. This plan was announced during the fall General Conference. It emphasized the character-building objectives of the Church’s welfare system as it related to both givers and receivers. The First Presidency declared, “The real long-term objective of the welfare plan is the building of character in the members of the church, givers and receivers, rescuing all that is finest down deep inside of them to bring to flower and fruitage the latent richness of the Spirit, which, after all, is the mission and purpose and reason for the being of this church.” This approach comprehensively addressed matters of the poor and needy, reflecting the continuing commitment of Church leaders to eliminate poverty inside the Church. 

Keep in mind that this system of Mormon Church finances was introduced during a period when the United States was particularly sensitive to the rise of ideologies like communism, fascism, and totalitarianism. This compelled Church leaders to be very mindful and deliberate in their communications. They made a point to clarify that their initiatives were distinct from the United Order, a term historically used by Brigham Young. Church leaders emphasized, “This is not the United Order, this is what we’re doing to help them.” J. Reuben Clark explained, “We’ve all said the welfare plan is not the United Order, and it’s not intended to be.” He then added, “However, I would like to suggest to you that perhaps after all when the welfare plan gets thoroughly into operation—it’s not so yet—we shall not be so very far from carrying out the great fundamentals of the United Order.” His careful phrasing was aimed to ensure that the church’s actions were not misconstrued as establishing a system akin to communism.

The use of the phrase “United Order” by Clark was certainly a nod to the 1831 system of financial consecration. Yet it diverged from the joint business ventures of 1832 between businesses in Ohio and Missouri and applied a distinctive shift from the original applications of the United Order. This evolution demonstrates that, over time, the initial concept of the United Order had largely faded from collective memory, with the term now serving to articulate the principles of stewardship outlined in Doctrine and Covenants Section 42.

Located at BYU, the J. Reuben Clark Papers offer substantial insight into how these programs were implemented and the philosophies that buttressed them. Scholars have pinpointed various references to the Doctrine and Covenants within these documents. President Clark, noted for his legal acumen, paid meticulous attention to the language and meanings expressed within scripture. He once informed the Quorum of the Twelve, “I took it upon myself to make a study of the financial operations of the Church from the beginning down through and until the death of the Prophet Joseph Smith.”

President Clark’s goal fundamentally meant a return within the Church to foundational financial principles. He emphasized repeatedly the core tenets of Church doctrine. In one instance, he declared, “The Lord has always been mindful of the poor and the unfortunate. He’s always charged his church and its members to see to it that none of their brethren and their sisters suffer.” He repeatedly emphasized the importance of these principles as laid out in the Doctrine and Covenants, plainly adapting consecration practices from 1831 to the circumstances of the 1930s.

These principles, extracted from scripture, were integrated into initiatives originally spearheaded by Harold B. Lee. The program then became a significant part of Church practices and teachings. During this era, it was commonplace to dedicate one session of General Conference to educating Church leaders on how to successfully implement and manage the welfare needs of the Church. Leaders addressed the same foundational principles of welfare still practiced today. General Conference wasn’t always conducted as it is today. Previously, it wasn’t just a major broadcast of talks aimed at the entire Church but consisted largely of leadership training. This still happens today, but is sometimes less noticed by general Church members. 

During the Great Depression, a large portion of General Conference was dedicated to discussing welfare and training leaders how to help people get back on their feet. As core principle of Mormon Church finances, Church leaders recognized that members could not fully commit spiritually until their temporal needs were met. J. Reuben Clark became a key mentor for many later Church leaders, including Marion G. Romney, who served as president of the Quorum of the Twelve and later as a member of the First Presidency in the 1980s. One of Romney’s protégés, Gordon B. Hinckley, continued to promote these same ideals into the late 20th century.

In 1966, Pres. Marion G. Romney exhorted the men of the Priesthood to, “Live strictly by the principles of the United Order, insofar as they are embodied in the present church practices, such as the fast offering, tithing, and welfare activities.” He used the term “United Order” to refer to fast offerings, tithing, and Church welfare activities.

Elder Romney also stated, “Through these practices, we could, as individuals, if we were of a mind to do so, implement in our own lives all the basic principles of the United Order.” By this time, Church welfare had evolved to the point that it was no longer called the United Order. However, the principles of that early system were integrated into current Church practices. Elder Romney acknowledged that while the structure of 1831 consecration had changed, its principles were still intact. In 1975, he noted, “The procedural method for teaching church welfare has now changed, but the objectives of the program remain the same. Its principles are eternal. It is the gospel and its perfection, the united order toward which we move.”

By the 1990s, Gordon B. Hinckley, another mentor of J. Reuben Clark, declared, “The law of sacrifice and the law of consecration were not done away with and are still in effect.” This statement reaffirms the ongoing relevance of these laws.

Church leaders clearly view Church welfare as a modern application of the Law of Consecration that answers: what are donations to the LDS Church used for? There is nothing “past tense” about the Law of Consecration. It remains a significant part of the Church, often happening behind the scenes, practically unnoticed, and perhaps leading some members to mistakenly believe that the Law of Consecration is no longer practiced. The principles persist; only the methods of implementation in the realm of LDS finances have evolved.

By Todd Noall, Source Expert

Todd Noall is an author and religious scholar at Mormonism Explained with a focus on the history and theology of religion.

Fact Checked by Mr. Kevin Prince, Source Expert

Kevin Prince is a religious scholar and host of the Gospel Learning Youtube channel. His channel has garnered over 41,000 subscribers and accumulated over 4.5 million views. Mr. Prince also created the Gospel Learning App, a reliable platform where individuals seeking truth can access trustworthy answers to religious questions from top educators worldwide.

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