LDS Church Finances: The Law of Tithing and Consecration in Nauvoo

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

In a revelation that dates to July 1838 the Lord both affirmed the Law of Consecration and modified for the future the ongoing Law of Tithing as a way for Latter-day Saints to build the kingdom of God. Unlike the system of legally deeding all of a member’s worldly property to the Bishop, as outlined in 1831 in Doctrine and Covenants Section 42, the Lord asked His people to pay one tenth of their interest (or increase) annually. Just a few months after the tithing revelation was received, the saints were violently expelled from Independence, Missouri. A year after that, they found themselves refugees living on a piece of Illinois swampland they would later call Nauvoo. 

This article on Mormon Church Finances will explore what consecration looked like in the Nauvoo period. Instead of a clean, linear break from the Law of Consecration to the Law of Tithing, the historical record reveals what appears to be various hybridizations of these two systems, first in Nauvoo, and later in settlements established by Latter-day Saints in the American West. 

In many ways the history of tithing in Church history is an up-and-down tale. However, despite a few challenges, it’s this system that has helped the Church to establish the financial independence and security that it enjoys today. It’s a position reached primarily by following principles of responsible fiscal management, always trying to set aside a portion of earned income for rainy days, of which the Church has seen more than its share. 

The modern Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is often described as a wealthy, robust institution, but this status was reached after much institutional trauma that perpetually reinforced principles of caution and the idea of never spending more than what the Church could bring in. 

Again, some might ask, why talk so much about Mormon Church finances or Mormons and tithing? The fact is that in some circles matters of the LDS Church’s financial status continue to be a subject of interest and controversy. Some have accused the Church of being too wealthy and failing to spend its resources more generously in support of worthy causes. 

Let’s retrace this topic from the beginning, back to the foundational revelations and historical moments that aided this American Christian denomination to attain its current position of remarkable financial security as a religious institution.

The story of the Church’s financial success is the story of consecration established by Joseph Smith through divine revelations recorded in Doctrine and Covenants Sections 41, 42, and 51. This is where the “purpose” of consecration was first articulated–a system that has withstood the test of time. First, the objective was to take care of the poor and eliminate poverty among rank and file Latter-day Saints and others. The second objective was to purchase land, construct meetinghouses, temples, universities, etc. The objective was to build up what is commonly referred to as the “New Jerusalem” to facilitate the future gathering of God’s people. 

Doctrine and Covenants Sections 70 and 78 lays out how Church employees are compensated, especially with funds generated by business ventures. This system has remained remarkably unaltered since the 1830s.

The principles of consecration are first established in Section 42. Remember, the principles of consecration ought to be defined separately from the practice of consecration. The practice itself is flexible and has been periodically revised and updated by revelation. It can be established by Church leaders to suit particular needs of the times. The first implementation of consecration was communal in nature. Personal property was deeded to the bishop, who would then lease that property back to the Church member, often with additional land or properties that would then be designated as this person’s “stewardship.” Surpluses were periodically given back to the Church to feed the poor, purchase land, construct buildings, etc. This communal system was short-lived, roughly ending in 1833. Only in Missouri was it extensively practiced. Unfortunately,  jealousy and mobocracy forced it to come to an end.  

The Church’s first consecration-based ventures included the Literary Firm, revealed in Section 70. This printing business was combined with a grocery store in Missouri and Kirtland, along with an ashery, an inn, and a few other ventures under the umbrella of what became known as the United Firm (later codenamed the United Order).

Such was the beginning of the corporate management of the LDS Church’s financial and commercial interests. The United Firm, although dissolved in 1834, certainly did not end the Church’s business ventures. These early revelations formulated the revelatory precedents, or revelatory “seeds,” that continue to flourish to the present today and which outline every successful business of the LDS Church. Such ventures are now expanded to include farming, real estate, digital media and printing, banking, a theme park in Hawaii, and other enterprises. 

The Church’s finances were nearly upended by the banking crisis of the Kirtland Safety Society in 1836-37. The bank failure caused Joseph and Sidney to flee for their lives to Far West, Missouri. In the shadow of this financial strain, the Lord commanded the construction of a new temple in Far West while simultaneously articulating what is called today the Law of Tithing. 

Joseph inquired of God, “How should we do our finances? How do we accomplish all that Thou asks? Lord, what defines the tithes of Thy people?” In response, God reveals the Law of Tithing in Section 119, which can be considered a subset of the Law of Consecration.

Tithing is sometimes described erroneously as a lesser law. However, this ignores or misunderstands the plain language of Section 119. Tithing merely accomplishes the same ends with a different system that is no longer communal with the leasing of stewardships, but now becomes one tenth of one’s personal net worth.

Then, as now, tithing is a better fit for implementing consecration on a personal level. But before tithing could be fully implemented, more storms beset the saints. Persecution in Missouri ultimately forced Church members to abandon their bought-and-paid-for lands in Missouri, eventually becoming refugees on the banks of the Mississippi River in a place then called Commerce, Illinois. 

It was here on the banks of the Mississippi that the Church “rebooted” its foundations and its finances. The saints purchased the cheapest, most God-forsaken plots they could find in this mosquito infested swamp land that would eventually be renamed Nauvoo, which is Hebrew for “beautiful place” or “beautiful situation.” 

In this setting, as the saints are struggling, Joseph Smith broadens the Law of Consecration by declaring, “For a man to consecrate his property is nothing more nor less than to feed his family, clothe the naked, visit the widow and the fatherless, the sick and the afflicted, and do all he can to administer to their relief and their afflictions, and for him and his house to serve the Lord.”

This is a beautiful definition of consecration.

In 1840 an individual named Elias Smith recorded a discourse of Joseph Smith. Elias wrote: “He (meaning Joseph) said that the law of consecration could not be kept here and that it was the will of the Lord we should desist from trying to keep it and that he assumed the whole responsibility of not keeping it until proposed by himself.”

At this time many refugees from Missouri are streaming into Nauvoo. Many saints become sick with malaria. Some of these sick members are laid out in Joseph’s yard. This is the setting when Joseph famously goes out and heals the people of this illness He also takes some of the pressure off members by announcing that living the full Law of Consecration is no longer requisite. However, plenty of documentary evidence suggests that many Church members continued to strive to live the fullness of the Law to whatever degree that they were able. For instance, researchers Mitchell Schaeffer and Sherilyn Farnes have found affidavits of consecration that date to the Nauvoo period, such as lists of property deeded to the Church. 

In June 1842, Joseph Smith met with the Twelve and commanded them to organize the Church according to the law of God. This can be taken to mean that he was trying to organize some form of consecration. The final evidence of an effort to highlight this law and keep it squarely in the minds of Church members is the Temple endowment itself and the associated covenants. 

On the Joseph Smith Papers website, there is an article that reads, “Later in Nauvoo tithing was defined as one tenth of a person’s possessions at the time temple construction began.” There’s also a footnote from Brigham Young from a sermon he gave in 1841 called “Baptism for the Dead.” These are the first instances where we see the term “interest” changed to “increase” in association with tithing. 

Records don’t tell us exactly the moment when the commandment shifted from one tenth of all one’s “interest” annually to 10% of one’s “income,” but it appears to coincide with the period of the construction of the Nauvoo Temple. It’s also in Nauvoo where the practice of paying a full tithing is linked to temple worthiness. Those who paid tithing in Nauvoo were considered faithful saints and promised access to the Temple. Since this time, tithing becomes a measurement of faithfulness. 

At the same time is the introduction to the Book of the Law of the Lord. The Joseph Smith Papers website offers this quote: “Many saints were impoverished and struggling to provide for their families, but their small contributions of tithing and their faithfulness in making an offering were also recorded in the Book of the Law of the Lord….Entries in the Book of the Law of the Lord were sometimes called consecrations.” The Book of the Law of the Lord indicates that some people would pay their tithing, but they were so poor that their tithing was immediately returned, almost in the same way that a fast offering is returned to the poor today. 

The JSP adds, “Such entries were common for widows, poor laborers on the temple, or women who were unable to offer much in tithing because their husbands were away.” In some instances consecration was recorded as “the last tithing paid by an individual who had recently died but desired to contribute to the temple or have his or her last name recorded in the Book of the Law of the Lord.” 

Again, consecration is part of the temple ceremonies. Thus, it’s difficult to say if consecration simply went away because Joseph Smith announced that the saints weren’t going to live it right now or if it this change was intended to be temporary. The Law of Consecration become embedded as one of the covenants of the temple ceremony, where it remained until his martyrdom. Before Joseph Smith is killed, he instructs those who are worthy to receive the endowment. In turn, the endowment asks participants to enter into the Law of Consecration. Therefore, tithing will get you into the temple, but once inside, members commit to live the Law of Consecration, which practice remains consistent down to the present.

What Joseph Smith seems to be articulating in Nauvoo is that the Law of Consecration is holistic. It’s about using all of your resources–whether talents, gifts, or money–to build up God’s kingdom. Tithing is a kind of subset of the Law of Consecration. Tithing doesn’t replace the Law of Consecration, but is now the avenue by which we consecrate our monies. There’s other ways, like the payment of fast offerings, mission funds, and other donations. The Nauvoo Temple itself needed to be built. So while the Law of Consecration is holistic, tithing becomes the financial arm of that law.

Tithing in the Nauvoo period might also be considered more holistic than it become in later periods. For example, you could tithe your labor or your time. Most members worked to build the Nauvoo temple one day out of ten. If they lacked money, they could pay their tithing in time and labor and this would qualify them for Temple attendance. 

In the temple the idea of consecration as a holistic law is perpetuated further. The language in the Temple suggests consecration means more than just money and has to do with all the blessings one receives from God. As Joseph Smith said, it means consecrating everything belonging to you and your family to help to build the kingdom of God on earth. This remains the guiding principle of the Church today.

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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