The Church Welfare Program and the Continuity of the Law of Consecration

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: LDS.org)

Zion has always been about God’s people being of one heart and one mind, living righteously together, without anyone suffering from poverty. Since the days of Joseph Smith, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has tirelessly worked towards this ideal, not only aiding the poor and needy but also empowering them to overcome poverty through self-reliance. The Church’s current system to support the poor originated organically with a program implemented by a Stake President during the Great Depression. This program, introduced by a Salt Lake City Stake President named Harold B. Lee, has evolved into a complex, multifaceted entity today. Much of the tireless work of what we call today the Church Welfare Program, goes unnoticed. Yet it profoundly impacts countless lives. Investigating the question: What are donations to the LDS Church used for?–uncovers a deep, selfless principle that has the Law of Consecration, first revealed in 1831 in the 42nd Section of the Doctrine and Covenants, at its financial core. The success of this program is both humbling and inspiring.

The cornerstone of Zion, as Moses 7:18 describes, is having “no poor amongst them.” The goal is unity of heart and mind, all living in righteousness. This narrative of caring for those in need was well underway when the text of what is known today as the book of Moses in the Pearl of Great Price, was received by Joseph Smith. The fundamental principle is consecration—building up Zion, God’s earthly kingdom, in readiness for the Savior’s return, as Church members and leaders generously contribute their time, talents, and money.

In simple terms, whenever Church members freely give of their time to build up God’s kingdom, this can be defined as an act of consecration. Whenever individuals or auxiliaries voluntarily offer their time or talents for the same purpose, it is consecration. Whenever they donate money to support the Church’s mission throughout the world, they are following the guiding principles of consecration.

These principles remain unchanged, although the methods to engage them have evolved. Initially, in 1831, Church members were asked to legally transfer all of their worldly property to the Church, receiving back, through a legal arrangement with their bishop, only what they and their families needed. This became known as that individual’s “stewardship.” If there was a surplus, it was then transferred back to the Church and received by the bishop’s storehouse. These surpluses were then used to elevate the poor and fund Church enterprises, such as the acquisition of land, property, and for-profit businesses. 

As mentioned, the Church’s initial financial system for Zion was established in 1831. That year, the Church embarked on its first for-profit ventures, including acquiring a printing press to create the Literary Firm, which was intended to publish periodicals and new editions of scriptures. By 1832, in collaboration with Newell K. Whitney’s and Sidney Gilbert’s consecrated businesses, led to the formation of the Church’s first joint venture: the United Firm. This marks the beginning of the corporate management of the Church’s financial and commercial interests. However, these efforts faced many varieties of disruptions, including mob violence and internal discord, prompting changes in 1838. The revised system called for a one-time donation of surplus property and an ongoing contribution of one-tenth of annual earnings. Today we know this as the Law of Tithing.

Two crucial questions have surfaced when addressing the topic of Mormons and Tithing. First, are we still living the law of consecration? The overwhelming response is yes. After all, the law was never formally rescinded. Second, did the Law of Tithing replace the Law of Consecration? Some records from Church leaders indicate a conflicting view of this issue. The Law of Tithing is sometimes characterized as a subset of the Law of Consecration, not a replacement. Indeed, in 1838 the revelation known today as Section 119 of the Doctrine and Covenants, states that the Law of Tithing “shall be a standing law unto them forever.” Despite this declaration, misunderstandings about these principles persist, resulting in some confusion among Church members, including leaders. 

In recent decades, through diligent scholarship and the insights of thoughtful Church leaders, it is now possible to clarify how all of these various elements interconnect. What exactly was the United Firm/United Order? How does the Law of Tithing integrate within the broader Law of Consecration? In this article we will address these misunderstandings in an effort to untangle the data and elucidate the historical and doctrinal threads.

The confusion sometimes stemmed simply from the terminology. In the Doctrine and Covenants, “United Order” described the shared businesses in Kirtland, Ohio and Independence, Missouri. For reasons that remain somewhat foggy, Brigham Young and his generation’s Church leaders adopted “United Order” as a catch-all phrase for the Law of Consecration. Yet, when one reads the Doctrine and Covenants, it becomes evident that the term “United Order” doesn’t quite align with how Brigham Young used this term. This is not a particularly controversial issue. Nevertheless, it should be acknowledged that this term as defined by Brigham Young was inadvertently adopted as a linguistic norm that is sometimes still misapplied or misunderstood to this day. 

It wasn’t until the work of Max Parkin, and his scholarly contributions, that some of these ambiguities began to clear. His meticulous research has shed light on some of the nuanced differences.

It should be underscored that the transition from the financial system of consecration, which involved legal stewardship, was not a straightforward, linear shift. In Nauvoo, there was some overlap between these ideas, and in several Utah communities, saints lived in hybridized systems that were somewhat called the Law of Consecration. Meanwhile, the majority of Church members simply adhered to the Law of Tithing. In places like Orderville and Brigham City, Church members adopted a somewhat communal form of the Law of Consecration. Community members worked in the same factories, shared meals and living quarters, and even paid tithing as a community to support projects like Church Temple construction during the 19th century. However, it should be noted that the Law of Consecration as it was practiced in these various communities did not exactly mirror the practice as originally outlined in 1831. 

Consecration encompasses principles that have varied in their application over time. The central query is what the Law of Consecration resembles today. Tithing is one facet, as it aids in funding the efforts to build God’s Kingdom, often referred to as “Zion.”

At the General Conference in April 2011, during a talk entitled “Opportunities to Do Good,” President Henry B. Eyring connected the Law of Consecration with the Church Welfare System when he said, “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.” In this instance he utilized terminology in the same tradition as Brigham Young.

He further clarified, “In our time [the Law of Consecration] 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.”

Thus, according to President Eyring, what Brigham Young once called the United Order is called today the Church Welfare Program. This article will delve into the Church Welfare Program, its evolution, and its contemporary form. For, as President Eyring articulates, this program is the modern manifestation of the Law of Consecration.

When President Eyring mentions that in the contemporary era the Law of Consecration is known as the Church Welfare Program, he appears to be emphasizing that the objective of this program is to care for the poor and needy. This is also the central tenet of Zion, underscored by Moses 7:18’s vision of “no poor among them.” These programs have the direct aim to fulfill the Lord’s directive to assist the needy and impoverished. The myriad efforts overlap, forming a large Venn diagram that collectively pursues the cause of Zion and aims to eradicate poverty in Mormon communities.

The passage of the Edmunds-Tucker Act in the 1880s thrust the Church into a conflict with the United States government that nearly led to its financial ruin. In response, LDS leaders and LDS finances underscored the Law of Tithing at the beginning of the 20th century to stabilize its finances. The Edmunds-Tucker Act, coupled with the Manifesto issued by President Wilford Woodruff, brought an end to plural marriage in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

However, it should be noted that the objectives of the United States Federal government extended beyond the issue of plural marriage. The legislation enacted by the United States also challenged the temporal authority that it believed the Church exerted over its members. The government’s aim was not only to abolish plural marriage, but also to dismantle various forms of consecration that Latter-day Saints had been attempting to establish in some of its 19th-century communities. The government’s efforts were largely successful, leading to the cessation of plural marriage and the dissolution of most Church-sponsored cooperatives and communal organizations in the early 20th century. 

Church members at that time were hesitant to donate money if it was likely to be confiscated by the government. As a result, there was a significant retreat from actually donating to the cause of building Zion, driven by fears of what might happen to that money. After the cessation of plural marriage and the issuance of Official Declaration 1, Church leaders began to re-emphasize tithing, and the Church moved closer to the mainstream of American society.

Before this shift, the Church had tried to separate itself from worldly affairs. After the issuance of the Manifesto, the Church made a concerted effort to integrate more fully into American societal norms. Nevertheless, the Church continued to grapple with how to care for the poor. The principle of consecration did not vanish in the early 20th century. It persisted on a local level, where bishops would hold fasts, gather donations, and use these funds to assist people in their wards. Church members would also initiate projects, helping others harvest their crops or perform other services, embodying the spirit of good Christian stewardship. However, the catalyst for the Church Welfare Program as it is known today was the onset of the Great Depression.

The Great Depression is often depicted as a sudden calamity that affected everyone. Black Tuesday led to an economic collapse, plunging many Americans, as well populations in Europe and other countries, into severe financial difficulties. Yet, in the Intermountain West, where the Church was primarily based, people were already enduring tough times. The Roaring Twenties did not represent a time of prosperity for Church members living in the West. Latter-day Saints had been struggles prior to the Great Depression for various reasons. The Great Depression only exacerbated these difficulties. Statistics from that era indicate that one-quarter of Latter-day Saints were unemployed. While Church leaders supported FDR and the New Deal’s initiatives to revive the economy, they felt a compelling desire to do more. The Church welfare system emerged as a prime example of a program that developed not from the top down, but from the bottom up. 

It all began with an innovative Stake President named Harold B. Lee, who led the Pioneer Stake in Salt Lake City. Lee initiated numerous programs aimed at getting everyone back to work. Part of his focus was on the belief that working, even if the enterprise didn’t generate a profit, benefitted individuals by boosting their morale and maintaining their dignity.

The concept was simple: Church members would pool resources and gather them in a designated location, allowing those in dire need to access the necessary food and commodities. Lee and his counselors acquired warehouses, a farm, and various enterprises, catalyzing a program that would support the people of the Pioneer Stake in downtown Salt Lake.

Some of the buildings constructed under this program are still visible today. The Church leadership recognized the impact of what this energetic young stake president was accomplishing and decided to expand his methods more broadly. One of their actions was to invite President Lee to publish an article detailing the work taking place within his stake. Although recognized as an innovator, Lee was careful to clarify that his approach represented a return to foundational principles of Mormon Church finances.

He explained, “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.”

Lee explained that his program was not a novel idea, but merely a rejuvenation of an ancient practice. He saw it as a modern application of the Law of Consecration, gathering surplus food and commodities into a storehouse to support those in need. As might seem no surprise, Harold B. Lee was profoundly familiar with Church doctrines, especially those mentioned in the Doctrine and Covenants.

While Lee worked from the ground up, Church leaders, noticing his effective methods, sought ways to implement his ideas on a broader scale, moving from grassroots initiatives to top-down implementation. 

It was at this time that a brand new counselor was called into the First Presidency named J. Reuben Clark. Incredibly gifted, J. Reuben Clark had worked in the State Department of the United States and was also the U. S. Ambassador to Mexico. J. Reuben was called directly into the First Presidency, bypassing the traditional norm of being first called into the Quorum of the Twelve. In his case, he went straight into the First Presidency and was only thereafter ordained an Apostle. He was technically just the Sunday School teacher in his ward before vaulting into the First Presidency, which isn’t the usual sequence, although nothing in LDS doctrine prevents it.

The First Presidency met with Harold B. Lee on April 18th, 1936. From this meeting, Harold B. Lee wrote, “President Heber J. Grant said he wanted to take a leaf out of the Pioneer Stake’s book in caring for the people of the Church. He said nothing was more important for the Church to do than to take care of its needy people, and that so far as he was concerned, everything else must be sacrificed so that proper relief could be extended to our people.”

J. Reuben Clark and Harold B. Lee collaborated with all the Stake Presidents of the Church to develop a Church-wide welfare plan. This was the genesis of the Church Welfare Program, which officially launched the following fall. At the October General Conference of that year, the discussions were predominantly about Church welfare.

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.”

The program aimed to bless both givers and receivers while addressing issues of poverty. It emphasized the transformative power of giving and receiving in strengthening the spiritual fiber of individuals and families, shaping them into citizens fit for Zion.

At the same time, in the early 20th century, amidst a global backdrop of communism, fascism, and totalitarianism, Church leaders were keen to clarify that the Church Welfare Program was not the United Order. Referencing Brigham Young’s terminology, J. Reuben Clark stated, “We’ve all said the welfare plan is not the United Order, and it’s not intended to be. . . 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.”

He indicated that while the program was akin to the United Order, it was distinct, carefully navigating the issue to prevent the government from suspecting Latter-day Saints of establishing a communist regime within the United States.

This scenario illustrates that what was once called the United Order in 1831 had effectively been replaced by the modern Church Welfare Program.

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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