Lorenzo Snow had become president of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints a year earlier, at a time when the institution was deeply in debt. The effects of the sermon he was about to preach would echo through the twentieth century and beyond.
The Mormons had known poverty often in their short, 70-year history. As they sought a place to settle and call their own, they found themselves driven from their communities time and again, abandoning homes and belongings. From Ohio to Missouri and then to Illinois, they endured hostile mobs until they finally weathered the 1,100-mile trek across the American plains to a place of safety in the Rocky Mountains. Some --too poor to buy wagons --pulled handcarts the entire distance. Many died on those seemingly endless trails.
By 1899 the church had established a foothold in the intermountain west, and its numbers had climbed to more than a quarter million. But many were still eking out their existence in rural communities, and the resources of the church were strained.
Lorenzo Snow’s sermon in the pioneer town of St. George reminded people that the ancient, biblical principle of tithing had been neglected in the church, and invited them to pay tithing and help the church out of its indebtedness. Snow would have realized as much as anyone that the church could never properly fulfill its mission of preaching the gospel and blessing the lives of millions while laboring under a burden of debt.
Snow died not long after, but the church members everywhere responded to his appeal and within a few years the church had gained a firm financial footing. The Snow sermon has become part of Mormon lore, and the principle of tithing became the church’s financial foundation. Even today, the vast majority of the church’s income comes from these member contributions.
Tithing is not unique to Mormons, of course. Many churches practice it in one form or another. Jewish observance of tithing long predates Christian communities. But in Mormon practice it is understood to mean donating “one tenth of our increase” to the service of God. At the close of the Book of Malachi, the Old Testament prophet wrote:
“Bring ye all the tithes into the storehouse, that there may be meat in mine house, and prove me now herewith, saith the Lord of hosts, if I will not open you the windows of heaven, and pour you out a blessing, that there shall not be room enough to receive it.” (Malachi 3:10).
The principle is simple to understand and administer. Each member, knowing their accountability to God, decides for themselves what “one tenth of their increase” means, when and how to pay it. For people on regular salaries, it is usually a tenth of their income and paid weekly or monthly. It is an honor system that works very well, because each member has a sense of consecrating a portion of his or her means to God’s work. Since the entire church depends on its members to serve as lay ministers and provide service in a myriad of ways, paying tithing is simply another private yet tangible affirmation of that spirit of sacrifice.
A former president of the church, Gordon B. Hinckley, noted that the Lord’s plan for financing the church is captured in just 35 words in modern scripture. “What a contrast with the cumbersome, complex, and difficult tax codes enacted and enforced by governments,” he noted, adding, “We know that these funds are sacred. We have a compelling trust to use them carefully and wisely….I keep on the credenza in my office this genuine widow’s mite…. I keep it as a reminder of the sacrifice it represents, that we are dealing with the consecration of the widow as well as the offering of the wealthy.”
Tithes are used by the church in numerous ways. There are nearly 30,000 congregations throughout the world, and simply providing them with buildings in which to meet and classrooms to teach in absorbs a large part of the church’s income. Educational programs, including church-owned universities, also require funding, as do many other programs throughout the world.
And in addition to their tithes, most faithful members make other voluntary contributions to humanitarian aid and to the monthly “fast offering.” Fast offerings are the result of fasting for two successive meals on the first Sunday of each month, and donating the cost of the meals. Local bishops then use these funds to help the poor and needy.
In the end, tithing and other financial offerings are less about finances and more about personal attitude and commitment. It is difficult to pay tithing and be selfish at the same time. For the millions of people who participate, there is something in the act of voluntary giving that is innately enriching to the human soul.
Michael Otterson is an On Faith panelist for The Washington Post and head of the worldwide public affairs functions of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.