After a challenging year in Kirtland, Ohio, Joseph Smith arrived in Far West, Missouri, in early 1838, ready to make a new start. Shortly after his arrival, he received a revelation calling for Far West to be built up as a holy city with a temple at its center.In the same revelation, the Lord forbade the First Presidency from borrowing money to accomplish these aims. They had borrowed to finance the house of the Lord in Kirtland, Ohio, and though the blessings were worth every penny, they were still struggling to pay off those debts. How would the Saints raise the necessary means to build yet another temple city?
This was not a new question for the young Church. The Lord gave the law of consecration in 1831 in Kirtland to address some of the same concerns.In it the Lord commanded the Saints to freely offer what He had blessed them with to the bishop, who would then consecrate a stewardship to them on the Lord’s behalf. As stewards, the Saints would be “amply supplied” with what they needed and expected to return any surplus to the bishop of the Church to “administer to the poor and needy,” purchase land for the Saints, and build Zion.
The Lord’s revelations on consecration emphasized the doctrines of individual agency, stewardship, and accountability. Joseph taught these principles to the bishops, and they in turn emphasized the voluntary nature of the offerings and the conditional blessings associated with them.
Throughout most of the 1830s, there were two bishops: Edward Partridge served the Saints in Missouri—or Zion, the center of the Church—while Newel K. Whitney served the Saints in the Church’s only stake at that time, in Kirtland, Ohio. Joseph and the bishops tried to help the Saints obey the law, but reluctant Saints and hostile neighbors hindered these efforts. Their ministry was doubly challenging in 1837 because the Church owed large debts, and the United States slumped into a long economic depression.
Saints at the time understood tithing to refer to any amount of freely consecrated goods or money. In September 1837, Bishop Whitney and his counselors in the Kirtland bishopric declared that “it is the fixed purpose of our God . . . that the great work of the last days was to be accomplished by the tithing of his saints.” Referring to the promise in Malachi 3:10, they urged the Saints to “bring their tithes into the store house, and after that, not before, they were to look for a blessing that there should not be room enough to receive it.”
A few months later, the bishopric in Missouri proposed a similar but more specific policy: each household should offer a tithe of 2 percent of its annual worth after paying the household’s debts. This, the bishopric in Zion wrote, “will be in some degree fullfilling the law of consecration.”
In early 1838, as Joseph Smith was preparing to move his family from Kirtland to Far West, Thomas Marsh wrote him a letter from Missouri, conveying his feeling that “The church will rejoice to come up to the law of consecration, as soon as their leaders shall say the word, or show them how to do it.”
At the time Joseph Smith arrived in Far West, the Saints were flocking to this new headquarters from branches of the Church in the United States and Canada. They settled throughout the region, necessitating the formation of a new stake. By July of 1838, the prospects of establishing an enduring stronghold in northern Missouri appeared promising. But the daunting task of building a temple loomed. The Church needed to raise the means to build the Lord’s house in spite of other pressing needs.
With this challenge in mind, Joseph gathered several leaders on Sunday morning, July 8, 1838. It was apparently in this meeting that he received both the revelation on tithing (now canonized as Doctrine and Covenants 119) and the revelation on the disposition of tithes (now Doctrine and Covenants 120).
Joseph prayed, “O! Lord, show unto thy servents how much thou requirest of the properties of thy people for a Tithing?”The prayer is recorded in the Prophet’s journal, followed by the word “Answer” and then the revelation that is now Doctrine and Covenants 119. “I require all their surpluss, property to be put into the hands of the Bishop of my Church,” the Lord said. Then, in what is now Doctrine and Covenants 119:2, the Lord stated the reasons the Saints should tithe. They are the same reasons noted previously for obeying the law of consecration recorded in what is now Doctrine and Covenants 42: to relieve poverty, purchase land for the Saints, and build a temple and build up Zion so that those who make and keep covenants can gather to a temple and be saved.
“This,” the revelation says, “shall be the beginning of the tithing of my people.” That instance of the word tithing is the first of three (tithing or tithed) in section 119. All of them refer to the Saints’ voluntary offering of surplus property. “And after that,” the revelation says, “those who have thus been tithed shall pay one-tenth of all their interest annually.” The revelation does not call it a lesser law to be replaced someday, but “a standing Law unto them forever” and applicable to all Saints everywhere.
The revelation ends with this ominous warning: “If my people observe not this Law, to keep it holy, and by this law sanctify the Land of Zion unto me, that my Statutes and Judgements, may be kept thereon that it may be most holy, behold verrily I say unto you, it shall not be a land of Zion unto you.”
Saints in Far West heard the revelation read in the Sunday meeting held that day. Those in outlying areas heard it in the weeks that followed.Bishop Partridge, who was present at the meeting in which the revelation was apparently received, wrote from Missouri to Bishop Whitney in Ohio and explained how it was to be followed: “The saints are required to give all their surplus property into the hands of the bishop of Zion, and after this first tithing they are to pay annually one tenth of all their interest.” Bishop Partridge understood “one tenth of all their interest” annually to mean 10 percent of what Saints would earn in interest if they invested their net worth for a year.
Shortly after Joseph received the revelation in section 119, he assigned Brigham Young to go among the Saints “and find out what surplus property the people had, with which to forward the building of the Temple we were commencing at Far West.” Before setting out, Brigham asked Joseph, “‘Who shall be the judge of what is surplus property?’ Said he, ‘Let them be the judges themselves.’”
As they were taught the will of the Lord, the Saints became accountable stewards who could choose whether or not to pay their tithes of their own free will. “Saints have come up day after day to consecrate,” the Prophet’s journal says, “and to bring their offerings into the store house of the lord.”But not all Saints exercised their agency to be wise stewards. Brigham Young later lamented that some Saints were stingy with their offerings.
At this time, the Lord also gave Joseph the revelation now found in Doctrine and Covenants 120, “making known the disposition of the properties tithed, as named in the preceeding [preceding] revelation.”It assigned the First Presidency, the bishopric in Zion, and the high council in Zion to decide how to use the tithes, making their decisions, the Lord said, “by mine own voice unto them.”
Joseph Smith’s journal notes that the newly revealed council soon met in Far West to “take into concideration, the disposing of the publick properties in the hands of the Bishop, in Zion, for the people of Zion have commenced liberally to consecrate agreeably to the revelations, and commandments.” The council agreed that the members of the First Presidency should use the funds they needed “and the remainder be put into the hands of the Bishop or Bishops, agreeably to the commandments, and revelations.”
When what is now Doctrine and Covenants 120 was revealed in 1838, Far West served as Church headquarters, and the bishop and high council there served on the council with the First Presidency. Later, the Church’s traveling high council, the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, became the Church’s general high council and a Presiding Bishopric was appointed; thus, today the council is composed of the First Presidency, the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, and the Presiding Bishopric.
Sadly, during the autumn of 1838, the Saints were driven from Missouri, their Zion-building project apparently on temporary hold and the temple marked out by only a few stones. Exiled from Missouri, the Saints regrouped in Illinois, joined by thousands of converts from the British Isles, the eastern states, and Canada. There Joseph led them as he always had—revealing the way forward line upon line—until they understood and paid, as tithing, a tenth of their overall increase, together with other freewill offerings of time, talent, and surplus property.When the Apostles invited the Saints to offer all they could toward the construction of a temple in Nauvoo, many responded, offering tools, land, furniture, and money. John and Sally Canfield consecrated all they had, including themselves and their two children, “to the God of He[a]ven and for the Good of his Cause.” In a note to Brigham Young, Brother Canfield wrote, “All I possess I freely give to the Lord and into thy hands.”
There in Nauvoo, then in Utah, and then throughout the world, the Latter-day Saints learned that if they obeyed even just the instruction to offer a tenth of their annual increase, the Church could pay its debts and begin to carry out the Lord’s instructions to build temples, relieve poverty, and build Zion. The money offered is calculable. The blessings are not.