Sections 119 and 120: The Law of Tithing
These two sections were among the five revelations received on July 8, 1838 at the conference in Far West (see the introductory commentary for section 117). They were received on that occasion in response to the Prophet Joseph’s prayer, “O Lord, show unto thy servant how much thou requirest of the properties of thy people for a tithing” (HC, 3:44).
The Lord had given to the Church the law of consecration whereby a man consecrated all that he owned to the Lord, and in return he was given his stewardship or those things he needed to support his family. Some members had tried to live this celestial law, but in almost all instances they had failed miserably. After 1833 the saints’ financial situation was desperate. Many factors had accumulated against them including the huge losses in Jackson County, the many resources needed to fund Zion’s Camp, the costs of building the Kirtland Temple, the failure of the Kirtland Anti-Banking Safety Society with the subsequent loss of many Kirtland assets, the forced migration from Kirtland to Far West, and the commandment to build another temple in Far West without incurring debt (D&C 115:13). These factors, collectively, put impossible burdens upon the minority of the saints who were still attempting to live the law of consecration. The United Order did not appear to be workable, and the commandment that the saints live in such an order was withdrawn for the time being. Zion, we are told, can never be built up except by the principles of the celestial law or the law of consecration (D&C 105:5). It is important to note that while the concept of the United Order has been put “on hold,” the law of consecration itself has not been withdrawn and is still a gospel principle we are expected to live. We enter into a covenant to do so in the temple. Obviously, some are called upon to consecrate more than others, and the important thing is our willingness to consecrate what we have to the Lord’s work when asked.
Since the concept of the United Order had failed, it now became necessary that a law of contribution be given to the entire Church. In December of 1837, Joseph had appointed a committee to adopt a plan whereby revenue could be raised to defray church expenses. The recommendation of this committee was that a voluntary tithing program be established, the donation to be based on assets, not income. Their recommendation provided for a yearly inventory with the bishop. This initiative was never implemented, but it undoubtedly served as a precursor to sections 119 and 120.
Also on a previous occasion, Joseph Smith and Oliver Cowdery had promised the Lord, while suffering because of their debts in 1834, that they would give one-tenth of all that the Lord should give unto them as an offering to be bestowed upon the poor. The law of tithing, therefore, is not a substitute for the law of consecration. Rather, it is a part of that law. It is the part which provides money for the financial operations of the whole Church (HC, 2:174-75).
The Prophet, on July 8, 1838, prayed for instructions and was given sections 119 and 120.
These sections are the origin of the law of tithing. This law had not been given previously to the Church in this dispensation. The term “tithing,” however, is used previously in the Doctrine and Covenants (64:23, 85:3, and 97:11). As used previously, the term is simply a generic one that refers to a “contribution” or “free-will offering.” The word “tithe,” however, contains the intrinsic meaning of the concept of “a tenth.” The payment of one-tenth of one’s increase for the support of the community or the maintenance of a religious institution has been a well-established practice in the past among Christians as well as ancient Israel (the above taken from Stephen A. Ricks’s essay, “A Standing Law Forever” in Studies in Scripture, Volume One, The Doctrine and Covenants, 456).
As outlined in section 119, the law of tithing included two types of contributions. First, as a new convert came into the Church, they were “required” to donate all of their “surplus property” (verse 1). That is, an inventory of their assets was to be taken by the bishop, and then the amount of “surplus” was determined and contributed to the Church. Joseph Smith gave the guideline as to who should be the judge of what is considered “surplus” when Brigham Young asked him, “who shall be the judge of what is surplus property?” Said he, “Let them be the judges themselves . . .” (Far West Record, 89-93). In verses 4 and 5 of section 119, this process is referred to as being “tithed.” Again, the word “tithed” is used here in its general sense and not specifically referring to a “tenth.”
The second type of contribution was then to be an annual contribution of a tenth of one’s “interest”—income or increase.
It is interesting to note that at the time the law of tithing was given in 1838, this process of contributing one’s “surplus” to the Church was very analogous to the process, in the law of consecration, where one contributed all that one owned and then received back the essential stewardship. In both cases the member had what was essential, and the Church controlled the surplus. In actual practice, however, even in 1838, few members actually caught the true spirit of this part of the law. In the words of Orson Pratt, “Who in the world among all the Latter-day Saints would have any surplus property if it is left to his own judgment?” (JD, 16:157, 17:110). Also Brigham Young observed: “Some were disposed to do right with their surplus property, and once in a while you would find a man who had a cow which he considered surplus, but generally she was of the class that would kick a person’s hat off, or eyes out, or the wolves had eaten off her teats. You would once in a while find a man who had a horse that he considered surplus, but at the same time he had the ringbone, was broken-winded, spavined in both legs, and had the pole evil at one end of the neck and a fistula at the other, and both knees sprung” (JD, 2:306-7).
Perhaps because many of the saints had trouble finding any “surplus” property among their possessions, more specific guidelines were later given to the saints regarding the “pre-assessment” part of tithing. In 1841, the Twelve wrote to the saints regarding the proposed temple at Nauvoo: “the tithing required is one-tenth part of all anyone possessed at the commencement of the building, and one-tenth part of all his increase from that time until the completion of the same” (HC, 4:473). Also in a general epistle of the First Presidency to the Church in 1854 the “Law of Tithing” (this is the first time this specific term was used) was interpreted to mean that all should initially pay one-tenth of their entire property and thereafter pay one-tenth of all their increase.
The practice of the law of tithing has evolved so that today we are not asked to any kind of “pre-assessment,” but rather we pay only a tenth of our increase.
The question of what precisely constitutes a man’s income or increase has long been a difficult one. Is tithe-able income that income before taxes or after taxes? before expenses or after expenses? and what constitutes legitimate expenses? In a letter dated March 19, 1970, the First Presidency counseled as follows:
Inquiries are received at the office of the First Presidency from time to time from officers and members of the Church asking for information as to what is considered a proper tithe.
For your guidance in this matter, please be advised that we have uniformly replied that the simplest statement we know of is the statement of the Lord himself, namely, that the members of the Church should pay “one tenth of their interest annually” which is understood to mean “income.” No one is justified in making any other statement than this.
We feel that every member of the Church is entitled to make his own decision as to what he thinks he owes the Lord and to make payment accordingly. Sincerely your brethren,
Joseph Fielding Smith
Harold B. Lee
N. Eldon Tanner
There still remain many different ways of calculating our tithing obligation. What a man owes is up to the man himself, and he must justify it only with his bishop and the Lord. The Lord’s Church would survive without our tithing contributions, but, in an eternal sense, we would not. The payment of tithing is more for our own benefit than for the Lord’s. The law of tithing is, in the final analysis, a spiritual, not a temporal law.
Prior to section 120, the consecrated monies and properties had been controlled by the bishop of the Church. Section 120 gave this responsibility to a church council consisting of the First Presidency, the bishop and his counselors, and the church high council. Today the distribution of tithes is the responsibility of the Council for the Disposition of Tithes, consisting of the First Presidency, the Council of the Twelve Apostles, and the Presiding Bishopric.
The earliest copies of sections 119 and 120 are found in the Scriptory Book of Joseph Smith in the handwriting of George W. Robinson. These copies are essentially contemporary with the original revelation. Other early manuscripts exist in the handwriting of Newel K. Whitney, Edward Partridge, Frederick G. Williams, and Willard Richards. Section 119 was first added to the Doctrine and Covenants in 1844. Section 120 first appeared in the Doctrine and Covenants in the 1876 edition at the direction of President Brigham Young.
D&C 119-120 The Law of Tithing
1 Verily, thus saith the Lord, I require all their surplus property to be put into the hands of the bishop of my church in Zion,
verse 1 “I require all their surplus property to be put into the hands of the bishop” See the introductory commentary for this section.
2 For the building of mine house, and for the laying of the foundation of Zion and for the priesthood, and for the debts of the Presidency of my Church.
verse 2 “For the building of mine house” That is, for the temple at Far West.
3 And this shall be the beginning of the tithing of my people.
verse 3 “the beginning of the tithing of my people” This phrase can be interpreted in two ways: (1) First, the donating of all of a family’s surpluses to the bishop is the first step in paying one’s tithing. (2) Second, these sections, sections 119 and 120 mark the beginning of the principle of tithing—giving one tenth of one’s interest or income to the Church each year.
4 And after that, those who have thus been tithed shall pay one-tenth of all their interest annually; and this shall be a standing law unto them forever, for my holy priesthood, saith the Lord.
verse 4 “one-tenth of all their interest annually” This phrase and the 1970 statement of the First Presidency quoted in the introductory commentary, are the only specific authoritative scriptural quantitative guidelines for the payment of one’s tithing.
“this shall be a standing law unto them forever” It is often said that the law of consecration is a celestial law, while the law of tithing is a lesser or terrestrial law. Because tithing was part of the law of Moses, which was a terrestrial, preparatory law (D&C 84:27), it is sometimes assumed that the practice is only preparatory in nature and was originally intended to be done away with that law. This cannot be entirely correct, however, for the obligations of the law of consecration and of tithing overlapped for the Church between July 8, 1838, when tithing was instituted, and March 6, 1840, when Joseph announced that the law of consecration was, collectively at least rescinded (HC, 4:93). During this period, the consecration of surplus, if any, and the payment of tithing by all was the system by which the Church observed the celestial law of consecration. “There is no evidence that Mormon leaders or members perceived the economic plan embodied in section 119 to be an ‘inferior law’ of church economics. On the contrary, the 1838 program was viewed by the saints simply as a new phase of consecration” (Cook, Joseph Smith and the Law of Consecration, 7).
Joseph Smith and Oliver Cowdery began observing the covenant of tithing on November 29, 1834—three and one half years before the rest of the Church. In their personal covenants, they specified that the amount to be given the Lord would be a tenth “and that our children after us shall remember to observe this sacred and holy covenant” (HC, 2:175). It would be difficult to argue that Joseph and Oliver were entering into a “lesser law” than consecration, because the law of consecration had been given to the whole Church—including Joseph and Oliver—in 1831 and was not rescinded until 1840.
It might be fair to say, however, that the principle of tithing can be lived as either a “lesser law” or as a form of the law of consecration. If an individual understands that ten percent of his increase belongs to the Lord and ninety percent belongs to himself, then this is essentially the Old Testament view (Leviticus 27:30-34) and represents a “lesser” or preparatory principle. One who is tithed, even in this sense, will not be burned at the last day (D&C 64:23) and will receive all the blessings promised for keeping this law in a terrestrial manner. On the other hand, if an individual, particularly one who is endowed, understands that one hundred percent of his income is consecrated to the Lord, that ten percent is to be paid to the Lord immediately while the remainder is a stewardship to be managed for the good of the kingdom, and that any or all of it may be required by the Lord at any time, then this represents the present form of the law of consecration. One who is tithed in this sense is observing the law in a celestial manner and will receive all of its even greater and higher blessings. What makes the difference between the lesser law of tithing and the consecrated law of tithing is the covenant understanding of the individual and the intent of his or her heart. To give the Lord nothing is disobedience. To give the Lord ten percent and keep ninety percent is obedience to the lesser law. To give the Lord everything and then manage ninety percent for him as his steward is obedience to the law of consecration. Thus, in one form or another, the principle of tithing will be a standing law to the Church forever.
5 Verily I say unto you, it shall come to pass that all those who gather unto the land of Zion shall be tithed of their surplus properties, and shall observe this law, or they shall not be found worthy to abide among you.
verse 5 “shall be tithed of their surplus properties” At this time in the church’s history, the first step in living the law of tithing was to consecrate or give one’s surplus properties to the bishop of the Church. At that time, merely paying tithing without first consecrating one’s surplus would have been unsatisfactory to the Lord. Ananias and Sapphira leaned in Acts 5:1-11 that one cannot enter into the covenant of consecration for building Zion while holding back from the Lord an individual surplus, a private safety net, or a contingency fund just in case Zion fails.
6 And I say unto you, 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 my judgments may be kept thereon, that it may be most holy, behold, verily I say unto you, it shall not be a land of Zion unto you.
verse 6 “if my people observe not this law” The Church collectively did not observe the law of consecration of surplus and payment of tithing sufficiently well to establish a physical Zion. Four months after this revelation was received, most Latter-day Saints were driven from the Sate of Missouri, beginning with the Extermination Order of Governor Lilburn Boggs. While the method of their expulsion from the sate was through the wickedness of the mobs and the misuse of government, the reason for their expulsion was their failure to sanctify the land by keeping the Lord’s statutes and judgments and thus making it truly a land of Zion.
“sanctify the land of Zion unto me” We have discussed the concept of sanctification previously. It is often associated with justification. While justification means forgiving or removing the penalties of sin, sanctification means purging of worldly or “natural” elements and rendering more heavenly—more like God. Apparently both individuals and land can become sanctified. For further discussion of the concept of sanctification, see Ye Shall Know of the Doctrine, volume 1, chapter 17, Justification and Sanctification.
This rather enigmatic phrase seems to mean that if the saints will pay their tithing, their land will be sanctified by the Lord’s blessings and serve the saints as a true land of Zion. But what does this imply? What does it mean for a land to be sanctified? What benefits and blessings are afforded the saints when they reside on a sanctified land of Zion?
Elder James E. Talmage taught that the physical land itself may become sanctified and more productive: “Do you know that the soil can be sanctified by the tithing of its products? The land can be sanctified [Malachi 3:10]. There is a relationship between the elements and forces of nature and the actions of men (CR, October 1929, 68).
President David O. McKay taught that the Lord affords blessings of protection when the saints pay their tithing: “If all would thus lose themselves unselfishly in the law of tithing, there would be sufficient in the Lord’s storehouse to insure the comfort and education of every person in need in the Church. The Church would thus become the best, the safest insurance society in the world. The time will come when tithing as a sufficient means of protection will be even more fully understood than it is today” (Treasures of Life, 285).
Elder Melvin J. Ballard taught that the law of tithing is a “law of inheritance” and that by paying their tithing the saints become entitled to live on the celestial globe—the most perfectly sanctified land of Zion. He said: “Do we not hope and expect to have an inheritance in the celestial kingdom, even upon this earth in its redeemed and sanctified state [see D&C 88:25-26; 130:9]? What are the terms under which we may obtain that inheritance? The law of tithing is the law of inheritance. It leads to it. No man may hope or expect to have an inheritance on this celestial globe who has failed to pay his tithing. By the payment of his honest tithing he is establishing a right and a title to this inheritance, and he cannot secure it upon any other terms but by complying with this and other just requirements; and this is one of the very essential things (CR, October 1929, 50-51).
A land that provides sufficient resources, safety, and security for all of the Lord’s people is a land sanctified unto the Lord, a true land of Zion.
7 And this shall be an ensample unto all the stakes of Zion. Even so. Amen.
verse 7 At the time this revelation was received, there was only a stake at Far West and one at Adam-ondi-Ahman, which had just been organized on June 28, 1838. The principle of tithing was to be applied to all future members as a means for establishing and sanctifying all future stakes of Zion.
Prior to section 120’s being received, several different bodies had the responsibility of managing the various incomes from stewardships and consecration in the Church. With the revelation on tithing contained in section 119, it became necessary for the Lord to specify how the funds collected by tithing the saints would be handled. The Prophet Joseph recorded in his Scriptory Book, “Revelation given the same day July 8th 1838, making known the disposition of the properties tithed, as named in the preceding revelation” (Jessee, Papers of Joseph Smith, 2:259).
Printed versions of the Doctrine and Covenants between 1853 and 1978 gave the incorrect date of July 18, 1838, for section 120, an error that has been corrected in the 1979 edition of the Doctrine and Covenants and in subsequent printings.
1 Verily, thus saith the Lord, the time is now come, that it shall be disposed of by a council, composed of the First Presidency of my Church, and of the bishop and his council, and by my high council; and by mine own voice unto them, saith the Lord. Even so. Amen.
verse 1 “it shall be disposed of by a council” Section 120 creates the body in the Church known as the Council on the Disposition of Tithes. This council consists of the First Presidency of the Church, the Presiding Bishopric of the Church (“the bishop and his council”), and the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles (“my high council”). Any expenditure of the sacred tithing funds of the Church must be approved by this council.
This council met for the first time on July 26, 1838. It was decided at that time that the First Presidency would use whatever funds they felt necessary for governing the Church and accomplishing the Church’s mission upon the earth and that the remainder would then be turned over to the Presiding Bishopric (HC, 3:47).
In April 1911 the First Presidency of the Church, during the presidency of Joseph F. Smith, stated: “The funds thus received are not the property of the President of the Church or his associates, nor of the presiding bishopric, nor of the local bishops. They belong to the Church and are used for Church purposes (Clark, Messages of the First Presidency, 4:229).
Brief Historical Setting
During the next three months, the spirit of peace and optimism, which had developed among the saints in Far West, was shattered. On October 27, 1838, the Missouri Governor Lilburn W. Boggs issued an order to his state militia to kill or drive out of the state by force every Mormon! Why?! What happened? How could conditions change so drastically—from peace in July of 1838 to an “extermination order” in October? Let us proceed on to section 121 to learn the reasons.
- Michael J. Preece