Section 83: Widows and Orphans
See the introductory commentary for section 82. Joseph Smith and his companions traveled from Ohio to Independence, Missouri, in April 1832, to conduct church business and “sit in council with the saints,” according to the commandment they had received in D&C 78:9. Joseph and Sidney left Hiram, Ohio, on April 1, 1832, for Missouri in company with Newell K. Whitney and Jesse Gause. They arrived in Independence on April 24. On April 26 a general council was held during which the Prophet was sustained by the saints in Missouri as President of the High Priesthood. He had previously been sustained and ordained to that position at a conference of the elders of the Church in Amherst, Ohio, on January 25, 1832 (see D&C 75). Since the two centers of the Church were Kirtland and Independence, it was necessary that this action be repeated in Independence. Also, after reconciling some hard feelings between the Missouri and Ohio brethren, Joseph received section 82. The conference continued on April 27, and Joseph noted that the saints in Missouri “were settling among a ferocious set of mobbers, like lambs among wolves” (HC, 1:269). On April 28 and 29 he visited the saints who lived above the Big Blue River in Kaw Township, a few miles west of Independence. These were primarily the saints from Colesville, New York. They welcomed him with rejoicing. Joseph returned to Independence the following day for meetings of the Literary Firm and the United Firm. It was agreed at this meeting to print only three thousand copies of the Book of Commandments rather than the ten thousand originally planned. A subsequent meeting of the United Firm appointed Sidney Gilbert and Newel K. Whitney as agents for the two branches of the Firm in Missouri and Ohio, respectively. It was also agreed that the United Firm should take out a loan for fifteen thousand dollars, probably for startup costs for the bishops’ storehouses.
Sometime on April 30, 1832, Joseph received section 83. He recorded the event as follows: “On the 30th, I returned to Independence, and again sat in council with the brethren, and received the following: [D&C 83]” (Ibid.). Joseph Smith and his companions remained in Missouri for two weeks,
What happens if a husband in Zion, who is living the law of consecration, is killed? Is the Church beholden to care for his widow and her children? Does the man’s stewardship pass on to his wife and children? What happens if both parents are killed? Do the children have the right to expect that the Church will care for them?
In section 83 the Lord revealed through Joseph that under the law of consecration, the Church does have the obligation to care for widows and orphans, assuming of course there is a need.
What about today? Is the situation different? It would seem that today the primary responsibility lies with the extended family. If family are unable or unavailable to assist, then the Church will step in.
1 Verily, thus saith the Lord, in addition to the laws of the church concerning women and children, those who belong to the church, who have lost their husbands or fathers:
verse 1 “in addition to the laws of the church” This revelation is an addendum to the law of the Church on matters found in D&C 42:30-34, which discussed the rights and obligations of stewards but did not address the rights of dependents, particularly if the steward died.
2 Women have claim on their husbands for their maintenance, until their husbands are taken; and if they are not found transgressors they shall have fellowship in the church.
verse 2 “Women have claim on their husbands” The primary responsibility for the support of married women in the Church lies not with the Church but with their husbands. In the context of the law of consecration, faithful wives have the right to claim support from their husbands as part of their covenant relationship. This was a very liberal idea in frontier America in the nineteenth century. President Ezra Taft Benson declared: “This is the divine right of a wife and mother. She cares for and nourishes her children at home. Her husband earns the living for the family, which makes this nourishing possible. With that claim on their husbands for their financial support, the counsel of the Church has always been for mothers to spend their full time in the home in rearing and caring for their children” (Teachings of Ezra Taft Benson, 547).
Certainly there are exceptions to this policy in practice. Not every female church member has a husband. Not every married sister has a worthy husband. Some sisters have husbands who are disabled or otherwise unable to work. Financial realities may be different from the ideal, and in such cases adjustments can be made. Nonetheless, the general policy remains, and it applies to the vast majority of cases: the husband bears primary responsibility for the support of his wife and family as long as he lives (see 1 Timothy 5:8).
3 And if they are not faithful they shall not have fellowship in the church; yet they may remain upon their inheritances according to the laws of the land.
verse 3 “And if they are not faithful” Some might claim that an unfaithful or unrighteous widow has no right to the Lord’s resources entrusted to her faithful husband, but the Church is not to turn an unfaithful widow out of her home. Such a widow might be refused fellowship according to the same law of the Church that applies to all members, but faithful or unfaithful, a widow is to retain possession of her husband’s legally deeded stewardship.
“according to the laws of the land” Most states and countries have laws governing inheritance and the rights of surviving dependents. In all cases, the policy and practice of the Church is in harmony with civil statutes.
4 All children have claim upon their parents for their maintenance until they are of age.
verse 4 “All children have claim upon their parents” The primary responsibility for the support of dependent children lies with the parents. In the rearing and support of children, the wife shares responsibility with her husband. Just as the wife has claim upon her husband for her maintenance (see verse 2), so also children have claim upon their parents until they are of age.
5 And after that, they have claim upon the church, or in other words upon the Lord’s storehouse, if their parents have not wherewith to give them inheritances.
verse 5 “after that” After children come of age.
“they have claim upon the church” The context of this revelation is families living under the law of consecration. When children of such families are of an age to support themselves and start families of their own, they may receive a portion of their parents’ stewardship to start out but only if the parents’ resources are great enough to be divided. If the stewardship of the parents cannot sustain such division the Church is to provide stewardships, or inheritances, for the new family out of the resources of the bishop’s storehouse.
6 And the storehouse shall be kept by the consecrations of the church; and widows and orphans shall be provided for, as also the poor. Amen.
verse 6 “the storehouse shall be kept by the consecrations of the church” The resources from which the bishop’s storehouse will operate will come from the United Firm and from the surpluses of all the other stewards in the Church who are also living under the law of consecration.
“widows and orphans shall be provided for” All faithful widows, orphans, and poor persons in the Church without other means of support have a claim upon the bishop’s storehouse, and even unfaithful widows retain possession of their deceased husband’s stewardships (verse 3). The poor who are unfaithful to their covenants have no claim upon the resources of the Church, beyond the simple necessity of saving their lives, if it comes to that (see Mosiah 4:16). The Church has no obligation for continuing, daily support of those who do not keep the faith.
According to President Joseph F. Smith: “It is intended that the widows shall be looked after when they are in need, and that the fatherless and the orphans shall be provided for from the funds of the Church; that they shall be clothed and fed, and shall have opportunity for education, the same as other children who have parents to look after them. When a child is fatherless and motherless, the Church becomes the parent of that child, and it is obligatory upon the Church to take care of it, and to see that it has opportunities equal with the other children in the Church.
This is a great responsibility. Have we ever seen the day since the Church was organized when we could carry out this purpose of the Lord fully, and to our heart’s content? We have not, because we never have had the means to do it with. But if men will obey the law of God so that there shall be abundance in the storehouse of the Lord, we will have wherewith to feed and clothe the poor and the orphan and to look after those who are in need in the Church” (CR, October 1899, 39-40).
The Church today maintains active social service programs for the purpose of assisting members who are in need. This includes such things as adoption services and counseling services. One cannot help but wonder whether such programs are but vestiges of the law of consecration and stewardship.
- Michael J. Preece