Understanding “Interest” in Joseph Smith’s Original Tithing Revelation

By February 2, 2016

We’re pleased to present this guest post from Sam Brunson, Associate Professor of Law at Loyola University Chicago, regular blogger at By Common Consent, and tax and business law geek extraordinaire. 

Screen Shot 2016-02-01 at 11.31.42 PMBoth in and out of the church, people are fascinated by tithing. On the one hand, according to Pres. Kimball, “it’s not difficult to be perfect in tithe paying, for if one pays one-tenth of his income annually, he is perfect in that respect.” On the other hand, while one-tenth is precise and easy to calculate, the church never defines what “income” means, leading to internal debates over, among other things whether we should pay on our gross or net income and whether we tithe on barter or gifts we receive.

A lot of the uncertainty arises because the LDS scriptural basis of tithing isn’t specific about what underlies tithing. According to the revelation to Joseph Smith that has been canonized in D&C 119, the first step in tithing was for Saints to put their “surplus property . . . into the hands of the bishop.” After their initial tithe, D&C 119:4 provided 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.”

The basis of tithing, then, is “interest.” But logic dictates that “interest” can’t mean what I understand it to mean. Interest is money earned as a result of lending; it’s what I get on my savings account and retirees earn on their bond portfolio. And if that’s all we owe tithes on, then we don’t actually owe tithes, because we can entirely avoid interest by investing, instead, in equity, and keeping our money in non-interest-bearing accounts.

And, in fairness, nobody credible claims that titheable interest means financial interest. The Encyclopedia of Mormonism’s entry on tithing treats “interest” as synonymous with “increase”[1] (though that’s also not entirely helpful in figuring out what constitutes interest), while Pres. Kimball equated interest with income.[2]

It turns out, though, that, as a historical matter, we’ve all been wrong. The original understanding of “interest” had nothing to do with income or increase; rather, the tithing originally envisioned in D&C 119 was based on property.[3]

A couple weeks ago, the church posted an essay on the history of tithing by Steven C. Harper in its “Revelations in Context” series. Harper’s essay traces the beginnings of Mormon tithing, and is well worth your time to read. As it traces the history of tithing, it refers to an 1838 letter from Bishop Partridge (who was present when Joseph Smith received the revelation that became D&C 119) to Bishop Whitney in Ohio.

In the letter, Bishop Partridge writes, “If a man is worth a $1000, the interest on that would be $60, and one/10. of the interest will be of course $6.— thus you see the plan.”

In Bishop Partridge’s original understanding—perhaps the closest we can come to the section’s original intent—interest was neither income nor increase; it was, instead, a type of imputed income.

I spend a little time on imputed income when I teach Federal Income Tax, and it’s not an intuitive concept. The idea underlying it is this: when you own property, you get an economic benefit from owning that property. I generally use a house as an example. If I have $100,000 and need a place to live, I have two broad choices. I can buy a house with it and live in that house, or I can invest that money, earn a 10% return, and pay $10,000 a year in rent. I’m roughly indifferent between the two.[4]

According to Bishop Partridge, it’s that imputed income (that is, the income we could earn by investing our property) that we owe tithing on; tithing has nothing to do with how much we actually earn (either from labor or from capital).

Another way to visualize what Bishop Partridge is saying, one that doesn’t require wrapping our heads around the concept of imputed income: tithing is a religious property tax, rather than a religious income tax. All you have to do is figure out what the appropriate investment return is. Bishop Partridge used 6 percent, which was apparently a common interest rate in the 19th century. At 6 percent, the amount one pays in tithing annually is 0.6 percent of the value of her assets (that is, 10 percent of 6 percent).

Note that Bishop Partridge’s formulation significantly complicates the calculation of tithing. Under our current incarnation of tithing, the only significant variable is what we pay tithing on (gross or net income, gifts, etc.). Under Bishop Partridge’s formulation, there are two variables: the appropriate rate of return and the value of a person’s assets.

Though the Saints’ original understanding of tithing need not (and, in fact, does not) control how tithing functions today, it is fascinating to see the radically different understanding our religious forebears had of tithing.[5]

_____________

[1] “By revelation to the Prophet Joseph Smith, the Lord stated that members should pay ‘one-tenth of all their interest [increase] annually; and this shall be a standing law unto them forever.’”

[2] “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 all their interest annually’ which is understood to mean income.”

[3] It’s important to point out that this historical understanding, while fascinating, doesn’t impact Mormons’ current tithing obligations. It does, however, undercut essentially all current arguments about whether some type of income fits within the definition of “interest.”

[4] That’s actually not true—because imputed income isn’t taxed while investment income is taxed, I prefer to live in a home that I own. I’m only indifferent on a pre-tax basis.

[5] It’s also fascinating to see it hewed closer to Islamic zakat (which is also based on net assets) than to Christian versions of tithing on income.

Article filed under Categories of Periodization: Origins Current Events Theology


Comments

  1. Since the IRS sets an imputed interest rate for below market-rate loans–the “applicable federal rate”–I don’t see any reason why the Presiding Bishop’s Office couldn’t do the same–every year in November, say, establish the “applicable tithing rate” for the year, just in time for tithing settlement.

    And property valuations? Isn’t that what Zillow was invented for? The bishop could pull up Zillow, check the value of your real property, apply the “applicable tithing rate” for the year, and calculate your tithing for you!

    Comment by Mark B. — February 2, 2016 @ 6:42 am

  2. This is fascinating.

    A couple of obseevarions.

    First of all, this method makes sense given that almost no one had an “income” as we think of it today. Farmers did not earn a “salary” and land was the main source of wealth. That would not make sense as a standard today.

    Second, are we sure that this is how the Prophet understood tithing/increase? Bishop Partridge may or may not have been working from specific instructions. Or he may have been just doing his best to interpret “interest.”

    Comment by Daniel Ortner — February 2, 2016 @ 7:00 am

  3. Fascinating, Sam.

    It wasn’t until I took property during my first year of law school that I began to see “interest” as maybe referring to a property interest rather than to income as we usually read it. The reality–not a tithe on income or on property, but really a tithe on the assumed income value of property–is even more interesting.

    Comment by JKC — February 2, 2016 @ 7:09 am

  4. Thanks all.

    Mark, like you point out, problems of appropriate rate of return and valuation aren’t insuperable. But they’re still kind of a pain. Sure, Zillow will tell me what my house is worth, but it’s got a $100,000 range on that. And that doesn’t help me value my furniture, my car, and all the other stuff I have. I may have to decide gross vs. net vs. different net, but it’s really easy to calculate 10 percent of some number on my pay stub.

    Daniel, to the best of my knowledge, we don’t have any statement from JS on what “interest” meant. But Bishop Partridge was with Joseph when he received the revelation, according to Dr. Harper, and was tasked with receiving tithes, so his understanding probably takes us as close to the original understanding of “interest” as we can get. (Of course, the JI folks have more training in historiography than I do, so if I’m wrong about that, they can totally leap in to correct me.)

    Comment by Sam Brunson — February 2, 2016 @ 7:58 am

  5. This is fascinating. I’ve never understood what “interest” was supposed to mean in the historical tithing context, and this reconstruction actually makes sense. Thank you!

    That we can reconstruct now what it was suppposed to mean doesn’t mean it was an elegant arrangement. Aside from the problems of calculation described above, an imputed interest concept is problematic *because* is it imputed and not actual. If I have assets of $100,000 but I don’t actually put them to financial work, where am I supposed to get the money to pay the tithe? Let’s say my main asset is my house, which I live in. As Sam says there is an imputed value to my living in my house, which is true, but since I don’t put it out to rent I don’t gain any actual income from the house. So how am I going to pay the $600 tithing I owe in that scenario? If I have other income I could pay it out of that, or if not I could liquidate the house and pay it out of the proceeds. Not very practicable. I think we can see why the concept of tithing didn’t really take off until we equated interest with income, and then it became a much easier concept in practice.

    Comment by Kevin Barney — February 2, 2016 @ 8:25 am

  6. Ah, historians, lawyers, and law professors talking about tithing. Good stuff. Thanks, Sam.

    Question here. Under any of the early tithing systems, would the Church in Kirtland or Nauvoo have accepted tithing from an almost-destitute widow? How about the Church in early Utah Territory? (Say the winter of 1850.) Would Brigham Young have accepted a family’s means of survival and almost entire net worth (about $800 in property that was not easily sold) with no hope of ongoing aid from the Church, and just because a widow strongly believed in the law of tithing?

    I ask because I’ve found a family history written many years after the fact that claims just that, and I have not been able to fit the narrative into Arrington’s framework of property, labor, produce and stock, cash, or institutional tithing.

    Does anyone know how the Church in the early years understood a destitute widow’s duty to tithe?

    Comment by Amy T — February 2, 2016 @ 8:31 am

  7. BTW, for most people this understanding is only of academic interest. For me it’s much more personal than that. Confusion over what “intereest” was supposed to mean in Section 119 resulted in my parents not being able to attend my wedding.

    At the time (summer of 1980), my father was feuding with the bishop over this. He believed “interest” should be read literally as interest earned on capital. The bishop took the position that interest = income, and acccordingly refused to give my parents temple recommends, and since I got married in the temple that meanst they were not able to be present for my wedding. . Now my father was a college professor and so by no means rich, but he was also very careful with his money and invested a lot of it, mostly in CDs. So an irony is that he actually was one of the highest tithe payers in the ward, even though he only tithed his interest earnings and not his salary.

    So as it turns out, everyone was wrontg, all the way around. Both my father and the bishop were wrong about what interest meant in D&C 119, although they had no way to know that at the time. My father was wrong to be so literalist about the contempoarary meaning of interest in Church practice, since in contemporary policy interest = income, just as the bishop maintained. But the bishop was wrong for micromanaging the way my father paid tithing, especially since in fact he paid more than almost anyone else in the ward. If my dad said he was a full tithe payer, which he fervently believed ihe was, it is also the policy of the church that the bishop should simply accept that and not try to micromanage the calculation.

    All I know is that my parents didn’t get to see me get married, and shortly thereafter, the night before my wedding reception, my father died of a heart attack.

    So yeah, for me this isn’t antiseptic history. It’s personal. And having an accurate historical understanding of what “interest” meant in D&C 119 is actually important.

    Comment by Kevin Barney — February 2, 2016 @ 8:41 am

  8. Wow. Thanks, Kevin; for me, this is mostly an intellectual exercise, and it can never be as heart-breakingly personal as it is for you.

    To me, though, this (plus D&C 89 and D&C 132) underline an important disconnect in Mormonism: how do we see scripture relating to contemporary policy? The lived Word of Wisdom bears only a passing resemblance to D&C 89, the lived “new and everlasting covenant” has dropped D&C 132’s central polygamy, and it turns out that contemporary tithing’s sole relationship to D&C 119 is the 10-percent thing. (Even if you don’t buy Bishop Partridge’s interpretation as accurate, we totally ignore the first step of D&C 119, which is to tithe all of our surplus in an initial year to the bishop.)

    And there’s no reason that contemporary implementation shouldn’t differ from the literal language, but when we ignore or elide that disconnect, we potentially lead members into rough interpretive spots, like the one your parents and their bishop found themselves in. And I think we could do better at exploring and explaining the Mormon hermeneutic applicable to the D&C (or maybe applicable to scriptures in general).

    Comment by Sam Brunson — February 2, 2016 @ 8:59 am

  9. Thanks for this historical perspective. The question I have is whether assets was the right measure or net worth. I can imagine folks who may have lots of assets but who have negative net worth.

    Comment by Greg McCall — February 2, 2016 @ 9:14 am

  10. Tragic Kevin.

    Sam (8:59 am), that is such an important point. This is true about many other things too, not just D&C 89, 119, and 132.

    Comment by john f. — February 2, 2016 @ 9:31 am

  11. Great stuff.

    Interesting that this would take many of the poor out of tithing altogether.

    The difference between me paying tithing at 10% of my wage income and 10% of my “interest” as explained here, is £1000s p.a. Needless to say, I prefer the Partridge way!

    Comment by Ronan — February 2, 2016 @ 9:58 am

  12. And then there’s the whole issue of “income” not necessarily meaning “revenue” or “wages” or “dividends”. There’s the accounting “income”, from which we derive income tax, income statements (P&L), which contemplate a net between revenue and expenses. This view of income seems to me more closely aligned with JS’s use, especially when factoring in complementary language, as well as his correction in the JST of the OT Melchizedek paying tithes on the portion greater than his needs.

    Comment by HDP — February 2, 2016 @ 10:00 am

  13. Sam (OP and especially 8:59am), my all-too-casual history sense is that modern Mormon tithing is essentially a re-creation or restatement by President Lorenzo Snow around the turn of the century (commonly attributed to a “revelation” declared in a meeting in St. George, Utah, on May 18, 1899), and that circumstances at the time, including the Church’s financial difficulties, make it reasonably clear that ‘tithing’ was primarily about raising funds, not first about doctrinal principles or scriptural interpretation.

    I’d like to see you move forward in time, suggesting that a full explanation of ‘tithing’ as understood in the Mormon Church in the 20th and 21st centuries should include this restatement.

    Comment by christiankimball — February 2, 2016 @ 10:03 am

  14. It looks like this Partridge understanding only applies to tithing in a consecration scenario. Those of us who have not deeded everything we own to the Church don’t get to the 10% tithing on interest step of the Partridge approach.

    The 10% on income makes more sense for those who haven’t first consecrated everything and it is easier. But, of course, HDP makes an excellent point that “net income” makes much more sense from many practical perspectives. Also, interpreting income as net income reduces the disproportionally high burden tithing puts on the poor who are wage earners than on the rich who earn interest income.

    Comment by john f. — February 2, 2016 @ 10:08 am

  15. John,

    I think I must be missing something. Partridge says “If a man is worth a $1000…” but if I have deeded my assets to the church, am I not worth $0?

    But that still isn’t right. Isn’t the revelation about deeding not “everything we own” but our “surplus property”? As I have no surplus property worth much, then the Partridge explanation still applies, does it not? Tithing = 10% of the (imported) interest on my own assets.

    In this view of tithing, the poor pay nothing and the asset-rich pay a lot. Sounds more Zion-like to me.

    Comment by Ronan — February 2, 2016 @ 10:19 am

  16. I would be interested in learning more about the history of tithing in the LDS church. That is to say, when and why did the practice change from Partridge’s interpretation to our current system?
    Also (too lazy to look it up), how does this jive with biblical tithing? Is Patridge’s or the current model or neither closer to the biblical model?
    Lastly, on a personal note, you have me wondering if someone who takes out thousands of dollars in student loans a year (and accrues horrific interest on them) should be paying any tithing at all since income never outstrips loans taken. My current model is to pay 10% on my employment but I have never thought about the fact that since by the end of the year I am still vastly negative in net worth whether I should pay any tithing at all.

    Comment by Alan Farnes — February 2, 2016 @ 10:23 am

  17. This is absolutely fascinating, Sam.

    While this has no bearing on the modern LDS practice of tithing, I hope knowledge of this type of scholarship makes people in the LDS tradition recognize that, practically speaking, we place more authority on ecclesiastical governance than original scriptural intent. I.E., we are not scriptural literalists/fundamentalists/originalists.

    John F (10:08am): I don’t think that’s right. This revelation was put in place *after* consecration was removed, and was actually meant to introduce the new “consecrating” practice (i.e., tithing).

    Comment by Ben P — February 2, 2016 @ 10:30 am

  18. if I have deeded my assets to the church, am I not worth $0?

    I don’t think so, Ronan, under the system of consecration laid out in D&C 42. I don’t have Joseph Spencer’s A Mormon Theology of Hope immediately to hand at the moment, but it has a very helpful treatment of the system as originally revealed/envisioned. But going from memory, you deed everything then the bishop grants you a portion back according to his judgment of what you need. It becomes something of a life estate to you as the former owner over which you have “stewardship” — I would imagine that your property value is based on what that portion is worth. Under the Partridge approach, D&C 119 then provides you pay 10% of your interest on that property/life estate.

    Don’t get me wrong — I am not saying that it is not possible for those calling the shots to reinstate the Partridge understanding of D&C 119 to apply today even in the absence of having first deeded everything. I think Mark B. made a sensible suggestion of managing the valuations that would need to be done. But Kevin raised the biggest drawback of this approach. I guess you are assuming that under that system, you would pay the tithing on the “interest” so understood out of your wage income from your day job. I think that’s the only way it would work because you aren’t deriving income from the home you live in.

    It puts a new spin on the age-old financial wisdom to never live in your money (i.e. be a landlord).

    Comment by john f. — February 2, 2016 @ 10:35 am

  19. Ah, that’s right Ben P. Because of some of the protracted legal issues that arose from the concept of Church members deeding all of their property to the Church in order to receive a life estate stewardship in return, that was changed so that members deed all of their surplus to the Church as the first step and then take the Partridge approach to tithing on their remaining property interest thereafter.

    But we are still missing that first step as the doorway to the Partridge approach, aren’t we? Take Mitt Romney for an example. Someone (his bishop?) would have to make a decision about what he actually needs to live. Maybe $65,000/year? Then Romney has to donate all of his surplus above that to the Church — so a few hundred million, right? After that, he tithes based on his property interest. Or am I missing something, Sam?

    Comment by john f. — February 2, 2016 @ 10:41 am

  20. (There’s a lot we can complain about based on the current application of tithing based on income as a substitute for the Partridge understanding of interest, but I wonder if it isn’t a lot better in some ways than the alternative. It’s a pain to get lectured that tithing must be on gross income even though that blatantly burdens the poor far more severely than the rich — such inequity should not exist in Zion. But the annoyance of that is probably easier to bear than an officious bishop sitting you down and telling you what he thinks you need to live and admonishing you to donate everything in surplus of that to the Church. And yet, Zion won’t really exist until we are so humble and unchained from our material possessions that such a meeting with the bishop honestly wouldn’t be a problem for us, will it?)

    Comment by john f. — February 2, 2016 @ 10:48 am

  21. John,
    That’s what I mean. The D&C 119 approach is different (better?) than D&C 42 in that it lays a more specific burden on the asset rich.

    As for Romney, we have obviously ditched consecration but we could still retain the Partridge approach on “interest.” Simply ask him to pay 10% on the imputed interest that his assets would generate. That way, Romney gets to keep all his property *and* pays a nice wedge of money as tithing.

    The only trouble is, the stories in the Ensign about poor people paying tithing instead of their heating bills would come to an end.

    Comment by Ronan — February 2, 2016 @ 10:50 am

  22. I agree with all that Ronan except I just think you’re not seeing something. *You* and not just Romney would have to first donate all of your surplus to the Church. And I am guessing, given what we know about Mormonism based on its track record up until now, that General Authorities would not really be very interested in “trusting” you to make that decision for yourself. Instead, you’d be sitting across the desk from a well-meaning but still very flawed bishop to hear from him what you need to live and that you need to donate the rest as the one-time, up-front surplus payment to get the system started. After that, no problem, you’ll just pay based on the property interest you’ve retained, as understood by Bishop Partridge. It seems to me that after that first step, your tithing bill won’t be much different than Mitt Romney’s, right? Unless we then face the inequity that Romney’s bishop made a different decision of what he needs to live than your bishop made for you.

    Comment by john f. — February 2, 2016 @ 10:55 am

  23. Ah, step away to teach a class and a great discussion ensues.

    I want to second Ben’s point: the main takeaway here isn’t that we’re doing it wrong, it’s that we’re not literalists; rather, Mormonism has a complex relationship between scripture and practice, one where there’s a causal relationship, but it’s not a one-to-one identity.

    Going back to Greg’s question about assets vs. net worth: Bishop Partridge doesn’t say in his letter. He speaks of an individual’s “worth.” That may mean net worth (that is, assets less liabilities), but there’s no reason in needs to. If I borrow money and use that money to buy stock, I get a return from that stock, notwithstanding the fact that I have to pay back the money I borrowed. In fact, it’s through leverage (that is, borrowing) that investment funds are able to juice their returns. I benefit from the property that I purchased using debt (that is, I may owe money on my home, but I still get shelter from it, and I could still theoretically rent it out and get income from it), so it’s not clear to me that net worth would have been the appropriate measure.

    Comment by Sam Brunson — February 2, 2016 @ 10:56 am

  24. (It’s that first step that’s going to be the killer for Mitt Romney rather than for you. After that, unless bishops allow gross inequities to exist, it seems to me most people would have a pretty equal tithing bill — the property interest on what they’ve retained to live after that upfront surplus payment. So you are right that the asset rich will pay dearly compared to the poor — but it seems to me that it would be at that first step.)

    Comment by john f. — February 2, 2016 @ 10:59 am

  25. If I understand it correctly, the fundamentalist Mormon churches go all the way back to the original full consecration model, which is why you have things like the FLDS United Effort Trust. And which is one reason it’s so hard to leave fundamentalism, as you don’t actually own anything and you don’t build up equity in your house.

    Comment by Kevin Barney — February 2, 2016 @ 11:00 am

  26. I do see that, John, although I’m not sure I have very much in the way of useful “surplus” to the church. A few more shirts than I need? A second TV?

    Anyway, why not just leave “surplus consecration” in 1838 but retain “imputed interest tithing”?

    Comment by Ronan — February 2, 2016 @ 11:02 am

  27. Right, Ronan. I did acknowledge that approach in my comment at 10:35 am, second paragraph. That would definitely be the most practical way to return to the Partridge approach. Just eliminate that first step of donating surplus.

    The D&C 119/Partridge approach offers a glimmer of Zion, though, precisely in that first step. Because after the first step, everyone would be more or less equal. I don’t see how it could be any other way.

    Comment by john f. — February 2, 2016 @ 11:07 am

  28. You are right, of course, Sam. If Mormons believe that the current de facto practice of tithing on one’s income is the will of God, then that’s that, D&C 119 notwithstanding.

    So the question becomes, why does God require a tithe today that hits the poor much more than the rich?

    Comment by Ronan — February 2, 2016 @ 11:07 am

  29. One problem with the first step of donating all your surplus is the Mitt Tomney problem. Now, he may be willing to do it, but for most multi-millionaires, much less billionnaires, there’s no way in hell they’re going to do that, and they’ll just leave the church first. And if you can’t keep your high asset people in the system, the needs of the low asset people are going to become an increasing drain on the limited surplus consecrations.

    So the system assumes a Zion society, which probably doesn’t actually exist among our people.

    Comment by Kevin Barney — February 2, 2016 @ 11:08 am

  30. why does God require a tithe today that hits the poor much more than the rich?

    It forces one to wonder whether Church leaders throughout the twentieth century, particularly those who insist that income as a substitute for interest means gross income rather than net income, simply can’t see the point you are making — that this system of tithing by far burdens the poor more than the rich. Why would that be — why can’t they see this? Allegiance to a particular political preference relating to taxation? But tithing should not be equated with taxation, at least I would think.

    Many would argue that it’s 10% in the Bible so that’s good enough for us now and we shouldn’t question it. But no one in the Bible was paying 10% of gross income as a tithe. The poor paid nothing at all under that system, regardless of what income they might have received at a particular time. The system was totally different, so it’s no use to use that as support for insisting on expecting a 10% of gross income tithe for all including the poor in the modern economy. If they want to say that tithing must be 10% of gross income, it’s best for them to ground that in fresh revelation and not try to argue for it based on biblical precedent, which doesn’t exist for such a notion.

    Comment by john f. — February 2, 2016 @ 11:16 am

  31. Great stuff Sam. I had the same question and approach as John F. because it seems to me that Partridge is using the term “interest” in the way john f. suggests. Partridge was the one charged with receiving and redistributing the property and interest that had been donated. I do not the math as pointed out above because I do not see how he derives $60 as interest on $1,000. The 10% relation between $60 and $60 is clear. Is the $60 just some assumed figure X so that he can discuss 10% of the interest?

    Comment by Blake Ostler — February 2, 2016 @ 11:23 am

  32. Blake, Partridge seems to have been assuming a 6% return on capital (apparently a fairly common figure used in the 19th century). So if your capital assets amount to $1,000, an imputed 6% return on that amount would be $60, and 10% of that would be $6.

    Comment by Kevin Barney — February 2, 2016 @ 11:28 am

  33. Partridge appears to be assuming a 6% rate of return on the value of the property if it were liquid and invested.

    Comment by john f. — February 2, 2016 @ 11:28 am

  34. Blake, at footnote 17 of the Harper piece I link to in the OP, Harper says that 6 percent was a common interest rate at the time, used in all kinds of sources, and, in fact, was the statutory default rate in at least a couple states. If that were widely known, then it would make sense that Partridge would kind of elide that step, assuming Bishop Whitney would know where the 6 percent came from.

    Comment by Sam Brunson — February 2, 2016 @ 11:30 am

  35. That was interesting.

    My parents were unable to get leave from Saudi Arabia so they missed my wedding, but my father lived for a long time afterwards. I’m so sorry about how your issues went Kevin.

    So I am better off living in Texas (low property values) than California.

    Comment by Stephen R Marsh (Ethesis) — February 2, 2016 @ 11:31 am

  36. Kevin’s question, “If I have assets of $100,000 but I don’t actually put them to financial work, where am I supposed to get the money to pay the tithe?” reminds me of the parable of the talents. It seems the saints are expected to put their assets to work.

    Comment by Andrew Jorgensen — February 2, 2016 @ 12:38 pm

  37. According to some back of the envelope sums, the difference in the tithing demand for the average low income family in the UK — with the average net worth and with no surplus property to speak of — is about £2000. That is a huge amount. If we are going to move away from D&C 119 (which was supposed to be a “standing law unto them forever”) I want to know why the new system gets the rich off the hook and clobbers the poor.

    Comment by Ronan — February 2, 2016 @ 1:07 pm

  38. If I borrow money and use that money to buy stock, I get a return from that stock, notwithstanding the fact that I have to pay back the money I borrowed.

    It seems to me that in such a case, one would calculate “tithable interest” in a manner similar to taxable income–6 percent of the value of your stock (the equivalent of dividends and capital gains earned) less 6% of your debt (the equivalent of a deduction for interest paid).

    As for the progressivity argument, I’ve seen evidence that the brethren (or at least Dallin Oaks) place some value on progressivity, specifically when arguing against state lotteries. Rather than try to introduce progressivity into tithing, however, they rely on fast offerings to accomplish it. From the Encyclopedia of Mormonism article on fast offerings:

    The counsel of Church President Spencer W. Kimball remains in effect: “I think that when we are affluent, as many of us are, that we ought to be very, very generous…. I think we should…give, instead of the amount we saved by our two meals of fasting, perhaps much, much more-ten times more where we are in a position to do it” (CR [Apr. 1974], p. 184).

    Comment by Last Lemming — February 2, 2016 @ 2:11 pm

  39. As I understand the law of tithing, it is not the bishop’s prerogative to determine how much tithing any member of his ward should pay. That is between the member and the Lord.

    In that 1970 letter from the First Presidency (the most current official pronouncement we have on the topic) we read, “We feel that every member of the Church should be entitled to make his own decision as to what he thinks he owes the Lord, and to make payment accordingly.”

    Comment by Linda — February 2, 2016 @ 2:14 pm

  40. Top shelf stuff Sam!

    Comment by WVS — February 2, 2016 @ 2:20 pm

  41. As with so many revelations in the D&C, this one is rather antiquated and no longer easily applied to modern society. Maybe the conversation ought to be about retiring some of the sections of the D&C or replacing them with new, more relevant ones. The problem there is that our prophets since Brigham Young (once) do not speak first person in the name of the Lord anymore. We get counsel in general conference, but nothing directly from the Lord in his voice. So we are left with various pieces of second-hand advice and institutional handbook policies. It would be interesting to see a prophet produce a revelation like Joseph’s on a topic like tithing, to bring the principle up to date in the twenty-first century. As the uncertainty surrounding just what on earth section 119 means aptly illustrates, such a revelation would be timely.

    Comment by Lew Scannon — February 2, 2016 @ 4:13 pm

  42. Our financial world is so different today than it was at the times of Joseph Smith or of Christ that there is almost no application of historical interpretations into the contemporary world. When we talk of “property” we are talking about rights to resources. And through the modern marvel of financial wizardry, we can divide every single possible right to every single possible resource across time and space in an infinite number of ways.

    It’s not a simple question of whether you “own” property, and “what” the property is can be completely amorphous. You may be an ultimate beneficiary of something, but you have no access to it or control over it. Your 401k? Where and what is that property? You can’t just take it out to pay tithing. Your interest in your grandparents’ FLP? Someone else decides whether you get anything or if you can get it.

    If only it were so simple as “I own my chickens, which means I can do whatever I want with them.” Maybe that works with chickens, but most of us have most of our net worth in restricted retirement account plans which own mutual funds which are made up of stocks and bonds which contain various classes of rights to the profits of a corporation controlled by a board of directors and which are shared with millions of other shareholders.

    We can work but there are various types of compensation. Entrepreneurs may work for a company they don’t own and don’t get any money until someone else decides to sell it. Vast amounts of money can be tied up in heavy machinery, land, or natural resources thousands of feet below the ground. Even when they can be valued, how can we access them to tithe them? Do we need to take out loans to pay tithing?

    We want to make tithing into one simple rule that encompasses everything, but it can’t be done. This is a case where all you can do is obey the spirit of the law, the letter of the law is basically nonexistent.

    Comment by Jason — February 2, 2016 @ 4:23 pm

  43. I find d all this talk interesting. It seems that the New Order Mormons have hijacked the thought processes here. To say that we are not literalists is to say that anything goes and scripture is not of any use in reproof or doctrine. That’s Satan’s way of letting the pride of man justify his actions and institutionalizes apostate leanings.
    This train of thought would induce the general membership into thinking that because of presentism we can support a homosexual partnership in a temple marriage.
    This is a bad slippery road. Latter day revelation is meant to be taken at face value. The D and C is the doctrine and rules for the administration of the kingdom.
    Any change to doctrine must come in the form of an official published revelation. Not just heresay or circumstantial evidence.

    Comment by MAS — February 2, 2016 @ 6:55 pm

  44. I believe the 1828 Websters Dictionary helps in this case as well, particularly (for the noun) definitions 2, 3, and 5, which, according to my reading, equates to surplus/profit or a portion of something (seems to correlate with Bishop Partridge’s understanding).

    Additional insight can be gleaned from JST Genesis 14:39, which states:

    “Wherefore, Abram paid unto him tithes of all that he had, of all the riches which he possessed, which God had given him more than that which he had need.”

    Here, Abram is using an asset-based calculation and, importantly, it is only paid on what he had beyond what he needed. I submit that, were we to follow a similar policy, the poor would no longer pay tithing.

    Comment by chatch — February 2, 2016 @ 7:05 pm

  45. WIth regards to the comments about everyone paying an equal tithe after consecrating all surplus:
    There would still be huge differences over time. That’s the big difference between the law of tithing and the United Order style of consecration. With the latter, you annually re-level the playing field. With the former, you don’t.

    For example: Mitt Romney’s first year paying tithing of 27 cents as an 8 yr old boy is simultaneously a 10% tithe on his gross income (in the modern sense of the word), his net income (as he had no expenses), and his increase. However, once he’s got that first year’s payment under his belt, he has his whole life of exploring the machinery of capitalism to grow his income and net worth, and also his tithing payments.
    If we returned to a more literal or Partidge style interpretation, it would make it hard to convert Warren Buffet, but Mitt would do just fine.

    Comment by Corey — February 3, 2016 @ 1:28 am

  46. MAS, saying that we aren’t literalists when it comes to scripture (and we clearly aren’t) is not the same as saying that anything goes; rather, it forces us to interrogate the value of scripture, and how we use it.

    It’s beyond the scope of a blog comment to really dig down into that, but it seems to me that we have to mediate between using scripture to access the will of God and reading scripture through the lens of prophetic and institutional guidance and tradition. And it’s not an easy thing to do, but as we recognize that tithing as we do it in the church today is not identical to tithing as it was revealed in Section 119 to Joseph Smith, it allows us, among other things, to not freak out when we discover that some scriptural assertion doesn’t match our current beliefs and practices. That more robust engagement with and understanding of scripture can protect us from the very slippery slope you apparently worry about.

    Comment by Sam Brunson — February 3, 2016 @ 7:52 am

  47. Regardless of whether you think Bishop Patridge made an accurate statement on D&C 119, might the words of living prophets (those that followed Joseph Smith) be the appropriate measure of what “interest” means? There are numerous quotes from prophets and apostles through the late 1800’s and into the mid – 1900’s that address tithing, and they clearly refer to “income” in most cases. Of course, the economy and methods of earning were a little simpler then. Most people earned wages or owned businesses or farmed. The complicated investment/retirement/social security vehicles we see today didn’t exist. My guess is that as financial avenues increased, and members were leaning on bishops to figure out their “income,” the leaders decided to issue the 1972 letter to place the burden of determining tithing squarely on the member’s shoulders. Still, I don’t think we can ignore approximately 75 years of official comments that treat “increase” as “income.” I find it interesting that many people seeking to pay less money in tithing want to hang their hat on old revelation and ignore more modern revelation completely.

    Comment by IDIAT — February 3, 2016 @ 8:18 am

  48. IDIAT: nobody is saying that this historical reconstruction has any bearing on how the LDS institution should handle tithing. I is merely showing what it meant in 1838. Clearly things have changed since then, so we are just exploring when and how.

    Comment by Ben P — February 3, 2016 @ 9:21 am

  49. I don’t think we can ignore approximately 75 years of official comments that treat “increase” as “income.” I find it interesting that many people seeking to pay less money in tithing want to hang their hat on old revelation and ignore more modern revelation completely.

    Sam’s post isn’t doing that at all, and neither are the commenters.

    And what’s your answer to the observation that the D&C 119 system of tithing, in which the first step is to donate all surplus and then pay on property interest thereafter, placed a much, much heavier burden on the rich than the poor who did not own much property or have any assets to speak of (as one would imagine would be the case in Zion — the rich carrying the burden of caring for the poor), whereas the current system of a “flat tax” of 10% of income for both rich and poor places a heavier burden by far on the poor than on the rich?

    You believe that is the will of God because we do it that way (the Mormon concept of knowing God’s will: we do it so it must be God’s will). So please explain why God wants the poor to carry the burden of tithing more than the rich?

    Comment by john f. — February 3, 2016 @ 9:27 am

  50. Nineteenth century economic goals were mostly based on land ownership. A family prepared their children (sons?) for life by providing them with land on which to farm. That farm allowed them to have and income on which to live. It didn’t always work out but that was the plan. Today we provide our children with an education, not land. The quality of my income is (theoretically) based on my education & skill level. That makes my education and skills assets on which (according to this interpretation) I should pay tithing. My income, less the cost of my education (i.e. student loans), is a pretty good proxy for the value of my education. With that in mind, income isn’t that far from this model.

    Comment by Bruce Crow — February 3, 2016 @ 10:11 am

  51. Just a quick note: this is a history blog, and Sam’s excellent post is a purely historical argument. The discussion here should focus on the historical elements of the implementation of tithing, rather than the cultural/doctrinal values of LDS tithing practices. If you want to discuss the latter, I recommend going over to BCC and Ronan’s thoughtful post: https://bycommonconsent.com/2016/02/03/tithing-and-zion/

    Comment by Ben P — February 3, 2016 @ 11:30 am

  52. “Abram is using an asset-based calculation and, importantly, it is only paid on what he had beyond what he needed.”

    chatch: In context, I do not see JST Gen 14:39 supports this statement. Genesis 14 depicts Abram as a military leader / action hero. Lot had been kidnapped when Sodom was plundered. Abram saves Lot and recovers all the plunder. Of the loot Abram recovers, some goes to Melchizedek as a “tithe”, some was eaten by his “young men” (servants/soldiers?), and the rest was returned to Sodom’s king. Abram explicitly kept nothing (Gen 14:23). There’s no record of Abram tithing on the rest of his considerable wealth.

    Comment by Ryan Mullen — February 3, 2016 @ 12:53 pm

  53. were all the previous comments deleted?

    Comment by john f. — February 3, 2016 @ 1:42 pm

  54. Fixed. Sorry about that–glitch with the dashboard.

    Comment by Ben P — February 3, 2016 @ 2:03 pm

  55. We need to listen to the words of our Heavenly Father that come through his modern day prophet. I get so grossed out by all the pseudo intellectuals writing these articles and commenting below who claim to know more then these inspired men of God. Joseph smith said that our government would lead us astray (Obama) but never the church leaders. I chose to follow the Prophet!

    Comment by Jonathan L — February 3, 2016 @ 4:27 pm

  56. Jonathan L: I hope you are better at following a prophet than following the directions for discussion I outlined on this thread.

    Comment by Ben P — February 3, 2016 @ 6:24 pm

  57. Jonathan L., that’s certainly a good ethic to take. What, though, do you do on topics where the prophets haven’t spoken? Like, for example, the history of LDS tithing? Like Ben and I have said ad nauseam, this post isn’t normative—I’m not interested in telling you what you should do. Rather, it’s historical and descriptive—it works to understand D&C 119 in its context.

    That said, I’m sincerely interested in what you object to here: do you think my reading of Bishop Partridge’s letter is wrong? or that the idea of imputed income is nonsensical? (It’s not, but it tends to get the most push-back of anything that I teach.)

    This is a fascinating historical note; tithing is always interesting to discuss, and there’s value in knowing that tithing isn’t always and forever one single thing. So thanks for reading and commenting, and honestly, let me know what you’re pushing back against.

    Comment by Sam Brunson — February 3, 2016 @ 8:58 pm

  58. I am no where near as educated in taxes and money as most of the people comenting. I however would still like to share my point of view.
    I very much enjoyed the actual article. It seems well researched and I appreciate the point of view from the person who would have been dealing with the tithes at the time. As stated by many it doesn’t seem to have much bearing on the current system, but is interesting information non the less. Where I have an issue is with s lit of thr comments. There are people talking about if they should have to pay tithing because they owe a ton of student loans, others posting that tithing shouldn’t be for the poor, some saying that the scriptures can’t be counted on for correct informaton and need updating… No one said those comments are inappropriate and ignoring that this is purely for historical information purposes. Why is that? Why are the only comments being put down the ones by people trying to say they hold the words of the current breathern as what is needed for todays system?
    Please try harder to respond the same way to any religious/non historical comments.
    Again, I really did enjoy reading the article!

    Comment by Helen — February 3, 2016 @ 10:50 pm

  59. How does imputed income come into play in current and past tax law? In a way different from property taxes? When you are teaching about imputed income, how will your students use the concept later?

    Comment by John Mansfield — February 4, 2016 @ 8:24 am

  60. Helen, I’m not sure why you can’t see that Ben P.’s comments about focusing this discussion on the historical interpretation of tithing arising from Bishop Partridge’s letter applies equally to the commenters pointing out that the current “10% of income” understanding of tithing by far burdens the poor more than the rich as it does to the commenters shouting “follow the prophet”.

    Comment by john f. — February 4, 2016 @ 9:25 am

  61. Interest is equal to what the dictionary defines as imputed income. So in this instance interest and income are the same. Imputed income would be the same as the partridge case of income. The 1972 letter doesn’t specify between imputed, gross, or net income.

    Comment by MAS — February 4, 2016 @ 1:47 pm

  62. John, the thread is probably gone enough that it won’t hurt to derail. As a practical matter, my students will rarely use the concept of imputed income. Rather, we discuss it toward the beginning of the course, as we’re trying to establish and understand the concept of “income” in the tax law; the basic takeaway (from this and the rest of the first couple weeks) is that not every type of income we tax is what we would intuitively think of as income; at the same time, the tax law doesn’t reach every kind of income that it potentially could.

    So maybe this isn’t as much of a derailment as I thought: there’s a similar reason to discuss the historical development of tithing within the church. By looking at previous iterations, we can understand other ways to approach God with our offerings, and we can actively see how the church has refined the concept, likely on both practical and spiritual grounds. That is, that the original D&C 119 version of tithing was an imputed income/property version should make us humble about the eternal nature of our current implementation of tithing. But it should also help us recognize that there isn’t a Platonic version (even in scripture) of tithing, and that we and our leaders need to use our judgment and our experience to try to get it as good as we can. And part of that judgment and revelation comes when we understand the context.

    Comment by Sam Brunson — February 8, 2016 @ 8:50 am

  63. I’m not convinced that Patridge was talking about imputed income when he gave his $1000 breakdown. That would demand the payment of tithes based on what people could reasonable expect to earn, as you say, not based on what they actually get in returns. So if you own a large farm, but the harvest fails, one is still obligated to pay 1/10 of their 6% imputed income. The number of times in scripture where the Lord demands that the people’s basic living be protected from seizure FAR outweigh the number of times he demands the food from their mouths. Of course, Patridge may have meant imputed income and simply not been in line with scriptural principles, but I don’t think his words demand that interpretation.

    When I read the quote from the letter, I see Partridge essentially saying “pay 1/10 of the interest you actually get from your net worth, and here is an example of an expected return on $1000 of net worth using a standard interest rate.” I understand that it is not worded that way, as he says “the interest…would be…”, but that reading makes more sense than the thinking that Patridge is actually expecting a cut of imputed income regardless of actual returns.

    Comment by Bob — February 10, 2016 @ 9:57 am

  64. Bob, Bishop Partridge almost certainly meant what he wrote. Although we have 100 years of history with an income tax, the principal tax the 19th-century Mormons would have been familiar with would have been a property tax. And, though this is a tithe on imputed income, it’s also easy to see it as a property tax (that is, under Bishop Partridge’s example, Saints would pay 0.6% of the value of their property as a tithe, irrespective of whether it was productive or not).

    It makes sense, not only as a matter of broader tax-related familiarity, but also in the context of the letter. In the prior sentence, Bishop Partridge basically related D&C 119:1: the Saints were to contribute all of their surplus property to start things off. That contribution had nothing at all to do with their income, and it would be at least moderately unintuitive to go from property contribution to share of income.

    So, while it is possible that he didn’t mean what he wrote, I suspect he did mean it. And I suspect that any discomfort we feel about it results from our anachronistically reading back current understandings (both of tithing and of income tax) into the past.

    Comment by Sam Brunson — February 10, 2016 @ 10:31 am

  65. Realizing I’m coming to this great thread far too late:

    Amy T, I can’t answer your question regarding early Deseret/Utah donations, but there are some wonderful examples in the Nauvoo-era donation records of the consecrations of single-parent or widowed women (husbands on missions, husbands who deserted their families, widows etc.) making a tithing donation, having it recorded and accepted, and then having it returned to them for their own use (they having more need of it than the church). There are examples of this with both Don Carlos Smith’s widow and Marinda Hyde while her husband Orson was off on a mission. Of course, there are also records from the same years along the lines of the fellow who donated a coat, “it being about 1/5 of all his property” and no evidence of return or alternative support being offered.

    Comment by Alex S — February 12, 2016 @ 8:18 am

  66. […] Understanding “Interest” in Joseph Smith’s Original Tithing Revelation – Juvenile Instructor, posted on February 2, 2016 […]

    Pingback by Learning of the Real Meaning of Tithing Should Be like Finding the Book of the Law | LDS Anarchy — February 25, 2016 @ 5:54 pm


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