Posted by joespencer on May 10, 2013
I’m teaching this Sunday, from lesson 17 of the Doctrine and Covenants manual, and I’m a little at a loss. In an attempt to drum up some ideas, I’ll work through some notes on D&C 119 here, the text that seems to me to form the heart of the lesson.
Section 119 comes much later than anything else we’ve looked at in the Doctrine and Covenants to this point. Really, it seems quite out of place in the schedule. But perhaps we might look at things as follows. D&C 38, a handful of lessons ago, promised the Saints as they left New York for Ohio that they’d receive two things of particular importance in their new place of gathering, both preparatory to the unfolding of God’s plans: (1) the law and (2) an endowment of power from on high. We turned shortly thereafter to the law, given first in D&C 42 and constituting the law of consecration. And we’ve been looking, in ways, at that law since. Perhaps this lesson on tithing and fast offerings might be said to be the last of the lessons dealing with this topic before we transition to the endowment—that is, to the lessons that will deal with themes surrounding the building of the Kirtland temple. So perhaps we can make sense of this lesson’s existence: it’s a kind of final word on consecration.
Of course, we have to be careful there. D&C 119 is indeed the last word on consecration in the Doctrine and Covenants, but it doesn’t—as is usually said—replace consecration with tithing. As we’ll see, it does something rather different.
Now, what of the revelation’s historical context? It came in July of 1838. The law of consecration was given originally in February of 1831, more than seven years earlier. That law had gone through a great many complications in the interim. First, it went through a whole series of practical adjustments and updatings, due to what was learned on the ground by Edward Partridge as the Saints attempted to live consecration in full seriousness in Missouri. Second, it was complicated greatly by the tragedy of the Saints being driven from Jackson County and losing access to their lands. Third, it was doubled with the creation of the United Firm, a kind of leaders-only consecration system that was meant to provide the financial means for the Church’s projects when the Saints failed to produce an excess of means. Fourth, it was heavily rethought and rewritten in the months leading up to the 1835 publication of the Doctrine and Covenants, clearly with an eye to adapting things to the then-current situation. Fifth, it was further complicated by the disincorporation of the United Firm, leaving the presidencies in Ohio and Missouri to fend for themselves financially. Sixth, the whole financial situation of the Church was undermined by the financial depression of 1837, which contributed to the Kirtland banking disaster and played a major role in the so-called “Kirtland apostasy.” Joseph Smith’s prayer, reported in the section heading to D&C 119, is more than understandable. He asked the Lord to show him what He desired of the Saints financially, because everything that had been said by the Lord about finances had been complicated six times over. Joseph was looking, as it were, for a clean break, a new start. “Where are we now? How do we go forward?”
The revelation came in Far West, Missouri. Joseph Smith had fled to Far West from Kirtland when things went sour. In Far West, plans were made to build a new temple (the Kirtland temple had been left behind), the Saints began to work seriously on laying foundations for a gathering place, and things were looking good. Well, things were looking mostly good. There was enough bad sentiment in Missouri regarding the Saints to keep members of the Church more than a bit wary. And only nine days after D&C 119 was received, Sidney Rigdon delivered his infamous Salt Sermon, which turned the tensions between the Saints and the Missourians into outright conflict. There followed immediately thereafter the “Mormon War,” the unfortunate events of 1838 that led to the imprisonment of the Church’s leadership, the extermination order of Governor Boggs, and the removal of the Saints from Missouri to Illinois. This revelation hovers on the brink between views of a bright future and the reality of serious conflict and tragedy. We ought to be glad that there was eye enough in the storm of 1837 and 1838 for Joseph to ask his question and receive the Lord’s answer.
I’ll say a bit more about history at the end of the post, about what effect this revelation had immediately and has had since. For now, though, let’s turn directly to the revelation itself.
“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, 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. And this shall be the beginning of the tithing of my people.”
First, notice how abruptly this revelation begins. This is because it was, quite literally, an answer to prayer. It might be more helpful to see how this revelation appears in Joseph Smith’s journal, where it is preceded immediately by “Answer,” and where that is preceded by “Question: O Lord, show unto thy servants how much thou requirest of the properties of thy people for a tithing.” At any rate, there’s nothing of a preamble to this revelation; we simply get the Lord’s response to Joseph Smith’s straightforward question.
And what does the Lord require? Straightforwardly, “all their surplus property.” That is to be “the beginning of the tithing of [the Lord's] people.” Hang on, that can’t be right, can it? We know that tithing is a matter of ten percent, not of all surplus. No, we’re reading this revelation correctly. The beginning of tithing, the first step of tithing, according to this revelation, is plainly and simply “all [our] surplus property.” It’s only after that’s been put into the hands of the bishop—after that’s been consecrated, in effect—that there’s any talk of ten percent, and we’ll get to it. But if we’re serious about this revelation, here’s what we need to learn first: tithing begins with and doesn’t leave behind the law of consecration. It’s in this sense that Steve Harper says, and perfectly correctly, in his Making Sense of the Doctrine and Covenants, that “section 119 may be [Joseph Smith's] most misunderstood revelation. It begins with a direct restatement of the law of consecration…” (p. 441). Although we often talk as if D&C 119 removed and replaced the law of consecration by setting up the law of tithing, that’s simply incorrect. D&C 119 repeats and reinforces the law of consecration. Nothing goes away, and nothing is replaced.
So, “all their surplus property.” Let’s not try to get around that. And it’s to be put into the hands of the bishop, exactly as in D&C 42, which states the law of consecration for the first time. And it’s to be used for the building of the temple, for laying the foundation of Zion, for the use of the priesthood, and for the debts of the Church’s presidency—all of this a direct echo of the purposes of the surplus of consecrated funds in D&C 42. Nothing has changed, except that there’s more talk of the priesthood here than in D&C 42 (mostly because the priesthood took much more definitive shape only long after D&C 42) and that there’s a reference to the debts of the presidency (neither the presidency nor their heavy debts existed in 1831 when D&C 42 was revealed). The law of tithing begins with consecration. We can’t get serious about tithing if we aren’t first serious about consecration—regardless of all we say about having to get serious about tithing so that we can eventually get serious about consecration. We ought just to repent and take the scripture seriously here.
Of course, all of this leaves quite open what constitutes “surplus property.” I’ll tell a story below about that, about how the Saints reacted to this ambiguity in 1838. Of course, I can’t decide what constitutes surplus property any more than anyone else; I’ve not rule of thumb, even, to provide. But I think it’s safe to say that we ought to err on the side of consecrating more rather than less of what we have in our possession. We ought to recognize the tendency we have to think we really need things that we can do without, and so give more than we think we ought wisely to give. We ought to recognize that when we’re forced to go without some luxury for a little while, we recognize how much it’s actually in the way, and how little we actually need it. Let’s rid ourselves of at least a few more—if not many, many more—of the tethers that bind us to materialism and idolatry. This is especially important if we consider how many Saints are without even the basic necessities of life. If we haven’t taken care of the poor among ourselves, abundantly supplying their wants and needs, then we haven’t even begun to pay our tithing, collectively. And then we might really begin to worry about Malachi 3—though getting into that text is something we’ll have to do another time.
“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.”
Okay, so here’s what we’re used to in D&C 119, but let’s look at it more carefully than we usually do. What’s this say? Well, first, we should note the important word “after” at the beginning of the verse. It’s only after consecration has taken place, only after we’ve unburdened ourselves of all our surplus property, that we turn to this one-tenth business. This is just to emphasize all over again what we’ve just been saying, but it shouldn’t be missed. Note how explicit the text is: “And after that, those who have thus been tithed shall….” What does “tithed” mean here? It couldn’t be much clearer: it means “unburdened of all their surplus property.” The word “thus” makes that unmistakably clear.
Okay, I think I’ve probably laid that on thick enough. What next? After all surplus is consecrated, one is left with what one needs to go about one’s business, that is, about one’s stewardship. And then one is to pay one-tenth of all their interest annually. Here again things still sound very much like consecration. When D&C 42 was originally lived out in Jackson County, the system established was one in which those who received a stewardship would meet with the bishop once a year to settle their finances. They would report on their stewardship, discuss what they had gained through their efforts, and determine how much they either needed to go on or could give to the storehouse to assist others in their stewardships. So here again, everything seems to be proceeding largely as it had before. What’s new or different? Just this focus on one-tenth. And that deserves some attention.
We’ve all heard it said that it remains up to us, individually, to determine what constitutes “interest” or “increase.” I don’t want to get into all that, because I think it really is an individual responsibility to determine exactly what that means. So let’s not focus on that. Instead, let’s ask about whether this “one-tenth … annually” means that the act of consecration that marks the “beginning” of tithing is something like the last consecration. You see, here we might begin to wonder whether the usual interpretation of this revelation isn’t at least partially right: we’re to give over all our surplus in one last bout of consecration-like activity, and then we’re just to pay ten percent of our annual increase from then on, retaining whatever further surplus entirely for ourselves. That’s an entirely possible interpretation of the revelation: tithing begins with a massive consecration of all surplus, but it continues as the mere ten-percent rule, and we’re free to keep the rest to use however we wish. That, it seems, is the “standing law” that continues forever.
Is that the only way to interpret this verse? Is it possible to hear in “annually” something more like what was instituted in Jackson County—an annual meeting in which one decides anew whether one has a surplus that can be freed up for the use of others who might need it? We might play around with that sort of thing, but I think the text is relatively clear. It’s not hard to hear in the Lord’s words here a certain concession to the Saints’ selfishness. The Lord, we might say, saw that the Saints weren’t willing to give up their excess on a yearly basis. So here He institutes a system where one is expected to do that only once, at the beginning of things, and then one is expected to donate one-tenth of their increase on an ongoing basis—but no more. That sort of thing would keep the Saints industrious and help them be self-sacrificing, but it wouldn’t induce the kind of anxiety that a yearly self-dispossession might.
Here, then, I think it’s best, interpretively, to make a certain concession to the usual interpretation of D&C 119. But it’s crucial still to recognize that the one-tenth business comes only after a full dispossession of everything in surplus. It’s worth saying again what was said before: if we haven’t yet handed over all our surplus property, then we haven’t yet begun to be tithed. That’s a crucial part of what the Lord sets up here, and we seem quite happy to jump straight to the not-entirely-limiting one-tenth business.
“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. 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. And this shall be an ensample unto all the stakes of Zion. Even so. Amen.”
We can deal with this last part of the revelation in relatively short order. Note again that “tithed” here refers specifically to “surplus properties,” and then “this law” seems to refer to the one-tenth matter. And notice that both of these elements are to be required of all those already living in Missouri (previous verses), of all those coming still to settle in Missouri (verse 5), and of all those setting in any stake outside of Missouri (verse 7). This law is universal in the Church, and that can’t be missed.
And then we’re told a good deal about how all this is meant to “sanctify the land of Zion.” If this law isn’t kept—not just the initial consecration but the subsequent standing law—then the land of Zion will lose its status as Zion. This is a kind of last-ditch effort to ensure that Zion is Zion, is “most holy.” The law of tithing as laid out in this revelation is what keeps us from falling into a merely profane world, a world where everything remains under the iron laws of economic necessity—the cut-throat world of exchange and selfishness. We’re looking for the holy, for the set-apart, for the sacred, for the consecrated. But the land won’t be consecrated if we aren’t. And though we’re now all in the stakes of Zion, rather than in Zion itself, we still have the task of seeking out the holy, of rendering holy what otherwise would be an entirely profane world—a world of total work, a world driven solely by economic interests.
This last point makes me think that it’s important for us always to recognize that tithing, in whatever form, isn’t an economic affair. This isn’t God’s way of doing business, or God’s way of handling the economy. This is God’s way of getting us out of the economy, God’s way of subtracting us from the world of business and finance. Whenever we turn tithing into a kind of business venture—“I find that if I pay my tithing, my business affairs succeed,” etc.—we forget that the whole purpose of tithing is to make Zion a most holy land. The purpose isn’t to make us more successful, better off financially, more economically independent, etc. The purpose is to focus us on the building of Zion, on the work of redeeming the poor, on the task of establishing a space in an increasingly profane world within which we might live lives of genuine holiness. To whatever extent we lose that vision of things, we’ve lost what matters most in all this. If nothing else comes of rereading this revelation, I hope we might see tithing in that way.
A few closing words about the impact of this revelation.
How did the Saints receive this revelation at the time? Brigham Young later recounted a bit about this:
When the revelation which I have read [D&C 119] was given in 1838, I was present, and recollect the feelings of the brethren. A number of revelations were given on the same day. The brethren wished me to go among the Churches, and find out what surplus property the people had, with which to forward the building of the Temple we were commencing at Far West. I accordingly went from place to place through the country. Before I started, I asked brother Joseph, “Who shall be the judge of what is surplus property?” Said he, “Let them be the judges themselves, for I care not if they do not give a single dime. So far as I am concerned, I do not want anything they have.”
Then I replied, “I will go and ask them for their surplus property”; and I did so; I found the people said they were willing to do about as they were counselled, but, upon asking them about their surplus property, most of the men who owned land and cattle would say, “I have got so many hundred acres of land, and I have got so many boys, and I want each one of them to have eighty acres, therefore this is not surplus property.” Again, “I have got so many girls, and I do not believe I shall be able to give them more than forty acres each.” “Well, you have got two or three hundred acres left.” “Yes, but I have a brother-in-law coming on, and he will depend on me for a living; my wife’s nephew is also coming on, he is poor, and I shall have to furnish him a farm after he arrives here.” I would go on to the next one, and he would have more land and cattle than he could make use of to his advantage. It is a laughable idea but is nevertheless true, men would tell me they were young and beginning the world, and would say, “We have no children, but our prospects are good, and we think we shall have a family of children, and if we do, we want to give them eighty acres of land each; we have no surplus property.” “How many cattle have you?” “So many.” “How many horses, etc.?” “So many, but I have made provisions for all these, and I have use for every thing I have got.”
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, had the pole evil at one end of the neck and a fistula at the other, and both knees sprung.
This is the description of surplus property that some would offer to the Lord. [JD 2:306-307]
In a word, the Saints didn’t respond to the revelation very well. They heard in “surplus property” something very like we’re probably hearing: a lot of wiggle room—enough, in fact, to ensure that we stick just to the one-tenth rule. “I’m young and just starting out, so I haven’t anything really to give yet.” “I’m middle-aged and want to ensure that my kids have a good time growing up, so they need the same kinds of things their friends have.” “I’m getting on in my career, but I want to be sure I can support my children who can’t seem to find jobs, and I want to be able to leave something for them.” “I’m close to retirement, but I’ve worked my whole life to be able to enjoy the fruits of my labors.” “I’m in retirement now, but the market’s too unsure for me to spare anything.” Let’s face it, no one (thinks that he or she) has surplus property. So we hang on that one-tenth business, and we’re happy to call it good.
Consecration. Are we serious about that law? Given the covenants associated with it still, I should hope we are. And I should hope we’re serious enough about it to wonder whether we’ve not given far, far too much to the economic order of things—having faith only in property to save us, hoping for the future only because we’ve got our finances in order, demonstrating charity through modest token offerings that we’re “blessed” enough to be able to spare. Consecration matters far too much—our covenants matter far too much—to do this halfway. Are we in or are we out? And if we’re in, let’s get seriously to work. Let’s finally begin to be tithed.
It might be our only way to discover genuine holiness.
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