D&C 119 renews tithing in this dispensation as a commandment and hence every week Latter-day Saints grab envelopes next to their Bishop’s office and/or sign into LDS.org to pay their tithing on 10% of their income. Yet have you ever stopped to ask what is income? Some people pay on gross, others on net, and a few pay on surplus. Wait, you didn’t know surplus was an option? Well, it is.
First, here are my definitions:
Gross Income: income you receive before any taxes or other deductions are removed
Net Income: income you receive in hand after taxes, medicaid, social security and other government deductions have taken place
Surplus Income: income you have left over after all deductions by outside entities as well as all basic living expenses are paid for (housing, clothing, groceries, medical costs, utilities, etc…)
While I stand with the Brethren that none of us are to impose any definition on another and that each member has a right to seek their own answer of how to pay from the Lord, I feel obligated to ensure that every Latter-day Saint becomes aware of the scriptural and historical validity of all three options. And since surplus gets the most neglect, I figured it best to begin here. Below are the historical and scriptural reasons that support surplus as a valid option as you take this question to the Lord. Knowing all three options empowers you to seek the right spiritual answer for yourself through the guidance of the Holy Ghost.
Let’s start at the beginning of tithing in the restored church, with D&C 119 and how this revelation describes tithing:
3 And this shall be the beginning of the tithing of my people. 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. 5 Verily I say unto you, it shall come to pass that all those who gather unto the land of Zion shall betithed of their surplus properties, and shall observe this law, or they shall not be found worthy to abide among you.
Notice the use of the word surplus and the word interest in the above revelation. The saints were required when entering the church to dedicate their surplus properties to the church and thereafter 10% of their increase. The word increase can be tricky to nail down. An 1828 Webster’s dictionary defines interest in at least one case as “any surplus advantage” and in the same dictionary “advantage” is defined at least in one instance as “interest, increase, or overplus.”
Next, let’s examine a quote from Orson Hydewho is expounding on the D&C 119 revelation.
The celestial law requires one-tenth part of all a man’s substance which he possesses at the time he comes into the church and one-tenth part of his annual increase ever after. IF IT REQUIRES ALL MAN CAN EARN TO SUPPORT HIMSELF AND HIS FAMILY, HE IS NOT TITHED AT ALL. The celestial law does not take the mother’s and children’s bread, neither ought else which they really need for their comfort. The poor that have not of this world’s good to spare, but serve and honor God according to the best of their abilities in every other way, shall have a celestial crown in the Eternal Kingdom of our Father.” (The Millenial Star, 1847. Orson Hyde, editor)
This quote comes after the law of of tithing was revealed and also after the law of consecration was done away.
Brother Hyde seems clear that he personally sees the definition as “surplus” and that if one spends all his gross income to sustain his family’s needs then he is not tithed at all. In essence the poor are not tithed at all.
“Encyclopedia of Mormonism” when referring to tithing states:
Tithing is the basic contribution by which Latter-day Saints fund the activities of the Church. 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” (D&C 119:4).
This is important because some apologists argue that 119 could perhaps be referring to the surplus of the Law of Consecration and not the surplus of the Law of Tithing. Bro. Hyde and The Encyclopedia of Mormonism both agree that Section 119 is the Law of Tithing which is “a standing law unto them forever.”
Another interesting piece of evidence is found in the JST of Genesis 14 where Brother Joseph is making inspired corrections to the bible.
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.” JST Genesis 14:39.
This correction shows that Abraham paid tithes on the portion that was above and beyond “that which he had need,” clearly a surplus interpretation. Add to that Hebrews 7:4
4 Now consider how great this man was, unto whom even the patriarch Abraham gave the tenth of the spoils
This New Testament scripture seems to reinforce that Abraham paid tithing on his surplus or “spoils.”
Next, let’s consider the words of President Lorenzo Snow at the 1899 General Conference (page 30 on the pdf, page 28 of the actual document). These words are often partially quoted. Here is the quote in full:
I pray that every man, woman, and child who has means shall pay one tenth of their income as tithing.
The word “who has means” is strangely absent when the talk is quoted in manuals, conferences, and other places. Omitting this phrase changes the meaning of the quotation significantly.
Further instruction given in the pamphlet “The Lord’s Tenth, Pamphlet, 1968”:
THE TITHE AS A RENTAL
As the matter presents itself to my mind, it is as though there had been a contract made between myself and the Lord, and that in effect He had said to me: “You have need of many things in this world — food, clothing, and shelter for your family and yourself, the common comforts of life, and the things that shall be conducive to refinement, to development, to righteous enjoyment. You desire material possessions to use for the assistance of others, and thereby gain greater blessings for yourself and yours. Now, you shall have the means of acquiring these things; but remember they are mine, and I require of you the payment of a rental upon that which I give into your hands. However, your life will not be one of uniform increase in substance and possessions; you will have your losses, as well as your gains; you will have your periods of trouble as well as your times of peace. Some years, will be years of plenty unto you, and others will be years of scarcity, And, now, instead of doing as mortal landlords do — require you to contract with them to pay in advance, whatever your fortunes or your prospects may be — you shall pay me not in advance, but when you have received; and you shall pay me in accordance with what you receive. If it so be that in one year your income is abundant, then you can afford to pay me a little more; and if it be so that the next year is one of distress and your income is not what it was, then you shall pay me less; and should it be that you are reduced to the utmost penury so that/you have nothing coming in, you will pay me nothing.”
Talmage can be seen as defending all three interpretations and while some may see gross as the conclusion here I post it anyway as there are phrases used that seem to indicate other options such as net or surplus as well as Talmage first speaks of one’s needs and then speaks of not paying in advance but only once one knows whether one has an abundance or a scarcity. This advice is a contrast to some more recent instruction from various church leaders.
Joseph Fielding Smith in explaining why we no longer pay 10% of our property to the church upon joining said this:
“In more recent times the Church has not called upon the members to give all their surplus property to the Church, but it has been the requirement according to the covenant, that they pay the tenth.” (Emphasis mine. Joseph Fielding Smith, Church History and Modern Revelation, 4 vols. [Salt Lake City: The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 1946-1949], 3: 120.).
Note that he does not state that one should pay the tenth of gross. In the context of the remark, it is clear he meant the tenth of surplus as it had always been paid; he was referring to no longer giving the tenth of surplus property first. As the Church became more financially successful, leaders simply removed the requirement to donate the initial tenth of one’s surplus properties. Members were now only required to pay the tenth of surplus annually.
In consecration, the Lord defines surplus as the part of one’s income that is “more than is necessary for their support” (D&C 42:33). If tithing is a lesser law than consecration, why does it currently demand more of your money (the gross or net model) than did consecration (a tenth of surplus). If consecration is the goal (surplus) and tithing is a lesser law, why does tithing require a greater sacrifice than consecration did?
In a Letter from Heber C. Kimball to his wife Vilate that was subsequently reprinted in Elders’ Journal (Oct 1837, pp.4-7) he critiques the tithing practices of competing denominations in the Lancashire area.
Preston, Lancashire, England, September 2, 1837
My Dear Companion [Vilate Kimball],
“We have to live quite short but the brethren are very kind to us. They are willing to divide with us the last they have. They are quite ignorant; many of them cannot read a word and it needs great care to teach them the gospel so that they can understand. The people here are bound down under priestcraft in a manner I never saw before. They have to pay tithes to the priests of every tenth they raise, so that they cannot lay up one cent. They are in the same situation the children of Israel were in Egypt. They have their taskmasters over them to bind them down. It will be as great a miracle to deliver this people as it was the children of Israel. There are a great many believing in Preston; we are baptizing almost every day.”
Heber’s criticism is that any church that requires 10% of gross as tithing is practicing priestcraft. This letter was written months before section 119 was revealed.
Mosiah also argues on behalf of the poor, distinguishing between those who have sufficient for their needs and those who do not. He releases the poor from making donations.
Mosiah 4:24 And again, I say unto the poor, ye who have not and yet have sufficient, that ye remain from day to day; I mean all you who deny the beggar, because ye have not; I would that ye say in your hearts that: I give not because I have not, but if I had I would give. 25 And now, if ye say this in your hearts ye remain guiltless, otherwise ye are condemned; and your condemnation is just for ye covet that which ye have not received.
When we make a tithing declaration at the end of the year, we declare ourselves full tithe payers, partial tithe payers, or exempt. Who are the exempt? Mosiah would say “the poor,” those who have no surplus.
The saints are to pay tithing annually as instructed in D&C 119. The instruction to pay annually only makes sense in light of surplus. When you pay on surplus, it is only at the end of the year that you know how much surplus you have left over. Present instruction to pay tithing before you pay other obligations contradicts the revelation of D&C 119.
those who have thus been tithed shall pay one-tenth of all their interest annually
Tellingly, the Gospel Principles book remains vague on the topic of tithing:
In modern times the Joseph Smith prayed, “O Lord, show unto thy servants how much thou requirest of the properties of thy people for a tithing” (D&C 119, section introduction). The Lord answered: “This shall be the beginning of the tithing of my people. 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” (D&C 119:3–4). The First Presidency has explained that “one-tenth of all their interest annually” refers to our income (see First Presidency letter, Mar. 19, 1970).
The “Preach my Gospel” manual seems to be intentionally vague as well:
Tithing means one-tenth, and the Lord has commanded us to give a tenth of our increase, which is understood to mean income, that we may be blessed.
Lastly let’s look at the First Presidency’s official doctrine on the matter from a 1970 letter sent to the wards and stakes.
For your guidance in this matter, please be advised that we have uniformly replied that the simplest statement we know of is that statement of the Lord himself that the members of the Church should pay one-tenth of all 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 should be entitled to make his own decision as to what he thinks he owes the Lord, and to make payment accordingly.
It should be noted that the Lord never mentions the word “income” in the revelation (section 119), but only surplus and interest. “Income” is man’s addition even if they are men of God. They admit as much when they state the word interest is “understood” to mean income.
By remaining deliberately vague, leaders are signaling that they are protecting each member’s right to seek out their own answer among three without anyone else, including local leaders, imposing an answer on them. The handbook of instruction sticks with this vague definition:
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. No one is justified in making any other statement than this.” (First Presidency letter, 19 Mar. 1970;see also D&C 119:4)
The “Encyclopedia of Mormonism” While arguing that interest means “income” also states clearly that each person has a right to determine what an honest and fair tithe is and pay it accordingly.
A 1970 letter from the First Presidency stated that notwithstanding the fact that members should pay one-tenth of their income, “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” (Mar. 19, 1970; cf. Doxey, pp. 16, 18). Hence, the exact amount paid is not as important as that each member feels that he or she has paid an honest tenth.
I personally have been paying tithing on surplus income for two years now. It has been a blessing to our family to pay tithing and I am grateful the Lord and his Church have encouraged me to get my own answer and for them to respect that answer as long as it was done with prayer and thought. I hold dear the right for each individual to arrive at their own answer with humility and prayer, while I also encourage each member to understand fully all options before seeking that guidance. May we each be blessed as we seek guidance on this matter.