If you don’t know the story of Lorenzo Snow preaching the law of tithing in drought-ridden St. George, Utah, and the blessings that followed the Saints’ renewed commitment to the law, your best Relief Society-ready review is a Church-made 1963 movie, “The Windows of Heaven.” In fact, if you’re in a ward where many of the sisters are converts or under forty, I give you permission to start with the movie and use it as a springboard for a short discussion at the end of the lesson. It’s on the cheesy side, but it’s a tear-jerker, and it has a lot to say about faith, blessings, and commitment. Though the original movie was 50 minutes long, the copy you’re likely to have in your ward library is a 2006 DVD that runs only 11 minutes. Lacking that (and adding in a good internet connection), you can find a version on YouTube. This one runs under 17 minutes, which will probably leave you about five minutes for discussion.
If you choose not to show the film, have someone read the following paragraph:
In his previous 50 years as an Apostle, President Snow had rarely mentioned the law of tithing in his sermons. That changed in St. George, Utah, because of the revelation he received. “I never had a more perfect revelation,” he later said, “than [the revelation] I received on this subject of tithing.” From St. George, he and his traveling companions went from town to town in southern Utah and on their way home to Salt Lake City, holding 24 meetings. President Snow delivered 26 sermons. Each time he spoke, he counseled the Saints to obey the law of tithing.
Well, goodness. What had President Snow spent all that time teaching about? It turns out that while the above statement is technically true, it leaves out the fact that as an apostle, Lorenzo Snow spoke frequently and emphatically about the law of consecration, known to early Mormons as the United Order. In fact, before joining the Church, he studied for a year at Oberlin College, where students labored to build and maintain the college and town in lieu of paying tuition–another great experiment in American collectivism, and certainly an experience he used as he helped build the community of Brigham City, Utah. (If you’d like to dig into the background a little more, you can find my notes on “The Life and Ministry of Lorenzo Snow” here.)
It’s also interesting to know how the Saints adopted the law of tithing:
On May 29 and 30, President Snow gave two sermons on the law of tithing, first to the officers of the Young Ladies’ Mutual Improvement Association and then to the officers of the Young Men’s Mutual Improvement Association. At the conclusion of the second discourse, Elder B. H. Roberts of the Seventy presented the following resolution, which was unanimously supported by all in attendance: “Resolved: That we accept the doctrine of tithing, as now presented by President Snow, as the present word and will of the Lord unto us, and we do accept it with all our hearts; we will ourselves observe it, and we will do all in our power to get the Latter-day Saints to do likewise.” On July 2, all the General Authorities and representatives from all the stakes and wards in the Church attended a solemn assembly in the Salt Lake Temple, having fasted and prayed in preparation for the meeting. There they unanimously accepted the same resolution. President Snow was true to this resolution himself, teaching the law of tithing in many stakes and overseeing the same effort by other Church leaders.
When members in St. George committed to paying the law, their faith was rewarded with almost three inches of rain. But the rain came in August, two and a half months after President Snow introduced the law of tithing. Note that it wasn’t immediate, and it was probably too late to save many of the crops they had planted, but the Saints still hailed the rain as a miracle. Ask the class: Are there times in your life when you can see that obeying a gospel principle resulted in a miracle? Was it immediate? Are we better able to see miracles after we have some time to put events in perspective and figure out what they mean to us?
The law of tithing is easy to understand and can be obeyed by all. Also from the 1960s was a children’s book about tithing that included the rhyme:
I know what tithing is,
I can say it every time:
Ten cents from a dollar
And a penny from a dime.
How’s that for “easy to understand”? But the part I really like is the “…and can be obeyed by all”:
I say to you in the name of the Lord God of Israel, if you will pay tithing from now on, the Lord will forgive you for all the past [nonpayment of tithing] and the blessings of the Almighty will be poured out upon this people.
I want to have this principle so fixed upon our hearts that we shall never forget it. As I have said more than once, I know that the Lord will forgive the Latter-day Saints for their past negligence in paying tithing, if they will now repent and pay a conscientious tithing from this time on.
…which echoes the oft-preached principle that God does not care where we are on the road, simply whether we are on the road. Ask the class: Does this still apply to payment of tithing? To other sins of omission or commission? Point out that although individual people have very strong feelings about whether we ought to pay tithing on net or gross income, Church leaders have purposefully stayed away from specifying anything beyond “a tenth of our increase.”
It is also interesting to me that though President Snow said, “A part of a tithing is no tithing at all, no more than immersing only half a person’s body is baptism,” bishops today have the option of declaring members to be partial tithe-payers.
Okay, enough about the nickels and dimes. What’s the whole point of tithing?
When we pay tithing, we contribute to the work of the Church. Ask the class: What does it mean to you to contribute financially to the Church? Does it affect your feelings about the Church? (i.e., do you feel more involved? More responsible? More equal to other members?) What kinds of feelings do you have when you contribute to your school’s PTA, to the American Cancer Association, or to the Sierra Club?
The Lord will bless us temporally and spiritually as we obey the law of tithing. I know that there are many, many people who have a firm testimony that tithing brings us temporal blessings. We’ve all heard the jokes about fire insurance and the stories about a neighbor bringing food when a family has just used the last of their reserves to pay tithing. None of these experiences are mine, and I’m actually quite leery of anything that smacks of quid pro quo with God. Ask class members to think of the non-monetary blessings we can receive from paying tithing. Then have someone read Doctrine and Covenants 130:20-21 and ask why those specific blessings could be predicated on obedience to the law of tithing. This is a great moment to be completely silent and let people try to mentally connect the two ideas. Eventually (within half a minute, really) someone will come up with an answer, and the more patience you have, the more (and more interesting) answers you’ll elicit.
(There’s also a section in the lesson about teaching children to pay tithing, but I wouldn’t use it unless you live in a ward where nearly everyone has children.)
To end the lesson, ask another hard question. Think about the title of this lesson, “Tithing, a Law for Our Protection and Advancement.” In Lorenzo Snow’s day, obedience to the law of tithing protected the Church from financial ruin and enabled the Saints to build temples. More than a century later, in what way does tithing protect us? In what way does tithing contribute to our advancement? Then ask: Are these blessings that we receive as individuals, or blessings that we receive as a church? Let the class members discuss for a few minutes, then make the case that because the law of tithing teaches us that we are all part of a community, the blessings that we receive from obeying that law are much more likely to be blessings upon the community than upon individuals.