by Rex Jensen
A hundred and fifty eight years ago, Latter-day Saints, from Joseph Smith to the most humble convert possessed an abundance of willingness and a shortage of means as they set out to establish the Lord's kingdom again upon the earth. Riches, by almost any standard, were not evident among church members during the 1830s. There were, of course, a few who came into the church with more than average means, but frequent moves, the mobs and church building programs quickly devoured such "wealth".
Fifty years later the financial condition of church members had not significantly improved. The requirement to establish themselves in the tops of the mountains and the required sacrifices of time and fortunes had left most saints spiritually rich but financially poor. The added complications brought on by the government's seizure of church property because of the polygamy issue, droughts, pestilence, the Utah War and the struggles of surviving in a hostile desert wilderness, had left most members and the church financially destitute.
By 1930, a hundred years since Joseph Smith and five others met in the Peter Whitmer home and organized the church; church members now in the throes of the great depression, were still struggling financially. In addition, Mormons were often the victims of job discrimination, prejudice and other hardships. The net result was that most members were still spiritually rich and strong in the faith, but financially poor. Most were still unable to engage in any significant financial activity beyond rearing their families and sending their young men on missions for the church.
But by 1980, another fifty year span, and a century and a half since the organization of the church, something spectacular had happened to the finances of the saints, the church, and the United States generally. That something, was the most meteoric rise in the personal wealth of church members since Adam and Eve departed the Garden of Eden to earn their own way by the sweat of their brow. The past fifty years have been the most productive in the history of the world. Weather conditions have been ideal for farmers, world trade benefited the producers of goods and services, income levels rose in the Untied States at unprecedented rates, and yes, the Latter-day Saints were also blessed financially during this period.
The benefits of higher education, political opportunity and a favorable business climate allowed many church members to improve their economic condition. Generally, members were able to A) keep high paying jobs for most of their adult lives, B) enter high paying professions or, C) make small fortunes in business and investments. The net result has been a higher standard of living, more spending money, the accumulation of more assets and a more luxurious life style than any group of saints, ancient or modern, may have ever had at their disposal. The evidence of those financial blessings in the outward church are the thousands of chapels, dozens of temples, schools, universities, and other facilities that have been paid for from the tithes and offerings of the faithful saints.
Scientific inventions, technological advances and the accompanying personal wealth of the faithful church members have combined to create the greatest opportunities for church members to build the kingdom of god and extend their influence well beyond their own family and friends. Never in church history, ancient or modern, have members had such resources and opportunity at their disposal.
The monied people are necessarily the economic leading edge of any culture and it is also the case among the Mormons. But after one has "sufficient for our needs", what does he do with the balance? Historically, such groups as the Jews, black Americans, various Protestant groups and others have pooled their resources to either build schools, promote their art, or to tell their story. In addition such groups have given millions of dollars to charity, their own universities, feed the poor programs and other programs that benefit their own people or promote their own values. Although "rich" is a difficult term to define and is often a subjective matter; we can, in a comparative sense conclude that the poorest among us today may live better than any of the saints in 1830-40. On the other hand, the richest of the saints in 1830-40 probably had less than the poorest among us today. Still in a relative sense there are many poor among us today, many suffer, many have difficulty meeting even the most basic needs of today. While attending college in the late 1960s a friend and I were discussing families, marriage and children. My friend stated rather emphatically that large families can't be had today because families can't afford them. I observed that we have more money, more wealth, better and larger homes, more luxuries, more surplus of everything than any society has had in the history of the world. It is a matter of perspective I observed. But her view reflected the dominant worldly doctrine on the subject of large families. Rich is relative, abundance is relative, poverty is relative. And both are often determined in one's own mind by what he observes others to have. Our grandfathers were considered wealthy if they had land and livestock. In Korea you are considered rich if you own a pear orchard. And America? I suppose there are three standards by which we judge; cars, houses and trips to Disneyland.
But cars and houses are typically bought on credit and trips to Disneyland paid for on a Visa card. By almost any standard, most Americans are rich, at least most foreigners who visit the U.S. seem to think so. And Latter-day Saints are richer than most. With a high level of education, abundant opportunity and the desire to build the kingdom of God, most of us are driven to be financially successful.
The Book of Mormon provides many "types" or foreshadowing parallels for our own day. One such type is found in Helaman. The prophet Samuel (a Lamanite) is addressing the Nephites in chapter 13. "And it shall come to pass, saith the Lord...that whoso shall hide up treasures in the earth shall find them again no more, because of the great curse of the land, save he be a righteous man and shall hide it up unto the Lord. For I will, saith the Lord, that they shall hide up their treasures unto me; and cursed be they who hide not up their treasures unto me;...And the day shall come that they shall hide up their treasures, because they have set their hearts upon riches; and because they have set their hearts upon their riches,"1.
I will leave for the moment, the interpretation of the verse. But for sure the Lord has indicated a binary issue, those who have riches and hide them up unto the Lord and those who have riches and do not.
Samuel then makes an interesting differentiation when he says, "...for behold, he saith that ye are cursed because of your riches, and also are your riches cursed because ye have set your hearts upon them,"2. Not only are the rich cursed but the riches also. And why? Because they have set their hearts upon them. Our hearts are supposed to be set upon God--and none other.
Samuel continues to strip away the facades and reveal the true nature of the rich of his day and tells us why they are under condemnation. "Ye do not remember the Lord your God...but ye do always remember your riches,"3. The scriptures seem to be against the rich and they speak in strong language against them. "For it is easier for a camel to go through a needle's eye than for a rich man to enter into the Kingdom of God"4. Which caused the Jews to exclaim, "Who then can be saved?"
In the Book of Mormon, Jacob declares, "But wo unto the rich, who are rich as to the things of the world. For because they are rich they despise the poor, and they persecute the meek, and their hearts are upon their treasures; wherefore, their treasure is their god."5
So what would the Lord have us do? What does he expect of the Latter-day Saints who possess much? There are nearly two full pages in the Topical Guide dedicated to the subject of rich and riches. We are hardly left wanting to know the mind of the Lord on this subject.
Today, the Lord requires that we give a tenth of our increase to the Lord. This is required of all, rich and poor alike. We are also asked to give a generous fast offering each month. In addition, missionary fund, temple building funds and others are asked of us from time to time. There seems little doubt that most saints believe that such financial requirements from the Lord are sufficient, and for many that may be true. But for the truly wealthy or he who has more than he can spend on all his reasonable wants, the requirements are even greater. How much greater? Why? When?
In the introduction to section 119 of the Doctrine and Covenants, it is explained that, "The term 'tithing' in the prayer just quoted and in previous revelations...had meant not just one tenth, but all free-will offerings, or contributions, to the church funds. The Lord had previously given to the church the law of consecration and stewardship of property, which members (chiefly the leading elders) entered into by a covenant that was to be everlasting. Because of failure on the part of many to abide by the covenant, the Lord withdrew it for a time, and gave instead the law of tithing to the whole church."
This is a significant contribution of the new scriptures because it identifies not only the existing law but the will of the Lord on this particular doctrinal matter. If we then remember than until 1838, the saints were living the law of consecration, D & C 64:22-24 becomes most significant in that it clearly identifies the Lord's doctrine on giving to his church. It reads "...for I the Lord, require the hearts of the children of men. Behold, now it is called today until the coming of the Son of Man and verily it is a day of sacrifice, and a day for the tithing of my people; for he that is tithed shall not be burned at his coming. For after today cometh the burning--this is speaking after the manner of the Lord--for verily I say, tomorrow all the proud and they that do wickedly shall be as stubble;...and I will not spare any that remain in Babylon."
Three things are clear from these verses; 1) this law was to remain in effect until the Lord's second coming and, 2) the Lord requires sacrifice by his faithful and that sacrifice is clearly 100% of their surplus and, 3) the Lord will spare no church members who remain in Babylon, meaning the world. In D & C 85:3 the Lord makes his point even more clear, "It is contrary to the will and commandment of God that those who receive not their inheritance by consecration,...should have their names enrolled with the people of God." It seems clear that the sacrifice the Lord requires is all that we have, our hearts, our faithfulness, our surplus.
But the matter appears to go much deeper than this. In an October 1980 conference address, Elder Boyd K. Packer made, what to most of us is probably a startling declaration. he said, "Wealth and prominence do not always come from having earned them." If we did not earn them (and assuming we come by them honestly), then how did we get them? And what could he possibly mean?
Ecclesiastes 5:19 states flatly, "Every man also to whom God hath given riches and wealth...this is the gift of God." I think if most of us are honest with ourselves, we must admit that whatever riches we possess, much of it was unearned, it came as a blessing from God, it came as an answer to a desperate need, a fervent prayer--it came as manna from heaven to fill our supplicated request and to serve the purposes of the Lord, of which, we may or may not have had a clear understanding. It came by means that we cannot, in all honesty, take full credit for.
Elder Packer in that same address also provides an unusual insight into the purpose and meaning of riches when he declared, "We may foolishly bring unhappiness and trouble, even suffering upon ourselves. These are not always to be regarded as penalties imposed by a displeased Creator. They are part of the lessons of life, part of the test. Some are tested by poor health, some by a body that is deformed or homely. Others are tested by handsome and healthy bodies; some by the passion of youth; others by the erosions of age. Some suffer disappointment in marriage, family problems; others live in poverty and obscurity. Some (perhaps this is the hardest test) find ease and luxury. All are part of the test, and there is more equality in this testing than sometimes we suspect. It is possible to be both rich and famous and at the same time succeed spiritually. But the Lord warned of the difficulty of it when He talked of camels and needles."6
It is a myth that some passage existed in ancient Jerusalem where camels could be brought into the city only by stooping or being pushed through on their knees (the eye of the needle). The correct interpretation of that scripture in Matthew 19:23-24 is that the rich cannot enter into the kingdom of heaven as rich men. We might say, then, of the modern Saints, "Who then can enter, for are we not all rich?"
The answer as we will soon see is, none who have their hearts set upon their riches or are unwilling to give all to build the kingdom of God can enter the Kingdom of Heaven. Elder Packer said there are many tests, riches perhaps being the most difficult. And only if one has known wealth or those who have it, can one appreciate the truthfulness of Elder Packer's statement. It is indeed a great test, no less painful, trying and difficult than any other test man may be confronted with. It is a test that many of today's saints are being tested with. But how does one pass such a test?
All must learn and grow from the things which we suffer, as did Christ and Abraham. We must never lose our eternal perspective. The formula for our exaltation was known before we were born. Our tests and adversities are part of that process and, assuming we respond appropriately, will lead to our exaltation. for some, that test may be poor health, for others, poverty, for others it may be riches. Elder Packer adds one more insight into this problem when he states, "I want you, our children, to know this truth: You need not be either rich or hold high position to be completely successful and truly happy. In fact, if these things come to you, and they may, true success must be achieved in spite of them, not because of them."7
It may well be, that in many cases, riches come not as a result of having earned them, not as a result of personal worthiness, and not because we are prepared to use them wisely. They come to some as a gift from God. The real challenge is to obtain that "true success" spoken of by Elder Packer, in spite of our riches. And if such riches come as a gift from God, one must come to understand the reason for such a bestowal. What does God want me to do with this gift?
Riches, then, may be more a part of the test than a part of the blessing. But as we know, where much is given, much is expected, and such holds ever so true for this generation of well to do members. If we are to succeed spiritually, we must avoid idolatry, the idolatry so often identified by the prophets. President Kimball, again, identified that same idolatry, "The Lord has blessed us as a people with a prosperity unequaled in times past. The resources that have been placed in our power are good, and necessary to our work here on the earth. But I am afraid that many of us have been surfeited with flocks and herds and acres and barns and wealth and have begun to worship them as false gods, and they have power over us."8 This last concern of President Kimball's is the issue identified so frequently in the scriptures. The issue is not nearly so much the riches, but the power they have over us. And surely riches are not greatly different from other evils that have power over us, whether it be alcohol, drugs, lusts of the flesh, or the devil himself, the result is the same--we worship the idol and abandon God, failing to give the Lord credit for His work.
President Kimball goes on in the same message to prick our consciences even deeper. "Do we have more of these good things than our faith can stand? Many people spend most of their time working in the service of a self-image that includes sufficient money, stocks, bonds, investment portfolios, property, credit cards, furnishings, automobiles, and the like to guarantee carnal security throughout, it is hoped, a long and happy life." And then President Kimball closes with an often forgotten but critical truth. "Forgotten is the fact that our assignment is to use these many resources in our families and quorums to build up the kingdom of God--to further the missionary effort and the genealogical and temple work; to raise our children up as fruitful servants unto the Lord; to bless others in every way, that they may also be fruitful. Instead, we expend these blessings on our own desires, and as Moroni said, 'Ye adorn yourselves with that which hath no life, and yet suffer the hungry, and the needy, and the naked, and the sick and the afflicted to pass you, and notice them not.'"
President Kimball is not speaking here about tithing only, or ward budgets, he has gone far beyond that into an area where most of us will not allow ourselves to go because of the love of the things of the world. It is ironic, that it is precisely this area where the real spiritual blessings come--and few seem willing to venture in.
President Kimball calls the question of priorities. The answer can be none other than the Lord's own decree "But seek ye first the kingdom of God and His righteousness..."9 It may well be that the seeking of the kingdom of God first is so necessary because the Lord knows that he cannot withhold temporal blessings from the faithful saints. But if one is to seek first for the riches of the world and then seek the riches of eternity, he is not prepared to recognize those riches for what they are--gifts from God, to be used primarily to build the kingdom of God, "in our quorums, our families, our temples,...genealogy", and secondarily to feed ones own wants.
Thus because having riches affects so dramatically how man views life, it is critical for the saints to have themselves oriented spiritually. The poor are continually humbled because few of their temporal wants are ever realized. But because the rich have most or all of their temporal needs (and wants) filled, it is an easy psychological step for them to pretend they need God no more. It is a disastrous step for church members, one he cannot afford to take. It is an interesting contrast to look at rich and poor followers of God. Abraham had great wealth, lands and cattle and possessions; yet succeeded spiritually and is now exalted (D&C 132:29). Though we don't have a detailed account of his life, his behavior, particularly with the sacrifice of Isaac and his continual concern for the stranger who may be in need of his help, it is obvious that he is not mired in idolatry of worldly possessions, but a faithful servant seeking only the will of the father.
Joseph in Egypt had power, wealth and fame yet he succeeded spiritually. Lehi was a man of considerable means but was also a spiritual success. Brigham Young was a man of many possessions, lands, homes, businesses, etc., but he was a model of obedience to the Lord.
It is of more than passing interest that the pride in ancient times (Bible and Book of Mormon) came most visibly by riches or power. Today, talent, good looks, fame, social status and wealth can be just as destructive. It is also of interest to note that nearly all scriptural references to the rich and their riches appear in the Bible and the Book of Mormon. There are only a handful of references in the Doctrine and Covenants to riches. It may be the Lord must bless the members with riches in order to build his kingdom in preparation for his second coming. But He undoubtedly expects the Saints to have learned well the lessons of ages past, of prior prideful civilizations. Yet, he knows there is a great risk in blessing man with wealth. But he expects us (the noble and great ones) to be knowledgeable, wise and prepared to receive these great temporal blessings and to use them to build His kingdom and most importantly, for the recipient to worship the true and living God, not one made of gold and silver.
Is it possible for a wealthy Latter-day Saint to be in good standing if his resources go into building his own kingdom (mansion homes, $100,000 automobiles, world travel and leisure) but does little (beyond tithing) to build the Lord's kingdom and to establish Zion? How many missionaries could serve for the price of a single $100,000 car? How much genealogy and temple work could be done for the price of one mansion of a home ($500,000-2,000,000)? How many saints could receive hope and opportunity through the wasted and wanton spending of fortunes on oneself? Are we building Zion or Babylon?
The earth (and the church) abounds in good and worthy investments for our money. But worthy members must invest in people, the kingdom of God, the message of the restored gospel. This message has not yet been taken to all the world. We as a people have not yet devoted ourselves to taking the truth of all things to the world. The opposite in fact occurs. The world brings its depraved and enslaving doctrines into our lives, our homes, our hearts, every day. The Lord expects us to be bearers of the message not weak, passive recipients of some other message. What message are we giving by living in opulence, and ignoring the needs of God and the poor?