Indulgences and “Temple Worthiness” for Mormons

Indulgences were a medieval practice of the Western Catholic church in which people were able to pay the church in order to gain immediate remission of sins. Martin Luther listed the selling of indulgences as one of the major reasons that the Catholic church needed reformation in 1517. Though Luther did not intend to split the church into factions, that is precisely what happened.

There are many Protestant denominations now that believe in different parts of the original Christian church. Mormonism arose in the early 1800s out of the arguments about the “right church” swirling around Joseph Smith’s family in upper New York. In some ways, Mormonism might be seen as another Christian sect, though Mormons think of it as a “restoration” of Christ’s original church after the great apostasy only a century after Christ’s death.

Mormonism struggled as a church with financial solvency for almost all of its early years. Joseph Smith seems to have been particularly bad at managing finances, as seen by the failure of various banks he attempted to set up and that eventually failed and caused many to leave the church or denounce Joseph himself as a fallen prophet. A brief history of tithing in Mormonism:

In these early years, Smith called for church members to follow the “law of consecration,” which later was turned into the law of tithing, though what exactly that meant changed from two percent of a household’s annual income, according to Edward Partridge in 1837, to the current ten percent of income now expected of members to maintain a temple recommend and be considered “full tithe payers” after a yearly “tithing settlement” interview with their local bishop.

Even after Brigham Young took the Saints across the Plains to Utah, the church continued to struggle and there were regular periods when tithing had to be emphasized again. Brigham Young asked for a “conversion tithe,” where members gave ten percent of their property to the church on joining, as well as an “immigration tithe,” where members who moved to Utah gave a tenth of their property remaining after the journey to the church. Members were sometimes encouraged to give a “labor tithe,” meaning working every tenth day for the church, if they had nothing else to offer.

In the late 1890s, the church moved to a cash basis for tithing and again Lorenzo Snow called for church members to pay tithing. In the 1960s, the church overspent money on buildings and had to cut back for a time. Now the Mormon Church is estimated to have assets over thirty billion dollars, enough to back a luxury mall right next to the church’s flagship temple in Salt Lake City. The general authorities of the church receive a comfortable stipend (over $120,000), as well as other perks, like children’s free admission to church schools, and cars. They are not asked to pay tithing on either their stipend or perks.

I’m not bothered by church leaders being paid (though sometimes it’s frustrating when Mormon congratulate themselves on having a “lay” clergy and when on a local level, members staff everything including the bishopric while still working full-time jobs and are also asked to clean the church, take care of the grounds and do snow removal despite paying tithing that goes directly to the corporation of the church).

What bothers me is the way in which paying tithing has become an indulgence. The Mormon Church is selling salvation in the highest levels of the celestial kingdom to those who pay a full tithe. If you don’t pay that tithe, you can no longer enter the temple for children’s weddings, for their endowments before they go on missions, or for other important family events.

I gave up a temple recommend voluntarily in 2016, after I became discouraged by the way in which church funds were being used and the lack of control I had over how my funds were used. (I can designate what area I would like the funds to be used in, but the church makes no promise to use them that way.) But the longer I have been without a temple recommend, the more disturbed I am by the way in which temple attendance is tied to a hefty financial contribution. It is simply not the way that I can see God operating.

The Christ of The New Testament hated money. He threw money changers out of the temple. He told to render unto Caesar that which was Caesar’s. He seemed disturbed by the ways in which we mortals commercialize our devotion and the ways in which we see high monetary contributions as more important than a contribution like “the widow’s mite.

Does one have to pay tithing to remain a member of the Mormon church? No. But often fathers are denied the opportunity to participate in priesthood advancement of children or baptizing children if they are not full tithe payers with a temple recommend. It is nearly impossible to rise to any level of authority without paying tithing (there are rumors that an initial list of members who might become a new bishop is taken from the highest male tithe payers in the ward).

But it isn’t even the shaming that we do to those who don’t pay a tithe and thus show their worthiness that bothers me most. It is the idea that God only allows entrance to the holiest of holies based on our tithes. I know that poor people pay a smaller amount and that rich people pay more. I understand that Mormons talk about how what is important is to have faith and trust that God will make up the rest. But I struggle with the calls for parents to pay tithing before they buy food for their children, pay rent on their dwellings, or anything else. The truth is that the poor simply do not have the buffer that the rich do to pay tithes. And what kind of God demands that we pay Casesar’s coin to get into the temple and go through the holiest of sacraments?

Written by

Author of The Bishop’s Wife mystery series, The Mormon Sabbatical Podcast, Princeton PhD, fiction editor at Exponent II, autist, she/her

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