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The Untold Tale of the Tenth: A Brief History of Adventist Benevolence in Historical Context


From 1844 to the present, Adventist attitudes toward giving have been shaped by a plethora of articles, tracts, sermons, and Church Manuals, few of them in total agreement on the method of tithing. This body of literature, before 1880 largely apologetic and defensive, but since 1880 rather didactic, has itself been shaped by external events, chief among them the Panics of 1857 and 1873 and the Great Depression of the 1930s.

From 1844 to 1859, Sabbatarian Adventists had no plan for regular giving, but relied on freewill donations from interested hearers. For example, during three months of hard labor in Illinois in 1857, J.N. Loughborough received ten dollars in cash, a buffalo skin overcoat, and his board and room. During the winter of 1857-58, his listeners in Michigan gave him three ten-pound cakes of maple sugar, ten bushels of wheat, five bushels of apples, five bushels of potatoes, a peck of beans, one ham, half a hog, and $4.00 in cash. After spending the summer in Wisconsin, four months of preaching netted him only twenty dollars in cash plus board, room, and some traveling expenses. Another minister in 1859, after driving a team of horses on a 200-mile, three-week circuit, during which he preached fourteen times, returned home with only four dollars in his pocket. The inevitable result of this unsystematic giving was sporadic labor for the cause: have money, will preach; no money, must farm or do carpentry work.

Then came the Panic of 1857, the first worldwide economic crisis. Triggered by the fraudulent dealings in and the subsequent failure of the Ohio Life Insurance and Trust Company, this financial panic caused scores of businesses to fail; the railroad industry declined and hundreds of workers were fired. Railroad stocks had seen increasingly speculative buying, which only made things worse when the bubble burst in August of 1857. By the spring of 1858, commercial credit had dried up; American merchants experienced decreased sales and profits; scores of banks closed; numerous railroads declared bankruptcy; laborers took ten percent pay cuts; and many farmers lost their land to bank foreclosures. The nation did not pull out of this depression until the Civil War began in 1861. The hardest hit area of the U.S. was the Great Lakes region where Adventists had established their headquarters at Battle Creek in 1855.

In April of 1858, James White described the tiny pool of preaching brethren as “sunken down under poverty, broken-down health and discouragement.” Something must be done soon to sustain the cause financially or the Advent Movement would come to a screeching halt. In February of 1859, a committee of three men in Battle Creek proposed a Systematic Benevolence Plan based on 1 Corinthians 16:2 (Let every believer set aside funds on the first day of the week), 2 Corinthians 8:12-14 (emphasized the equality principle), and 2 Corinthians 9:5-7 (God loves cheerful givers). In practical terms, the committee urged males from 18 to 60 years of age to give 5-25 cents weekly; females to give 2-10 cents weekly; and both groups to add 1-5 cents more for every $100 worth of property owned. It should be noted, however, that the ill, aged, and those under 18 were not expected to participate in the Systematic Benevolence Plan.

It is also worth mentioning that at no time did any Adventist leader reference Malachi 3:8-10 (tithing one’s income); no one used the term “sacrifice” for this plan; nor did any writers initially emphasize the divine blessings to be gained by giving. Instead, articles in the Review stressed the great needs of the cause and the fairness, equality, and non-sacrificial nature of what was popularly called “the Sister Betsy (S.B.) Plan.” Every Sunday the local S.B. treasurer visited each member’s home, carrying a hand trunk or satchel, and a record book with receipts. “All expect him, and all get ready for him, and meet him with open hands and benevolent feelings.”

As it evolved during the 1860s and 1870s, the Systematic Benevolence Plan was based on the tithing principle: full-time workers were urged to give a tithe or ten percent of their annual increase to the cause. Since James White estimated that one’s increase represented about ten percent of the annual growth of one’s assets, in reality, the S.B. Plan amounted to only one percent of one’s total income for any given year. But in Ohio, members were expected to pay an “annual church tax” of two percent based on the treasurer’s assessment of their property.

While there were pockets of resistance to the “Sister Betsy Plan” and occasional misuse of the funds for building or maintenance of local meeting houses, by and large, the S.B. Plan put the Advent Movement back on track financially for the next twenty years. Loughborough stated in June of 1861 that it “has been the salvation of the cause of present truth from bankruptcy.” Between 1859 and 1879 a steady stream of S.B. funds and offerings enabled the fledgling denomination to build scores of meeting houses; form a dozen local conferences and a General Conference; found a publishing house, a sanitarium, and a college; and send a handful of missionaries to Europe. In a word, everything was hunky-dory until the Panic of 1873.

The Panic of 1873 was a financial crisis that brought a depression in Europe and North America that lasted until 1879 (even longer in France and Great Britain). It was caused by rampant speculative investments in railroads (the second largest employer after agriculture), shipping docks, and factories; the demonetization of silver in Germany and the U.S.; growing trade deficits; global ripples from the Franco-Prussian War of 1870-71; and huge property losses from the 1871 fire in Chicago and the 1872 fire in Boston. Its immediate trigger, however, occurred thousands of miles away in Vienna, the capital of the vast Austro-Hungarian Empire, which in 1873 stopped minting silver coins. This dropped the bottom out of the Western silver mining industry, reduced the domestic money supply, and resulted in the U.S. abandoning its own silver currency. When President Ulysses Grant contracted the money supply, this raised interest rates, making matters worse for debtors. These cumulative factors soon triggered a chain reaction of bank failures, the closure of the NY Stock Market, the failure or bankruptcy of 110 American railroads, the closing of 18,000 businesses, and the firing of hundreds of workers. Again, the Panic of 1873 hit Michigan particularly hard when its lumbering companies went bankrupt.

Under these trying circumstances, the Sister Betsy Plan of giving ten percent of one’s annual increase no longer provided sufficient funds to keep the Gospel train moving forward. Paradoxically, although James White in April of 1861 had rejected “the Israelitish tithing system” as “God’s plan of the Levitical priesthood,” but not applicable to Adventists today, the Panic of 1873 forced him and other leaders to revisit the Old Testament. In a series of articles in the Review in the spring of 1876, Dudley M. Canright now called Malachi 3:8-11 “The Bible Plan of supporting the Ministry.” “God requires that a tithe, or one-tenth, of all the income of his people shall be given to support his servants in their labors,” he wrote. “Notice,” he added, “the Lord does not say you should give me a tenth, but he says one-tenth is the Lord’s.” Therefore, since the tithe already belonged to God, believers merely returned it to Him.

With the stroke of his pen, Canright thus reversed all previous Adventist thinking on tithing. Believers do not pay the tithe as a “church tax,” but return it to God as His own. Furthermore, they should not give one-tenth of their increase from one year to the next, but one-tenth of their total annual income. Moreover, Canright and Ellen White now changed the focus of tithing rhetoric in Church papers. They emphasized the divine blessings received by the generous giver. They highlighted items such as tea, coffee, tobacco, alcohol, dances, the theater, and jewelry which Adventists willingly avoided, thus saving thousands of dollars annually that could be donated to the cause of Present Truth. During the 1880s, Adventists everywhere adopted the full tithing plan (except for the saints in Arkansas, who were still following the Systematic Benevolence Plan in the late 1890s). But Ellen White repeatedly stated in her Testimonies that by whatever name it was called, “Systematic Benevolence [or Tithing] should not be made systematic compulsion.”

Then came the Great Depression of the 1930s. Sparked by the Wall Street Crash on “Black Tuesday” (October 29, 1929), this economic crisis was made far worse than any previous “panic” because of the drought conditions of the western Dust Bowl. The Crash triggered bank closures, mass unemployment, homelessness, hunger, despair, and dejection for tens of thousands of Americans and millions more abroad. It brought with it bread lines, soup kitchens, hunger marches, shantytowns (called “Hoovervilles”), and the violent Bonus Army March by WWI veterans chanting “Feed the hungry, tax the rich” as they occupied Washington, D.C. Between 1929 and 1931, over 20,000 companies and businesses closed; over 3,000 banks went bankrupt (10% of the nation’s total); and suicides skyrocketed to 18.9 per 1000. By 1932 construction projects had fallen by 80%; by 1933 over 12,000,000 Americans were unemployed (25% of the population) as 70,000 factories closed. International trade fell by 70 percent.

Since the U.S. had no welfare system, bread lines stretched for blocks in major cities and churches and charities established soup kitchens. Thousands of homeless men and women lived in hastily built shantytowns on public lands; 50% of all American children did not have adequate food, shelter, or medical care. Thousands of hobos rode freight trains across the country looking for any kind of work, especially those who had lived in the Dakotas, Nebraska, Kansas, Oklahoma, and New Mexico (the heart of the Dust Bowl that destroyed 100,000,000 acres of land and rendered 3,000,000 people homeless and impoverished).

During the Great Depression, as the Adventist Church experienced significant reductions in financial support, leaders’ rhetoric regarding tithes and offerings became ever more detailed and didactic. In 1932, the nadir of the Depression, the first Church Manual was published. It emphasized for the first time the duties of local church leaders to be tithe payers. “A man [sic] who fails to set an example in this matter should not be elected to the position of elder,” it stated, adding that “all church officers should be tithe payers.” While the Manual agreed that tithe paying “is not held as a test of fellowship,” those “conference workers and church elders and other officers and institutional leaders who failed to pay tithe, should not be continued in office.” In fact, in 1951 the Manual mandated that church leaders who failed to be faithful tithe payers must not only be expelled from the office of local elder, but also barred from any other church offices. Three years later, the Manual for Ministers tightened the noose around non-tithe-paying workers’ necks by stipulating that “no worker shall be continued in denominational employment who is found to be unfaithful in tithe paying, nor shall he [sic] be transferred to another conference unless he [sic] reforms.”

In 1932, for the first time, tithing entered the roster of “Fundamental Beliefs.” Number 18 stated:

That the divine principle of tithes and offerings for the support of the gospel is an acknowledgement of God’s ownership in our lives, and that we are stewards who must render account to Him of all that He has committed to our possession.

Likewise, tithing for the first time entered the list of baptismal vows in 1951 as Number 10 asked:

Do you believe in church organization, and is it your purpose to support the church by your tithes and offerings, your personal effort, and influence?”

But in 1985, when the Annual Council proposed several significant revisions in the area of tithing, offerings, and church employment, the wording of its proposals reveals that confusion still reigned in official circles. Their definition of “a faithful tithe” included the words “one tenth of their increase or personal income.” Yet as you know, the two terms are not the same.

The burgeoning number of appeals by local churches and independent Adventist institutions for a share of the member’s dollar also drastically reduced mission offerings from a high of 28.6% of the tithe dollar in 1934 to a low of 6.5% in 1985. Moreover, while 68% of church members in the 1980s figured their tithe on gross personal income, 29% based their tithe on net income after taxes, and about 3% figured it on the amount left after major living expenses had been deducted. Furthermore, it was not uncommon for some Adventist ministers to support tithing net income. Others zealously urged giving a double tithe, while some conferences in the 1980s trumpeted the 10+10+ plan of tithes and offerings. Thus, in a very real sense, the Adventist concept of tithing and systematic giving is still in a state of flux and may evolve for decades to come in response to external financial crises and Church officials’ recommendations.


Click here to read this article in Spanish.


Brian E. Strayer is Professor Emeritus of History at Andrews University. This article was originally presented at the Andrews University Campus Dialogue Sabbath School Class on February 10, 2018. It is reprinted here with permission.

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