Though the needs are vast and the laborers few, our current generation is adding new insights and methods to the legacy of caring left to us by our forebears. This fiftieth year of Welfare Services gives Latter-day Saints the opportunity to review that legacy and convinces us of two truths: Basic principles remain unchanged through the ages, but methods of applying those principles change as necessary to meet differing needs and circumstances.
We might summarize the welfare principles revealed throughout history as follows:
In the beginning, God commanded man to earn his bread by his own labors. (See Gen. 3:19.)
From the fruits of his labors, man is to care for those of his own household. (See 1 Tim. 5:8.)
From his surpluses, and often by sacrifice, man should deal his bread to the poor and needy. (See Mosiah 4:16–19.)
Man must live in harmony with those around him, esteeming others as himself seeking to make all men equal in temporal things so all may receive the blessings of the Spirit. (See D&C 78:5–6.)
Man is to use the resources the Lord has given him to further the work of God. (See D&C 104:11–12.)
These principles are a priceless heritage. When lived as intended, they enable us to alleviate suffering, build character, and create unity among the faithful.
By living these principles, Saints in previous dispensations unveiled to our view the possibilities that lie within our reach.
The city of Enoch, for example, became Zion, and God dwelt there with his people. (See Moses 7:16.) “And the Lord called his people Zion, because they were of one heart and one mind, and dwelt in righteousness; and there was no poor among them.” (Moses 7:18.) History records only the accomplishments—not the methods—of Enoch and his people. But their example has inspired faithful people through the ages with these two important truths:
1. It is possible to arrive at a condition in which temporal practices foster spiritual salvation. The scriptures report three additional examples of peoples who reached this condition: the people of Melchizedek in Abraham’s time (see JST, Gen. 14:26–36), the New Testament Saints following the Savior’s earthly ministry (see Acts 2:44–45; Acts 4:32–37), and the Nephites who were visited by the resurrected Christ (see 4 Ne. 1:2–18).
2. Welfare principles lead to the conditions that characterized Zion: “They were of one heart and one mind.” (Moses 7:18.) “There was no contention among all the people.” (4 Ne. 1:13.) “They did walk after the commandments which they had received from their Lord and their God.” (4 Ne. 1:12.) “The love of God … did dwell in the hearts of the people.” (4 Ne. 1:15.) “They had all things common among them.” (4 Ne. 1:3.) “There was no poor among them.” (Moses 7:18.)
The message of history is clear and timely in this pre-millennial era. God has revealed basic principles for the welfare and salvation of his children, and these principles have not changed since the days of Enoch. Other civilizations have lived them and have received the promised, glorious rewards. It is expected that we will rise to the same standard in our dispensation.
Whenever inspired men and women have sought appropriate ways to apply welfare principles, the Lord has revealed methods suited to their circumstances. History reveals a surprising variety of approaches to caring for temporal needs, but two methods are dominant: compassionate service and self-reliance.
1. Compassionate Giving and Service. “Thou shalt open thine hand wide unto him.” (Deut. 15:8.) “Give to him that asketh thee.” (Matt. 5:42.) “I would that ye should impart of your substance to the poor.” (Mosiah 4:26.) “Ye must visit the poor and the needy and administer to their relief.” (D&C 44:6.) “The rich cannot be saved without charity, giving to feed the poor when and how God requires.” (History of the Church, 4:608.)
Compassionate giving and service ensure that (1) the poor do not suffer (Mosiah 4:16–21), (2) those whom the Lord has made rich sufficiently sacrifice, and (3) the Lord’s people are equal in earthly things so that things of the Spirit may be fully manifested among them (see D&C 70:14). Temporal equality means that all are adequately supplied with basic needs of life—food, shelter, and clothing.
Saints in every dispensation have practiced methods of giving and serving suitable to their circumstances. During Old Testament times, tithes of property, flocks, and harvest were paid in kind. The tithes supported the priestly tribe of Levi and provided for the stranger, widow, and fatherless. (See Lev. 27:30; Deut. 26:12.) Saints in ancient Israel left the margins and gleanings of their fields, vineyards, and oliveyards for the poor. (See Lev. 19:10; Lev. 23:22; Deut. 24:19–22.) During the sabbath year (every seventh year), the field or vineyard was allowed to fallow so the poor of the people could eat from it. (See Ex. 23:11.)
Saints in both ancient and modern eras consecrated their belongings for the care of the needy. New Testament Saints gathered money to assist the distressed and shared these offerings among the churches. (See Rom. 15:26.) They also sold possessions and gave the proceeds to the Church. (See Acts 4:32–37.) Saints in the Kirtland/Missouri era of Church history deeded properties to the Church, then received a stewardship by return deed, “according to the laws of the land.” (D&C 51:6.)
Latter-day Saints contribute to and preserve this legacy of caring when they give a generous fast offering and serve the needy.
2. Self-reliance. “In the sweat of thy face shalt thou eat bread, till thou return unto the ground.” (Gen. 3:19.) “Yea, and all their priests and teachers should labor with their own hands for their support, in all cases save it were in sickness, or in much want; and doing these things, they did abound in the grace of God.” (Mosiah 27:5.)
Self-reliance is the swiftest route to achieving well-being. “Work is a spiritual necessity as well as an economic necessity,” said President Spencer W. Kimball. (Ensign, May 1981, p. 80.) Reason tells us that ability to serve compassionately is reduced when one is dependent upon others.
No method of assisting the needy has received more resourceful attention in this dispensation than creating employment opportunities that enable Latter-day Saints to care for themselves and others. The United Order fostered full employment by assigning each man a stewardship and place of labor. (See D&C 104:11–12.) In Nauvoo, those who could not find employment were set to work building the temple, the Nauvoo House, or other public works projects. (See Bruce D. Blumell, “Remember the Poor”: A History of Welfare in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 1830–1980,” Apr. 1981, p. 16; unpublished manuscript.)
Brigham Young counseled leaders to “set the poor to work—setting out orchards, splitting rails, digging ditches, making fences, or anything useful, and so enable them to buy meal and flour and the necessaries of life.” (In Journal of Discourses, 12:61.)
Similar emphasis was placed on employment after the depression of 1896, again in the 1920s, and finally in the 1930s. In each case, Church members and leaders acted with creative initiative to meet employment needs, thereby encouraging self-reliance.
As the worldwide depression of the 1930s gradually slowed the wheels of industry and commerce, leaving thousands of Latter-day Saints without means of supporting themselves, Church leaders throughout the world attempted to find ways of helping members find employment.
By 1935, working models began emerging from the innovative efforts of priesthood leaders in many areas of the Church. The approach most publicized in succeeding years began under the direction of President Harold B. Lee in the Pioneer Stake. Stake members renovated an old building and contracted with struggling farmers to provide labor in return for a share of the harvest. The stake’s share was either sold to help the needy or canned and distributed to them. (See Henry D. Taylor, “The Church Welfare Plan,” unpublished manuscript, 1984, p. 10; “Golden Jubilee History of Liberty Stakes 1904 to 1954,” unpublished manuscript, Church historian’s office.)
On 6 April 1936, the First Presidency introduced the Church Security Plan to selected priesthood leaders. They called for an increase in fast offerings and full payment of tithing. And they encouraged every bishop “to have accumulated by next October conference sufficient food and clothes to provide for every family in his ward during the coming winter. The Relief Society must cooperate in this work.” (As quoted in “The Church Welfare Plan,” p. 23.)
During the October 1936 conference, the First Presidency issued this statement: “Our primary purpose was to set up, in so far as it might be possible, a system under which the curse of idleness would be done away with, the evils of a dole abolished, and independence, industry, thrift and self respect be once more established amongst our people. The aim of the Church is to help the people to help themselves. Work is to be re-enthroned as the ruling principle of the lives of our Church membership.” (In Conference Report, Oct. 1936, p. 3.)
Once confined largely to the mountains of western America, the Church now spans the globe. A generation once employed mostly on farms and in shops has given birth to new generations sustaining themselves in the offices, factories, and laboratories of a complex, technological world. The Church once governed itself in an isolated frontier territory; its members must now live in harmony with diverse laws and governments.
As we now address current and future welfare needs in this global society, the history of welfare services efforts reminds us that (1) revealed welfare principles apply both in times of dramatic need and in days of boundless prosperity; (2) the Lord reveals workable solutions as Church members apply true principles to meet their needs; (3) progress in welfare efforts is measured in the depth and quality of individual gospel living and giving; and (4) the needs of members in a worldwide Church require local initiatives and problem solving; the Church cannot provide all means and systems to meet local needs.
Speaking of welfare efforts initiated on 6 April 1936, President Harold B. Lee said, “We haven’t been experimenting, we have had the blueprint. All through the years we have had the scriptures, the blueprint’s there, we have just been trying to make our model fit the blueprint.” (As quoted in Henry D. Taylor, “The Church Welfare Plan,” p. 84.)
As we now move forward, preparing a people for the events attending the Savior’s second coming, we take confidence from the successes of our forebears. Each step toward self-reliance, each compassionate gift and service, each creative effort to address today’s needs is interwoven with similar efforts by millions of others of God’s children and will someday clothe the world with charity and bring the promised Zion.