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Melchizedek Priesthood Manual, 1939: On debt, taxation, conservation, and labor

By: Ardis E. Parshall - October 02, 2008

In 1939, under the direction of the Quorum of the Twelve, the church published Priesthood and Church Welfare: A Study Course of the Quorums of the Melchizedek Priesthood for the Year 1939, 2nd ed. (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Co., 1939). Written by George Stewart, Dilworth Walker, and E. Cecil McGavin, this 300-page book describes the then-new church welfare plan. More than that, it discusses principles of cooperation, debt, investment, labor, home production, the Law of Consecration, the United Order, the management of natural resources (including those useful for recreation), charitable contributions, health, thrift, and home repairs – virtually everything that could possibly be grouped under that old Mormon rubric, “temporal salvation.”


It is a remarkable book. Leafing through the pages almost at random turns up paragraphs as relevant today as 80 years ago.

On debt:

Wars and depressions cause governments to go in debt to meet the emergencies. Unbalanced budgets usually result in monetary inflation accompanied by rising prices, over optimism, speculation and false prosperity. During such periods many people lose their sense of values, rush headlong into debt to buy more sheep, more land, more stocks and bonds, more of anything because prices are rising and prospective profits are great. Even the most conservative are often blinded by the confusion, by the trend of the times. Even Bishops and Stake Presidents have been known to mortgage a debt-free farm or debt-free sheep or cattle in order to buy more, because “everybody is doing it.” And banks have frequently encouraged them in such speculative ventures, even though the land price or the sheep or cattle prices were double the normal price at the time of the venture.

When the break comes – and it always does come, for what goes up must come down – prices decline, land values shrink, banks close in on the loans and thousands find themselves bankrupt. The one who borrowed $9.00 per head on his debt-free herd of sheep to buy another herd at $18.00 per head, now finds that he still owes $9.00 per head on both herds that he would have difficulty in selling for $4 or $5 per head. So the bank is unwillingly forced into the sheep business, and the heretofore thrifty farmer finds himself bankrupt at a time in life when he should be turning his business over to his sons, so that he could retire, not rich, but financially independent.

On taxation:

Some persons have peculiar notions about our Government, its activities, services and costs. They look upon the cost of government as a burden upon society. Taxes are considered an evil and something to be avoided (or evaded) if possible.

In reality, the expense of government is no more of a burden than the cost of telephone, transportation or postal service. For example, if a business concern should purchase a truck for delivery service, that would be a legitimate expense. But if the same business is asked to pay a gasoline tax to help construct and maintain a hard surface road over which te truck is to operate, that would probably be regarded as a burden, because it is a governmental function.

Likewise the typical taxpayer considers his payments for fire insurance an ordinary expense. But he “knows” that his payments in the form of taxes to keep a trained and well-equipped fire department to protect his home and property are not an expense, but a burden. Similarly, the cost of his summer cottage or his country club is not a burden, though the cost of public parks is a burden; the education of his daughter at a private musical conservatory is merely an expense, but payments through taxes for education in public schools is a burden. …

To be sure, our present tax system has many defects. Assessment practices are far from perfect. Some governmental agencies are woefully inefficient. As a result, many persons and businesses become proficient at shifting the tax on to some one else, or in evading it entirely. …

But if we want governmental services, they must be paid for; and in a capitalistic system, where individual initiative and freedom of enterprise is preserved, taxation in one form or another is the only way these expenses can be met. T he only alternative is a socialistic system, where the government owns and operates all forms of productive wealth.

On conservation of the natural world:

Endowed by the Creator with a splendid set of resources, man needs to bring his affairs and activities into tune with the law of God and cooperate with Him in preserving the range, wildlife and recreational resources. Man cannot of himself make streams, shady nooks or grassy glades, or change bare spots into plant-covered ranges. Only nature can do this, by following the eternal laws of the universe.

God has given to man the mountains, the streams, the plants and the animals. To man God has given also intelligence and a versatile body. It is not too much to expect that man shall use his intelligence to put his affairs in tune with the Creator, and so to govern his use of the natural resources as to preserve them for his children, and his children’s children. It is no easy problem to solve, but man will reach his greatest development and make his greatest progress, both temporally and spiritually, by conquest over great difficulties. When man’s effort is strongest, the assurance that he will be given Divine assistance is greatest.

Wage laborers

The role of the working-man of today, however, is quite different from the hired man of a few generations ago. At the time our church was organized approximately three-fourths of the population lived on farms, produced their own food and made most of their own clothing. In the main, people provided their own employment. There were few corporations and few hired men. And accordingly there was little unemployment, and therefore practically no excuse for idleness.

In contrast, we find three-fourths of the people living in cities today, largely dependent upon giant industrial corporations for employment. Most of the so-called working class are dependent upon their weekly wage, living in a rented apartment just around the corner from a grocery store, and not far from a five-and-ten-cent department store from which most of their needs are supplied from day to day. If the factory shuts down, due to business reverses or unfavorable economic conditions, the average worker and his family find themselves in a serious predicament. Usually they have little or no reserves, no garden, chickens or cows to supplement the factory pay check, and so the family is virtually stranded unless the government or some other agency comes to their aid. …

In time we will no doubt learn how to live in a highly industrialized civilization without experiencing such violent disturbances. Perhaps we may come to Henry Ford’s plan of decentralized industrial villages, where the wage-earner can have a home of his own, a few chickens, a cow and a garden to supplement the family income and to afford greater security in time of economic disturbances. Or, perhaps the government will devise a permanent program of work projects for the unemployed on a more satisfactory basis than now exists. Or, maybe, an entirely different economic system will evolve out of our difficulties, based on the principles of cooperation, with more emphasis on economic security, and less emphasis on profits, expansion and exploitation.

This is probably as close as Keepa will ever get to inviting rants or debates on such politically charged topics. Try to be courteous, but if you have anything to say in agreement or disagreement, or any opinion on church progressiveness in 1939, feel free to discuss it.



17 Comments »

  1. It seems to me like a nicely balanced, moderate, and sensible approach.

    Comment by Doug Hudson — October 2, 2008 @ 6:57 am

  2. Maybe we should consider getting a cow. Or at least a few chickens. Failing that, I should look up how to process acorns into flour to deal with our yearly crop.

    Like most Americans, my financial and economic education is severely limited. The most sensible advice was from a high school teacher who drilled into our heads the principle that you buy low and sell high. Seems intuitive, but I watched with wonder as neighbors and acquaintances got additional mortgages a few years back to pour their resources (and others’ resources) into second homes and investment properties.

    Comment by Researcher — October 2, 2008 @ 8:14 am

  3. Pres. Kimball constantly reminded us to be prudent, and raise some of our own food in gardens where we could. I see nothing here but wise counsel, every bit as pertinent today as in 1939.

    I’m not normally a nostalgic person, but this sounds like a great manual.

    Comment by kevinf — October 2, 2008 @ 10:27 am

  4. A stake presidency counselor a couple of conferences back gave an address that equated the use of our time with money and debt. He basically said that perhaps we needed to take a less-interesting job that was more stable and offered more time at home, rather than a ‘wow’ job that paid more money but mortgaged our free time.

    As I read that portion about mortgaging away a debt-free farm, I thought of our SP counselor’s words …

    Comment by queuno — October 2, 2008 @ 10:39 am

  5. I agree with 1939.

    Comment by Rechabite — October 2, 2008 @ 12:02 pm

  6. I just got a “spam” call that began: “Congratulations, you have been pre-qualified for a reduced interest rate on your existing account.” I hung up without hearing any more of the good news. Who says that credit is unavailable?

    It may be nice to have a steady source of milk and cream (and later, steaks and burgers), but owning a cow is really a misstatement. It’s the cow that owns you. It’s like an American Express card, but it’s way too big to fit in your wallet.

    Chickens, on the other hand, are relatively easy to keep (you don’t have to milk them twice a day, or ever, for that matter–in fact, if you start trying to milk your chickens, I’ll report you), their droppings make good fertilizer for your garden, fresh eggs are incomparably better than the ones you get in the supermarket and you can have free range chicken whenever you feel like wringing one of your children’s necks, but do it to a chicken instead. (Boy, think of the escape valve that would be!)

    I’m not sure if an economic system that placed “more emphasis on economic security, and less emphasis on profits, expansion and exploitation” would in fact result in greater economic security. I suspect that the Adam Smithians and the Friedrich Hayekians would argue strenuously in favor of “profits, expansion and exploitation.” (I do wonder what they meant by “exploitation.” It now has a pejorative connotation in almost every context–but it wasn’t always so. The OED gives the following definitions: 1. The action of exploiting or turning to account; productive working or profitable management (of mines, cattle, etc.) and 2. The action of turning to account for selfish purposes, using for one’s own profit.)

    Comment by Mark B. — October 2, 2008 @ 1:58 pm

  7. The part on taxation caught my eye – I know nothing of how the tax system worked at the time, but I can only imagine taxes were lower. This probably translated to smaller government as well.

    Recently Joe Biden (Democratic VP nominee) said something to the effect that paying [more?] taxes was a patriotic thing. Which brings me to my point – at what point does paying taxes go beyond what is good or “patriotic?” I agree with the section on taxes quoted above that we shouldn’t view many taxes as a burden at all – we need things like roads, fire departments, etc. But taxes hardly pay for such things today in my view. More often than not you hear about cities taking out bonds to cover public works. The taxes are given to corporations to lure them to a particular location or to special interests or other pet projects (bridge to nowhere?). Our government is out of control and just continues to grow unchecked!

    So I feel like I’m off topic now with my rant, but I just couldn’t resist dropping my $.02.

    Comment by Chris — October 2, 2008 @ 2:11 pm

  8. The book goes on to address Chris’s concern:

    We must recognize, too, the manifold productive functions of government in our complex economic world. By preserving the rights of private property, by maintaining freedom of contract, by defining and enforcing the terms of free competition, by extending the sphere of government ownership and operations where expediency demands, and by conserving the natural resources, the government exercises important economic functions that could not be performed so effectively by private agencies. …

    However, we must also become more conscious of the fact that each new governmental service will require additional funds, which means heavier taxation. Consequently, if we are getting concerned over the amount of our tax ‘burden,’ we shall have to curtail our demands for increased governmental service. We simply cannot continue to add new forms of education, public health service, unemployment insurance, old age pensions and work relief projects, without taxation to pay the bills. if they are necessary, and if we can afford such services, if that is the wisest way to use our surplus income, then the new program is justified – and we should not complain at high taxes, if we are paying no more than our just share.

    But if the tax load is really becoming a burden, perhaps we are becoming a little governmentally extravagant, just as any other luxury expenditure, beyond our financial ability, would be considered extravagant. the problem is one for each citizen to ponder over, to study carefully, and to vote on intelligently when the opportunity presents itself.

    I chose paragraphs that seemed to address current problems (if in quaint terms — Researcher’s cow and Mark B.’s chickens maybe need to be updated with some other form of food production!), but not to suit a particular political or economic philosophy. As these additional lines show, this manual really does seem to be comprehensive, at least at the level of a non-specialist like me.

    And I’m impressed by everybody’s comments, as usual. I half expected there to be some really wacky political diatribes — I’m grateful there haven’t been! Don’t take this as a request! — but instead, it’s the usual thoughtful remarks. Makes me hopeful that lessons from a manual like this could be discussed intelligently in a church setting today.

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — October 2, 2008 @ 2:39 pm

  9. Ardis, thanks very much for the additional words on taxes. I’m quite impressed at how level-headed and apolitical the manual on the subject. I especially like the last paragraph, “…the problem is one for each citizen to ponder over, to study carefully, and to vote on intelligently when the opportunity presents itself.”

    I often feel that not enough citizens consider the costs carefully when demanding additional government services. I admit that many of the questions about what government should tax for are difficult, but that just means that additional consideration is required. Sometimes we forget the costs involved (and who is paying those costs) in our passion to have a certain program or initiative from government.

    Anyway, thanks again for the post. I’m going to add your blog to my list of “frequently visited blogs” :-).

    Comment by Chris — October 2, 2008 @ 3:09 pm

  10. No one is going to like 100% of the ways Congress spends our money. And I can hardley blame Congress. If I had three trillion dollars to spend, I’d be irresponsible too. But the political will has not been there to eliminate earmarks, which are the bane of responsible spending in both parties. The problem is not the government. It is what we let the government do.

    Comment by BruceC — October 2, 2008 @ 3:11 pm

  11. Speaking of chickens, my brother is planning to get some for his backyard in Provo. Apparently the zoning rules don’t prohibit chickens. We’ll see what the neighbors have to say about it. Maybe a few eggs once in a while will assuage their concerns.

    Comment by Mark B. — October 2, 2008 @ 3:23 pm

  12. Looking at this as a historian, the ideas expressed and the wording reflects the Depression era. As to the issue of taxation, the manual was “level-headed” and I think it reflects the economic outlook of HJG. Grant was a Democrat but was opposed to the New Deal (Counselor A.Ivins was a ND/FDR supporter). He opposed the ND because of deficit spending. He believe in maintaining a balanced budget. I can only imagine how he’d roll over in his grave with all the current spending in the red (both parties to blame).

    I was hoping for some political fireworks on this, Ardis, but you’ve trained all your respondents well. :-) I guess I’ll have to watch the VP debate for the fireworks.

    Comment by Steve C. — October 2, 2008 @ 4:15 pm

  13. Very timely post Ardis. Thanks!

    Comment by Meghan — October 3, 2008 @ 2:13 pm

  14. This seems more relevant now than it did 3 years ago. Thanks, Ardis.

    Comment by Christopher — October 15, 2011 @ 10:30 am

  15. I should bump this back to the top with the “Liberal Mormon” header. Thanks for reminding me about it.

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — October 15, 2011 @ 10:37 am

  16. I recently purchased a copy of this book and was astounded by many statements in Chapter 10 “Distribution of Wealth And Income”. Is this “the Church” policy – to divide the wealth equally? – to “continue the socialization of our service institutions through a system of progressive taxation” which would “let the captains of industry continue to produce wealth, TAKING THE BULK OF THEIR PROFITS TO FINANCE FREE EDUCATION, FREE LIBRARIES, … SICKNESS AND ACCIDENT INSURANCE, AND PERHAPS EVENTUALLY FREE MEDICAL AID AND HOSPITAL SERVICE.”

    “Such a program, introduced step by step, is nothing less than a panorama of the social reforms that are on the agenda for legislative consideration during the decades immediately ahead of us.”

    “Inheritance and estate taxes will become progressively higher, until the present system of permitting large fortunes to be passed on from generation to generation will become extinct.”

    “Anyone who is energetic and thrifty … would probably not be permitted to leave an inheritance worth millions of dollars for his children to quarrel over. THE MAJOR PART OF HIS SURPLUS WEALTH WOULD REVERT BACK TO SOCIETY WHEN HE DIED.”

    This is so liberal as to be scary!!! I’ve been told that this is book (and this information) has never been changed, and that we really ARE under obligation to give away our “riches” as if we were in a Law of Consecration state, even though the guidelines in this book would destroy initial initiative and create a welfare state.

    Comment by Rita — December 7, 2012 @ 11:31 pm

  17. Rita, you find it “so liberal as to be scary!!!” that these practices are approved in scripture? See the Bible: “And all that believed were together, and had all things common; and sold their possessions and goods, and parted them to all men, as every man had need.” (Acts 2:44-45); the Book of Mormon: “And they taught, and did minister one to another; and they had all things common among them, every man dealing justly, one with another.” (3 Nephi 26:19); and the Doctrine and Covenants: “Wo unto you rich men, that will not give your substance to the poor, for your riches will canker your souls; and this shall be your lamentation in the day of visitation, and of judgment, and of indignation: The harvest is past, the summer is ended, and my soul is not saved!” (D&C 56:16)

    There’s something far more “scary!!!” in your comment here than any church teaching: This is your taking it for granted that current radical conservative capitalism is more authentically divine than scripture, or than gospel ideals outlined in a church-sponsored manual … or, for that matter, than the temple covenants that you have perhaps taken.

    Keepa is not the blog for you. You want Millennial Star, or one of the more cartoonishly tea-partyish off-Bloggernacle blogs.

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — December 8, 2012 @ 11:02 am

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