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The Liberal Mormon: Wilford Woodruff on Liberality

By: Ardis E. Parshall - December 30, 2011

From his Epistle to the Members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, October 1887:

The Relief Societies.

The mission of the Relief Societies as organized among us, is truly grand and beneficent. There is no limit to their labors and usefulness while suffering and want exists in our midst. To aid the needy by feeding the hungry and clothing the destitute is distinctively and peculiarly their mission. in the energetic performance of their duty human sympathy and divine mercy are beautifully harmonized. In extending relief to the poor, the love of God and of our fellows is clearly manifest. it is more praiseworthy for a Relief Society to be able to say, “There are none in our Ward in need of food, raiment or shelter,” than to report thousands of dollars in hand, while the needs of the poor are unsupplied.

These societies have done a vast amount of good among us, and the members have been of great service in assisting the priesthood in the Wards in caring for the destitute and in supplying the wants of those who have been in need of help. In these labors we desire to give them every encouragement, and to invoke the blessing of heaven upon them, and all their exertions for the benefit of suffering humanity.

The Care of the Poor.

As the winter season is approaching, it is proper that each bishop and his counselors should take the necessary steps to properly care for the poor who live in their Wards. They should call the Relief Societies to their aid in this labor. The reasonable wants of the poor should be supplied, and the pangs of poverty and destitution should be averted. God has greatly blessed us in the fruits of our fields and gardens, in our flocks and herds, and in giving us comfortable habitations and means to sustain ourselves, and we should always remember the words of the apostle James: “Pure religion and undefiled before God and the Father is this, to visit the fatherless and widows in their affliction, and to keep himself unspotted form the world.”

While it has always been the policy of our people to encourage industry and to repress idleness in every form, and to expect all persons to contribute, according to their ability, to their own support; still there are many cases where the aged and the inform, or the unfortunate, cannot, with the utmost exertion and economy, obtain through their own labors sufficient to sustain themselves. It would be a great evil among us to encourage any class in living upon the benevolence of the community. No system of begging should be permitted. Those able to work should be furnished employment. persons who are properly disposed will be glad to obtain it in preference to being fed with the bread of charity; and all should be encouraged to labor according to their strength. This policy, if wisely pursued, will prevent pauperism, develop self-exertion and confidence, and produce self-respect. It is a cause of great pleasure to think that beggary is unknown throughout our settlements. There is no need for anyone, however destitute, to publicly solicit alms. But while this is the case, the sensitive and those who shrink from asking aid, who conceal, in some instances, their poverty, should be carefully looked after by the Relief Societies under the direction of the bishops of the wards, so that there may be no individual in any of our wards suffering for the want of food or any other article necessary to sustain or preserve life. The community whose hearts are open to the cries of distress, who are ready to administer of the substance which the Lord gives them to relieve their fellow-creature, may always depend upon the favor of the Lord, for He loves those who are kind to their fellow-men, and who administer to their necessities, whose hearts are tender, and who readily respond to applications of this character which are made upon them, or who anticipate them by giving freely to the destitute.

Fast Offerings.

In some of our wards there is not proper care taken in the collection of the fast offerings of the people. The first Thursday in the month has been set apart in the Church as a day of fasting and of prayer. That day should be strictly observed. Fast offerings should be brought with a liberal hand to the bishop of each ward, that he may be prepared to supply those who are dependent upon the ward for sustenance. Some wards require considerable aid from the Church to help sustain their poor, because their own fast offerings do not supply them; while sometimes in the same Stake there are other wards where there are few, if any, dependent poor. Presidents of Stakes should make arrangements with the bishops of the last named wards to transfer their fast offerings to the bishop of some contiguous ward which has more poor within its borders than its own fast offerings will supply. In this way all the people can have an equal opportunity of doing their duty to the poor.

The Lessons of Liberality.

Experience has abundantly proved that those whoa re attentive to these and all other duties required by the Lord receive His blessing. God does bless those who devote themselves with singleness of purpose to His work. If proof of this were needed, one has only to notice the condition of Elders in the various settlements who have spent years of their lives upon missions. Though their home affairs may have been left to the care of their wives and children, they are not distinguished by their poverty from their fellow-servants who have remained at home.

We have only to look around us to satisfy ourselves also, that those who are generous in contributing to God’s work are favored of the Lord. This was the experience of ancient Israel, and it is our experience. Yet in regard to voluntary donations there is too much carelessness, notwithstanding all the precious promises connected therewith. The Saints should be reminded of the obligation which rests upon them. Our children, also, should be taught this duty, that it may become a fixed habit with them to punctually attend to these matters. Those who have strictly observed these requirements can testify to the great pleasure and many rewards they have received from their observance.

This law of liberality appears to be one of the safeguards which the Lord has adopted to avert from this people the evil consequences which follow the possession of wealth. He has told us that the riches of the earth are his to give; but He has warned us to beware of pride, lest we become as the Nephites of old. We know the ruin is wrought for them, and we should spare no precaution to prevent wealth having a disastrous effect upon us. Many can endure poverty and be humble, and live near the Lord, who cannot bear riches. They become lifted up in pride and become covetous, and forget their God. Those, however, who remember constantly the teachings of the Lord concerning the earth and its inhabitants, and who contribute of the means which the Lord gives them to assist the poor and help carry forward the work of God, exercise a check upon themselves and give Satan less power to lead them astray. Under the present system of affairs, those who accumulate wealth and are able to support themselves and their families with luxuries and advantages that are denied their neighbors, are in danger of becoming separated from the bulk of the people and forming a distinct class. But the day will come when a more perfect order will be introduced. Then it will be said there are no poor and no rich in Zion – that is, we shall no be divided into classes, but shall all possess everything of this character necessary for our comfort and happiness. But until then, if we wish our families and ourselves to remain Latter-day Saints, we must be especially careful to guard against the deceitfulness of riches.



  1. But how to enforce the “law of liberality” except by voluntary exercise of individual agency? Ah! but there is a way to at least encourage it in the organizations of the church. The Relief Society sending out sisters to do good. The fast offerings administered by the bishops. I mean, I can’t really speak for the RS not being a female member, but I do a lot of charitable service because someone with priesthood authority asks me and gives me an assignment. I don’t do an awful lot on my own initiative probably to my condemnation. There has to be some form of organization to help us be charitable. In other words, we’re in this together.

    It’s not that much different in a community of people who are not within this same religious belief system or members of the RS or priesthood quorums. We participate in communities where we come together to establish opportunities, even requirements to do good for the benefit of each other and our society as a whole. That’s called government instituted by God for the benefit of man and woman and we are held responsible to God in establishing and performing its laws (I’m paraphrasing but it is from Sec. 134.)

    I know President Woodruff wasn’t addressing “secular” government at the very moment in time he was sorting out plural marriage and statehood, etc. (My 2nd Great Grandfather in the territorial penitentiary at the time – not on a mission, but family and church helped take care of his “wives” and children.)

    Which brings me back to wealth and riches. I think we sometimes look at it backwards that we think we gather wealth in this life to demonstrate our ability to serve the Lord on missions, or as bishops, stake or mission presidents, etc. because you see successful men in these positions. I actually think the Lord calls people to serve in the church sometimes to distract them – keep them away from being more successful in amassing money or success in the world. He puts them to work in his kingdom instead.

    Comment by Grant — December 30, 2011 @ 7:41 am

  2. Grant: Some of the wealthiest men I know are also some of the most charitable, righteous men I know. I’m not sure which is the chicken or which is the egg. I know it is proven that people who give more to charity end up making more money, and that the Lord blesses those who serve and are obedient. But I also know some really wonderful, righteous people in very humble circumstances, who constantly struggle financially.

    Sorry I got off topic – I like this line from President Woodruff:

    “It would be a great evil among us to encourage any class in living upon the benevolence of the community. No system of begging should be permitted.”

    Comment by -MMM- — December 30, 2011 @ 8:09 am

  3. I think this was easier to administer in a day when wealth did not equate to a number of TVs or cars and other toys in the driveway. Assessing “need” is still a very difficult thing for bishops who do it carefully. God bless the Relief Society for the role they play. And God bless those whose fast offering contributions are generous, and unknown to most.

    Comment by Paul — December 30, 2011 @ 9:30 am

  4. liberal:liberality::conservative:conservation

    Comment by John Mansfield — December 30, 2011 @ 9:47 am

  5. :) (not commenting on blogs, smiley will have to do)

    Comment by Chris H. — December 30, 2011 @ 11:57 am

  6. I liked this line: “In this way all the people can have an equal opportunity of doing their duty to the poor.”

    Comment by David Y. — December 30, 2011 @ 1:37 pm

  7. I love this series. Thanks so much!

    p.s. My grandfather was a bishop and then stake high councilman, and to the end of his life (in the mid-’80s) an unreconstructed New Dealer. (He often described himself as a “died-in-the-wool Democrat.) :-)

    Comment by SLK — December 30, 2011 @ 1:48 pm

  8. Honestly, when I make a list of the most generous people I know, not a damned one of them is rich.

    Comment by Aaron — December 31, 2011 @ 5:08 am

  9. Paul — you make a good point.

    Ardis — thank you for sharing this.

    Comment by Stephen M (Ethesis) — January 1, 2012 @ 5:03 am

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