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.

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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Fascinating article! I know of churches where the members are asked to return a tithe to the local conference, another tithe that they call Church tithes (partners in ministry), and an additional 5-10% for stewardship and local expenses. Still, pastors complain to congregants that they are not “paid” enough. (That always disturbs me.). I don’t know what to make of it.

If one is unemployed, does that mean they cannot hold church office, since they have no income on which to return tithe or offering?

There are so many gray areas. Is Social Security an increase, especially if one returned tithe on gross income during working years? What about Social Security Disability? Is pension considered income, since you aren’t working for it? What about dividends on savings, stocks, bonds, etc., since one can get dividends one year and suffer major losses the next year? What about welfare checks and EBT assistance? What if one receives an insurance settlement - is that subject to tithe (the US government doesn’t tax insurance payouts)? What about grants and scholarships for school? See what I mean? Gray areas! Plus every pastor has their own interpretation of what “increase” is. :thinking:
Lord, just help us to be faithful as You have revealed to us! We are still learning. :pray:t5::innocent:


There is nothing like a good old exercise in plowing through the Bible using a concordance. Some years ago I did just this, looking up all scripture that referred to a tithe, or tenth, and explore the context. What I discovered surprised me.

In the early Israelite experience it appeared to me that it was the leaders of the family units that were called upon to pay the tithe. Naturally enough for the times, the family leaders were the holders of the income.
Broadly speaking, they were expected to come to the temple once a year, where they have a big feast from their gains, and share some with the priests and some with the poor and widowed.

Malachi appears to reference a call to the priests to get their act together. And the New Testament does not call for a tithe to be paid. Instead, the call is for freewill offerings.

Some have called my view of the Old Testament tithes wrong, and that there was an expectation that there were multiple tithes. That could be one explanation, but I would put it to you that those proposing this idea depend on the tithe for their income.

Imagine how much your church would grow if a third of the tithe was spent on having a party. Big banquet every week at church. Would the attendance grow? Most certainly, and by a much greater margin than is achieved by having an evangelistic program.

In my church, we do not take up tithes and offerings. We have a giving stand in the foyer, and people also make automatic payments. No-one is up the front exhorting you to give give give until you have been richly blessed.


I wonder if anyone (or whoever is in charge of studying scripture for the SDA church) has, or ever would, study the New Covenant regarding giving? Isn’t that supposed to be the guide for Christians? Perhaps, it’s because it isn’t rigid enough, that it’s rejected, or at least not followed by those who need a law for giving (and most everything else).

Giving is between the giver and God.


I have noticed, over the years, that the church likes to play the role of the HS in many areas that are personal expressions that can only be prompted by the HS - and that includes “GIVING”.

A casual review of the NT via “Strong’s Concordance”, reveals that “tithing” is mentioned in a not so positive way; and doesn’t seem to be any kind of sign of loyalty. Giving freely, without coercion gets praised, but tithing seems to have been used as a bragging point by the Hebrew establishment. Since human nature doesn’t change from one testament to the other, it can have the same effect on church members today - another checkmark on the “to-do” list for the faithful.

At one point, in the not-so-distant-past, it had been declared that the workers at the “Review” would benevolently have their tithe taken out of their salaries automatically. That brought a backlash, or maybe it was illegal, the idea was scrapped. There are a number of ways the loyalty of church members is measured and tithe has become one of the major ones. Apparently God was never impressed by that kind of loyalty according to the lack of positive comments in the NT.


At the church where I grew up as a kid, I was able to visit a few years ago and noticed they DID NOT have a section in the bulletin titled OFFERING.
They have places at the doors to the worship space where one can place envelopes or loose money without anyone watching them.
Several churches here in Macon allow for payment on line, or set up an automatic payment from a bank account, or use a credit–debit card at the entrance by hand held computer device.
One church i know does do the offering plate, but many give one of the other ways.

My SDA church has NONE of those advantages for transferring money.
Takes up the offering. ALL loose offering goes to church expense. If one wants it to something special – like the “offering of the day” – it has to be put in an envelope and so marked.
SO, if you do not need a receipt, just put the loose bills in the plate. And it stays in the local church.

Pretty interesting article, Mr. Strayer.

"…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."

This brings about a couple of things to consider.
First on Canright: He appears to be pretty inconsistant on his faithful standing as far as Ellen White and other church administration beliefs.

"Canright worked in the Seventh-day Adventist church as an ordained minister for twenty-two years. In the early years, he was known as a gifted communicator and debater who successfully refuted opponents of Seventh-day Adventism…
During the decade between 1873 and 1883, Canright left the Adventist ministry three times due to ill feelings toward Ellen White and her testimonies. His relationship to her during this time can best be described as on and off…
Ellen White obviously played a central role in Canright’s feelings about the Seventh-day Adventist church. While he expressed doubts about Adventist teaching, his relationship to her seemed to be the deciding factor in how he related to Adventism as a whole.
In 1884, he experienced a reconversion experience and returned to the ministry for the next two years, more ardent than before. Things went fine until the General Conference sessions of 1886. This meeting changed his relationship to Seventh-day Adventism forever.

"The Fading Image Of D.M. Canright."
From, I was Canright’s Secretary by Carrie Johnson

"WHILE ASSOCIATING occasionally with his Adventist friends, attending their meetings when he could, and declaring to them that he would like to come back to the church but that it was too late, Mr. Canright at the same time kept up a bold front with the Baptists and with such members of his now scattered family as he saw from time to time.

Naturally he wanted to be thought well of.

Since rumors of his softening attitude toward the Adventists could be devastating to the sale of his books, Mr. Canright, in an endeavor to maintain a consistent image, kept affirming and reaffirming his position—that he never regretted withdrawing from the Adventist denomination."

Now, James White received his ministerial credentials from his church at the time, The Christian Connection, at the time of William Miller’s time fixing prophecy for Jesus’ return. (The strange part being that The Christian Connection Church refused to believe what Miller was teaching, but he had his papers now and separated to preach Miller’s message.)

Anyhow, what I wonder, is did the Christian Connection Church believe in tithing as the as Canright eventually derived from the Old Testament? I would think not, as James White was not originally of that mind himself.
Another consideration is, Did the Methodist Church, of which Ellen White came from, follow a tithing system derived from the Old Testsment at that time?

On an aside, I also thought it strange, as I’ve been told, that Ellen’s folks, the Harmon family, never accepted Ellen’s prophetic ministry. They never left the Methodist Church to join what eventually became the SDA Curch. (They also rejected Miller’s prophecies.)

Very informative article. I guess God works/blesses within the framework set up at any given time in the church since I’m being blessed by following the present tithe and offering structure currently in place.

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Well Charles, why deprive yourself of greater blessings? Further your faithfulness with a double tithe.

"The consecration to God of a tithe of all increase, whether of the orchard and harvest field, the flocks and herds, or the labor of brain or hand, the devotion of a second tithe for the relief of the poor and other benevolent uses, tended to keep fresh before the people the truth of God’s ownership of all, and of their opportunity to be channels of His blessings. It was a training adapted to kill out all narrowing selfishness, and to cultivate breadth and nobility of character. – {Ed 44.2}

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I too was surprised to find that some of the tithe was for the poor and needy. I really believe that a person needs to search the scriptures for himself and prayerfully give what God impresses his heart to give, not what someone mandates. How can we give cheerfully and not out of necessity if we are mandated and threatened?


Is the term “second tithe” a scriptural term? I’ve not yet come across it yet in my reading of the Bible and have not yet seen where God requires people giving an offering equal to that of the tithe. And I’ve not yet read in the Scriptures where I’ll receive “greater blessings” for giving an offering equal to that of my tithe compared to something less than that amount. I do read in Scripture though that anything given in addition to the tithe is called offerings which amount is to be determined by me (2 Cor. 9:7). That I do practice and am being richly blessed by doing so. Thanks for the suggestion though. I’m always open to finding a more biblical way of doing things.

A 1992 Ministry magazine article by Eric Webster aptly addressed the topic " Must our church members give a second tithe?"