Caring for the Poor
John A. Tvedtnes
“And behold, thou wilt remember the poor, and consecrate of thy properties for their support that which thou hast to impart unto them, with a covenant and a deed which cannot be broken. And inasmuch as ye impart of your substance unto the poor, ye will do it unto me; and they shall be laid before the bishop of my church and his counselors, two of the elders, or high priests, such as he shall appoint or has appointed and set apart for that purpose.” (D&C 42:30-31)
The Lord revealed to Joseph Smith that the bishop is to care for the poor, using funds and goods consecrated for that purpose and kept in the bishop’s storehouse, and to administer the law of consecration and stewardship (D&C 42:30-34; 48:6; 51:3-5, 13; 58:35-37, 51; 70:7-11; 72:9-20; 84:112; 85:1; 90:22-23; 119:1-5). The Lord also told the prophet that the office of bishop belongs, by right, to “the sons of Aaron,” but that a high priest could serve as bishop when no worthy literal descendants of Aaron could be found (D&C 68:15-21; 107:13-17, 68-76).
Though the New Testament mentions bishops and the Old Testament speaks of the priests descended from Aaron, nowhere does the Bible assign such roles to them. But one of the Dead Sea Scrolls, discovered in 1947, suggests that this was one of their duties. The Rule of the Community (also known as the Manual of Discipline) 9.7-9 reads,
“Only the sons of Aaron will have authority in the matter of judgment and of goods, and their word will settle the lot of all provision for the men of the Community and the goods of the men of holiness who walk in perfection. Their goods must not be confused with the goods of the men of deceit who have not cleansed their path, withdrawing from evil and walking on a perfect path.”[i]
It is interesting that this passage should explicitly mention “the sons of Aaron” (as in D&C 68:16; cf. 84:30-34) and their role in judgment (as in D&C 64:40; 72:17; 107:72-76). Under the law of consecration and stewardship, the bishop’s primary role as judge was to determine the needs of the Saints and to assign property stewardships.
That the consecrations formerly offered to the Aaronic priesthood continued to be offered to the bishops in the early Christian Church is affirmed in book 2 of Constitutions of the Holy Apostles, which compare Christian offerings to the tithes and firstfruits given in Old Testament times to the priests and Levites:
“You, therefore, O bishops, are to your people priests and Levites, ministering to the holy tabernacle, the holy Catholic Church; who stand at the altar of the Lord your God, and offer to Him reasonable and unbloody sacrifices through Jesus the great High Priest . . . For do not thou imagine that the office of a bishop is an easy or light burden. As, therefore, you bear the weight, so have you a right to partake of the fruits before others, and to impart to those that are in want, as being to give an account to Him, who without bias will examine your accounts. For those who attend upon the Church ought to be maintained by the Church, as being priests, Levites, presidents, and ministers of God; as it is written in the book of Numbers concerning the priests . . . Those which were then first-fruits, and tithes, and offerings, and gifts, now are oblations, which are presented by holy bishops to the Lord God, through Jesus Christ, who has died for them. For these are your high priests, as the presbyters are your priests, and your present deacons instead of your Levites.” (Constitutions of the Holy Apostles 2.4.5)[ii]
“You ought therefore, brethren, to bring your sacrifices and your oblations to the bishop, as to your high priest, either by yourselves or by the deacons; and do you bring not those only, but also your first-fruits, and your tithes, and your free-will offerings to him. For he knows who they are that are in affliction, and gives to every one as is convenient, that so one may not receive alms twice or oftener the same day, or the same week, while another has nothing at all. For it is reasonable rather to supply the wants of those who really are in distress, than of those who only appear to be so.” (Constitutions of the Holy Apostles 2.4.27)[iii]
The concept of sending deacons to collect fast offerings on the first Sunday of the month (called “fast day”) is still practiced in the restored Church.
Fasting and Fast Offerings
Though not mentioned in the Doctrine and Covenants, the principle of caring for the poor in connection with fasting was introduced into the Church during Joseph Smith’s lifetime. In a letter giving instructions to Edward Partridge, the first bishop of the restored Church, the prophet wrote:
“Let this be an ensample to all saints, and there will never be any lack for bread: When the poor are starving, let those who have, fast one day and give what they otherwise would have eaten to the bishops for the poor, and every one will abound for a long time; and this is one great and important principle of fasts approved of the Lord. And so long as the saints will all live to this principle with glad hearts and cheerful countenances they will always have an abundance.” (History of the Church 7:413)
In a proclamation to the saints in Nauvoo on 11 January 1843, the twelve apostles declared, “In our fastings, humiliations and thanksgivings, let us not forget the poor and destitute, to minister to their necessities” (History of the Church, 5:249). A “Fast day” was designated, during which “all works were stopped. Meetings were held in the several wards and donations made to the bishops for the poor; enough was contributed to supply the wants of the poor until harvest” (History of the Church, 7:411). Originally held on a Thursday, it was later changed to the first Sunday of each month. At some point, the saints were asked to donate a fast offering equivalent to the value of the meals one had not eaten on fast day.
Assistance to the needy was also the purpose of fasting in ancient Israel, as the Lord declared through the prophet Isaiah: “Behold, ye fast for strife and debate, and to smite with the fist of wickedness: ye shall not fast as ye do this day, to make your voice to be heard on high. Is it such a fast that I have chosen? a day for a man to afflict his soul? is it to bow down his head as a bulrush, and to spread sackcloth and ashes under him? wilt thou call this a fast, and an acceptable day to the Lord? Is not this the fast that I have chosen? to loose the bands of wickedness, to undo the heavy burdens, and to let the oppressed go free, and that ye break every yoke? Is it not to deal thy bread to the hungry, and that thou bring the poor that are cast out to thy house? when thou seest the naked, that thou cover him; and that thou hide not thyself from thine own flesh?” (Isaiah 58:4-7)
Isaiah did not specify how much should be given to the poor or the mechanism by which food and clothing were to get into their hands. The principle followed by members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is to fast one day each month and to donate a fast offering equivalent to or exceeding what they would have spent for the meals of that day. The bishop, who is charged with the care of the poor in his ward, then ministers relief to those in need. In the early days of the restored Church, members would often donate food, but in our modern economy, it is easier to donate its monetary equivalent. In a discourse delivered 8 December 1867, President Brigham Young noted that it was Joseph Smith who instituted this mechanism:
“You know that the first Thursday in each month we hold as a fast day. How many here know the origin of this day? Before tithing was paid, the poor were supported by donations. They came to Joseph and wanted help, in Kirtland, and he said there should be a fast day, which was decided upon. It was to be held once a month, as it is now, and all that would have been eaten that day, of flour, or meat, or butter, or fruit, or anything else, was to be carried to the fast meeting and put into the hands of a person selected for the purpose of taking care of it and distributing it among the poor.” (Journal of Discourses 12:115)
Epistle of Barnabas 3, an early pseudepigraphon, favorably cites the Isaiah 58 passage, suggesting a connection between fasting and almsgiving.[iv] Another early Christian text, the Pastor of Hermas. provides details about the manner in which the earliest Christians fasted. Probably written near Rome and perhaps as early as the first generation after the time when the apostles Peter and Paul were in Italy, the Shepherd was accepted as scripture by many Christian Fathers of the second and third centuries. It was even included effectively as scripture in the fourth-century Codex Sinaiticus, one of the oldest bound Bibles, housed for centuries in the library at St. Catherine’s Monastery in the Sinai peninsula, but now preserved in the British Museum.
In his book, Hermas describes having received several visions, commandments, and parables from the oracles of the Lord. In Parable 5, he recorded that an angel taught taught him to fast, telling him that “having reckoned up the price of the dishes of that day which you intended to have eaten, you will give it to a widow, or an orphan, or to some person in want.” If he did as instructed, the angel promised, “your fasting will be perfect.” “If you observe fasting, as I have commanded you, your sacrifice will be acceptable to God, and this fasting will be written down; and the service thus performed is noble, and sacred, and acceptable to the Lord” (Shepherd of Hermas Similitudes 5:3).[v]
These latter words are reminiscent of what the Lord told Joseph Smith, in D&C 59:13-14: “And on this day thou shalt do none other thing, only let thy food be prepared with singleness of heart that thy fasting may be perfect, or, in other words, that thy joy may be full. Verily, this is fasting and prayer, or in other words, rejoicing and prayer.” Indeed, a more recent translation of Hermas renders the angels words, “your sacrifice will be acceptable in God’s sight, and this fast will be recorded, and service performed in this way is beautiful and joyous.”[vi]
Describing Christian Sunday services in the second century, Justin Martyr wrote, “And the wealthy among us help the needy . . . And they who are well to do, and willing, give what each thinks fit; and what is collected is deposited with the president, who succors the orphans and widows and those who, through sickness or any other cause, are in want, and those who are in bonds and the strangers sojourning among us, and in a word takes care of all who are in need” (First Apology 67).[vii]
Assistance for the needy is also tied to Sunday services by Commodianus (ca. AD 240), who wrote, “The brother oppressed with want, nearly languishing away, cries out with distended belly to the splendidly fed. What do you say of the Lord’s Day? If he has not placed himself before, call forth a poor man from the crowd, whom you may take to your dinner” (Instructions 61).[viii] Tertullian, writing in the early third century A.D., seems to describe fast offerings when he writes:
“On the monthly day, if he likes, each puts in a small donation; but only if it be his pleasure, and only if he be able: for there is no compulsion; all is voluntary. These gifts are, as it were, piety’s deposit fund. For they are not taken thence and spent on feasts, and drinking-bouts, and eating-houses, but to support and bury poor people, to supply the wants of boys and girls destitute of means and parents, and of old persons confined now to the house; such, too, as have suffered shipwreck; and if there happen to be any in the mines, or banished to the islands, or shut up in the prisons, for nothing but their fidelity to the cause of God’s Church.” (Apology 39)[ix]
In some of his sermons, Leo the Great (died AD 461) tied fasting with giving of alms for the poor. “We must exercise not only the self-restraint of fasting, but also diligence in almsgiving, that from the ground of our heart also may spring the germ of righteousness and the fruit of love, and that we may deserve God’s mercy by showing mercy to His poor” (Sermon 17 on the Fast of the Tenth Month, VI.1).[x] “And hence,” he said, “it is but godly and just that we too should help others with that which the Heavenly Father has mercifully bestowed on us” (Sermon 16 on the Fast of the Tenth Month 1).[xi] “And while all seasons are opportune for this duty, beloved, yet this present season is specially suitable and appropriate, at which our holy fathers, being Divinely inspired, sanctioned the Fast of the tenth month, that when all the ingathering of the crops was complete, we might dedicate to God our reasonable service of abstinence, and each might remember so to use his abundance as to be more abstinent in himself and more open-handed towards the poor. For forgiveness of sins is most efficaciously prayed for with almsgiving and fasting” (Sermon 16 on the Fast of the Tenth Month, 2).[xii]
In another sermon, he declared that “there are three things which most belong to religious actions, namely prayer, fasting, and almsgiving, in the exercising of which while every time is accepted, yet that ought to be more zealously observed, which we have received as hallowed by tradition from the apostles: even as this tenth month brings round again to us the opportunity when according to the ancient practice we may give more diligent heed to those three things of which I have spoken. For by prayer we seek to propitiate God, by fasting we extinguish the lusts of the flesh, by alms we redeem our sins” (Sermon 12 on the Fast of the Tenth Month, 4).[xiii]
Leo further admonished, “And since you rejoice in His bounty, take heed that you have those who may share in your joys. For many lack what you have in plenty, and some men’s needs afford you opportunity for imitating the Divine goodness, so that through you the Divine benefits may be transferred to others also, and that by being wise stewards of your temporal goods, you may acquire eternal riches. On Wednesday and Friday next, therefore, let us fast” (Sermon 17 on the Fast of the Tenth Month 4).[xiv] The passage is reminiscent of the words of the Book of Mormon prophet Jacob:
“Think of your brethren like unto yourselves, and be familiar with all and free with your substance, that they may be rich like unto you. But before ye seek for riches, seek ye for the kingdom of God. And after ye have obtained a hope in Christ ye shall obtain riches, if ye seek them; and ye will seek them for the intent to do good–to clothe the naked, and to feed the hungry, and to liberate the captive, and administer relief to the sick and the afflicted” (Jacob 1:17-19).
Augustine of Hippo (AD 354-386) cited the passage in Isaiah 58, then commented, “How many poor may be filled by the breakfast we have this day given up? Fast in such a way that thou mayest rejoice, that thou hast breakfasted, while another has been eating . . . And this is man’s righteousness in this life, fasting, alms, and prayer. Wouldest thou have thy prayer fly upward to God? Make for it those two wings of alms and fasting” (Commentary on Psalms 43.7).[xv]
If the directives given to Hermas and described by other early writers represent the true order of fasting as it existed in the early Christian Church, we have another example of a restored principle revealed in more recent times to the prophet Joseph Smith.[xvi] The Shepherd of Hermas, though a very ancient text, was not published until more than a decade after the prophet’s death in 1844. It is interesting that, as far as we know, only the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, teaches and operates a regular program of fasting, coupled with offerings for the poor, that conforms to the practice known by the earliest Christians. Moreover, as in the early Christian Church, it is the bishop who is charged with the responsibility of taking care of the poor.
[i] Florentino García Martínez, The Dead Sea Scrolls Translated (2nd ed., Leiden: Brill, 1994), 13.
[ii] Alexander Roberts and James Donaldson, Anti-Nicene Fathers (reprint Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 1994), 7:409-10.
[iii] Ibid., 7:414.
[iv] Ibid., 1:138.
[v] Ibid., 2:34-5.
[vi] J. B. Lightfoot and J. R. Harmer, ed., and rev. Michael W. Holmes (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1998), 243. For a discussion, see John W. Welch, “Fasting in Earliest Christianity,” Insights: A Window on the Ancient World 9/21 (September 2001).
[vii] Alexander Roberts and James Donaldson, Ante-Nicene Fathers, 1:185-6.
[viii] Ibid., 4:215.
[ix] Ibid., 3:46.
[x] Philip Schaff and Henry Wace, eds., Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, Second Series (reprint, Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 1994), 12:126.
[xi] Ibid., 12:123.
[xii] Ibid., 12:124.
[xiii] Ibid., 12:123.
[xiv] Ibid., 12:127.
[xv] Philip Schaff, ed., Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, First Series (reprint, Peabody, Ma: Hendrickson, 1994), 8:140.
[xvi] A Gaelic (Irish) pseudepigraphon, The Passion of the Apostle Philip 6, has the apostle Philip preaching in Hierapolis, saying to the people, “Subdue and restrain your bodily desires by fasting, prayer, abstinence, and giving food and clothing as alms to the poor and needy of the living God.” See Máire Herbert and Martin McNamara, eds., Irish Biblical Apocrypha: Selected Texts in Translation (Edinburgh: T & T Clark, 1989), 107.