Merlin D. Burt, Ph.D.
Director, Center for Adventist Research, Andrews University
Summary: The writer shares from an historical point of view how Adventists adopted the Bible teaching of tithing.
October 1, 2010 is the 150th anniversary date for adopting the name Seventh-day Adventist. In the decade before 1860 the number of Sabbath-keeping Adventist believers grew rapidly. This growth brought organizational strain. Of particular concern was the question of how to adequately finance the growing movement and support of the ministry.
James White, one of the principal founders of the Seventh-day Adventist Church reflected:
In the early stage of the cause, our people had no system upon which to act in the support of ministers. Those who were disposed to give anything, gave what they chose. For a time our ministers were quite well sustained, by a few liberal souls, while the majority excused themselves from doing anything. Ere long, it became evident that these liberal ones were becoming weary of this inequality, and they began to withhold their support.1
A real challenge occurred in 1856 when two ministers, J. N. Loughborough and J. N. Andrews, stopped their ministerial work and moved to Waukon, Iowa, to support their families. On December 9, 1856, Ellen G. White had a vision that led her to travel with determination to Waukon, crossing the Mississippi in a sleigh before the ice was fully formed. These two men were reclaimed to ministry, but the challenge of how to support the growing ministry of the church remained a dilemma. It was in April of 1858 that J. N. Andrews led a Bible class in Battle Creek, Michigan, to learn from Scripture how the gospel ministry should be supported.2
This led to the establishment of a new giving plan named Systematic Benevolence. The two key texts that supported the title and the plan were 1 Cor 16:2 which emphasized systematic planned giving and 2 Cor 9:5-7 which emphasized cheerful giving and an attitude of benevolence. The 1859 plan was not based on the Bible teaching of tithe. That understanding would come later. The first guideline was that “brothers” should set aside from two to twenty-five cents a week and “sisters” from one to ten cents a week.” Additionally, those who had property were asked to set aside from one to five cents a week per $100 of value.
The plan went through some modifications during the 1860s but was a workable way for the Advent movement to expand and give at least minimal support to gospel ministers and evangelistic activities. Ellen White supported the Systematic Benevolence plan with these words:
There is order in heaven, and God is well pleased with the efforts of his people in trying to move with system and order in his work on earth. . . . God is leading his people in the plan of systematic benevolence, and this is one of the very points to which God is bringing up his people which will cut the closest with some. With them this cuts off the right arm, and plucks out the right eye, while to others it is a great relief. To noble, generous souls the demands upon them seem very small, and they can not be content to do so little."3
Systematic Benevolence was widely accepted by Seventh-day Adventists. In 1868, James White observed, “This system is generally adopted by our people everywhere, and affords a liberal support to our ministers, leaving them free to devote themselves entirely to the work of the ministry.”4
The Tithing Plan
There was renewed study of the Systematic Benevolence plan in 1876 when D. M. Canright published two articles in the Review and Herald. In these articles he urged that God required one tenth of our income.5 He defined this as “one-tenth of all we make during the year with our means and our labor.”6 As early as 1861 the Systematic Benevolence plan had incorporated one aspect of tithing. The amount asked of those who owned property was set at 10 percent of the increase in value.
The 1876 plan was discussed at a special session of the General Conference early in the year. It was voted that all should “devote one tenth of all their income from whatever source to the cause of God.”7 Bible studies and meetings were conducted throughout the rest of 1876 and 1877. In 1878 a tract was prepared and titled Systematic Benevolence or the Bible Plan for Supporting the Ministry.8 It carefully explained from the Bible the tithing plan and detailed the significant change in Systematic Benevolence. While the 1859 Systematic Benevolence plan had focused on the importance of systematic giving based on 1 Cor 16:2, the 1878 revisions actually defined the Bible plan for how the amount was to be determined.
The new plan was implemented beginning the first week of 1879.9 The new plan came at just the right time for the Seventh-day Adventist Church. Foreign missions and the rapid expansion of the church were greatly enhanced by the increased resources that came in through following the Bible tithing plan.
It may be surprising to some that it took so many years to settle the Bible tithing teaching of Seventh-day Adventists. It is important to understand that God led step by step. It was God’s desire that Adventists base their giving on the instruction given in the Bible. Therefore while Ellen White’s visions supported the Systematic Benevolence 1859 and the 1876 Tithing Plan, the visions did not take the lead. God waited until His church would study the matter from the Bible and build a doctrinal foundation that was preeminently scriptural.
“Cause of God”
Ironically many Seventh-day Adventists today do not realize that our tithing plan first emphasized the systematic support of the movement. There was no thought of diverting money to other causes. There was the overarching “cause of God,” that was the organizing of the proclamation of the Three Angels’ Message of Revelation 14, in preparation for the Second Coming of Jesus. The “cause of God” required consistent and sacrificial giving of both tithes and offerings. God’s call is for us to give generous offerings beyond the tithe to support many aspects of church ministry. Today we seldom hear the words “Systematic Benevolence” that perhaps sounds quaint to our ears. However, the principles embodied in these words remain core values as we worship God with our means.
1James White, Life Incidents, (Battle Creek, MI: Seventh-day Adventist Publishing, 1868), 300, 301.
2John N. Loughborough, The Church, Its Order, Organization, and Discipline, 107.
3Ellen G. White, Testimony for the Church, No. 5 (Battle Creek, MI: Review and Herald Office, 1859), 10.
4White, Life Incidents, 302.
5D. M. Canright, “Systematic Benevolence, or the Bible Plan of Supporting the Ministry,” Review and Herald, February 17, 1876, 49, 50.
7“Special Session of the General Conference,” Review and Herald, April 6, 1876, 108.
8Systematic Benevolence: The Bible Plan of Supporting the Ministry (Battle Creek, MI: Seventh-day Adventist Publishing, 1878); “Systematic Benevolence,” Review and Herald, October 24, 1878, 136.
9“Systematic Benevolence,” Review and Herald, December 12, 1878, 188.