(To see Cal Grondahl’s cartoon that goes with this post, click here) In the latest issue of Sunstone magazine, Gary James Bergera has a very interesting article, “The Moniteering of BYU Faculty Tithing Payments, 1957-1963,” that involves yet another historical nugget of mirth created by the university’s late president, Ernest D. Wilkinson. Wilkinson, upon assuming the presidency of BYU in the 1950s, was outraged that some BYU professors paid only a partial tithing, and some paid none at all.
(I digress here to admit that I too, was surprised that there were/are tithing shortfalls among BYU professors. I would have that “giving the Lord 10 percent” was something that one wouldn’t have to worry about at the Lord’s University. But it was, and had been for most of the 20th Century. Wilkinson was determined “to use an individual’s tithing history to help determine raises, promotions, and even continuing employment,” writes Bergera.
At one point, Wilkinson told LDS Church President David O. McKay that 27 percent of BYU faculty were either part tithing payers or paid no tithing at all. Wilkinson’s efforts, though, to get detailed reports of faculty tithing records descended into J. Edgar Hoover spoof when he encountered opposition from local bishoprics and stake presidencies. They understood better than Wilkinson the ethical aspects of the Law of Tithing, that taught that it was a private matter between a church member and his ecclesiastical leader. Eventually, Wilkinson was able to get the names of partial and non-tithe payers, but was stymied in his efforts to get specific details.
Wilkinson also received considerable opposition from faculty at BYU, who balked at having their academic credentials be determined by how much tithing they paid. Many faculty members, including department heads, resigned over the rule. At one point Wilkinson groused in his journal that it was primarily “English, political science and history” departments that were in opposition.
One faculty member who found himself in Wilkinson’s aim was Kent Fielding, a BYU instructor who had admitted he no longer had “a testimony of the Gospel.” When asked how he been approved to teach at BYU, Fielding replied that in his interview, apostle (and future LDS President) Harold B. Lee had asked only two questions: “Are you now or have you ever been a member of the Communist Party?; and, “Have you ever been unfaithful to your wife?”
Wilkinson confronted Lee on Fielding’s claim that his testimony had not been probed during his interview, and Bergera reports, using Wilkinson’s own notes, that it led fiery words between the BYU president and the LDS apostle.
Wilkinson wrote, “… I had told Brother Lee about this at the time, and Brother Lee, whose main weakness as far as I can see is that he cannot accept criticism, had interpreted it as serious criticism on my part of him…” Lee, according to Wilkinson’s recollections, sneered that the BYU president was “naive” if he was unaware that many BYU faculty did not have testimonies of the Gospel. Wilkinson further wrote, “He (Lee) was smarting very much under what I thought was my criticism of him for not having properly interrogated Brother Fielding.”
Fielding, after refusing to pay tithing and answer questions as a protest against Wilkinson’s policy, eventually had his employment terminated.
The policy that Wilkinson eventually crafted and tried to follow was that partial tithe payers would have their raises decreased by the amount they owed on a full tithing. For example, if Wilkinson determined that a professor had robbed the Lord of $600 in his tithing payments, a $1,000 raise for said professor would be decreased to $400. Professors not paying any tithing would be in danger of losing their employment at BYU. Wilkinson insisted more than once that no one was “forced” to pay tithing, while also insisting that any BYU professor who wanted to teach there would pay his tithing.
The policy prompted panicky attempts by some BYU faculty to try to turn back the clock. As Bergera reports, Wilkinson noted in his writings that one professor insisted in his interview that he had paid a full tithing.
When Wilkinson had the matter looked at, he discovered that the professor had gone to his bishop after the New Year and — much to the Bishop’s confusion — had begged that his tithe payment be applied retroactively.
Bergera estimates that over eight years, at least “two dozen (probably more) teachers were dismissed or resigned” due to church problems that had their genesis with Wilkinson’s tithing crackdown.
The BYU leader left the university in 1963 to run a failed U.S. Senate campaign. When he returned, he discovered a church leadership more resistant to the tactics he had advocated during his first term at BYU. As Bergera notes, “current BYU policy strictly prohibits the release of faculty tithing information to university administrators.”
Although I oppose any Wilkinsonian efforts to force tithing payments on any faculty, I am, I confess, surprised that anyone employed by the LDS Church (and that is the employer of BYU faculty) does not pay a full tithe. Maybe it’s because I’m a “born in the baptismal font member,” but before I read Bergera’s piece, I just assumed BYU workers were tithe payers the LDS Church Presiding Bishopric didn’t have to worry about.
This post also ran in Currents, the Standard-Examiner’s digital-only section on politics and culture. For more information on Currents, call 801-625-4400.