Ernest L. Wilkinson and the BYU tithing police fiasco

(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.

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13 Responses to Ernest L. Wilkinson and the BYU tithing police fiasco

  1. Pingback: Ernest L. Wilkinson and the BYU tithing police fiasco | NEWS HUT

  2. Bob Becker says:

    BYU is a wholly owned and operated subsidiary of the LDS Church and as such is of course, as Doug notes, free to impose whatever qualifications it wishes to on its employees, academic or otherwise. I’d note only two things about this latest interesting article in Doug’s continuing series:

    1. If it becomes thought among academics across the land that promotion at BYU depends not upon scholarly work, but upon meeting a non-academic religious requirement [like tithing], the academic reputation of the school and its faculty cannot help but suffer.

    2. As for this: 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?” Well, hell, I could qualify to teach at BYU by that standard. [No, wait, let me amend that: "Well h-e-double-hockey-sticks, I could qualify to teach at BYU by that standard." ]

    • hawg says:

      “As for this: 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?” Well, hell, I could qualify to teach at BYU by that standard”

      because you are a communist and have cheated on your wife or because you are not and have not?
      you kind of left that open:)

  3. Mark Shenefelt says:

    The level of anally retentive inquisition pursued by Wilkinson takes one’s breath away.

    I probably would not classify it as a historical item of “mirth,” given that it appears some faculty members’ careers were derailed or ruined over something so, well, penny ante.

  4. LMA says:

    The key to this article is in the phrase “1957-1963.” *yawn*

    • Bob Becker says:

      Well, Doug wrote a piece of LDS/BYU history. Hardly surprising then that it deals with the past.

    • Owain says:

      This reminds me of a hilarious interview Meghan McCain had with Don Imus.

      IMUS: And hounded poor ole Bill Clinton out of office over perjury I realize, but you’re having an affair at the same time?

      MCCAIN: I mean, a little before my time, but yes.

      IMUS: So was the French revolution, but you know about it, don’t you?

      MCCAIN: I know.

      IMUS: OK.

      MCCAIN: I have been told to me before. That has been said to me before. I know about it. But, I just don’t care about Newt Gingrich. He’s so passé and I don’t agree with a lot of the things he says.

      IMUS: But don’t say when somebody says to you, “That’s a little before my time.” Well, a lot of…

      MCCAIN: You’re like my father. Every time I come on it’s like being lectured by my father, literally. But I’m saying he is not relevant. Newt Gingrich is not pop-culturally relevant to my generation who I’m trying to get involved in politics. You see what I’m saying?

      Maybe it’s just me, but nothing says “AIRHEAD” louder than dismissing a facet of history because ‘it was before my time’ or that it ‘is not pop-culturally relevant to my generation’.

      However, with “The key to this article is in the phrase “1957-1963.” *yawn*”, LMA does give Meghan McCain a serious challenge for the title of Airhead-in-Chief, though.

  5. Bob Becker says:

    “Not pop-culturally relevant to her generation” so then there’s no point in her or her generation knowing about it?


    [Enter smiley for "primal scream" here.]

  6. Overdubbed says:

    I think that it is good that the standards of BYU include the honor code and (I think it still includes) the requirement that teachers have Temple Recommends.

    Once they meet those conditions though, the University should not really probe further. And as far as I know (which is not all that much) it doesn’t.

    I also agree with the person who said that this is really old history and not relevant. It’s not. No matter how much you want to attack the person who said “Yawn” the fact it is that this is merely a modestly interesting piece of information, to a very tiny audience of people who really do not matter to the running of things.

    Let the sunstroked attacks begin….

    • Owain says:

      If nothing else, it serves as a cautionary tale of the hazards of overreach, not only to current BYU Presidents, but to the rest of us as well. It is to be hoped that the examination previous mistakes will result in a fewer current mistakes, not only by others, but also by ourselves.

      Alas, that rarely turns out to be the case in actual practice.

  7. Pingback: Examined by the Examiner « Sunstone Magazine

  8. Pingback: Mormon Bulletin » Episode 6: November 30, 2011

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