Historical Context and Background of D&C 120

Video Overview

Brief Synopsis by Steven C. Harper

Section 119 created a need to account for the tithes that would be paid as a result of the revelation. Section 120 was revealed to solved that problem. It says that the time has come for the Lord to appoint the First Presidency, bishopric, and high council as a standing council to dispose of the tithes “by mine own voice unto them, saith the Lord.”1

Less than a month passed before this newly revealed council met in Far West, Missouri, to obey the revelation, that is, to “take into concideration the disposing of the publick properties in the hands of the Bishop, in Zion, for the people of Zion have commenced liberally to consecrate agreeably to the revelations, and commandments of the Great I Am of their surplus properties.” The council agreed that the First Presidency should keep all the property they needed “and the remainder be put into the hands of the Bishop or Bishops, agreeably to the commandments, and revelations.”2

Section 120 created the council that continues to guide the Church’s financial and property management and declared the principle of revelation by which they do so. The council has a different composition today, however. When section 120 was revealed, Far West was Church headquarters and its bishop and high council served with the First Presidency on the council. Over the years the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles grew into a governing body of the Church and a Presiding Bishopric was formed. Today, in other words, the council is composed of the First Presidency, Quorum of Twelve Apostles, and the Presiding Bishopric.3

There have been critics of this council for a long time. Their perspective is always from the outside. Speaking from the inside, with nearly two decades as a member of this council, Elder Robert D. Hales said, “It is remarkable to witness this council heed the Lord’s voice. Each member is aware of and participates in all the council’s decisions. No decision is made until the council is unanimous. All tithing funds are spent for the purposes of the Church.” Elder Hales continued, “I bear my testimony of the Council on the Disposition of the Tithes. . . . Without exception, the tithing funds of this Church have been used for His purposes.”4

1. “Revelation, 8 July 1838–D [D&C 120],” 57, The Joseph Smith Papers, accessed December 2, 2020.

2. “Journal, March–September 1838,” 59, The Joseph Smith Papers, accessed December 2, 2020.

3. David W. Smith, “The Development of the Council on the Disposition of the Tithes,” BYU Studies Quarterly 57:2 (2018): 131–155.

4. Elder Robert Hales, “Tithing,” October 2002 General Conference.

Additional Context by Casey Paul Griffiths

From Doctrine and Covenants Minute

Doctrine and Covenants 120 was one of five revelations given on Sunday, July 8, 1838.1 The revelation was another step in implementing the law of consecration and managing Church finances. At first, the responsibility to oversee Church finances was given to the bishops of the Church (D&C 42:31–34). However, from 1832 to 1834 the United Firm oversaw the management of Church assets.2 After 1834 the high councils established in Ohio and Missouri became part of managing Church finances,3 but this arrangement led to some contention among the Missouri high council when William W. Phelps and John Whitmer, members of the Missouri stake presidency, acted without the consent of high council members.4 In Doctrine and Covenants 120, the Lord organized a new council—consisting of the First Presidency, the Presiding Bishopric in Zion, and the Zion high council—for managing the financial affairs of the Church. This council was to act under the direction of the Lord (D&C 120:1).

The new council first met several weeks later on July 26, 1838. The minutes of the meeting record, “This day the first presidency, High Council, & Bishops Court, met to take into consideration, the disposing of the public properties in the hands of the Bishop, in Zion, for the people of Zion have commenced liberally to consecrate agreeably to the revelations, and commandments of the Great I am of their surplus properties &c.”5

See “Historical Introduction,” Revelation, 8 July 1838–D[D&C 120].

1. The other revelations received that day were Doctrine and Covenants 117, 118, 119, and an uncanonized revelation given to William W. Phelps and Frederick G. Williams. See Revelation, 8 July 1838–B, JSP.

2. See Max H. Parkin “Joseph Smith and the United Firm: The Growth and Decline of the Church’s First Master Plan of Business and Finance, Ohio and Missouri, 1832–1834.” BYU Studies, vol. 46, no. 3 (2007), 5–66.

3. See, for example, Minute Book 1, 2 Apr. 1836, JSP; and Minute Book 2, 7 Apr. 1837, JSP.  

4. See Minute Book 2, p. 73, JSP.

5. Minutes, 26 July 1838, p. 59, JSP.