Bishop Bill recently posted about a meeting that Hans Mattson found unsettling when he was an AA 70 in Europe in which then Pres. Hinckley referred to the tithing potential in the US being more important than that coming from Africa. It’s of course an obvious fact that with a stronger economy, the tithing funds from one region of the world are necessary to fund the efforts in other areas of the world. However, it can be unsavory to consider how these economic factors alter church programs to maximize returns, minimize costs, and make up for losses.

This is not a new or unique problem, nor is it one I would ever expect would be solved to the satisfaction of everyone, especially since we have people from different economic classes in every religion, contributing at different levels, and yet, the gospel is supposed to be for all, regardless of our financial situations.

“Every one that thirsteth, come ye to the waters, and he that hath no money; come ye, buy, and eat; yea, come, buy wine and milk without money and without price.” Isaiah 55:1

It’s a nice idea that the gospel is free, but in the real world, being part of a religious community–well, a part of any community–costs money.

I spent last weekend in New England, specifically Boston, Salem, and Rhode Island. I have a lot of ancestors who migrated to Massachusetts Bay Colony between 1620 [1] and 1635. This trip got me interested in reading more about what life was like for them. There are elements of their lives that I find very appealing and relatable, and other elements that I don’t like at all.

Uprooting one’s life to move to an untamed wilderness seems adventurous. These people were industrious and expected hardship, but were also educated (the Puritans, who founded Harvard, were highly educated and believed that it was one’s right and responsibility to read the Bible directly, not to rely on priests’ interpretations–Pilgrims, who landed at Plymouth, were a bit lower class and had less to lose financially in making this trip, having already fled to Holland to escape the imminent civil war in England; they wanted to go to the colonies rather than have their culture and religion become too Hollandised). Not everyone who left England was a paranoid religious fanatic, the way we like to portray it. Some just wanted more autonomy and didn’t mind doing hard work to get it. And England was in political and religious turmoil at the time.

When they got to the new world, these first groups deliberately settled in areas where the natives were deemed friendly, and they cooperated with them to settle in areas the natives agreed upon. Issues came later as more and more Europeans arrived, pushing those borders and boundaries in aggressive ways, and breaking treaties and agreements their predecessors had made.

While it’s true that they were fleeing religious persecution, they weren’t deliberately creating a secular or diverse society either. Some communities were more tolerant than others, but all gave preference to a stated religion. This was sometimes unpleasant for those belonging to minority religions who might have less say in government affairs (the preferred religion often was the local government, and certainly had political power than disenfranchised religions didn’t). Some fled Massachusetts for nearby Providence, Rhode Island which had more religious tolerance.

As communities were established, many of the land owners signed a covenant with their neighbors. One of my direct ancestors, Jonathan Fairbanks, signed the Dedham Covenant in 1636 which included this language:

“One: We whose names are here unto subscribed do, in the fear and reverence of our Almighty God, mutually and severally promise amongst ourselves and each other to profess and practice one truth according to that most perfect rule, the foundation whereof is everlasting love.

Two: That we shall by all means labor to keep off from us all such as are contrary minded, and receive only such unto us as may be probably of one heart with us, [and such] as that we either know or may well and truly be informed to walk in a peaceable conversation with all meekness of spirit, [this] for the edification of each other in the knowledge and faith of the Lord Jesus, and the mutual encouragement unto all temporal comforts in all things, seeking the good of each other out of which may be derived true peace.

Three: That if at any time differences shall rise between parties of our said town, that then such party or parties shall presently refer all such differences unto some one, two or three others of our said society to be fully accorded and determined without any further delay, if it possibly may be.

Four: That every man that … shall have lots [and] in our said town shall pay his share in all such…charges as shall be imposed on him…, as also become freely subject unto all such orders and constitutions as shall be…made now or at any time hereafter from this day forward, as well for loving and comfortable society in our said town as also for the prosperous and thriving condition of our said fellowship, especially respecting the fear of God, in which we desire to begin and continue whatsoever we shall by loving favor take into hand.

Five: And for the better manifestation of our true resolution herein, every man so received into the town is to subscribe hereunto his name, thereby obliging both himself and his successors after him forever, as we have done.”

He had originally delayed signing the covenant because he was an avowed agnostic, but he converted and joined with his neighbors. On the surface, these types of town covenants look like a modern-day Home Owner’s Association in which one’s neighbors can be nosy busy-bodies over minutae (or you know, accuse you of witchcraft because you sneezed on their cow), but these covenants were necessary for a few reasons:

  1. There usually wasn’t a local magistrate or local government, so neighbors were essentially agreeing to resolve their own disputes without needing intervention from a traveling judge from another town. They also agreed in the covenant that they would attend town meetings. [2]
  2. This obligated signatories to financially support future agreed upon town initiatives, including things like building roads or hiring a minister (another reason conversion to the faith was required).
  3. Paragraph five sounds odd, binding one’s family to the covenant in perpetuity, but it actually freed one’s descendants from having to “buy in.” Outsiders (who weren’t part of the original signers) could pay to join the community, but only if they were deemed to be “like minded.”

Disputes arose in some communities over whether someone had to be a land-owner (within ever-changing boundaries) or had to belong to (and attend) a particular congregation to have a vote in a specific community matter. [3]

At the core, these community covenants were designed to make homesteading individuals stronger by creating a spirit of cooperation. There were wars in nearby Maine between natives and French settlers. There were hardships caused by weather and injury. People were frequently taken hostage by others (sometimes natives, sometimes other settlers) who were in dire circumstances, and a community could rally together to assist and support each other, fighting together against common enemies, and combining efforts to care for those who needed help. But as with every civilization since the dawn of time, those who are perceived to need more help than they give are vulnerable to the goodwill of the community. Human survival includes a predisposition toward selfishness.

“The past is a foreign country.” L.P. Hartley

Even when churches aren’t synonymous with governments, as they often were in Massachusetts Bay Colony, they are still communities, and within a community, there are going to be disputes about financial matters, decision-making, and who is “like-minded” enough to join. Even though the past seems utterly foreign, in this regard things don’t change much.

Happy Thanksgiving.

[1] William and Mary Brewster came over on the Mayflower with sons Love and Wrestling; they were my direct ancestors. Daughters Fear and Patience came on later ships. Because of his high education level, William was chosen as High Elder of the Plymouth settlement.

[2] This was a factor in the convictions of Giles (age 82) and Martha Corey (age 78) in Salem. Giles kept attending town meetings in which accusations of witchcraft were being hurled around. Martha noted that if you attended the meetings, you were more likely to be accused, and she begged him to quit attending. He felt obligated to attend, so she tried to hide his saddle. When he was accused, questioning revealed that his wife hid the saddle, which was deemed witchcraft, and he was accused of not living up to his community obligations. She was hung for witchcraft, and he was pressed to death with stones in an effort to extract a confession (including naming others in the community who would then be hung). 

[3] This was part of what went wrong in Salem, leading up to the witch trials–neighbors were divided about their minister, how much he should be paid (including a wood stipend), and how long his contract should be. There were a lot of ill feelings as a result.