Latter-day Saint Video Vault celebrates decades of uplifting, funny, weird, and sometimes cringe-worthy Mormon-related videos, most of which are now found on YouTube. Join Jared Jones every other Friday as he breaks down one of these classics.

On May 17, 1899 President Lorenzo Snow stood in the St. George Tabernacle to address the saints. He wasn’t sure why he was there but he began his remarks nonetheless. What followed was a landmark address on the defining issue of his presidency—tithing.  To remember the 120th anniversary of this moment in church history let’s take a look at The Windows of Heaven.

The Windows of Heaven was originally produced as an hour-long film in 1963. It was trimmed to 30 minutes for a video release in 1979, and was billed as the longest and most widely publicized film the church had ever made. For the purposes of this recap/review I examine the 1979 version mainly because it’s the version I grew up watching. Commissioned by the Presiding Bishopric, film credits and opening titles acknowledge it was and made under the direction of the First Presidency and Quorum of the Twelve Apostles by Brigham Young University. Wetzel Whitaker directed the film.  Because this is a historical film the recap is accompanied by a section on relevant history.  Due to length I’ve added section headings so you can find what interests you.

Video Recap

The film opens in President Snow’s office. He is at a loss with what to do regarding the finances of the church in the face of its $2 million debt ($65.5 million in today’s dollars). In the process of understanding the Lord’s will, President Snow is inspired to visit St. George, Utah. His wife and son were concerned whether he could endure the trip, but President Snow not only insisted that he go, but he also invited his wife and son along with many other General Authorities. But he still didn’t know why.

After a lengthy train trip they arrived in Modena, Utah, which is 67 miles from St. George. Today that is a trip of a little over an hour, but back then it took an additional day by horse and buggy. Along the way they pass the effects of the drought including dry stream beds and dying livestock. They finally arrive at the stake president’s home and President Snow retires to bed after some bread and milk.  He is speaking in the morning and still doesn’t know why he is there.

The next morning as President Snow begins to speak he paints the picture of a frail and tired prophet. At some point he pauses and then is renewed and energized and begins to speak with great fervor.

“The time has now come for every Latter-day Saint who calls himself a saint to pay his tithing in full from this day forward. That is the word of the Lord to you, and it will be the word of the Lord to every settlement throughout the land of Zion.” In the film he also promises rain and a bountiful harvest if the saints of St. George will live the law of tithing.

True to his word, President Snow embarks on a whistle stop tour on the way back to Salt Lake City. A brass band sends him on his way (should we bring this tradition back?) as he stops at the metropolitan paradises of Cedar City, Parowan, Beaver, Kanosh, Meadow, Fillmore, Holden, Scipio and Nephi. I went to high school and college in Utah and I had to look many of those up.

We see scenes of tithes entering the storehouse–measures of grain, a youth’s best chicken—interspersed with scenes of St. George saints faithfully planting and irrigating crops and scenes of President Snow and his secretary reviewing tithing receipts from St. George that are higher than they need to be. But still there is no rain. President Snow goes to the lord and pleads for understanding. “Why was I prompted to promise rain if it was not to be fulfilled?”

Sister Macarthur, the stake president’s wife, is working in the kitchen but suddenly there is thunder! She rushes out to the fields and she and her husband are dowsed by a downpour of righteousness. And rain. Rain and righteousness. They sink to their knees in gratitude and offer thanks.

To conclude President Snow receives a telegram with news of rain and ascends the Beehive House staircase to offer his own prayer of thanks. He asks what more can he do to show his love for God in the fulfilling of the prophet’s words.

Historical Context

Several factors contributed to the church’s financial distress in 1899. First, the passage of the Edmunds Tucker Act of 1887 disincorporated the church, outlawed polygamy and allowed the seizure of various church assets many of which were never returned. Second, scholars muse that tithing may have slowed in part as Saints didn’t want to donate to the church only to have it seized by the government. Third, there was a widespread financial crisis—the “Panic of 1893”—that was the worst financial crisis faced by the country until that time. To finance its operations, the church turned to public bonds which led to its sizable debt.

Although Movie President Snow promised the saints rain as a direct blessing for paying tithing historians are emphatic: there was no historic evidence that President Snow issued a moisture quid pro quo. He promised the saints would be blessed both spiritually and temporally for obeying the law of tithing. Almost 3 inches of rain did finally fall in August 1899, but the harvest for that year was normal to below average for conditions and definitely not “bountiful.” The rain also caused a lot of damage and local leaders did not attribute it to tithing. Screenwriters based the film in part on the writings of son LeRoi Snow that were published some 35 years after the revelation, and historians suggested that these writings were more nostalgic reflections rather than a contemporary account of what actually transpired. The church finally got out of debt in 1906, five years after President Snow’s death.

When the film was released in 1963 the church again found itself in financial challenges. President Henry D. Moyle initiated an “if you build it they will come” approach and believed more and bigger buildings would lead to more conversions. The church began building meeting houses for projected conversions instead of current needs and basically planned on unrealized tithing income to eventually cover the cost of the expansion. In 1959 the church spent $8 million in excess of income per church financial reports. Accelerated building continued but we don’t have a clear picture of how much as President Moyle, who was eventually relieved of administrative responsibilities, encouraged the church to stop releasing detailed financial reports. No such report has been published since 1960.

Conclusion

The Windows of Heaven is a fine piece of inspirational cinema. The acting is fine and the costumes and set dressing to a good job creating a picture of the church and its people at the turn of the century. It conveys the need to live the law of tithing, to be financially responsible and to diligently work to obtain a goal. All that said it falls a bit flat for me. Understanding the history definitely colors my view of the film. There are plenty of stories to help promote the living of gospel principles and I don’t know that we need to tweak the words of the Prophet to make it MORE inspirational. President Snow’s words are pretty good as they are. It feels the film was made to inspire people to pay tithing, not because it is a commandment of God that will bring you temporal and spiritual blessings, but because the church made mistakes and was in need of a bailout. Many “historical” films adjust the narrative for the sake of story telling. This is not new, but Chapter 12 of The Teachings of Lorenzo Snow works just fine for me.

Thoughts, Musings and Trivia

  • Prior to 1899 converts were expected to pay 10% of their income at the time of their conversion and then 10% of their increase annually. Part of President Snow’s revelation was a change in policy with all saints paying 10% moving forward.
  • The film was very supported by the General Authorities. Stories say that Harold B. Lee even scouted for vintage locomotives to use in the film.
  • The film was initially briefed as a 30 minute film but it grew to 50 minutes. A 10-minute version was also released on a church history DVD.
  • The Beehive House was home to President Brigham Young and his family members for many years. Lorenzo Snow moved into the home in 1900. After his death, President Joseph F. Smith lived there until his death in 1918. It then served as a boarding house and social center for “working girls and those of moderate means,” as reported in the Deseret News in 1920.

Sources:

  • “The Mormon Baseball Baptism Era,” Sunstone Magazine,16 (7) December 1993: 30-44, Quinn
  • “Revisiting Lorenzo Snow’s 1899 Tithing Revelation,” Mormon Historical Studies, 142-153, Horne
  • Tithing, a Law for our Protection and Advancement,” Teachings of the Presidents of the Church: Lorenzo Snow, Chapter 12