From its inception in the 1830s, the Church has sought to help the poor and needy, though the form of such assistance has changed over time. Just like the early Christian church, after the death of Christ, the Church practiced, for a limited period, a communal order of living—called the “United Order”—whereby the members contributed all of their material possessions to the Church, and those assets were then re-distributed among the members according to their needs. Not surprisingly, given the dramatic sacrifices required of members under the United Order, the practice was never widespread and eventually was discontinued. The basic elements of the Church’s current welfare program were developed in the mid-1930s, when the United States was still in the midst of the Great Depression, and many were on the brink of bankruptcy and were suffering greatly, and employment opportunities were limited.
According to official Church publications, the “purposes of Church welfare are to help members become self-reliant, to care for the poor and needy, and to give service.” In 1936, the First Presidency said, when outlining the new welfare plan for the Church: “Our primary purpose was to set up … a system which the curse of idleness would be done away with, the evils of the dole abolished, and independence, industry, thrift and self respect be once more established amongst our people. The aim of the Church is to help the people to help themselves. Work is to be re-enthroned as the ruling principles of the lives of our Church membership.” The two Church Handbooks (Section 5 of Handbook 1 and Section 6 of Handbook 2) set forth the principles that currently govern the administration of Church welfare, and is to be used by Church leaders (such as branch presidents, bishops, and district and stake leaders) in administering the use of the Church welfare funds and commodities. As such, the understanding of the principles and policies outlined in the Handbooks is of critical importance to the Church leaders in Africa, as they both try to instruct the new members and respond to their welfare needs. Especially where the Church is new, as in Malawi, many of the Church leaders themselves struggle to be financially independent—hence they are trying to learn the very principles they have been asked to teach to others.
(a) Self Reliance
The Church welfare system starts by emphasizing each member’s obligation to fend for himself or herself—hence to be self reliant. The member should not look to others, including the Church, to care for the member. This emphasis is not surprising in view of the Church’s belief in the centrality of “agency”—one of the greatest gifts of God. “Wherefore, men are free according to the flesh, and all things are given them which are expedient unto man. And they are free to choose liberty and eternal life, through the great Mediator of all men, or to choose captivity and death, according to the capacity and power of the devil; for he seeketh that all men might be miserable like unto himself.” 2 Ne. 2: 27. Through the exercise of agency, men fulfill the purpose of their existence—both to learn to exercise dominion over the earth and to choose good over evil. With the gift of agency comes personal accountability. We are “accountable” for our decisions, having tasted of the tree of good and evil, and the day will come when we will be judged according to our works, whether they be good or evil. Of course, the Church and society in general recognize some may lack full accountability for their actions either because of age or mental infirmity.]
In order to help members understand their responsibility, Handbook 2 defines what it means to be self-reliant—members are expected: (i) to take care of their minds and bodies; (ii) to obtain as much education as they can; (iii) to prepare for and get suitable employment to provide for their own and their families’ needs; (iv) to build a at least a three-month supply of food; (v) to pay tithes and offerings, avoid unnecessary debt, use a budget and live within a plan. In addition, they are to develop their testimonies, exercise faith, obey the commandments, pray daily, study the scriptures and modern teachings of Church leaders, attend Church meetings, and serve in Church callings. Generally speaking, following these principles of prudence will enable them to care for themselves and their families. The Church makes clean that the members are look first to “family members” for support, if they are not able to make it on their own. The Church’s resources are to be tapped only after personal and family resources prove to be insufficient.
(b) Caring for the Poor and Needy
In theory, if all were self-reliant, there would be no need for welfare assistance. But the world is far from perfect. Many do not observe principles of self-reliance; natural disasters occur, wiping out the resources and reserves of many, including those who have prepared; and groups, such as children, widows, widowers, the mentally and physically infirm, and elderly, are often left to rely upon others. Sometimes members in the extended family are around to help, but occasionally they are unwilling or unable to bridge the gap. Sometimes, the need for assistance is temporary, as the needy need only a little time to get back on their feet; but often the need for assistance may be long-term, such as in the case of physical and mental infirmities. The Lord commands his people “to visit the poor and the needy and administer to their relief.” Members in the Church often give such service, freely and without being asked. “Church members are encouraged to give personal compassionate service to those in need. They should be “anxiously engaged in a good cause,” serving without being asked or assigned.”. Sometimes, Church leaders organize relief efforts, especially in cases of natural disasters affecting many in the same area. Nonmembers may of course do the same.
Yet, on occasion, all of these alternatives fall short, leaving it to Church leaders to look to the welfare funds and goods to provide the needed assistance. In those cases, the Church uses the fast offerings of the members, together on occasion with tithes, to fund welfare assistance. Once a month, members throughout the Church are asked to fast for two full meals and then contribute the money they would have spent for food to the Church. These funds are called “fast offerings.” The Church then makes the world wide fast offerings available to the branch presidents, bishops and stake presidents to help the poor and needy. These funds are considered sacred and leaders are to be vigilant to ensure they are used only for the purposes for which they are intended.
(c) Edifying All Involved; Showing Compassion and Charity
The Church further recognizes that welfare assistance, if administered properly, helps all involved. “Providing in the Lord’s way humbles the rich, exalts the poor, and sanctifies both. President J. Reuben Clark taught: ‘The real long term objective of the Welfare Plan is the building of character of the members of the Church, givers and receivers, rescuing all that is finest down deep inside of them, and bringing to flower and fruitage the latent richness of the spirit, which after all is the mission and purpose and reason for being of this Church.” One wonders if it is possible to emphasize this principle enough. When separating the sheep from the goats, at the time of the last judgment, the Savior spoken unequivocally about the importance of Christian service to the needy. “Then shall the righteous answer him, saying, Lord, when saw we thee an hungred, and fed thee? Or thirsty, and gave thee drink? When saw we thee sick, or in prison, and came unto thee? And the King shall answer and say unto them, Verily I say unto you, Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me.” Matt. 25: 37-40. We are expected to help our own, but it is harder to provide the same service to others who have no direct claim upon us. Those who serve when it is hard to serve, or who show compassion to those who are strangers and have no customary claim upon their time and resources, display great charity.
2. Church Policies in Administering Welfare Funds
Church leaders have an affirmative obligation to seek out and care for the poor. “It is not enough to assist only when asked.” They are to seek the guidance of the Spirit and apply the principles outlined in the Handbooks in deciding (i) whom to help; (ii) what kind of assistance to provide; and (iii) the duration of the assistance. In making these determinaitons, they are asked to conduct searching interviews of the needy. They are to assess their needs, available resources, the extent to which they can get help from family members before turning to the Church.
The following are some of other guidelines given to the Church leaders:
(i) The Church should generally provide only temporary assistance as the members work to become self-reliant;
(ii) Even those requiring long-term assistance should do all they can to help themselves;
(iii) The Church provides only basic life-sustaining necessities; it does not provide assistance to maintain an affluent living standard;
(iv) When possible, the Church provides commodities or services instead of giving money or paying bills;
(v) Those receiving assistance should be asked to work to the extent of their ability in exchange for the aid; it will left to the Church leader to decide upon appropriate work assignments;
(vi) Family resources should be exhausted first before using Church welfare.
In addition, in lieu of Church welfare, members may choose to resort to community resources, including government assistance, before using Church welfare. The Church considers this welfare program to be divinely inspired.
 “And the multitude of them that believed were of one heart and of one soul: neither said any of them that ought of the things which he possessed was his own; but they had all things in common.” Acts 4: 32.
 Section 104 of the Doctrine and Covenants is a revelation, given to Joseph Smith, regarding the operation of the “United Order.”
 See Glen L. Rudd, “Pure Religion—The Story of Church Welfare Since 1930,” 1995.
 See Handbook 2, Section 6.1.
 Conference Report, Oct. 1936, 3. Quoted in Handbook 2, Section 6.1.
 “What is man, that thou art mindful of him? And the son of man, that thou visitest him? For thou hast made him a little lower than the angels, and has crowned him with glory and honour. Thou madest him to have dominion over the works of thy hands; thou hast put all things under his fee: All sheep and oxen, yea, and the beasts of the field; The fowl of he air, and the fish of the sea, and whatsoever passeth through the paths of the seas.” Psalms 8: 4-8.
 See, for example, Rev. 21: 12-13.
 See Section 6.1.1 of Handbook 2.
 D&C 44: 6.
 See Section 6.1.2 of Handbook 2.
 See Section 6.1.2 of Handbook 2
 Section 5.2.3 of Handbook 1.