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A tithe, from an old word meaning "tenth", was a taxation-like system in which peasants gave one tenth of their produce to the church. Today, tithes (or tithing) is normally voluntary and paid in cash, checks, or stocks.

The Hebrew practice of giving tithes was mentioned in the Bible, beginning with the gift from Abraham to Melchizedek (Genesis 14:20). Tithes were also given in ancient Lydia, Arabia and Carthage. Tithes were adopted by the early Christian church, being mentioned in councils at Tours in 567 and at Macon in 585. They were formally recognised under Pope Adrian I in 787.

Tithes in England

The right to receive tithes was granted to the English churches by King Ethelwulf in 855. Tithes were given legal force by the Statute of Westminster of 1285. Adam Smith criticised the system in The Wealth of Nations (1776), arguing that a fixed rent would encourage peasants to farm more efficiently. The Dissolution of the Monasteries led to the transfer of many tithe rights from the Church to secular landowners, and then in the 1530s to the Crown. The system ended with the Tithe Commutation Act 1836, which replaced tithes with a rent charge decided by a Tithe Commission. The records of land ownership, or Tithe Files, made by the Commission are now a valuable resource for historians.

At first this commutation reduced problems to the ultimate payers by folding tithes in with rents (however it could cause transitional money supply problems by raising the transaction demand for money). Later the decline of large landowners led tenants to become freeholders and again have to pay directly; this also led to renewed objections of principle by non-Anglicans.

The rent charges paid to landowners were converted by the Tithe Act 1936 to annuities paid to the state through the Tithe Redemption Commission. The payments were transferred in 1960 to the Board of Inland Revenue, and finally terminated by the Finance Act 1977.


Tithes were local religious tax-like payments paid in Ireland by members of other faiths as well as its own adherents to maintain and fund the established state church, the Church of Ireland. With the disestablishment of the Church of Ireland, tithes were abolished.

Tithes in Ireland caused serious objections of principle from adherents of other churches (as a similar system also did in Wales, which had a large proportion of Nonconformists and Dissenters). Henry Thoreau is an example from the USA of an individual with this sort of objection of principle - he risked jail for conscientious refusal to pay a similar imposition (somebody else paid on his behalf).