Church-owned Cows and Inflation

I recently taught Sherwood v. Walker, the famous case involving a Michigan cow named Rose 2nd of Aberlone, as well as a number of other mistake cases in contracts dealing with cows. I’ve got bovine jurisprudence on the mind. It seems that the same is true for Eugene Volokh, who recently noted a case involving a “church owned cow.” The cow in question was owned by the Mormon Church and seems to have negligently collided with a motorcycle. In the interests of extending our jurisprudential understanding of cows, I can’t resist adding another twist to the church-owned cow story.

The Mormon Church’s involvement in agriculture is a legacy of the nineteenth century practice of Mormons paying tithing in kind to the church. As a result of this practice, in the nineteenth century, the church acquired large herds of cattle as well as other food stuffs. It then issued so-called “tithing scrip,” which was in effect private currency. The holder of scrip could redeem it for foodstuffs, including beef, at church storehouses. The scrip then circulated as money, in effect providing liquidity to the perpetually cash starved economies of the Intermountain West in the nineteenth century. Because the currency was in effect backed by cows, however, it was subject to some odd monetary pressures. For example, when a particularly harsh winter killed off a large proportion of the church’s cattle herds, it was forced to reduce the purchasing power of tithing scrip at church storehouses because there simply wasn’t as much beef available as previously. The result was price inflation as the value of the scrip declined.

As part of its efforts to raise revenue during the Civil War, the U.S. government passed a series of banking acts designed to decrease government borrowing costs. All nationally chartered banks were required to hold their reserves in the form of treasury bonds, and non-federally chartered institutions were hit with a heavy tax on the notes that they issued. The effect was to slap a punitive tax on any bank depositor who did not loan his or her savings to the U.S. government. During the 1880s federal prosecutors in Utah decided that the various scrip-issuing bodies of the Mormon church were subject to this tax, and demanded decades of back taxes, eventually killing off the scrip and replacing it with currency issued by federally chartered banks.

Taxes. Regulation. Inflation. Cows. Some things never change.

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