The History of the Lottery


The lottery is a big-money game where you try to win the big prize by buying tickets. The odds are very bad, but people play it anyway because there’s always a sliver of hope that they’ll be the lucky one.

Lottery advertising frequently presents misleading information about the chances of winning and inflates the value of money won (lottery jackpots are often paid in equal annual installments over 20 years, with inflation dramatically eroding the current value). It also encourages covetousness by suggesting that you can win so much money that you’ll be able to buy everything you want. God forbids covetousness, as stated in Exodus 20:17.

Some states have banned lotteries, but most continue to run them. They’re a major source of revenue for convenience stores and their vendors; lottery suppliers; teachers, in states where a portion of the proceeds is earmarked for education; state legislators, who become accustomed to large revenue streams from the games; and the general public.

The first modern lotteries were held in the Low Countries in the 15th century as town-based fundraising initiatives, to build walls and fortifications, and to help the poor. Lotteries were legalized by Francis I in 1476. In the American colonies, Benjamin Franklin sponsored a lottery to raise funds for cannons to defend Philadelphia from the British during the Revolution. It failed, but private lotteries became widely popular.

In the early 1800s, lotteries helped finance the building of a number of American colleges, including Harvard, Dartmouth, Yale, King’s College (now Columbia), Union, and William and Mary. Privately organized lotteries also were common in England and the United States as a means of selling land, merchandise, and services for more money than could be obtained from a normal sale.

By the mid-1970s, lottery games had become very popular. By 1986, Americans spent $80 billion on lottery tickets. Americans spend more on lottery tickets than on any other form of gambling — including horse racing and sports betting.

Lottery games are a major business for states, and they also serve as a tool to increase tax revenue. But it’s important to remember that lottery revenue is a regressive tax on the poor, which is why many economists say states should stop using it to boost their budgets.

Lottery winners rarely hold on to their wealth for long, and those who do are usually bankrupt within a few years. Instead of wasting your money on the lottery, use it to save for retirement, start an emergency fund, or pay off credit card debt. This will help you avoid the financial pitfalls of trying to get rich quickly by buying your way into heaven. Instead, let God guide your decisions to earn your riches honestly, through hard work: “Lazy hands make for poverty, but diligent hands bring wealth” (Proverbs 10:4). Then, you can truly enjoy your blessings. (Originally published August 28, 2018) Bethany Lesser, All rights reserved. For reprint and licensing requests for this article, click here.