Drawing a bright line between consecration and the united order

March 15, 2009    By: Jacob J @ 5:48 pm   Category: Money and getting gain,Scriptures

The Setup

In the temple, we covenant to obey the law of consecration, but I have observed that there is some disagreement about what is entailed in obedience to the law of consecration. In the early days of the church, the saints established the United Order to implement the law of consecration as it had been revealed to that point. Members voluntarily consecrated (deeded over) their property to the Church and in return received a stewardship over property to meet their needs. The United Order lasted a relatively short period of time and the Church hasn’t asked people to deed over all their property for well over one hundred years.

The Problem

The fact that we still covenant to obey the law of consecration combines with the fact that the United Order was disbanded long ago to create a problem. Obviously it is problematic to ask people to covenant to something they cannot do. If we are required to live the law of consecration then it would be very nice to define it in some way that makes obedience possible.

One Solution

To that end, one common strategy used to bring the law of consecration within reach is to draw a bright line between the law of consecration on one side and the United Order on the other. On this scheme, the law of consecration involves the members consecrating (donating) some of their time, talents, and property to the church by doing service, fulfilling callings, and making monetary donations of various kinds. By contrast, this scheme describes the United Order as the system under which people deeded all of their property, received stewardships, and gave their surplus back to the church. Once the bright line has divided these two conveniently along the lines of what is practiced in the modern church and what is not, it is said that the law of consecration is still with us even though the United Order has been done away. There are lots of examples of this approach, but a few can be found here, here, and here.

My Rejection of That Solution

My only problem with this approach is that I think it is wrong. While it is perfectly reasonable to say that some of the underlying principles of consecration can be put into action in our lives today (outside the context of the United Order), I find no support for the idea that the law of consecration referred to in the temple is unrelated to the original system of deeding over property, receiving a stewardship, etc.. That is not to say that I believe we are going back to that system in the future, but I think we do a disservice to the concept of consecration when we pretend it is just refers to someone being active in (and donating generously to) the modern church. I believe God was asking for something more than that. I think he was teaching us something about heavenly society and I think some of what he was asking for cannot be achieved under our current economic system.

The first problem for the solution above is that the temple ceremony makes it clear that the “law of consecration” is to be understood as it is explained in the Doctrine and Covenants (apparently this is not as obvious as one might suppose). The primary sections of interest are D&C 42, 51, 78, 82, 83, 92, 104. A cursory reading of these sections will confirm that the term “consecration” is used to refer to the exact ideas being relegated to the term “United Order” in the proposed solution above (see, for example, D&C 42:32-33). The bright line looks totally ad hoc and phony when you read the revelations upon which we are told to base our understanding of the law of consecration.

Additionally, I think there really is more to the law of consecration than a generous fast offering. In tying the law of consecration to the celestial law and the concept of Zion (see especially D&C 105:1-5), the D&C gives us a concept of consecration that is not fully realizable in isolation. That is, there is only so far a person can go on their own in implementing a Zion society. In fact, the way in which the law of consecration binds everyone together economically seems (to me) to be one of the things that makes it so difficult to live. It is much easier to have feelings of compassion and forgiveness for people when their dumb decisions don’t affect me (and my pocketbook).

My Discussion With Bryce

Over on the templestudy blog discussion (linked to above, here it is again) I started to articulate my concerns but then my comments stopped appearing and Bryce didn’t respond to my emails. Without going through our disagreement blow by blow, I want to call out of couple of points which could serve as the beginning points of a discussion here. I take issue with the idea that we can all simply implement the law of consecration for ourselves by donating generously:

From the Romney quote you just used in the previous comment:

What prohibits us from giving as much in fast offerings as we would have given in surpluses under the United Order? Nothing but our own limitations.

I don’t think that’s right. What prevents me is that I am expected to be self-reliant. I am expected to save my money to protect against loss of job or catastrophe. I am expected to save for my retirement. I am expected to save so that I can help out anyone in my family who falls on hard times economically. All of these reasons to save give me very real restrictions on how much of my surplus I can give as a fast offering. I can still be generous, but I can’t responsibly give as much as people gave under the United Order. Not even close. (Jacob J, quoted from this comment)

If we take the counsel seriously to get out of debt and to save for ourselves and our families, there is a genuine question about how much I should be donating while I still have a mortgage. It is a very small percentage of us who have no mortgage. Bryce doesn’t “believe the prophets have counseled me to save millions of dollars in case I lose my job, or even for retirement, so that it not a limitless bucket,” (here) but, of course, the bucket is functionally limitless for most members of the church if they are expected to be debt free and have money saved for all the reasons mentioned above before they can be said to have a surplus.

But, here is the sentiment that is most distressing to me:

A Zion society doesn’t necessarily “take care of one another” per se. This is another myth. A Zion society consecrates individuals’ surplus for the support of the poor or those who have not, so that there is “no poor among them.” Those that have sufficient for their needs don’t give or receive any material resources from anyone else necessarily. If I don’t save in a Zion society because I think the society will take care of me in an emergency, it is nothing less than irresponsibility and idleness (Bryce Haymond, quoted from this comment)

I could hardly disagree more. In my view, a Zion society does take care of one another, by definition. The point of giving back the surplus, I believe, was that the participants were no longer to save individually, but collectively. They were bound together economically such that the only way to prosper would be for the whole community to prosper. The model for a Zion society is the family. We have a hard enough time getting our immediate families to live harmoniously in a mini-Zion. The law of consecration challenged the saints to extend that family system on a grand scale. It is no wonder to me that they failed.

In Conclusion

I think we miss a lot of what God was trying to teach us if we convince ourselves that we’re currently living the law of consecration in its fullness. The point of Zion is that we establish something heavenly at a community level. This requires the development of celestial qualities in each individual (to be sure), but putting these qualities together as a community is its own unique challenge. I personally see no way that such an economic system could even be attempted in our modern economic environment. It may be that all the Glen Beck types on my “year supply of money” thread are correct and we are on the brink of societal meltdown after which we can attempt the law of consecration anew in the agrarian society to come. In my mind, it is more likely that we will never fully implement the law of consecration again, as contained in the Doctrine and Covenants, before the second coming. But even if we are never going to implement it as it was laid out originally, I think it is a mistake to re-write history so that the law of consecration is watered down to mean paying tithing and a generous fast offering.

20 Comments »

  1. Amen.

    Comment by Charmaine — March 15, 2009 @ 6:09 pm

  2. Hard to deny your arguments here.

    Comment by Geoff J — March 15, 2009 @ 8:22 pm

  3. “My only problem with this approach is that I think it is wrong.”

    Yeah, that’s my main problem, as well. *grin*

    I agree that we can’t live the law of consecration fully given the advice and counsel we are receiving currently, but I think we covenant to be willing to accept the literal law if it is required of us again – and I think that willingness can be exhibited in how we actually do live. I agree totally that we need to save, but I also believe strongly that we need to share – and share enough to make it hurt more than just a little. I think we need to give up some things we normally would want for ourselves in order to give more than we normally would to others – and not just our material possessions.

    Comment by Ray — March 15, 2009 @ 8:57 pm

  4. Jacob,

    What a coincidence! I was just reading this afternoon a journal of a man who was on the Kanab stake high council when they were attempting to establish Orderville. The never succeeded, but I don’t think it was for lack of trying. The contemporaneous accounts that I have read show that they never solved the basic problems. They didn’t know how to deal with jealousy, envy and free riders, and the inevitable problems that arose when the crops failed or the markets went south. People always wanted to receive more than they had put in. During one stake conference, Brigham Young exhorted them to live the Order, but in the subsequent council meeting, when he was asked for details on how to address some of the problems they faced, BY just gave vague answers and more admonition. The bottom line is, they didn’t know what they were doing, and neither did the president of the church. Whatever the United Order is, it is not a systematic program that has all the answers.

    Comment by Mark Brown — March 15, 2009 @ 9:43 pm

  5. I guess I am a separatist because I figure I can give my time, talents, and all that I possess to building up the kingdom. That’s what I covenant to do. It is left to me how to do that, and I do it by trying to be a good person and raising my children well and fulfilling my callings, etc.

    Comment by Matt W. — March 16, 2009 @ 5:32 am

  6. Jacob, Hugh Nibley agreed with you on this one. I’ll see if I can find the quote I’m thinking of and post it.

    Comment by Kent (MC) — March 16, 2009 @ 9:32 am

  7. Ray, agree wholeheartedly with your comment, good points.

    Mark Brown, That is interesting, and fortuitous that you were reading it yesterday so that you could share. I had always heard that the Orderville experiment was one of the most successful and long lasting of the consecration experiments, but that it was finally shut down by leadership in SLC because it was basically communal and didn’t follow the outline given in the D&C. Your summary of the problem is excellent. Jealousy, envy, free riders, people wanting to get more than they put in, and leadership heavy on admonition but light on how to make it work.

    Matt W, okay, so it sounds like you are taking up the gauntlet for the other side of the debate. How do you deal with the problem of saving? That is, how can you give “all that you possess” to the church when the church itself counsels you to stockpile money and assets for yourself and your family?

    Comment by Jacob J — March 16, 2009 @ 9:41 am

  8. Bryce’s comments profane the lives of our people who tried desperately to live what they believed was God’s command in the nineteenth century. I’m convinced that he must be just not aware of our history or doctrine.

    Comment by J. Stapley — March 16, 2009 @ 9:55 am

  9. Jacob: to be clear, I save money so I can have means to live later in life, and not be a burden on the church, the community, or my children. By eliminating a burden, I am building up the kingdom. Also, I am saving for future missions I will serve, and for my children’s educations so that they can better build up the kingdom of God.

    Doctrinally speaking, I see it as being put in the role of owner-operator, where I am get to make all the decisions about how to run my local branch of “Kingdom Builder” but am still accountable to the central authority, rather than the central authority making all the decisions about how to run the organization.

    Put another way, I don’t believe the United Order is coming back, at least as it historically was set out. I love those early saints who preceded me and lived consecration as it was applied then, as well as polygamy and all the other deep and important laws and commandments of that time, but I think the interdependence of a Zion community will not be what we have now or the united order. It will be better. I don’t know what that entails, but I just know it won’t have the flaws I see in the United Order or Capitalism.

    Comment by Matt W. — March 16, 2009 @ 10:50 am

  10. I think the difference is that we now look at the ability to consecrate ourselves and our families, but not consecrate all things as congregations.

    I agree that there is no way to fully practice the temporal portion of the law of consecration, and the PH/RS manual in the introduction also agrees with this. What we can do is consecrate our funds as a stewardship between the individual and the Lord. Am I using my income wisely, or am I squandering it? A part of the stewardship would be to save for futurity, as I would have to depend upon myself for retirement, future missions, etc.

    I do think that some members take this concept far beyond to believing they are still living a personal United Order (but calling it the law of consecration). For me, it is a personal law of consecration, preparatory for the group consecration to come. But it is in no way similar to what went on before, according to D&C. When D&C tells me that consecration requires all to be “equal” in temporal things that they may be equal in spiritual things, and that everyone is to look after the interests of his neighbor (and not him/herself), leaves us pretty much in a very different system currently.

    Comment by Rameumptom — March 16, 2009 @ 11:30 am

  11. I’m not a regular commentor on any lds themed sites, and most of the other readers are probably more intelligent and better read than I am. So, I’m not sure how this will be received, but thought I’d throw my thoughts out there, for what they’re worth.

    I find it interesting that the definition of the law of consecration is based on economics. I thought all the covenents in the temple had the atonement as the underlying theme. I wouldn’t think the law of consecration is about the United Order or tithing or fast offerings any more than the princple of sacrifice is about killing animals. These things are just there to point us towards Christ and His sacrifice.

    The law of consecration always reminds me of the type of unity discussed in 3 Nephi 11, especially verses 27 through 36. At any rate, I believe the law of consecration can be lived independent of the United Order, and ultimately has very little to do with tithing and fast offerings, either.

    Comment by Nameless — March 16, 2009 @ 11:45 am

  12. Nameless,

    You make a fair point. We do have that verse in which Jesus tells us he has never given a law which is temporal (D&C 29:34). However, we really need to evaluate this case in the same way we evaluate all other problems of this sort. Is it fair to say that the law of chastity doesn’t really have anything to do with who you have sex with because it is really about the atonement? Of course you are right that the law of consecration is given for spiritual reasons, not because God wants to do an economic experiment. I tried to touch on a few of these reasons in the post when I talked about what God is trying to teach us when he requires us to become a Zion society.

    Comment by Jacob J — March 16, 2009 @ 3:48 pm

  13. May I just say that the law of consecration and the united order are being practiced, to varying degrees of success, among certain fundamentalists.
    It’s tough and a “refiner’s fire” at times but when I consider the warning in the temple from the adversary… that if we don’t live up to all covenants made, we will be under his power… to be literal…. it becomes a commandment (not just a good idea).

    Comment by Bruce in Montana — March 17, 2009 @ 8:13 am

  14. Thanks for the respectful resonse Jacob. I’ll admit that I have a harder time fitting the law of chastity into my ‘everything has to do with the atonement’ mindset than the other covenenats. The best I can do is focus on the marriage covenant and have that be symbolic of the covenants we make with God that seem to be so central to the atonement. Perhaps the commitment required in the law of chastity is there to help us develop our commimtment to God, as well.

    Anyway, that’s all off topic. Back to consecration. Is it fair to say that you are not saying that the Law of Consecration = the United Order, but that the Law of Consecration = unity as a community, which may or may not be setup exactly as the United Order was, and which we are not currently living, and probably won’t until the second coming? If so, maybe we could blend our ideas, and say that the LofC requires us to become unified with God so that we will be ready to live as a unified community at the second coming. In that case, could we be living the LofC individually, but not as a group? Or is it even possible to live the LofC individually? All the other covenants don’t seem to require group involvement.

    I think I just like the idea of making a covenant I can currently keep better than making a covenant I can’t keep until the second coming.

    Comment by Nameless — March 17, 2009 @ 10:42 am

  15. Nameless,

    In a rare mishap, I typed a long response which got lost before I posted it and I can’t reproduce it right now.

    Your summary of my stance on the law of consecration and the united order is fair. I think that for as long as the ceremony is clear about me getting my definition from the D&C there is very little wiggle room, since the D&C is clear about consecration being a system with the deeding of property, the surpluses, etc. Of course the church could come up with a different implementation and ask me to live the law of consecration as defined in their new system.

    All the other covenants don’t seem to require group involvement.

    I think this is a significant point. I view exaltation as being a collaborative enterprise. At the very least it is a joint venture between spouses, but we have plenty of hints that it is ultimately a celestial society we are trying to achieve.

    I think I just like the idea of making a covenant I can currently keep better than making a covenant I can’t keep until the second coming.

    Yea, you are not alone (see problem statement in post). As I said in the post, I think it is reasonable (and even required) that we try to apply as many of the principles of consecration as we can in our current situation. I am personally not bothered by making a covenant which is not fully implementable at this time. I just finished Spencer Kimball’s second biography “Lengthen Your Stride” which mentioned someone asking him about how to live the law of consecration. He took a stance that reminded me of my own (I’ll have to dig up his comment when I get home).

    Comment by Jacob J — March 17, 2009 @ 11:58 am

  16. According to historian Max Parkin, the United “Order” was euphemism that was inserted later into the D&C for the United Firm, a business association of a few consecrated individuals. There was no such thing as the United “Order” during Joseph’s lifetime. The membership and activities of the Firm were obscured to protect the Church and the participants from angry creditors. A large part of what I thought about the United Order and the Law of Consecration had to be modified after I read his article in BYU Studies: http://byustudies.byu.edu/dailypdfs/46.3ParkinONLINE.pdf.

    Comment by rick — March 18, 2009 @ 8:33 am

  17. Here’s the quote from the Kimball biography:

    “One time Ed [Kimball] asked whether the covenant of consecration made in the temple meant that one should contribute all surplus to the Church or to charitable causes, rather than build up savings for security or as an inheritance. Spencer did not answer for others, but said, ‘I haven’t the strength to be able to do that.’

    ‘Perhaps all theat means is that you’re not perfect.’

    ‘Oh, I thought I was,’ said Spencer dryly.

    ‘If one were perfect,’ Ed pursued, ‘would he give all his surplus, or would he build up his capital, holding it in readiness for any use, when called on?’

    Spencer agreed that for himself consecration meant at least the latter, but he did not undertake to answer the basic question for anyone else.” (p. 57)

    And Rick is correct. What we refer to as the United Order (under JS) was a company legally known as the United Firm, which was created in 1832, over a year after D&C 42 (Feb. 9, 1831) was given outlining consecration and stewardship. The earliest manuscripts of D&C 42 discuss the bishop handling consecrations and stewardships, although I suspect that Partridge had business partners. The United Firm was formed to bring a variety of the church’s businesses (including stores in Kirtland and in Missouri) under one organization, but by early 1834 the Firm had fallen into debt, leading JS to disband it (see D&C 104). It was also in 1834 that the High Council was first formed, and one of its duties to was aid the bishop in handling consecrations and stewardships. As rick mentions, when the revelations were revised and published in 1835, every mention of the United Firm was changed to read united order, or simply order. BY later used the name United Order for one of his communal enterprises, which has contributed to further confusion. While rick is right to say that the united order did not exist during JS’s lifetime, the functions that we associate with it (consecration, stewardships, and church enterprise) did.

    Comment by David G. — March 18, 2009 @ 9:36 am

  18. Rick and David G: Thank you for the excellent comments.

    I started to look up the quote from the Kimball biography last night and then got distracted by a child and subsequently forgot. I like Kimball’s answer as well as his humility.

    Comment by Jacob J — March 18, 2009 @ 2:03 pm

  19. Jacob J: I’m playing catch-up and just got to this post. Excellent thoughts, especially those on Zion.

    Comment by BrianJ — April 14, 2009 @ 3:58 pm

  20. Very interesting thoughts. Thanks to those in the comments who pointed me to Max Parkin’s article (the link given is dead, but it’s available at the BYU library website here: https://ojs.lib.byu.edu/spc/index.php/BYUStudies/article/viewFile/7254/6903).

    I agree that the main reason to answer this question is because we promise to keep the law, so it’s vital to find out what all we promise to do.

    Comment by Nathan000000 — August 20, 2011 @ 1:38 pm

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