Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Joseph Smith and Wealth Redistribution

I have concluded that I am about a week ahead of most other readers of GDU. And, I am a week ahead of my own class. As a result, I have decided to continue this week with Lesson 14, The Law of Consecration. All those in favor may manifest it; all those opposed by the same sign. (Seriously, if a significant number of you are a week ahead of that, let me know and I will move ahead. It just seems that most are about a week behind where GDU has been).

The Law of Consecration offers a lot of interesting discussion topics and ideas. As a political junkie, one of the most interesting concepts tied up in consecration is the idea of equality. The Book of Mormon has some interesting passages regarding equality; I cannot help thinking that they got Joseph thinking about economics and righteousness. Or, the impact of temporal things upon righteousness, anyway.

So, when the Lord gives the newly organized Church his Law, equality is a big issue. Nowhere is this more powerfully stated than in Section 78, where the Lord tells his people that the time has come , “[t]hat you may be equal in the bonds of heavenly things, yea, and earthly things also, for the obtaining of heavenly things. For if ye are not equal in earthly things ye cannot be equal in obtaining heavenly things; For if you will that I give unto a place in the celestial world you must prepare yourselves by doing the things which I have commanded you and required of you.” (D&C 78:5-7).

The idea just has the ring of revelation. If we were all equal, think of the problems we could avoid. There would be no poor, at least in the relative sense within the Church. There would be less pride and envy and greed. It would be much easier to avoid materialism if everyone was on an even plane, economically. Equality is a great idea, right?

On the other hand, as Joseph soon learned, voluntary consecration is hard to achieve. As an initial practical matter, there must be a “critical mass” of wealth to sustain the group. But once that is achieved, not everyone will easily overcome their temporal desires. For those who can, it is hard to be equal with someone who is not particularly interested in being equal with you. If you don’t have everyone on board, the whole system is destined for failure. As Richard Bushman points out in Rough Stone Rolling (p. 183),

The system never worked properly. The lack of property to distribute among the poverty-stricken early saints hampered the system’s effectiveness from the start. Joseph struggled on, aided by [Edward] Partridge and loyal Colesville Saints, who made up a large part of the Mormon population in Zion. In 1833, the Mormon’s expulsion from Jackson County would close down everything. The system’s two year existence was about average for the various communal experiments being undertaken in the period.

So what about consecration for you and me, today? I have to say, many members of my ward are kind and generous and charitable - - much more so than I. I truly believe that they take their commitment to consecration seriously. But, I do not see any big push to be “equal in earthly things.” In fact, most of my ward members seem downright resistant to the wealth equalization, Obama-style. (I know, I know, it’s not the same, but still . . .)

So what do you think? Is earthly equality a something to shoot for? Or is it a heavenly aspiration we cannot achieve in the real world? Could Joseph ever have made it work by free will alone, without an economic or political system to reinforce (enforce?) it? Why has the Church implemented it in only the loosest sense? And, would Joseph have voted for the Obama tax and budget plans?


  1. Hi Teacher,
    I believe that individually we have the opportunity to live the Celestial Law of Consecration even today. When I studied that wonderful little tithing slip I found that there is absolutely nothing holding me back from living the law to the fullest.

    IMHO It is important to understand the difference between the "United Order" and the Law of Consecration. One was suspended the other in still alive and well. :)

  2. I think your definition of the Law of Consecration is kind of flawed. First of all, the Law of Consecration is NOT about equality. It is about taking what you need to take care of your family. If you have a 10 child family and a two room house, and someone else has an eight room house and no kids, then the property is used by the family who needs it more.

    More importantly, the Law of Consecration is entered into voluntarily. When someone entered it, they didn't relinquish their property rights, or their wealth. As a matter of fact, if they wanted to stop practicing the Law, then they could. They could get all of their things back. It wasn't like a communion where everyone owns everything.

    I think that many of the problems that existed before would still unfortunately exist today. One thing that we read in the scriptures in D&C is to take care of you brothers as yourselves. Most people I know really don't practice that. I don't know anyone who has had their brother pay off their mortgage or credit cards after they have paid off their own. That is what we would be asking members to do, except to total strangers.

    When the Millennium is upon us, and the wicked have been destroyed (maybe even me among them for all I know) then I think we will be able to practice it in full. Before then, I think we are all a bit too selfish.

  3. Mark B,
    You are right... may I rephrase my comment... there is nothing holding me back, but myself...from living the Celestial Law of Consecration today. If I could live it to the fullest then my reward would be sure. I still have a long way to go. :)

  4. One of my biggest concerns when talking about Consecration is the implication that the church leaders motives were pure, but the poor people are the ones who fouled up the whole things. In reality, the church leaders seem to share much of the blame for the improper implementation of the Law of Consecration.

    Mark can you enlighten as to the difference between Consecration and United Order?

  5. Mark B,

    "When someone entered it, they didn't relinquish their property rights, or their wealth. As a matter of fact, if they wanted to stop practicing the Law, then they could. They could get all of their things back."

    My understanding is that the people couldn't actually get their propery back.

  6. If the Church implements the Law of Consecration, then the Church is acting as the economic/political system that "enforces" this policy. I'm no historian on this matter, but presumably if the Church were to officially implement the Law, then there would be consequences for those not following that Law -- just as there are consequences for those who don't pay tithing today.

    In other words, conservatives like to distinguish the Law of Consecration from secular laws designed to bring about greater economic equality -- by saying that the LofC was "voluntary" whereas the secular laws are "coercive." But this is not true. The Church's Law carries consequences, and is "voluntary" only inasmuch as one can choose whether those consequences are enough of a reason to conform to the Law. The exact same thing is true of the secular laws.

    The difference that I see is that people are more moved by the threat of temporal prison than by the threat of spiritual prison. The secular laws appear more "coercive" because they threatened something people care more about. But I don't think the secular laws are in fact more "coercive."

    I think it is in the interest of any society -- secular or religious -- to construct a system that seeks greater equality for its members. Those Mormons who object to secular egalitarianism, and try to differentiate it from spiritual egalitarianism (because they need to, to reconcile their politics with their religion), are misguided I think in that effort.

  7. I am not an expert by any means, but here is a little bit about Consecration - United Order differences:
    From wikipedia: Latter Day Saints were asked to voluntarily deed (consecrate) their property to the Church, and the church then would assign to each member a "stewardship" of that property. The member usually controlled completely the property delegated or (in some instances) deeded to him; his responsibilities were to manage the property and to generate an income from it. Any excess income was to be remitted to the church. The organization established to manage the Law of Consecration was called the United Order.

    The other term of consecration would be an individual one for the "building up of Zion". -
    “The law of consecration,” said Elder Bruce R. McConkie (1915–85) of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, “is that we consecrate our time, our talents, and our money and property to the cause of the Church; such are to be available to the extent they are needed to further the Lord’s interests on earth.”

    In each instance you are working for the church essentially, one is a community wide effort and the other is personal.

    As far as getting your property back, I have read instances where very disgruntled apostates got their property back, but you might be correct Ellen in saying it wasn't as widespread as I assumed. However, the only "official" information I found about that said this "If individual left the order, he had no claim on original consecration, but the stewardship [that had been deeded back] was retained by individual (42:34; 51:5 [in Milton V. Backman, Jr. & Keith W. Perkins, "United Under the Laws of the Celestial Kingdom," Studies in Scripture, edited by Robert L. Millet and Kent P. Jackson, 1989, 1:170-173])."

  8. Great questions, Teach. I have wrestled with this question and its implementation for years now, and it’s a controversial topic. If you were to ask your last question anywhere near any Gospel Doctrine classes I’ve taught over the years, you’d have some serious uprisings – and perhaps justifiably so - who knows.

    But one aspect that seems to be the case in our fallen world is that the more equal people are, the less freedom they will have. In our mortal existence (obviously excluding the Millennium and beyond), I see this as a sliding scale with equality on one side and freedom on another. In order to achieve greater equality, one must slide the scale away from freedom. We have no shortages of historical illustrations of this fact. Numerous groups have tried equalizing their economies with the inevitable result of failure, even when the redistribution was completely voluntary. In fact, this was an historical phenomenon in the mid-1800s, around Joseph’s time period (check out the Oneida Community, sometime).

    So, I think the Church today treads gently in the area of personal freedom or free-agency, which is why you don’t see a program of economic redistribution. One might say that the tithing/contributions slip is the program (which is correct), but that’s really not what it was historically. I think many leaders in the Church know that the most financially beneficial course is to allow the Saints the freedom to acquire wealth and contribute that wealth voluntarily.

    That doesn’t negate the commandment to be equal. In fact, I think it’s hard-wired into human behavior to preserve personal freedom once that freedom has been realized. Which is yet another reason we’ve been commanded to “put off the natural man” because we’ve been commanded to be equal (D&C 78:5-7). It just puts the onus back on the individual, which is where, I think the Lord intended it (Phil 2:12).

    I think the resistance you are reading from your ward members is toward institutionalized redistribution from any source, whether it’s government or religious. What we all support (and covenant to support in higher places) and are commanded to strive for is personal consecration. I think the question of personal consecration is far more salient a discussion than political redistribution. I believe there’s no better way to chase the Spirit out of the class than by bringing partisan politics into it.

    As for personal consecration, I think the Lord demands that his people rely on him for all earthly sustenance - that we have faith that the He will provide (after all, he promised he would). That doesn’t mean we don’t work, but we choose our work in such a way as to benefit others, rather than ourselves. That means that college students should chart their course with Him in mind, rather than what will earn them the biggest buck at the expense of the talents the Lord gave them to cultivate. That means that we all should consider our covenants rather than exchanging life for property (Mormon 8:39, Moses 5:32-33). It means that we give of all we have been blessed with. We can’t save up the mana the Lord gives us in this time of our wilderness - as if to suggest we can sustain ourselves.

  9. This is a great post by Bryce Haymond on his Blog Temple Study. It explains the difference between the United Order and the Law of Consecration beautifully.

  10. Great comments and resources, everyone. Keep ‘em coming. Your thoughts and comments have generated thoughts on my part as well.

    I think the Untied Order/Consecration idea is an interesting one that can definitely be explored productively. A question: Do you find evidence of this distinction early on, or is the distinction a concept that evolved in an effort to keep the principle alive after the United Order was abandoned?

    Heretic: I agree that Church leaders had their own struggles with consecration and the United Firm/Order. And, heaven knows, Joseph Smith was no business man. But I think unraveling motives is pretty difficult, especially 170 years later. As far as I can tell, Joseph made a long-term commitment to build the Kingdom of God on earth. He did not become a wealthy man. And he did not “take the money and run,” at least not away from the Church. Do you think something else was going on here?

    Jason and Easton: Your comments highlight for me some of the really interesting questions about this consecration idea. I agree that a discussion of partisan politics is more appropriate for a blog than a gospel doctrine class. But, if we take the Lord at his word, he wanted a system established where people worked toward temporal equality. People in positions of authority were to administer it, and as Jason point out, there were consequences, including exclusion/excommunication and post-mortal punishment, for not following through. This system was intended for fallen mortals in the real world. Granted, internal motivation and discipline is the ideal way to achieve consecration, but is that really what the D&C talks about here? Didn’t the Lord know he was giving a commandment to selfish individuals in a fallen world? And if the D&C is talking about something other than (or in addition to) personal consecration, what does that mean for the Church and for us as individuals? (I like the ideas about personal consecration, Easton and In the D).

  11. One of the reasons why I thought the members couldn't get their properties back was what we read in D&C 42:32...."And it shall come to pass, that after they are laid before the bishop of my church, and after that he has received these testimonies concerning the consecration of the properties of my church, that they cannot be taken from the church..........."

  12. Yep, the United Order was instituted for selfish individuals in a fallen world, and I do think the D&C is talking about just that, a physical (in addition to), personal consecration. It is interesting to me that the United Order lasted less than 1 year at any given location. The longest lasted a mere 9 months.

    But we are still under commandment to be equal in all things. The question "what does that mean for the Church and for us as individuals?" is still one that could be discussed. What should the church do about that at present? I think the Church is handling that under the current tithing and voluntary contributions. And because of that I'm guessing that it might not be very productive in a Sunday School class to ask "what should the Church do?" since 1) most of the answers will be obvious - they should do what they are doing now; and 2) many members will wonder what the point is to asking what the Church should do, since we do not (and perhaps should not) advise the Prophet and the Apostles.

    I find remarkable clarity in D&C 82. Notice (beginning in verse 17) that the Lord is not commanding us to be equal for the sake of being equal. Equality is a means to an end. After commanding us to be equal, to have equal claims on the properties, etc, the Lord gives us the point (verse 18): "And all this for the benefit of the church of the living God, that every man may improve upon his talent, that every man may gain other talents, yeah, even to an hundred fold, to be cast into the Lord's storehouse, to become the common property of the whole church..."

    The whole point of equality/consecration is so that we don't have to spend the majority of our time working on things that do not enhance our talents, create more talents, and allow us to share those talents for the building up of the kingdom. If we have to spend the majority of our day doing things of little consequence then where's the spiritual growth?

    Ideally, the United Order would have allowed its practitioners time to cultivate those talents and to focus on and share the things that really mattered. As a personal example: when I tell people I'm an archaeologist, the most frequent response is "wow, I've always wanted to be an archaeologist. How fascinating." When I ask why they aren't, or why they didn't follow that career path, they almost always reply "well, life got in the way" or "you can't make any money in that profession."

    How many talented historians, archaeologists, thinkers, musicians, dancers, physicists, etc would we have in the world if life didn't get in the way? Probably a lot more. How much more enriched would life be if everyone had more artists, chemists, etc in their wards or neighborhoods. That's where I think consecration comes in. If you truly believe that the Lord still holds his people to the Law of Consecration, then you should believe that He will provide when you go out on the limb and follow that talent to its end.

    So consecration/equality is not about equality or economy. It's about eliminating poverty through faith in order to cultivate talent as stated in D&C 82. Though, that's just one guys opinion.

  13. Just some great comments. I appreciate them and even though I do not post often, I do read it every week as I prepare to teach.

    And I am on Lesson 14 as well.

  14. "Joseph Smith was no business man. But I think unraveling motives is pretty difficult, especially 170 years later. As far as I can tell, Joseph made a long-term commitment to build the Kingdom of God on earth. He did not become a wealthy man. And he did not “take the money and run,” at least not away from the Church. Do you think something else was going on here?"I agree--Joseph was no business man. As for "taking the money and run", many of the people who lost money in the Kirtland Bank failure were pretty upset with Joseph. Even if we chalk Joseph's problems up to business incompetence, there was some BIG business incompetence on his part, and I can certainly understand why people would lose faith in him.

    Apparently he made statements saying the bank would never fail. While he did resign from the bank, he sure piled on those who were guilty of the same banking errors he perpetuated. Certainly the bank was grossly underfunded, and he shares some malfeasance of duty there. Maybe he motives were pure, but his business acumen was terrible. Even when it was pointed out to him, he told people to exercise faith.

    I'm sorry, but he just made some really boneheaded financial decisions regarding the bank, and ignored sound advice, even if his motives were pure. I can understand completely why consecration didn't work with poor financial leadership. (Of course, Sidney Rigdon was no better with finances, so there is lots of blame to go around.)

  15. About 18 years ago I gave everything away and followed Him. I worked, paid my rent bought my groceries and gave the rest to the church. During that time I received countless blessings and revelations; oh and my wife. To most of the world this would appear foolish, but there are many lessons you can learn if you just do this for a short time.
    The main lesson I have learned is total reliance on the Lord. We all know that God gives us everything but do we really live it? Is it just something we say? If we lose our job it’s no big deal we can find another one because we have money in the bank. If we or our family get ill we have insurance? Car breaks down? No worries credit card.
    It is just you and the Lord.

  16. Congrats anonymous.

    The law of consecration would probably prove impossible in today's world. If I've consecrated everything to the Church and then receive back what I need to live on, how does that affect my discretionary spending on things like my kids' college or family vacations? Say my daughter gets into Princeton. Because I have been sending all of my increase to the Church, I don't have the extra cash for Princeton, so I go to the Church to help pay. Tuition is a legitimate family expense, imo. The Bishop thinks a BYU education is equivalent to a Princeton education and will only cut a check for whatever tuition at BYU costs. Where do I come up with the extra money for my daughter or will she have to forgo Princeton and slum at BYU, all because of the irrational biases of my Bishop? And why should a Bishop have any say over where my daughter goes to college? Take another example. Say I want to take my family to the beach for a week's vacation. The Bishop refuses to cut a check to help with the beach trip because he thinks a long weekend camping at church history sites in upstate NY or Kirtland is an adequate vacation.

    Under the law of consecration, would setting aside money for my kids' college or money for a family vacation be inconsistent with law? What about when I need a new car? Will that decision also be up to the Bishop? Talk about a virtually intractable can of worms. Whoever was responsible for dragging their feet in Missouri and failing to live the law did all us modern Mormons a favor, I think.

  17. Under the law of consecration, would setting aside money for my kids' college or money for a family vacation be inconsistent with law?

    Only if you refused to relinquished it if asked. Why don’t you ask your bishop what he would do if you wanted to send your daughter to Princeton? You might ask him about vacations as well. Then you would know.

  18. Why in the world would I ask a current Bishop how he would act as a steward over monies he does not control? Or, where to send my kid to college or where to vacation. Why would I care what my Bishop thinks about where I send my daughter to college-Princeton or otherwise-or where my family vacations. (the college decision is my daughter's, not the Bishop's or even-sigh-mine, for the record.) I don't understand your response. My larger point is an off-the-top-of-my-head wondering about how discretion would be exercised if we currently lived the law of consecration.

    There is probably general agreement on the goal of alleviating the burden/plight of the poor. But there is also the other end of the spectrum: how to deal with the ongoing needs of daily life and whose judgment will determine simple things like how to pay for college, what type of car to drive, what type of clothes to wear, whether and where to go for a family vacation, season tickets for a favorite sports team, cable TV, high speed internet access, appropriate date night expenses, birthday and Christmas presents and on and on.

    If my ward is poor and needs every bit of extra income to sustain the necessities of ward members, would it be left to the Bishop to tell me to cancel my cable subscription so that $50.00 a month can be used to help feed the Smith family? Or, will I have to cancel my Phillies season tickets so that Brother Smith can send his daughter to Princeton?

    If you feel sorry for the burden current Bishops labor under, just try to imagine their burden if we lived the law of consecration.

  19. I really appreciate everyone's comments on this topic. I think it shows what a complex and challenging idea consecration really is. As some of the comments above point out, one of the main challenges to consecration as a social order is the diversity of thought on what is necessary and appropriate for an individual or a family. It occurred to me as I was preparing the lesson that part of seeking the interest of our brethren and being of one heart would have to include learning not to judge others and the decisions they made about was right for them and their family. Really hard to do, in practice, especially if their decisions had an impact on the resources available to you.

    I would love to talk to Joseph Smith about what he thought about consecration and how he envisioned implementing it in the Church of his day.

  20. Two Points:

    BYU Studies published a lengthy article on the United Order. In Kirtland (and the revelations refering to it) it was called the "United Firm", ie. it was a corporation. A study of the article will assist in differentiating between the "Order" and the Law.

    Second. In the discussion of secular attempts at redistribution of wealth vs revealed mechanisms for such, a fundamental difference is typically glossed over. In secular attempts, the "giver" is forced and the receiver is entitled. In revealed mechanisms, such is not the case. The reason is that weath is not the primary issue at stake in revealed mechanisms--salvation is what is at stake. A giver who chooses to give takes a step toward salvation. A reciever who see the gift as a gift takes a step toward salvation. And in between temporal matters are cared for. Secular approaches can never duplicate this because they cannot offer salvation.

  21. Anonymous: Thanks for the information. I was aware of the United Firm, but not this article. I think the fact that some of the revelations were specifically in reference to the United Firm is kind of interesting. What do you think it means with respect to consecration?

    On your second point, I do not disagree with much of what you say. But, I think the issue of voluntariness is complicated. Being kicked out of the Church and losing your salvation is a pretty serious consequence, and some would argue that it made the idea of consecration less than wholly voluntary (in the beginning). Add to that the fact that Joseph was not great at separating his ecclesiastical and temporal powers. On the other hand, I do not really see consecration working (on any kind of scale) on a purely voluntary basis. It certainly did not last very long in Missouri.

    I also agree with you that consecration is less about money than about the heart of the participant. I think it brings us back to IntheDoghouse's comment that the only thing holding us back from consecration is us. But, that was probably always the case.

    Finally, what really got me thinking about this topic was the idea of equality. Whether or not we are talking about the United Firm or the United Order or consecration, whether or not any of it ever worked, I really think the Lord is telling us something interesting in D&C 78:5-7. And I wonder if we are (or I am) taking him seriously enough.

  22. One additional, related thought: I lot of the responses to this post have highlighted for me the fact that many members of the Church, at least in the US of A, are very suspicious of equality in earthly things. That makes the topic all the more interesting to me.

  23. You are all noobs


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