Living the Law of Consecration – Part 2: The Law & The United Order

(Continued from Part 1)

One of the common misconceptions concerning the law of consecration is that it is often conflated with the United Order.  When we think that these two are one and the same thing we run into difficulties understanding them.  When we don’t properly understand the law, we can’t live it.  When we don’t properly understand the United Order, we can’t learn from it.  The law of consecration is not the United Order.  The United Order was an economic and administrative method of living the law of consecration, but even as such is commonly misunderstood and blended with the law of consecration.  President Benson explained: 

“Zion cannot be built up unless it is by the principles of the law of the celestial kingdom” (D&C 105:5). Much has been written about this law and its attempted implementation in the early history of the Church; and much deception has taken root, even among some of our members, because of misinformed opinion or misguided interpretations. Some view it as merely an economic alternative to capitalism or the free enterprise system, others as an outgrowth of early communal experiments in America. Such a view is not only shortsighted but tends to diminish in importance a binding requirement for entrance into the celestial kingdom. The law of consecration is a celestial law, not an economic experiment.1

It is true that as a Church we are not practicing the United Order today, and that something very similar to it may be instituted again sometime in the future, but this has no bearing on whether or not we can or should be living and practicing “the Law” today. President Benson noted the eternal nature of this law:

The law of consecration is a law for an inheritance in the celestial kingdom. God, the Eternal Father, His Son Jesus Christ, and all holy beings abide by this law. It is an eternal law.2

Because this law is eternal, and because our entrance into the celestial kingdom depends on it, Steven Harper has noted that Orson Pratt taught that “there is nothing ‘laid down in the revelations, requiring us to take [a] particular method’” with regard to its implementation3.  In other words, the law of consecration does not rely on the United Order to function.  Other modes and means can be used to live the main tenets of this law.  The United Order may be the most ideal economic form, but the principles of the law of consecration may be lived by each of us today, and involves much more than material possessions.  Elder Neal A. Maxwell taught that as we begin to live the principles of the law of consecration “[e]ventually our wills can be ‘swallowed up in the will of the Father’ as we are ‘willing to submit … even as a child doth submit to his father’ (see Mosiah 15:7; Mosiah 3:19)”4.

The Law of Consecration

What is the law of consecration?  President Benson once gave a definition in brief:

We covenant to live the law of consecration. This law is that we consecrate our time, talents, strength, property, and money for the upbuilding of the kingdom of God on this earth and the establishment of Zion. Until one abides by the laws of obedience, sacrifice, the gospel, and chastity, he cannot abide the law of consecration, which is the law pertaining to the celestial kingdom. “For if you will that I give you place in the celestial world, you must prepare yourselves by doing the things which I have commanded you and required of you” (D&C 78:7).5

When we understand that all things ultimately belong to the Lord, and we love the Lord with all our hearts, we are willing to submit anything and everything that we have and are to Him to be utilized as He sees most fit in the building up of the kingdom of God.  The law of consecration is not primarily material in scope.  Quite the contrary, it includes all things.  Elder Maxwell noted this distinction:

We tend to think of consecration only as yielding up, when divinely directed, our material possessions. But ultimate consecration is the yielding up of oneself to God. Heart, soul, and mind were the encompassing words of Christ in describing the first commandment, which is constantly, not periodically, operative (see Matt. 22:37). If kept, then our performances will, in turn, be fully consecrated for the lasting welfare of our souls (see 2 Ne. 32:9).6

The United Order & Its Principles

What is the United Order?  It was the means by which the early Saints implemented the law of consecration economically.  Briefly, the United Order involved members consecrating their property to the Church, receiving an inheritance back as a stewardship, all by deed, and thereafter consecrating any surplus produced to the bishop’s storehouse for the support of the poor and needy, for the purchasing of lands, building worship houses, and the New Jerusalem.

There are certain aspects of the United Order that are not commonly understood, but which lend greater insight into the principles upon which it operated.  One of these is understanding what exactly was consecrated and what was received back as a stewardship.  Often when we speak of the United Order we mention that it was the giving of everything the Saints had to the Church.  Rarely do we talk about what they received back.  Some of the original deeds have survived which show us how this functioned.  Steven Harper gives a good example of one of these deeds that belonged to Levi Jackman, one of the early Saints:

He and other converts gathered to Zion in Jackson County, Missouri.  There he deeded his property to Bishop Partridge, on behalf of the Church, “of [his] own free will.”  It was not much – “sundry articles of furniture valued thirty seven dollars, also two beds, bedding, and feathers valued forty four dollars fifty cents, also three axes and other tools valued eleven dollars and twenty five cents” – but it was all he possessed.  In return, Brother Jackman received a parcel of land in present-day Kansas City and “sundry articles of furniture . . . two beds bedding and feathers . . . also three axes and other tools.”  Brother Jackman offered the Lord all he had.  The Lord returned his meager offering and added a handsome farm.7

If you read these documents carefully, you’ll quickly notice that in almost every case those possessions which were consecrated to the Church were the very same possessions which were subsequently given back as a stewardship to the same consecrating individual.  Grant Underwood, professor of history at BYU and an editor of the Joseph Smith Papers, agrees with this analysis:

Surviving deeds of stewardship, for instance, uniformly illustrate that consecrating individuals were made “steward[s] over [their] own property” (D&C 42:32), rather than over other consecrated property.  Though obviously this could not have been universal, because some poor Saints would have required additional property to meet their needs, it does demonstrate that the core of what was “loaned” to a steward as personal property was the very same property he had consecrated initially.8

So what was the purpose of giving everything that you owned to the Church just to receive it all back?  Harper notes that this was “more than a technicality”9:

By consecrating his possessions to the Lord, Jackman had placed himself in the capacity of a steward rather than an owner.10

We will discuss more thoroughly in another post the difference between stewardship and ownership, but it should be noted that through the law of consecration the Lord makes stewards of us, accountable to the Lord for everything that we possess, everything that we are, and everything that we do.

Once this initial consecration was made, “with a covenant and a deed which cannot be broken” (D&C 42:30–36), what was left was an ongoing consecration of excesses:

If thou obtainest more than that which would be for thy support, thou shalt give it into my storehouse.” (D&C 42:55)

In other words, nowhere has the Lord provided justification for entitlement to more things than that which would be “sufficient for [our]self and family,” “according to [our] circumstances and [our] wants and needs” (D&C 42:32; D&C 51:3).  Hugh Nibley once noted that the scriptures only give one reason for seeking riches, as Nephi’s brother Jacob taught, which was to consecrate them to the poor and needy:

And after ye have obtained a hope in Christ ye shall obtain riches, if ye seek them; and ye will seek them for the intent to do good—to clothe the naked, and to feed the hungry, and to liberate the captive, and administer relief to the sick and the afflicted. (Jacob 2:19)11

And so we begin to get a better picture of the law of consecration, the United Order, and our covenant relationship with our Heavenly Father.  The next post will look at some basic principles which form the foundation upon which the law of consecration rests.

(Continued in Part 3)

Notes:
  1. A Vision and a Hope for the Youth of Zion,” in 1977 Devotional Speeches of the Year [Provo, Utah: BYU, 1978], p. 74. []
  2. ibid.; cf. D&C 78:7 []
  3. H. Hedges, J. Spencer Fluhman, and Alonzo L. Gaskill, eds., The Doctrine and Covenants: Revelations in Context, 224. []
  4. Consecrate thy Performance,” Ensign, May 2002. []
  5. Teachings of Ezra Taft Benson (Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1988): 121; see also “Temple Blessings and Covenants,” Temple Presidents Seminar, Salt Lake City, Utah, 28 September 1982. []
  6. Consecrate thy Performance,” Ensign, May 2002. []
  7. H. Hedges, J. Spencer Fluhman, and Alonzo L. Gaskill, eds., The Doctrine and Covenants: Revelations in Context, 217. []
  8. ibid., 119. []
  9. ibid., 218. []
  10. ibid., 218 []
  11. See also Nibley, “What is Zion? A Distant View,” Approaching Zion, 53. []

13 Comments

  1. Posted November 29, 2008 at 8:04 pm | Permalink

    Saying we aren’t asked to live the law of consecration any longer is like saying we don’t have to live the law of gravity. It affects us whether we know it or not.

    I really enjoyed your post.

  2. Posted December 1, 2008 at 9:12 am | Permalink

    Thanks for pointing out an important distinction between the law of consecration and the United Order. A masterful treatise!

  3. Rachel
    Posted March 7, 2009 at 6:21 pm | Permalink

    Beautiful! I really enjoyed your article, especially the quotes you’ve provided.
    I just might copy it and keep it with my scriptures. :)

  4. JWL
    Posted April 18, 2009 at 11:29 am | Permalink

    It would be more accurate to treat the United Order as a subset of the Law of Consecration rather than as something distinct and separate. The United Order was a method of implementing the Law of Consecration. Today we are not asked to use the United Order as the method of practicing the Law of Consecration, but every endowed member has agreed to live the Law of Consecration here and now. How we do that in our contemporary world where we do not have the benefit of living in a society and economy organized under the United Order is a subject worthy of much thought and effort. In attempting to live consecration now it is useful to look at early efforts to live the United Order form of the Law of Consecration for principles and inspiration. Particularly enlightening for us today are the efforts to implement a United Order form of consecration in 1870s Utah, where the economy was on its way to becoming the industrialized corporate economy we live in today. Then there were a wide variety of methodologies used (such as employee or consumer owned businesses) in addition to the well-known kibbutz-like rural agricultural communities such as Orderville. The key is that the Law of Consecration calls for more proactive engagement of mind, heart, time, and for those with the means, more money than just tithing and fast offerings.

  5. Posted April 18, 2009 at 12:05 pm | Permalink

    I agree JWL. The United Order was a method of implementing the Law of Consecration. As such, it does not mean we don’t live the Law of Consecration today, albeit that is what most Latter-day Saints believe. The law remains, the methods of living it change over time and space. Some principles of the United Order might apply, others not.

  6. Mitch
    Posted May 19, 2011 at 5:15 pm | Permalink

    Bryce,

    This is good work! I’m happy that you have caught many of the “folklores” that are prevalent in Mormon culture today, especially those that surrounding the law of consecration. What saddens me is that fewer and fewer and fewer members actually care to understand the covenants that they make in the Temple. So keep up the good work.

    I am actually a research assistant for Brother Harper and have been for two years now. I have even prepared a few articles that are almost ready to send to a journal or two that will discuss principles of the law. I am also giving a paper at the Mormon History Association meeting next week (May, 2011) discussing a new theory about looking at the law of consecration as a development rather than a failure or success. The reason I wanted to post here is to help out with your distinction between the law of consecration and the United Order. You did a wonderful job above! However, there is a little bit of historical context that helps us understand what exactly the United Order is. I’ll provide a few articles below that you can reference to verify what I add here.

    The words “United Order” are actually a pseudonym, or code name, for an organization that was called the “United Firm.” The first edition of the Doctrine & Covenants, which was actually named the Book of Commandments, was published in 1833. When Joseph and the other leaders prepared the revelations for publication as part of that book they left some revelations out, like the one that is now section 51. Those revelations appeared for the first time in the 1835 edition of the Doctrine & Covenants. When they did finally publish those revelations Joseph and others decided they needed to protect the leaders of the Church and the Church itself financially from attacks by anti-Mormon groups. So they “codified” people, locations and even organizations, like the United Firm, with what commonly appeared to be Hebrew words. Joseph represented himself with the words “Gazelam” and “Enoch” at times. The Bishop’s Storehouses in Missouri and Kirtland were both codified as well, as were many other important people and places. The actual names of the individuals and places appear in the earliest manuscripts of the revelations, but they were changed to their pseudonym form for the first publication. The United Firm received the pseudonym “United Order” and in actuality it is the only pseudonym that still exists in the D&C today. All the others were replaced due to historical work of Orson Pratt and WW Phelps back in the later half of the 19th Century–when the Church was no longer under threat as a result of publishing those names and other bits of information. Actually, the last few pseudonyms were removed in the most recent edition of the D&C in 1981.

    So why does all of this matter? The United Firm was one of the first efforts to implement the law of consecration, not among all the Saints, but by only a few. In fact only a few contemporary members actually knew the Firm even existed (see Mark Staker’s book “Hearken, O Ye People,” pages 231 and 238, note 23, makes that point well). What it was was an effort of a few brethren, I think it reached a grand total of 11 at its highest point, to implement the law among themselves and among the Saints. So when we read the words “United Order” being implemented in section 78 and 82 and then dissolved in 104, it is not the law of consecration but rather this small group of men who were trying to implement the law among the saints in one way. So you are right, the law of consecration is not the United Order or vice versa. This is great work you are doing and I hope you keep at it. I wish I had the time and abilities to do this and thank you for doing it so that I can consecrate my work to the kingdom in other ways.

    Here are the articles and books that will help establish this point:

    See one of the recent Joseph Smith Papers books (Brother Harper was actually and editor of this one):
    Robin Jenson, Robert Woodford, and Steven Harper, “The Joseph Smith Papers, Revelations and Translations: Manuscript Revelation Books,” (Salt Lake City, UT: The Church Historian’s Press, 2009).

    Mark Staker, “Hearken, O Ye People: The Historical Setting of Joseph Smith’s Ohio Revelations,” (Salt Lake City, UT: Greg Kofford Books, 2009).

    Steven Harper, “Making Sense of the Doctrine & Covenants: A Guided Tour Through Modern Revelations,” (Salt Lake City, UT: Deseret Book Company, 2008).

    Orson Pratt, “Explanation of Substituted Names in the Covenants,” in The Seer, Vol. II, no. 3 (March, 1854): 227-29.

    and probably the best of them all,
    Max H. Parkin, “Joseph Smith and the United Firm: The Growth and Decline of the Church’s First Master Plan of Business and Finance, Ohio and Missouri, 1832-1834,” in BYU Studies, Vol. 46, no. 3 (2007): 4-66.

  7. Posted May 19, 2011 at 5:28 pm | Permalink

    Interesting Mitch. Thank you for your commentary! I will try to keep it up. I have more to say about the law of consecration, but I haven’t been able to get to it.

    Do you believe that the membership of the Church will begin to live the law of consecration more?

  8. Mitch
    Posted May 19, 2011 at 5:43 pm | Permalink

    I hope they do! Many will say that its not possible or they are incapable of doing so, but the Lord does not give us commandments we cannot live. I really can’t say whether they will or not though. Our capitalistic economy and lifestyles are causing too many people to feel that they are not accountable to anyone when it comes to how they live their lives or spend their money. Accountability is one of the core doctrines of consecration and with out it we aren’t able to live it. And sadly if we don’t live the law they we cannot enter the Celestial Kingdom. So I hope they do, but I fear there are still too many who simply won’t do it due to greed and lack of desire.

  9. Mitch
    Posted May 19, 2011 at 5:49 pm | Permalink

    To kind of make my point: Have you noticed how fewer and fewer people comment on each consecutive article in this series? I fear they have lost a desire to learn. Your articles are great, but many people just shrug it off and say “That’s not pertinent because I can’t do it.” So they continue on in their lives without ever trying to figure out what covenants they made in the Temple. That is one thing that worries me. But then I am happy when I see people who still want to learn and comprehend better the doctrines and principle of the Gospel. I love D&C 88:118, “And as all have not faith, seek ye diligently and teach one another words of wisdom; yea, seek ye out of the best books words of wisdom; seek learning, even by study and also by faith.” Faith is not the only way to learn, but it requires study as well.

  10. Posted May 19, 2011 at 9:22 pm | Permalink

    Mitch – Thank you for the references above and insightful commentary. Above you mentioned:

    Our capitalistic economy and lifestyles are causing too many people to feel that they are not accountable to anyone when it comes to how they live their lives or spend their money.

    Most modern economies, including the United States, are not “capitalistic” economies. At best they are “mixed economies” as demonstrated by the numerous government controls over the economy. A good reference on this subject is Myths of the Mixed Economy. Others, such as Robert Higgs and Charlotte Twight used the term participatory fascism to describe the modern U.S. economy.

    Regardless, it appears there is a “plan” to unite the hearts of those who embrace these covenants so they may become equal in obtaining “heavenly things” (D&C 78:5).

  11. Mitch
    Posted May 20, 2011 at 11:37 am | Permalink

    Believe All Things – You make a good point, our world is constantly changing and even the American “Market” economy has changed.

    In that same article that Bryce uses by Steven Harper, Brother Harper states that there are three principles or doctrines that are core to the law of consecration: accountability, agency and stewardship. Many times in class he would articulate this by describing them as a three – legged stool with each principle as a different leg. The stool cannot stand up without all three legs. Many people have tried to say in the past that consecration is communism or other economic systems, I don’t agree with this. Communism robs people of their agency (at least the way it was practiced by the USSR and other nations). Capitalism holds no one responsible or accountable for what they do with their lives economically, etc. The way that our world works right now, whatever the economy would be considered to be by economists, allows for too many people to do what they want without being accountable for their action (Bankruptcy Laws in the US and other places help spur this on). But the law of consecration is different. Like you said above, its about obtaining “heavenly things.” We need to be accountable to Heavenly Father for how we act and use everything that He has given us in this life. He has granted unto each of us a stewardship; this includes our families, our homes, our physical and monetary possessions, our talents, our skills, literally EVERYTHING that we have He gave it to us. Brigham Young once said “All things are the Lord’s.” We use our agency to see how we use those things and report through accountability to our Heavenly Father on that usage. The Lord’s parables concerning the talents and also Lazarus and the Rich man come to mind on this point. I just fear too many Latter-day Saints have given into this non-accountable way of life and live as though there is no tomorrow at times. I pray they, as well as myself, can remember to thank God for what He has given us and to use those things to build up His kingdom here on earth.

  12. Deboogey
    Posted January 23, 2012 at 5:02 pm | Permalink

    I know I’m late to the party, but no work has shaped my understanding of how to try and live the Law of Consecration in today’s society more than Hugh W. Nibley’s, “Work We Must, But the Lunch is Free,” found in Approaching Zion, vol. 9 of The Collected Works of Hugh Nibley (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book and FARMS, 1989), 203–51. A quick Google search will turn up an online version.

  13. Aaron
    Posted August 26, 2012 at 8:25 pm | Permalink

    “In other words, nowhere has the Lord provided justification for entitlement to more things than that which would be “sufficient for [our]self and family,” “according to [our] circumstances and [our] wants and needs” (D&C 42:32; D&C 51:3). Hugh Nibley once noted that the scriptures only give one reason for seeking riches, as Nephi’s brother Jacob taught, which was to consecrate them to the poor and needy:

    And after ye have obtained a hope in Christ ye shall obtain riches, if ye seek them; and ye will seek them for the intent to do good–to clothe the naked, and to feed the hungry, and to liberate the captive, and administer relief to the sick and the afflicted. (Jacob 2:19)11″

    I think it’s important to understand that seeking riches in order to feed the hungry, etc. does not have to translate to giving it away once you have it. Being a wise steward over the resources God has given you, and using the talents he has like-wise given you, could lead you to start a company that would provide employment to tens, hundreds, or even thousands of people which will be of lasting benefit to not only these people, but their families, friends, and neighbors. An employer can feed more hungry and poor by helping them to be self-sufficient, than any one of us can do just giving our money away. This is not to say that there isn’t a time to give some of our money to help someone in need. I feel that in today’s socialist society, people tend to look upon someone giving a bunch of money to feed homeless people as being good (and it IS), but they look at a person like the owner of a big corporation as being evil and greedy. There are many corporations that have problems, but that does not take away from the fact that they do help to keep a LOT of people fed and self-sufficient. In my opinion, being a true capitalist (my definition of a capitalist is one who maximizes the talents and resources God has given him, in order to maximize his profits, without the use of force or deception) is a PREREQUISITE for living under the United Order if we are ever to live under such a system in the future. A person living under the United Order is given a stewardship. If he increases his stewardship, his stewardship will be added upon. If he fails to increase his stewardship, he may lose even that small stewardship to which he has attained.

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