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. ((“A Vision and a Hope for the Youth of Zion,” in 1977 Devotional Speeches of the Year [Provo, Utah: BYU, 1978], p. 74.))
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. ((ibid.; cf. D&C 78:7))
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 implementation ((H. Hedges, J. Spencer Fluhman, and Alonzo L. Gaskill, eds., The Doctrine and Covenants: Revelations in Context, 224.)). 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)” ((“Consecrate thy Performance,” Ensign, May 2002.)).
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” (). ((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.))
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). ((“Consecrate thy Performance,” Ensign, May 2002.))
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. ((H. Hedges, J. Spencer Fluhman, and Alonzo L. Gaskill, eds., The Doctrine and Covenants: Revelations in Context, 217.))
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. ((ibid., 119.))
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” ((ibid., 218.)):
By consecrating his possessions to the Lord, Jackman had placed himself in the capacity of a steward rather than an owner. ((ibid., 218))
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) ((See also Nibley, “What is Zion? A Distant View,” Approaching Zion, 53.))
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.