Our world today is filled with conflicting economic and political philosophies that deal with caring for the poor and needy in society. The variety and amount of these plans can become confusing and even disheartening for citizens who are looking to become adequately informed on all of them. For Latter Day Saints, another wrench is thrown in the proverbial machine.
Through the revelations given to Joseph Smith are references to the Law of Consecration and the United Order. A quick overview of church history shows brief glimpses of what this system is and what it means, but often times the only definitive statements that can be made about the Law of Consecration is that it was a system to distribute the wealth among the church members.
This brief summary has proven problematic to astute church members who note similarities between this idea and other political philosophies, the most frequent culprit being communism. Through no fault of their own, many church members have a limited understanding of both the Law of Consecration and communism, and can be caught up in idle speculation or unfounded theories.
It is my hope to alleviate some of the concern by comparing communism and the Law of Consecration while providing a brief overview of each plan. I will attempt to show the key differences between these two plans and how buzzwords such as “wealth distribution” and “equality” can carry different connotations when they are used to describe the revealed economic system of the Lord.
In order to fully understand the differences between the Law of Consecration and communism, it is important we understand both the history and the essential tenants of each system. The Law of Consecration was a system put into place by the early leaders of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints in the early 1830s during their initially exoduses to Missouri and Ohio. However, this type of communal society had existed far earlier than our modern era. In both the New Testament and the Book of Mormon references are made to a similar concept to the Law of Consecration among early Christians:
“And all that believed were together, and had all things common; And sold their possessions and goods, and parted them to all men, as every men had need.” Acts 2:44-45
“And they had all things common among them; therefore there were not rich and poor, bond and free, but they were all made free, and partakers of the heavenly gift.” 4 Nephi 1:3
We unfortunately do not have many details about the management of these ancient societies, so our current understanding of the Law of Consecration (known in our time as the United Order) comes from revelations given to the prophet Joseph Smith.
The system works briefly as follows: A family works, farms, or otherwise provides sustenance for themselves through their efforts. This property is then laid before the bishop in their ward or city, who is assisted by two councilors for the purpose of administering the United Order. In effect, the property of the family was deeded to the church and became church property. The family would then council with the bishop as to how much was needed to support the members of the family “according to [their] circumstances and [their] wants and needs.” After this consideration, this amount of property was deeded back to the family and any surplus became part of the Bishop’s Storehouse, where it was used to support those members of the church who were not for whatever reason able to support themselves. Throughout this process, the Bishop was dependent on revelation and the Holy Ghost in order to make sure that the property was being administered justly.
United Order communities were attempted throughout the early days of the church, especially in the state of Missouri. However, corruption and greed caused many of the Orders to fail, causing problems throughout the church. Later Orders were attempted in the state of Utah but ended up failing for the same reasons. Coupled with the demands of an increasingly national (and later international) economy, the church suspended the practice of the United Order until future times when the saints would be able to live the law. In its place, the church operates an expansive welfare system funded by a one-tenth voluntary tithing of all members. The church no longer practices the United Order.
Communism was a political and economic philosophy of the early 1800’s that was popularized and mobilized in large part by the writings of Karl Marx and Frederic Engels. In response to the oppressive working conditions of the lower class and the excessive opulence of aristocratic Europe, Marx and Engels advocated the mobilization of the working class, known as the proletariat, in order to overthrow the current governments and build a communist society. Under communism, all production is centralized, with all economic decisions being controlled by government leaders. The ultimate goal of a communist society is to abolish the government. By spreading the wealth equally among all people, a government becomes no longer necessary and all people live in absolute equality. Unfortunately, history has shown us that such a system does not work. With so much power focused on a select group of government leaders, it is all too easy for such regimes to become brutally totalitarian as we have seen in the case of the Soviet Union, the People’s Republic of China and the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.
This brief overview of the two systems should be enough to bring some key differences to light, but a deeper analysis of the differences can help us better understand what consecration is and help ourselves prepare to eventually live the law.
The gospel of Jesus Christ is centered on free will. Indeed, many of the key conflicts in the scriptures between good and evil come down to the battle for our free agency. Mankind is endowed with moral agency to chose for themselves and are also given the knowledge to make these choices. This doctrine has been reasserted in our day through the revelations of Joseph Smith:
“..every man may act in doctrine and principle pertaining to futurity, according to the moral agency which I have given unto him, that every man may be accountable for his own sins in the day of judgment.” DC 101: 78
United Order societies are no different. In the operation of the United Order, a key ingredient was the willingness of all members to comply with the revelations and willingly give over their property to the church. No person was to be coerced into this system. Much like tithing in our time it was complete up to the individual to decided, a person could choose whether or not to consecrate their property, but doing so yield blessings both temporal and spiritual.
One must look no further for a demonstration of this principle than the example of Missouri. When the saints began to settle in the state, the Law of Consecration was intermittently implemented in some of the communities. Early attempts at the United Order tended to fail due to the fact that the saints had very little property to begin with when they first entered the state. When everybody is poor and needy, there is not any surplus. Later, as the Saints gained a better foothold it the state, the law was implemented. Although successful at first, the United Order in Missouri ultimately failed due to greed and corruption and the saints ended up being expelled from the state.
This historical example shows how important free agency is in the United Order. When the people of Missouri were unwilling to fully comply with the revelations, the Order collapsed and failed. Even as the United Order failed, there was no crack down on the Saints because it was acknowledged that the success of the plan relied solely on the free will of the Saints. Missouri’s example demonstrates that the underlying principle is the desire and agency of the people living the Law of Consecration. Without the full will of the saints, the United Order can never be properly established.
Failure to comply with the Law of Consecration brings no punishment by the state, however, like any other law of God, there are certain results that come from willfully breaking the commandment that was given. Years after the expulsion from Missouri, Lorenzo Snow seemed to be convinced that the expulsion occurred as a direct result of the Saint’s unwillingness to comply with the revelations of God. Said he:
“Consecration is a celestial law. This persecution and expulsion [from Missouri] never would have occurred had the people observed the law which the Lord required. That law was simply the law of consecration — a law of the celestial kingdom. It was a law which, if observed, would have made the people the richest and wealthiest of any people in the world. There would not have been a poor Latter-day Saint in their midst. Every man would have had all he needed to make him happy and comfortable, so far as financial matters were concerned.”
In comparison, communism is not predicated on the free will of the individual. Karl Marx viewed the idea of individualism as a means to alienate a man from others and advocated the idea that only interactions with others or social situations determines our behavior. In short, our free will is nothing more than an illusion comprised of our social surroundings and any assertion of our own will leads us to alienation.
In communist governments “equality” is forced on the citizenry by the means of forced nationalization, tariffs and taxes. The will of the individual is made secondary to the will of the state. The United Order fell because people ended up being too self-centered and greedy. Communist societies fall because oppressed people assert their free will to usurp the totalitarianism of the state.
PRIVATE PROPERTY AND RELATIVE EQUALITY
Two essential characteristics of the Law of Consecration stem from the focus on free will and individual liberty. These are the ideas of private property and relative equality. J. Reuben Clark wrote:
“Basic to the United Order was the private ownership of property, every man had his own property from which he might secure that which was necessary for the support of himself and his family. There is nothing in the revelations that would indicate that this property was not freely alienable at the will of the owner. It was not contemplated that the Church should own everything or that we should become in the Church, with reference to our property and otherwise, the same kind of automaton, manikin, that communism makes out of the individual, with the State standing at the head in place of the Church.”
Karl Marx when writing The Manifesto of the Communist Party viewed private property as a means for the upper class to oppress the poor. According to Marx, holding private property (mostly in the form of real estate) created class stratification and would be abolished in a pure communist society. He wrote:
“In this sense, the theory of the Communists may be summed up in the single sentence: Abolition of private property.”
This provides a stark comparison to the Law of Consecration which is predicated on the acquiring of private property. Under the United Order, a family owned all of their property and as mentioned above deeded it to the church under their own free will. Whatever portion (also called a stewardship) was needed to support their family was also their private property. The individual ownership of property is an inalienable right of man, and is supported in great measure by the United Order. Families under the order are free to do whatever they want with what they received, and are completely self-determining in their actions. Contrast the following statements made by the Lord from the Doctrine and Covenants with the Marxist statement above:
“It is wisdom in me; therefore, a commandment I give unto you, that ye shall organize yourselves and appoint every man his stewardship; That every man may give an account unto me of the stewardship which is appointed unto him. For the earth is full, and there is enough and to spare; yea, I prepared all things, and have given unto the children of men to be agents unto themselves.” DC 104:11,12,17
Under the United Order, private property was critical, and this focus leads to another key difference between communism and the Law of Consecration. Communism had as a goal the ultimate equality of all people. While this is an admirable goal, communism erred by attempting to bring all people to the same level of equality, regardless of their needs.
The Law of Consecration provides for a relative equality. As mentioned above, the stewardships that were given to each family was determined by the wants and needs of the family. Because of this, families had differing amounts of goods or sustenance. Logically, a family of four would require less property to live than a family of ten. Likewise, a large family could not be expected to live on the same amount of goods as a single destitute man trying to get on his feet. Revelations in the Doctrine and Covenants support this idea of relative equality. This difference is key. While communism tries to bring everybody to a single benchmark level of equality, the United Order recognizes the variety of circumstances inherent in a large society and is flexible enough to provide for everyone.
GOD VS. MAN
These three examples above demonstrate some of the key differences between these two philosophies. Of course there are more, but it is a well known fact that attention span on the Internet is shockingly short, so I will move onto the main point of this comparison.
When all is said and done, communism is a philosophy of man, and the Law of Consecration is a philosophy of God. Because of this, the United Order can only work among a God fearing people who are righteous enough to have access to the revelations of God and his Holy Spirit. The religious center of the Law of Consecration also shows us a main difference between the two philosophies. Communism strives to enact the betterment of society by the betterment of the state, while the Law of Consecration (much like religion in general) strives to improve the individual first and foremost. Consecration is a personally ennobling and enriching concept that has the added benefit of providing for the poor and needy all around us. In this way we can better follow the Jesus Christ’s admonition to love our fellow men as ourselves.
In our world countless political and economic philosophies have been proposed and implemented. None are 100% evil or 100% good. Despite all of its flaws, communism and the philosophies of Karl Marx do have some redeeming value, but they must be taken with a grain of salt. As we experience the modern political world, we must keep in mind that despite the advantages of individual parties, government plans, or welfare programs, they all have inherent flaws and all ultimately pale in comparison to the plan set forth by God himself. This does not mean that we reject any worldly welfare plan simply because it was not a God-given plan (all government plans must be unbiasedly investigated based on their own merits), but we must allow ourselves to keep our perspective and remember that in the end the best way to provide for the betterment of our fellow men is God’s way.
“But it must needs be done in mine own way; and behold this is the way that I, the Lord, have decreed to provide for my saints, that the poor shall be exalted, in that the rich are made low.” DC 104:16
THE MILLENNIUM AND PREPARING NOW
To conclude, it is important to look at the big picture behind the Law of Consecration. As mentioned earlier, all modern attempts to implement the United Order have failed for some reason or another. This is because the system requires the inherent goodness of its citizens, which will not be possible to the extent necessary until Jesus Christ comes the second time. At this point, we will all be emboldened with enough goodness and faith that living this law will seem a blessing and we will do it willingly. We will not be cursed by the same problems that vexed the early saints.
Until that time, it is our duty to prepare to live this law now. The Law of Consecration is as much a lifestyle as it is an economic theory. As Latter Day Saints we must always be willing to give all of our time, energy and skills in order to further the work of the Lord and build the kingdom of God on the Earth. By paying our tithing, serving missions, giving our all to our church callings and giving selfless charity to our fellow men, we are preparing our hearts right now to live the higher Law of Consecration. As we do this, we will be blessed with an increased capacity to improve ourselves and will be prepared for that day when we can live the Law of Consecration and enjoy the peace and prosperity promised to us in the scriptures.
FURTHER READING (Because there is a lot of great material out there to read about this topic.)