Joseph Smith and Wealth Redistribution

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This article by a guest blogger originally appeared at Gospel Doctrine Underground. We want to thank the author for allowing us to re-post it here.

The Law of Consecration offers a lot of interesting discussion topics and ideas. To me, 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 directly 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 . . .)

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?

Comments 31

  1. To acclimate myself with Mormonism I have been alternating my reading among J. Smith biographies by Bushman, Brodie, and Vogel and the Book of Mormon itself (along with a few other works). I have also been out to the Kirtland Temple a couple of times and spent considerable time in the new museum the C of C has built.

    The thing that has struck me on several occasions now is precisely how politically and socially progressive Joseph was for his time and the number of justice passages I have found so far in the Book of Mormon. (I’m up to Alma now.) By rights the LDS (and other religious bodies that owe their origins to Smith’s revelations) should be moderate to liberal on most issues, abortion being the notable exception.

    That the LDS tends to lean to the right does not, however, surprise me. When one looks at the Bible and then at the history of Christianity one cannot help but to notice the gap between the two on economic justice. Unfortunately, movements that have sought to recover biblical teaching have tended to focus on some strictly theological issue (salvation by faith alone, speaking in tongues, etc.) and ignored the scripture’s teaching on economic and social justice. In some cases, such as early Wesleyanism, social justice was taught but then ignored as the movement grew and embraced a larger portion of society. It seems Mormonism fits in that category as well.

    There are a variety of reasons why this might be so. One simple explanation is the eventual accumulation of wealth by the group. As long as everyone is near the bottom, concern for the poor is going to be a big deal for the whole community. When, however, various individuals and groups within the community acquire wealth they sometimes decide they want to hang on to it, while still maintaining good standing within that religious body. Usually that is allowed to happen. This upward drift of religious groups from poor and marginalized to wealthy and mainstream is a very well documented phenomenon.

    Since with wealth comes power I suspect the real temptation is the desire for the latter, for it affords both comfort and security as well as status. It would take some pretty strong faith, sustained over a long period time, to continue to put one’s real trust in God’s provision (which is on a “daily” bread basis) instead of the lure of a more predictable earthly power.

    Another factor in today’s world is the effect of Confederate religion. In the antebellum South, the presence and power of slavery silenced the church’s social voice and made it focus on the various “private” sins such as sex and swearing. The eventual resurgence of southern culture and the spread of southern based evangelicalism after WWII have reinforced conservativism throughout the nation as a whole. Ironically, I think that very conservatism has opened doors for Mormons and Evangelicals, traditional enemies, to find a good deal of common ground.

    As to how Mr. Smith’s original insights might be brought back, I think that’s going to be a difficult task. At some point in time, someone in the Twelve would have to really embrace that portion of early Mormon heritage and push it. I am not nearly familiar enough with the LDS to say how likely that is or whether or not it is already happening, but I pray that it is or will be. Such an event would give the claim to be the restored church with the restored gospel some real street cred.

    Thank you for such a timely and thoughtful post.

  2. Although I have heard calls to help the poor all my life in the Church, there has been an interesting move toward what you mention, David, in the last decade or so, especially under Pres. Hinckley. There are “little” things (like “pay tenfold fast offerings if you are able” – which started even before Pres. Hinckley), and there are big things (like the Perpetual Education Fund), and there are talks like in the last General Conference that reference getting out of debt as a way to exercise agency so that what used to be paid as interest on debt can be used to help the poor and needy.

    Pres. Hinckley said something fascinating way back in 1945 – before he was “President Hinckley”. The full quote is:

    “A man out of work is of special moment to the Church because, deprived of his inheritance, he is on trial as Job was on trial—for his integrity. As days lengthen into weeks and months and even years of adversity, the hurt grows deeper, and he is sorely tempted to “curse God and die.” Continued economic dependence breaks him, it humiliates him if he is strong, spoils him if he is weak. Sensitive or calloused, despondent or indifferent, rebellious or resigned—either way, he is threatened with spiritual ruin, for the dole is an evil and idleness a curse. He soon becomes the seedbed of discontent, wrong thinking, alien beliefs. The Church cannot hope to save a man on Sunday if during the week it is a complacent witness to the crucifixion of his soul.” (Helping Others to Help Themselves [pamphlet, 1945], 4).

    (Thanks to queuno for quoting it in a recent thread on unemployment over on BCC.)

    It is interesting that he said this directly in the context of WWII. I think general prosperity tends to blunt social and economic activism, and the fact that the Church’s more recent pushes were initiated in a time of general comfort and only intensified with the current economic stress speaks well of its attempt to get us to be more open to sharing of our excess.

  3. Hats off to Mr. Hinckley. That is a GREAT insight and a wonderful word. If it can be combined with an appreciation for the power and role of systems in society at large and a profound reliance on, and practice of, prayer some really significant things could just start pouring out of Utah.

    Is it just me, or does “pouring out of Utah” sound a trifle odd? 🙂 Oh, well, who cares from whence God’s justice pours, just as long as it does.

  4. When we recently had the Sunday School lesson about the Law of Consecration, the term “United Order” just sort of jumped out at me. Many Latter-day Saints seem to think the two terms refer to the same thing. Confusing the two could be a big problem, as could confusing either with current policies being debated in Washington. (Or, in other words, it might not be so easy to say what Joseph would think of Obama’s tax plan.)

    I can’t help noting that the “United Order” is not mentioned in the temple. I don’t mean to exclude those who aren’t familiar with what happens in the temple, but I’m reluctant to elaborate in the present venue. For those who do attend the temple, I hope you’ll take note of how the purpose of the Law of Consecration is explained there. It seems to me that any church leader who would ask for anything I have, based on the Law of Consecration, but not for the purpose mentioned in the temple, is exercising unrighteous dominion. (Another reason that I can’t find a clear connection to Obama’s tax plan.)

    I can’t help noticing that, in recent years, General Authorities have specifically cautioned local leaders about asking for too much time from members. The Brethren have even used the term “burden.” But, so far, I don’t see a significant reduction of meetings or other time-consuming “burdens.” The local leaders have been given permission, if not an order, to change this. Who’s going to do something radical… or even significant? Has anyone here noticed a change in their own Wards and Stakes when it comes to the burden of time?

  5. The fundamentalist community that I’m familiar with takes the temple covenant to live the law of consecration very seriously. Thay have a United Order in place that is very effective and has become more and more successful through the years. As they still have to do “business with the gentiles” so-to-speak it is far from perfect but still better than 19th century attempts.
    The problem with government-controlled socialism (Obamaism) is that the charity in our hearts is taken out of the equation.

    …just sayin…my 2 cents etc.

    1. The problem is that the charity is already taken out of your hearts. You are overly concerned about “government-controlled socialism.” Do you even know what socialism is? Is this because of what you are hearing on Fox or because of a political science degree that has allowed you to form your own opinions based on an academically rigorous process?

      Charity is why many people support Obama. There are still people in the world who understand that being poor is rarely due to laziness, idleness, or an unwillingness to work (as your corporate masters tell you to think). Korhior preached social Darwinism. Ayn Rand preached social Darwinism. They were both anti-Christ. The Rs are pushing an agenda of nihilism and avarice.

      Only the righteous preach the doctrine of justice for the poor. Wealth distribution is a normal thing. It helps free countries stay free. Gotta protect the commons and provide opportunities for the rising generation. This cannot happen when 400 families control 50% of the nation’s wealth. And, please do not try and tell me they “earned” that money due to hard work.

      Governments can do an excellent job of serving the poor. This is because of economies of scale and so forth. Logistically, it makes sense and is more efficient to help the poor using the resources of a nation-state. And, lest you forget, programs for the poor are enacted by our elected leaders acting as the “voice of the people.”

      Hence, only righteous nations take care of the poor. That’s why the Nephites, Jaredites, and Lamanites were all destroyed once they began to be distinguished by class distinctions and the people (and by proxy their governments) turned their backs on the poor. Ignoring the poor is a bad place for a nation to be … and is generally the result of extreme wickedness.

  6. From an April 1977 conference talk by Marion G. Romney entitled The Purpose of Church Welfare Services:

    “In His way, there are two cardinal principles: (1) consecration, and (2) stewardship. To enter the united order, one consecrated all his possessions to the Church by a ‘covenant and a deed which [could not] be broken.’ That is, he completely divested himself of all his property by conveying it to the Church. Having done so, the consecrator received from the Church a stewardship by a like conveyance. This stewardship could be more or less than the original consecration, the object being to make ‘every man equal according to his family, according to his circumstances and his wants and needs.’ (D&C 51:3.)

    “This procedure preserved in every man the right of private ownership and management of his property. Indeed, the fundamental principle of the system was the private ownership of property. Each man owned his portion, or inheritance, or stewardship, with an absolute title, which, at his option, he could alienate, keep and operate, or otherwise treat as his own. The Church did not own all of the property, and life under the united order was not, and never will be, a communal life, as the Prophet Joseph himself said.”

    How many in the church assume that “United Order” is synonymous with both “Law of Consecration” and “communal life”?

  7. I taught that lesson on consecration and the point of the lesson was that while we are not called to live the law to its fullest, we should strive to live the law as best we can. To quote:

    “As Saints of God, we must be prepared and willing to live the law of consecration in its fullness. But we do not need to wait for a future day to consecrate our lives to the Lord. As we do all we can to live the law of consecration today, we will be better prepared to live the fullness of the law when the Lord asks us to do so.”

    Also, a quote from Elder Maxwell also indicated that there are other ways to consecrate ourselves other than property and wealth. We always think of the money aspect while discussing this law.

    The same reasons why it failed back then are the same reasons it would fail today. GREED. The same reason we are in the financial situation we are in as well. The irony to me is that many LDS supported the systems that created the overt greed that has us in the fix we are in rather than live the principles of self-reliance as taught by the Church.

    The real irony is that Joseph Smith was a lot more like Barack Obama than he was like George W Bush and Rush Limbaugh.

    To Bruce in Montana: Since when did anything the government do effect a person’s heart and their own willingness to serve others?????

  8. Why government-run communalism will never work

    I have the opportunity to work extensively with the Native American community. They, I believe, are a case study why government run communalism will always be a failure. Traditionally, they were very communal. Sharing was a fundamental value and requirment for survival. Leadership was determined by who possessed the judgement and skill to best provide for the welfare of the community. “Don’t pray for yourself” was the leadership philosophy. Everything you did was a reflection of your tribe and family. Working with them has helped me realize how tribal Mormons are.

    Now, the fundamental value is often entitlement and there is no limit to the needs (this comes from conversations with frustrated Native leaders). Government run communalism/wealth redistribution will not work when layered over an entitlement culture. The unintended consequence of foolish wealth re-distrubution systems is literally individual destruction and intergenerational instruction.

  9. Thanks for the informative quote, Greg. It occurred to me the other day that one of the main difficulties with throwing everything in the communal pot, as it were, would be scarcity. I mean this in the sense of, who gets the Stradivarius, and other unique/semi-unique items? Elder Romney’s comments clear that up somewhat.

    I really like the attachment of the idea of stewardship to the idea of consecration. It holds individuals accountable for what they do with their consecrated properties.

  10. So, as the author of the post, I can tell you that my questions about Joseph Smith and Obama policies were somewhat tongue-in-cheek (although I agree that Joseph was more Obama than George W). My question is not so much whether we should be living the United Order or Consecration. Nor am I really wondering about voluntary versus mandatory sharing of wealth, although it is probably worth noting that there were consequences associated with declining to consecrate – – excommunication and damnation. Is that more or less persuasive/coercive than civil and criminal penalties? Hmm.
    What I am wondering is whether equality in earthly things is an objective we should be shooting for (by whatever means). Section 78 sure makes it sound like it is. But, while I pay my tithing and try to be generous with my offerings and my time, I am not really striving for equality in earthly things. Are you? And I do not think such a social system would ever work, at least among people like me, without some kind of serious enforcement mechanism. Maybe ostracism and the threat of eternal damnation would be enough, though history suggests otherwise.

  11. Has anyone here noticed a change in their own Wards and Stakes when it comes to the burden of time?

    #4 – Greg, absolutely. My Stake President and Bishop insist on it and have done everything possible to reduce and consolidate meetings. I know that’s not happening everywhere, but I see it here.

  12. #4 I had 4 callings, 3 of which were really time consuming. Finally, the Stake Presidency member over my Stake calling ordered my bishop to release me from my 3 ward callings. That helped a lot in allowing me to spend more time with family.

  13. I also should add that I was released from a time-consuming calling and called as a Primary worker when my wife was called as YW President. My Bishop refuses to call couples with young children into time-consuming callings simultaneously. We have that luxury in our reasonable large ward. We’ve lived in a small branch where that simply isn’t an option.

  14. Last Sunday, my Elder’s Quorum president commented on the parable of the talents and noted that the two good servants received “the same reward.” Most of us probably don’t see it that way because one servant was given 5 more talents and the other was only given two. But if you think of the math in percentages, they each received a 100% increase. When the Lord praised them and promised each of them a reward, the same words were used.

    So what is the Lord’s real concept of “equality” in a gospel sense? Is it worth noting that the “earthly” rewards to each servant (the increase in talents) were nothing more than what they’d each achieved through their own work? (…not including the “bonus” talent taken from the unproductive servant.)

    In other words, I have my doubts about whether the politicians in Washington are seeing “equality” and wealth distribution the same way the Lord sees these things (and I assume Joseph is on the same page as the Lord). Jeff Spector traces our world’s current economic crisis to “GREED.” The political right wants to make an issue out of “entitlement” programs. But aren’t Greed and Entitlement based on the same problem? That is: The desire to receive more than what you deserve based on the effort/work you’re doing. If a man is very wealthy, it might not mean he’s a greedy crook. It might actually mean that he worked his tail off, created “value” for a lot of other people and earned the earthly reward associated with his accomplishments.

    It doesn’t matter if we’re talking about a nation, a company, a household or an individual. An economic system cannot sustain itself if it’s consuming more than it produces. Or, as I often hear myself say these days: Math doesn’t lie. Math doesn’t spin the facts.

    So, why did attempts to live The United Order fail? I’m not an expert on any of the specific attempts but I think the failure must have been very simple. Production wasn’t able to keep up with consumption. Can it be any more complicated than that? Yes, the details may point to wickedness, greed and/or entitlement, all of which are just going to be factors in the balance between production and consumption.

  15. Ray, I have also seen a lot of care taken in extending callings when couples have young children, or in my case, for career women with children. Our bishop is always very considerate of time commitments for those in such situations.

  16. The reduction of time is purely a function of local leaders. The worst example of this is in our stake where the stake president requires the members of the high council to be ordinance workers at the temple, meaning that in addition to all of the regular high council duties they spend a full, weekly 8 hour shift in the temple. In our stake, they are all working men, none are retired.

  17. Holden, fwiw, Temple Presidents technically don’t have the authority to “require” anyone to be a temple worker. I know, practice is reality at the local level, but I just needed to say that.

  18. Ray—I’m not really sure what your comment meant. I was only talking about our stake president. The stake president asks all HC when they are called if they will agree to be ordinance workers. If they do not, they are not called as HC.

  19. Crap; I misread that completely. I read “temple president” instead of “stake president”.

    Ignore #17, everyone. I need to get new glasses – or a new brain.

    (Yes, Doug, that’s a great opening for you.) 🙂

  20. Greg: I agree completely that the Lord sees equality differently from the way you and I might see it. But Section 78 is not talking about the equality of the reward we receive from the Lord. Or not only about that, anyway. So what do you think He is telling us in D&C 78:5-7? That we need to view equality in a different way? To me, it sounds like he is saying we need to learn to be equal in an earthly way with earthly things. But, I am open to other interpretations.

  21. Greg,
    I like this parable better:

    A farmer goes down to the local casual labor market at 6:00 a.m. He hires 10 men to work for 10 hours for $65. Later, he realizes he needs more men, so at 10 o’clock, he hires 5 more. By 1 o’clock, he realizes he could use more men, so he hires another 5. At 3 o’clock, he happens to drive by the labor market and sees 5 more guys standing there. He asks, “What are you guys still doing here?”

    They say, “Nobody’s hired us all day, so we’re just hanging out.”

    The farmer says, “Well, come down to my farm and get a couple hours work anyway,” and he hires them.

    At 5 o’clock, the farmer pays each of the 25 guys he hired $65. The ones who worked for 10 hours are angry. “We’ve been working here for 10 hours, and those guys just got here. How come they get as much as we do?”

    The farmers says, “Hey, it’s my money. I paid you what I said I would. How does it hurt you if I pay these other guys as much as I pay you?”

  22. What a fantastic post. These questions you pose are questions that I think about almost everyday.

    I am an optimist and I think that we can achieve these things. The founder of cooperativism, Robert Owen, met with Thomas Jefferson and he expressed interest in the idea. However, Jefferson expressed similar doubts that it would work on a wide scale in a country.

    You say the members in your ward and nice people but resist Obama style change. I empathize with them, when I see the corruption and deceit of the government, I don’t want to give them a penny of my tax money. On the other hand, I think this is going to be the real step in the United Order, when we just say….”Let go and let God” with our economic situations.

    HOWEVER…I hope that the United Order will not be a voluntary communism with a centralized ecclesiastical politburo. I hope we will focus on voluntary cooperation at every step through the use of cooperatives, trade unions, worker’s councils, and credit unions. This to me would be heaven on earth if we were able to achieve this on a large scale. But then I am an idealist and a believer in democracy.

  23. Ah Ray, I’m not sadistic. I can let those floaters go across the plate in hopes of a really good fast ball I can hit out of the park.

    And as the all powerful Oz said to the scarecrow, you don’t need a brain my friend, just a diploma! I assume you have one… a diploma that is. 🙂

  24. It may be difficult to determine the Lord’s definition of “equal” and, at the same time, I’m not sure about the Lord’s definitions of “rich” and “poor.” Consider the truth or “truthiness” of the following ideas:

    -It’s easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter into Heaven.
    -We can look forward to the day when the poor are exalted in that the rich are made low.
    -In Zion, there are no poor people.
    -When the Saints are righteous, they will prosper in the land.
    -It’s okay to have riches as long as you use your riches “the right way.”
    -God is not a respecter of persons.
    -Everyone has a gift of the Spirit but nobody has all of the gifts.
    -Our ultimate reward for righteousness is “all that the Father has.”
    -God’s “wealth” is infinite.
    -Infinity divided by any number is still equal to infinity.
    -Unfortunately, the scriptures don’t tell us enough about day-to-day life in the City of Enoch or among the people in Fourth Nephi (when they were prosperous and righteous).
    -God doesn’t see things as either spiritual or temporal. Things are always both temporal and spiritual to God.

    Have I clouded the issue too much already? Personally, I have some trouble with looking forward to the poor being exalted in that the rich are made low. It sounds like “spread the misery” more than “spread the wealth.” Is that really the Lord’s plan? Is that really what happened in the City of Enoch? So I’ll assume that my understanding of the words “rich” and “poor” are faulty. The Book of Mormon acknowledges that righteous people can be wealthy but the New Testament pretty-much condemns “the rich” universally.

    I’ve met a lot of wealthy people in the church who seem to be doing just fine when it comes to righteousness. These “rich” people won’t have trouble getting into Heaven, as far as I can see. And I’m sure any of them could easily point to others whom they consider much wealthier than themselves. So, who’s really rich?

  25. Another truthiness test: Have you ever heard religious people say stuff like this?

    “When Christ comes to rule on Earth again, most rich people will be wiped out already. So we get to divide up their stuff among the righteous survivors of the Second Coming. In case rich people do survive the Second Coming, their stuff will be confiscated anyway. (Is there such a thing as the Eternal Revenue Service?) Then I can finally share in the bounty of the Earth like I deserve. The only reason we’re not all prosperous now is that rich people are hoarding the riches of the world. But they’ll be forced to hand it over to the rest of us soon enough.”

    I used to be confused when the scriptures said that the earth was full, with enough to spare, and there was “abundance.” Greed and entitlement seem to be at odds with that idea of abundance. Now, I think I see the abundance and the opportunities around me but the present economic and political conditions are still based on scarcity.

    When I was a full-time missionary in South America, people there thought that everyone in the United States was rich. I started to believe it too, until I got home and realized that my parents weren’t ready to take me on a shopping spree… and the blessings they received for supporting me on my mission weren’t measured in vast amounts of material wealth. Meanwhile, I heard righteous poor people in South America saying things like, “It’s too dangerous to have a lot of money. It’ll just make you wicked.” Were they just talking themselves into complacency?

    So I look around myself today and I have a lot of friends here who are strong in their testimonies but who have very little financial security. I worry about what will happen when my generation reaches retirement age and we won’t be able to afford to miss work to serve as temple workers or full-time, senior missionaries. Will the Lord dismiss my “foolish virgin” friends and condemn them as if they were the guy who only had one talent? “Sorry you can’t afford to serve in the temple, but it’s your own fault.”

    (These thoughts are still rather random. I guess I’m still clouding the issue.)

  26. I have to admit I’ve never heard any religious person say that rich peoples’ possessions would be distributed among the poor at the second coming. I’d assumed all of their material possessions would be destroyed along with them in the floods, fires, earthquakes, rough places made plain, etc.

  27. You have to be careful when you say “equal in earthly things”. You can’t assume that this means that we all have equal amounts of everything in the same way. The same revelation mentions the “bonds of heavenly things”, and it’s obvious that we aren’t all in possession of the same things spiritually. Looking at the United Order we see that they were equal in the opportunity to receive both for their wants and needs, not in possession of the same physical articles. Agency is the key here…no one is required to give up his agency for any reason, and isn’t control of your “stuff” a primary form of exercising your agency? Of course the Lord warns us that not taking care of the poor and being stingy with our possessions is an easy way to be excluded from the Celestial Kingdom, and there is a lot done to help us learn to work for the welfare of others, but notice that no one is ever forced to part with his stuff, and never will be.

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