Friday, September 17, 2010

The Law of Consecration and Stewardship

I am currently reading the excellent book Building the City of God, which is a study of early communitarian efforts by the saints.  Though I'm obviously no historian, I thought it might be interesting to write a few posts about what I'm reading as I go along.  I just finished the section on the Law of Consecration and Stewardship, which was Joseph's early attempts in Kirtland and Missouri to get the saints to live a more perfect economic system.

The basic gist of the plan went something like this:  First, all members deeded their real and personal property to Edward Partridge, the presiding bishop.  In the earliest iterations of the Law the person would completely forfeit all property if they left the church, i.e. the church had full rights to the property.  Later, when civil courts eroded that away, the person could get real property back, but not personal property and not any of the yearly consecrations.  Second, Partridge would lease and loan back those respective properties to the individual, depending on their needs.  Third, the individual, though a steward over the land, would have the control to do with the property whatever he or she desired.  Finally, at the end of the year the individual would consecrate to Partridge any excess gains above what they needed.

The Law of Consecration and Stewardship struck a balance between individualism and communalism by giving each individual the choice of what to do with his or her property and encouragement to be creative and industrious, while also requiring the pooling of resources above any person's needs for the benefit of the poor.  This was different than "common stock" communities like the Shakers where literally all possessions were owned by everyone, including clothing and household items, which led to a certain anarchist free-for-all in practice.

The authors gave five reasons why the Law of Consecration and Stewardship didn't last, and they contend that number five is overemphasized at the expense of numbers one through four:
1) Most of the converts to the early church were poor and had nothing to consecrate. Yet inheritances had to be provided for them.  2) Most of the consecrations that were made were in kind, while most of the church's investments (in real estate and so on to provide stewardships for those who needed them) required liquid resources. Conversion of the former into the latter was difficult on the Missouri frontier.  3) Constant persecution made property accumulation almost impossible.  4) The opposition of the courts to the Mormons, and to cooperative (and communal) ventures generally, made it easy for apostates who had made gifts to the church to disrupt the financial affairs of the system by demanding and securing the return of all their consecrated properties.  5) The converts were not faithful in making their initial and annual consecrations.
Those first four factors are no longer true, so the question I have is, could this system work today?  If President Monson announced in General Conference that the church was reinstating the Law of Consecration and Stewardship as revealed to Joseph Smith would it 1) work and 2) be embraced?

I think it would have to look something like this:  Every member would deed over all their real and personal property to the church.  The church would then lease and loan back that property according to needs and the individual or family would be a steward over those properties.  Each member would be expected to continue to work and be productive.  At the end of the year all income above what was strictly needed would be consecrated back to the church for the support of the poor and the building of the kingdom.

In practice it would mean that members living in huge homes and driving expensive cars, and the like, that exceed their needs would probably have to sell them and find more modest accommodations and consecrate the excess to the church.  How many members would be willing to do that?  I live in a stake that is probably 80% super rich and I wonder how many would support a modern Law of Consecration and Stewardship with a full heart, without reservations, knowing that they would have to move out of their McMansions or legitimate mansions, sell their Porches and yachts, and give away the rest.

But it isn't just the rich that would have to make uncomfortable decisions.  Would each of us be willing to forfeit, at the end of each year, any assets that otherwise would have been accumulated in savings accounts, retirement accounts, educational accounts, and investments acting on faith that those things would be taken care of by the church?  It would take real faith to not save for the future believing that the church would take care of you in your old age or in emergencies.  It would take real faith to not save for your children's college believing that the church would pay for that in the future.

The argument against such an economic system is that it stifles the drive to be successful and innovative.  If you never tasted the fruits of you hard work (to put it more starkly: if you never got to enjoy all the money you would earn from being successful), why would you even try?  Why would a person go through all that work and school to become a doctor if they didn't get paid like a doctor?  Why would a person put so much blood and sweat into an innovative and successful business if they didn't have the chance to earn that huge return on investment in the end?  Why should we work hard and then just give our money away to the poor?

The answer is faith, I think.  Such a system could only work if the saints had faith enough to become successful and industrious and then consecrate the excess to the church to support the poor and build up the kingdom.  It cannot work if greed is the only motivator, it could work if faith replaced that greed.  Should we not expect that of ourselves as members of the true church?  Thoughts?


Duwaine Thomas said...

I am doing this today
35% taxes and hoping social sec will be there when i am old

Mtsothm said...

There are many laws of God where some members of the church practice them and other members do not. The Law of Consecration, commonly referred to as the United Order, was never rescinded permanently. It is in force today, and is required by covenant for anyone who enters the temple. In the sense that we donate everything we earn during fast offering, and then have the bishop decide what we need from there, seems to be uncommonly practiced, if at all. However, whenever we donate to fast offering, or serve in our callings in the church, or help in other ways church needs or the needs of the poor and the needy, we are living, in part, the Law of Consecration.

I believe that if we were directly asked to voluntarily deed everything that we had to the Church, some people would do it, and others would not. As you said, it is a matter of faith. While I did not go into medicine, I did pursue a career in software engineering that has provided well for my family, and has even allowed me to share with others. Personally, I did not enter this field because I wanted the money, though my wife did encourage me for that reason. Instead, I entered this field because I was bored with my previous line of employment and wanted something more challenging.

I feel that a great many among us seek to do great things for the challenge of it, or because we believe in what we are doing. While you might, under the United Order, see less wealth seeking people become doctors, you might actually find more members of the church who would not ordinarily become doctors do so. Some people do not go to school to better themselves because they lack faith that their needs will be provided for during and after this process. If this obstacle was removed, you might see more people seeking to better themselves so that they could serve their fellow beings. While not all people would do this, one of the reasons people join the church, and serve in callings, is because they know it is the right thing to do. While people with divine attributes might not always like their neighbor, they certainly don't want to see them suffer.