Erasing the United Order

In reading Fawn Brodie’s No Man Knows My History, I learned that, with the collapse of the United Order in both Kirtland and Missouri in 1833, Joseph Smith quietly divided the church’s property among the leadership. Sidney Rigdon had pressed Joseph to create a society in which the Saints held all things in common, but it had failed miserably. Here’s how Brodie describes it:

On April 10, 1834, the Kirtland council dissolved the Order. Dividing the community property was a thorny business. Tired of quibbling and recrimination, Joseph finally resorted to a revelation to parcel out the real estate, deeding himself the temple lot, [Sidney] Rigdon the tannery, [Oliver] Cowdery the printing shop, and most of the other leaders the lots on which they were then living. In 1835 , when the time came to print this curious document in the Doctrine and Covenants, he substituted fictitious names to avoid any unpleasantness—Ahashdah for [Newel] Whitney, Olilah for Cowdery, Pelagorum for Rigdon, Mahemson for [Martin] Harris, and Gazelam for himself. He even used code names for the industries—Laneshine house for the printing shop and Ozondah for the store. Except for a few leaders who knew better, the Mormons believed these to be the names of people living in the days of Enoch (p. 141).

Brodie is correct that, originally, section 104 of the Doctrine and Covenants (section 98 in the original) is presented as a “revelation given to Enoch, concerning the order of the church for the benefit of the poor.” In the current edition, it is presented as a “revelation given to Joseph Smith the Prophet, April 23, 1834, concerning the United Order, or the order of the Church for the benefit of the poor.” The wording is borrowed from the original, but the meaning is quite different. Brodie is probably right that most members would have understood the revelation to apply to the people of Enoch, not to the current church and its leaders. The “substituted names occur in all editions of the D&C from 1835 on, although the practice of bracketing the real names next to the substituted names began with the 1876 edition. By the 1921 edition almost all the real names had been identified. In the 1981 edition the code names were removed from the text in all but four cases, and the identity of one of these four is suggested in a textual note” (David J. Whittaker, “Substituted Names in the Published Revelations of Joseph Smith,” BYU Studies [1983] 1-9). So, in essence, Joseph was willing to present a modern revelation as an ancient revelation to Enoch without explanation.

But here’s where it gets interesting. Joseph had preached the United Order as requiring church members to consecrate all their property to the bishop, who would then distribute them according to the needs of the members. With the failure of the Kirtland and Independence Orders and the deeding of consecrated properties to the leadership, Joseph needed a change in doctrine. Here’s Brodie again:

From this moment Joseph began to efface the communistic rubric in his young theology. Since most of the copies of the Book of Commandments had been burned, it was easy for him to revise drastically the revelation on the United Order when it was republished in the enlarged Doctrine and Covenants in 1835. The Lord no longer demanded consecration of a man’s total property, but only a donation of his “surplus” over and above living expenses. In reprinting the first twelve issues of the Evening and Morning Star, Joseph revised most, though not all, of the descriptions of the original Order and commanded his missionaries to destroy the notion abroad that the church had ever been a common-stock concern (p. 1 41).

Comparing the current section 42 of the Doctrine and Covenants (section 13 in the 1835 edition) to the original section 14 of the 1833 Book of Commandments, we see that Brodie is right: Joseph has rewritten the revelation to erase the idea of consecrating all of one’s property to a mere donation of what is “more than necessary” to the poor.

Compare the following verses. Words that appear only in the 1835 and subsequent editions of the Doctrine and Covenants are marked in italics. Words that appear only in the 1833 Book of Commandments are marked in bold. Words appearing in both editions are in normal text.

29 If thou lovest me thou shalt serve me and keep all my commandments.

30 And behold, thou wilt remember the poor, and shalt consecrate of all thy properties for their support, that which thou hast to impart unto them me, with a covenant and a deed which cannot be broken.

31 And inasmuch as ye impart of your substance unto the poor, ye will do it unto me; and they shall be laid before the bishop of my church and his counselors, two of the elders, or high priests, such as he shall appoint or has appointed and set apart for that purpose.

32 And it shall come to pass, that after they are laid before the bishop of my church, and after that he has received these testimonies concerning the consecration of the properties of my church, that they it cannot be taken from the church, agreeable to my commandments, he shall appoint every man shall be made accountable unto me, a steward over his own property, or that which he has received by consecration, inasmuch as much as is sufficient for himself and family.

33 And again, if there shall be properties in the hands of the church, or any individuals of it, more than is necessary for their support after this first consecration, which is a the residue to be consecrated unto the bishop, it shall be kept to administer to those him who have has not, from time to time, that every man who has need may be amply supplied and receive according to his wants as he stands in need.

34 Therefore, And the residue shall be kept in my storehouse, to administer to the poor and the needy, as shall be appointed by the high council elders of the church, and the bishop and his council;

35 And for the purpose of purchasing lands for the public benefit of the church, and building houses of worship, and the building up of the New Jerusalem, which is hereafter to be revealed—

36 That my covenant people may be gathered in one, in that day when I shall come to my temple. And this I do for the salvation of my people.

As the reader can see, in the original, church members are commanded to consecrate “all thy properties” to the church. The bishop, in turn, appoints each man to be a steward over the property that the bishop gives to him. The “residue” of the property is to be used to “administer to the poor and needy” and also “for the purpose of purchasing lands” for the gathering of church members.

The revised revelation advises church members to “remember the poor” and “consecrate of [members’] properties for their support.” These donations to the poor are to be given to the bishop for distribution to the poor “from time to time.” There is no mention of the bishop giving property back to the members; rather, the members are told they are accountable as stewards to the Lord. The consecration of properties and goods is limited to that which is “more than is necessary for [members’] support, and the purchase of lands is likewise limited to providing for the construction of church buildings.

With the erasure of key tenets of the United Order, Joseph Smith abandoned his attempts to build a communal society, and never again in his lifetime would the Church attempt such an experiment. Interestingly enough, Joseph’s successor, Brigham Young, despite the loss of clear doctrinal exposition on the law of consecration, attempted further United Order communities in Utah, all of them failing within a generation.

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4 Responses to Erasing the United Order

  1. timbob says:

    Hello. We have very little in common, but I really like your sub-header. Well said.

  2. Odell says:

    John:

    I have always maintained that Joseph Smith is a far more interesting person than the LDS church allows him to be for its members. When I became aware of the facts and circumstances of Smiths’ life I was disappointed that the consequence of the knowledge meant Smith wasn’t a prophet. As the ache gave way to acceptance, I became more and more fascinated by the “real” Joseph Smith and his incredible journey from poor farmer boy and local treasure hunter to religious leader.

    The three dimensional person that Joseph Smith was is much more fascinating than the two dimensional character created by the LDS church. However, knowing how he acted and his how opportunistic he was, I wouldn’t trust Joseph Smith with my wife or teenage daughters, my money, my house, my business, and especially my hopes.

  3. […] Enoch, and using ancient-sounding fake names in place of contemporary church leaders. Runtu has a good post on this issue over at his […]

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