“To Prepare a People,” Ensign, Jan. 1979, 18
Four times during 1829 the Lord directed Joseph Smith to “seek to bring forth and establish the cause of Zion.” (See D&C 6:6; D&C 11:6; D&C 12:6; D&C 14:6.) From the time of this command until the day of the martyrdom, the Prophet labored diligently toward this end. This motive of his ministry was once tersely described in these words: “We ought to have the building of Zion as our greatest object.” (History of the Church, 3:390)
The vision of a modern Zion was not a fanciful Utopian scheme, nor one of the contemporary communal experiments. The Prophet’s vision came by revelation, making him intimately familiar with the glory of Enoch’s Zion. He sought for the Saints of this dispensation the same approbation which the Lord had given to the Saints of Enoch’s day: “And the Lord called his people ZION, because they were of one heart and one mind, and dwelt in righteousness; and there was no poor among them.” (Moses 7:18)
The commandment to reestablish Zion became for the Saints of Joseph Smith’s day the central goal of the Church. But it was a goal the Church did not realize because its people were not fully prepared. In the wisdom of God, who comprehends the end from the beginning, the redemption of Zion will assuredly come as promised, but not until he has a prepared people who can live by Zion’s laws.
So it becomes vitally important for us to consider (1) the law of consecration and operation of the united order, (2) why the 1831–34 effort to implement this order failed, and (3) how the Lord is now preparing a people for Zion’s eventual redemption.
Two requirements had to be met before Zion could be realized for this dispensation: revelation from the Lord giving his law and the revealed order of Zion, and the preparation and sanctification of the Saints.
When the Lord, by revelation, announced to the Prophet on 2 January 1831 that he was “the same which had taken the Zion of Enoch into mine own bosom” and commanded the Prophet to go to Ohio to receive his law (see D&C 38:4; D&C 32), the fulfillment of the first requirement was begun. Thereafter, a series of revelations was introduced to the Church which established the order of Enoch known as the united order.
The Prophet went to Kirtland, Ohio, in February 1831 as the Lord commanded (see D&C 37; D&C 38:32). Since the organization of the Church the previous spring, membership had expanded rapidly, especially in Ohio. But most of the new converts were nearly destitute and their plight was of vital concern to the Prophet.
On February 9, while in the presence of twelve elders, he received a revelation which embraced “the law of the Church” (History of the Church, 1:148)—so designated because it established the laws of Church government and moral conduct for its members (see D&C 42). The broad context of this revelation introduced the economic system of Zion. Designated the law of consecration and aimed at the total elimination of poverty, the law is to “remember the poor, and consecrate of thy properties for their support that which thou hast to impart unto them, with a covenant and a deed which cannot be broken.” (D&C 42:30)
The law of consecration is a law of the celestial kingdom, requiring that all members of the Church shall consecrate their property (including time, talents, and material wealth) to the Church for the building of the kingdom of God and the establishment of Zion. The legal administrative agency for carrying out the law is the united order. This organization receives consecrated properties, gives stewardships to donors, and regulates the use of surplus commodities. The law of consecration is the commandment; the united order is the revealed economic system.
As revealed in section 42 and other revelations (see inset box), the united order is based on these principles:
1. The fundamental principle is that the earth is the Lord’s and all that man possesses belongs to him. “I, the Lord, stretched out the heavens, and built the earth, my very handiwork; and all things therein are mine. … All these properties are mine. … And if the properties are mine, then are ye stewards.” (D&C 104:14, 55, 56)
2. The individual voluntarily enters the united order and covenants with the Lord to consecrate his time, talents, wealth, and property to the kingdom of God (see D&C 42:30). This he does by deeding to the bishop his entire property.
3. The Church then deeds back to the donor (steward) property to maintain himself and his family. Thus the individual is made a “steward over his own property … as much as is sufficient for himself and family.” (D&C 42:32) The individual’s stewardship is regulated “according to his family, … his circumstances and his wants and needs” (D&C 51:3) “inasmuch as his wants are just” (D&C 82:17).
How is a judicious determination of a family’s wants and needs to be made? As clarified by letter from the Prophet to Bishop Partridge, “by the mutual consent of both parties” (the bishop and the donor). (History of the Church 1:364–65)
4. The balance, which is not returned to the steward, is called “residue” or surplus. This is retained by the bishop “to administer to those who have not … that every man who has need be amply supplied and receive according to his wants.” (D&C 42:33) Surplus is kept in the bishop’s storehouse.
5. If a man produces on his stewardship more than is required for his family, his wants, and his needs, that excess is annually returned to the Church and it too becomes the common property of the Church. Out of these storehouse commodities, the bishop is authorized to give to those who qualify food, clothing, sustenance, and “stewardships.”
This is the Lord’s answer on how the Saints of this dispensation, like Enoch’s, may have “no poor among them.”
Speaking of the united order, the Lord said: “It is my purpose to provide for my Saints … but it must needs be done in mine own way.” (D&C 104:15–16; italics added)
The Lord’s economic system differs in significant ways from other methods of relieving poverty. These other methods include philanthropy—an outright gift to the poor by an agency or benefactor; government-sponsored programs—attempts to redistribute the wealth among citizens by taxing the more affluent to provide for the less affluent; and communalism—the pooling of private property and money to community ownership so that each member holds equal ownership in community goods. These are the distinctive features of the Lord’s “own way”:
1. Entrance into the united order is wholly voluntary, as evidenced by a consecration of all one’s property to the Church.
2. The united order is not a supplemental assistance program; it is the economic system in Zion. It provides a standard of living commensurate to one’s needs, wants, circumstances, and ability to expand one’s stewardship.
3. The united order operates under the principle of private ownership and individual management. It is neither communal nor communistic. Each man owns his own property with an absolute title. The individual family is preserved. There is no common table.
The Prophet rejected communalism. When he arrived in Kirtland in 1831, he found some of the Saints organized into a communal society called “the family.” He soon had them abandon that for the “more perfect law of the Lord.” (History of the Church, 1:146–47) When asked later, “Do Mormons believe in having all things in common?” he answered no. (History of the Church, 3:28) In Nauvoo, he recorded this entry in his journal: “I preached on the stand about one hour on the 2nd chapter of Acts, designing to show the folly of common stock [holding property in common]. In Nauvoo, everyone is steward over his own.” (History of the Church, 6:37–38)
The united order, according to Elder Harold B. Lee, is “more capitalistic … than either Socialism or Communism, in that private ownership and individual responsibility will be maintained.” (In Conference Report, Oct. 1941, p. 113)
4. The united order should not be confused with various “united orders” that were practiced in Utah. President J. Reuben Clark observed, “In practice the brethren in Missouri got away, in their attempts to set up the United Order, from the principles set out in the revelations. This is also true of the organizations set up … in Utah after the Saints came to the valleys.” (In Conference Report, Oct. 1942, p. 55)
5. The united order is not socialism. The “equality” spoken of in the united order is based on (1) family size, (2) family circumstances, (3) family wants (these are to be “just”), and (4) family needs. (See D&C 51:31.) As President J. Reuben Clark observed, “Obviously, this is not a case of ‘dead level’ equality.” (The United Order and the Law of Consecration, Salt Lake City: Deseret News, 1945, p. 25)
6. The united order will only be implemented by revelation to the prophet of the Church, not by legislation or some political program.
Once the law of consecration was received, the Prophet Joseph Smith made two serious attempts to implement its principles.
The law was first introduced in May 1831 among members of the Colesville Branch who followed Newel Knight from New York and settled in Thompson, Ohio. Leman Copley, a new convert, agreed to consecrate a tract of land to the Church for the Colesville Saints to live on. Later he withdrew his offer, breaking his covenant and creating much confusion. Newel Knight went to the Prophet for direction. Through a revelation, the Lord declared the covenant void and commanded the Colesville saints to go to Missouri. (See D&C 54:4–8.) Under Newel Knight’s direction, they went to Jackson County, arriving in July 1831.
The second attempt was made in Missouri.
The Lord told the Saints that Missouri was “the land of your inheritance” (D&C 52:42) and “the central place for the commencement of the gathering together of those who embrace the fullness of the everlasting Gospel.” (History of the Church, 2:254)
The Prophet arrived in Missouri in mid-July 1831, reuniting with some of the elders who had already arrived. On August 1 a significant revelation was received which declared that Zion’s rise to glory would come “after much tribulation.” (See D&C 58:3–4.) At this time the Saints were told the purpose of their settlement in Missouri—a purpose which became more meaningful later, from the vantage point of Nauvoo, after they had “lost” Zion: “Verily I say unto you, for this cause I have sent you—that you might be obedient, and that your hearts might be prepared to bear testimony of the things which are to come; and … that you might be honored in laying the foundation, and in bearing record of the land upon which the Zion of God shall stand.” (D&C 58:6–7; italics added)
Settlement in Missouri established two centers of activity in the Church—Kirtland and Independence. The thousand miles distance between the centers made travel and communication difficult; the fact that Church headquarters remained at Kirtland created misunderstandings, jealousy, and occasional rivalry.
To resolve some of these misunderstandings, the Prophet convened a general council of the Church in Missouri on 26 April 1832. During the council, a revelation was received which showed the operation of the order of Enoch in this dispensation. Joseph Smith, Newel K. Whitney, Sidney Rigdon, Oliver Cowdery, and Martin Harris were directed “to manage the affairs of the poor, and all things pertaining to the bishopric both in the land of Zion and in the land of [Kirtland].” (D&C 82:12) Accordingly, a central council was created (a board of directors), which in turn established the united order. This central agency was established not only to assist the poor, but to manage the merchandising stores in both Ohio and Missouri. “It was my endeavor,” wrote the Prophet, “to so organize the Church, that the brethren might eventually be independent of every incumbrance beneath the celestial kingdom, by bonds and covenants of mutual friendship, and spiritual love.” (History of the Church, 1:269)
During the following summer—1832—the Prophet sent to the leaders in Missouri a plan for the city of Zion. Persecution against the Missouri Saints had intensified. By July local Missourians were unlawfully demanding that the Saints leave.
By 7 November 1833 twelve hundred members of the Church were forced to evacuate Jackson County and seek refuge in neighboring counties.
Despite the Lord’s warnings, such persecution had not been foreseen by the Saints. While with the Missouri brethren in December, the Prophet confessed his ignorance about two questions: “Why God has suffered so great a calamity to come upon Zion … and … by what means He will return her back to her inheritance.” (History of the Church, 1:454) Six days later, on December 16, the Prophet received a partial answer. The Lord told the Prophet that the Saints had to be tried “even as Abraham” and all who could not bear chastening could not be sanctified.
Thus, Zion failed not because of persecution, but because “there were jarrings, and contentions, and envyings, and strifes, and lustful and covetous desires among them; therefore by these things they polluted their inheritances.
“They were slow to hearken unto the voice of the Lord their God; therefore, the Lord their God is slow to hearken unto their prayers, to answer them in the day of their trouble.” (D&C 101:1–7) But the Lord also gave comfort, promising that Zion will not be moved out of her place; the pure in heart will return and claim their inheritances. (See D&C 101:17–18.)
In February 1834 another revelation explained why the Saints underwent such suffering. (See D&C 103:1–4.) Not the early Saints, but their “brethren which have been scattered shall return to the lands of their inheritances, and shall build up the waste places of Zion. For after much tribulation, as I have said unto you in a former commandment, cometh the blessing.” (D&C 103:11–12;. italics added) The redemption of Zion will eventually come by power (D&C 103:15) but “not the power of arms and the shedding of blood; but the power of the Lord.” (Joseph Fielding Smith, Church History and Modern Revelation, Salt Lake City: The Council of the Twelve Apostles, 1953, 1:484)
After pursuing constitutional recourses to reclaim their lands in Missouri, the Prophet organized a group of men called Zion’s Camp to march from Kirtland to Independence for the ostensible purpose of redeeming Zion. While organizing the Camp, he received a revelation on 23 April 1834 commanding the establishment of a separate united order in Kirtland (see D&C 104) and dissolving the relationship between the order in Zion (Missouri) and the order in Kirtland (Ohio) (verses 49–53). [D&C 104:49–53]
The Camp left Kirtland in early May 1834 and arrived at Fishing River, Missouri, in June.
Those who participated in the Zion’s Camp march—some 205 men—fully anticipated that they would repossess the land by force. (See History of the Church, 2:87.) But a revelation received on June 22 declared that Zion would not be redeemed at that time:
“In consequence of the transgressions of my people, it is expedient in me that mine elders should wait for a little season for the redemption of Zion—
“That they themselves may be prepared, and that my people may be taught more perfectly, and have experience, and know more perfectly concerning their duty, and the things which I require of their hands.” (D&C 105:9–10; italics added)
The practice of the united order was suspended by these words: “Let those commandments which I have given concerning Zion and her law be executed and fulfilled, after her redemption.” (D&C 105:34; italics added)
The early Saints interpreted the revelations on building Zion and the temple in the New Jerusalem as applying to their day. But the glory and greatness of the city of Zion were intended for the future, not the nineteenth century. The “tribulation” referred to included not only the Missouri persecutions, but the Nauvoo exodus, the settlement in the Great Basin, the polygamy persecutions, and all other tribulations which the Saints and the Church must endure before the end.
The early Saints were honored to lay the foundation of Zion. Though their efforts may be perceived as insignificant, or to some even a failure, “if we look back and examine [the Lord’s] word carefully, we will discover that nothing has failed of all that he has predicted, neither shall one jot or tittle pass away unfulfilled.” (Joseph, Fielding Smith, Doctrines of Salvation, 3 vols., Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1956, 3:79)
But what, then, of the redemption of Zion? The redemption of Zion involves more than a location, more than a city or a temple. It requires the purging of one’s heart and soul by the Holy Ghost of all un-Christlike motives; it means overcoming selfishness, covetousness, greediness, and idleness—problems specifically condemned by the Lord in these early revelations; it means overcoming tendencies to complain, criticize, and backbite; it means serving God with all one’s heart, might, mind, and strength; it means self-mastery; it means being endowed with the power of God through keeping covenants; it means willingly sacrificing all that one has for the sake of the kingdom of God; it means taking on the divine nature; it requires becoming a holy person. Zion’s redemption must await a generation of Saints equal to this standard.
With the united order suspended for a time, it remained for the Lord to adapt the requirements of his “higher law” to the capacity of the Saints. This was done over the next century of Church history as Church presidents were inspired to institute the law of tithing, the law of the fast, and the Church welfare program.
The law of tithing. On 8 July 1838 revelation was given in answer to the Prophet’s query, “O, Lord! Show unto thy servant how much thou requirest of the properties of thy people for a tithing.” (History of the Church, 3:44) The answer was that members “shall pay one-tenth of all their interest annually; and this shall be a standing law unto them forever.” (D&C 119:4)
The law of tithing is a preparatory law of the law of consecration. Those who practice the law will be more prepared to live the law of consecration; those who do not will not be prepared.
The law of the fast. Even before the law of consecration was received, a fast day was implemented under the Prophet Joseph Smith at Kirtland. All that would have been eaten on that monthly fast day was carried to the meeting and distributed to the poor. (See Journal of Discourses, 12:115.)
After the Saints came West, Brigham Young reemphasized the fast day. He issued instructions that “on the first Thursday of each month, the fast day, all that would be eaten by husbands and wives and children and servants should be put in the hands of the Bishop for the sustenance of the poor.” (Journal of Discourses, 12:116)
In 1896 the First Presidency directed that fast day should be observed on the first Sunday of each month—the current Church practice—because the employment of some Church members made it difficult to observe on Thursday.
Initially, Saints were to donate the equivalent of the food they went without, but President Spencer W. Kimball has recently called on members to give more than that:
“I think we should be very generous and give, instead of the amount we saved by our two meals of fasting, perhaps much, much more—ten times more where we are in a position to do it.” (In Conference Report, Apr. 1974, p. 184)
The Welfare program. The Church Security Plan (later called the Church Welfare Program) was inaugurated in 1936 by President Heber J. Grant in the wake of the Great Depression of the thirties. The purpose of the plan was to establish a system whereby “the curse of idleness would be done away with, the evils of the dole abolished, and independence, industry, thrift and self respect be once more established amongst our people. The aim of the Church is to help people to help themselves. Work is to be re-enthroned as the ruling principle of the lives of our Church membership.” (Heber J. Grant, in Conference Report, Oct. 1936, p. 3)
President J. Reuben Clark explained how these practices—tithing, fast offerings, and Church welfare—have brought the Church closer to the principles of the united order:
“The United Order … was built upon the principle of private ownership of property; all that a man had and lived upon under the United Order, was his own. Quite obviously, the fundamental principle of our system today is the ownership of private property. …
“In lieu of residues and surpluses which were accumulated and built up under the United Order, we, today, have our fast offerings, our Welfare donations, and our tithing, all of which may be devoted to the care of the poor. …
“We had under the United Order a bishop’s storehouse in which were collected the materials from which to supply the needs and the wants of the poor. We have a bishop’s storehouse under the Welfare Plan, used for the same purpose.
“We have now under the Welfare Plan all over the Church, ward land projects. … This land is being farmed for the benefit of the poor.
“Thus … in many of its great essentials, we have, as the Welfare Plan has now developed, the broad essentials of the United Order. Furthermore, having in mind the assistance which is being given from time to time, … we have a plan which is not essentially unlike that which was in the United Order when the poor were given portions from the common fund. (In Conference Report, Oct. 1942, pp. 57–58)
It is apparent that as the principles of tithing and fast offerings are more fully observed and Church welfare services become more fully developed, “we shall not be so very far from carrying out the great fundamentals of the United Order.” (J. Reuben Clark, in Conference Report, Apr. 1942, p. 57)
Zion is not born in a moment, nor even a generation. “Zion cannot be built up unless it is by the principles of the law of the celestial kingdom.” (D&C 105:5) A standard of holiness equivalent to that of Enoch’s people must be achieved. That will not happen without effort and tribulation: “My people must be tried in all things, that they may be prepared to receive the glory that I have for them, even the glory of Zion.” (D&C 136:31)
As we strive to prepare for the days ahead, may we keep all the commandments of God, pay a full tithe, contribute generous fast offerings, willingly give of our time and service to the kingdom of God, and avoid all unholy and impure practices. May we pray earnestly for the kingdom of God to go forth in the earth, “that the inhabitants … may receive it, and be prepared for the days to come, in the which the Son of Man shall come down in heaven, clothed in the brightness of his glory, to meet the kingdom of God which is set upon the earth.” (D&C 65:5)
4 Feb. 1831
Edward Partridge appointed first bishop.
9 Feb. 1831
Law of consecration explained.
Saints to administer to poor according to law.
7 Mar. 1831
Call to gather Zion; prospect of New Jerusalem.
Saints who settled in Ohio to save money for inheritance in Zion.
Bishop Partridge to appoint portions (stewardships) according to family size, circumstances, wants, and needs. Storehouse to be established.
Rich and poor commanded to repent.
Jackson County, Mo
Missouri appointed and consecrated as land of inheritance and center place for Zion.
1 Aug. 1831
Jackson County, Mo
Zion to come “after much tribulation.” Early immigrants honored to lay foundation of Zion. Lands to be purchased in Independence.
Saints commanded to purchase lands by money and forbidden to obtain lands by blood.
Elders appointed stewards over revelations. Surpluses to be consecrated to Church.
4 Dec. 1831
Newel K. Whitney appointed second bishop of Church at Kirtland. Further duties of bishop made known.
Saints commanded to establish storehouses in Zion, to further organize so Church would be independent.
26 Apr. 1832
Jackson County, Mo
United order to be established to manage affairs in Zion and Kirtland.
30 Apr. 1832
Widows, orphans to be provided for by consecration to storehouses.
22–23 Sept. 1832
Forecast of the city and temple of New Jerusalem.
27 Nov. 1832
Inheritances in Zion to be determined by those who consecrate.
25 June 1833
History of the Church, 1:364–65
Letter from the Prophet to Bishop Edward Partridge on the size of a member’s stewardship.
2 Aug. 1833
House in Zion (Jackson County) commanded. Zion is pure in heart.
6 Aug. 1833
Saints commanded to follow Constitution. Law of war, law of forgiveness given to Saints.
12 Oct. 1833
Chastened Zion to be redeemed.
10 Dec. 1833
History of the Church, 1:453ff
Letter from the Prophet to retain lands; petition to God to return Saints to land of inheritances.
16 Dec. 1833
Reasons for Saints’ expulsion from Jackson County. Zion not to be moved out of her place. Saints to rely on constitutional process.
24 Feb. 1834
Saints to redeem Zion after tribulation. Zion to be redeemed by power.
23 Apr. 1834
Separation of united order in Kirtland and Zion. Sacred treasury provided for.
22 June 1834
Fishing River, Mo
Redemption of Zion postponed till Saints are prepared, endowed, and numerous. United order dissolved until Zion’s redemption.
1 Sept. 1835
History of the Church, 2:254
Prophet’s letter to elders of the Church relating his June 1831 vision to go to western Missouri.