Sunday, February 23, 2014

Do we still have the United Order?

A while back I came across a list of some interesting items that the editors of the Joseph Smith Papers thought to share as they were going through some of the papers. One of the items caught my eye. It had to do with the United Order and its basic composition and functions. Below is what the article had to say about the United Order.
"The “United Order” mentioned in sections 78 and 82 of the Doctrine and Covenants actually refers to the “United Firm,” a governing body operating in the church from 1832–1834. The United Firm was a group of nine men set up in April 1832 to govern the Church’s mercantile and publishing efforts. The firm included six men—Joseph Smith, Sidney Rigdon, John Whitmer, Oliver Cowdery, Martin Harris, and William W. Phelps—who had been appointed “stewards over the revelations” in November 1831 and who constituted what would become known as the Literary Firm. The United Firm also included the two bishops in the Church, Edward Partridge and Newel K. Whitney, and Sidney Gilbert, who was the Church’s agent and proprietor of the Church store in Independence, Missouri. Frederick G. Williams and John Johnson, who held large parcels of property, were added in 1833. The firm served a governing role in Church affairs for two years until it was disbanded in 1834."
This got me thinking. Typically when we talk about the United Order we do so in the context of it being a social and communal organization that is meant to replace all other forms of commerce and government. In many cases the debate rages about how it is different or distinct from other social systems such as communism or socialism. As a matter of fact several Church leaders have gone to great lengths to differentiate the United Order from communism. I remember this topic coming up with some regularity in seminary and Sunday School as I was growing up, and the issue was never settled to my satisfaction. But when I read the above item it got me thinking about the United Order in a completely different way.

 If we consider the United Order not as a "collectivist program" but as a business firm I think it changes the sense of the intended purpose of the United Order. When I say business firm I do not intend that it was set up with the purpose of being a business, but that as a legal entity in the United States it was a business. At that time in America there were several religious organizations that were experimenting with collectivist or communal living. When the United Order gets mentioned it usually is mention in that context, as an LDS version of a communal society like other religious organizations attempted.

But if we think of the United Order as the United Firm instead, that is, the legal entity that was intended to hold ownership of land, printing presses, copyrights and funds then we can begin to view what was intended by the United Order in a very different way. For anyone who studies early church history you hear stories about members of the church who promised to donate land or money to the church but sometime later they apostatized and refused to honor the commitments they previously made. The only reason this presented a problem was that the person who promised to donate the land kept the deed to property and thus when they left the church they forced the members who lived there to move. This understandably caused problems for the church. But if the property had been transferred to church before this then this problem would not have come up.

Even years later this type of thing was problematic because property, bank accounts and ownership of church businesses was all in the name of various church leaders. Thus when those men died or apostatized it was unclear how the property should be transmitted or even what property or businesses should remain under control of the church and which should remain under the control of widows or families of the church leaders. For example when Brigham Young died there was some confusion as to what he owned because he was the church president and what he owned because he had a large family. This caused some problems between the leaders of the church and the Young family.

Again these problems could have been avoided if what was church property was kept strictly separate and not held under the name of any one individual. That is, if all church property, money, equipment and funds were held in the name of a distinct legal entity that could be controlled by church leadership but was structured in such a way that it kept it separate from their personal property. This, I think, was the intent of the United Order. Typically when we talk about the United Order we always talk about it as an experiment in communal living where everyone was part owner of the communal pot of property and money. But when I reread the sections in the Doctrine and Covenants that dealt with the United Order I could see how it could be viewed differently.

If we think of the United Order as the legal entity that held the property of the church then it is not that big of a leap to realize that the Corporation of the Presiding Bishop of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and Corporation of The President of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints are the modern day equivalents of the United Order. That is, they operate under the same principles and intent of the United Order and they fill the same role, with the same covenants of sacrifice and consecration still operative.

I can't count the number of times I heard someone say, "We don't currently live under the United Order or the law of consecration, but we will when the millennium comes." That always seemed odd to me consider we do actually covenant to live the law of consecration. If we think of the corporations (the legal entities) that make up the church as the continuation of the United Order, and realize that those who are given direct stewardships over church property (General Authorities and other church leaders) do live the law of consecration, then we can realize that we still live under the covenants and laws given in the Doctrine and Covenants. We still have the United Order.

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