LDS Church Finances: Post-Nauvoo Experiments in the United Order

Todd Noall

Todd Noall

Source Expert

Todd Noall is an author and religious scholar at Mormonism Explained with a focus on the history and theology of religion.

Fact Checked by Kevin Prince

This is a continuation of the discussion about what are donations to the LDS Church used for, especially in regard to Church history? After the martyrdom of Joseph Smith, the Latter-day Saints were forced to leave their beloved city of Nauvoo. As the time of the exodus drew nearer, the primary aim of the Church was to get as many people as possible endowed and sealed in the Temple. As part of this ceremony, Church members also covenanted to live the Law of Consecration. 

Doctrine and Covenants Section 136, received at Winter Quarters,  Nebraska, states in verse 4: “This shall be our covenant. We will walk in all the ordinances of the Lord.” This verse asks the saints to remember promises made in the Nauvoo Temple before their departure west. Verse 8 reads: “Let each company bear an equal proportion according to the dividend of their property in taking the poor, the widows, the fatherless, and the families of those who’ve gone into the army [a reference to the Mormon battalion] that the cries of the widow and the fatherless come not up unto the ears of the Lord against his people.” In this revelation, given to Brigham Young, the Lord designates this principle of “equal proportions of property” as the key to the exodus. Then verse 10, “Let every man use all his influence and property to remove this people to the place where the Lord shall locate a stake of Zion.” This is what consecration looks like in Winter Quarters.

Stories associated with the exodus from Nauvoo are legendary. Other pioneers headed west would see a Latter-day Saint wagon train come through, plant wheat, and then continue along the trail. To non-Mormons this made no sense. Why plant wheat that the planter would never harvest? In reality, this wheat would be harvested by the next group of Mormon pioneers. When a wagon train arrived at a river, the goal wasn’t simply to quickly ford the river. After constructing a ferry, a family of Latter-day Saints was left behind. Gentiles would then be charged to use the ferry. These funds, in turn, helped future Mormon wagon trains. Again, even the exodus was established around the principles of consecration. The historical record confirms again and again that Church members are still attempting to live the Law of Consecration. 

As the saints settled in the west, Brigham Young often presented the ideals of consecration and declared, “I want each settlement to figure it out for themselves.” Efforts to implement these principles came in waves. In the 1850s, Brigham Young urged every community to build a cooperative, such as a bishop’s storehouse. Many such entities become businesses united around the idea of community. Citizens would pool their goods and resources, establish a store, and then donate surpluses to help people in need. The most famous example is Brigham City in northern Utah. This co-op endured for nearly thirty years.

“Co-op” is sometimes a challenging term to define. It comes from the word cooperative and basically means a “pooling of resources.” In Brigham City, it was defined to mean that everyone would pool resources and pursue shared business opportunities. These ventures raised funds that provided for the poor and needy. The effort in Brigham City was led by a very energetic apostle named Lorenzo Snow, whose remains are buried in Brigham City, unlike most Church presidents, whose remains were buried in Salt Lake City. The ideals upon which Lorenzo Snow based the Brigham City co-op relied wholly upon the principles of the United Order. 

In certain western communities, the terms around which the United Order was established were based upon an individual’s word of honor rather than written contracts. To some this might seem in better alignment with the spirit of Section 42.  For instance, in 1875, Lorenzo Snow wrote in a letter, “I do not for a moment consider we are worthy to be called the people of the United Order, but we are slowly progressing toward them.” Lorenzo Snow envisioned the Brigham City cooperative as a stepping stone before the full practice of the United Order was to be implemented.  The story of the Brigham City co-op is documented in Building the City of God: Community and Cooperation Among the Mormons by Leonard Arrington, Feramorz Y. Fox, and Dean L. May. This book reveals that the Brigham City co-op may have been the most comprehensive attempt to enact the Law of Consecration in the history of the Church.

Feramorz Fox also presided over the LDS Business College. He said of Brigham City, “By 1874 virtually the entire economic life of this community of 400 families was owned and directed by the Cooperative Association. There were 15 departments, later to be expanded to 40, that produced the goods and services needed by the community, and each household obtained its food, clothing, furniture, and other necessities from these departments.”

Thus, in the systems of LDS Finances, the cooperative offered many features. For example, ith had a furniture department. It also had a “pie safe”, i.e., a place where pies were stored to cool and locked so people couldn’t steal them. Another department also provided clothes or textile items, such as leather. Again, the co-op was like a huge home industry that served at the heart of the community. Every local Church member relied upon it to meet their needs. 

Cooperative surpluses were sometimes exported to other Utah settlements. By 1874 the Brigham City co-op had a surplus amounting to $120,000–an eye-popping amount for the time. It had 372 shareholders and served 400 families, meaning every family in Brigham City was likely represented by someone serving as an official shareholder. Goods were shared widely to make sure the entire community benefited. Lorenzo Snow earned a reputation as an aggressive driver of the co-op’s success. One man left Brigham City because he felt “the Snow was too fierce.” This wasn’t a reference to the weather. Elder Snow was a dedicated worker and transformed this co-op into an institution with almost three decades of success. 

Other co-ops enjoyed varying degrees of success. Many fizzled out over time. Brigham City, however, flourished.

In 1868 Brigham Young founded ZCMI, or “Zion’s Cooperative Mercantile Institute.” This, too, was a co-op. One of its 20th century slogans was to call itself “America’s first department store.” ZCMI remained a functioning entity until 1999. It then sold to May Department Stores of St. Louis and until 2001 operated under its original name as part of May’s Portland-based Meier & Frank division, afterwhich these stores adopted the Meier & Frank name. Later it was sold to Federated Department Stores, which is now Macy’s. 1868 to 1999 was an admirable run. 

The operations of various cooperatives were complicated in the period of the Utah War. In 1857 the United States sent an army to the state, uprooting many institutions and causing severe economic disruption. Some of the Salt Lake operations transferred to Utah Valley while other ventures were put on hold.

The American Civil War and the construction of the continental railroad in the 1860s marked a period of considerable uncertainty. Many Church members believed the Civil War would mark the end of the United States, finally permitting the saints to move back to Missouri and build Zion. However, in the 1870s, toward the end of Brigham’s Young life, there was one last push to reinstate the Law of Consecration. This effort didn’t always strictly follow the ideas outlined in Section 42. Some elements were communal while others were more commercial. 

This system was called the United Order, or sometimes the Order of Enoch. Brigham Young attempted to formulate the Articles of Agreement, but unfortunately, later efforts lacked a single guiding blueprint. Those who attempted to establish the idea in various regions adopted individualized guidelines. Consecration, for example, worked differently in Richfield than it did in Orderville. Still, the Articles of Agreement attempted to outline the financial principles that would eventually be adopted by everyone striving to live the Gospel. Principles of consecration were established with few specific details. 

The name “Orderville” obviously denotes the diligence of its members to establish a true United Order based upon the communal ideas of the Law of Consecration. Consecration in Orderville proved more successful than in Richfield. Although Orderville had fewer resources because of its isolation in southern Utah, Church members there, because the settlement was newer, were inclined to take the plan more seriously because they were starting from scratch. Richfield, in the Sevier valley, had been around for almost 20 years. As a result, members in Richfield were more “set in their ways.” Many of Richfield’s residents had already amassed private property. This made it more difficult for them to transition to the United Order than settlers in Orderville.

Joseph Young, eldest son of Brigham Young, was the major force behind efforts to establish the Law of Consecration in Richfield. He came to the project with great conviction and determination. However,  despite his best efforts, the project only lasted in Richfield from 1874 to 1877. Erastus Snow summarized the cause of Richfield’s failures when he said, “I am leaving the Order because there is no order in it.” Joseph Young was convinced that the United Order failed in Richfield because too many of its settlers had already acquired too much personal property. 

The United Order in Orderville lasted from 1873 to about 1885. Technically, the effort didn’t fail. It was terminated because of outside intervention. In Orderville, when a participant entered into the Order, they were baptized by immersion for a second time. This is a concept of the 19th century Church that is sometimes hard for modern saints to wrap their heads around. People were often rebaptized as a way to demonstrate a recommitment to live the Gospel or to abide by certain principles. Today we understand that this is accomplished whenever we take the Sacrament, but this doctrinal understanding took several more decades to fully develop. 

The following is an excerpt from the recorded principles of the United Order as it was practiced in Orderville: “That all people are literally the sons and daughters of God. That the earth is His and all it contains, that He created it and its fullness especially for the use and benefit of His children, that all, providing they keep His commandments, are equally entitled to the blessings of the earth, that with proper regulations there is enough and to spare for all, that every person was simply a steward and not an owner of property, that he is under obligations to use it, and his time, strength, and talents, for the good of all. They believe in living as a patriarchal family and in common, according to their circumstances, fair alike. All are required to be diligent in their labors, economical in their habits, and temperate in their lives.” 

It may seem curious to some that after the Law of Tithing was received in Far West, Missouri, Brigham Young remained determined to establish the United Order in specific LDS communities in the Mountain West. Some have said that the Orderville system resembled a Christian military camp. The community had a large town hall where the people would eat together, sew clothing, and manufacture other goods. In addition to living the United Order, some members in Orderville also paid a full tithing. Such funds were often used to support the construction of temples in Salt Lake, Manti, Logan, and St. George. 

It seems understandable that some early Church leaders continued to aspire to the ideals of the Law of Consecration in Section 42 since there never really was a revelation that specifically instructed the Church to discontinue the practice. Leaders like Brigham Young seemed determined to experiment with the idea, perhaps hoping lessons learned might be later applied to the wider Church when the Lord finally called for His saints to return to Jackson County, Missouri prior to the Second Coming. 

The United Order in Orderville experienced ups and downs, but for the most part it was successful. Government intervention ended the practice during their efforts to eliminate the practice of plural marriage. The Edmunds-Tucker Act—although it passed in 1885–wasn’t vigorously enforced until 1889 because of push-back from Latter-day Saints. The legal dispute was carried all the way to the Supreme Court. The Act sought to brand the Church as an institution that exerted too much control over people’s lives. Orderville was set apart as a prime example of this. When this law passed, Church leaders approached the saints in Orderville to warn them that the government might attempt to confiscate all of their property. Thus, by necessity, the United Order had to be drawn to an end in favor of establishing the principles of Mormons and Tithing

Was this way of conducting business successful in Orderville? An Orderville Church member named Henry Fowler said the following: “We were happy in the Order. A spirit of true brotherhood prevailed as long as we obeyed counsel and lived up to our instructions.” Another Orderville participant said, “I’ve lived in Utah, Arizona, California, Idaho, in many different towns, and I was never so much attached to a people. I never experienced greater joy nor had better times than during the period of time I was connected with the United Order in Orderville. The United Order is a grand institution.” 

Many families who had lived in Orderville later moved to Mexico where the United Order continued to be practiced in Mormon settlements of Chihuahua, which continued well into the 20th century. 

The Edmunds-Tucker Act was very punitive in nature and seemed designed to crush the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints as an entity. Fighting this act all the way to the Supreme Court was financially exhausting for the Church. Official Declaration 1, which ended plural marriage, includes in our scriptures a statement from President Wilford Woodruff when he announced the discontinuation of plural marriage. This statement includes a list of consequences that the Church would experience if they did not stop practicing plural marriage. These consequences included the U.S. government confiscating all Church property, including its temples. Even after abolishing the practice, the Church remained in dire financial straits. This emphasizes the determination of Church leaders on issues of Mormon Church finances to establish a firm financial foundation that included ample rainy day funds to defend against any challenges that might arise in the future. 

Nevertheless, at the beginning of the 20th century, the Church remained in a state of financial duress. Generous Church members, such as Jesse Knight, donate funds that helped keep the Church afloat, but the ultimate solution, as evidenced by the actions of Lorenzo Snow and Joseph F. Smith, was to reemphasize the Law of Tithing.

During this period many Church members were reluctant to pay tithing for fear that the government would confiscate their donations. Anti-polygamy crusades in the United States not only devastated many Church-owned businesses, they also undermined the spirit of giving in general. In some cases, Church leaders urged members not to donate funds while it remained unsure how things were going to unfold. 

This brings us to the famous story of Lorenzo Snow depicted in the Church film The Windows of Heaven. 

The context is this: Lorenzo Snow, on a trip to meet with the saints in St. George, Utah, received a powerful revelation telling him to encourage Church members to pay their tithing. In the April General Conference of 1900, Joseph F. Smith, then serving as President Snow’s 1st Counselor in the First Presidency, declared, “The Lord revealed to his people in the incipiency [in the beginning] of his work, a law [consecration] which is more perfect than the law of tithing. It comprehended larger things, greater power, and a more speedy accomplishment of the purposes of the Lord. But the people were unprepared to live by it, and the Lord, out of mercy to the people, suspended the more perfect law, the law of consecration, and gave the law of tithing.”

This is, perhaps, the basis of our present-day perception that the Law of Tithing is a “lesser law” to the Law of Consecration. However, the history of Nauvoo and Orderville suggest that this kind of conceptualization might be in error. As stated, in Orderville, Church members seemed capable of living the Law of Consecration and the Law of Tithing. One Law wasn’t deemed greater or lesser. Again, in Nauvoo, many willingly practiced consecration and tithing simultaneously. One principle did not appear to replace the other. The Law of Tithing is perhaps accurately described as a subset of the Law of Consecration, but not a replacement. 

By Todd Noall, Source Expert

Todd Noall is an author and religious scholar at Mormonism Explained with a focus on the history and theology of religion.

Fact Checked by Mr. Kevin Prince, Source Expert

Kevin Prince is a religious scholar and host of the Gospel Learning Youtube channel. His channel has garnered over 41,000 subscribers and accumulated over 4.5 million views. Mr. Prince also created the Gospel Learning App, a reliable platform where individuals seeking truth can access trustworthy answers to religious questions from top educators worldwide.

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