The Law of Consecration in Early Church History

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

The Law of Consecration in Early Church History

By Chris Heimerdinger

In the last few years LDS finances have been in the media spotlight, and not always in positive ways. It’s no secret that today’s Church has amassed an impressive financial reserve. This was not always so. It has steered through some narrow, dangerous straits during different periods of its history. It’s a compelling history of teetering on the verse of bankruptcy and ruin to arrive at its state of relative financial stability today. 

Let’s go back to the beginning to explore the undergirding principles found in revelations received by the Prophet Joseph Smith. One revelation in particular seems apropos: The Law of Consecration.

In some minds this principle is shrouded in mystery and confusion. It’s difficult to understand Mormon Church finances without understanding this law. 

The Law of Consecration was the first financial commandment given to the Church. For many early converts it had a visceral appeal that represented the Lord’s guiding principles of always looking out for struggling Church members: the widows, the fatherless, and those experiencing other health-related issues placing them under financial duress. The LDS Church has always been very Bible-centric in its approach to worship, so it seems only natural that early Church members picked up on these threads.

The Law of Consecration was the first financial commandment that outlines the general principles of selflessness and goodwill that seemed to characterize what it truly means to be Christian. Do Mormons still practice the Law of Consecration? Is this something that should still concern Church members? 

In essence Mormons do still live the Law of Consecration. In the endowment session of the Holy Temple, this law is one five covenants Church members commit to live. Some will say, “We used to live the Law of Consecration, but it was too hard, so God gave us a lesser law, which is tithing.” Someday, however, Mormons do expect that the Law of Consecration will be reinstated.

Another Temple covenant is to live the law of chastity. If someone said, “Well, we used to live the law of chastity, but it was too hard, so the Lord gave us a lesser law,” Latter-day Saints would immediately reject this.Part of the misunderstanding associated with the Law of Consecration is that we don’t live this Law today the way it was first presented in Doctrine and Covenants 42. 

Temple ceremonies are occasionally updated and clarified. When the endowment was originally introduced in Nauvoo it was eight hours long. At present it’s ninety minutes. The methodology on which this Law was based no longer exists in the modern world. In the 1830s, the government minted coins, but there was no printed paper money. Hence, a different system. It could be argued that the principles of the Law of Consecration have never been rescinded. Only the practice has changed.

Every era of Church history has some iteration of this Law. Some periods were more intense in its practice than others, but as a principle, it has never been entirely dismissed. 

Instead of thinking about how the saints practiced the Law of Consecration in 1831, its better to think of it as this series of doctrines and principles that guide how our actions ought to be. An effort to implement this law in its fullness began in Kirkland 1831, in Missouri in 1838, and in Utah in the 1870s. Such efforts would not likely represent how it would be put into practice today, amidst a global Church.

Still, the underpinnings of this Law have never gone away. Changes would be adapted to meet the practical circumstances of modern Church members. The Church has always embraced new technologies. Apostle Boyd K. Packer stated, “Changes in organization or procedures are a testimony that revelation is ongoing. The doctrines will remain fixed, eternal. The organizations, programs, and procedures will be altered by Him whose church this is.” In other words, doctrines remain fixed. Programs and procedures adjust with the times. 

Shortly after the Church was organized In 1830, missionaries were sent to teach the Lamanites living at the very edge of United States territory. They stopped in Kirtland, Ohio where they experienced massive conversions, including such important figures as Sidney Rigdon. The membership in Kirtland swelled. Sidney traveled to New York to meet Joseph. Shortly thereafter, Section 35 was received–a revelation that essentially connected Joseph and Sidney at the hip. Joseph directed Sidney, among other things, to become his scribe for his new translation of the Bible. Not long thereafter Joseph and Sidney worked together on the Enoch revelation.

The Enoch revelation is a significant event, but unfamiliar to many Latter-day Saints. It is, however, foundational to the Restoration, setting things in motion that help us arrive where we are in Church doctrines and practices today. The Enoch revelation is recorded in Moses chapters 6 and 7 in the Pearl of Great Price. These chapters add 116 verses to the Biblical story of Enoch, such as how the city of Enoch was established and other details about its status as a city of holiness known as Zion. In Moses 7:18 the Lord defines a Zion people with four markers: 1. They are of one heart. 2. They are of one mind. 3. They dwelt in righteousness. 4. There are no poor among them. 

The people of Zion attained a level of righteousness that allowed them to walk with God. Eventually God received the city unto himself. It was literally taken up into heaven. A prophecy declares that one day Zion will return to earth in association with the Lord’s Second Coming and the inauguration of His millennial reign. 

After recording the Enoch revelation, the Lord informs Joseph and Sidney, in D&C 37, to pause the translation of the Bible. New York Saints are told to gather to Ohio. Joseph makes this announcement in January, 1831. New York Saints were understandably reluctant. Why uproot their lives in New York and move to Ohio? In the midst of a General Conference Joseph prays before the congregation. According to the account of John Whitmer, Joseph asks the Lord directly, “Why do you want us to move to Ohio?”

This prompts the receipt of Doctrine and Covenants 38. In the revelation the Lord calls himself the “God of Enoch” and outlines why the New York saints must move to Ohio. God declares that this move is intended to help His saints increase in righteousness, become unified as one, and learn how to eliminate poverty. An ideal society. The Lord’s exact words were, “If you will go to the Ohio, there I will give unto you my law, and I will endow you with power from on high.” 

We find out later that this law has everything to do with learning how to become a Zion people. So what Joseph and Sidney learn from the Enoch revelation is how God gathered a singular people out from among the wicked to dwell in one city, where, eventually, the Lord would come and dwell among them according to their righteousness. God is establishing a pattern for the latter days. This is the clear impetus for why the saints in New York are asked to relocate to Kirkland. Once they arrive, the Lord teaches them the Law of Consecration.

This Law is described in multiple sections of Doctrine and Covenants, but a summary can be found in Sections 42 and 38. Section 42 in particular  must be viewed through the lens of Moses 7:18: “And the Lord called his people Zion, because they were of bone heart and one mind, and dwelt in righteousness; and there was no poor among them.”

God also teaches important laws of morality in verses 42:18-29. Additionally, He provides details about the consecration of property in verses 30-39. Other laws of personal conduct are outlined in subsequent verses. But D&C 42, when viewed alongside the Enoch revelation, takes on much greater meaning. It’s powerful to see what these laws are calculated to do, painting a picture of the larger context of God establishing a new Enoch community with a group of people who are ready for the Messiah’s return to rule and reign at the start of the Millennium.

Missionaries are so successful in Kirtland, Ohio, that after two months there are more Church members in Kirkland than in all the branches in New York and Pennsylvania. Changing Church headquarters to Kirtlands becomes a wise and practical move. Furthermore, Church members in Kirtland have great resources. The Newell K. Whitney store still stands in Kirtland today as a historic site. Newell and his wife, Elizabeth Ann Whitney, became early Church converts. Joseph Smith is among the first to obey God’s commandment and prepares to move his family to Kirtland. 

In Kirtland there is already a group of committed Christians trying to live the Law of Consecration, inspired not by Joseph’s revelations, but simply by reading the Bible. Especially Acts 5 where it states that Christ’s disciples had all things in common. When these new converts read the Book of Mormon, they also discover passages in 4 Nephi, that repeat the same theme. These people have already been prepared to accept such ideas, they just don’t have the adequate structure on how this principle should be practiced. 

Much of the effort to live early versions of the Law of Consecration can be linked to one man: Isaac Morley. Isaac is truly one of the great men of the early Church. He is a veteran of the war of 1812. He and his wife, Lucy, had a prosperous farm on the outskirts of Kirtland. One non-Latter-day Saint recorded his recollection of the circumstances this way: “Isaac Morley had contended that in order to restore the ancient order of things in the Church of Christ, it was necessary that there should be a community of goods among the brethren. And accordingly, a number of them removed to his house and farm and built houses and worked and lived together and composed what is here called the big family which at that time consisted of fifty or sixty old and young.” Isaac and Lucy Morley, in a remarkable act of generosity, invite the Smiths to live on their farm.

However, this is where certain problems start to emerge. Isaac and Lucy are not the only ones attempting to practice communal living. Other groups are also engaged in this effort including a group of Shakers who called themselves the “Owenites” after a man named Robert Owen, whose reforms seek to usher in the millennial era. The Shakers are already living a form of communalism, but the situation is tenuous. For instance, newly arriving Church members from New York aren’t particularly keen on this idea. John Whitmer, who later served as Church historian, described it this way: “The disciples had all things in common and were going to destruction very fast as to temporal things, therefore they would take each other’s clothes and other property and use it without leave, which brought on confusion.” Again, there were problems related to structure and implementation. 

In the winter of 1831, Levi Hancock arrived in Kirtland. He says, “While I was in the room at Father Morley’s, as we called him, Herman Bassett came to me and took my watch out of my pocket, and he walked off as though it was his. I thought he would bring it back soon, but I was disappointed, as he sold it. I asked him what he meant by selling my watch. ‘Oh,’ said he, ‘I thought it was all in the family.’ I told him I did not like such family doings, and I would not bear it.”

As Joseph Smith arrives in Kirtland, armed with Section 42, he presents the Kirtland converts with a way to transform “good intentions” into a fair and equitable system that could better unite everybody who wished to become involved. 

Joseph says in his history, “The plan of common stock, which had existed in what was called the family, whose members generally had embraced the everlasting gospel, was readily abandoned for the more perfect law of the Lord.” 

The earliest manuscripts of this Section 42 seek to answer questions like, “Should we all gather here right now? Or what should we teach? What are the laws of the church? And what about consecration?” These twelve verses establish the basic principles of the Law of Consecration that we still follow today. At the heart is verse 30: “Behold, thou shalt consecrate all thy properties, that which thou hast, unto me, with a covenant and a deed which cannot be broken, and they shall be laid before the bishop of the church.”

The earliest version of the revelation reads: “Thou shalt consecrate all thy properties, that which thou hast, unto me with a covenant deed which cannot be broken.” The word “all” led some to believe that every single article of property one possessed should now be submitted to the Church. In 1835, when the Doctrine and Covenants was published, this verse was clarified. Instead of “consecrate all thy properties,” it presently states “consecrate of thy properties.” It also says, “Behold, thou wilt 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.” The phrase “…of thy properties” is notably different than “all thy property.” One might argue that it means essentially the same thing, but the new phrasing seems to add more flexibility. 

The connotation is that consecration denotes a sacrifice of resources to benefit the poor, but it diverges from a completely communal interpretation of the Law, which would require all property be given to the Church. So the sentiment is not, “Hey, we’re just going to throw everything into a common collection and anybody can take anything they want,” but it’s more specific than a similar generalization of “Be kind to the poor and share with them when you can.” It indicates that there’s going to be a covenant and a deed that a person will enter into. It’s going to be structured. This covenant and deed will be legally binding. A person is actually transferring ownership of his property to the Church.

Examples of such deeds still exist. They are a sort of fill-in-the-blank agreement: “Be it known that I” (fill in your name) “hereby consecrate of my property the following items to the bishop of the church,” etc., etc. Those entering in these agreements would then list their items and these legal deeds made it clear that individuals no longer owned any property.

Section 42:31 reads, “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 are high priests, such as ye shall appoint, or has appointed, or set apart for that purpose.” 

These early deeds made it clear that property was consecrated to the bishop. As an example, here’s one signed by Levi Jackman: “Be it known that I, Levi Jackman of Jackson County, State of Missouri, having become a member of the Church of Christ organized according to the law established by the revelations of the Lord, on the sixth day of April 1830 do, of my own free will and accord, having first paid my just debts, grant and hereby give unto Edward Partridge,” (Edward Partridge is the first bishop of the Church). Levi then presented an inventory of his property.

Here the printed form ends, but Levi adds in his own handwriting: “Sundry articles of furniture valued at 37 dollars, and also two beds, bedding and feathers valued at 44 dollars and 50 cents, and also three axes and other tools valued at 11 dollars and 25 cents.” Levi obviously didn’t own much, but to his credit, he consecrates everything he owns to the Church. The bishop became the steward of his property. 

Section 42:32 reads,  “Every man shall be made accountable unto me, a steward over his own property, or that which he has received by consecration as much as is sufficient for himself and family.” 

Once a person was given stewardship, the Church controlled that stewardship. A person couldn’t just come into your house and take your goods or materials. This wasn’t what stewardship meant. An individual still owned the property, essentially. It was more like a deed of “lease” rather than “ownership.” The Church owned the property, but leased it back to the Church member. 

In examining these deeds in the historical record, it’s clear that individual maintained  possession of the consecrated items. Titus Billings for example, signed a deed that was written by bishop: “Be it known that I, Edward Partridge of Jackson County, State of Missouri, Bishop of the Church, organized according to the law, have leased and by these presents do lease unto Titus Billings of Jackson County and State of Missouri, a member of said church, the following described piece or parcel of land.” This was how articles of personal property were consecrated to the Church. The language of the deed indicated that such property was then leased back to the man who originally possessed it. 

So the Church may have owned the property on paper, but possession continued with the individual. Today’s legalese would likely describe this as a lease or a loan of land and property. Still, this is a rather faith-intensive exercise–to legally deed all of your property to the Church and then receive it back through lease or loan. In addition to more property—like the items possessed by Titus Billings–a bunch of property is deeded back to the Church. Titus then receives all of that property back as a loan, plus 32 acres of land. Thus, in Titus’s case, he comes out on top because he still retains 27 acres of land that he did not actually consecrate, as a lease. 

Today, the same thing happens with the concept of Mormons and tithing.  Once you give your tithing to the Chruch, you can’t get it back. You can’t suddenly change your mind.” In this light, it is a principle that requires real faith and purifies the heart.

The process is very legal and structured. Someone couldn’t just take your horse if it was part of your stewardship, because you remained the designated steward of the horse. 

The text of the revelation allows for give and take. For instance, verse 33 reads: “If there shall be properties in the hands of the church, or any individuals of it, more than is necessary for their support, after their first consecration, which is a residue to be consecrated unto the bishop, it shall be kept to administer to those who have not, from time to time, that every man who has need may be amply supplied and receive according to his wants.” 

The basic aim of the Law of Consecration was to meet basic needs, insuring that  everyone had food, clothing, and shelter. Any residue left over can then be used to meet the needs of someone still in need. Later a bishop could reassess a situation and strive to meet the needs of those who are suffering a lack of basic necessities that sustain life and provide shelter. A phrase from verse 33 seems apropos: “…that every man who has need may be amply supplied.” The Law of Consecration was a law of abundance, not a law of scarcity.

Documents suggest there was a high degree of sensitivity regarding a person’s needs. In a letter to Bishop Partridge, Joseph wrote, “The matter of consecration must be done by the mutual consent of both parties.” The bishop’s goal was to achieve mutual consent. Joseph states further, “For to give the bishop power to say how much every man shall have, and he be obliged to comply with the bishop’s judgment, is giving the bishop more power than a king has. And upon the other hand, to let every man say how much he needs, and the bishop be obliged to comply with his judgment, is to throw Zion into confusion and make a slave of the bishop. The fact is there must be a balance or equilibrium of power between the bishop and the people, and thus harmony and goodwill may be preserved among you.” 

Bishop Partridge had to invest a great deal of time and effort to learn the different needs and wants of each family and figure out how to move forward. It’s a huge responsiblity that requires agency on both sides. Verses 34-35 summarize the principles of the Law of Consecration: “Therefore the residue shall be kept in my storehouse to administer to the poor and the needy as shall be appointed by the high council of the church and the bishop and his council. And for the purpose of purchasing lands for the public benefit of the church and building houses of worship, and building up the new Jerusalem, which is hereafter to be revealed, 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.” 

Bishop Partridge is a good example of how a full-time general authority was to act when it comes to the Law of Consecration. Section 41 explicitly asks a bishop to leave his career and dedicate himself to the full-time service of these responsibilities. How was he supposed to take care of his family if he was required to devote his full-time to serving in the Church? Verses 71-73 indicate that an allowance be provided to support those who undertake such responsibilities, therefore addressing all practical needs that might come into play. 

The Church still has bishop’s storehouses. Wherever a storehouse can be built, it is there to provide sufficient resources for members who find themselves in need. Again, the process has evolved over time. 

Today an integral part of this process is met by Relief Society Presidents. Generally, Relief Society presidents visit the individual or family to ask, “What do you need?” If the member is in need, the Relief Society president fills out a form. Such forms are now electronic. It is then sent to the bishop for approval. A family then goes to the storehouse to get what they need. Another kind of Church storehouse is Deseret Industries, which often provides such necessities as clothing, furniture and other items of general need 

Section 42: 40 reads: “Thou shalt not be proud in thy heart. Let all thy garments be plain and their beauty the beauty of the work of thine own hands. Let all things be done in cleanliness before me.” Again, it is emphasized that this is a practice associated with principles of righteousness. 

In 1834, Wilford Woodruff, said in his own Law of Consecration deed, “Clay County, Missouri, December 31st, 1834. Be it known that I, Wilford Woodruff, freely covenant with my God that I freely consecrate and dedicate myself, together with all my property and effects, unto the Lord, for the purpose of assisting in building up his kingdom, even Zion, on the earth, that I may keep his law and lay all things before the bishop of his church, that I may be a lawful heir to the kingdom of God, even the celestial kingdom.” 

Wilford Woodruff is freely consecrating his all to building up the kingdom. That’s the underlying principle. The fact that he did so in 1834, several years after the Law of Consecration was received by revelation, shows that this wasn’t a flash-in-the-pan experiment meant to be easily abandoned. It was a sincere effort during the entire Kirtland period.

As bumps and complications arose, additional provisions were put into place. For instance, what if a person no longer wanted to participate in the Law of Consecration, a solution is provided in D&C 51:5: “If he shall transgress and is not accounted worthy to belong to the church, he shall not have power to claim the portion which he has consecrated unto the bishop for the poor and needy of the church. Therefore, he shall not retain the gift, but only have claim on that portion which is deeded unto him.” 

Even though this is a lease and a loan, anyone could ultimately reclaim it as personal property. An oft-referenced example of this idea is that of Leman Copley. Leman was reprimanded by the Lord in Section 54, but some historians have advised that we not judge him too harshly. The story is as follows: Church members were commanded to gather to Ohio. Various branches often traveled together. The Palmyra branch was led by Lucy Mack Smith. The Fayette branch was led by David Whitmer. The Colesville branch was led by Newell Knight family–some of Joseph’s earliest and most faithful friends. When the Colesville branch arrived in Kirtland, they were assigned, under the Law of Consecration, to live on the property of Leman Copley. Leman Copley was more well-off than other local members. He was originally a member of the local Shaker community, but converted to the Mormon faith. Leman asked for a revelation from Joseph about the Shakers, today known as Section 49. In this revelation, Lemon is instructed to read this revelation to the Shaker community, who promptly rejected it. The leader of the Shakers–Ashbel Kitchell–apparently became very angry with Leman. Ashbel’s berating shook Leman’s faith. His testimony waffled as the Colesville Saints, led by Newell Knight, were already living on his property and making improvements. Ashbel Kitchell is also said to have berated Parley P. Pratt as Leman looked on. Ashbel said to Leman, “You should know better!”  At this point, Leman’s faith in the Restoration is shaken. He decides to kick Newell Knight and the other members of the Coleville branch off his farm. 

Understandably, the Colesville branch was not happy. They had already traveled all the way from New York and worked hard to care for and improve Leman’s land. Joseph Knight, Jr. stated, “We had to leave Copley’s farm and pay 60 dollars damage for fitting up his houses and planting his ground.” 

Newell K. Whitney added, “We commenced work in all good faith, thinking to obtain a living by the sweat of the brow. We had not lingered long before the above-named Copley broke the engagement which he made with us at this time I went to Kirtland to see Brother Joseph.” This prompted the receipt of Section 54 of the Doctrine and Covenants, which serves as a kind of case study for how to deal with a person who refuses to live the Law of Consecration any longer. 

The Lord says to Leman Copley in verse 4: “The covenant which they have made unto me has been broken. It has become void and of none effect. And woe to him by whom this offense cometh, for it had been better for him that he had been drowned in the depth of the sea, but blessed are they who’ve kept the covenant and observed the commandment, for they shall obtain mercy.” The Lord then instructs the Colesville branch to move to Missouri to help build the city of Zion, which they do.

Leman Copley eventually leaves the Church, revealing that  living the Law of Consecration is often a bumpy road. Its idyllic objectives demand the best in people. Unfortunately, people generally become prey to fear, greed, and selfishness. Leman’s story demonstrates that when a person is not of one heart and one mind, dwelling together in righteousness and eliminating the poor becomes an insurmountable challenge. When unity, peace, and obedience to the Lord and His prophet are not firmly entrenched, ideas like the Law of Consecration break down. 

There’s a power that seems to dwell amidst a group of people willing to work together, sacrifice together, and help each other succeed. Then the situation starts to feel compulsory, this power is lost and negative consequences follow. In the Lord’s way, the non-compulsory nature of sacrifice is what it’s all about. Only in a spirit of faith and selflessness can these laws be successful. In order for the Law of Consecration to become a vital living principle in the Church, there must be a people genuinely striving to make the world a better place. The Law of Consecration is a covenant that provides the proper framework to accomplish this objective. 

There are an estimated twenty-four revelations in the Doctrine and Covenants that deal with the Law of Consecration. This article has only focused on three or four Sections. Because Church members are taught that one day the Law of Consecration will be fully implemented again, it seems wise to do all that we can to insure that our own spiritual mindset is able to freely adapt to these ideas in the future.

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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