Christians have long been enamored of descriptions in the biblical Book of Acts of believers having "all things common," selling "their possessions and goods," and imparting "them to all men, as every man had need," not considering any of their possessions as their own, so that none among the community of believers lacked. (See Acts 2:44-45, 4:32-35.) These few verses have engendered much rhapsodizing. Extensive glorious conclusions and prescriptions for living have been extrapolated from these brief words.
But a dark side of the system also reveals itself. Acts 5:1-10 relates the strange story of a couple that sold a property, which presumably had been consecrated to the church. However, they gave only part of the proceeds to the apostles, while representing it as the full amount.
In separate interviews, each partner lies about the matter to Peter, the president of the church. In each interview, Peter discerns and calls the donor on the lie, whereon, each in turn collapses and dies. The message seems to be that it is wrong to withhold our property from the Lord and that lying to the Lord's representative about such matters can have dire consequences.
There really isn't enough information in the verses in the New Testament to determine how well the common system worked, how it was actually carried out, or how long it lasted. Some scholars have asserted that the political and economic conditions of the time and area lent to the communal system (see here).
LDS scripture delves into this topic in much greater detail. The Book of Mormon also describes a people having all things common and having no economic class distinctions (4 Nephi 1:3). This system apparently endured for more than 160 years (verses 22-25) until pride resulted in the system's demise.
In modern scripture the Doctrine and Covenants condemns anyone possessing "that which is above another" (D&C 49:20). We are told that the Lord's way of providing for his saints is that "the poor shall be exalted, in that the rich are made low" (D&C 104:16), and that the bishop is to administer to the wants of the poor "by humbling the rich and proud" (D&C 84:112).
The Encyclopedia of Mormonism (EoM) relates in an article on the Law of Consecration that when "Joseph Smith arrived at Kirtland, Ohio, in February , he found the Saints organized in a communal society called "the family." He persuaded them to abandon this practice for "the more perfect law of the Lord."" A few days later he received a broad ranging revelation on how saints were to act and organize themselves. A portion of that revelation (D&C 42:31-39) outlines the basic premise of the law of consecration.
The system called for church members to "impart of [their] substance to the poor" by consecrating their donations before the presiding bishop. Each who did this was in return "made a steward over his own property," which was to be "sufficient for himself and his family." Anything in excess of this was to be used by the bishop to "administer to those who have not." The promise was "that every man that has need may be amply supplied and receive according to his wants."
All consecrations were based on covenants to live according to the law of the Lord, to supply one's own needs as much as possible, and to care for others. As the EoM explains, this was not a true communal system. Families continued to live separately and held actual title to their properties.
Many church members entered into the new order. But problems presented themselves from the very beginning. Just four months after Section 42 was received church members were chastised for their failure to live the law. Both the rich that would not give their substance to the poor as well as the lazy poor that envied others' substance were condemned (D&C 56:15-17).
Variously adapted attempts were made to live the law of consecration in both Ohio and Missouri between 1831 and 1839. All of these failed. The envisioned surplus for blessing the poor never materialized. The order was not a significant part of Mormon life during the Nauvoo era (1839-1846).
Life was a hardscrabble existence for the first few years after the church settled in what is now Utah. Conditions had stabilized by the 1860s to the point that non-Mormons (Gentiles) began settling in the area in larger numbers. With a religious utopia in mind, church leaders established a number of cooperative mercantile associations throughout predominantly LDS settlements (see EoM article). Some of these were quite successful, while others were not.
Beginning in the mid-1870s church leaders established more than 200 united order organizations in Mormon communities throughout the west. Some were based on the consecration-stewardship model and others were based on the communal model, which had been eschewed by Joseph Smith. Not all of the consecration models required consecration of all properties. Most of the communal systems soon disbanded or converted to the consecration model. The two ends of the diverse models are discussed in detail in this 2009 Educated Wannabe Cowboy post.
The most famous of the communal systems was Orderville, which endured for about a decade. They strictly followed the communal system, including eating at the same table. The order became nearly self sufficient. By the end of the experiment most members of the order were still quite poor, but they were not destitute. Some claim that the order disbanded only because many of the men were hauled off to jail for practicing polygamy.
All of the Utopian economic systems practiced by 19th Century Mormons eventually failed. The main explanations for these failures at the time basically boiled down to greed and laziness. The prosperous didn't give enough and the poor didn't work enough. This seems to remain the chief explanation given nowadays for these failures. Few people living in telestial conditions are capable of consistently living celestial laws.
This explanation seemed satisfactory to me when I was younger. But the more I have learned about economic theory and economic laws, the less satisfactory it has become. In my next post I will discuss a fuller understanding of early Mormon attempts at Utopian economic systems.