Steven Harper holds a doctorate in American history, teaches at Brigham Young University, and worked as a general editor of Saints. We recently asked him a bit about his life and why he believes Latter-day Saints need the information in his latest book, Let’s Talk about the Law of Consecration.
If you could wake up tomorrow with one new ability, what would you want it to be?
To be able to sing. Or if I could be greedy, I would be a musician all around. I’m not musical in the least, so that would be the ability I’d choose to effortlessly acquire.
What is one thing on your bucket list?
I would really love to visit the St. Lawrence River in Canada. I served my mission in Winnipeg and spent six months right on the shore of Lake Superior, and so I love that area. It has the beauty and the nostalgia of my mission and an interesting history—and if I could be on the river on a boat, that’d be the best.
Where is one of your favorite places you’ve lived?
Hawaii. For two years, my wife and I and our first three kids lived in Laie, and I taught at BYU–Hawaii. We just fell in love with the place but also, especially with the people at the university there. The North Shore of Oahu is one of the greatest places in the world. The community of Laie is really wonderful.
What do you wish people understood better about Church history?
I wish that people were better aware that if the past were a 1000-piece jigsaw puzzle, we have only a few pieces of that puzzle. We can put them together, and they tell us a little bit about what the past looked like, but they don’t tell the whole story. I would also like people to think slowly about the past and ask really deliberate questions about what we know, what we don’t know, and what we are just assuming we know.
If you could have dinner with any historical figure, who would it be and why?
It would be Jesus. I would ask Him what He wants me to know and do. I’d try to talk little and listen much.
Why do we need a book on the law of consecration?
This is a book that I have wanted to write for 30 years. The law of consecration is vital in the sense that it is one of the laws of God that we covenant to keep in the temple. The problem is that, overwhelmingly, Latter-day Saints are ignorant of the law of consecration. I know this because I once was, too. I thought that the Lord had given the higher law of consecration early in Church history, but the Saints couldn’t live it, so He replaced it with a lower law of tithing. But in the process of study, I found that that is not true.
Sometimes to get my students to consider the flaws in that folk teaching, I ask them to imagine doing the same thing with the law of chastity; what if this is what we taught: ‘The Lord gave the law of chastity early in Church history’—which he did; it’s in the exact same revelation as the law of consecration in section 42 of Doctrine and Covenants—‘But the early Saints couldn’t live it. So the Lord gave a lower law, but someday in the future, when the Saints are better, they’ll live the higher law of chastity again.’ That sounds silly to us, but that’s exactly what we’ve done with the law of consecration.
We’ve got to come to terms with that and recommit to learn the law as we find it in the Doctrine and Covenants and then do our best to live up to it.
What are you most excited for people to read about in the book?
I’m really excited for readers to learn about the people from Church history who defy the story that we’ve sometimes told ourselves that the early Saints couldn’t live the law of consecration. I’ve sprinkled the book liberally with examples of early Saints who did indeed live it wonderfully and beautifully.
I tell the story of Lydia and Edward Partridge, who were sort of the first family of consecration. The Lord called Bishop Partridge to leave his very prosperous businesses and to move to Missouri along with his family, and spend all his time in the labors of the Church. And Lydia, his wife, took their daughters and went faithfully along with it. They enacted the law of consecration.
It’s a glaring contradiction to me to pretend to believe that early Saints couldn’t do it or wouldn’t do it. I tell the story of Wilford Woodruff to make a similar point. And the story of Jane Manning James. These people were faithful and true to the law of consecration, and they're just representative examples.
It just won’t work to blame early Saints for failure and put responsibility to reengage with the law on to future Saints. That’s just excusing ourselves. So I’m quite excited for readers to learn about real life people who did indeed live the law of consecration and personified what it meant for us to do so today.
What does it mean to you to reinforce your spiritual foundation?
When I was a young person, I thought that the gospel was sort of heavy and complicated. It wasn’t until I was serving as a missionary that I started to see that the Book of Mormon was all about the Atonement of the Savior, and the conversions of people to becoming Saints. That’s the foundation. I’m a lot less worried than I used to be about hundreds of different rules and regulations and commandments. There are just a few that I need to keep my feet firmly founded on and everything else falls into place.
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