Most of us have the same perception of consecration that Steven Harper, BYU professor of church history and doctrine, had when he went to the temple for the first time: The Lord “revealed the law of consecration to the early Saints. They couldn’t live it, so the Lord revoked the higher law, gave the lower law of tithing, and would someday give the higher law again.” But if someone had asked him how he knew that, he says he wouldn’t have had an answer. Now after studying the topic for years, Harper has a different understanding of what consecration is and on this week’s episode of All In, Harper shared the answers he’s found in his search for the role of consecration in Latter-day Saint doctrine.
You can listen to the full interview in the player below or by clicking here. You can also read a full transcript here.
The following excerpt has been edited for clarity.
Morgan Jones Pearson: First, you mentioned that there are perceptions that people in church history weren’t willing to live the law of consecration so it was taken away. Can you explain to listeners how that is false?
Steven Harper: Yeah, it’s just way overly simple and overly general. Right? History is super complex, and even all of us as individuals, we’re extremely complex. And so to make it simple for us to understand things as complicated as the past. And, for example, to explain to ourselves why things are the way they are now, we come up with stories. And these are simple. We often simplify them. So we might, for example, read section 42 in the Doctrine and Covenants or section 51. These are revelations that set forth the law of consecration and tell us some specific ways to enact it in the early 1830s. And let’s say we’re reading that as part of our family gospel study. If we did, we would realize that’s not the way we do this. Now, we don’t act the same way today that section 51 tells us to act. So why is that? We have this question. The question creates—potentially creates—some dissonance. And we have to come up with a resolution to that dissonance. And so one way we’ve often done it is to blame our ancestors for the problem, and then put the responsibility to solve the problem onto our descendants. In other words, the easiest way to resolve the problem is to absolve myself. So this is the way it works. You say, “Yeah, the early Saints, they failed. The Lord gave them section 51. But they pretty much dropped the ball. They couldn’t do it, or they wouldn’t do it. So he took it away. And sometime in the future, maybe my grandchildren will have to live the law of consecration but as for me here now, I’m just gonna keep on going my own way, you know, not paying particularly close attention to the revelations that informed my covenants, and not worrying about the law of consecration.” So I think it’s a strategy. It isn’t good history. It doesn’t match the historical facts. That doesn’t reconcile the revelations, except in the most self-serving way of saying, “Yeah, I don’t need to worry about consecration now. Because those early Saints, they ruined it for me. And I don’t have to worry about it till the future time when the prophets tell the Saints to do it again.” That way of explaining things to ourselves is to pick and choose a few pieces of evidence and to reject 10 times more pieces.
Morgan Jones Pearson: Absolutely. Well, it’s funny. It’s funny how you explain that, but also so true. And I think that you do such a good job of breaking this down in the book that I hope people will take the time to read because we’re only going to hit the high notes today. But another thing that you’ve mentioned is you mentioned Edward Partridge, which is a name that people will recognize from the Doctrine and Covenants. I didn’t know a ton about Edward Partridge, prior to reading your book. I recognized his name. I knew that he was a bishop. And technically the first presiding bishop is that right? Did they use the word presiding back then?
Steven Harper: Not for quite some time later. But yes, he was the only bishop of the whole Church for a couple of years. And very much the one who led consecration under the Prophet Joseph’s direction for about the first decade of the Church.
Morgan Jones Pearson: Okay, and how would you say that he is such a good example of consecration the very thing that he was being asked to kind of teach, it seems like he exemplified?
Steven Harper: No doubt about it. I love Edward Partridge, the Lord loved Edward Partridge. In Section 41 of the Doctrine and Covenants, He said, “There was a man in whom there’s no guile.” Now, Edward Partridge was older than Joseph Smith, almost a generation older. And where Joseph Smith is full of the spiritual gifts, a prophet, a seer, a revelator, Edward Partridge has the gifts and abilities of being good with accounts and management of property. He knows how to identify an excellent piece of property, one that’s really advantageously situated. So for example, he gets the best pieces of property in Painesville, Ohio, and he builds a hat-making factory there. This is all before the Restoration of the gospel. He learns how to bring in the animal furs off the Great Lakes that are being trapped there and turn them into hats that are in high demand in the cities on the East Coast and shipped them over the canals and through the lakes, down to New York City and Philadelphia. He’s really good at figuring out how to make money, how to provide resources, and turn raw materials into profitable materials and marketable materials. Well, he’s good at all those things. And there’s no guile in it. He’s not primarily driven by money.
And that is not a common combination. So, the Lord says, “That is the guy. That’s the kind of combination I need for my bishop.” And he handpicks Edward Partridge as his first bishop. He says to him, when He calls him in Section 41, “I want you to lay aside your merchandise, and spend all your time in the labors of the church.” And Edward Partridge says, “Absolutely.” The next thing he does is calls Edward to go to Missouri with Joseph. And there the Lord identifies Jackson County, Missouri”Independence—as the center of Zion and the place for the building of new Jerusalem, including a temple. And in the revelation that’s in Section 57, the Lord says, “I want Edward Partridge and his family to plant here, they need to be among the first few families to come here and lay the foundation for Zion.” Edward had not been planning on that he had been thinking of a short-term spring trip, and then get home in time to take care of his business and his family. He’s got, at this point five young daughters with his wife, Lydia, who, by the way, is every bit as consecrated and devoted as her husband is. But after the revelation in which the Lord calls Edward to buy all the land that he can, he realizes that if he’s going to fulfill his calling, he has to stay. He has to be there for the land sales, there’s no way he can go back home. You know, travel is going to take several weeks either way. So he writes these beautiful letters to Lydia where he explains what the Lord had revealed to and about them in sections 57 and 58 of the Doctrine and Covenants. He expresses his sense of terrible inadequacy, at his calling, but even as he does so he demonstrates how he’s fulfilling his calling. Because he’s all in, he is totally consecrated to the church, and Lydia is not a step behind him. She is ready, she packs up the house, the goods, five little girls, and she moves, and she goes out to meet him in Independence. And his letter says, “Lydia, you and I are going to have to get used to living a lot less affluently than we have been used to.” And she doesn’t even bat an eye. She’s on her way. It’s just a beautiful example of a whole family that consecrates their whole souls to the kingdom of God.
And sometimes early Saints are characterized as, you know, sort of crazy people, religious wackos, somebody who would follow this Joseph Smith fellow. Well, that just doesn’t work for Lydia and Edward Partridge. These are respectable people, their neighbors respect them. They’re prosperous, they’re smart. They’re great in every way. And this is the cream of the crop. And in many ways [they are] characteristic, though, of what early Latter Day Saints are like. So it just won’t do for my 19-year-old punk self, getting ready for a temple trip to think, "Boy, those early Saints. They just couldn’t do it. I could if God asked me to. I’d be consecrated but the early Saints ruined my chances." When we look at the facts of our history, that explanation fails, it doesn’t work. It’s true that there were early Saints who weren’t faithful to consecration, but it’s not true that the early Saints weren’t faithful. They were overwhelmingly faithful, they were the best people in the world doing the best they could to build the kingdom of God on the earth. And so I have decided to stop giving the explanation that puts the blame on them and absolves me of my requirement to keep covenants.