Religious communitarianism has a long history, dating back among Christians to early monastic societies or perhaps even to the earliest Christians. Communitarianism, where wealth and resources are shared among the society’s members, continued through medieval Europe and into America. Colonial Puritans practiced a form of communal society or Utopianism. For the majority of religious groups, communal society was motivated both by economic as well as spiritual factors. Many Christians looked to the book of Acts in the New Testament as an example of communitarianism being practiced among the early disciples. During the Second Great Awakening, largely in reaction to the industrial revolution spreading across America, religious “perfectionist” societies sought to establish the type of society they imagined that early Christian disciples built: one in which both spiritual and material needs are attended to, and where distinctions between the sacred (religious) and profane (secular) were dissolved. Among religious groups who believed the Second Coming was imminent, there existed societies who labored to build God’s Kingdom on earth in preparation for Christ’s reign such as the Shakers, Rappists, Oneidans, and Cochranites, as well as early social justice societies such as the Quakers, American Bible Society, and American Anti-Slavery Society.
Along with Sydney Rigdon, Joseph Smith envisioned a communitarian society of believers. In the Mormon communitarian system, members deeded (consecrated) all of their land holdings and possessions to the church. Bishops oversaw storehouses of provisions, and each member was expected to act industriously with a portion of land and supplies granted to them (stewardship), returning to the church all fruits of labor beyond what was needed for their own maintenance. Internal opposition to Smith and Rigdon’s growing political and economic power combined with accusations of misdeeds therein lead to disaffection among many participants, and may have spurred the forming of a mob that tarred and feathered both men in the April of 1832.
In May, 1832, an administrative body of nine church leaders, including Smith and Rigdon, was established to manage the financial affairs of the church. Called the United Firm, the body managed the bishop’s storehouses, printing office, and acted as a board of directors. Facing financial trouble, the United Firm began phasing out in 1834. In later editions of the Doctrine & Covenants, the name of the United Firm was changed to “United Order” (also referred to as “The United Order of Enoch”), names of participants were switched to code names to protect their identities, and language about the firm’s purpose was rewritten to make it appear to have been primarily dedicated to meeting the needs of the poor. Although the current edition of the Doctrine & Covenants has resumed using the names of the original participants, the United Firm is still often referred to as the United Order.
The bulk of scholarship on early Mormonism’s form of economic communitarianism focuses on comparing and contrasting it with other contemporary communitarian societies (including the society that Sydney Rigdon participated in prior to his conversion to Mormonism), the implementation of the principle, its subsequent failures, and its role in fostering ill will among participants who consecrated land and resources and later severed ties with the church. A question that remains debated among scholars of Mormonism is whether the methods used in implementing a communal order among the early Mormons reveal a work of financial con-artistry or a sincere attempt to live higher spiritual principles. Max H. Parkin, “Joseph Smith and the United Firm: The Growth and Decline of the Church’s First Master Plan of Business and Finance, 1832-1834” remains essential reading. Gregory Smith argued that what was touted as a means of providing welfare to the poor quickly evolved into a real estate enterprise in his article “The United Order of Enoch in Independence.” Kent W. Huff discusses the use of code names and secrecy of the United Firm in an article titled “The United Order of Joseph Smith’s Time.” Leonard J. Arrington, Feramoz Y. Fox, and Dean L. May focus on the Ohio and Missouri period in the first few chapters of Building the City of God: Community & Cooperation among the Mormons. Milton V. Backman, Jr. dedicated a chapter to the topic in his monograph: The Heavens Resound: A History of the Latter-day Saints in Ohio, 1830-1838. Joseph Smith’s biographers (Fawn M. Brodie, Donnal Hill, Dan Vogel, and Richard L. Bushman, most notably) have each dedicated space to the Law of Consecration (or United Order) with various interpretations regarding Smith’s motives. Mark Lyman Staker offers a contextual history of the United Firm and United Order in Hearken, O Ye People: The Historical Setting of Joseph Smith’s Ohio Revelations; and D. Michael Quinn discusses the relationship between communalism in Ohio/Missouri and the development of church bureaucracy in The Mormon Hierarchy: Origins of Power.