In a somewhat humorous but sadly true commentary, President Brigham Young recounted his early experiences in attempting to get people to live the law of consecration:“When the revelation . . . was given in 1838, I was present, and recollect the feelings of the brethren. . . . The brethren wished me to go among the Churches, and find out what surplus property the people had, with which to forward the building of the Temple we were commencing at Far West. I accordingly went from place to place through the country. Before I started, I asked brother Joseph, ‘Who shall be the judge of what is surplus property?’ Said he, ‘Let them be the judges themselves. . . .’“Then I replied, ‘I will go and ask them for their surplus property;’ and I did so; I found the people said they were willing to do about as they were counselled, but, upon asking them about their surplus property, most of the men who owned land and cattle would say, ‘I have got so many hundred acres of land, and I have got so many boys, and I want each one of them to have eighty acres, therefore this is not surplus property.’ Again, ‘I have got so many girls, and I do not believe I shall be able to give them more than forty acres each.’ ‘Well, you have got two or three hundred acres left.’ ‘Yes, but I have a brother-in-law coming on, and he will depend on me for a living; my wife’s nephew is also coming on, he is poor, and I shall have to furnish him a farm after he arrives here.’ I would go on to the next one, and he would have more land and cattle than he could make use of to advantage. It is a laughable idea, but is nevertheless true, men would tell me they were young and beginning [in] the world, and would say, ‘We have no children, but our prospects are good, and we think we shall have a family of children, and if we do, we want to give them eighty acres of land each; we have no surplus property.’ ‘How many cattle have you?’ ‘So many.’ ‘How many horses, &c?’ ‘So many, but I have made provisions for all these, and I have use for every thing I have got.’“Some were disposed to do right with their surplus property, and once in a while you would find a man who had a cow which he considered surplus, but generally she was of the class that would kick a person’s hat off, or eyes out. . . . You would once in a while find a man who had a horse that he considered surplus, but at the same time he had the ringbone, was broken-winded, spavined in both legs, and had the pole evil at one end of the neck and a fistula at the other, and both knees sprung.” (In Journal of Discourses, 2:306–7.)This is a time for self-evaluation. Are we of the kind who are willing to give and do whatever the Lord asks, or would we begin rationalizing about why we could not fully participate? (Doctrine & Covenants Institute Student Manual, Enrichment L, “The Law of Consecration and Stewardship” )
At first glance, this is a very sad observation on the Saints failure to live the Law of Consecration, but when we look deeper, we see that there are some concerns behind these Saints' judgment about what was surplus and what was not. They are issues similar to what we deal with today.
I notice that Joseph Smith wisely said that the Saints would be the judge themselves as to what was surplus. That privilege to judge for ourselves continues today, and it is intended that we learn by experience and study.
Note that it says the people were willing to do as counseled, but when they were asked about their surplus property, well.. the devil is always in the details.
The fathers were looking ahead and planning out how to provide inheritances for their sons to farm. Did they consider this a duty (like providing feeding and clothing) to provide for their children’s future, or was this actually conferring undue privilege? Would the modern equivalent be giving your kid a house for free when they got married, or would the modern equivalent be giving your kid a job at the family business? Was it an attempt to provide means for their children to make a living when grown up, or was it an attempt to smooth the way too much? One might ask what the sons and daughters would do if they grew up and were not provided with land inheritances. Likely they would have to work and save the money for it like everyone else. Perhaps Brigham Young felt the children should work and save like everyone else. Meantime, their children would not be given the land for many years in the future, and Brigham Young was trying to find surplus to finance the building of the Far West temple—an immediate need. So perhaps Brigham Young was making a very subtle point about how people were letting distant future “needs” get in the way of giving for a present church need.
But this still causes us to wonder where saving and planning for future needs fits in the Law of Consecration. Is it the individual’s duty to save for future needs, or would the surpluses of others be given to fill those needs when need arose? Or will the need be miraculously filled by the Lord? Perhaps one of the aspects of consecration that challenges us is how it requires us to trust that the Lord will provide in some way for us when financial emergencies arise.
Brigham Young also observed that some were willing to part with a horse as surplus if it had many physical and behavior faults. The unspoken message here is his disappointment that people gave of the worst and not the best they had. It causes me to wonder if sometimes our donations should be of the good things we have instead of our rejects. On the other hand, looking at it from a practical perspective, it makes perfect sense for a farmer to get rid of a bad horse; likely the horse was more trouble than it was worth, and getting rid of it was a wise decision about their stewardship. However, to give a bad horse as surplus means the horse would become a problem to another Saint, and does a faithful Saint deserve to be given a bad horse when they need and hope for a good horse to help them with their farm work? No. Maybe the horse would be a good gift for a horse doctor, otherwise.. it should have been shot.
I think there is a lesson here that shows us that if we are giving as surplus things that are so clearly useless to us that they also useless to others as well, we aren’t really consecrating. What is harder for us to let go of are the things that are still useful and which we think we might still use someday.