James Lucas is an attorney in New York and co-author of Working Toward Zion: Principles of the United Order for the Modern World.
The award of the Nobel Peace Prize last Friday to Muhammad Yunus and the Grameen Bank of Bangladesh was more than a recognition of a pioneering innovator in the international war against poverty. It was also, albeit unknowingly, a significant validation of the principles of the United Order as given in modern revelation.
Yunus and his Grameen Bank are the first and still largest of what are today thousands of organizations around the world engaged in what is variously referred to as microcredit, microlending, or microfinance. The news reports on the Nobel Peace Prize have given nice summaries of how microcredit works. See here and here. Another succinct summary of how microcredit works was given in 2000 in a speech at the National Press Club by the head of an organization which has extensive involvement with microcredit:
We are already engaged in micro-credit undertakings, whereby small amounts are loaned to those for whom a hundred or two or three hundred dollars can spell an actual change in their future. When given such credit these people become entrepreneurs, taking pride in what they are doing and lifting themselves out of the bondage that has shackled their forebears for generations. From a bread shop in Ghana to a woodworking business in Honduras, we are making it possible for people to learn skills they never dreamed of acquiring and to raise their standard of living to a level of which they previously had little hope.
The speaker was President Gordon B. Hinckley, and the organization was the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. See about mid-way through the speech. In the same speech he describes what was to become the Perpetual Education Fund as a variation on the microcredit concept.
Some years ago at the international microcredit summit conference in New York City I was surprised when the principal speaker announced the ten largest private donors to microcredit and heard the “Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints”included as the only religious organization among the ranks of major banking and world-renowned philanthropic foundations which support microcredit to the tune of millions of dollars a year. Somewhat better known are BYU’s deep involvements in microcredit. It hosts the leading academic journal, the leading academic conference, and one of the leading academic centers for the study of microcredit. Inspired originally by Marriott School professor Warner Woodworth, many Latter-day Saints have set up new microcredit efforts, and BYU graduates can be found on the staffs of numerous international microcredit organizations. On a personal level Muhammad Yunus was the principal speaker at BYU’s August 1998 commencement and has returned frequently since then (see here for example). Less publicized are Yunus’ regular visits with the First Presidency of the Church during these trips to Utah.
Of course, microcredit has attracted broad support in the two decades since Yunus launched the Grameen Bank, including such figures as Bill and Hillary Clinton and eBay founder Pierre Omidyar. However, microcredit has and deserves more special support from Latter-day Saints because its success can be traced directly to its implementation of the basic principles of the United Order.
If one carefully analyzes both the foundational scriptures and the full historical experience of the effort to start united orders in both the 1830s and1870s, some basic principles emerge which go far beyond popular LDS memories of the aborted Missouri efforts or the rather atypical kibbutz at Orderville:
(1) The initial consecration is a free will offering of as much property as one wishes to consecrate to the poor (D&C 42:30). This is made to the bishop or such other officers as may be designated (D&C 42:31). At the time of this revelation the “bishop”was not the head of a congregation, rather he was the equivalent of today’s Presiding Bishop, the chief officer of the Church for temporal affairs. Although Mormon folklore envisages a return of the united order consisting of everyone turning all of their property over to their ward bishop, the revelation actually accommodates much broader circumstances and methods. Indeed, even by the 1870s, when the office of bishop had moved into its present position of congregational leadership instead of administration of temporal affairs, the larger united order efforts were often lead by non-priesthood professional management.
(2) These offerings were not to remain in the hands of the Church, but rather to be immediately turned back over to the Church members in amounts sufficient for the support of every family (D&C 42:32). These stewardships were deeded back to the united order participants as private property which they retained even if they left the Church (D&C 51:5-6).
(3) Any excess funds went into a “storehouse”or “treasury.” However, this treasury was not the equivalent of today’s centrally controlled Church welfare funds (all modern Church funds are administered under the very different revelatory regime established by D&C 119-120). The united order treasury was to used to provide additional new stewardships as needed (D&C 42:33-34), but more importantly was to be used to finance the operation of the various privately owned businesses of the united order participants (D&C 104:73). This united order financing institution was to be funded by consecrations of the surplus from the successful businesses of the united order participants (D&C 104:68-69). Moreover it was governed by the “voice and common consent of the order”members (D&C 104:71). This economic self-government is in marked distinction to the top-down financial administration by the priesthood hierarchy established by D&C 120.
(4) The end objective of the united order was to eliminate poverty, for if we do not care for the poor among us, we are not Zion and the Lord can not receive us (D&C 105:3-5). However, the elimination of poverty was to be achieved not through a dole or handouts, but rather by assuring that everyone would have the opportunity to work (D&C 42:42) and be self-supporting.