Review: Joseph M. Spencer, For Zion: A Mormon Theology of Hope

Did the law of consecration become effectively suspended or temporarily replaced by the law of tithing when the early Latter-day Saints couldn’t make it work out? Joseph M. Spencer answers with a definitive “no” in For Zion: A Mormon Theology of Hope. Spencer’s latest book offers an analysis of the law of consecration through a close and detailed reading of selections from Paul’s letter to the Romans and Joseph Smith’s revelation now canonized as section 42 of the Doctrine and Covenants.

The first few chapters especially bear the marks of Spencer’s academic training—contemporary French philosophy. I struggled to get past some of the jargon and I’ll bet a few other readers will be frustrated with what seem at first glance to be arcane or perhaps forced arguments. I think beginners like me will have to read these early chapters slowly and repeatedly in order to grasp what’s going on. That said, perhaps most useful in these early chapters is the way Spencer challenges long-standing individualist interpretations of Paul’s teachings. Spencer demonstrates that salvation is a communal endeavor in Paul’s world, as in Joseph Smith’s. Spencer uses some of the best Pauline scholarship on offer today and condenses things nicely here. For Spencer, salvation is an ongoing history pushing toward the redemption of Israel and the entire world, a story spanning the Hebrew scriptures through the Book of Mormon, New Testament, and Joseph Smith’s revelations.

But For Zion really hits its stride when Spencer turns his attention to Joseph Smith’s revelations concerning the law of consecration. Spencer closely analyzes changes Smith made to the revelations as circumstances seemed to require of the prophet. Thus he grounds his theological readings in the very messy historical circumstances that gave rise to them. As I mentioned above, Spencer is challenging the apparently common LDS perception that the law of consecration has somehow been put on hold, that the law of tithing is a temporary fill-in, and that we are simply waiting for some future day when Mormons will again undertake to radically reform the economic behavior of Mormons themselves and then the world. Such nostalgia for a more perfect past or a better future blinds us to the responsibilities before us in the present, he argues:

“I suspect that, at root, [this nostalgia] is motivated by a desperate fantasy, namely, that there once was and again will be some kind of a system that will do my consecrating for me. We displace the force of the law of consecration into the irretrievable past or the indefinite future precisely so that we do not have to take up the difficult work the law prescribes for us right now” (144-5, emphasis in original).

Of course, when it comes to actual concrete applications of living the law of consecration in the present (since it has never actually gone away) Spencer has much less to say. Which means the hardest work remains to be done! All the same, if For Zion does nothing more than provoke more thought and discussion on these matters, it seems Spencer will feel the effort worth his time.

There are two other points Spencer makes that deserve brief mention. First, Spencer counters an understanding of the law of consecration as being primarily an economic project. He suggests instead that the law “sets out a kind of life—the common life—the Saints are to embrace, a kind of life that has unmistakably economic implications (especially for the rich and poor!), but one that means to produce the joy of the Saints more than merely the satisfaction of needs” (105). Readers s must judge how well he makes the case.

Second, Spencer demonstrates the possibilities which open up when paying careful attention to Joseph Smith’s written revelations, including the edits and changes he made to them. His work is a reminder that our scripture “is the product not only of revelation, but also—and crucially—of history” (120). Or, as former Church Historian Elder Marlin K. Jensen put it: “Joseph seemed to regard the manuscript revelations as his best efforts to capture the voice of the Lord condescending to communicate in what Joseph called the ‘crooked, broken, scattered, and imperfect language’ of men.” (See Gerrit Dirkmaat, “Great and Marvelous Are the Revelations of God,” Ensign, January 2013.) It is nice to see Spencer familiarizing Mormons with this underappreciated aspect of church history.

For Zion is the most ambitious scholarly engagement with the law of consecration since Hugh Nibley’s Approaching Zion. You can read a preview of the book here.

Comments

  1. I will dissent from the assessment in Blair’s second-to-last sentence–“the most ambitious scholarly engagement with the law of consecration since Hugh Nibley”–as that title I think clearly belongs to Warner Woodworth’s and James Lucas’s the immensely important 1999 book, Working Towards Zion, but aside from that I agree with every point Blair makes here. This is wonderful engagement with some deep philosophical, moral, and sociological ideas (which is something which the Woodworth and Lucas book admittedly does not do) implicit in the idea of a Zion community, with emphasis on that last word. It is very, very easy, I think, for modern-day American Mormons playing around with 19th-century teachings and practices dealing with consecration to elide to degree to which it has a communal and participatory basis, and Joe’s work helps us to see that that basis should, theologically speaking, be front and center. It is a wonderful, challenging book.

  2. “For Zion is the most ambitious scholarly engagement with the law of consecration [I've read] since Hugh Nibley’s Approaching Zion.”

  3. Ignacio M. Garcia says:

    I agree with Blair that the first part of the books is a bit of a struggle and at times redundant. Since I haven’t gotten to the part on Joseph Smith I reserve full judgment on the book. But I really like the notion of our need to be more communal in our living the gospel. I have been speaking to and recently writing about the fact that too many modern day Saints have bought into the “individual relationship with God” bandwagon, probably because of our almost obsession with the nuclear family and because of the corporatist approach to teaching of some leaders. But at heart Mormonism is about community and when we are not looking we often act communal until someone reminds us that it is our “individual” and nuclear soul that we should be concerned about.

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