|Ephraim United Order Cooperative Building|
Elder Bruce R. McConkie, who served as a member of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles from 1972 until his death in 1985 gave a very clear and concise definition of the law of consecration in an address given during the April 1975 annual general conference. The title of his talk was Obedience, Consecration and Sacrifice, and this is what he had to say:
"The law of consecration is that we consecrate our time, our talents, and our money and property to the cause of the Church: such are to be available to the extent they are needed to further the Lord’s interests on earth."
The United Order on the other hand operated under the principles of the law of consecration but was not synonymous with it. The United Order only existed for a short time in the early to mid 1830's. In March 1832 Joseph Smith and some of the other leaders of the Church had gathered in Kirtland for the purpose of discussing church business. During their meeting Joseph Smith received a revelation that became Doctrine and Covenants 78. In this revelation the Lord called for the creation of an organization that would oversee the Church's printing and business endeavors both in Kirtland and in Missouri. This organization became known as the United Order.
The revenue generated by the United Order would be utilized in operating the Church and caring for the poor. The principles by which the United Order would operate were established in another revelation the next month which became Doctrine and Covenants 82. In section 78 this organization is called the United Firm but it would later be referred to as the United Order. Ultimately, because of discord within the Church the Lord dissolved the United Order in April 1834. This was done through the revelation found in Doctrine and Covenants 104 wherein the Lord stated:
Therefore, you are dissolved as a united order with your brethren, that you are not bound only up to this hour unto them, only on this wise, as I said, by loan as shall be agreed by this order in council, as your circumstances will admit and the voice of the council direct.
To summarize, the United Order was an organization, established by the Lord, which was guided by the principles of the law of consecration. It existed for a short time from April 1832 until April 1834.
Later, in the second half of the nineteenth century, the Church established numerous cooperative community organizations which those involved referred to as united orders, but they were not the same thing as the original United Order established in 1832.These united orders were operated in numerous different ways. Some were communal type organizations where property was held in common while others were more cooperative in nature and didn't require the consecration of property. These united orders pretty well died out by the end of the nineteenth century and there have not been any more official attempts to establish these types of communities since that time. (cf)
Currently when members of the Church talk about the law of consecration they are typically referring to the system these communities operated under but when the terminology is utilized in this way it is not accurate. The reason for this, to reiterate, is that the law of consecration is a requirement that members of the Church be willing to sacrifice of their time, talents, possessions etc. to the building up the Church as is requested by the Lord or his agents and is not the system of united orders that operated in the intermountain west over a century ago.
Another common misperception is that when these united orders failed the Lord replaced them with tithing. It is seen by some as a lower law subordinate to the law of consecration/united orders as they understand them. This is simply untrue. The principle of tithing was first introduced in this dispensation in 1838 when the revelation found in Doctrine and Covenants 119 was given to Joseph Smith in Far West, Missouri. Contained in the revelation is a declaration by the Lord which makes it clear that the principle of tithing is not a substitution which will be done away with at some unspecified future time. In verse four the Lord states regarding the law of tithing: "and this (the law of tithing) shall be a standing law unto them forever." Clearly, if it was a lower law it would not be destined to be practiced forever.
Another common idea in the Church is that at some future period the Church will again establish a united order to govern the economic affairs of its members. It is conceivable that there is some truth to this idea but I am not aware of any authoritative source that confirms this to be the case and I suspect it is merely a folktale.
In summary, the original United Order operated for a very brief time during the infancy of the Church and subsequent united orders which operated during the latter half of the nineteenth century were attempts to implement the principles contained in the law of consecration but were not synonymous with it. Also, the law of consecration is currently binding on members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints and simply states that we will sacrifice whatever may be required to the building up of the Church. Finally, the law of tithing is not a substitution for the law of consecration and is to be practiced by the Church forever.