Where is Zion?

Blair Hodges’ recent interview with Richard Bushman brought to mind some old ponderings that I have resurrected for the book on Joseph’s sermons. The tandem evolution of concepts of Zion, consecration, temple, millennium and gathering find a discursive foundation in Joseph’s sermons.

Zion. It was the hot issue for most of Joseph Smith’s lifetime in Mormonism. But the concept evolved in Joseph’s mind, and it evolved to an extent that passed most of the Saints like a Salt Flats racer. The 1831 designation of Independence, Jackson County, Missouri as Zion was both singular and part of the flow of American trends. The impulse to move to the new, the unbroken ground was strong in antebellum culture. The restless vision invaded or was manifested through religion as much as anywhere else. With the failure of the Jackson County Zion, neighboring counties became a focus of the Zion movement in Mormonism. But Far West as a gathering nexus was terminated by the same forces that led to the exit from Independence.

However, Independence was embedded in the mindset of Mormonism, in its revelations, in its discursive themes, in its salvific orientation. But a competing theme was beginning to find its way into Mormonism at nearly the same time as the first Zion failure: the Temple. A nascent temple idea had formed in connection with Independence Zion, but it was in Kirtland that the idea began to develop, taking a new turn combined with a developing liturgy, well beyond the Independence Temple idea. Then with the abandonment of Ohio, Far West was targeted as a new ZIon but in the mold of Kirtland.

The exit from Missouri did not erase the eschatological position of the region, but the temple would gradually become the focus of a more radical view of Zion. For Joseph Smith, this view is most explicit in his sermon of Monday April 8, 1844. The extant reports of this sermon suggest that it would no longer be the city of Independence that would claim the title of gathering center, but the place where a temple was found. A place where salvation for the living and dead would focus rather than a location that promised safety in the wake of the upheavals in the days just before the second coming of Christ.

In his announcement of April 8 [1], Joseph made another explosive declaration: gathering to Nauvoo, was no longer required. You could come to Nauvoo for the what the temple had to offer, and return to your own place of residence. Nauvoo would be a gathering place, but not the permanent residence for the body of the Saints. Instead, the Mormons would build congregations in the major cities of America, establishing their own centers of Mormonism, building a network of support for Mormons scattered throughout the America of the day.

It was a concept which would be shelved with Joseph’s death and only revived in stages in Utah Mormonism. The temple marked the center region, the new Zion was dispersing in the intermountain west. The end of the 19th century brought the gradual end of the gathering to Utah and began the dispersion of the temple idea to more distant centers.

The romance of gathering to Missouri was fueled in the later 19th century with dire prophecy about the region. The population would be emptied, opening the way for the Mormons to return and take possession of their former property as well as that of the absent gentiles. The American Civil War played a part in the rhetoric, with expressions from speakers suggesting that the war would destroy the country that had betrayed the exiled Saints. But the gradual reintegration of the Mormons into gentile society pressed the 1844 agenda to fruition, a process that accelerated at the end of the 20th century with the tremendous dispersal of international temple building. When Joseph said that “he verily believed” Nauvoo was the place where dispersal would begin, he was right but not in the way his speech anticipated.

[1] The sermon is remarkable in several respects and presented a genuine challenge to the 1850’s Mormon historians in their attempt to provide a consistent readable text.

12 Responses to Where is Zion?

  1. Tod Robbins says:

    LOVE it WVS. I just watched “Ensign to the Nations” on Sunday and got the chills again when President Hinckley quoted Wilford Woodruff quoting Joseph Smith:

    “…you know no more concerning the destinies of this Church and kingdom than a babe upon its mother’s lap.”

    I believe that statement still holds true for us today. Really.

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  3. David G. says:

    Thanks, WVS. Do you happen to know when the word “Zion” was added to D&C 28:9? The earliest manuscripts just have “the city,” and Zion does not appear in BC or 1835 D&C. Woodford’s analysis doesn’t have anything on that change, as far as I can tell.

    Another intestesting change in that verse, in regards to this post, is the shift from the city being “among the Lamanites” to being “on the borders of the Lamanites,” suggesting that the earliest understanding was that the New Jerusalem was to be built in Indian Territory. The BCR even has the original wording crossed out and the new wording inserted above the line. This reflects the earliest interpretations among the Saints of 3 Nephi 21:5-6 to mean that the Gentiles (or white Americans) would be numbered among the Lamanites. But with the failure of the first Lamanite mission, due to the lack of a federally-issued permit to enter Indian territory, the understanding shifted. Rather than Zion being “among the Lamanites,” it now of necessity had to be “on the borders of the Lamanites,” at least until the white Saints could find a way back into Indian Territory.

    • WVS says:

      Looks like it was Roberts who added “of Zion” when he edited the 1902 vol 1 of History of the Church. I thought maybe Pratt but no.

      • David G. says:

        Interesting. Thanks, WVS. Just so we’re on the same page, there there is no “of,” right? It’s just “the city Zion” as far as I can tell.

      • WVS says:

        Right, just “Zion.” “of” was a misfire. Roberts had a fair amount of correspondence with the FP about such changes, but I don’t recall this one.

      • David G. says:

        Thanks. If you find anything on that, I’d be interested in the details.

  4. J. Stapley says:

    Wonderful thoughts, WVS. David G., as well.

    I think the crystallization of the Doctrine and Covenants in 1835 (or 44, if you will) really has had a tremendous influence on the Church. And this is especially evident with regard to this topic, I think.

  5. J. Stapley says:


    Well, the revelations were dynamic and they sort of got frozen in 1835. I tend to think that this canonization (and consequent distribution) of 1835 era revelations, which were not updated in Nauvoo, coupled with Orson Pratt’s less than systematic approach to updating the cannon has had some interesting effects. That is to say, when all of Smith’s contemporaries passed away, people necessarily went back to the texts, but without the context or memory. So naturally, the anchor in 1835 becomes a very strong influence. I think there are similar effects with the Book of Mormon. On the other hand, the Temple liturgy is proven to capture Smith’s revelatory dynamism a bit more.

    The result is that the eschaton of Jackson County has gained a surprising amount of traction over the decades and it has been an interesting engine for relatively late religious imagination, I think.

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