The Gathering – The Scattering

During 1844, Joseph Smith was involved a wide array of enterprises. A campaign for president of the United States, the private practice of plural marriage, skirmishes with state and local political forces, managing a Nauvoo economy while attempting to transform it from a consumer-based system to a manufacturing system, building the temple and other projects, leading a changing religious organization, encouraging a diaspora of Mormonism to the West and the East and dealing with interstate political intrigues were only some of the matters on his plate.

Private organizations like the Council of Fifty occupied his attention. His announcement of the new concept of Zion in April 1844 marked a continuing expansion in theological and political initiatives and supported his idea of establishment of Mormon centers elsewhere. Smith suggests that a part of the reason for the announcement was frequent speculation on the issue of Zion, its location and when a gathering would take place to that location. The answer was much different than was expected.

Smith styled the announcement as a “Proclamation” though it is not usually classed with other such announcements.[1] When the “Proclamation on the Family” was released, it was situated historically among a number of Church documents that also claimed the title. As a personal judgement, I offer that Joseph’s proclamation was well beyond anything issued since in its effect on Latter-day Saints and their material (and metaphysical) understanding of what Zion is. (See here for a previous post on the topic.)

The sermon which delivers this proclamation was untypically short, perhaps just a few minutes. During the previous day, Joseph had delivered a 2.5 hour sermon to an open-air congregation exceeding 10,000 persons. Since Joseph did not care for some of the techniques used by open air speakers to broadcast without strain (qua George Whitefield) he was extremely tired, diaphragm sore, and unable to speak loud enough to project to any large group for long. Those who reported the short address seem almost to reflect the fatigue of the speaker. Except for the most robust, William Clayton in this case, the rest appear to be slackers to some degree. When the historians of the 1850s came up with a publishable version, they ended up adding significant portions. I won’t go into that here however.

The main point of the sermon was to resolve an issue that was raised in a previous revelation, now placed as D&C 115, as well as conversation that surrounded it and the expulsion from Missouri. What to do about new converts? And what about the establishment of Zion? The proclamation addressed the questions in clearly unexpected and significant ways. It removed both the pressure to locate Zion and to locate to Zion. The gathering would be of an entirely different character now. Joseph’s revamped temple theology styled the temple as the reason for the gathering. The reason for this centralization of the temple? In the premortal world, it was announced, soteriology was forecasted as liturgy-based. You couldn’t get to the highest heaven without undergoing the proper rituals (in faith, naturally). And some of those rituals were only to be conducted in a special hallowed structure made for that purpose: Temple.[2]

Thus the gathering was for the purpose of getting sufficient finances and skills for building the temple. The proclamation answered the implied question, what do you do when the temple is built? The answer was that new converts would only need to gather to the temple for purposes of receiving temple ordinances and teachings.[3] They could return home after this to await salvation in the afterlife. The temple was now an endpoint in salvific Mormonism, which anyone could achieve without the city of Nauvoo filling the state of Illinois. This was certainly an ideal situation for everyone, eventually it would no doubt remove the political pressures which gathering ensured but still provide for the re-understood purpose of temples as not just administrative and instructional, but places of holy repeated ritual for the temporarily gathered Saints. The death of Joseph brought this process to a screeching halt, but eventually it would be resurrected in the image of Utah in the next century.


[1] Three of the witness texts for the address suggest that the word “proclamation” was used by JS. Usually five documents are singled out as LDS proclamations:
Proclamation 1. Dated 15 January 1841 (First Presidency). It considers the progress of the Church in spite of harships and persecution, and the settlement of Nauvoo.
2. was issued 6 April 1845 by the apostles. It was a fulfillment of the revelatory commision of D&C 124 and addressed the rulers and people of all nations announcing that God had spoken from the heavens and restored the gospel of Jesus Christ to the earth.
3. was issued 21 October 1865, by the First Presidency and the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles for the purpose of squashing Orson Pratt’s stuff.
4. was issued on 6 April 1980 by the First Presidency and the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles in commemoration of the 150th anniversary of the organization of the Church.
5. “The Family: A Proclamation to the World” was a summary of concerns and underlying reasons for those concerns regarding the idea of family, its ideal composition supported by Mormon doctrine.

[2] References include the sermon of 8 April 1844 itself. Compare D&C 128.

[3] Joseph believed that Nauvoo would fulfill this promise, but his own death cast that hope in doubt. A new temple in Nauvoo ultimately illustrates Joseph’s claims, but in a much broader way than he saw perhaps.

10 Responses to The Gathering – The Scattering

  1. J. Stapley says:

    I agree that this is a fabulously important window into JS’s theology. In particular, the vision that those: “who want to save their dead can come and bring their families do their work and return to live and wait till the go to receive their reward.” This is somewhat different than our view of temple, but one that makes a tremendous amount of sense within JS’s world.

    • WVS says:

      And it is the model which exists in many areas of the world. We don’t preach gathering to anything anymore. But people do travel long distances to temples, do work, return and never go back in many instances. That’s less true now with the dispersion of temples, but it was the model we used for many years.

  2. ricke says:

    Do you think this was a reformulation of Zion by Joseph to account for the failures of the Missouri gathering, or was this pronoucement the result of his progressive understanding of what Zion actually is? Perhaps it was because he didn’t fully understand the broader concept of Zion earlier that he was so perplexed by the Missouri failure.

    • WVS says:

      Hard to say what was going on. But it seems like JS became committed to a much broader concept of Zion than the Church was going to really take in at the time. Missouri was part of Church mythology in several ways and its eschatological position was embedded in the revelations. When I was growing up, there was plenty of semi-serious conversation about returning to Missouri. Most of it joking, but people genuinely felt it was coming. I think that trope is missing from most Church members thinking now. What’s your experience?

  3. David G. says:

    Nice post. A few scattered thoughts:

    1. Steve Fleming (of JI) found in his research on the Delaware Valley an elderly woman who joined the church, travelled to UT to get her endowment, and then went back. So even with BY hammering on the gathering to UT, there were people following this 1844 model.

    2. At some point, this reconfigured temple/gathering theology works its way into persecution narratives, with Mormons remembering that every place they tried to build a temple, there was persecution, which implies a strong contection between temple building and opposition. I suspect it shows up first after 1857, as they look back after the Move South and having to hide the temple foundations. This narrative shows up in contemporary movies like Mountain of the Lord.

    3. I’d like to see this fleshed out a bit more, but JS in the last months of his life envisioned a type of Zion with Nauvoo as the metropolis, with a series of colony-city of Zions spread out over the hemisphere. I think Steve Taysom deals with the changing notions of Zion in Nauvoo in his book (at least it was in the dissertation), but I can’t remember the details very well right now.

    • Ben Park says:

      Regarding point #3: Ironically, I was just reading that section in Steve’s book today. He does a great job debunking the decentralization thesis that some have promoted for the Nauvoo era, arguing that with the Temple Nauvoo became the center spot of the imagined zion.

    • WVS says:

      Re: point 2, yeah persecution is only tied to temple building after Johnston I think. Then looking back it seems obvious – the Devil inspired dissension and persecution (BY: hells bells) to stop temple use or prevent construction. There is the story of the Nauvoo architect leaving Utah because he thought a temple was a mistake — would bring trouble. I’ve never looked carefully at that – it was before Johnston I think.

  4. J. Stapley says:

    WVS, I agree that it was the pervading model for much of the post-Nauvoo period. However, it seems to me that it was never considered the ideal. Church leaders wanted to build temples everywhere that members could support it. JS seems to be proposing something different, no?

    • WVS says:

      Yes, I think JS felt that the building of one temple was such an undertaking that multiple temples were beyond the pale. I don’t know if there was any sort of vision in this regard. Woodruff’s late claim of a meeting where JS describes a world-wide Church might be back-read as something like this.

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