Where is Zion? Rises Again!

Coming back for another round:

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 gradually became 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 was no longer the city of Independence that claimed 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 what the temple had to offer, and return to your own place of residence. Nauvoo was to 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 was 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 was going to 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.

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[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.

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