Joseph Smith seems to have first encountered the concept of Zion (in a sense other than the holy mount or holy city in Jerusalem) in his translation of the Book of Mormon. The Book of Mormon prophets spoke of Zion as a holy commonwealth, a society of the Saints, a way of life that was to be established or brought forth under God’s direction; those who fought against it were to incur God’s displeasure. The citizens “labor for the welfare of Zion” rather than for money. In addition, in the words of the resurrected Jesus found in the Book of Mormon, Zion was identified as a specific place in the land of America, a land of promise and inheritance for the descendants of Joseph of old (1 Nephi 13:37; 2 Nephi 10:11–13; 26:29–31; 28:20–24; 3 Nephi 16:16–18).
As we have mentioned, a key moment in Latter-day Saint history in regard to the discovery of the concept of Zion came during Joseph Smith’s translation of the early chapters of Genesis. By the time Sidney Rigdon joined the Prophet in December 1830 and became the principal scribe in the Bible translation, particulars concerning the patriarch Enoch and his ancient city of Zion were beginning to be made known. A King James text of three verses on Enoch and his people was expanded to more than one hundred verses, setting forth knowledge concerning the manner in which an entire society of persons living before the Flood was spiritually awakened to transcendent righteousness; the means by which this ancient people, formerly bent on selfishness and pride, had their souls changed, saw to the needs of the poor, and became “of one heart and one mind” (Moses 7:18); and how, through the application of such a divine philosophy, they were translated, taken from the earth into the bosom of God (Moses 7). Enoch’s Zion became the pattern, the scriptural prototype, for the Latter-day Saints. In the months that followed, several revelations that we now have in the Doctrine and Covenants spoke of the ancient Zion of Enoch (D&C 38:4; 45:12–14; 107:49) and also provided the broad framework for the Latter-day Saints to begin to build a modern Zion society.
Multiple Meanings of Zion
The Restored Church and the Work of the Restoration
Among the earliest revelations recorded in the Doctrine and Covenants was the repeated command, “Now, as you have asked, behold, I say unto you, keep my commandments, and seek to bring forth and establish the cause of Zion” (D&C 6:6; see also 11:6; 12:6; 14:6). Zion thus came to be associated with the restored Church and the work of the Restoration. The faithful could take heart in the midst of their troubles, for Zion was the city of God (D&C 97:19). Indeed, in speaking of the sacred spot where the people of God congregated, the Lord said, “Behold, the land of Zion—I, the Lord, hold it in mine own hands” (D&C 63:25). Surely the King of Zion (Moses 7:53) would deal mercifully with his subjects.
That there was a specific location for the city of Zion in the Americas was made known very early. Oliver Cowdery was called in September 1830 to preach among the Lamanites, the native Americans. He was instructed that the specific location of the city of Zion “is not revealed, and no man knoweth where the city Zion shall be built, but it shall be given hereafter.” The Lord then added that the location “shall be on the borders by the Lamanites” (D&C 28:9). On 20 July 1831, just as the leaders of the Saints had begun to arrive in Missouri, the early members of the Church learned that the land of Missouri was “the land which I have appointed and consecrated for the gathering of the saints. Wherefore, this is the land of promise, and the place for the city of Zion. . . . The place which is now called Independence is the center place” (D&C 57:1–3).
A Banner or Ensign
Zion is spoken of in scripture as a banner, or ensign, around which a weary or beleaguered people can rally. It is also a standard against which the substance and quality of all things are to be evaluated. The Saints are expected to judge all things by a set of guidelines from a source beyond that of unenlightened man. Note the language of the revelation: “Behold, I, the Lord, have made my church in these last days like unto a judge sitting on a hill, or in a high place, to judge the nations. For it shall come to pass that the inhabitants of Zion shall judge all things pertaining to Zion” (D&C 64:37–38). As an illustration of this principle, Joseph Young, brother of Brigham Young, explained that Joseph Smith the Prophet “recommended the Saints to cultivate as high a state of perfection in their musical harmonies as the standard of the faith which he had brought was superior to sectarian religion. To obtain this, he gave them to understand that the refinement of singing would depend upon the attainment of the Holy Spirit. . . . When these graces and refinements and all the kindred attractions are obtained that characterized the ancient Zion of Enoch, then the Zion of the last days will become beautiful, she will be hailed by the Saints from the four winds, who will gather to Zion with songs of everlasting joy.”265
One in Christ
In addition, Zion is the focus, the convergence, and the concentration of all that is good, all that is ennobling, all that is instructive and inspirational. In Zion all things are to be gathered together in one in Christ (Ephesians 1:10). In short, according to Brigham Young, “every accomplishment, every polished grace, every useful attainment in mathematics, music, in all science and art belong to the Saints.”266 The Saints “rapidly collect the intelligence that is bestowed upon the nations,” President Young said on another occasion, “for all this intelligence belongs to Zion.”267
The People of God
Zion is people, the people of God, those people who have come out of the world of Babylon into the marvelous light of Christ. The Lord encouraged his little latter-day flock: “Verily, thus saith the Lord, let Zion rejoice, for this is Zion—THE PURE IN HEART; therefore, let Zion rejoice, while all the wicked shall mourn” (D&C 97:21). Thus Zion is a state of being, a state of purity of heart that entitles one to be known as a member of the household of faith. Brigham Young therefore spoke of the Saints having Zion in their hearts: “Unless the people live before the Lord in the obedience of His commandments,” he said, “they cannot have Zion within them.” Further, “as to the spirit of Zion, it is in the hearts of the Saints, of those who love and serve the Lord with all their might, mind, and strength.”268 On another occasion President Young affirmed: “Zion will be redeemed and built up, and the saints will rejoice. This is the land of Zion; and who are Zion? The pure in heart are Zion; they have Zion within them. Purify yourselves, sanctify the Lord God in your hearts, and have the Zion of God within you.”269 Finally, President Young asked: “Where is Zion? Where the organization of the Church of God is. And may it dwell spiritually in every heart; and may we so live as to always enjoy the Spirit of Zion.”270
Any Place of Gathering
Isaiah the prophet had spoken some seven hundred years before Christ of the “mountain of the Lord’s house” being established in the tops of the mountains (Isaiah 2:2). In July 1840 Joseph Smith declared (in harmony with the teachings in the Book of Mormon; see 3 Nephi 16:16–18) that “the land of Zion consists of all North and South America, but that any place where the Saints gather is Zion.”271 The latter part of this statement—that Zion represented more than a place, a single location, but rather any place of gathering—is significant. It broadens the notion of Zion to include areas around the world where people of the covenant congregate. This larger vision of Zion is reflected in the following scripture: “Zion shall not be moved out of her place, notwithstanding her children are scattered. They that remain, and are pure in heart, shall return, and come to their inheritances, they and their children, with songs of everlasting joy, to build up the waste places of Zion—and all these things that the prophets might be fulfilled. And, behold, there is none other place appointed than that which I have appointed; neither shall there be any other place appointed than that which I have appointed, for the work of the gathering of my saints—until the day cometh when there is found no more room for them; and then I have other places which I will appoint unto them, and they shall be called stakes, for the curtains or the strength of Zion” (D&C 101:17–21; emphasis added).
In the prayer dedicating the Kirtland Temple, the Prophet pleaded in behalf of the Saints “that they may come forth to Zion, or to her stakes, the places of thine appointment, with songs of everlasting joy” (D&C 109:39; emphasis added). The revelations are clear in their pronouncement that safety and refuge are to be found in the stakes of Zion. “Arise and shine forth,” the Lord implored, “that thy light may be a standard for the nations; and that the gathering together upon the land of Zion, and upon her stakes, maybe for a defense, and for a refuge from the storm, and from wrath when it shall be poured out without mixture upon the whole earth” (D&C 115:5–6; emphasis added).
The Center Place
As to the future of Zion, Elder Bruce R. McConkie wrote: “The center place! Let Israel gather to the stakes of Zion in all nations. Let every land be a Zion to those appointed to dwell there. . . . But still there is a center place, a place where the chief temple shall stand, a place to which the Lord shall come, a place whence the law shall go forth to govern all the earth in that day when the Second David reigns personally upon the earth. And that center place is what men now call Independence in Jackson County, Missouri, but which in a day to come will be the Zion of our God and the City of Holiness of his people.”272 Although the Church will establish a significant presence in Independence, Missouri, and though Jackson County will become the center place, yet there will always be, as suggested above, a need for the stakes of Zion throughout the earth far and wide, a need for the Saints to gather to their own lands and congregate with their own people.
Like the Church, the concept of Zion has grown and expanded over time. Elder Erastus Snow, a member of the Quorum of the Twelve, pointed out in 1884 that when the early Saints “first heard the fullness of the Gospel preached by the first Elders, and read the revelations given through the Prophet Joseph Smith, our ideas of Zion were very limited. But as our minds began to grow and expand, why we began to look upon Zion as a great people, and the Stakes of Zion as numerous. . . . We ceased to set bounds to Zion and her Stakes.”273 Likewise, Elder Joseph Young explained that many Saints of the nineteenth century misconstrued and miscalculated on a number of matters, including the time when the Saints should return to Missouri and redeem Zion. “The Holy Spirit brought many things close to their minds—they appeared right by, and hence many were deceived. . . . I knew that faith and the Holy Ghost brought the designs of Providence close by, and by that means we were enabled to scan them, . . . but we had not knowledge enough to digest and fully comprehend those things.”274
The City of God
Zion is the City of God; Babylon is the city of Satan. Both work upon the souls of their citizens. Both seek to build an allegiance and a loyalty among their people. While Zion looks to the Almighty God for strength and direction, Babylon specializes in idolatry: the people of Babylon “seek not the Lord to establish his righteousness, but every man walketh in his own way, and after the image of his own god, whose image is in the likeness of the world, and whose substance is that of an idol, which waxeth old and shall perish in Babylon, even Babylon the great, which shall fall” (D&C 1:16).
While in the end Babylon will produce withered and benighted souls whose chief aim is self-aggrandizement, Zion seeks to reconcile the irreconcilable, to produce both social union and also mature and dynamic individualism. Stephen L Richards, then a counselor in the First Presidency, observed that “there is no fence around Zion or the world, but to one of discernment, they [Zion and Babylon] are separated more completely than if each were surrounded with high unscalable walls. Their underlying concepts, philosophies, and purposes are at complete variance one with the other. The philosophy of the world is self-sufficient, egotistical, materialistic, and skeptical. The philosophy of Zion is humility, not servility, but a willing recognition of the sovereignty of God and dependence on his providence.”275
Lead image from Pixabay.
Latter-day Saint doctrine is based on the restoration of a correct understanding of God's "character, perfections, and attributes." In Precept upon Precept, esteemed Latter-day Saint scholar and speaker Robert L. Millet explored how the restoration of one truth led to questions that led to answers and the restoration of more truths—line upon line, precept upon precept.
From the original theophany of the First Vision and its implications for a world steeped in Trinitarian doctrine to the cosmic scope of the King Follett sermon, the Prophet's revelations shook up the entrenched doctrines of nineteenth-century Christianity. And by the time of Joseph's martyrdom, God had through him laid the foundations for a restored church of Jesus Christ that will last until the Millennium.
265. History of the Organization of the Seventies, 14–15.
266. In Journal of Discourses, 10:224.
267. In Journal of Discourses, 8:279.
268. In Journal of Discourses, 2:253.
269. In Journal of Discourses, 8:198.
270. In Journal of Discourses, 8:205; emphasis added.
271. Words of Joseph Smith, 415; emphasis added.
272. New Witness for the Articles of Faith, 595.
273. In Journal of Discourses, 25:30–31.
274. In Journal of Discourses, 9:230.
275. In Conference Report, Oct. 1951, 110.