A little more than a year after the establishment of the Church of Jesus Christ by Joseph Smith, the Lord announced, through His prophet, that there would be a place for the Saints to gather (D&C 57).
1 HEARKEN, O ye elders of my church, saith the Lord your God, who have assembled yourselves together, according to my commandments, in this land, which is the land of Missouri, which is the land which I have appointed and consecrated for the gathering of the saints.
2 Wherefore, this is the land of promise, and the place for the city of Zion.
3 And thus saith the Lord your God, if you will receive wisdom here is wisdom. Behold, the place which is now called Independence is the center place; and a spot for the temple is lying westward, upon a lot which is not far from the courthouse.
This place was to be the center and the home of the temple. The faithful were told that they were to gather to this site and build a city (D&C 84).
2 Yea, the word of the Lord concerning his church, established in the last days for the restoration of his people, as he has spoken by the mouth of his prophets, and for the gathering of his saints to stand upon Mount Zion, which shall be the city of New Jerusalem.
3 Which city shall be built, beginning at the temple lot, which is appointed by the finger of the Lord, in the western boundaries of the State of Missouri, and dedicated by the hand of Joseph Smith, Jun., and others with whom the Lord was well pleased.
4 Verily this is the word of the Lord, that the city New Jerusalem shall be built by the gathering of the saints, beginning at this place, even the place of the temple, which temple shall be reared in this generation.
As the story goes, those who gathered to this sacred site were not allowed to stay and fulfill the command of the Lord in the building of a great city surrounding the temple. They were chastised for pride and selfishness and were forcibly removed from the area.. After an attempt by Zion’s Camp to recover that what was lost, the Lord informed the members that the redemption would not happen immediately (D&C 100).
13 And now I give unto you a word concerning Zion. Zion shall be redeemed, although she is chastened for a little season.
After the Saints were exiled from Missouri, their journey to safety took them from Nauvoo, Illinois to the land of the Great Salt Lake. As the community of believers began to grow, they still did not lose sight of the need to fulfill the commandment of the Lord. It is said that some of those who settled the Provo/Orem area questioned why trees should even be planted given the imminent return to Independence. The message was clear that the Saints needed to prepare themselves if they were to accomplish the building of the New Jerusalem.
Brigham Young stated the following (J of D 9:136, 138-9).
When will Zion be redeemed? When will the Saviour make his appearance in the midst of his people? When will the vail be taken away, that we may behold the glory of God? Can any of you answer these questions? Yes, readily, when I tell you. The redemption of Zion is the first step preparatory to the two last-named events. Just as soon as the Latter-day Saints are ready and prepared to return to Independence, Jackson County, in the State of Missouri, North America, just so soon will the voice of the Lord be heard, “Arise now, Israel, and make your way to the centre Stake of Zion.” Do you think there is any danger of our being ready before the Lord prepares the other end of the route? Do you believe that we, as Latter-day Saints, are preparing our own hearts, our own lives, to return to take possession of the centre Stake of Zion, as fast as the Lord is preparing to cleanse the land from those ungodly persons who dwell there? You can read, reflect, and make your own calculations. If we are not very careful, the earth will be cleansed from wickedness before we are prepared to take possession of it. We must be pure to be prepared to build up Zion. To all appearance, the Lord is preparing that end of the route faster than we are preparing ourselves to go there.
Growing up in the Church in the 60’s, perhaps less so in the 70’s, I remember the repeated message of our need to prepare for this journey back to Missouri. As a youth, I recall the images portrayed of the reverse migration from the mountains back to the city of God to establish the kingdom forever and ever. Here is an example of the message from Orson F. Whitney from October 1919 General Conference.
The gathered Saints are up here in the Rocky Mountains, out of harm’s way, comparatively speaking, founding Stakes of Zion, as a preliminary to the establishment of Zion proper; and we shall remain here until our preparation is complete. When the right time comes, and all things are ready, the pure in heart, chosen from the midst of this people, will go down in the might of the Lord and redeem Zion.
In April 1978, President Kimball stated the following relative to this commandment:
In the earliest years of this dispensation the people faltered in attempting to live the full economic plan of Zion, the united order. Because of their transgressions, the Lord chastened them in these words:
“Behold, they have not learned to be obedient to the things which I required at their hands, but are full of all manner of evil, and do not impart of their substance, as becometh saints, to the poor and afflicted among them;
And are not united according to the union required by the law of the celestial kingdom;
And Zion cannot be built up unless it is by the principles of the law of the celestial kingdom; otherwise I cannot receive her unto myself.” (D&C 105:3-5.)
The Lord further counsels that we must learn obedience and be developed in character before he can redeem Zion. (See D&C 105:9-10.)
A few verses later in this same revelation, the Lord repeats the law of Zion in these words and with this promise:
And let those commandments which I have given concerning Zion and her law be executed and fulfilled, after her redemption.
And inasmuch as they follow the counsel which they receive, they shall have power after many days to accomplish all things pertaining to Zion.” (D&C 105:34, 37.)
The length of time required “to accomplish all things pertaining to Zion” is strictly up to us and how we live, for creating Zion “commences in the heart of each person.” (Journal of Discourses, 9:283.) That it would take some time to learn our lessons was seen by the prophets. In 1863 Brigham Young stated:
“If the people neglect their duty, turn away from the holy commandments which God has given us, seek their own individual wealth, and neglect the interests of the kingdom of God, we may expect to be here quite a time-perhaps a period that will be far longer than we anticipate.” (Journal of Discourses, 11:102.)
On this topic, a comment from President Ezra Taft Benson delivered in the October 1988 General Conference.
We commend you leaders and teachers of the various Church organizations for your inspired use of the Book of Mormon in helping to rear a generation that can redeem Zion.
This, as far as I have been able to discover, was the last time that a Prophet and President of the Church reminded us of our need to prepare for the redemption of Zion; that we were still obligated by a commandment of God to reclaim that which was taken from us – the physical location defined by the Lord as Zion.
Perhaps my favorite conference quote on the topic comes from J. Golden Kimball in the April, 1898 General Conference:
Now I want to prophesy, as the son of a prophet, that if this people want to be blessed they must labor for Zion; for if you labor for money you shall perish. You are under covenant, and it is a demand that God makes of this people that they redeem Zion. You have got to be generous, and you have got to place all that you have and are upon the altar and learn to live the law of the celestial kingdom.
This begs the question, if this was such a central theme of the restoration – that of establishing Zion as a physical entity – why has this not been mentioned in over 20 years? Has the idea of the redemption of Zion now relegated to the shelf along with other questionable doctrines like Adam-God and polygamy? Did this commandment of God not make the cut in the correlation efforts of the Church? Have we lost our way, as a body of Saints, relative to the establishment of the city of God?
I can only assume that the conference sessions next month will again be filled with discourses on faith and tithing, home teaching and service. Have we lost sight of the goal and have satisfied ourselves that the preparation is all that is important? Should not the establishment of Zion be the core of our heart’s desire? Should we not be working to define ourselves, individually, as “pure of heart?” Can we assume that we must be ready individually before we can be ready collectively?
A number of years ago, as a bishopric, we planned a leadership session around this theme. We generated a ‘letter from Salt Lake’ that called for a new Zion’s camp beginning in Kirtland and travelling to Missouri. We asked for volunteers from those in attendance to represent the ward in this undertaking. We were met with stunned silence and pale faces. We had effectively asked them to give up their place in Babylon for one in Zion. It is so easy to feign allegiance to such a cause until we are called upon to act.
Some day, this call will come, not as an exercise in leadership meeting but as a call for the faithful. It may come, perhaps from Salt Lake or perhaps from another people, asking us to gather with those who have been sanctified – to assist in the building up of the New Jerusalem. When will it come? Who will issue the call if those of the restoration are not prepared?
What think ye?