Changing Conceptions of Zion

September 8, 2008 | 26 comments
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The Mormon conception of Zion has changed dramatically over the past century. Today’s members of the church are likely to define “Zion” as wherever the members of the church are: LDS homes, congregations, and stakes. While the conception of Zion in the 19th century may have included these elements, these Saints were determined to literally be Zion communities: while people were the most crucial element, this ideal also included bricks and mortar, streets, buildings of worship, parks, and church owned and managed business. They were not only looking to make room for the Spirit in their hearts. Rather, they literally sought to build a place for Jesus to dwell among them; a place for members of the church to free themselves from selfishness and to perfect their characters. As Hugh Nibley put it, “Zion is the great moment of transition, the bridge between the world as it is and the world as God designed it and meant it to be.”

While the LDS church has grown and is much more prosperous than the church of the 19th century, it no longer exerts the reach that it once did over its members lives. Certainly the church is still the bastion of LDS leadership and the center of religion. Yet, it is no longer the collective employer, regulator, and economic planner that it once was. So, does the fact that the church no longer attempts to fill these roles, mean that the obligation to build a Zion-like community no longer exists? Most Mormons would concede that to some extent these obligations remain. Yet, I question what seems to be the conventional wisdom of many Mormons—namely that these obligations are reflected in the personal lives of Mormons and not so much in our politics, particularly politics as mundane as urban planning. In fact, many Mormons subscribe to politics that says that government should stay out of the market and that things like land use planning have little place in Mormon communities. I believe that this is wrong—or at least missing something. I believe that the calls of the early Saints to build Zion still echo today. These echoes from the past challenge us to create places—not just homes but also cities—that are beautiful; to sacrifice not just by being generous with what God has given us but also by being willing to put aside self interests for the sake of larger community. We need to be careful that as we clamor to protect our individual interests and our property rights, we do not trample upon the collective obligations that would define a Zion-like community.

We can still try to make our communities both “holy” and “beautiful” (DC 82:14). Even if this is a reach, I have to believe that Mormons should be much more involved in private and public efforts that at least strive for this. While holiness and beauty is definitely asking a lot, asking for a lot more than we typically get is not.

In full disclosure, much of these thoughts I plan to introduce as a guest blogger are based on an article I wrote called “Revitalizing Zion: Nineteenth-Century Mormonism and Today’s Urban Sprawl.” It recently was published in the Journal of Land Resources & Environmental Law. The article in its entirety can be found here.

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26 Responses to Changing Conceptions of Zion

  1. BHodges on September 8, 2008 at 7:45 pm

    Interesting approach. It has been interesting to watch (or for me, review) the growth of the Church and how it has changed over time (think Mauss, Angel and the Beehive).

    Perhaps the early attempts of the Church in building something of a “theodemocracy” or whatever you want to label it can be instructive regarding how we interact with out own communities now, as members of, but perhaps in addition to rather than with- the Church organization. I look forward to reading your paper when I get a moment.

  2. BHodges on September 8, 2008 at 7:46 pm

    with *our* own communities, rather.

  3. queuno on September 8, 2008 at 8:43 pm

    You reference “Zion-like community” in one breath and “Mormon communities” in the next, but is it possible to have both? Approaching a Zion-like community suggests cooperation (where possible) with other churches and community groups, but having a “Mormon” community suggests having some political/demographic majority, and I don’t see that as realistic outside a certain corridor.

    In my own suburban community, I see lots of community involvement from lots of Mormons, although it’s behind the scenes; I don’t see any serious effort to run for elected office (although, a decade or so ago, a neighboring community had a couple of Mormon council members and a city manager). One of our leading school officials is a member of the Church.

    Reminds me of the time we asked a new move-in from a small Utah town how big that city was, and she responded, “Oh, two wards”, as if there was a standard Mormon ward size.

  4. queuno on September 8, 2008 at 8:48 pm

    In fact, many Mormons subscribe to politics that says that government should stay out of the market and that things like land use planning have little place in Mormon communities.

    Hmm. I suspect that even the most “Republican” of members have inconsistent views when it comes to national versus local politics versus school board politics (I separate the latter two, because in this state, there is a distinct separation between school and city). I find that LDS in my community tend to be more *cough* “liberal” (to borrow a term) when it comes to local civic matters and to an extent school matters.

  5. Brigham Daniels on September 8, 2008 at 10:04 pm

    BHodges, it is hard for me to imagine what it must have been to be governed under the church’s government. On one hand, it would be nice to know that “government” leaders were attempting to lead the church forward. On the other hand, it would hard when the “government” pushed things in a direction that one opposed. I think that it is easier to live in a world where church and state are–most often–distinct. My point is that even though the church is no longer a government, that does not strip policy issues of their moral dimension. I believe that being actively involved in politics–particularly local politics–is vital if we are going to build communities that come closer to the mark.

  6. Brigham Daniels on September 8, 2008 at 10:23 pm

    queuno, let me respond to your comments. I like your point about the need to cooperate with people outside the church. Building coalitions is vital if we are to get things done in the world. At one point, the church really tried to create an island where Mormons dealt with Mormons and nobody else was really necessary to make the community work. For many reason and I would argue the advent of the railroad and automobile, this became unrealistic. Now, the church is actively encouraging its members to be more neighborly, to reach outside one’s comfort zone, and to recognize that people of other religions play an important role in the world, just as we do.

    What I am trying to focus on here, though, is that the ways our communities are built matter a great deal. I think that most Mormons would recognize the need to be a good neighbor, to be helpful, and to be respectful of others. While this is probably the most important part of who we are as a people, I am trying to get people to focus on the concept that we need a certain degree of civic involvement in issue areas that are not on their face “morally charged” if some of the ideals of Zion are to be met. I will be blogging about this issue more in the next few days.

    Lastly, you called me out on my characterization of how I believe many Mormons view land use planning. You may be right that many Mormons hold a wide range of beliefs on this issue and perhaps they tend to be more “liberal” on local issues than they might be otherwise. That might be true. However, in my experience members of the church that are really up in arms about local issues generally do so because their political stripes run the other direction. What I hope that comes from this conversation is that some of those reading will become a little more radical in the depth in their beliefs. To be clear, I do not want to necessarily change people’s minds about local politics. However, I do want people to go out and be willing to put in time going to public meetings, advocating for better communities, and taking action. I think that members of the church could make a significant difference if they were willing to–for example–advocate for more community parks, better transportation choices, more inclusion of the poor, or more protection of open space. So for me, it is not enough that people may hold view points that are a bit more “liberal.” What I want and hope to see is for people who make up the middle be willing to act when it comes to politics rather than being acted upon.

  7. Bookslinger on September 9, 2008 at 12:03 am

    While some may get a calling to move to Jackson County Missouri prior to the 2nd Coming, some of the tribe of Judah may get a calling to move to Jerusalem.

    http://scriptures.lds.org/en/dc/133/13#13

    http://scriptures.lds.org/en/dc/77/15#15 (last part of answer portion: “… to the Jews after they are gathered and have built the city of Jerusalem in the dland of their fathers.”)

  8. James McMurray on September 9, 2008 at 12:58 am

    Just finished the article. A lot of great stuff, thanks for linking it to your post. I may have additional thoughts, but two quick things:

    1) You effectively document that the Mormon corridor essentially “sold out” in terms of its development patterns – I would be interested in additional discussion as to WHY this took place. As I understand it, the LDS community worked very hard (and with great success) to enter mainstream America after statehood was achieved. Perhaps this played a factor? I would be interested in people’s insights here.

    2) While living under a theocratic government is a foreign notion to us (please withhold any snide comments about Utah politics…both tired and obvious), it is incredible to contrast the direct, powerful and immediate impact of Brigham Young’s practices and the extremely lengthy, expensive and indirect manner by which Envision Utah’s practices have managed to inch the needle towards more sustainable development practices. Not trying to say one is preferable, but the contrast is amazing.

  9. Roland on September 9, 2008 at 12:06 pm

    This very issue goes to the heart of the intense involvement of the LDS Church getting involved with Proposition 8 in California. At the ballot box we have the opportunity to influence what kind of community we live and how much we are willing to tolerate co-existing with immoral Sodom and Gomorrah behaviour.

    This is intense battle and we need the help of LDS members outside of California also. Our opponents are doing intense fund raising from outside of the state to destroy our Zion community here.

    Please goto http://www.ProtectMarriage.com to find out how you can help with cash donations, phone calls, letters to editors, blogs. See their 10 reasons why to protect traditional marriage.

  10. James McMurray on September 9, 2008 at 12:45 pm

    Roland, Prop 8 has nothing whatsoever to do with this topic. There are plenty of other prop 8 discussions floating around… threadjacking on such an incendiary, unrelated topic is not appropriate or welcome, as far as I’m concerned.

  11. Roland on September 9, 2008 at 12:52 pm

    James – I flat out disaggree !

    Prop 8 is the modern day definition of this post – how the LDS define Zion communities today.

  12. Velska on September 9, 2008 at 1:02 pm

    I am thinking in terms of my community, where my son-in-law is running for the city council. He wants to advocate better mass transport for the urban area that consists of several independently chartered communities (some of which are merging). He tends to have less city-oriented ideas than I have, but he thinks communities should direct their expansion instead of giving pretty much free reign to business interests (which have created some horrible subdivisions in the area). I like most of his ideas, and I’m seriously thinking of voting although his party is not what I have traditionally supported (we have a multiparty system).

    This has started me thinking of community development and stuff like taking care of our indigents. Seems like the society is taking care of a lot of stuff now that the Church took care of in 19th-century Utah etc. – where it is doing its job.

  13. Roland on September 9, 2008 at 1:35 pm

    In my stake (in California) we have a mayor, PTA presidents, teachers, league coaches and many people involved with or leading community organizations and what not.

    Our community involvement has certainly upticked a lot in the last 3 months because of Prop 8. We get sermons every sunday in Sacrament Meeting and Priesthood meeting about its importance. We have been asked to walk neighborhoods for the last three Saturday’s in a row. I get emails almost daily from several of my LDS neighbors to petition the state governor or legislature to combat some dumb stunt or another that is infringing on my religious values in one way or another.

    We also got just in 1995 a Proclamation on the Family where the first presidency declares about the importance of govt leaders to protect zion values.

  14. James McMurray on September 9, 2008 at 2:08 pm

    Velska, it is interesting to consider how community development impacts the physical concentration of poverty. Based on my knowledge, housing developments targeting “low” or “moderate” income families do best with an 80% market rate to 20% affordable ratio. If you go higher than that, it requires significant upkeep and/or linked social support to combat the gradual decline that often takes place. Some of the best nonprofit developers out there manage a 60/40 split, but that is considered exceptional.

    Coincidentally, some states have adopted affordable housing mandates requiring such an 80/20 breakdown (though I’m not familiar with the inner workings of such requirements, so I can’t elaborate).

    In light of Brigham’s original post and linked article, the thing that stands out most in regards to this is the concept of private property as a financial investment. I would speculate that the absence of ownership as investment among early Mormon communities made integrating the poor easier (in addition to their disbursement). NIMBY’s typically freak out because they have no way of anticipating how their property values will be impacted (especially by affordable housing). Combined with the fact that most people’s largest investment is in their home, and then comes the great freak out whenever new development is proposed (especially socially equitable ones).

  15. Brigham Daniels on September 9, 2008 at 2:23 pm

    I have a couple of comments. First, I want to take up the conversation between James and Roland about whether Prop. 8 fits within the contours of this discussion. While there is a lot that has been said about Prop. 8 and while I respect those willing to put themselves on the line and get involved in the political process, Prop. 8 is outside of the issues that I was thinking about when I started this post. There are some political issues that often excite Mormons involved in politics. Prop. 8, abortion, and gay issues are a few of these. What I am hoping to do with this post is to get people to focus upon the fact that many *other* political issues have important moral dimensions, and that often, these dimensions go neglected by church members. In my ideal world, this discussion may even make a difference. So, while Prop 8. discussions certainly have their place, it was not my intention anyways to bring up that issue here.

    As to James two points he raises in Comment #8, I have never really thought that land use patterns of communities dominated by Mormons had much to do with appeasing mainstream America. I could have missed something. Rather, my thought is that the urban sprawl that we see in these communities is more of a function of a market that it is not functioning well. By this I mean that those buying a home in a suburban area get all the benefit of living on a big lot, relatively cheaper per-square foot costs, away from urban blight, and perhaps near better than average schools but do not have bear much of the costs of increased infrastructure, loss of open space, and more air pollution. It is somewhat of a tragedy of the commons. Your second point is a really interesting one. Rather than responding to that directly here, I will do so by writing another blog post that talks about Envision Utah in the next day or two. Finally, on a personal note, James, I am really glad you read the article.

    I also want to address Velska’s point raised in Comment #12. Your point about society taking over the role of activities that the Church handled for its members in the 19th Century is a good one. There is no doubt that in some cases this is the case. My concern is really two-fold, however. First, most places leaders (seemingly unlike your son-in-law) have not spent much time thinking about these issues. Rather, they let inertia take care of itself and let the market decide despite the community interests at stake. Second, even where such programs do exist, I think that Mormons should be much more vocal about supporting such efforts. Running for office is one way to do this. There are many other ways to get involved, but we should not leave the task to others. Mormons should do their part. Lastly, as an aside, I am amused that you are only thinking about voting for your son-in-law’s party/candidacy. Apparently, he has some work to do. I wish both him and you the very best.

  16. Roland on September 9, 2008 at 2:42 pm

    Brigham – to your points –

    You will see in Utah several cases where the state took over major schools started by the church. I.e. Dixie College, Weber State, etc.

    On the flip side – I know of some LDS that are frustrated when they do run for a local political office only to find out that there are a number of members of the church who are not even registered to vote.

    As I alluded to in #13 above – I added my comments about Prop 8 because that is a community issue and the church in California is making a big deal about getting involved with both your time and resources and relationships.

  17. James McMurray on September 9, 2008 at 3:03 pm

    Brigham – Sorry, I wasn’t suggesting the change from “zionistic” to “suburban” land use practices were intended to gain entry into the mainstream, but more a reflection of those efforts (and subsequent adoption of those practices) in other areas.

    The more I think about it, the free market as the impetus behind the shift makes a lot more sense, even if a bit more “mundane” than some relationship to related cultural influences/trends.

  18. Roland on September 9, 2008 at 5:40 pm

    Should anything be said here about the ultimate Mormon land use planner – Brigham Young?

    Outside of Utah – there is a lot of compliments that many Utah cities were laid out in such neat square block patterns, where as most other cities of that time period (and earlier) grew in a very hap-hazard pattern.

    He also encouraged the formation of civic entertainment – theater and music so that communities of the saints can have proper entertainment opportunities.

    Utah is the only state that I’m aware of that limits sells of alcohol to specific locations. Every where else – anyone can just get a permit to sell.

  19. Brigham Daniels on September 9, 2008 at 5:44 pm

    Roland, As to your points in comment #18, I think that something should be said of Brigham Young. I am drafting a post along those lines right now, so I will not say more on that point other than I am glad that you brought it up. You are also right in asserting that for Brigham Young building a community included much more than bricks and mortar but also various investments in culture, entertainment, and education.

  20. quin on September 9, 2008 at 6:34 pm

    I think that “building Zion” can be taken a number of ways, depending on what you want it to apply to. The early Saints had the ability to originate and build communities in several specific locations where they made up the majority of the citizens so their city councils and government leaders were by default “Mormon” and the goals of those who lived there were shared and unified. As more people of different faiths moved into the Salt Lake Valley, their influence began to affect society and eventually government leadership was no longer by majority of the same religious faith, or simply had different goals.

    Since establishing a specific place or city as Zion involves having all who participate in and live there be of “one heart and one mind”, it is clearly impossible today to create such a community, even among LDS members, because ALL members of the Church today are NOT united. That said, I don’t think that members who are “pure in heart” have changed their concept of Zion or their desire to establish it at all. I think that when the time comes to establish the Zion known also as the New Jerusalem, these Saints will respond to the call and unite as one to accomplish it. Those members who are not “pure in heart” will most likely have no desire to participate or dwell in the midst of such activity and simply won’t.

    As individual families living all over the world, we can prepare ourselves by attempting to become pure and holy as members and influence our families to do the same. We “gather” in wards and stakes into larger groups of members in order to edify ourselves further and strengthen each other for the days ahead. We attempt to meet the needs of the “poor” and afflicted within our borders through visiting teaching and home teaching and by reaching out to others in our communities that do not share our faith. These friendships and influence provide us with ways to spread the gospel message and invite others to “come to Zion” and enjoy the fellowship and blessings that exist there. The larger our small units of “Zion” grow, the more we spread the growth of Zion until eventually they butt up against one another and become stakes, then regions/missions.

    While we as Saints can influence and affect the communities we live in for good, and should get involved so that we can do that, we must also be realistic in our expectations. We cannot “force” others to be like minded and desire the same things we want. The agency of others allows them to undermine our efforts just as easily as they might support them. The forces of evil will advance in opposition to the forces of good and will until the Lord returns. There is only so much we can do and influencing our communities is secondary to preparing ourselves and our families. It is not possible to create Zion in our society without creating it within ourselves and our homes first.

  21. Roland on September 9, 2008 at 8:18 pm

    One of thing I’m proud of here in California is that we have enacted tighter tobacco controls than in most other states including Utah.

    It is too the point that smoking is banned at almost all indoor place and open areas such as public parks and beaches. Many communities are now banning booze at the beach. As the drunks with their related problems start getting confined to smaller and tighter areas – those communities also get fed up with their non-sense. For labor day weekend – every community in San Diego county had banned booze at their local beach.

  22. William Smith on September 9, 2008 at 8:48 pm

    Threadjack I believe it’s called: Brigham, is your dad Scott Daniels? If so, we (your dad and I) were buddies in the old university days. We named one of ours Brigham at the same time. Oh well, sorry for the interruption.

  23. Brigham Daniels on September 9, 2008 at 10:30 pm

    A few comments. First, quin, thank you for your thoughtful comment. I do not have much to add to it, but your thoughtful approach is much appreciated. William, my dad is Scott Daniels. Thank you for asking.

  24. Kent Larsen on September 10, 2008 at 1:39 pm

    Queuno (3) wrote: “as if there was a standard Mormon ward size.”

    Actually, I’ve found it fairly easy to estimate using about 400 members per ward (it can vary from 300 to 600, less for singles wards).

  25. JH on September 12, 2008 at 4:31 pm

    I think of myself as a conservative, but I am find my self deeply upset about the way the West, and Mormon Country (as Stegner called it), is being transformed into some suburban waste land. Not only are these changes potentially harmful to the environment, they are also having the effect of ending a distinctly Western way of life and culture that needs to be perserved.

  26. Raymond Takashi Swenson on September 20, 2008 at 11:38 pm

    Perhaps some of the largest scale community planning in the 20th Century was the establishment and development of military bases, especially in the 1930s and WW II. New opportunities for planning have been created in the last 20 years by the closure of 100 military bases. I lived several years at Hamilton AFB in Novato CA north of San Francisco, whose original hangars, offices, barracks, hospital and family housing were created as an integrated project in 1932 using Mexican architecture. I lived in a beautiful 5 bedroom home that sat atop a hill overlooking SF Bay on an acre of land with large trees and abundant wildlife. It was one of the original homes. Sadly in the 1950s cheap housing was built that violated the high standard set by the original design. The last integrated design of the 1960s was the Air Force Academy, both a campus and a community with homes, hospital, parks and stores. Some of the closing bases are being rebuilt into real communities around university campuses or major employers. A good example is the Presidio of San Francisco with the new Lucasfilm ILM campus on the former site of Letterman Hospital.

    In the civilian realm Kennecott Copper is developing the Daybreak area with offices, shopping and a temple on the hill overlooking Babgerter Expressway. Sadly the emphasis here in Idaho Falls is on maximum profit regardless of long term problems even though 50 percent are LDS here. Church membership does not visibly alter behavior in power institutions, it becomes another network for doing business.