Change and continuity create an interesting tension in the Church. I explored this in a previous post as the tension of believing in an everlasting, unchanging gospel that we have had restored to us and the belief in ongoing revelation and changes to adapt and evolve the Church to our current circumstances. Changes can be disconcerting with the first of those two beliefs in mind because it demonstrates that the Church’s beliefs and practices are not unchanging and static. One of the ways we minimize the perception of change, however, is to continue to use terminology that was important—words and phrases that were previously used—but to collectively change what we mean when we use that terminology. The concept of gathering the Elect to Zion is a case study in the process of shifting use of terminology.
The September 1830 revelation that we are studying this week (now Section 29) demonstrates how gathering was understood in the earliest days of the Church. The revelation opens with an announcement that Jesus Christ “will gether his People even as a hen gethereth her Chickens under her wings even as many as will hearken to my voice & humble themselves before me & call upon me in mighty prayer.” It discusses missionary work and prayer, then states that the elders the revelation is addressing “are called to bring to pass the gethering of mine Elect … wherefore the decree hath gone forth from the father that they shall be gethered in unto one place upon the the face of this land to prepare their Hearts & be prepared in all things against the day of tribulation & desolation is sent forth upon the wicked.” Gathering, as discussed here was focused first on missionary work to seek out the “Elect” who “will hearken” to the Lord’s voice and then to gather them “in unto one place upon the face of this land” to prepare for the dramatic and violent destruction of the wicked associated with the return of Jesus Christ prior to a millennium of peace.
That premillennial belief in an imminent return of Jesus Christ with a time of destruction beforehand was a driving force behind the idea of gathering to a physical location. The September 1830 revelation goes on to describe in great detail a variety of graphic destructions to be poured upon the wicked, including hailstorms, flies eating the flesh of the wicked, and the wicked being devoured by “the Beasts of the forest & the fowls of the air,” then affirming that while these things have not yet come to pass, they “shurely must as I live for abominations shall not reign.” There is also a lot of mentions of trumps sounding (which hopefully has more to do with the language of the Revelation of St. John than with a certain forthcoming social media platform). The focal point for the gathering became known as Zion or the New Jerusalem (drawing on terminology from the Book of Mormon and the New Translation of the Old Testament that we have in the Book of Moses). A March 1831 revelation (now Section 45), for example, drew on this theme, stating that in the end days: “My Deciples shall stand in Holy places & shall not be moved but among the wicked men shall lift up their voices & curse God & die.” After discussing the themes in greater detail, that revelation instructed the Saints to gather riches to purchase land in the place that “shall be called the New Jerusalem a land of peace a City of refuge a place of safety for the saints of The most high God,” then goes on to state that: “It shall be called Zion & it shall come to pass among the wicked that evry man that will not take his sword against his Neighbour must needs flee unto Zion for safety.” Zion was designated as a place of safety in the great and terrible day of the Lord.
While revelations initially indicated that this Zion was one specific location, the idea gradually began to expand. The revelation that is now Section 29 designated “that they shall be gethered in unto one place,” which a revelation the following summer indicated was “the land of Missorie,” specifically “the place which is now called Independence.” An April 1832 revelation, however, gave a more expansive definition to Zion beyond the focal point in Missouri. It stated that: “I have consecrated the land of Kirtland in mine own due time for the benefits of the Saints of the most high God & for a stake to Zion[.] for Zion must increase in beauty & in holy-ness her borders must increase be enlarged.” Drawing on the imagery of Isaiah 54, the revelation implied that Zion was like a great tent, with a central city or post of Zion in Missouri and outposts or satellite sites of Zion, including Kirtland, securing its curtains like tent stakes. Hence, Zion was no longer one single location, but became more elastic in concept, including other places where the Saints lived under divine law as extensions of Zion.
Even with that modification, there was a focus on creating a physical city of Zion. Joseph Smith laid out a plat for the city of Zion in 1833, giving an ideal for how the holy city should be built. He designated space for “publick buildings” in the center (including “store houses for[r] [the] Bishop” and a series of temples for use by the various quorums of the priesthood as “houses of worship [and] schools”) and houses for living in the surrounding city and then barns, stables, and farmland outside of the city in “a sufficient quanty of land to supply the whole plot.” Once filled, copies of the city would be built next to it “and so fill up the world in these last days and let every man live in the City for this is the City of Zion.” Stakes of Zion and subsequent city-building efforts would attempt to follow this plan (though expansion was often too rapid and resources too limited to effectively do so). By late 1833, however, the Saints had been driven out of Independence and every attempt to return failed. Kirtland—designated as a stake of Zion—became the primary focus of Joseph’s efforts over the next several years, but in 1838, the Church leaders and many of the Kirtland Saints fled to Far West, Missouri. Far West was spoken of in a revelation as “a holy and consecrated land,” possibly implying that it was to replace the Zion in Independence. Within a year, however, they were forced to leave their land again, shattering their dreams once more. This time, they settled in Nauvoo, Illinois. Nauvoo was set up as a stake of Zion, not the Holy City itself, while the Saints looked to return to their promised land.
After Joseph Smith’s death in 1844, Church leadership passed to the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles under Brigham Young, who carried out plans to move to the Great Basin region of the American West. Many comparisons were made between these pioneers as a modern “camp of Israel” on an Egypt-like exodus to settle a promised land “in the top of the mountains” that “all nations would flow unto” and where “out of Zion [would] go forth the law.” While they looked to return to Missouri as their eventual inheritance, the land of Deseret or Utah was seen as a land of Zion to which they should gather. For example, hymns from that era proclaimed things like: “Come to Zion, / For your coming Lord is nigh,” or “O Zion! dear Zion! home of the free: / My own mountain home now to thee I have come; / All my fond hopes are centered in thee,” or warned converts to: “Think not, when you gather to Zion, / Your troubles and trials are through— / That nothing but comfort and pleasure / Are waiting in Zion for you.” It should be apparent from calls to gather and references to mountains that the authors of these hymns saw Utah as Zion. As a result of the calls to gather, tens of thousands of Saints from across America, Europe, and (to a lesser degree) the Pacific Islands immigrated to the western United States and established over 500 colonies in an area reaching across much of the American West and into Mexico and Canada in an effort to build Zion.
The concept of Zion utilized in these colonies was rooted in the ideals of Joseph Smith’s work and focused on a few central points of belief. These included the gathering of the Saints to a central area, living in the Mormon village with its roots in Joseph’s Zion plat, property as stewardship from God rather than purely personal possessions, frugality and economic independence, unity and cooperation under Church direction, and redeeming the earth from the curse of the Fall of Adam and Eve through working the land. The imminence of the millennium in the Mormon mindset continued to be a driving factor, with rhetoric about the Second Coming remaining a frequent part of sermons. And, among other things, temples were used to draw people to the Great Basin region for the gathering. Only four temples were constructed during this period, and were all in Utah. This geographical limitation was intentional: Brigham Young taught that it was necessary to restrict the performance of endowment ceremonies to Utah, believing that to do otherwise would “destroy the object of the gathering.” In many ways, the approach to Zion during the mid- to late-nineteenth century was rooted in Joseph Smith’s idea of gathering to specific locations and building communities, just on a larger scale and in a different location than originally planned.
Increased pressure from the contemporary American society around the turn of the twentieth century led to changes in the concept of Zion and the practice of gathering. For example, in 1898, President George Q. Cannon counseled against Saints being anxious to gather to Zion and other leaders, such as President Lorenzo Snow, followed suite within the next decade. Part of this was due to Utah becoming increasingly overpopulated, resulting in limiting economic opportunities for newly-gathered Saints. Attacks by the federal government intended to end the practice of polygamy, which included dissolving the Perpetual Emigration Fund, also limited the Church’s ability to finance and oversee emigration to Utah.
In addition, President Joseph F. Smith, who became president of the Church in 1901, had observed some of the difficulties gathering had on outlying regions of the Church while serving as a missionary in Hawaii. While adapting to laws that prevented native Hawaiians from immigrating, the Church there worked to create their own gathering place by calling Hawaiian Latter-day Saints to build a community on the island of Lanai. As historian R. Lanier Britsch wrote: “Even as a young man [Joseph F.] Smith … perceived the mission’s most serious problem—that the Lanai colony benefitted those who gathered there, but weakened the branches elsewhere.” It is possible that President Smith carried this experience with him throughout life, realizing that the gathering to the Great Basin was weakening the Church in England and elsewhere, and may have been part of why he came to repeatedly counsel Saints to “remain in their native lands and form congregations of a permanent character.” He also initiated the process of constructing temples outside of Utah, with the Cardston, Alberta Temple in Canada and the Laie, Hawaii Temple (the first temple to be built in an area that did not yet have a stake). With these beginnings at the turn of the century, the idea of gathering to Utah began to be discouraged within the Church.
That being said, the doctrine of gathering continued to be both an official and unofficial belief while being semi-officially discouraged for several decades until official modification to the doctrine occurred in the early 1970’s. In 1971, at the first regional conference in England, regional representative Derek A. Cuthbert stated, “There is no longer a need for British Church members to leave their homeland to partake of the blessings of Church membership.” A similar conference was held in Mexico City the following year. At this conference, Elder Bruce R. McConkie enunciated the new doctrine of gathering:
The place of gathering for the Mexican Saints is in Mexico; the place of gathering for the Guatemalan Saints is in Guatemala; the place of gathering for the Brazilian Saints is in Brazil; and so it goes throughout the length and breadth of the whole earth. Japan is for the Japanese; Korea is for the Koreans; Australia is for the Australians; every nation is the gathering place for its own people.
These statements mark an official shift in doctrine that ended the idea of gathering to a physical location of Zion. Previous efforts to discourage emigration to the American West were done with a belief that Utah was Zion (at least until Missouri could be reclaimed). Now, things had changed—Zion was officially no longer a specific location, but a worldwide effort centered on the Church, families, and individuals. The future gathering to Missouri is still a part of the Mormon millennial eschatology, but anywhere the Church is established can be a gathering place for the Saints by this definition.
By and large, the rhetoric of general authorities has followed this line of reasoning in discussing the concept of gathering to Zion. In September 2012, for example, Elder Jeffrey R. Holland stated that: “In these last days, in this our dispensation… Zion would be everywhere—wherever the Church is. And with that change … we no longer think of Zion as where we are going to live; we think of it as how we are going to live.” One result of this shift is that Zion has, more or less, come to be defined as the Church as an institution rather than a physical location. Elder D. Todd Christofferson taught that: “Today the Lord’s people are gathering ‘out from among the nations’ as they gather into the congregations and stakes of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints that are scattered throughout the nations.” And President Russell M. Nelson recently defined the gathering of Israel as simply “missionary, temple, and family history work.” To fit the needs of the time, today the focus of Zion is on the Church as a spiritual institution rather than a specific geographical location.
Now, to cycle back through the evolution of gathering to Zion, in the early days of the Church, it was rooted in the concept of building a city that would be a place of safety and refuge during the Second Coming of Jesus Christ. The term was expanded to allow for outposts to the holy city, called stakes. After church leadership passed to Brigham Young, the Church moved to the Great Basin and sought to create an entire region of Zion colonies as a kingdom of God in the American west. After intense social pressures necessitated change, the Church entered an era of transition that resulted in a reshaping of the Zion ideal. The belief in a physical gathering to a specific location was discouraged beginning around the turn of the twentieth century and would later be replaced by a spiritual, figurative gathering into the Church itself, wherever it is found. Zion was shifted from a utopian city to a community represented in families, church association, and individual purity and righteousness while gathering was changed from relocating to physical locations to joining a worldwide community. Throughout the process of change and adaptation, the language of gathering the Elect and building Zion has been used within the Church, keeping a form of continuity from the 1830 revelations, though the way in which we use that terminology has changed and been repurposed to match the reality of what is being done in the Church today.
- Terryl Givens, “The Prophesy of Enoch as Restoration Blueprint,” Leonard Arrington Lecture, 2012
- Kent Larsen, “Lit Come Follow Me: D&C 29 – Gathering and the Plan of Salvation,” Times and Seasons, 22 March 2021
- Book of Mormon Central, Come Follow Me 2021: Doctrine and Covenants 29
Featured image: “Plat of the City of Zion, circa Early June–25 June 1833,” p. , The Joseph Smith Papers, accessed March 25, 2021, https://www.josephsmithpapers.org/paper-summary/plat-of-the-city-of-zion-circa-early-june-25-june-1833/1
 “Revelation, September 1830–A [D&C 29],” p. 36, The Joseph Smith Papers, accessed March 24, 2021, https://www.josephsmithpapers.org/paper-summary/revelation-september-1830-a-dc-29/1
 “Revelation, September 1830–A [D&C 29],” p. 38, The Joseph Smith Papers, accessed March 24, 2021, https://www.josephsmithpapers.org/paper-summary/revelation-september-1830-a-dc-29/3.
 “Revelation, circa 7 March 1831 [D&C 45],” p. 73, The Joseph Smith Papers, accessed March 24, 2021, https://www.josephsmithpapers.org/paper-summary/revelation-circa-7-march-1831-dc-45/3
 “Revelation, circa 7 March 1831 [D&C 45],” p. 76, The Joseph Smith Papers, accessed March 24, 2021, https://www.josephsmithpapers.org/paper-summary/revelation-circa-7-march-1831-dc-45/6
 “Revelation, September 1830–A [D&C 29],” p. 36, The Joseph Smith Papers, accessed March 24, 2021, https://www.josephsmithpapers.org/paper-summary/revelation-september-1830-a-dc-29/1, emphasis added.
 “Revelation, 20 July 1831 [D&C 57],” p. 93, The Joseph Smith Papers, accessed March 24, 2021, https://www.josephsmithpapers.org/paper-summary/revelation-20-july-1831-dc-57/1
 “Revelation, 26 April 1832 [D&C 82],” p. 128, The Joseph Smith Papers, accessed March 24, 2021, https://www.josephsmithpapers.org/paper-summary/revelation-26-april-1832-dc-82/1
 “Plat of the City of Zion, circa Early June–25 June 1833,” p. , The Joseph Smith Papers, accessed March 24, 2021, https://www.josephsmithpapers.org/paper-summary/plat-of-the-city-of-zion-circa-early-june-25-june-1833/1
 D&C 115:7.
 D&C 136:1; Isaiah 2:2; Micah 4:2. See also Joel H. Johnson’s “High on the mountain top,” in Sacred Hymns and Spiritual Songs for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 13th edition (Liverpool, England, London England: Albert Carrington, 1840, 1869), 134, https://books.google.com/books?id=5XYoAAAAYAAJ&pg=PA134#v=onepage&q&f=false.
 Richard Smyth, “Israel, Israel, God is calling,” Sacred Hymns and Spiritual Songs for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 13th edition (Liverpool, England, London England: Alber Carrington, 1840, 1869), 154, https://books.google.com/books?id=5XYoAAAAYAAJ&pg=PA154#v=onepage&q&f=false.
 Charles W. Penrose, “O! ye mountains high, where the clear blue sky,” Sacred Hymns and Spiritual Songs for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 13th edition (Liverpool, England, London England: Alber Carrington, 1840, 1869), 376.
 Eliza R. Snow, “Think not, when you gather to Zion,” Sacred Hymns, 393.
 See Leonard J. Arrington, Great Basin Kingdom: An economic history of the Latter-Day Saints 1830-1900 Reprint Edition (Salt Lake City: University of Utah Press, 1993), 22-28
 Cited in D. J. Buerger, “The Development of the Mormon Temple Endowment Ceremony.” Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought, 20 (Winter 1987), 33-76.
 J. B. Allen and G. M. Leonard, The Story of the Latter-day Saints, 2nd ed. (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Company, 1992), 426-27; T. G. Alexander, Mormonism in transition (Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1986), 201.
 See Arrington, Great Basin Kingdom, 354.
 R. L. Britsch, Moramona: The Mormons in Hawaii (Laie, HI: Institute for Polynesian Studies, 1989), 44.
 J. R. Clark, Messages of the First Presidency of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 6 volumes (Salt Lake City: Bookcraft 1965-75), 4:222.
 Quoted in Church history in the fullness of times (Salt Lake City: Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 2001), 575-76.
 Quoted in Church history in the fullness of times, 576.
 See Church History in the Fulness of Times, 255; True to the Faith (Salt Lake City: Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 2004), 189-190.
 Jeffrey R. Holland, “Israel, Israel God is Calling,” CES Devotional (2012), http://www.lds.org/broadcasts/article/ces-devotionals/2012/01/israel-israel-god-is-calling?lang=eng.
 D. Todd Christofferson, “Come to Zion,” CR Oct. 2008, http://www.lds.org/general-conference/2008/10/come-to-zion?lang=eng
 Russell M. Nelson, “Let God Prevail,” CR October 2020, https://www.churchofjesuschrist.org/study/general-conference/2020/10/46nelson?lang=eng