A Conservative Take on the Ideal of Zion: Joseph Smith III and the “Gathering”

Nauvoo, Illinois, as seen across the Mississippi River from Iowa in the 1840s.

Nauvoo, Illinois, as seen across the Mississippi River from Iowa in the 1840s.

Perhaps the most persistent ideal in Mormonism has been the concept of Zion, essentially a utopia, and the gathering of the Saints to achieve it. The early Latter Day Saints believed that they had been commissioned from among the world to help usher in the triumphal Second Coming of Christ and the advent of the millennial reign by building a community from which Christ could rule the world. Accordingly, during the 1830s and 1840s they had established Mormon communities to serve as utopian centers, places that were a refuge from a world in sin and where they could foster a new, righteous social order that would be ready for the return of the Lord. Settlements at Kirtland, Ohio, and Independence and Far West, Missouri, however, were less than successful and eventually dissolved in failure and disillusionment.

The community of Mormons at Nauvoo in the 1840s, nevertheless, followed on the heels of these earlier efforts with little change in approach except relating to the scale of the experiment. Indeed, Nauvoo represented the height of the church’s standing in the secular world. In terms of size and importance Nauvoo during the Saints’ heyday was the epitome of the Mormon kingdom, the forerunner of the zionic/utopian mission of the church.  Without question, the community was the fullest expression of the Mormon ideal of the literal Kingdom of God with towns, organizations, and governments. It represented the most thorough model, thought the Saints, of what the millennium would be like. Still, it dissolved in failure: the prophet slain, the members circumscribed in their rights as citizens, and the community banished from the area.

There can be no doubt but that many in the early Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (renamed the Community of Christ in 2000) longed for a gathering and a community-building effort on a par with what had been done in Nauvoo. When Joseph Smith III assumed leadership over the Reorganized Church, his followers believed that he would begin the long‑anticipated regathering of the Saints for the building of another zionic community.  Smith, however, viewed the issue from a different perspective. He always had a love-hate relationship with the concept as it had been expressed in early Mormon communities. This was especially true of the Nauvoo experience, which he had firsthand knowledge of, and it led him to temper his approach. 

Smith recognized that Nauvoo had been both a triumph and a tragedy, the lessons of which he applied throughout his career.  He was attracted to the success and image of the city, it was the closest approximation the church had to the ideals of Zion as a theocratic institution.  The political power and secular authority also served Smith as reminders of the ultimate goal of the church, the merging of church and state into a benevolent theocratic‑democracy.  At the same time, Smith was repelled by the darker side of political power: corruption, influence‑peddling, and the hardness of political choices. Each of the reactions contributed toward the formation of Smith’s style of leadership in the Reorganized Church in this issue.

Joseph Smith III

Joseph Smith III

Joseph Smith III never directly commented on the failure of Nauvoo as a utopian experiment, but some of his statements alluded to the negative reaction it held for him.  Moreover, his actions as president clearly demonstrated his use of the fate of Nauvoo as an analogy for later Reorganized Church policy concerning community‑building endeavors.

While convinced that his father’s basic approach toward organizing utopian communities was correct, Smith believed that the early Mormons had tried to accomplish too much too quickly.  He believed that neither the early church members nor the non‑Mormons of Hancock County had been sufficiently prepared to overcome their fundamentally selfish human nature and accept an all‑sharing utopian lifestyle:  the Saints had lacked both the mutual respect necessary for a communitarian society as well as the personal piety and desire for perfection crucial to the successful establishment of such a Christian utopia; non‑Mormons did not understand the significance of such a society and mistook the theocratic‑democratic ideal for pure political takeover.

Joseph Smith III believed that the Reorganization’s community‑building effort should be more liberal and all‑encompassing than it had been during the Nauvoo period.  He maintained that the millennial kingdom of God could only be initiated through personal righteousness and moral perfection, and would reach full fruition only if the righteous attacked evil in society at large.  In contrast to the Nauvoo approach toward Zion which sought to remove the Saints from secular society, Smith’s emphasis called for the church to be involved in the affairs of the world with the hope that they would assist in changing it.  Young Smith’s hope that his followers would purify themselves and become moral crusaders in the world, therefore, represented an alteration of his father’s policies as implemented in Nauvoo. The logical conclusion of Joseph Smith III’s philosophy was an emphasis on Zion’s spiritual nature rather than its physical, community‑building aspects.

Smith summarized his basic approach toward church‑sponsored communities in an editorial in the Reorganization’s newspaper, the True Latter Day Saints’ Herald, in 1865. He wrote, “The church should begin to take a high moral ground in regard to the very many abuses in society, which can only be reached, to correction, by a strong setting upon them of the current of public opinion.” Smith repeatedly stated, as in one of his earliest epistles to the Saints in November 1860, that he would deemphasize the gathering of the Saints into one community as had been done at Nauvoo. “There is no command to gather,” he wrote, “at any given locality.” Before any gathering could take place, he continued, “there are many obstacles to be met by us, which are to be overcome, not the least of which is . . . prejudice.” He counseled the Saints to live righteously wherever they resided and to serve as a force for good in their communities.

Although Smith’s reaction to the analogy provided by the Nauvoo sojourn made him cautious in developing a policy on the gathering, his followers pressed ever more passionately for the establishment of a church community. Smith parried these efforts for several years with arguments that the Saints were not morally prepared for the effort and that any such community‑building experiment would end in failure as had Nauvoo.  “Strife and contention, with disobedience,” he chided in 1868, “are sure fruit that the gospel, with great witness, had not wrought in us the work of peace, and without peace in our heart we predict that no perfectness will come in Zion.” He claimed that only when the Saints cease “evil of any and every kind, become champions of truth, there will be no want of definite action or policy” in establishing a church community.

About 1870 Smith acquiesced in the establishment of a zionic community where members of the Reorganized Church could practice their unique community beliefs. He was never particularly excited by this effort, and at best was involved to ensure that the effort did not go awry. Indicative of his caution and hesitancy in this effort, in contrast to his father’s “God will provide regardless” approach in founding Nauvoo, was the much more tentative activities associated with the Order of Enoch and the founding of Lamoni, Iowa. The organization founding Lamoni was not officially sponsored by the church, it was a joint‑stock company which shed most of the millennial overtones of earlier Mormon community efforts, and it had established and managed the Lamoni experiment for more than ten years before Joseph Smith III moved there. 

Smith, moreover, never viewed Lamoni as the penultimate in church zionic endeavor.  At best, he understood it as a small step in the moral perfection of the Saints, an example to non‑members, and a tiny experience in the attainment of understanding about the zionic mission of the church. The establishment of Zion, he believed, could not be accomplished in one fell swoop, as his father had attempted in Nauvoo, but rather in a series of halting steps aimed at spiritual development and right relationships one with another. The effort would take years, perhaps even centuries, but the Saints should be content with small advances and not long for the spectacular. Nauvoo had failed because no one was prepared for its promise and made too many mistakes. Too much hope had been attached to it.  Smith would not allow the Reorganization to repeat the community‑building mistakes of Nauvoo.

What can we gain in considering this issue? I believe an important conclusion emerges in this study of policymaking in the church under the leadership of Joseph Smith III as it relates to this case study. While we may applaud or deplore the decisions Smith made depending on personal opinion, from his perspective the policy he established was based on a realistic assessment of the current situation both within and without the church. Smith accepted a policy of gradualism in dealing with the divisive issue, preferring to see changes some slowly after the church and the larger community had been prepared for them. He had a tendency to wait out opposition to controversial issues, in some cases postponing implementation for more than a generation.

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One Response to A Conservative Take on the Ideal of Zion: Joseph Smith III and the “Gathering”

  1. Polly Aird says:

    Brilliant analysis. Thanks.


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