Mormonism’s self-identification as a modern replacement for ancient Israel mandated the quest for Zion as a literal place. The establishment of what the Saints called Zion had been the most persistent goal of the early Mormon movement. The early Latter-day Saints had believed they were 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 society 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 would foster a new, righteous social order preparing the earth for Christ’s return: Kirtland, Ohio; Independence and Far West, Missouri; and Nauvoo, Illinois. However, in each case the vision dissolved in failure and disillusionment. The reasons for failure were complex but essentially rested on the unwillingness of the Saints to live under the strict laws of the community established by the prophet and on persecution by non-Mormons.
This quest for Zion drove much of Joseph Smith Jr.’s scripture and doctrine, from his concept of “law” and a restored “priesthood” to his identification of America—and specifically Independence, Missouri—as the “promised land” to which Jesus would one day return. This concept of building an American Zion became the rallying cry of his young church throughout much of its early history. It was the glue that brought humanity together in the unity of pursuing a common and noble goal.
Indeed, the quest for Zion loomed as the quintessential belief among early Latter-day Saints. Even as other concepts proved nettlesome to many in the church—especially the theological speculations of the temple experience—the doctrinal development of Joseph Smith’s concept of “Zion” or “the New Jerusalem” has remained significant in all branches of Mormonism to the present, although its early millennial trappings withered over time.
Mormonism began in 1830 to focus on Zion as place, energized by ideas expressed in the Book of Mormon. When Joseph Smith translated the Book of Mormon during 1827-1830 period, it confirmed a prevalent notion among many Americans in the early 1800s that the American Indians were remnants of the lost tribes of Israel. The book contained the story of God’s dealings with two groups of Hebrew peoples who migrated to America by ship sometime before 600 before the common era (B.C.E.), but the second migration was the more important and made up the core of the account.
These people, led by a prophet named Lehi and later by his son Nephi, established an advanced and—for a time at least—righteous civilization in the Americas. The Nephite people’s civilization reached its apex with the visit of the resurrected Jesus Christ to America. During his sojourn with the Nephites Christ taught them his philosophy much more clearly and with less confusion than had been the case in Palestine. Following Christ’s visit the Nephites took part in a 200-year Golden Age that saw the formation of a Utopian society where all respected and cared for those around them.
From this success, however, the Nephites slowly degenerated to the depths of civil war. As the civilization deteriorated, the Lamanites (enemies of the Nephites although they had also once been a part of the society) began to destroy these people and in time exterminated virtually all of them. According to Mormon theory these Lamanites were the predecessors of the American Indians—the last remnants of a once righteous Hebrew people. The Book of Mormon peoples, therefore, are presented as descendants of Joseph through Manasseh (Alma 8:3).
The early Latter-day Saints, who held the native population to be descendants of the ancient Lamanites, believed their Christianization one of the church’s highest callings. The conception of this missionary mandate to the Indians was well illustrated by a hymn published in the church’s first hymnbook in 1835:
O stop and tell me Red Man,
Who are ye? why you roam?
And how you get your living?
Have you no God; no home?
With stature straight and portly,
and deck’d in native pride,
With feathers, paints and broaches,
He willingly replied:
“I once was pleasant Ephraim,
“When Jacob for me pray’d;
“But oh! how blessings vanish,
“When man from God has stray’d!
“Before your nation knew us,
“Some thousand moons ago,
“Our fathers fell in darkness,
“And wander’d to and fro.
“And long they’ve liv’d by hunting,
“Instead of work and arts,
“And so our race has dwindled,
“To idle Indian hearts.
“Yet hope within us lingers,
“As if the Spirit spoke:-
‘He’ll come for your redemption,
‘And break your Gentile yoke:
And all your captive brothers,
‘From every clime shall come,
And quit their savage customs,
‘To live with God at home.
“Then joy will fill our bosoms,
“And blessing crown our days,
“To live in pure religion,
“And sing our Maker’s praise.”
Since they were both the children of Joseph—and therefore spiritual cousins—the Latter Day Saints and the American Indians were believed by the early Saints as kindred peoples who would come together to jointly build up an American New Jerusalem as the land of their eternal inheritance—their own “promised land.”
Indeed, a mere fifty-four verses into the Book of Mormon these Israelites are told that God would send them from Jerusalem to “a land of promise” (1 Nephi 1:54)—the American continent. According to the Book of Mormon God was giving this “land of promise” to the descendants of Joseph (Ephraim and Manasseh) as the land of their inheritance—for both time and all eternity. The Book of Mormon peoples were given a “Promised Land” in the western hemisphere on condition of keeping God’s commandments.
Moroni, one of the Book of Mormon prophets, warned future inhabitants of this land: “Behold, this is a choice land, and whatsoever nation shall possess it shall be free…if they will but serve the God of the land, who is Jesus Christ” (Ether 2:12). An evolving concept, later Joseph Smith declared that in the “last days” before Jesus Christ’s return to Earth and the advent of the millennium the descendants of Ephraim and Manasseh would be gathered to the land of their “inheritance,” as the Jews would be gathered to the Jerusalem in Israel.
These descendants would build a city on the American continent that would be called “Zion” or “New Jerusalem” to coexist simultaneously with the Jerusalem of Israel that would also be built up. After the end of this age when “there shall be a new heaven and a new earth” both the American “New Jerusalem” and the Jerusalem of Israel would return to a renewed Earth. LDS converts also embraced the idea that the New Jerusalem is where the “lost ten tribes” will first come.
Joseph Smith continued to embellish his concept of America as a sacred space for Zion, “the New Jerusalem,” throughout the remainder of his life. In the early 1830s he undertook what he referred to as a “new translation” of the Bible that elaborated on America as a Promised Land of Zion. Not a translation in any strict sense of the term, he rewrote passages of the King James Version, adding and modifying as he thought appropriate, always contending that he was restoring through inspiration parts of the Bible lost over the centuries.
For example, in Smith’s revision of Genesis (chapters 6–7) written in December 1830, he told an extended story of Enoch, the father of Methuselah, suggesting that Enoch built a city for his followers—coincidentally also called “Zion” (Genesis 7:25). Smith wrote: “And the Lord called his people, Zion, because they were of one heart and of one mind, and dwelt in righteousness; and there were no poor among them. And Enoch continued his preaching in righteousness unto the people of God. And it came to pass in his days, that he built a city that was called the city of Holiness, even Zion.” Because of its righteousness, this city was ultimately “translated” and taken up into heaven. From that point on, many other righteous people were similarly “caught up…into Zion” (Genesis 7:34).
Moreover, in this scripture Enoch beheld in vision that in the last days before the return of Christ in triumph to usher in the millennial reign that the elect would be gathered “from the four quarters of the earth, unto a place which I shall prepare; an holy city, that my people may gird up their loins, and be looking forth for the time of my coming; for there shall be my tabernacle, and it shall be called Zion; a New Jerusalem” (Genesis 7:27, 70).
Just prior to Jesus Christ’s return to usher in the millennium, Smith wrote in his revision of the Bible, another city of “Zion” would be built on the Earth that would also be called “a New Jerusalem” (Genesis 7:70). Upon His Second Coming, Jesus would bring Enoch’s heavenly Zion with Him and join it with the Earthly Zion that had been established on the Earth (Genesis 7:71–72). This lengthy—and highly inventive—insertion into the Genesis account provided additional support for an American Zion as conceptualized by Joseph Smith and his Mormon followers. The Enoch revelation suggests that Smith had begun to explore methodologies for understanding and controlling church community, sustenance, and the concept of Zion.