Capturing the Holy City: Joseph Smith’s Quest for Zion

The quest to create a Zion community was a defining feature of the early Mormon movement. As they were forced to move from place to place in nineteenth-century America, the early Latter-day Saints attempted to gather to central locations and create holy cities—utopian communities based on religious principles taught by Joseph Smith. The practice of this ideal has changed within the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints over time, resulting in a very different application of the Zion ideal in the Mormon community today. In many ways, the term “building Zion” has become an abstraction within the Church used to encourage righteous living in families and church communities. This study—originating as an essay for the annual Leonard J. Arrington Mormon history competition at Utah State University—is an analysis of the application of the idea of Zion in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints over the course of its history with the intent of showing when, why, and how that ideal has changed within the Mormon community.

This will be placed on the blog as a series of posts covering four phases of the idea of gathering to Zion in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints: The Joseph Smith era, the Pioneer Era, Mormonism in Transition, and Modern Mormonism.

Joseph Smith--the founder of Mormonism--sought to create a Holy City or Zion in America

Joseph Smith–the founder of Mormonism–sought to create a Holy City or Zion in America

Joseph Smith’s Quest for Zion

In 1839, Joseph Smith gave an interesting sermon in Nauvoo. A rather striking statement from his teaching is as follows, encapsulating, in part, his idea of Zion:

This is why Abraham blessed his posterity: He wanted to bring them into the presence of God. They looked for a city, &c.—Moses sought to bring the children of Israel into the presence of God, through the power of the Priesthood, but he could not. In the first ages of the world they tried to establish the same thing—& there were Elias’s raised up who tried to restore these very glories but did not obtain them. But (Enoch did for himself & those that were with Him, but not for the world) they prophesied of a day when this Glory would be revealed.—Paul spoke of the Dispensation of the fulness of times, when God would gather together all things in one &c &.…

There will be here & there a stake &c. For the gathering of the Saints. Some may have cried peace, but the Saints & the world will have little peace from henceforth. Let this not hinder us from going to the Stakes, for God has told us to flee not dallying, or we shall be scattered, one here, another there. There your children shall be blessed & you in the midst of friends where you may be blessed. &c…. We ought to have the building up of Zion as our greatest object.—when wars come we shall have to flee to Zion, the cry is to make haste. The last revelation says ye shall not have time to have gone over the Earth until these things come. It will come as did the cholera, war, & fires burning earthquake, one pestilence after another &c until the Ancient of Days come then judgment will be given to the Saints (Cook, 2009, Kindle Locations 524-558).

Here we see certain themes that were important to Joseph—having everyone come into the presence of God with the help of the priesthood, a melding together and perfecting of the work of past eras of the people of God, and a gathering of Saints to specific locations known as the stakes of Zion to prepare for the Second Coming of Jesus Christ. It was, in a way, a summary of the more visible side what he was attempting with his life’s work.

Joseph drew much of his inspiration for Zion from a figure in his revision of the Bible named Enoch. Enoch is a figure mentioned briefly in the book of Genesis, but in the Book of Moses (the LDS book of scripture containing some of Joseph’s larger additions to the Genesis) his ministry fills two large chapters. Within this text, Enoch gathers the people of God together and they build a city of holiness called Zion. This community was so righteous that the Lord dwelt among them and eventually chose to take the city up to heaven (see Moses 7:13-21). In the narrative, Enoch is also told that before Christ’s coming the Lord would gather His people to build a Holy City prepared to meet both Enoch’s people and the Lord Himself (see Moses 7:61-64). This gave a template for the Mormon experience that was to follow.

Prior to recording the Enoch text, Joseph’s use of the term Zion was similar to other Christians of his day.  In Protestant parlance of the time, Zion was generally meant to be an abstraction—a term meant to designate a heavenly people or project. It was used as a synonym for Jerusalem and had connections to the heavenly Jerusalem referred to in the New Testament. Although the Book of Mormon makes reference to the construction of a New Jerusalem or Holy City in America, during the time leading up to and immediately following the formation of the Church in early 1830, Joseph Smith’s use of “the cause of Zion” seems to reference the “marvelous work and a wonder” he stated that he had been called to carry out rather than building a city (see D&C 6:6; 11:6; 12:6; 14:6; 24:7,9). Wherever the initial idea came from, Joseph’s fixation on the creation of an actual holy city seems to have come to full bloom after he recorded the Enoch narrative in December of 1830, with its description of a Zion community that was righteous enough to be taken back into the presence of God (see Givens 2012).

The story of Enoch in the Joseph Translation of the Bible inspired the Saints in their attempt to create Zion.

The story of Enoch in the Joseph Translation of the Bible inspired the Saints in their attempt to create Zion. Courtesy

The City Zion

With the starting point of the Enoch text in mind, it would seem that the city-building projects that dominated the early Church were inspired by the idea of continuing the Biblical stories in modern times. One historian noted:

The Enoch narrative created a deep history for the young church…. The writings gave the little flock a pattern for their own city-building…. [Harold] Bloom uses the word ‘transumption’ for this blend of a distant past with the present, when the people of one age think they are continuing the history of another…. More than restoring the New Testament church, the early Mormons believed they were resuming the biblical narrative in their own time. Linking the ‘latter-day’ church to an ancient sacred history was to become a hallmark of Joseph’s prophesying (Bushman, 2005, pp. 141-42).

Thus, the city of Zion was designated as the holy city—the New Jerusalem or Zion of the Old and New Testaments and the city prepared to meet Enoch’s Zion when it was to return. A site was selected in Jackson County, Missouri, and Joseph proposed a plot or plan for laying out the city according to the highest ideals of the time, both physically and spiritually.

In the physical sense, Joseph designed an idealistic plot for the city of Zion known as the “Plat of the City of Zion.” The city was to be a mile square with ten acre blocks that had twenty lots each. These lots were to be laid off so that no house would be exactly opposite of another. A large, central square would have the public buildings such as the bishop’s storehouse, meetinghouses, temples, and schools. The lots inside the city were expected to be respectable garden space while farms would be outside of the city. This allowed for a greater sense of community, giving “the farmer and his family… all the advantages of schools, public lectures and other meetings” and meant that “his home will no longer be isolated, and his family denied the benefits of society” (Roberts, 1965, pp. 1:311-12). Once this city was filled, this basic design was meant to be replicated again and again, spreading out to “fill the up the world in these last days” (Arrington, 1958, p.10).

The physical plans were not all that different from many other towns in New England and the Midwest of the day (see Jackson, 1977, p. 3). What set it apart were the spiritual ideas that were expected to guide the community. This Zion community was essentially an exclusive one in Joseph’s mind, “a place of righteousness, and all those who build thereon are to worship the true and living God, and all believe in one doctrine, even the doctrine of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ” (Smith, 2007, p. 185). All who were to live in Zion had to be true Saints and not be a part of “the vast wilderness of those that sat in darkness” of the surrounding communities (Smith, 1902-1912, p. 1:189). This led to emphasis on not only where the inhabitants of Zion were to live, but how they were to live: “this is Zion—THE PURE IN HEART” (D&C 97:21). This meant that Zion was to be holy both in word and in deed.

The Plat of Zion

The Plat of Zion

The concept of purity was connected with the idea of the community being a place set apart from “Babylon,” and a refuge from the promised destruction of the wicked. Just as the city of Enoch was “blessed” while “the residue of the people have [been] cursed (Moses 7:20),” the City of Zion in Joseph’s time was to be a “land of peace, a city of refuge, a place of safety for the saints of the Most High God (D&C 45:66),” while “among the wicked, men shall lift up their voices and curse God and die,” during the events leading up to the Lord’s Second Coming (D&C 45:32). The apocalyptic message undergirding these ideals—that the righteous must escape to Zion to be preserved while the wicked are to be destroyed—would become the driving force behind the idea of gathering to “be assembled upon the land of Zion (D&C 63:36),” hence Joseph’s statement in the opening quote that, “The Saints & the world will have little peace from henceforth…. When wars come we shall have to flee to Zion, the cry is to make haste.”

This gathering to the city of Zion serves as another example of ‘transumption’ in the Church as it became intertwined with the Biblical theme of the restoration and redemption of Israel. As early as September of 1830, missionaries were called to “bring to pass the gathering of mine elect” (D&C 29:7-8). The elect people they were gathering were designated as the children of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, marking those who joined the Church as the descendants of Israel scattered among the “Gentiles” (non-Israelites).[1] What were the converts to do when they joined the Church? These “elect” were to be “gathered from the four quarters of the earth… to be established an holy city” (Smith, 2007, p. 189).

Initially, the Holy City of Zion was one specific location in Missouri. An April 1832 revelation, however, gave an expansive definition to Zion beyond the focal point in Jackson County. It stated that “Zion must increase in beauty, and in holiness: her borders must be enlarged; her stakes must be strengthened: yea, verily I say unto you, Zion must arise and put on her beautiful garments (D&C 82:14).” With reference to the imagery of Isaiah 54:2, this meant that,

Zion was to expand like a great tent, extending ever more curtains secured by stakes. Kirtland was to be a stake of Zion, making it an outpost of the holy city and an authorized place of gathering… though the preeminence of Missouri went unchallenged….

Theologically, the revelation implied that Zion was not a single small spot in the center of the continent, but an elastic concept that encompassed any place where the Saints lived under divine law (Bushman, 2005, p. 176).

With this understanding, Zion could expand anywhere and cities such as Kirtland and (later) Nauvoo served as outposts or extensions of the Holy City.

Kirtland, Ohio temple--the first Mormon temple. Courtesy

Kirtland, Ohio temple–the first Mormon temple. Courtesy

Central to this idea of gathering was the construction of a temple. Joseph once stated, “What was the object of gathering the . . . people of God in any age of the world? . . . The main object was to build unto the Lord a house whereby He could reveal unto His people the ordinances of His house and the glories of His kingdom, and teach the people the way of salvation” (Smith, 2007, p. 416). The earliest references to a temple had to do with the city of Zion, such as an 1831 revelation that directed that land was to be purchased for the New Jerusalem so “that [the Lord’s] covenant people may be gathered in one in that day when [He] shall come to [His] temple” (D&C 42:36). It was during that year that Joseph traveled west that summer and designated Jackson County, Missouri as the gathering place to build the city of Zion. While there, he prayed, asking: “When will Zion be built up in her glory, and where will they temple stand, unto which all nations shall come in the last days?” (Smith, 1902-1912, p. 1:189). Soon, a piece of land in Independence, Missouri was designated as the location for this great temple to be built (See D&C 57:1-4.). While this temple was not completed, similar structures were constructed in Kirtland, Ohio and Nauvoo, Illinois.

What was the purpose of these buildings and how did they fit into Joseph’s plans for Zion? In the Enoch narrative that inspired the modern prophet, it states that “the Lord came and dwelt with his people” (Moses 7:16). The idea of a people—ultimately the whole world—being so righteous that the Lord Himself would appear to them and dwell among them seemed to dominate his thought for years, as indicated by the quote above that stated Abraham, Moses, and Enoch worked to bring their followers into the presence of God through the priesthood. Temples were to be the central location for the people to prepare for that opportunity while functioning as houses of God where “all the pure in heart that shall come into it shall see God” (D&C 97:16)—a sacred space where meetings with the Divine would take place. According to Richard Lyman Bushman, this was the true endowment that was promised to the Saints who built the Kirtland Temple—that those who were prepared would see God face to face (Bushman, 2007, p. 308). These temples also served, on a more practical basis, as the place to prepare people for the moment that Christ would appear through priesthood quorum organization, ordinances, and teachings. In fact, it may be stated that the Nauvoo temple endowment ordinance was a ritualization of the process of entering the presence of God with its a symbolic journey through being cast out of the presence of God as a result of the Fall and returning back into that presence after certain knowledge is gained and covenants are made (See Bushman, 2005, pp. 450-51; Talmage, 1976, pp. 83-84).

The Kirtland temple also served in part as a school for the Saints. Learning and education received strong emphasis as a purpose for gathering, in keeping with the belief that “the glory of God is intelligence” (D&C 93:36). An 1838 First Presidency message stated,

As intelligence is the great object of our holy religion, it is of all things important, that we should place ourselves in the best situation possible to obtain it.  And we wish it to be deeply impressed on the minds of all, that to obtain all the knowledge which the circumstances of man will admit of, is one of the principle objects the saints have in gathering together. Intelligence is the result of education, and education can only be obtained by living in compact society; so compact that schools of all kinds can be supported….

One of the principle objects, then, of our coming together, is to obtain the advantages of education; and in order to do this, compact society is absolutely necessary (Jackson, 1977, p. 5).

These early Saints were expected to learn all they could. Schools, such as the School of the Prophets and School of the Elders in Kirtland were founded on this ideal with the instructions to “teach one another words of wisdom; yea, seek ye out of the best books words of wisdom, seek learning even by study and also by faith” (D&C 88:118).

C.C.A. Christensen's painting of Zion's Camp--an attempt to bring the Saints back to Zion, Missouri after other residents drove them out.

C.C.A. Christensen’s painting of Zion’s Camp–an attempt to bring the Saints back to Zion, Missouri after other residents drove them out.

Gathering had its purposes and positive side; however, it also had its dangers. A large influx of Mormon converts to an area often sparked fear in locals already living there that the new movement was going to take over their community and property. This—among other factors—led to violence and tragedy on several occasions. By late 1833, the Saints had been driven out of their Missouri Zion and every attempt to return to their promised land had 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 for their lives to Far West, Missouri. Far West was spoken of in the revelations as “a holy and consecrated land,” implying that it was to replace the Zion in Independence (D&C 115:7; see also Bushman, 2005, p. 345). Within a year, they were forced to leave their land again, shattering their dreams in violent conflict once more. At first, there was some discussion about not gathering to a central location in the future, but, in the end, they settled in Nauvoo, Illinois and gathered converts to that region. Nauvoo, however, was set up as a stake of Zion, not the Holy City itself, while the Saints looked to return to their promised land (See Bushman, 2005, p. 384).

In each of these places, Joseph Smith displayed an inclination towards city building to achieve his religious ideals. With each successive community he attempted to follow adaptations of the plot he had laid out for the city of Zion (though expansion often was too rapid to do so), with temples standing at their centers. In each location, his followers strove to live the spiritual ideas of Zion as a community. It seems that the Church was seen by its earliest leader as more “an assemblage of cities, rather than a scattering of parishes and congregations” (Bushman, 2005, p. 221).

To fund this city and temple building, and as well to reach the ideal of having “no poor among them” (Moses 7:18), a radical economic policy was incorporated into the religious ideal of the Saints. As summarized by Historian Leonard J. Arrington,

Upon the basic principle that the earth and everything on it belonged to the Lord, members of the church were asked to “consecrate” or deed all their property, both real and personal, to a church leader called the “Presiding Bishop of the Church.” The bishop would then grant an “inheritance” or “stewardship” to each family out of the properties so received, the amount depending on the wants and needs of the family, as determined jointly by the bishop and the prospective steward. The stewardship might be a farm, building lot, store, workshop, or mill, or simply an appointment to serve the community as a teacher or doctor. It was expected that in some cases the consecrations would considerably exceed the stewardships. Out of the surplus thus made possible the bishop would grant stewardships to the poorer and younger members of the church who had no property to consecrate or too little to procure an adequate “inheritance.”…

In addition to the consecration of properties, family heads were asked to consecrate annually all their surplus production to the storehouse provided by the bishop for this purpose (1958, pp.7-9).

This law of consecration was applied with varying degrees of success in both Jackson County, Missouri and Kirtland, Ohio. A modified version of the plan was used for the short time the Saints lived in Far West, Missouri with the proviso that instead of giving up surplus income each year, they were to pay a tithing of one-tenth of their interest annually. By the time the Mormons lived in Nauvoo, Illinois, the Law of Consecration was seen as an ideal that would be unworkable in present conditions but be applied in the future. Instead, the tithing of one tenth of their initial possessions and annual increase thereafter became the norm. Those too poor to contribute tithing on property and increase were expected to labor 1 day in 10 on Church projects such as temple construction (Arrington, 1958, pp. 6-19).

A daguerreotype of the Nauvoo Temple. Nauvoo served as the central gathering place for the Saints during the last few years of Joseph Smith's life.

A daguerreotype of the Nauvoo Temple. Nauvoo served as the central gathering place for the Saints during the last few years of Joseph Smith’s life.


All of these aspects of Joseph Smith’s Zion ideal became a defining feature of early Mormonism: gathering together in communities to prepare for the Second Coming of the Lord Jesus Christ, construct temples, eliminate poverty, gain an education, and become a righteous people. Sadly, Joseph did not live to see his followers truly achieve this sort of community. In 1844, a mob killed the Prophet and his brother in Carthage, Illinois. That did not kill his ideals or religious organization, however, and they would carry on the quest for Zion without their beloved leader for years to come.

Works Cited

Arrington, L. J. (1958) Great basin kingdom: An economic history of the Latter-Day Saints 1830-1900. Lincoln, Nebraska: University of Nebraska Press.

Bushman, R. L. (2005/2007). Joseph Smith rough stone rolling: A cultural biography of Mormonism’s founder. New York: Vintage Books.

Cook, L. W. (2009). The Words of Joseph Smith. Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Company. Kindle Edition

Givens, T. (2012) “The Prophecy of Enoch as Restoration Blueprint.” 18th annual Arrington Lecture. Retrieved from:

Jackson, R. H. (1977). “The Mormon Village: Genesis and Antecedents of the City of Zion Plan.” BYU Studies.

Roberts, B. H. (1965). A Comprehensive History of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Century One, 6 vols. Salt Lake City, UT: Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

Smith, J. (1902-1912). History of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Vols. 1-6). Salt Lake City: Deseret News.

Smith, J. (2007). Teachings of the Presidents of the church: Joseph Smith. Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Ed.). Salt Lake City: Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

Talmage, J. E. (1976). The House of the Lord (Revised Edition). Salt Lake City, UT: Deseret Book Company.

[1] The following references in the Doctrine and Covenants designate the members of the Church as Israelites: D&C 27:10; 35:20-21, 25; 38:33; 39:11; 45:17, 28-29; 52:2; 58:44-46; 64:36; 84:6-34, 99-100; 86:1-11; 96:6-7; 98:16; 100:3; 101:64-65; 103:15-19; 105:26-27, 30-31; 107:72; 109:58, 60, 67; 110:11-12; 111:2; 113:2-10; 124:1, 58, 91-92; 132:30-31; 133:12, 30, 32, 34; 137:6.


  1. […] of temples, and a preparation for the Second Coming of Jesus Christ. Many of these themes do echo the idea of Zion that Joseph Smith taught and tried to implement with a distinct new twist here and there. These were, in part, the ideals that governed the Kingdom […]

  2. […] to this period of transition, the Mormon community was chased from place to place as they attempted to create religious communities in the United States. Eventually, they chose the desert of the Great Basin region to settle in and create their Zion […]

  3. […] Capturing the Holy City, Part I […]

  4. […] it is used as an abstraction to represent a heavenly people or project. Inspired by the Enoch text, Joseph Smith took the idea a step further and attempted to create an actual heavenly city on earth. The term was expanded to allow for outposts to the holy city, called stakes. After church […]

  5. […] [8] For further reading on the idea of Zion in Mormonism, I have a four-part series of blog posts starting here. […]

  6. […] [19] For further reading on the idea of Zion in Mormonism, I have a four-part series of blog posts starting here. […]

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