In 1933, Elder James E. Talmage stood before the Saints for his last general conference address, speaking on timeliness. As a part of his remarks, he made an interesting statement on the doctrine of the gathering:
There is a marked timeliness in the advice and counsel and instructions given to the Latter-day Saints from period to period…. There was a time when our Elders were preaching among the nations of the earth the doctrine of the gathering, and urging upon the people, the members of the Church in those other countries, to make arrangements to come to Zion as soon as they could…. There were told at that time… that the day would come when it would not be possible for people to come to Zion, and they should take advantage of the opportunities that they then possessed (Talmage 263-264).
What is interesting about this statement is that he spoke of the Gathering—something that had once been an important element in the Mormon worldview—as a thing of the past. In so doing, he marked the end of a period of transition that changed the shape of Mormonism, allowing it to function in the modern world.
Previous 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 society. Once more, however, America had other ideas for the Mormon people.
During the late 1800’s, the United States waged a war on the LDS Church in Utah, attempting to break the Church’s power over the people of that area and force it to conform to the norms of Victorian America. A series of anti-polygamy laws were passed, culminating in the Edmunds-Tucker Act of 1887, that drove the majority of Mormon leaders underground, disincorporated the Church and the Perpetual Emigration Fund (the Church’s means of bringing the poor to the west), and confiscated all Church properties valued over the limit of $50,000. This was “a trial even greater than that of Jackson County, Far West, and Nauvoo” that forced “the goal of the Kingdom… to be tragically revised, or largely abandoned” (Arrington 354), causing the Church to enter an era of transition. As historian Thomas G. Alexander wrote,
In a real sense, the Latter-day Saints faced problems similar to those suggested by Thomas S. Kuhn in his discussion of the history of science. Kuhn suggests that when one paradigm or means of understanding and interpreting evidence from the physical world fails to answer questions thought most important, a scientist or group of scientists will suggest a new formulation that supplies the answers. Conditions during the period of the 1890s constituted for the Latter-day Saints a challenge to the set of beliefs under which they had operated at least since 1847. The previous beliefs necessitated the integration of religion, politics, society, and the economy into a single unified community…. After President Woodruff issued the Manifesto, the leaders and the Mormon people began to search for inspiration to adopt a set of beliefs and actions that would save essential characteristics of their religious tradition, provide sufficient political stability to preserve the interests of the Church, and allow them to live in peace with other Americans.
Unlike the scientific revolutions about which Kuhn has written, the changes did not involve the adoption of a completely new world view. They did, however, require the abandonment or change of much that Mormons had considered essential before (2012, p.11).
In discussing how this paradigm shift changed the idea of Zion in the Church, three general areas of belief and action will be covered: the economic/temporal actions of the Church, the Gathering doctrine, and the idea of sacred space.
1) Economics & Temporal Affairs
Due to the difficulties that the anti-polygamy legislation caused, the Church’s influence over the temporal and political affairs of the region shrank considerably and the society in which the majority of Mormons lived was wrenched open to greater pluralism. This changed the policy of Church involvement in business ventures, the way it ran its finances and participated in the community—central points in how it played in the attempts to create Zion up to this point.
As a result of the Edmunds-Tucker Act, the Church handed over property valued at $807,666 to the federal government (Arrington 371), including stock, land property, buildings and livestock. Adjusting for inflation, that sum would be equivalent to $20,323,619 US dollars in 2012 (Morgan). Included in this sum was the Temple Block of Salt Lake City, which was leased back to the Church for a minimal sum per month, though construction on the temple was halted. Attempts to recreate the Order of Enoch or other cooperative efforts were largely destroyed by the government raids as well. In Brigham City, for example, federal officials placed an embargo on the withdrawal of timber from the area in which the cooperative’s steam sawmill was operating and tax collectors assessed a tax of $10,200 on its issue of script (credit to be used in the cooperative stores). The enterprises were finally liquidated in 1885 when their leader—Apostle Lorenzo Snow—was sentenced to the penitentiary for the practice of polygamy (Arrington 332). Almost every other cooperative enterprise or United Order in the Saint’s Zion was abandoned or given over to private hands as a result of the government raids during this period.
President Snow was one of many imprisoned for polygamy during this period. The laws that had brought the sword of the federal government down on the Saints were centered on polygamy and as a result of these laws, anyone guilty of cohabitation could be convicted, fined $300 and imprisoned for six months. Almost all male leaders of the Church went into hiding, were imprisoned, or left the country to escape imprisonment. For example, Joseph F. Smith went to Hawaii, President John Taylor buggied from home to home in northern Utah before his death in Kaysville in 1887, and George Q. Cannon could hardly spend two nights in one place as he was pursued all over the West by the United States marshal and his deputies before his final capture in 1886. Many members migrated for the Mexican colonies in Chihuahua and Sonora, and a few went to Albert, Canada with one of their families to avoid the US laws. To catch these “criminals,” government officials would invade Church meetings and beat on doors late at night, disrupting the lives of all members of the community (Alexander, 1996, pp. 192-194).
To disrupt the political power of the Church, voting was gradually taken away from the Saints. The Edmunds-Tucker Act disenfranchised twelve thousand Utah citizens and test oaths in Idaho requiring all voters to swear that they didn’t believe in or belong to a church that taught plural marriage or lose their voting rights. This disfranchised practically all Mormons in that state. Encouraged by the Idaho test oath, the senate began to consider passing the Cullom-Strubble Bill, which would have destroyed what remaining political power the Church had left by denying all members the right to vote.
Faced with total disruption of Church and community functions, financial collapse, and the complete loss of political power, President Wilford Woodruff sought revelation from the Lord, and published “the Manifesto,” which stated:
Inasmuch as laws have been enacted by Congress forbidding plural marriages, which laws have been pronounced constitutional by the court of last resort, I hereby declare my intention to submit to those laws, and to use my influence with the members of the Church over which I preside to have them do likewise (D&C:Official Declaration 1).
This Manifesto took the heat off of the Church and allowed it to continue to exist and function, though it caused intense changes in the Mormon community as well. Utah was allowed to become a state not long afterwards with the understanding that the Church would stay out of politics and the Church also received some of its property back. The years of financial attacks and hunting for leaders of the Church were over, but the ones that had already passed left many of the Church’s programs and finances in shambles.
In the past when the Church had been in trouble financially, it had tried implementing a United Order or Law of Consecration of having “all things in common.” In this time of change, however, a different approach was taken. President Lorenzo Snow—Wilford Woodruff’s successor—moved to promote the church’s financial stability in a few different ways. As summarized by Thomas G. Alexander, “First, to refund the debt, the church issued $1.5 million in six-percent bonds to replace many short-term loans…. Second, following in the footsteps of President Woodruff in the late 1880s, President Snow decided to abandon church control of a number of business undertakings, especially in mining and railroad ventures” (2012, p. 3). He did so at a loss, but the move to let go of business undertakings increased the financial stability of the Church. Thirdly, while visiting the St. George Stake, President Snow paused while speaking, and then declared that he had received a revelation. As summarized in one history, “The people of the Church had neglected the law of tithing, and the Lord had told him that if the Church members more faithfully paid a full tithing, blessings would be showered upon them” (Our Heritage 107-8). From there, President Snow preached over and over about the need to pay tithing. It was emphasized in all stake conferences, “and a year later President Snow reported that the Saints had contributed twice as much tithing during the past year as they had paid the previous two years. Under inspiration, he had set in motion the program that would, by 1907, completely free the Church from debt” (Church History in the Fullness of Times 455).
The successful use of tithing would overturn future efforts for a restoration of the Law of Consecration. While Apostle Brigham Young, Jr. expressed a desire to establish the United Order again in the late 1890’s and 1900, “preparatory to the redemption of Zion,” President Snow “emphasized instead the need to pay tithing to redeem Zion” (Alexander, 2012, p. 4). Whereas the United Order had been a means of creating a society where there would be “no poor among them” (Moses 7:18), President Snow taught in 1899 that tithing was a means of opening the windows of heaven to end poverty or at least preparing the people to be able to do so: “[Poverty] always will exist until we at least obey the law of tithing” (Snow 163).
The Church became entrenched into this position of tithing rather than the Law of Consecration, and when the presiding bishop of the RLDS Church contacted James E. Talmage and Heber J. Grant in February of 1929 to obtain suggestions for instituting the United Order, “President Grant had to admit that Brigham Young had died before he was of an age where he was aware of such things, and that he did not have any practical suggestions on the operation of the organization” (Alexander, 1986, p. 256). While the United Order still existed as an ideal among the Saints, it came to be viewed as something that would take place later on. From this time on, the principle of tithing held the preeminent position in the Church’s economics.
In addition to the economics of the Church, the political activism of the Church declined as well. Previously, politics in Utah had been dominated by the Church-led People’s Party, opposed primarily by an anti-Mormon political party. By early 1891, however, it had become clear that this course of action was creating opposition for the Church and the People’s party was disbanded. Efforts were made to adopt the mainstream US political parties in Utah, but difficulties arose: most Mormons joined the Democratic Party while non-Mormons were generally Republican. Efforts were made by Church leaders—particularly the prominent Republican Church leaders—to get members to not vote as a block. The efforts to create a 2-party system in the Church and for Church leadership to distance themselves from politics were not totally successful, but they marked an attempt at withdrawal from politics (see Alexander, 2012, pp. 4-5).
One other indicator of the shift away from temporal control of the region took place in the Church courts. During the 1800s, Saints were encouraged to avoid taking personal disputes to courts of law, but to come before church courts to settle differences instead (Allan and Leonard 271). During Lorenzo Snow’s time as president, however, the Church leaders ordered local leaders to not collect debts or take members’ property as part of a judgment in ecclesiastic cases, and further statements from the First Presidency served to firm up this stance, turning members towards legal courts instead (Alexander, 2012, pp. 102, 108-109).
The political, temporal and economic activities of the Church changed considerably around the turn of the 20th century. Pressure from the federal government caused the Church to abandon the practice of polygamy and to largely retreat from politics. The focus of the economics of the Church shifted to tithing and local religious leaders relinquished their ability to make legal decisions in courts. All this served to mark a shift from religious control of all community functions—as had been a central part of creating Zion in times past—to a focus on the spiritual side of life.
2) The Gathering
As early as 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 (see Allan and Leonard 426-27 and Alexander 209). Continuing the trend of his predecessors, President Joseph F. Smith repeatedly counseled Saints to “remain in their native lands and form congregations of a permanent character” (Clark 4:222). With these beginnings at the turn of the century, the idea of gathering began to be discouraged within the Church.
What were the reasons for this change? First, the Perpetual Education Fund Company (the Church’s company for bringing poor converts to the West) had been dissolved under the Edmunds-Tucker Law, cutting into the Church’s ability to fund emigration. In addition, Utah was becoming overpopulated, and economic opportunities for newly-gathered Saints were becoming limited as a result (Arrington 354). Also, as Church historians Allan and Leonard stated, “The original purpose of immigration, filling the region with Latter-day Saints so that the kingdom could not be shaken loose again, had been fulfilled” (Allan and Leonard 426), undercutting the need for more converts to come west.
Another possible factor in the change may come from President Joseph F. Smith’s observations as a young missionary in Hawaii. In an effort to fulfill the command to gather while keeping the Hawaiian Saints in Hawaii (permanent emigration of native Hawaiians was illegal at the time), the missionaries established a LDS colony on the island of Lanai in the 1850s. The problem was that only the strongest of converts moved to this settlement, leaving the less-faithful Saints to fend for themselves on the other islands. An LDS Historian named R. Lanier Britsch observed that, “Even as a young man Smith was blessed with wisdom. He perceived the mission’s most serious problem—that the Lanai colony benefitted those who gathered there, but weakened the branches elsewhere” (Britsch 44). It is possible that President Smith carried this experience with him throughout life, realizing that the gathering to the West was weakening the Church in England and elsewhere, leading him to discourage the faithful from leaving their homelands.
These influences served as practical limits on emigration to “Zion” in Utah. This change was not, however, an actual change in doctrine during this period. As Thomas G. Alexander observed, “The Church leaders took an essentially neutral attitude on emigrating to Zion. That is, although they used no inducements, they did not stop members who decided to emigrate” (Alexander 306). In some cases, gathering was even still encouraged. At an 1899 meeting where President Snow urged officials not to encourage emigration, the First Presidency and Twelve decided to not discourage immigration to the newer colonies in Canada and Wyoming. Further, in November of 1899 President Snow appointed Abraham O. Woodruff to supervise colonization for the church (Alexander 210).
Even still, as time went on, gathering became more and more discouraged. In the 1925, the First Presidency warned those who came to the Mountain West that they would have additional difficulties because of the language barrier and in 1929 they urged the German Mission President to only allow those who could purchase homes or had arrangements for employment to emigrate (Alexander 306). Though these changes altered—to some degree—the practice of the gathering,
Church members continued to think of the Intermountain West or Utah in general and the Wasatch Front or Salt Lake City, in particular, as synonymous with Mormon country. Most missionaries came from Utah and the Intermountain West, and pronouncements by church leaders discouraged members from migrating from the mountain West. Most importantly, on an informal level, Church members still continued to speak of Utah as “Zion” and to hope for a chance to gather there with the Saints (Alexander 245).
To help counteract this, the Church began to make efforts to bring the full program of the Church to regions outside of Utah. Efforts were made by the general authorities to visit the dispersed groups of Saints around the world: Apostle David O. McKay was sent on a world tour to establish contact with branches of the Church and President Joseph F. Smith left Utah to visit saints in Canada, Hawaii and Europe (becoming the first president of the Church to leave the American continent while in office). While visiting Switzerland in 1906, President Smith stated that, “The time would come when temples to the Most High would be built in various countries of the world” (Josephson LVII 9). Both President Smith and President Heber J. Grant seemed to sense the importance of having temples that people could get to, and soon temples were constructed in Canada, Hawaii, and Arizona. All of these efforts laid the foundation for a final revision of the gathering doctrine in the future that would redefine the location of Zion, though the Church seemed uncertain concerning how to deal with the idea for the time being.
3) Sacred Space
The temples served as a sort of centralized sacred space in the Mormon settlements—a place set apart for sacred purposes. In the case of LDS temples, a recommend stating that the person entering is a faithful member of the Church is required to enter the building. This, in part, is done to increase the odds that the person will contribute to the sacred atmosphere that is created inside to building, setting the tone for spiritual experiences.
The temples constructed by the pioneers were meant to serve as “holies of holies” of sorts for the Kingdom of God on earth that they were trying to create—a nation built up of entire communities of sacred space—a commonwealth set apart from the wickedness of “Babylon” and devoted to sacred things. That was why they were so willing to follow their religious leaders in both sacred and secular commands—it was all part of the grand operation of setting up Zion. Late in the 1800s, however, the attempts at creating this sacred space were disrupted: in addition to the attacks of the U.S. federal government previously discussed, the population of Utah was becoming increasingly diverse when it came to religion. For example, by 1890, only about half of Salt Lake City’s forty-five thousand residents were Mormon (Galli 124). This meant that the Mormon community had to be “in the world, but not of the world” (see John 15:19) instead of the exclusive, isolated society of Saints initially envisioned. These changes in the Church’s environment led to changes in the Church itself, shifting the focus from temporal kingdom-building to more spiritual things.
Interestingly, discussion of the very idea of Zion seems to have disappeared almost entirely out of discussion in the general conferences of this period (Shepherd and Shepherd 34). At first, President Lorenzo Snow held to the belief that the Saints would soon return to build up Zion in Missouri, even telling a congregation in 1900 that, “There are many here now under the sound of my voice, probably a majority who will have to go back to Jackson County and assist in building the temple” (cited in Alexander, 2012, p. 305). Patriarchal blessings often offered promises that recipients would live until the city of God should be rebuilt in Jackson County and live to see the Christ return in His glory. However, these promises tapered of somewhere in the 1920s or 30s (Fife and Fife 128), and President Snow’s successors chose to deemphasize the imminence of the millennium and the time to go build up Zion. One study found an intense decrease in eschatological (end day scenario) references in General conferences during the period of 1890-1919, with further decline of apocalyptic discussion in the subsequent thirty years (Shepherd and Shepherd 34). As in times past, the idea of Zion was tied to the Millennium and the prominence of both waned as Church leaders became more uncomfortable with the utopian ideals they represented and more concerned with building here-and-now spirituality in the members’ lives while integrating with American society.
These changes are not unique to the LDS Church’s efforts to work with the mainstream. As one study suggests:
A pluralistic situation [such as the one the Church entered at the end of the nineteenth century] undermines the taken-for-granted character of religious traditions and results in religious institutions becoming subject to the logic of market economics…. Religious organizations tend to become increasingly bureaucratized, result-oriented, and sensitive to problems of public relations. Religious belief systems tend to become more changeable; less bound to tradition, myth, and supernatural concerns; more preoccupied with personal morality and family issues; and more reflective of a standardized belief content which is broadly shared by competing religious systems….
Squeezed out from its former locus of supreme social authority… religion is perceived by contemporary consumers to have greatest relevance for the family and private spheres.… Contemporary leaders present to their conference audiences a view of society in which the etiology of modern problems is ascribed primarily to the apparent demise of spiritual and family values in a secular age, rather than to deficiencies in American political or economic institutions. Prayer, pious living, and obedience to God’s commandments, not institutional reforms, are the prescribed remedies….
Today the Mormon nuclear family, rather than Zion or the Kingdom of God, appears to have become the major sociological frame of reference for conference speakers. The Mormon Church is portrayed as serving the basic needs of the family, and the family in turn is defined as the basis of the church (Shepherd and Shepherd 29, 33, 36-37).
Thus, the ideas of the imminent Millennium and Zion were deemphasized and—to some extent—replaced by more tangible principles. One replacement for the collectivistic Zion of Mormon history—as stated above—was the nuclear family. Discussion of the family rose in prominence during the early 1900s. One outstanding example comes from the teachings of Elder David O. McKay of the Quorum of the Twelve, who often stated that “no success can compensate for failure in the home” (McKay xxvii). Later Church leaders would note that, “Only the home can compare with the temple in sacredness” (LDS Bible Dictionary, “Temples”), indicating that the home and family were to serve as sacred space for the Saints along with the temple—in a way, both serving as small unit cells of Zion communities spread out across the world.
As one of the few remaining sacred spaces left to the Saints from the pioneer era, temples became increasingly important in the Mormon worldview. One study found that the number of endowment ordinances performed per member (a per capita measurement) increased 563% between 1912 and 1940 while Church membership increased 207%, showing a dramatic increase of temple attendance for the Church as a whole (Buerger 57). These buildings served as a refuge from the world and a place the Saints could work together in peace to accomplish a work of God, in a way fulfilling a small-scale version of the Zion concept.
Temple work stands along with observance of the Word of Wisdom—a health code prohibiting the use of alcohol, tobacco, coffee, and tea—as the most distinct features of Mormonism that survived the paradigm shift of the 1890s and early 1900s. Emphasis of both of these practices came of age in the 1910s and 1920s, and perhaps that is not a coincidence. Thomas G. Alexander has suggested that emphasis on these practices arose as a reaction to the “breaches in the boundary between Latter-day Saints and others” caused by abandoning polygamy and the political/economic activism of the Church. He wrote,
Although Church leaders most likely did not consciously conceive it as such, the reinterpretation of the members’ responsibilities under the Word of Wisdom… provided a new and increasingly more significant boundary between Mormons and other people…. The Word of Wisdom did… create a boundary between with an increasingly secular and hedonistic American society and with religious groups that did not adopt Evangelical attitudes toward liquor and tobacco… [and] while certain aspects of the Word of Wisdom undoubtedly ingratiated Mormons with Evangelical Protestants, the abstinence from tea and coffee served as well to define a boundary between Mormons and these groups (2012 pp. 273, 284).
Stricter enforcement of the Word of Wisdom, such as the addition to temple recommend requirements of adhering to the principle in the 1920s, served to create a boundary of individual sacred space between Mormons and non-Mormons during this period of transition.
Thus, while the Mormon concept of Zion originally included the concept of creating entire communities and nations of sacred space for the Saints of God, changes that took place in the early 20th century caused the idea to shift to individual adherence to unique principles of Mormonism (such as the Word of Wisdom), temple attendance, and righteous families in the home.
The very nature and emphasis of Church obligations began to shift during the era of 1890-1930 from the more temporal construction of the Kingdom of God to spiritual wellbeing and individual righteousness. The Church as a whole began to withdraw from economics and politics, abandoning important principles that had helped to shape the very idea of Zion they had attempted to practice in times past. The gathering of Saints to Utah and the Intermountain West ground to a halt as circumstances became increasingly difficult for allowing immigration. These changes resulted in a need to redefine their understanding of sacred space, placing focus on the temples, the Word of Wisdom, and righteousness in the home as ways to serve God and be a “peculiar people” instead of the creation of a commonwealth of Saints. Many of these changes were practical in nature due to circumstances and laid the foundation of a new understanding of the concept of Zion, however, they were not entirely resolved doctrinally: that would be something that would take place later.
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