Capturing the Holy City, Part IV: Zion in Modern Mormonism

At one time the people of England, Ireland, Scotland, and Wales who joined the Church longed to gather to Zion. They paid a terrible price in dealing with it. Hundreds of them, thousands of them died on that long march from the Missouri River to the Valley of the Great Salt Lake. You do not have to do that anymore. You can live in comfort in your native land and build Zion here. This can become your Zion in a very real sense (Hinckley, 1997, p. 726).

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints of today is–for the most part–a global church. This represents a shift in focus from being “the Great Basin Kingdom” to a worldwide Zion that could be, as President Hinckley put it, “in your native land.” Developments during the mid-to-late 20th century resulted in a need to redefine the way Mormons understood and worked towards Zion. Among the changes that took place was a change in the gathering doctrine.

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has been working towards being a universal, worldwide church.

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has been working towards being a universal, worldwide church.

1)      The Gathering and International Growth

The gathering had been a central teaching of the Church during the 1800s as missionaries told converts to flee Babylon or the world and come to Zion—wherever Church headquarters was at the time. For the first half of the twentieth century, the doctrine of gathering continued to be both an official and unofficial belief while being semi-officially discouraged. By the mid-twentieth century it had become a burden to growth rather than an impetus. As historian Alexander Thomas observed, “As long as Church members believed they should gather to Zion as a place of refuge against the tribulation prior to Christ’s Second Coming, membership outside the American West would remain small and would be drawn principally from the lower ranks of society” (Alexander 245). Change was needed to help the Church soar to new heights.

David O. McKay helped lead the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints into being a modern, worldwide organization

David O. McKay helped lead the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints into being a modern, worldwide organization.

The prophet who led the charge in internationalizing the Church was David O. McKay. Realizing that certain blessings were unavailable to members living outside of the United States, he began to work to extend every blessing possible to these faithful Saints. Foremost among these blessings were the blessings of the temple. Before the early 1950s, temples were only constructed in western North America and Hawaii. In April of 1952, President McKay noted to the Quorum of the Twelve that,

For years it has been recommended that the branches in Great Britain and Europe be strengthened, but… members of the Church in those lands when they get the spirit of the Gospel realize the importance of temple work and notwithstanding some of them held good positions, they have given those positions up and have come here in order to go through the temple (Prince and Wright 365).

Soon, efforts were made to construct temples on a more worldwide basis. Not long after becoming president of the Church, President McKay received a recommendation from Stayner Richards—the president of the British mission—to purchase property for a temple near London. The matter was discussed and approved by the First Presidency. A month after that, President McKay proposed the construction of a second temple on the European continent. Switzerland was suggested, despite a low membership, because it was “probably the safest country in Europe, and more accessible than England to most of the other European countries” (Prince and Wright 261). In early 1953, he also mentioned the idea of a temple in New Zealand.

After returning from a trip to select sites for the European temples, President McKay publically announced the rational for the construction of these temples in an Improvement Era article:

One of the steps which will contribute to the stability and growth of the Church in Europe is the decision to build temples to provide ordinances and blessings which have never before been made available in Europe. . . . For some time it has been felt that many of the recent emigrants from Europe, especially among the older age groups, would have been happier had they had a temple in Europe whereby they could perform the sacred ordinances for themselves and for their kindred dead, rather than to have to come to America for this privilege. There has been some concern too, to give these good people the endowment in their native tongue (Prince and Wright 262).

The London, Bern, and Hamilton temples were constructed to bring the full blessings of the Church to Europe and the South Pacific.

The London, Bern, and Hamilton temples were constructed to bring the full blessings of the Church to Europe and the South Pacific.

The construction of temples was used as an official reason to discourage gathering to Utah. In 1953, the First Presidency directed foreign mission presidents to discourage emigration, stating that: “It is the present intention of the Church to… provide temples throughout the world that the members may remain in the areas and yet have the opportunity to receive the blessings of the temple ordinances” (Prince and Wright 366). Other general authorities began to use temples to encourage Saints to stay at home. For example, Apostle Spencer W. Kimball used the temples to encourage members in Norway and England to remain in their homelands, telling them that the temples in Bern and London represented some sense of permanence and that the full program of the Church was available to them in their own backyard (Kimball and Kimball 289, 377).

Later presidents of the Church continued the push for more temples worldwide, most notably Gordon B. Hinckley. As a part of his program to insure that all members of the Church had “the ultimate which this Church as to give,” President Hinckley implemented the construction of small temples all over the world (Church, 2001, p. 642). It is largely due to his efforts that there are 169 temples throughout the world either in operation, under construction, or announced.

Temple construction

Other factors were at play in the immigration of Saints to the United States. Members abroad were often sparse in population and were concerned about their children being able to marry in the Church. One British mission president observed that he thought that this concern “probably… motivated them as much as any other single thing, because all their schooling and their associations were with non-members, and in that situation it was natural that they would marry out of the Church” (Prince and Wright 367).

In addition, stake organizations were non-existence outside of North America. Stakes marked a level of maturity in an area—both numerically and in leadership ability. Where stakes were lacking, wards and branches were usually run by missionaries and were generally a part of a mission directed by a mission presidents called from Church headquarters in Utah. Stakes were generally run by local members instead. Patriarchal blessings—a blessing given by revelation through an ordained patriarch to an individual, declaring their lineage in the house of Israel and giving personal counsel (Church, 2004, p. 111)—were not available outside of stake organizations at the time, with the exception of visits from the Patriarch to the Church. Although the patriarch—Elder Eldredge G. Smith—traveled the world to give blessings to areas such as the South Pacific (Weaver), such trips were not common enough to meet the needs of the thousands of members scattered across the globe.

One other struggle for members abroad was finding locations to hold meetings. Even though the earliest chapel the Church owned had been in England, by the early 20th century, the Church had no standing meetinghouses in the British Isles. Instead the scattered branches met in rented halls—often in deplorable conditions. Conditions elsewhere outside of the U.S. were similar—during the 1920s, meetings in Copenhagen, Denmark were held in the back of a saloon too large for the number of members left in the area. Members in Adelaide, Australia had to construct their own chapel. One description of meeting places in France during the 1950s characterized them by stating, “The best we can find to rent is one room, usually in some sort of mediocre club hall in a basement or upstairs, and in a not very desirable part of town” (Prince and Wright, 200-201). These conditions not only discouraged members, but turned away converts. As one mission president stated, “President Joseph F. Smith forty years ago or more said that a good chapel is worth twenty full-time missionaries as a proselyter. I think it’s more than that, in my experience. And in France, we don’t have them” (Prince and Wright, 200).

Again, President McKay took steps to rectify the situation. The Great Depression had crippled prior efforts in the building department of the Church, but when David O. McKay became president in the post-war era, there was the opportunity to build. In one press conference three weeks after he became president, McKay “told reporters that the focus of the Mormon Church today is upon building” (Prince and Wright 202). And build they did: meeting houses, temples, mission homes, and even stake centers were constructed all across the globe, sometimes reaching the point that it was sucking in more of the Church’s funds than they had meant to give to the projects. However, the construction of buildings lifted the image of the Church throughout the world and helped strengthen its presence as a worldwide Church (see Prince and Wright 199-226).

The Hyde Park Chapel in London, England was one of many chapels constructed across the globe during President McKay's time.

The Hyde Park Chapel in London, England was one of many chapels constructed across the globe during President McKay’s time.

An increased missionary effort combined with the end of the gathering to the American West resulted in rapid, worldwide expansion for the LDS Church. The lowering of age of acceptance into the field for full-time missionaries in 1960 and 2012 plus President Spencer W. Kimball’s decision to emphasize missionary service as a responsibility of all worthy male members resulted in an increased number of missionaries at work, leading to more converts in more places (Allen and Leonard 629). In addition, extending the priesthood to all worthy members, “without regard for race or color” in 1978 allowed phenomenal growth in Africa and South America that would not have been possible otherwise (D&C:Official Declaration 2; Allen and Leonard 633-639).

The Church was becoming an increasingly international Church and efforts were made to adjust to this shift in population. Hymns such as “Think Not When You Gather to Zion” and the Utah state anthem (“Land of the Mountains High” or “Utah, We Love Thee”) were cut out of the 1985 hymnbook and teaching manuals were steered away from being America-specific in their cultural focus to handling general gospel principles that could be applied universally. This was not always easy, as cultures vary considerably across the world. For example, one manual encouraged husbands to kiss their wives every time they left home. While that is perfectly acceptable and even expected in the US, displays of affection were not as acceptable in Japan. If a Japanese husband, trying to be a faithful Saint and live what he was taught, kissed his wife while leaving for work the day after the lesson was taught, their children might ask the father why he was biting his mother (Allen and Leonard 646). Other similar mistakes and miscommunications occurred as the Church dealt with the growing pains of becoming a truly international organization.

As a result of all these efforts, today there are over 3,000 stakes with almost 15 million members worldwide , and only 13.2% of all Church membership living in Utah, with only 42% in the United States (“Facts and Statistics”)—a substantial change from the 1800s when all Church members were encouraged to move to Utah and the surrounding region.

2)      Change in Doctrines

Abandoning the concept of the Gathering and the concept of creating a utopian Zion community had left discussion of these principles in a somewhat uncomfortable place. Rather than discarding the doctrines of gathering and of Zion, however, they were ultimately reinterpreted to more figurative ideals. David O. McKay’s son recalled that, “[Father] preached that Zion was not so much a matter of geography as it was a matter of principle and feeling, that the Spirit of God is within you. He preached that people should stay where they are. The gathering place was no longer Missouri or Utah” (cited in Prince and Wright 366). Further official clarification of the modified doctrines came 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” (Quoted in Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 2001, pp. 575-76). A similar conference was held in Mexico City the next year. At this conference, Elder Bruce R. McConkie taught the spiritualized idea of gathering that was becoming the predominant understanding of this doctrine in the Church:

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 (Quoted in Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 2001, p. 576).

"The place of gathering for the Mexican Saints is in Mexico."

“The place of gathering for the Mexican Saints is in Mexico.”

These statements mark an official shift in doctrine that ended the idea of gathering to a physical location of Zion. Prior efforts to discourage emigration to the American West were done with an unspoken reluctance to discard the belief that Utah was the Zion. 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 the designated Zion in Missouri was (and is) still a part of the Mormon millennial plan (See Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 2009, p. 255; Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 2004, pp. 189-190), but anywhere the Church has stakes and temples, or even exists, can be a gathering place for the Saints.

Early presidents of the Church made statements that gave the more recent leaders a precedent to work with in redefining Zion. Joseph Smith stated that, “Anyplace where the Saints gather is Zion, which every righteous man will build up for a place of safety for his children” (Smith 186). President Brigham Young likewise said, “Where is Zion? Where the organization of the Church of God is. And may it dwell spiritually in every heart; and may we so live as to enjoy the spirit of Zion always!” (Young 111). Both of these important leaders had an expansive vision of Zion: Joseph once said that, “This Church will fill North and South America—it will fill the world” (Smith 137), while Brigham stated that, “Zion will extend, eventually, all over this earth. There will be no nook or corner upon the earth but what will be in Zion. It will all be Zion” (Young 111). With these statements in mind, the shift in talking about gathering to Zion as an individual gathering into the Church and into righteousness was not a new idea in the Church, but rather an emphasis on different aspects of the Zion the early Saints had spoken of.

In this globalized, yet personal version of the ideal, Zion has been emphasized as being “the pure in heart” (See Moses 7:18; D&C 97:21), and functions as an inspiration for personal purity. In September 2012, for example, Elder Jeffrey R. Holland stated:

In these last days, in this our dispensation… Zion would be everywhere—wherever the Church is. And with that change—one of the mighty changes of the last days—we no longer think of Zion as where we are going to live; we think of it as how we are going to live.

He went on to explain a figurative fleeing of spiritual Babylon (wickedness) to enter Zion—righteousness and purity (Holland). Most other general conference addresses of the last fifty years that speak of Zion follow a similar pattern of using Zion as a term to encourage personal purity and serving the poor.

Elder Holland’s comments also hint at the adaptation of the gathering doctrine to modern society. One current Church manual goes further, stating that:

God gathers His children through missionary work. As a people come to a knowledge of Jesus Christ, receiving covenants, they become ‘the children of the covenant’… The Israelites are to be gathered spiritually first and then physically. They are gathered spiritually as they join the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and make and keep sacred covenants (Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 2009, pp. 247-48).

In this way, the Church organization has become the focus of the gathering doctrine. Elder D. Todd Christofferson said, “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” (Christofferson 37). Temples are a part of this gathering function of the Church as faithful members travel to these sacred, exclusive spaces to enter the highest ordinances of the Church. In doing so, they become “covenant people” by making covenants to live many of the ideals governing the utopian Zion concepts of the past. 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.

As for the utopian United Order of Law of Consecration that was associated with the early attempts at building Zion, some effort has been made to connect the welfare program of the Church to this idea. Founded during the days of the Great Depression, the welfare program was designed to “care for the needy while teaching principals that will allow need persons to become self-reliant and retain their self-respect.” Generally, funds are donated by Church members and are used to purchase and distribute food and other necessary items and to offer training and employment opportunities to those in need (“Welfare and Self Reliance”). President Henry B. Eyring stated that,

Our Heavenly Father hears the prayers of His children across the earth pleading for food to eat, for clothes to cover their bodies, and for the dignity that would come from being able to provide for themselves. Those pleas have reached Him since He placed men and women on the earth….

His way of helping has at times been called living the law of consecration. In another period His way was called the united order. In our time it is called the Church welfare program.

The names and the details of operation are changed to fit the needs and conditions of people. But always the Lord’s way to help those in temporal need requires people who out of love have consecrated themselves and what they have to God and to His work (Eyering).

Welfare Square, Salt Lake City, Utah.

Welfare Square, Salt Lake City, Utah.

The doctrines associated with the Mormon idea of Zion have shifted in their emphases to fit the needs of an international Church. The doctrine of the law of consecration or the united order has been tied to the welfare program. The gathering is a spiritual gathering into the Church rather than a literal gathering to a physical location. Zion itself is a holy people rather than a holy city—the pure in heart rather than a New Jerusalem for the time being. Most of the original, physical interpretations of the Mormon Zion seem to have been deemphasized and are viewed as future events for now while the Church deals with the situation of the here and now.


            Zion is a concept that has held widespread appeal in Christianity for centuries. Generally, 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 leadership passed to Brigham Young, the church moved to the Great Basin and sought to create a series of Zion colonies as a kingdom of God in the American west. When intense social pressures necessitated change, the Church entered an era of transition that resulted in a reshaping of the Zion ideal. The physical gathering gradually ground to a halt and was finally officially abandoned while utopian community ideal became represented in families, church association, and individual purity and righteousness. While an extensive history of attempts at creating ideal societies and hopes of a millennial Zion in Jackson County, Missouri are used as inspiration and direction for Latter-day Saints to be righteous—giving the Zion a uniquely Mormon flavor—the general use of the term today has come full circle, returning the quest to capture the Holy City to the abstraction it was at the beginning of LDS history.

Works Cited

Alexander, Thomas G. (2012). Mormonism in Transition, 3rd ed. Salt Lake City, UT: Greg Kofford Books.

Christofferson, D. T. (2008). Come to Zion. Official Report of the One Hundred Seventy-eighth Semiannual General Conference of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 36-40.

Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. (2001). Church history in the fullness of times. Salt Lake City: Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. (2004). True to the faith. Salt Lake City: Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. (2009). Gospel principles. Salt Lake City: The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

Eyering, H. B. (2011). Opportunities to do Good. Ensign May 2011. Web. Accessed 27 October 2012.

“Facts and Statistics,” Mormon Newsroom Web. 6 May 2013.

Hinckley, G. H. (1997). Teachings of Gordon B. Hinckley. Salt Lake City, UT: Deseret Book Company.

Holland, J. R. (2012). Israel, Israel God is calling. CES Devotional, Sept. 2012.

Kimball, E. L., Kimball, A. E. (1977). Spencer W. Kimball. Salt Lake City, UT: Bookcraft, Inc.

Prince, G. A., Wright, W. R. (2005). David O. McKay and the Rise of Modern Mormonism. Salt Lake City, UT: The University of Utah Press.

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.

Weaver, S. J. (2013). Elder Eldred G. Smith Dies at Age 106. Mormon Newsroom.

Welfare and Self Reliance. Mormon Newsroom. Web. 6 May 2013.

Young, B., (1997). Teachings of the Presidents of the Church: Brigham Young. Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Ed.). Salt Lake City, UT: Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.


  1. […] Capturing the Holy City, Part IV […]

  2. […] 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. […]

  3. […] 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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