EQ / RS Lesson 15: Establishing the Cause of Zion
Posted by douglashunter on August 4, 2008
I apologize in advance for the poor condition of these notes. I am posting them anyway because for the first time in months I actually have some lesson planning done before Saturday night!
I see this lesson as quite naturally lending itself to discussions of several areas:
1- The historical context of 19th century America.
2- Some possible differences between how we understand geography today and how early Saints may have thought of it.
3- The promises and risks to community that come with the concept of Zion.
4- The literal and figurative concepts of Zion and the different implications of each for our faith and action.
I admit that I am very much interested in the historical context in which Joseph Smith lived and carried out his work. Early American history contains a number of figures with striking similarities to Smith such as William Bradford and Cotton Mather. Its also worth noting that in early America, specifically nineteenth century America, the idea of establishing utopian communities was broadly circulated, it was one manifestation of the idea of America as the new promised land that we see from the very beginning of American such as in the writings of William Bradford who in 1620 helped establish Plymouth. Later, in the first half of the nineteenth century there were developments such as Harmony Indiana which was founded in 1814, by a group calling themselves the harmonists, who had hopes of forming a utopian society. The land was later purchased by Robert Owen and re-named New Harmony. Owen was An English Mill Owner and social reformer who wrote:
” I left [England] in 1824 to go to the United States to sow the seeds in that new fertile soil – new for material and mental growth – the cradle of the future liberty of the human race”
He traveled widely throughout the US to talk about his new community and was even invited to address congress. Like many he clearly felt that America was a unique place for the future and a place ripe with possibilities for new types of community that emphasized education, cooperation, and communitarian values that are not so different from those talked about but Joseph Smith and lived by the Saints as they established Salt Lake City and surrounding communities.
Also in the early nineteenth century the Shakers and Quakers were living in small faith communities governed by Christian communitarian ideas.
There was also the Brook Farm transcendentalist community founded by George Ripley in 1841 not far from Boston. This was a very well known community both for its ideals and for the famous writers who were associated with it such as Hawthorne and Emerson. Some of the main principals of the community were equality and personal improvement.
I mention all this as an introduction because it seems likely that to nineteenth century Americans the idea of the New Zion being in America was a not an extraordinary idea and Church members would contextualize the idea of a new Zion being on American soil both in term of Joseph’s Smith’s extension of Old Testament theology and also by the current events of their time.
Another aspect of the lesson may be a little more remote to us now. Our current context is one in which economics may well be the largest determining factor in where we choose to live and raise our families. It’s a very common pattern for Mormon families to live in one geographic area for the purpose of education and then when education is completed to move to another area for employment. In short we (like many others) participate in an economic geography defined by our opportunities for material prosperity. Granted that is often not the sole concern, but without going into it very deeply we can agree that economic opportunity is often at the forefront of such decisions. On the other hand the idea of a new Zion having a specific location calls one to think in terms of a spiritual geography. A geography that creates an inside and an outside, defined by a small area of refuge and righteousness where God’s promise would be fulfilled and a much lager area of danger and unrighteousness.
I find this distinction meaningful to the extent that our geographic thinking, decision making, and behavior probably do not occur in the same way they would have for 19th century Mormons who understood Zion as established in a specific location, in their day. I’m thinking of the example provided on page 184 of the manual concerning Polly Knight and her determination to see Zion before her death.
There is also a lot more than can be said about the notion of the inside and the outside. Not just as a geographic variable but on the level of the social within the Church and in the relation of those inside the Church to those outside the Church. I take it from observing Mormon culture that the notion of Zion while announcing a hoped for promise, a place of security and refuge; it is also marked by specific cultural risks, such as happens when the idea of being “of one heart and mind” is synthesized with the majority political or cultural beliefs of a community. The division of inside and outside also can put pressure on ethical concepts such as hospitality, in which the arrival of the other marks the moment at which we become responsible for their wellbeing. But the more certain we are of the righteousness of our community or the more we cling to the notion of our own security we also signal a change in our relation to the other. That the arrival of the other is understood as a threat, and what is engaged is not our obligation to them, but our need to defend against them.
The Gathering of Zion
Its also worth discussing what we mean when we discuss the literal gathering of Israel. It seems to me that there may have been a change in Mormon doctrine or at the very least a change in Mormon culture regarding this idea. Based on the idea that the new Jerusalem is to be built in America it seems that many folks naturally believed that all church members needed to come to the U.S. to live in the new Zion. Statements by General Authorities stating that the stakes of the Church are the gathering places of Zion seem to be intended as a corrective to the belief in a single geographic gathering place. Does this still represent the literal gathering of Zion, if its not the specific geographic location that matters but rather the faith and actions of the Church members, then haven’t we made a figurative shift? If so, what are the implications of it?
Further, we can note that the lesson starts off by emphasizing statements made by Joseph in the early 1830′s concerning the specific geographic location of Zion but then goes on to quote statements made in the early 1840′s that describe Zion as “anyplace the Saint’s gather” (p. 186) “there will be here and there a Stake [of Zion] for the gathering of the Saints . . . There your children shall be blessed and you in the midst of friends where you may be blessed.” The lesson also emphasized the spiritual work that needs to be done for Zion to be build and that a lack a righteousness prevents Zion from being redeemed. So this is the “call to action” section of the lesson in which the efforts of each individual member are called upon as part of the greater work of achieving Zion. Does a belief in either a single Zion at a specific location or a gathering at many different places, effect our expectations, attitudes or works towards the building of Zion? If so How?