This year will bring a major demographic shift on planet earth. By the end of the year, for the first time in human history, more people will live in urban settings than rural. By the end of 2009, more than three billion people will live in cities, a third of them in slums (see Jonas Bendiksen’s haunting photograph of Caracas, Venezuela; used by permission, Magnum Photos). According to the Population Division of the Department of Economic and Social Affairs of the United Nations Secretariat, the percentage of the world’s population living in urban areas in 2005 was 48.6 percent. By 2010 the urban population percentage will rise to 50.6 percent. Truly, “to every thing there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heaven” (Ecclesiastes 3:1). As human history unfolds, this transition signals a new period, providing new challenges along with new opportunities.
In ancient times, many biblical events occurred in rural areas. For example, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob were primarily rural people living on the outskirts of towns and cities. Though Abraham planted a grove in Beer-sheba, he did not live in the city of Beer-sheba. Similar to modern Bedouins who live in the deserts and wilderness of modern Middle Eastern states, Abraham lived on the fringes of Near Eastern urban society.
Likewise, Jesus was raised in Nazareth, a rural village of two to five hundred people. For most of his ministry, he avoided the large cities of the Holy Land, visiting Jerusalem at the time of the pilgrimage feast because it was the site of the temple. The second largest city in the region, Zippori (Sepphoris), is not even mentioned in the four Gospels. In Galilee, Jesus avoided the large cities of Tiberius and Caesarea Philippi, although he visited the coast [region] of Caesarea Philippi (see Matthew 16:13).
At the beginning of the Restoration, the Lord began to move his work forward in the rural areas of America. During the founding events of the Restoration, the Smith family lived in the township of Manchester, not even in the village. The Church was organized on a farm in Fayette Township.
Only after his prophetic call did the Prophet become an urbanite. As Richard L. Bushman and Dean C. Jessee write, “Less than six months after the church’s organization, he sent out missionaries to locate a site for a city that the revelations called the ‘City of Zion’ or ‘New Jerusalem’” (Joseph Smith Papers, Volume 1 [Salt Lake City: Church Historian’s Press, 2008], xxiii). The Prophet “gave himself entirely to cities and temples. This vision drove him until the end of his life; and after his death the same vision inspired Mormon settlement in the Great Basin” (xxiii). They conclude, “Building cities was a strange mission for a person reared in the rural villages of New England and New York” (xxiv).
Why the move to cities? These gathering places provided central locations to organize the Church and erect temples so that the “fulness of the priesthood” could be restored (see Doctrine and Covenants 124:28). Again, Bushman and Jessee note that the Prophet was involved in numerous activities, but “city building, priesthood, and temples” were the heart of those labors (xxv).
Today the modern Church generally establishes mission headquarters in the major cities of the nations. Soon temples are erected in areas that allow access to the greatest number of people possible. As world demographics shift to an urban world, we will continue to preach to these urban centers and erect temples so that many more of God’s children can receive the blessings of the gospel of Jesus Christ.