Joseph Smith’s Concept of the City of Zion

Steven L. Olsen

Stephen L. Olsen, “Joseph Smith’s Concept of the City of Zion,” in Joseph Smith: The Prophet, The Man, ed. Susan Easton Black and Charles D. Tate Jr. (Provo, UT: Religious Studies Center, Brigham Young University, 1993), 203–211.

Stephen L. Olsen was manager of operations at the Museum of Church History and Art in Salt Lake City, Utah, when this was published.

In History of the Church, Joseph Smith observed that Zion “was the most important temporal object in view” of the early Latter-day Saints (History of the Church 1:207; hereafter HC). The founding of this millennial urban society was so important for the early Church that thousands of converts from several different countries sacrificed their homes, careers, families, native lands, comfort, health, and even their lives to realize Joseph Smith’s vision of an earthly kingdom that was, like Enoch’s primordial City of Zion, worthy to become God’s “abode forever” (Moses 7:21). So determined was this modern prophet to replicate on earth the spatial and social orders of heaven that when persecution and dissension began to frustrate Zion’s gathering, he exclaimed, “Unless Zion is built our hopes perish, our expectations fail, our prospects are blasted, our salvation withers, and God will come and smite the whole earth with a curse” (HC 2:517).

What was the meaning of this holy city that the early Saints and their prophet would hang their hope for salvation upon it? Certainly it was more than clean streets, tidy yards, well-built homes, and nice neighborhoods. This concept of the City of Zion—as identified in ancient scriptures, elaborated in modern revelations, and specified in drawings and descriptions by the First Presidency in 1833—seems to have crystallized for the early Saints a form or understanding of exaltation. Therefore, to examine the ideal physical and social dimensions of Zion in purely functional, morphological, or aesthetic terms leaves much to be desired. To be sure, this holy city would be practical, comfortable, and pleasing to the eye, but it was also intended to be much more. It seems as well that this urban form was to serve as the supreme temporal symbol of the Kingdom of God, the visual and material fulfillment of the restoration of the gospel in the Dispensation of the Fulness of Times. Joseph Smith left verbal and graphic specifications of what was the City of Zion, the earthly Kingdom of God. His concept reveals three dominant symbolic patterns that correspond to the three most general dimensions of any urban form, namely location, layout, and social organization. This paper will examine in detail the religions significance of the location, layout, and social organization of this City of Zion concept as a symbolic representation of the Kingdom of God in early LDS thought.

Details of Zion’s location emphasize centripetal symbolism. Images of Zion as the “center” abound in the verbal and graphic descriptions of this ideal city. Joseph described the ideal settlement destined for Independence, Jackson County, Missouri, as the “center place” (D&C 57:3). This place was metaphorically central in that it was an explicit model for the establishment all subsequent settlements, called “stakes” of Zion (Journal of Discourses 22:35; hereafter JD; HC 1:358). It became the first fixed location in the earthly Kingdom of God when Joseph Smith dedicated the land of Zion and ritually laid the cornerstone of its chief temple on August 2–3, 1831 (HC 1:196). Located “on the borders by the Lamanites” (D&C 28:9), the “center place” also symbolically mediated the relationship between the two major scriptural divisions of the family of God: Israel, of which the Lamanites were a “remnant” (see BofM Title page), and the Gentiles. This center place anticipated the “marvelous work and a wonder” prophesied in the Book of Mormon whereby God’s ancient covenants of salvation would be restored among scattered Israel and extended to righteous Gentiles (see 2 Nephi 25–30). Zion’s centripetal significance is further defined in the revelations identifying its location as fixed and unalterable, as the source from where the gospel’s message will go “unto the uttermost parts of the earth,” and as the destination of the “gathering of the saints” in the last days (D&C 97:18–21; 58:64; 84:4). The ultimate spiritual significance of Independence as Zion’s center place came when it was identified as the site of the primordial Garden of Eden and as the spot to which Enoch’s Zion would descend from heaven at the end of time (see JD 4:105; 10:235).

In short, the City of Zion in early Mormon thought served as an “axis mundi,” the ultimate sacred location, the point of contact between heaven and earth, and the beginning and end of human time (see Eliade 12; Wheatley 12–16). Thus Zion made sacred and of eternal value two of the basic dimensions of human consciousness—space and time. As a result, human perception of and action within the world as ordered by the principles of Zion would be thoroughly and completely sacred.

How is this meaning of Zion’s location symbolized in its physical appearance? In the first place, the sacred settlement itself was to consist of three concentric zones. The central zone included three blocks, two to be filled with a complex of twenty-four temples, and one for bishops’ storehouses (HC 1:358). This was the public zone, and Joseph’s description of the temples clarifies that all social functions—government, communication, education, exchange, and ritual—were to occur at or with reference to one of these temples (see HC 1:359). Thus all institutional activities in Zion were to be considered consecrated and sacred.

Surrounding Zion’s central public zone was a residential zone for all of her citizens. Dispersed or idiosyncratic residential patters would not be allowed. All inhabitants of Zion were to live within close proximity of its temples and of one another. The outer limits of the residential zone were the formal boundaries of the settlement square itself (HC 1:357–58). Beyond these borders would be lands which would be devoted to subsistence activities, primarily agriculture (HC 1:358). Thus the citizens would live within close proximity of their family’s “inheritance,” the consecrated land reserved for the faithful in Zion (see D&C 85:1). The word inheritance appears 52 times in the Doctrine and Covenants, with most references to consecrated land in Zion.

Each of Zion’s settlement “squares,” patterned after the “center place,” would be dominated by centripetal symbolism that defined a hierarchy of significant places descending from temple to residence to work place. Continuing this concentric spatial organization of the Kingdom of God, early Latter-day Saints located Zion’s “center place” within increasingly more general levels of geographical perception. In official descriptions, Church leaders referred to Zion variously as being centrally located within western Missouri, the central United States, the entire United States, all of North America, and all of the Western Hemisphere (HC 1:198; Roberts 1:260). Thus the entire Western Hemisphere was perceived as a series of concentric spheres, whose center was Zion’s “center place.” And at the center of the “center place” was the sacred temple complex. While the accuracy of some of these descriptions might be disputed by the evidence of cartography, they were probably more in reference to Zion’s spiritual location than its empirical one. The perspective of early Mormon thought suggests that Zion, in Jackson County, Missouri, was not just a place; it was the place. The early LDS hope for salvation in the Kingdom of God depended upon its proper settlement.

Complementing Zion’s centripetal location was its layout, dominated by cardinal and orthogonal, or four-square, symbolism. Every line, boundary, and shape of the ideal settlement plat met at right angles and pointed toward cardinal compass directions. Cardinal orientation created a series of squares and rectangles that defined this utopia’s territorial order. Joseph Smith repeatedly called Zion’s individual settlements “squares” (HC 1:357–59). Wide, straight, and cardinally-oriented streets created orthogonal blocks divided into identical rectangular residential lots. Each half-acre lot was divided into a front yard for ornamentation and a back yard for domestic agricultural production, with each home being a uniform 25 feet from the street. By alternately orienting lots north-south and east-west, Joseph Smith balanced the cardinal orientation of the entire settlement. Zion’s cardinal layout was to be preserved by centrally-planned, unitary construction. New “squares” in Zion’s world-wide settlement network were to be established under priesthood direction only after existing squares had been fully “laid off and supplied” (HC 1:357–58).

To date, the three most popular academic explanations of Zion’s uniform cardinal and orthogonal layout have been (1) the democratic land distribution practices on the American frontier, (2) a lack of aesthetic creativity on the part of Joseph Smith and (3) the historical experience of the Prophet in urban centers of America. The religious context of early Mormonism suggests an alternate hypothesis: that Zion’s cardinal and orthogonal layout symbolically represented two core spiritual concepts.

The first concept relations to the LDS notion of “gathering.” The gathering was the means by which the Kingdom of God would assemble from throughout the world not only the “elect” of God, but also all truth, power, and other eternal and divine features which had been scattered abroad or lost altogether from the earth through generations of spiritual apostasy. Hence Joseph Smith called this period of earth’s history the Dispensation of the Fulness of Times, in which

a whole and complete and perfect union, and welding together of dispensations, and keys, and powers, and glories should take place, and be revealed from the days of Adam even to the present time. And not only this, but those things which never have been revealed from the foundation of the world, but have been kept hid from the wise and prudent, shall be revealed unto babes and sucklings. (D&C 128:18)

Many scriptural passages that detail the gathering describe it as proceeding “from the four quarters of the earth” (D&C 33:6; see also 42:61–63; 45:46; 80:3; 125:3–4). Cardinal symbolism defined and ordered how the gathering was to occur throughout the earth as well as how the gathered were to be eventually arrayed in Zion. The symbolic harmony between the prescribed process of the gathering and its ideal result is both powerful and compelling.

More important is the symmetry between the territorial order of earthly Zion and that of its heavenly counterpart. Since at the end of time, heavenly Zion would descend to unite with earthly Zion for eternity (Moses 7:61–64), earthly Zion would be an imitation of its celestial archetype. The geographical vocabulary of the early Latter-day Saints, containing cardinal and orthogonal imagery, imposed a profound sense of spiritual order upon the landscape. By reproducing the spatial order of heaven in this way, Joseph Smith’s view of Zion anticipated the fulfillment of Enoch’s millennial prophecy:

And righteousness and truth will I [God] cause to sweep the earth as with a flood, to gather out mine elect from the four quarters of the earth, unto a place which I shall prepare, an Holy City, that my people may gird up their loins, and be looking forth for the time of my coming; for there shall be my tabernacle, and it shall be called Zion, a New Jerusalem.

And the Lord said unto Enoch: Then shalt though and all thy city meet them there, and we will receive them into our bosom, and they shall see us; and we will fall upon their necks, and they shall fall upon our necks, and we will kiss each other;

And there shall be mine abode, and it shall be Zion, which shall come forth out of all the creations which I have made; and for the space of a thousand years the earth shall rest. (Moses 7:62–64)

In short, temporal Zion was to be an imago mundi, an earthly model of a spiritual ideal and a territorial symbol of the order of human relationships approximating the order that was found in the City of God. Thus the practical distribution and use of the land in Zion must be understood within the more profoundly and thoroughly religious meaning of its referring to the spiritual status of her people.

What then was the order of social relationships, and how did this social order relate to Zion’s territorial ideals? Three principles of organization predominate in scripture and earthly LDS writings.

First, to coincide with Zion’s centripetal order, all aspects of this ideal society were to be regulated by priesthood authority, which the revelations given through Joseph Smith indicate is “the holiest order of God” (D&C 84:18). According to those descriptions, the keys of this authority were to be distributed among several quorums. These quorums were to perform various institutional roles—ritual, government, education, exchange, communication, and so on—at or with reference to Zion’s centralized temples (HC 1:359). Zion’s domestic environment was to be likewise directed by priesthood authority, administered by persuasion, patience, gentleness, love, kindness, inspiration, and “pure-knowledge” (D&C 121:41–42). Finally, Zion’s subsistence activities were also to be governed by priesthood authority. Economic production was to be under the direction of Zion’s patriarchal households, and economic distribution was to be administered by the bishopric out of the storehouses and temples on the public square (see 42:30–38). Thus all social activities were to be regulated by priesthood authority and were to be considered consecrated and holy.

Secondly, Zion’s inhabitants were to live in an equal and self-sufficient society. They would accomplish this through the covenant of consecration, required of all who would receive an “inheritance in Zion.” By this covenant, residents of Zion would abandon ownership rights to all their property in return for a “stewardship,” or conditional, perpetual use rights over a portion of Zion’s material resources. Working together with these resources, families would provide for their own needs and donate their surplus for the blessing of the poor and the growth of the Kingdom (D&C 42:30–38). Thus Zion’s inhabitants would be equal in their relationship to the centers of authority and the means of production (78:5–6). This would eliminate from Zion the power relations of politics and the individualizing and stratifying tendencies of market economies, private property, and class distinctions. Because all inhabitants would be equal in earthly things, they could then become equal in and thus united by heavenly things, making them worthy of being God’s people.

Thirdly, interpersonal interaction was to be governed by the highest moral principles, all of which are embodied in the gospel of Jesus Christ. Charity, unity, service, compassion, cooperation, mercy, respect, and honesty were among the social values of Zion, as were purity, integrity, obedience, justice, and virtue (see D&C 42). Scripture characterizes Zion’s inhabitants thus: “They were of one heart and one mind and dwelt in righteousness, and there was no poor among them” (Moses 7:18).

In short, Zion’s social order complemented its territorial order—both were centrally focused on and mutually ordered by religious principles. Whatever collateral lessons we might learn from comparing the Prophet Joseph Smith’s concept of the City of Zion to other settlement traditions—whether utopian, democratic, colonial, millenarian, communitarian, or so on—we will not fully understand the foundations of Mormon settlement until we examine the specific religious context of its origins.

From a religious perspective, the City of Zion defined a spiritual cosmology that integrated in powerful and compelling ways the ultimate concepts of earth and heaven, time and eternity, and humanity and God. Specifically, heaven was an actual place where God dwelled with his ransomed Saints. Its physical and social orders were characterized by purity, righteousness, and power. Joseph Smith was called by God to prepare the earth and its inhabitants for the extension of heaven into this sphere of God’s creation. Zion’s territorial order thus served the early Saints as a material symbol of the lofty spiritual realities that the restoration of the gospel would establish.


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