The Mormon conception of Zion has changed dramatically over the past century. Today’s members of the church are likely to define “Zion” as wherever the members of the church are: LDS homes, congregations, and stakes. While the conception of Zion in the 19th century may have included these elements, these Saints were determined to literally be Zion communities: while people were the most crucial element, this ideal also included bricks and mortar, streets, buildings of worship, parks, and church owned and managed business. They were not only looking to make room for the Spirit in their hearts. Rather, they literally sought to build a place for Jesus to dwell among them; a place for members of the church to free themselves from selfishness and to perfect their characters. As Hugh Nibley put it, â€œZion is the great moment of transition, the bridge between the world as it is and the world as God designed it and meant it to be.â€
While the LDS church has grown and is much more prosperous than the church of the 19th century, it no longer exerts the reach that it once did over its members lives. Certainly the church is still the bastion of LDS leadership and the center of religion. Yet, it is no longer the collective employer, regulator, and economic planner that it once was. So, does the fact that the church no longer attempts to fill these roles, mean that the obligation to build a Zion-like community no longer exists? Most Mormons would concede that to some extent these obligations remain. Yet, I question what seems to be the conventional wisdom of many Mormonsâ€”namely that these obligations are reflected in the personal lives of Mormons and not so much in our politics, particularly politics as mundane as urban planning. In fact, many Mormons subscribe to politics that says that government should stay out of the market and that things like land use planning have little place in Mormon communities. I believe that this is wrongâ€”or at least missing something. I believe that the calls of the early Saints to build Zion still echo today. These echoes from the past challenge us to create placesâ€”not just homes but also citiesâ€”that are beautiful; to sacrifice not just by being generous with what God has given us but also by being willing to put aside self interests for the sake of larger community. We need to be careful that as we clamor to protect our individual interests and our property rights, we do not trample upon the collective obligations that would define a Zion-like community.
We can still try to make our communities both â€œholyâ€ and â€œbeautifulâ€ (DC 82:14). Even if this is a reach, I have to believe that Mormons should be much more involved in private and public efforts that at least strive for this. While holiness and beauty is definitely asking a lot, asking for a lot more than we typically get is not.
In full disclosure, much of these thoughts I plan to introduce as a guest blogger are based on an article I wrote called â€œRevitalizing Zion: Nineteenth-Century Mormonism and Todayâ€™s Urban Sprawl.â€ It recently was published in the Journal of Land Resources & Environmental Law. The article in its entirety can be found here.