The Globalization of Zion

‘Zion’ has been a central theological concept and practical imperative of the Community of Christ, since its very beginnings.  Particularly in the first half of the 20th century, Zion (not to be confused with Zionism) represented a vision of ‘the kingdom of heaven on earth’ – not to be realized in some far off future, but to be built in the here and now. But the political and economic forces of globalization have significantly impacted the way the Community of Christ now thinks of Zion.

Early Mormons, the Community of Christ’s forebears, were urged to “Seek to bring forth and establish the cause of Zion,” described by Joseph Smith, Jr. as both a social condition and also a specific geographic place. In July 1831, Smith designated Independence, Missouri – the head of the Western trails – as the “Center Place,” a “land of promise, and the place for the city of Zion.” Other early Mormon communal experiments were built in Nauvoo, Illinois and Kirtland, Ohio.

In the early 20th century, the RLDS church placed renewed emphasis on the idea of building Zion. Drawing on the social gospel and his training in sociology, church President-Prophet, Frederick M. Smith laid out a coherent vision of Zion as a “new social order,” a “New Jerusalem” to be established in Independence. While respecting the need for each person to have private property, he argued for the “communizing of surplus wealth” to be redistributed and administered “in the interest of the group,” “according to the law of need” and “public benefit.” He called for the establishment of public institutions such as schools, ‘storehouses’ and churches to “control economic and industrial conditions in consonance with religious ideals.” Prior to 1960 then, the Community of Christ mental map pivoted around Independence – the ‘Centerplace,’ ‘Zion.’ Congregations in other parts of the world were called ‘branches’ – they branched out from the trunk – rooted firmly in Jackson County, Missouri. Good members were expected to ‘gather’ from the peripheries into the center, to build heaven on earth in a specific, geographic place.

However, by the 21st Century, church leaders spoke of Zion as an abstract vision, to be implemented wherever members were living, in their neighborhoods and those of their congregations “throughout the world.” Gone was the emphasis on ‘gathering’ to Independence and leaders no longer called for a radical sharing of socio-economic resources.  The social gospel, in terms of the redistribution of wealth largely occurred in the geographic ‘peripheries’ of the developing world and was outsourced to quasi-affiliated organizations like Outreach International. Zion had been ‘hollowed out.’

I believe the explanation for this massive shift in organizational thought and practice lies in part in the internationalization of the church since the early 1960s. In this paper I presented last week at the Mormon History Association conference in Independence, I look at how globalization has impacted the Community of Christ’s understanding of Zion.

I would be interested in what you readers think about the relevance of the concept of Zion for our current times, and how it could be reinterpreted in our post-modern, globalized context.


9 comments on “The Globalization of Zion

  1. Joseph Smidt says:

    Zion for the LDS Church has also grown more abstract. I’m to young to remember it well, but my parents and grandparents said they were always told to be prepared to move to Missouri for when the Church is called back to Zion. Today, Zion is universally defined in terms of the more abstract notion that can be applied on every corner of the globe just as much as Missouri.

    Mormons universally believe everywhere can be Zion on Earth.

  2. Margie Miller says:

    And, in fact, if we read the gospels carefully, we see that is the primary message Jesus brought and taught. Society must change from all “me oriented” to “the other oriented” in order for that dream to be realized.

    Capitalism, a greed driven type of government, will never work as the government of the kingdom. Socialism, or some form of it, will have to be the type of government that will work for the kingdom to be realized. And that is what F. M. Smith had in mind with his dream of redistribution of wealth.

  3. Doug Gregory says:

    Margie, rightly or wrongly, the term “socialism” strikes me as sharing by command, where something like “communalism” is a place and governance of willful choosing.

  4. mattfrizzell says:


    I’m very interested in this topic of Zion and outlined a book about it at one time. My simple approach centered around a typology, clarifying an early, modern, and postmodern understandings of Zion. The early phase generally followed an understanding about the “truth” of scriptural narrative, which collapsed history on myth (paralleled in America’s own sense of election and manifest destiny in the 19th C), and the latter day saints’ identifying themselves in that unfolding American-Christian Restoration narrative. The modern understanding would follow much of what you outlined here, generally F. M.’s response to the social gospel and his “Foundations of Zion” up to the printing of Concepts of Zion in the 1970’s (as I recall). This modern approach was generally characterized by the “demythologization” of the Restoration myth and more systematic approach to Zion amidst modern systems and conceptual ways of thinking. The modern demonstrated an interesting mix of more social and rational approaches along with our residual sectarian understanding of Zion as a Restoration movement. I was working on developing the postmodern, which would be largely shaped by cynicism over universalistic approaches to the ideal society and more decentralized and pluralistic approaches to Zion. Such approaches would continue to be marked by a mix of religious and secular rationality due to a conscious influence of religious motifs with culture, a high view of the individual, and globalized consciousness, which for me includes a sense of environment, economics, mobility, and militarization. Postmodern Zion is as virtual and abstract as the individual lives imagining it, as well as “real” as the communities whose imagination it captures. Again, the barrier of the religious and secular is bridged, which is the function of Zion theologically in the Restoration. That is why the RLDS-only Zion and millenialism had to be overcome.

    I look forward to your paper and would love to outline a book with you on it. I don’t care if it followed by typology or not. I think the spirit behind the vision for Zion is the portal through which Community of Christ is being redefined, which is as central to the Restoration as any religious concept. Great thinking on this.

    It’s time to secularize Zion completely so as to aid in our rediscovery of its deepest roots in a religious vision for history in which humanism and faith are not separated or separable.

    • FireTag says:

      I wanted to comment on Matt B’s post and Matt F’s subsequent post on “telos” together because I see a connection. Matt F.’s analogy about the butterfly may be applicable to the reconceptualization of Zion in a different way than we may be realizing: projecting the trend of the “post-modern” forward into the future and building Zionic concepts on that assumption may just be missing the intermediate, cocoon stage and assuming that the big green worm is just going to keep getting bigger.

      I’ve been watching a documentary series on WW1 this week and realized how much its foundation was related to instabilities that were induced as one part of the world, Germany, tried to consolidate into a modern nation from a collection of mini-states in the presence of dying empires at the limits of the social development their organizational modes permitted.

      There had been peace in Europe for forty years and tremendous social progress. Then social instabilities arose, seemingly from little personal flaws and insignificant events, and killed 10’s of millions.

      I was also reading up this week at on how “jumpy” our movement toward integrating xociety globally may prove. We don’t know how the interactions of integrating at this level are going to work out anymore than we could have predicted how the integration of Germany would go.

      Does the movement toward further localization of the church into national churches seen in Section 164 portend preparation for the time when integration of the new must go on simultaneously with disintegration of the old?

      What religious institutions, and parts of religious institutions have to disintegrate to find their places in the new integration? Where do we as individuals find ourselves led to take a part in the emerging Kingdom?

      I think we have to ask the question about “telos” at the personal, institutional, AND societal levels simultaneously to see what the butterfly is supposed to look like.

  5. Albert Burdick says:

    I note that Dr.Bolton refers to the cause of zion without identifying that “The Church” is the “Cause of Zion”. Note that the phrase is only used prior to the Church being established on April 6, 1830. The only other scriptural reference is by President Wallace B. Smth.

  6. […] Am I the only one who thinks the desire of the Occupy Movement to establish communal encampments, sharing things in common, using consensus decisionmaking and considering how to discern paths to a more just and equitable society has interesting resonances with the Community of Christ’s historical theology of building Zion — building ‘kingdom of heaven’ in the here an…? […]

  7. […] I have found similar research findings in other sectors, including humanitarian aid in Haiti, and a church’s social services. There is not a straightforward line between neo-liberal reforms and a better world. In fact, […]

  8. […] Am I the only one who thinks the desire of the Occupy Movement to establish communal encampments, sharing things in common, using consensus decisionmaking and considering how to discern paths to a more just and equitable society has interesting resonances with the Community of Christ’s historical theology of building Zion — building ‘kingdom of heaven’ in the here and now? […]

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