‘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.