“A Promised Land,” Ensign, June 1976, 23
Some otherwise plain and rather ordinary places can become very special to us. Our homes, a hillside, the hospitals where our children were born, the cemeteries where they are laid—these and many more have special meaning not so much for the soil or brick itself but because of what has happened (or will yet happen) there. That meaning has more importance as the events take on eternal as well as temporal significance.
“The place of Mormon, the waters of Mormon, the forest of Mormon, how beautiful are they to the eyes of them who there came to the knowledge of their redeemer.” (Mosiah 18:30.)
So sang the prophet who knew that a pool of water is no longer merely a pool of water once you have been baptized there. “From lowest place when virtuous things proceed, the place is dignified by the doer’s deed,” said Shakespear. (All’s Well That Ends Well, II. iii. 123–24.)
The most sacred of places, then, will always be those locations which God has designated for holy and eternal purposes, locations where he is the “doer of the deed.” These places are revered forever by his faithful children wherever they may be.
America is such a place, but of course it wasn’t always called America nor has it always been identified by a distinctive continental shape. Originally it was simply a portion of that large, single land mass which God in his creative process called “Earth” and which, when completed, was pronounced “good.” (Gen. 1:10.) Whatever its name and geographical configuration, however, it was from the beginning a land of divinity as well as a land of destiny.
The choicest part of this earthly creation was a garden “eastward in Eden” where God placed our first parents, Adam and Eve. This resplendent place filled with paradisiacal glory was located on that part of the land mass where the city Zion, or the New Jerusalem of the earth’s last days, would eventually be built. (See D&C 57:1–3, D&C 84:1–3; and Joseph Fielding Smith, Doctrines of Salvation, 3:74.) After Adam and Eve were driven out of the Garden, they dwelt at a place called Adam-ondi-Ahman, located in what is now Daviess County, Missouri. In that region this first family lived out their days, tilling the soil, tending the flocks, offering sacrifices, and learning the gospel of Jesus Christ from on high. There Adam prophesied concerning all the families of the earth and, three years before his death, called together the righteous remnant of his posterity and bestowed upon them his last blessing. The Lord appeared unto this faithful group and Adam’s family rose up “and blessed Adam, and called him Michael, the prince, the archangel.
“And the Lord administered comfort unto Adam, and said unto him: I have set thee to be at the head; a multitude of nations shall come of thee, and thou art a prince over them forever.
“And Adam stood up in the midst of the congregation; and, notwithstanding he was bowed down with age, being full of the Holy Ghost, predicted whatsoever should befall his posterity unto the latest generation.” (D&C 107:54–56.)
Never before had one spot of earth been favored with such a meeting, nor provided the stage for such sacred scenes from the drama of man’s ultimate destiny.
But even as such sacred manifestations and proclamations were recorded, the land was being polluted with unrighteousness. The willful Cain had already made his covenant with Satan and taken the life of his younger brother, Abel. Others were joining in the work of darkness until shortly God “cursed the earth with a sore curse, and was angry with the wicked, … for they would not hearken unto his voice, nor believe on his Only Begotten Son.” (Moses 5:56–57.) The righteous Enoch helped save a city but the heavens wept over the wickedness of his generation, shedding their tears “as the rain upon the mountains.” (Moses 7:28.) Indeed, the earth itself groaned against the defilement of God’s sacred soil, crying: “I am weary, because of the wickedness of my children. When shall I rest, and be cleansed from the filthiness which is gone forth out of me? When will my Creator sanctify me, that I may rest, and righteousness for a season abide upon my face?” (Moses 7:48.)
Two generations later the Lord was so pained by that generation “without affection” (Moses 7:33) that he opened the windows of heaven and cleansed the entire earth with water. Thus, the “everlasting decree” (Ether 2:10) was first taught that he who will not obey the Lord in righteousness will be swept from his sacred land. The lesson would be tragically retaught in dispensations yet to come.
Holy scripture records that “after the waters had receded from off the face of this land it became a choice land above all other lands, a chosen land of the Lord; wherefore the Lord would have that all men should serve him who dwell upon the face thereof.” (Ether 13:2.) Such a special place needed now to be kept apart from other regions, free from the indiscriminate traveler as well as the soldier of fortune. To guarantee such sanctity the very surface of the earth was rent. In response to God’s decree, the great continents separated and the ocean rushed in to surround them. The promised place was set apart. Without habitation it waited for the fulfillment of God’s special purposes.
With care and selectivity, the Lord began almost at once to repeople the promised land. The Jaredites came first, with stories of the great flood fresh in their memories and the Lord’s solemn declaration ringing in their ears: “Whoso should possess this land of promise, from that time henceforth and forever, should serve him, the true and only God, or they should be swept off when the fulness of his wrath should come upon them.” (Ether 2:8.)
Despite such counsel, however, the Jaredite civilization steadily degenerated into a violent society which forced a man to keep “the hilt of his sword in his right hand” (Ether 14:2)—until finally he “ate and slept, and prepared for death on the morrow.” (Ether 15:26.)
But even as the last light flickered on Jaredite civilization, a bold new sun rose to illuminate a thousand years of Nephite-Lamanite experience on the same soil. Despite periods of war and rebellion, these people nevertheless had great moments of power and purity, including the personal ministry of the resurrected Christ, who walked and talked and prayed with these New World inhabitants for three indescribable days. There in the meridian of time the land enjoyed three generations of peace and perfection, which it would not know again until the Master’s millennial reign.
But the lessons of history, if not learned well, are certain to be taught again, and a lone father with his son lived to see the self-destruction of these people of promise. The Nephite-Lamanite morality descended from “sorceries, and witchcrafts, and magics” (Morm. 1:19) into rape, murder, and cannibalism (see Moro. 9:7–10), creating a vision so repulsive that it was “impossible for the tongue to describe, or for man to write,” a scene of greater wickedness than had ever been seen “even among all the house of Israel” (Morm. 4:11, 12). A thousand years after God had given such choice land to their fathers and a thousand years before he would attempt to do it again, Mormon wrote to his son Moroni:
“O the depravity of my people! They are without order and without mercy. …
“They delight in everything save that which is good; and the suffering of our women and our children … doth exceed everything. …
“Thou knowest that they are without principle, and past feeling. …
“Behold, my son, I cannot recommend them unto God lest he should smite me.” (Moro. 9:18–20.)
This favored branch allowed to run over the wall had reached that forewarned “fulness of iniquity” and was dwindling into disorder, darkness, and death.
Then in the allegorical prophecy made of these events, “the Lord of the vineyard” looked at the waste of his creation—and wept. “What could I have done more for my vineyard?” was his painful cry. No answer could be given. “Have I slackened mine hand, that I have not nourished it? Nay, I have nourished it, and I have digged about it, and I have pruned it, and I have dunged it; and I have stretched forth mine hand almost all the day long, and the end draweth nigh.” (Jacob 5:41, 47.) In spite of such grief and despair the Lord of the vineyard determined to “spare it a little longer” (Jacob 5:50)—long enough for one final attempt, long enough for one more dispensation, long enough for one final experiment focused on the promised land.
So, after a thousand years of preparation, the Spirit of God rested upon a young Italian sailing under the flag of Spain, and, as Nephi had seen in vision, “he went forth upon the many waters, even unto the seed of my brethren, who were in the promised land.” (1 Ne. 13:12.) This “Christian of almost maniacal devoutness” as Alistair Cooke calls him, this man with the zeal of Galileo, Don Quixote, and John the Baptist combined, was not to be denied. (Alistair Cooke, America, New York: Alfred Knopf, 1973, p. 30.) “Our Lord with provident hand unlocked my mind,” said Columbus, “sent me upon the seas, and gave me fire for the deed. Those who heard of my enterprise called it foolish, mocked me, and laughed. But who can doubt but that the Holy Ghost inspired me?” (Jacob Wasserman, Columbus, Don Quixote of the Seas, New Brunswick: Rutgers Univ. Press, 1959, p. 20.) Columbus stood on the captain’s deck, but the all-seeing eye of the Lord was on the compass, and the hopes of every dispensation filled the sails. The prophet Nephi had also seen in vision what followed: colonization, war, and the birth of a new nation.
“And it came to pass that I, Nephi, beheld that the Gentiles who had gone forth out of captivity did humble themselves before the Lord; and the power of the Lord was with them.
“And I beheld that their mother Gentiles were gathered together upon the waters, and upon the land also, to battle against them.
“And I beheld that the power of God was with them, and also that the wrath of God was upon all those that were gathered together against them to battle. And I, Nephi, beheld that the Gentiles that had gone out of captivity were delivered by the power of God out of the hands of all other nations.” (1 Ne. 13:16–19.)
Once again, after meticulous preparation and precise timing, the Lord had begun to build on his promised land a congregation that had compacted to pursue “the glory of God and the advancement of the Christian faith.” The cultural freedom of the Renaissance and religious freedom of the Reformation underscored the strong sense of personal freedom espoused in the Enlightenment to provide the ideal attitudes and environments for the beginning of this “first new nation.” George Washington, six years before he was inaugurated as the initial president of the Grand Experiment, wrote of America’s moment in history:
“The foundation of our empire was not laid in the gloomy age of ignorance and superstition, but in an epoch when the rights of mankind were better understood and more clearly defined than at any former period. The researchers of the human mind after social happiness have been carried to a greater extent, the treasures of knowledge … are laid open for our use, and their collected wisdom may be happily applied in the establishment of our forms of government.” (Henry Steele Commager, “America and the Enlightenment,” in The Development of a Revolutionary Mentality, Washington, D.C.: Library of Congress, 1972, p. 14.)
Thomas Paine also sensed the propitiousness of the times. “The case and circumstance of America present themselves as in the beginning of a world,” he wrote. “We have no occasion to roam for information into obscure fields of antiquity, nor hazard ourselves upon conjecture. We are brought at once to the point of seeing government begin, as if we had lived in the beginning of time.” (Commager, p. 19.)
Neither Washington nor Paine knew, however, the full import of their work or their time. Indeed it was a beginning, but it was a beginning of the end. The work of pilgrims and Puritans, patriots and politicians had been to prepare the way for prophets of the living God. With what Washington called “the singular interpositions of Providence” a political path had been prepared that would allow the “restitution of all things.” (Acts 3:21.) Less than a score of years after the Constitutional Convention had concluded its work and freedoms of conscience, speech, press, and worship had been guaranteed in a historic Bill of Rights, the Prophet Joseph Smith was born in clear, graceful Vermont, home of Ethan Allen and his Green Mountain Boys. As Elder Paul H. Dunn recently declared to a Church-wide audience:
“[Joseph] grew up toward adolescence just like the new land. He fitted it. He was young, clean, unspoiled—a lad without a past, kneeling in a grove. This pristine land—this innocent young man—and thus the Lord reached out and kept his promise. He established his conditions over centuries; you see, God has time. His plan made it possible for the holy priesthood and the Church to be restored upon the earth—the restoration of the gospel of Jesus Christ—but only in America. …
“The purpose of America was to provide a setting wherein that was possible. All else takes its power from that one great, central purpose.” (Ensign, Nov. 1975, p. 54.)
Thus in one final moment worthy men and righteous principles came together for the restoration of heavenly things. With his center stake in America, God began stretching the cords of his tabernacle to all the world, lengthening the habitation of Israel and establishing Zion wherever the pure in heart dwell. When that great global mission is complete and the angels declare “there shall be time no longer” (D&C 88:110), then the king and master of heaven and earth shall return to his temple and reign for a thousand years on a renewed and paradisiacal earth.
“He shall command the great deep, and it shall be driven back into the north countries, and the islands shall become one land;
“And the land of Jerusalem and the land of Zion shall be turned back into their own place, and the earth shall be like as it was in the days before it was divided.” (D&C 133:23–24.)
These two cities, Zion (the New Jerusalem) and the ancient city of Jerusalem, will be those capitals out of which both the word and law of the Lord shall go forth and to which all nations shall flow. (See Isa. 2:2–3.)
It is good that the historical celebration of the United States bicentennial allows us to focus on a land in which God has done so much of his work. It has not always looked the same geographically nor has it always been governed the same politically. But that all seems appropriate since the meaning of America, in its most theological sense, is something more than borders and boundaries, something above nativism and nationalism. It is an ideal, a thing of the spirit. Benjamin Franklin told his colleagues, “Our cause is the cause of all mankind,” and Patrick Henry spoke much more than he knew when he said America had “lighted a candle to all the world.” (Henry Steele Commager, “The Revolution as World Ideal,” Saturday Review, Dec. 13, 1975, pp. 13–18, 110.) The significance of that cause and that candle will not be misunderstood by Latter-day Saints wherever they may live. As with temple sites, missionary service, and area general conferences, gospel experience transcends the borders—and, if necessary, the flames—of nationalism.
A Frenchman, a contemporary of the colonial Founding Fathers, sketched the clearest meaning of America for those of other nations. Although the twenty-year-old Marquis de Lafayette had been ordered by Louis XVI of France to give up his expedition to aid the rebellious Americans, he defied the command and embarked for the New World. On board his ship The Victory Lafayette wrote back to his beautiful and concerned wife, Adrienne: “Out of love for me, become ‘a good American’. … The welfare of America is closely bound up with the welfare of all mankind.” (Maurice de la Fuye and Emile Baubeau, The Apostle of Liberty: A Life of LaFayette, New York: Thomas Yoseloff, 1956, p. 30.) So it has been and so it yet will be. And so it is—but in ways which only those who embrace the Restored Gospel of Jesus Christ can fully understand or appreciate.