“Zion/New Jerusalem,” Church History Topics
The terms Zion and New Jerusalem both appear in the Bible. In the Old Testament, Zion is typically a synonym for the city of Jerusalem with its temple mount. New Testament prophecies foretold that the Lord would one day create the heavens and the earth anew. As part of this new creation, a city of God referred to as a “new Jerusalem” would come “down from God out of heaven.”1 Preachers in Joseph Smith’s day disagreed about the meaning of these terms. Some used the phrase “cause of Zion” as a name for the spread of Christianity.2
The Book of Mormon and Joseph Smith’s early revelations spoke of a future city of Zion that would serve as a gathering place for the scattered descendants of Israel in the last days. Joseph Smith’s inspired revision of Genesis gave an account of a “City of Holiness” called Zion built by the ancient prophet Enoch. Those who gathered to Enoch’s Zion eliminated poverty and were unified, righteous, and pure in heart. Eventually, Enoch and the inhabitants of Zion were taken up to heaven.3 Beginning in 1831, Latter-day Saints sought to establish a city of Zion where they could prepare for the Second Coming of Jesus Christ. One revelation called this city the “New Jerusalem.”4 Another referred to Zion more broadly as a people who are “pure in heart.”5
In 1831, Joseph Smith received revelation that the site for the city of Zion would be near the town of Independence in Jackson County, Missouri.6 Bishop Edward Partridge began to purchase lands in the area and help settle new members as they arrived. In the summer of 1833, Joseph Smith and his counselors in the First Presidency sought divine guidance as they drafted a plan for the city, which included a grid of roads and 24 civic and church structures all consecrated as “temples” for different purposes.7 That summer, however, citizens of Jackson County drove the Saints out of the county, forcing them to abandon their land and their efforts to build the city of Zion.
In a series of revelations that followed, the Lord instructed the Saints regarding spiritual characteristics they lacked but which were necessary for any people who desired to build Zion and gave them instructions on how to move forward.8 The Saints began to prepare for “the redemption of Zion,” a time when they would return and reclaim their land in Missouri and resume building the holy city.9
The Saints’ attempts to redeem Zion, including appeals to the United States legal system, did not result in an acknowledgment of their rights or in an immediate return to Jackson County. In a January 1841 revelation regarding the failed attempt to build a temple-centered Zion in Jackson County, the Lord explained, “It behooveth me to require that work no more … but to accept of their offering.”10 The same revelation commanded the Saints to build a temple in Nauvoo, Illinois, and establish that city as a new place of gathering.
In Nauvoo, Joseph Smith taught that Zion “consisted of all North and South America,” adding that, in one sense, “any place where the Saints gather is Zion.”11 He also emphasized the importance of the temple for Zion and the gathering, declaring that “where we can get a [temple] built first, there is the place.”12 Joseph anticipated that a temple city such as Nauvoo would serve as the center of gathering, and that stakes of Zion would be established in many places, each serving as a refuge for the faithful.13
The Latter-day Saints continued to hope for a return to Jackson County, Missouri. At the same time, Church leaders such as Brigham Young taught the importance of building Zion wherever the Saints were. Not long after they settled in the Salt Lake Valley, President Young spoke of their growing city as a New Jerusalem and the rising Salt Lake Temple as the focal point of the gathering.14
In the 1950s and 1960s, the Church began to establish stakes of Zion in many locations around the world. Describing this effort, Elder Spencer W. Kimball explained that “the First Presidency and the Twelve see great wisdom in the multiple Zions, many gathering places where the Saints within their own culture and nation can act as a leaven in the building of the kingdom.”15 Today, Latter-day Saints gather to local stakes of Zion and build temples in many countries, and Church leaders emphasize the importance of becoming a people who live up to the ideals of Zion—unity, godliness, and charity.16