From Zion to Destruction: Lessons of 4 Nephi

Hide Footnotes


“From Zion to Destruction: Lessons of 4 Nephi,” Liahona, Nov. 2000, 14

From Zion to Destruction:

Lessons of 4 Nephi

For those who seek to establish Zion in our day, 4 Nephi may offer the most instructive description found in holy writ.

It seems the Lord uses every tool and technique at His disposal—scriptures, living prophets, and temples—to teach us that He wants (and has always wanted) His covenant people to move toward establishing Zion. For example, the tenth article of faith reaffirms our belief that Zion will be built again on the American continent. And the Prophet Joseph Smith stated that “we ought to have the building up of Zion as our greatest object.”1 In 1829, even before the Church was organized, the Lord gave this counsel to Joseph Smith, Oliver Cowdery, Hyrum Smith, Joseph Knight, and David Whitmer: “Keep my commandments, and seek to bring forth and establish the cause of Zion” (D&C 6:6; D&C 11:6; D&C 12:6; see also D&C 14:6).

Of all the descriptions of Zion found in holy writ, none is as instructive as the one presented in 4 Nephi. It not only describes Zion in more detail than other accounts, it also illuminates clearly what causes the demise of the kind of society that constitutes Zion.

Principles of Zion

Though the concept of Zion is multifaceted, the Lord has decreed that at least three characteristics exist among the people of Zion: purity, unity, and equality. In 1833 the Lord spoke to the Prophet Joseph Smith at Kirtland about purity, saying, “Let Zion rejoice, for this is Zion—the pure in heart; therefore, let Zion rejoice, while all the wicked shall mourn” (D&C 97:21).

In 1834 the Lord spoke again of Zion and emphasized the necessity of unity and equality:

“But behold, [my people] have not learned to be obedient to the things which I required at their hands, but are full of all manner of evil, and do not impart of their substance, as becometh saints, to the poor and afflicted among them;

“And are not united according to the union required by the law of the celestial kingdom;

“And Zion cannot be built up unless it is by the principles of the law of the celestial kingdom; otherwise I cannot receive her unto myself” (D&C 105:3–5).

Elsewhere the Lord said, “For if ye are not equal in earthly things ye cannot be equal in obtaining heavenly things” (D&C 78:6). Unity is the fundamental principle of celestial law—the principle by which the celestial kingdom operates, and it has application in economic and material issues.

The idea that Zion can be established on earth rests on the premise that there is a celestial prototype—a heavenly society composed of exalted beings who live in unity in God’s literal presence. Zion on earth is to be patterned after that celestial society. Thus, God’s desire for the ultimate destiny of a Zion community is that it be taken into His presence, for “Zion cannot be built up unless it is by the principles of the law of the celestial kingdom; otherwise I cannot receive her unto myself” (D&C 105:5; emphasis added).

Anciently, the people of Enoch’s city lived the principles of Zion and were taken unto the Lord, or translated:

“And the Lord called his people Zion, because they were of one heart and one mind, and dwelt in righteousness; and there was no poor among them.

“And Enoch continued his preaching in righteousness unto the people of God. And it came to pass in his days, that he built a city that was called the City of Holiness, even Zion. …

“And it came to pass that the Lord showed unto Enoch all the inhabitants of the earth; and he beheld, and lo, Zion, in process of time, was taken up into heaven. And the Lord said unto Enoch: Behold mine abode forever” (Moses 7:18–19, 21).

These verses emphasize the same principles of purity, unity, and equality found in the Doctrine and Covenants passages discussing Zion and tell us that attempts to establish Zion began long before the Prophet Joseph Smith’s day. The Lord has cared about the establishment of Zion throughout the history of our world. President Marion G. Romney, Second Counselor in the First Presidency (1897–1988), taught: “Whenever the Lord has had a people who would accept and live the gospel, He has established the united order. He established it among the people of Enoch.”2

Zion as Described in 4 Nephi

The remarkable Zion community described in 4 Nephi was established on the American continent sometime between the 34th and 36th years after the birth of our Lord.3 Discipleship in Christ was the foundation of that community. All social progress and goodness centered in Jesus Christ, whose visitation to America after His Resurrection established an age of righteousness lasting about 165 years. Every individual was wholly converted to the Savior—to His ideas and exemplary behavior (see 4 Ne. 1:2). This conversion changed the inner person through repentance (see 4 Ne. 1:1). Every person was thus prepared to participate in the life-giving and renewing ordinances available through the Melchizedek Priesthood, especially the gift of the Holy Ghost (see 4 Ne. 1:1).

A natural consequence of the constant influence of the Holy Ghost on the citizens of this society was their desire to deal justly and fairly with each other. The people had all things in common, and all acts conformed to the pattern of the Savior’s life. This complete conversion to the Lord eliminated contention, produced unselfish self-regulation, and resulted in economic and political equality and freedom.

The scriptural phrase “had all things common” is used to characterize those who lived the law of consecration (see Acts 2:44; Acts 4:32; 3 Ne. 26:19; 4 Ne. 1:3). Yet such a system was not a type of “Christian Communism.”4 Every covenant member of this order held some private property and had access to consecrated surpluses according to justified “wants” and “needs” (see D&C 82:17–18).

A striking feature of Mormon’s description of Zion in 4 Nephi is the total lack of contention in the land, which he mentions no less than four times (see 4 Ne. 1:2, 13, 15, 18). This lack surely must have been due to the complete unity of a civilization in which there were neither Nephites, Lamanites, nor any manner of -ites, but all were one in Christ (see 4 Ne. 1:17) because the love of God dwelt in their hearts (see 4 Ne. 1:15).

Mormon was something of an expert on contention, having read much about it in the records of Alma, Helaman, and Nephi and having experienced civil strife firsthand during his lifetime. The complete harmony and total unity of the people living in the society that had witnessed the Savior’s visitation is a stunning development in Mormon’s panoramic account of Nephite history.

The civil structure described in 4 Nephi demonstrated a total absence of destructive or divisive elements, including poverty and selfishness. This structure resulted in a classless society in which crime was eliminated and society’s resources could be applied to urban renewal:

“And the Lord did prosper them exceedingly in the land; yea, insomuch that they did build cities again where there had been cities burned.

“Yea, even that great city Zarahemla did they cause to be built again. …

“And there were no envyings, nor strifes, nor tumults, nor whoredoms, nor lyings, nor murders, nor any manner of lasciviousness; and surely there could not be a happier people among all the people who had been created by the hand of God” (4 Ne. 1:7–8, 16).

Only true conversion to Christ and strict adherence to His teachings can bring significant and lasting renewal and reconstruction to a people. President Ezra Taft Benson (1899–1994) said: “The Lord works from the inside out. The world works from the outside in. The world would take people out of the slums. Christ takes the slums out of people, and then they take themselves out of the slums. The world would mold men by changing their environment. Christ changes men, who then change their environment. The world would shape human behavior, but Christ can change human nature.”5

The pattern of events described in 4 Nephi illustrates the principles President Benson identified. In addition to social and economic reform, civic rejuvenation, and urban renewal, the people of 4 Nephi enjoyed increased health, strength, and vigor: “And now, behold, it came to pass that the people of Nephi did wax strong, and did multiply exceedingly fast, and became an exceedingly fair and delightsome people” (4 Ne. 1:10).

In the Christ-centered society of 4 Nephi, the people also witnessed a rich and astounding outpouring of miracles, including those symbolizing the mortal Messiah’s absolute power over life and death: raising the dead. And, indicative of the Christ-centered nature of this religious society, we are told that no miracles were done “save it were in the name of Jesus” (4 Ne. 1:5).

The covenant Zion community described in 4 Nephi was a literal fulfillment of the much-repeated prophecy throughout the Book of Mormon that if people would keep God’s commandments they would prosper in the land. As Mormon says of the people living during the post-Resurrection era of 4 Nephi, “The Lord did bless them in all their doings” (4 Ne. 1:18).


What happened to the people of 4 Nephi? Defection from and rebellion against the celestial order of civilization did not happen all at once. The power and influence of the Savior’s literal, physical presence among the Nephites was so strong that they lived the principles of Zion well into the second generation after Christ’s visit. But sometime before A.D. 194, social and religious divisions began to appear among the people (see 4 Ne. 1:19–21). Although these divisions affected only a small percentage of the population, the seriousness of the tears in the social fabric should not be underestimated. They were the result of conscious rebellion. Mormon wrote, “The people … had revolted from the church and taken upon them the name of Lamanites; therefore there began to be Lamanites again in the land” (4 Ne. 1:20; emphasis added).

The word apostasy comes from the Greek term apostasia and means literally “to stand apart from,” “to rebel,” or “to revolt.” This kind of apostasy occurred in New Testament times after the Savior’s post-Resurrection visit with His disciples in the Old World. The Apostle Paul’s prophecy of the Great Apostasy in the Old World, which began in the middle of the first century A.D., helps us understand what happened to the people of 4 Nephi:

“For I know this, that after my departing shall grievous wolves enter in among you, not sparing the flock.

“Also of your own selves shall men arise, speaking perverse things, to draw away disciples after them” (Acts 20:29–30).

Here one can immediately associate these apostate actions with the priestcraft described in 2 Nephi 26:29: “Priestcrafts are that men preach and set themselves up for a light unto the world, that they may get gain and praise of the world; but they seek not the welfare of Zion.”

As it was in the Old World, so it was in the New World. Priestcraft reappeared, as Mormon makes clear: “Nevertheless, the people did harden their hearts, for they were led by many priests and false prophets to build up many churches, and to do all manner of iniquity. And they did smite upon the people of Jesus; but the people of Jesus did not smite again. And thus they did dwindle in unbelief and wickedness, from year to year, even until two hundred and thirty years had passed away” (4 Ne. 1:34).

Mormon links apostasy and priestcraft with two other evils profoundly detrimental to a pure society. These are pride and social stratification, which began to appear in A.D. 201, less than a decade after the initial cracks in society were first noted by Mormon. The prosperity of the people of Nephi, owing to their faith in Christ, had eventually produced exceeding wealth among the populace. Unfortunately, this wealth led to pride and materialism when the people forgot the source of their strength. “And from that time forth they did have their goods and their substance no more common among them” (4 Ne. 1:25).

Here the insidious nature of pride is laid bare, and its destructive effects on Zion are unmistakable. Pride destroys unity and promotes selfishness. “Pride gets no pleasure out of having something, only out of having more of it than the next man.”6 Pride creates divisions among people. Purely for the sake of self-interest, some place themselves above others and exploit them.

President Ezra Taft Benson stated:

“It was essentially the sin of pride that kept us from establishing Zion in the days of the Prophet Joseph Smith. It was the same sin of pride that brought consecration to an end among the Nephites. …

“Pride is the great stumbling block to Zion.”7

There can be no misunderstanding: pride was the root of social stratification among the people of 4 Nephi. This sin was also a problem in an earlier period of Nephite history. The book of Helaman describes how the problem develops: “For behold, the Lord had blessed them so long with the riches of the world that they had not been stirred up to anger, to wars, nor to bloodshed; therefore they began to set their hearts upon their riches; yea, they began to seek to get gain that they might be lifted up one above another” (Hel. 6:17).

Mormon is also quick to implicate social stratification as a goal of priestcraft: “And they began to be divided into classes; and they began to build up churches unto themselves to get gain, and began to deny the true church of Christ” (4 Ne. 1:26).

Greater and greater dissent from the true Church resulted in the desecration of sacred things, especially the ordinances of salvation (see 4 Ne. 1:27). By A.D. 211 this sin provided Satan with the chance to get greater hold on the hearts of the people (see 4 Ne. 1:28). The true followers of Christ suffered increasing opposition, which led to persecution (see 4 Ne. 1:29–33). Those in open rebellion against God taught their children “to hate the children of God” (4 Ne. 1:39).

From this point on, Mormon’s inspired abridgment portrays a dismal picture. The downward slide of this civilization began to pick up momentum. The division of society into classes resulted in irreparable tears in the social fabric. In A.D. 231 there appeared what Mormon calls the “great division among the people” (4 Ne. 1:35). We might refer to this as the “-ite” phase of New World apostasy, with the Nephites, Jacobites, Josephites, and Zoramites, on the one hand, preserving the true worship of Christ, and, on the other hand, the Lamanites, Lemuelites, and Ishmaelites “wilfully rebel[ling] against the gospel of Christ” (4 Ne. 1:38).

Eventually the rebellion among the people of this once pure and idyllic society led to the formation of secret combinations: “The wicked part of the people began again to build up the secret oaths and combinations of Gadianton” (4 Ne. 1:42). Three hundred years after Christ’s coming, Satan’s power had come to dominate the population so completely that “both the people of Nephi and the Lamanites had become exceedingly wicked one like unto another” (4 Ne. 1:45).

Viewing the collapse of this celestial society from Mormon’s inspired perspective, we see that the decline was progressive. It happened a step at a time, with each successive step further destroying the purity, unity, and equality of the people. This panoramic perspective of the destruction of Zion in America validates and demonstrates the prophecy Nephi made at the beginning of the Book of Mormon:

“For behold, at that day shall [Satan] rage in the hearts of the children of men, and stir them up to anger against that which is good.

“And others will he pacify, and lull them away into carnal security, that they will say: All is well in Zion; yea, Zion prospereth, all is well—and thus the devil cheateth their souls, and leadeth them away carefully down to hell” (2 Ne. 28:20–21).

Likening 4 Nephi to Ourselves

The Saints of this last dispensation can learn much from the description of Zion in 4 Nephi. It is the most detailed account of those conditions that must exist in order for Zion to be established. Sadly, it also reveals the fundamental pattern of apostasy that destroys Zion. By likening 4 Nephi unto ourselves, we will find, as the first Nephi said long ago, much that will “be for our profit and learning” (1 Ne. 19:23).

Without question, Satan was at the very center of all that destroyed the Nephite society. He inspired the hearts of wicked people to combine against righteousness, and he concocted and administered the oaths and covenants of his kingdom of darkness (see Hel. 6:26). And yet, Satan would not have had any influence among the people of 4 Nephi if they had not made some initial overtures. The Prophet Joseph Smith taught that “the moment we revolt at anything which comes from God, the devil takes power.”8

The people of 4 Nephi were guilty of rebellion; they consciously rejected light and truth. But it need not have happened. It was not inevitable. The Prophet Joseph noted, “All men have power to resist the devil.”9

Once the people of 4 Nephi rebelled and Satan took power, the chillingly prophetic words of Mormon were fulfilled: “And thus we can plainly discern, that after a people have been once enlightened by the Spirit of God, and have had great knowledge of things pertaining to righteousness, and then have fallen away into sin and transgression, they become more hardened, and thus their state becomes worse than though they had never known these things” (Alma 24:30).

In these last days, the Lord has taught us the benefits of establishing Zion. However, the scriptures teach that Zion can only be built by following the principles described in 4 Nephi and by making conscious correct choices every day. President Spencer W. Kimball (1895–1985) said that “creating Zion ‘commences in the heart of each person.’”10

He further noted: “Zion can be built up only among those who are the pure in heart—not a people torn by covetousness or greed, but a pure and selfless people, not a people who are pure in appearance, rather a people who are pure in heart. Zion is to be in the world and not of the world, not dulled by a sense of carnal security, nor paralyzed by materialism. …

“… We must sacrifice whatever is required by the Lord. We begin by offering a ‘broken heart and a contrite spirit.’ We follow this by giving our best effort in our assigned fields of labor and in our callings. We learn our duty and execute it fully. Finally we consecrate our time, talents, and means as called upon by our file leaders and as prompted by the whisperings of the Spirit.”11

The Lord has given us the scriptures as a blueprint to show us how to be a Zion people. If we study and live the principles given in 4 Nephi, we will enjoy happiness and avoid the tragic mistakes its people made.

Illustrated by Del Parson

[illustration] Jesus Christ Visits the Americas, by John Scott

Illustrated by Paul Mann

Detail from Lehi’s Dream, by Greg K. Olsen

Photo illustration by Steve Bunderson

The Return, by David Hoeft

Photo illustration by Steve Bunderson

Mormon Bids Farewell to a Great Nation, by Arnold Friberg