A recent post at Toward Attention reminded me of Joseph Smith’s attempt at building Zion.
Smith’s beliefs about Zion underwent a considerable amount of evolution and were one of his biggest preoccupations, so I’m not going to attempt to even present it in any kind of thorough way. Suffice to say that Joseph Smith was not satisfied with the hope of a future Heaven, he really wanted to bring it to Earth. This desire manifested itself in a lifelong struggle with organizing the Mormon saints in a heavenly way that he called Zion. This meant attempts at communal sharing of worldly possessions, banking schemes, and city planning and building, as well as a hierarchical lay priesthood that unified the church from bottom (the family) to top (the General Authorities).
A few things about Smith’s attempts. First, they were not the only attempts at that time in America of creating Utopian societies. There were, most notably, the Shakers, but also lesser-known but still significant communities such as the Oneida Community and Fruitlands. And secondly, like those communities, Smith’s attempts were largely failures. That is not to say that he was a failure for trying – if anything, I think it is the trying that makes the difference. But it is notable to point out that the modern LDS church does not seem quite as preoccupied with organizing Zion in such a concrete way. Most of our institutions hat-tip to that time (home teaching, tithing, the Law of Consecration being enacted in principle but not so much in practice, etc.) but seem to fall short of the full-on expectation of being able to give away all one’s possessions or travel in a handcart or wagon or physically laboring to build a temple.
(An interesting side-note is that the Community of Christ, a much smaller but still historically significant Mormon denomination, was attempting Zionic communities even into the 1980s)
So in my last post I think was a bit harsh on Mormonism because I noted that its doctrine of eternal families seems to miss the mark of the purpose of Heaven, which is to bind all God’s children together. However, I think that Smith had it right in a sense – in attempting to build an actual, concrete Zion he was not missing that mark at all, and the doctrine of eternal families, when combined with attempts at Zion on Earth, was a good thing. Unfortunately I feel like those lessons are a bit lost on the modern LDS church, which I think has stripped away a lot of the magic of Smith’s vision into a sort of slogging, semi-spiritual bureaucracy.