Returning to Zion

Given all that might be said of Mormonism, it should not come as a surprise that a lot of interesting topics sit pretty much neglected. One of these, I would argue, is the Mormon contribution to building settlements in the United States. Some of these efforts have made their way into the collective Mormon memory: settlements in places like Ohio, Missouri, Illinois, and to a lesser extent Utah and particularly Salt Lake City. And, while many Mormons put great weight on the episode of the Saints coming into the Salt Lake Valley, to me it is surprising how relatively little is discussed about the lives of these same Saints after that. This is too bad because it neglects the bulk of the story of how Mormons cooperated to literally try to build a place that was meant to be a Zion. The bricks and mortar of this grand building experiment did not stop in Utah—this was only in fact a new beginning. During the nineteenth century, Mormons built settlements, towns, and cities throughout the West—by some counts more than five hundred of them. These settlements certainly are scattered throughout Utah, the also spanned Arizona, New Mexico, Nevada, and Idaho, and to a lesser extent California, Mexico, and Canada.

LDS members often look backwards and ask what the lives of those in the scriptures or those who were numbered among the early Latter-day Saints can offer us today. The question I plan to explore during my time as a guest blogger is the following: what if anything can Mormons learn from the settlement-building phase of Mormon history? I think we can learn a lot. My hope is that looking backwards will teach us something about ourselves and our communities we call home today. And more than this, hopefully, it will give us a glimpse into the sort of community members we ought to be and the types of places we ought to try to build. I look forward to my brief stint here on Times & Seasons. You will be hearing more from me soon.

* In full disclosure, much of these thoughts I plan to introduce as a guest blogger are based on an article I wrote called “Revitalizing Zion: Nineteenth-Century Mormonism and Today’s Urban Sprawl.” It recently was published in the Journal of Land Resources & Environmental Law. The article in its entirety can be found here.

11 comments for “Returning to Zion

  1. This is something I’ve been pondering a great deal as of late. I had the opportunity to take a summer sales job in St. Louis with friends I’ve known for a long time; friends I grew up with. The job was a dud, but we each learned a significant deal about building Zion. We had a great opportunity to visit Nauvoo and the overwhelming feeling I had there was that as members of the true church of Christ we should still be seeking to build communities like The City of Joseph.

    Something that has been on my mind is our relative apathy toward community involvement. Seems to me there are several ways that we, as Latter-Day Saints, can contribute. Being involved in local city. town, county, politics is one. How many of us comment in Sunday School about the degradation of society, yet sit back and rely on others to legislate the change for us. But aside from politics, we can preach the gospel to our neighbors. It doesn’t mean everyone needs to become Mormon, but if everyone in the community saw that our church was open to them, and if we were a pillar in the social construction of the area, I imagine that would change things.

  2. Apparently not only the Saints who crossed the plains were pioneers. That speaks to one of pres. Monson’s favorite lines: Pioneers all. That’s what we all are, anyway, building for the future.

  3. Wyoming has two areas of heavily Mormon settlement, the Star Valley and the Big Horn Basin. Colorado has a few Mormon towns in the San Luis Valley. Those places all remain predominantly Mormon communities. You mention Canada “to a lesser extent,” but Southern Alberta is as thick with Mormon communities as Northern Arizona and Southeastern Idaho. Lots of them.

    Just saying.

  4. Call me technologically challenged but clicking on the links provided didn’t get me to the paper. Am I doing something wrong or is their another path?

    Thanks in advance for your help. It sounds very interesting and something I would like to review.

  5. Click his link, then click “Choose Download Location” above the title. Clicking one of those buttons that appear should download the PDF.

  6. Jim,

    It’s eastern Arizona, really. (Don’t want anyone thinking that those notorious towns in the Arizona strip are ours!)

    But a quick glance at the AZ map shows that Joseph City (about the northernmost Mormon settlement–unless we count Lee’s Ferry) and Snowflake and Eagar and Springerville and St. Johns and then down to Safford and Thatcher all fit in the “eastern” camp, and even Joseph City and Snowflake, the northernmost of the settlements, are only “northern” if the Valley of the Sun is considered the center place–some of us do, but “of what?” is the relevant question.

  7. I thought that everyone knew that the Mesa Central Stake was the center stake of Zion. How naive of me.

    (Mesa was a Mormon settlement and is very much in the Valley of the Sun, thank you very much. In Northern Arizona you can find Jacob’s Lake, named after Jacob Hamblin, and Mormon Lake, named after who else but an ancient American prophet. But it’s probably being a little too technical to mention those.)

    Thinking of the Eastern Arizona settlements in connection with the topic of community building (with an undercurrent of the settlers’ relationship to the land, if I’m reading correctly), here’s a little bit about Joseph City, Arizona, one of the settlements Mark B mentioned.

    The early settlers spent a good portion of their time trying to harness the Little Colorado River for irrigation purposes. The Little Colorado was often just a trickle, but late summer storms in the mountains caused regular floods which washed out every dam they built on the sandy river bottom until the 1894 dam which lasted until 1923.

    To the small community, the communal labor was continual and onerous but resulted in the occasional humor. When one of the men working in a scraping circle with horses and scrapers was reprimanded for being so slow and holding up all the others, he answered, “What do you mean being slow? Why I’ve been leading this circle all day!”

    After repairing and rebuilding dams for several years, “by common consent it was agreed that the river was not worth a dam.”

  8. Researcher-ROFL! Hartman Rector Jr. recited a poem to us the other night about “dams” and it was hilarious.

  9. Another part of the building of Zion communities was the role of the Bishoprics and the High Councils to resolve legal disputes among the Saints. For a time, when there was generally one bishopric per town or one high council per city, these bodies had jurisdiction over most of the people involved in a dispute among members. The book Zion in the Courts by Firmage and Mangrum goes into great detail about how the church courts functioned to resolve the inevitable disputes that arose, operating with the goal, not of upholding a code of laws, but rather of supporting resolution and harmony in the community. The existence of this separate system of courts, outside the legislative and judicial jurisdiction of the Federal government, was believed by Firmage to be a major basis for the claim of “gentiles” that the Mormons were Un-American.

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