As attractive as the quest for monetary wealth was for the common American, a rising number of citizens rose in opposition to the Market Revolution’s dramatic upheaval of traditional practices, claiming that its influence was a detriment to society. One young man in particular, who was destined to become the founder of one of America’s fastest growing religions, stood defiant against the Market Revolution’s doctrine of economic individualism. While in his youth, Joseph Smith became a fateful witness not only to his family’s financial woes, but also to the economic plight of the average citizen. While living in New York, Smith also observed first-hand the dramatic surge in religious revivalism that sought to oppose the presumed evils of the Market Revolution. As the founder of the Mormon faith, Joseph Smith, like so many other religious leaders of his time, took an antagonistic stance against the encroaching forces of capitalism. In an effort to safeguard his followers from the fires of capitalist corruption, Joseph Smith endeavored to create a religious Utopia, or as he called it, Zion. Though originally conceived in the economic quandary of his childhood family and his alleged communion with the supernatural, Joseph Smith’s concept of Zion was to be further molded from its original role as a physical safe haven from the evil influences of the Market Revolution, into an eternal object of heavenly aspiration for his followers.
One of the best ways to understand the roots of Mormon Zionism is to understand the place in which they were born. While still in his youth, Joseph Smith and his family decided to move to Palmyra, New York, which was a small community that fell victim to the sweeping fires of religious enthusiasm. It comes as no surprise that the great 19th century evangelist preacher, Charles Finney, would nickname the region as "The Burned-over District." Though still in his youth, Joseph Smith was keenly aware of the religious fanaticism that was sweeping the countryside. As he would later write in his personal history:
There was in the place where we lived an unusual excitement on the subject of religion. It commenced with the Methodists, but soon became general among all the sects in that region of the country, indeed the whole district of the Country seemed affected by it and great multitudes united themselves to the different religious parties, which created no small stir and division among the people…Priest contended against priest, and convert against convert so that all their good feelings one for another were entirely lost in a strife of words and a contest about opinions (Joseph Smith, Jr., “1839 History,” The Papers of Joseph Smith, vol. I, 269-270).Western New York was not only a witness to a spiritual revival, but also a capitalist one as well. As mentioned before, the sweeping changes of the Market Revolution were quickly spreading across the American landscape. In New York, thousands of immigrants hoped to find an economic solace that had been lacking in other regions of the republic. With the construction of the Erie Canal completed in 1825, the interior lands of New York -- including Smith's hometown of Palmyra -- were quickly catapulted to the forefront of economic affairs. New York quickly passed other port towns like New Orleans and Charlestown to become America's premiere economic juggernaut.
As is often the case with any major change, a large percentage of the American populace began to see the Market Revolution as a destructive force. The communal subsistence culture, which had tied family members and neighbors together in a tight web of economic and social interdependence, was quickly being replaced by the profit-driven mentality of the Market Revolution. As a result, hundreds of American families sought to reclaim the "lost" communal dependence and purity of the pre-Market Revolution era.
For a young and ambitious man like Joseph Smith, the religious atmosphere in and around western New York must have been intoxicating. With scores of "fire-breathing" ministers flooding the "Burned-over district" with their doctrine of hell, fire and damnation, it comes as no surprise that Smith would be confused about the eternal future of his soul. As Smith stated, "In the midst of this war of words, and tumult of opinions, I often said to myself, what is to be done? Who of all these parties is right…and how shall I know?" (Joseph Smith, Jr., “1839 History,” The Papers of Joseph Smith, vol. I, 271).
After experiencing a number of alleged visions and communications with the divine, Joseph Smith later proclaimed himself to be a prophet. By so doing, he set himself up as the quintessential 19th century leader of his time. After all, experiencing heavenly visions and claiming to have communed with God was anything but atypical of Smith's time. As mentioned before, western New York was a literal hotbed of religious radicalism in the early years of the nineteenth century. Religious enthusiasts like Ann Lee, who became the founder of the Shaker movement, inspired her followers to embrace a communal lifestyle of celibacy and nonresistance, claiming that she had received a divine manifestation of Christ’s impending return. Jemima Wilkinson, who founded the Community of the Publick Universal Friend, also claimed divine revelation, and insisted that Christ had chosen her as his personal messenger, sent to prepare the world for millennial glory. Like Ann Lee, Wilkinson also established a communal order of celibacy and economic equality. The New Israelites, led by a man named Winchell and Oliver Cowdery, also preached divine revelation that pointed to an impending millennial apocalypse. When put in the light of his contemporaries, Joseph Smith’s paranormal claims seem less atypical and more mainstream.
Having endured the struggles of economic poverty and religious uncertainty, Joseph Smith's prophetic appeal resonated with literally thousands of others that had endured the same hardships, or as Smith biographer, Richard Bushman put it, "He had endured the agonies of thousands in his generation and could speak to their sorrows" (Richard Bushman, Rough Stone Rolling, 55). His alleged visitations had solidified Smith's resolve to follow God's admonition to "Seek to bring forth and establish my Zion" (Doctrine & Covenants 14:6).
In addition to his personal revelations regarding the establishment of Zion, Joseph Smith's Utopian ideology was further molded by his alleged translation of the "Golden Plates," which later became the infamous Book of Mormon. As one of its central theses, The Book of Mormon relates the tale of two rival societies, whose peace and prosperity are solely determined by the communal faith and devotion of their respective populace. On numerous occasions, The Book of Mormon makes specific mention of how God intends to grant specific blessings, which are exclusively reserved for those that seek to establish Zion:
"And blessed are they who shall seek to bring forth my Zion at that day, for they shall have the gift and the power of the Holy Ghost; and if they endure unto the end they shall be lifted up at the last day, and shall be saved in the everlasting kingdom of the Lamb" (1 Nephi 13:37).In addition to everlasting life, the God of The Book of Mormon promises worldly protection against the foes of his elect people:
"And every nation which shall war against thee, O house of Israel, shall be turned one against another, and they shall fall into the pit which they digged to ensnare the people of the Lord. And all that fight against Zion shall be destroyed, and that great whore, who hath perverted the right ways of the Lord, yea, that great and abominable church, shall tumble to the dust and great shall be the fall of it." (1 Nephi 22:14)Despite these promises, the God of The Book of Mormon does not neglect to mention the punishments that await the unfaithful disciple of this utopian community:
"But the laborer in Zion shall labor for Zion; for if they labor for money they shall perish…Therefore, wo be unto him that is at ease in Zion!" (2 Nephi 28:24).For a young man who had endured economic turmoil and religious fanaticism while in his youth, the doctrine of The Book of Mormon provided both clarity and purpose. The Market Revolution’s emphasis on personal gain and worldly wealth was now shrouded in the evil vanities mentioned in The Book of Mormon. For Joseph Smith and his followers, God’s biblical admonition to, "Love not the world, neither the things that are in the world" took on a new meaning in the emerging capitalist climate of the early nineteenth century (1 John 2:15). By placing their faith in the idea that, “the Lord hath founded Zion, and the poor of his people shall trust in it,” scores of downtrodden citizens found a glimmer of hope in the newly emerging doctrine of Mormon Zionism (2 Nephi 24:32).
For these early Mormons, establishing a communal society proved a much more daunting task than initially thought. The emerging market society of western New York, combined with its hostile reception of the doctrine contained in The Book of Mormon forced Joseph Smith and his followers to look elsewhere for their blessed Zion. In response to these problems, Joseph Smith again laid claim to divine intervention that commanded the Mormon prophet to move his flock west into Ohio (Doctrine & Covenants 38:32) In response to Smith’s alleged revelation, hundreds of early Mormon converts sold their homes and made their way to the town of Kirtland, Ohio, where Smith promised his followers the communal peace they had longed for. A short time later, Smith claimed to have received another revelation, which proclaimed Jackson County, Missouri to be the place for God's holy Zion (Doctrine & Covenants 57: 2-3).
To further the special nature of this holy land located on the fringe of American society, Joseph Smith claimed that God intended Zion to become a “New Jerusalem,” where he would prepare the world for the anticipated return of Christ and the commencement of his millennial reign. As Joseph Smith stated in his Thirteen Articles of Mormon Faith, "We believe in the literal gathering of Israel and in the restoration of the Ten Tribes. That Zion (the New Jerusalem) will be built upon the American continent." (Joseph Smith, Jr., “1839 History,” The Papers of Joseph Smith, vol. I, 437).
The idea of a “New Jerusalem” brought additional meaning to the Mormon concept of Zion. In a manner similar to John Winthrop’s proclamation of Massachusetts as a “city on a hill,” Joseph Smith’s “New Jerusalem” was to not only be a communal society of pious disciples, but an “ensign unto the people” of every nation (Doctrine & Covenants 64: 42).
With such a bold proclamation as to its heavenly purpose, it comes as no surprise that the quest to establish God’s “New Jerusalem” became the premiere doctrine of Mormon Theology. The drive to establish a Utopian world free from the discord of worldly affairs was an appealing alternative when juxtaposed with the cutthroat nature of the emerging market society. It is therefore no surprise that the Mormon community found scores of new converts that were willing to embrace a communal lifestyle, which shunned the malevolence of the world around them. In conjunction with their anticipation of millennial ecstasy, the Mormon message became a powerful beacon of hope in a world of cruelty. The Mormon hymn O Saints of Zion provides an in-depth look into how these feelings of millennial anticipation and communal devotion helped shape Mormon identity:
O saints of Zion, hear the voice Of Him from courts on high.One can only imagine the feelings of excitement and apprehension that gripped the earliest Mormon settlers of Zion. Their arrival to Independence, Missouri, which was nothing more than a remote outpost on America’s frontier, must have reminded many of them of their Pilgrim ancestors who had migrated across the Atlantic to establish a religious Utopia of their own. With only a handful of fur trappers and Native American traders, Independence was a far cry from what the Mormons had experienced in Kirtland. Though most of the state was still considered frontier land, the early advances of the Market Revolution had begun to take hold in Missouri as well. Thanks to the Missouri Compromise of 1820, which admitted Missouri into the Union as a slave state, thousands of slave-owners migrated west in an effort to stake their claim. In addition, scores of zealous fur traders, who anxiously hoped to expand their business westward, used Missouri as an access point of sorts. As a result, Missouri’s population swelled to roughly 140,000 in 1830. By 1840, the population had more than doubled to over 300,000. Missouri’s reputation as the “Gateway State” obviously had an appeal that included much more than the Mormon population. Joseph Smith’s utopian hopes had yet again landed the Mormons in the center of an emerging market-centered community (For a detailed look at the census records of Missouri in the early 1800s click here).
Prepare the pathway of the Lord; His reign on earth is nigh.
Prepare the supper of the Lamb; Invite the world to dine.
Behold the mighty Bridegroom comes In majesty divine.
Behold the glory of the Lord Sets Zion’s mount aglow.
For Zion is an ensign pure; All nations to her flow.
O Saints of Zion tread the paths Your faithful fathers trod.
Lift up your hears in gratitude And serve the living God
To help “persuade” these religious “radicals” of their errors, the Mormon opposition in Missouri resorted to violence. Mormon churches, homes and businesses were regularly destroyed and then blamed on the Mormon leadership. Joseph Smith and other leaders were routinely imprisoned, tarred and feathered, and given poison while incarcerated. Mormon women, some of whom were still in their youth, were the unfortunate victims of mob rape. One woman in particular was left bound and naked in a Mormon church, where sixteen men repeatedly raped her (Hyrum Smith "The Testimony of Hyrum Smith," from History of the Church, vol.3, 422). The persecution eventually became so intense that the Missouri government prohibited Mormons from voting or owning property. This anti-Mormon sentiment even permeated the executive office of the state, where Governor Lilburn Boggs declared that, “the Mormons must be subdued…and if it should become necessary for the public peace…should be exterminated or expelled from the state” (Governor Lilburn Boggs to General Lucas, Oct. 27, 1838, from History of the Church, vol.3, 422).
With mounting persecution and no means to seek redress, Joseph Smith and his followers were forced to abdicate their landholdings in Jackson County. Those who had willingly given up all of their property and assets for the construction of Zion were left completely destitute with little to no prospects of reclaiming their wealth. Understandably, a large number of these early Mormon converts forsook their faith and returned to their roots. After all, Zion had been the principle component of early Mormon theology. In many respects it was the equivalent of what the Kaaba is for the Muslim or the Vatican is for the Catholic. For many Mormons, Zion’s defeat essentially signified a defeat of Mormonism. Virtually all of one’s faith, hope and salvation were dependant upon Zion’s success, or as one revelation put it, “For if ye are not equal in earthly things ye cannot be equal in obtaining heavenly things” (Doctrine & Covenants 78: 6). Simply put for the faithful Mormon, without Zion there could be no salvation.
Faced with such a daunting challenge, it comes as no surprise that Joseph Smith, yet again, received a divine manifestation that would forever change the scope of Zion’s appeal. After the loss of their lands in Missouri, Joseph Smith claimed to have received a holy revelation, which proclaimed Zion to be an indestructible institution, where the faithful would forever bask in the glory of God himself. As the revelation stated, “Zion is the city of our God, and surely Zion cannot fall, neither be moved out of her place, for God is there, and the hand of the Lord is there” (Doctrine & Covenants 97: 19) But how could this be? Zion’s demise in Missouri had been a certain outcome of mob violence and political negligence. How could Zion possibly return in the wake of such hostility? It was here that Smith’s alleged revelation made a startling proclamation that forever changed the concept of Mormon Zionism: “Therefore, verily, thus saith the Lord, let Zion rejoice, for this is Zion—The Pure in Heart.” (Doctrine & Covenants 97: 21). On the surface, Smith’s revelation seems to be nothing more than a play on semantics. A deeper inquiry, however, reveals that this simple proclamation, “The Pure in Heart,” was actually a complete overhaul of the Mormon conception of Zionism. Instead of being conceived as a palpable reality of the physical world, Zion became a metaphysical object of personal and heavenly worth. In essence, “The Pure in Heart” signified an individualistic approach to becoming one with both God and community.
Uncovering the true motivations behind Mormon Zionism is a difficult undertaking to say the least. In posing such an inquiry, one naturally desires to question the validity of Joseph Smith’s alleged revelations, along with his self-proclaimed prophetic mission. Naturally, there are those who will proclaim Smith to be nothing more than, “a mythmaker of prodigious talent,” who sought nothing more than to redeem his family from financial distress (Fawn Brodie, No Man Knows My History, ix). Others, however, will insist that Smith’s life was spent in the labor of his fellow men, as a true prophet of God. Determining the validity of either argument is unquestionably a futile effort, and therefore becomes an irrelevant argument to the historical inquiry. Instead, Joseph Smith and the movement he created should be understood from the perspective of their era. The explosion of capitalist economics at the beginning of the nineteenth-century set the foundation upon which Joseph Smith would construct his Utopian philosophy. The economic plight of his childhood became the initial string of rebellion, which Joseph Smith would eventually weave into a tapestry of capitalist defiance. With the addition of his alleged heavenly revelations and prophetic destiny, Joseph Smith effectively established a utopian doctrine of communal dependence and market defiance. The widespread appeal of his message helped Smith effectively establish a Mormon safe haven in Zion, where the faithful were nurtured in a spirit of communalism. Once confronted by market enthusiasm and anti-Mormon hostility, Smith’s quest to establish Zion was transformed from a physical place of refuge into a heavenly object of eternal desire. By successfully adopting a new concept of utopian existence, Mormon Zionism was equipped to survive into far into the 21st century and beyond.