Mormonism's Mutable Zion

The Wilson Quarterly, Autumn 2012 | Go to article overview

Mormonism's Mutable Zion


THE SOURCE: "Visions of Zion" by Patrick Q. Mason, in Christian Century, Aug. 22, 2012.

JOSEPH SMITH (1805-44), WHO FOUNDED the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in 1830, had a radical vision. Zion, the earthly community where "the Saints" would await the imminent second coming of Jesus Christ, was to be a classless commune in which Mormons would "hold all things in common," writes Patrick Q Mason, a professor of North American religion at Claremont Graduate University.

What happened to these early ideals? "In the late 19th and early 20th century," Mason writes, "the church dropped many of its overtly communitarian practices and shifted toward making personal morality the mark of saintliness." This change roughly followed the path of conservative Protestant churches at the time as they parted ways with the reform agenda of the liberal Social Gospel movement.

Mormons today tend to "downplay the radically countercultural aspects" of Zion, such as the elimination of poverty, inequality, and war. The Mormon church instead focuses on individual morality and the importance of family.

From the beginning, Mormonism had emphasized the fundamental importance of individual rectitude. Smith rejected the concept of original sin, emphasizing human free will. "We believe that man will be punished for his own sins," one Mormon tenet asserts, "and not for Adam's transgression." The theological emphasis on individual responsibility has very concrete implications for worldly affairs. Mormons also believe in a pre-Creation "war in heaven" in which Satan "sought to enslave the children of God and Christ guaranteed their freedom as moral agents," Mason relates. …

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