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This is the third post on Richard L. Bushman’s Mormonism: A Very Short Introduction (OUP, 2008). [See Part 1 and Part 2.] In Chapter Three, Bushman reviews the several meanings of the term “Zion” in LDS doctrine and thinking.
The Mormon sense of Zion has no real parallels in Protestant thought. In a general sense, Zion refers to Mormon community and society, a larger concept than just the LDS Church as a religious institution. Here’s how Bushman explains it.
From the beginning, Mormons have actively sought unity. They aspire to be a people, thinking of themselves as a society as much as a church. Their common ground goes beyond belief and worship to work, education, family, and business. This comprehensiveness goes back to their origins, when Joseph Smith first organized the church.
I suspect what Bushman gently terms “comprehensiveness” is what rubs some religious contemporaries the wrong way about Mormonism, giving rise to recurrent charges of being cultish or un-American. But comprehensiveness also describes the earliest religious settlers in 17th-century New England. You can’t get more American than the Pilgrims, who also thought of themselves as trying to establish a model religious community.
The early quest for Mormon unity led to experiments in economic communalism. These did not go well, and by 1839 the attempt had been quietly abandoned. While Zion or the related term “Zion society” is still applied by some to these short-term economic experiments, the terms at present are more often used to refer to principles of economic justice and compassion that are realized through service to others, sacrifice for the benefit of those in need, and modest living. At present, Zion means something like this: applying the principles of charitable communal living within the free market, private property economy of the 21st century.
But the Zion concept doesn’t simply refer to a set of principles. The LDS Church makes it a program, and a remarkably successful one. Here’s Bushman again:
Out of the early Zion principles also evolved the Mormon sense of how to care for the poor. The scriptural condemnation of inequality in the early years was less an attack on the systemic inequalities of capitalism than an admonition to watch over the needy. In the twentieth century, the consecration principle took the form of a welfare program begun during the Great Depression to provide work and sustenance for poor church members. The church now owns farms, canning plants, and manufacturing facilities where the poor work producing the goods they need to subsist.
In just the last few years, the LDS Church has also expanded the scope of its humanitarian aid efforts outside the LDS community. Again, it’s not just a wish, it’s a program: Mormon Helping Hands. The website explanation even includes a 14-page manual telling local units how to make it work.
One could cite scripture or Conference talks for a more doctrinally oriented summary of the term Zion, but I think the LDS Welfare Program (to benefit Latter-day Saints in need) and the Helping Hands program (to channel service toward worthwhile projects in local communities) are themselves the best expression of what Zion means in practice to modern Latter-day Saints.
I’ll wind up with some general comments on Mormonism: A Very Short Introduction. It is a short and very readable introduction for the non-LDS reader, but also full of insightful descriptions and observations for the LDS reader. It is certainly worth picking up and reading if you run across it at your local library or bookstore.