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“This Earth Was Once a Garden Place”: Millennial Utopianism in Nineteenth-Century Mormon Poetry

In: Religion and the Arts
Author: Scott Hales1
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  • 1 University of Cincinnati
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Abstract

In preparation for Christ’s Second Coming, nineteenth-century Mormons worked tirelessly to build Zion, a holy city where they could weather the latter-days and plan for the Millennium. Among those who contributed their talents to Zion were poets who set their millennial longing in verse. Their body of work shows how early Mormons drew upon the Bible, new Mormon doctrines, and existing poetic forms to create a literary complement to the developing Mormon eschatology. It also shows how the Mormon concept of Zion evolved over time as historical circumstances necessitated doctrinal adaptations that affected the way Mormons envisioned their earthly haven.

Abstract

Abstract

In preparation for Christ’s Second Coming, nineteenth-century Mormons worked tirelessly to build Zion, a holy city where they could weather the latter-days and plan for the Millennium. Among those who contributed their talents to Zion were poets who set their millennial longing in verse. Their body of work shows how early Mormons drew upon the Bible, new Mormon doctrines, and existing poetic forms to create a literary complement to the developing Mormon eschatology. It also shows how the Mormon concept of Zion evolved over time as historical circumstances necessitated doctrinal adaptations that affected the way Mormons envisioned their earthly haven.

In the early morning of 13 November 1833, a Brother Davis awoke Joseph Smith, the Mormon prophet, to see an extraordinary display of “the signs in the heavens” above his Kirtland, Ohio home. Of this experience, Smith reported:

I arrose and beheld to my great Joy the stars fall from heaven yea they fell like hail stones a litteral fullfillment of the word of God as recorded in the holy scriptures and a sure sign that the coming of Christ is clost at hand Oh how marvellous are thy works Oh Lord and I thank thee for thy me[r]cy unto me thy servent Oh Lord save me in thy kingdom for Christ sake Amen (Smith, Papers 16–18)

The “great Joy” Smith felt upon seeing the “signs”—the great Leonid meteor shower of 1833—stemmed from his millennialist1 conviction that they were heralds not only of the Second Coming of Christ, but also of a time when “the earth will be renewed,” as Smith would later put it, “and receive its paradasaic [sic] glory” (“Church History” 710).

Ironically, as Smith watched these “stars fall from heaven,” a sizeable group of his followers were being forced from their homes in Jackson County, Missouri, a place they believed God had “appointed and consecrated for the gathering of the saints” as a “land of promise, and the place for the city of Zion” (Doctrine and Covenants 57.1–2). For the past two years, in fact, these refugees had been trying to build a holy utopia in western Missouri—a New Jerusalem where the righteous could gather to wait out the calamities that would precede the return of Christ. While they were able to build little more than a few crude homes, a printing press, and a store, they planned eventually to construct a grid of wide streets, beautiful homes and gardens, and a city center of some twenty-four temples (Smith, History 357–359). They also planned to live cooperatively, sharing the burdens of civilization equally, as the primitive Christians had in the New Testament (Doctrine and Covenants 42.30–38; Acts 4.34–45). Eventually, this way of life was supposed to be so successful—and desirable—that it would attract new believers, extend itself into outside communities, and “fill up the world” (Smith, History 358). Had their non-believing neighbors in Missouri not interfered, they would have built a city to serve both as a haven from the coming destruction, and ground zero for a world revolution of peace.

Despite an endless series of setbacks, Joseph Smith’s millennialism and utopian vision never dimmed. Even after his followers were expelled from their holy land, he continued to preach the inevitability of calamity and the need to establish the City of Zion as a bulwark against the coming perils. Five years before his death, Smith taught:

I prophesy that the man who tarries after he had an opportunity of going [to Zion] will be afflicted by the Devil. Wars are at hand we must not delay, but [are we] not required to Sacrifice. We ought to have the building of Zion as our greatest object.—When wars come we shall have to flee to Zion, the cry is to make haste. (Words 11)

Smith’s followers were equally adamant in their call to build Zion. Indeed, among the many nineteenth-century Mormons to take up the cause and sound a voice of warning were poets who expressed their admonitions and millennial longings in verse. Their body of work, which extends as far back as 1832, shows how early Mormons drew upon the Bible, the revelations of Joseph Smith, and existing poetic forms and hymnodic conventions to create a literary complement to the writings and sermons that first articulated the Mormon eschatology. They also show how the Mormon concept of Zion, their utopia of utopias, evolved over time as historical circumstances necessitated doctrinal adaptations that affected the way Mormons envisioned their earthly haven. More importantly, this body of work, which has been all but overlooked by literary and religious studies scholars, shows how Mormons used poetry and millennial utopianism2 to constitute and assert an identity apart from the society from which they emerged.

Mormonism, the Millennium, and Utopian Communalism

On 6 April 1830, the day Joseph Smith organized his “Church of Christ,” he dictated a revelation from God that proclaimed him to be “a seer, a translator, a prophet, an apostle of Jesus Christ, [and] an elder of the church”—the Lord’s chosen mouthpiece “to move the cause of Zion in mighty power for good” (Doctrine and Covenants 21.1, 6–7). In the coming months and years, as the young prophet embraced each of these roles with charismatic flair, his method of moving “the cause of Zion” would evolve as his personal understanding of “Zion,” a biblical name often used in association with faraway Jerusalem, developed into something more concretely American and intrinsically indebted to a millennial worldview and principles associated with the communal utopianism of his day. At this stage of the Church’s growth, however, the term remained vague and undefined in Joseph Smith’s earliest revelatory writings—even as these writings frequently used the word interchangeably with the “kingdom of God.” This would remain the case in Mormon discourse until a flux of new converts in northeastern Ohio—the results of the Mormons’ first long-distance missionary efforts—drew the prophet and his followers westward to a village named Kirtland. Once there, Smith recorded a number of his heavenly communications that greatly expanded the meaning of “Zion,” clarified Mormon eschatology, and rearticulated the Church’s relationship to the rest of the nation. Central to these communications was a large-scale plan to build the City of Zion, a community where cooperation and faith were to be the divinely-appointed modus operandi. This plan would consume Smith for the rest of his life, and his tireless efforts to build Zion, despite failure and disappointment, became a hallmark of his career.

Smith’s grand plan, to be sure, was not uncommon in his day. In the 1830s, Northeastern Ohio was a hub of antebellum millennial fervor and utopian communities.3 For instance, German separatist groups like the Zoarites and Rappites, Lutheran dissidents who traced their origins back to the theological writings of Jakob Böhme, had communities south of Canton and north of Pittsburg respectively (Rokicky 53–56). Further north, the United Society of Believers in Christ’s Second Coming, or Shakers, established their North Union community just east of Cleveland in what is today Shaker Heights. Kirtland, where Joseph Smith settled in 1831, was situated some fifteen miles northeast of this community. There, various residents of the village and several from the surrounding area were experimenting in communal living, including many who would later affiliate with Joseph Smith (Bowman 42; Van Wagoner 50). The chief advocate of this group—they called themselves the “Family,” the “Big Family,” or “Morley’s Family”—was Smith’s most enthusiastic and influential convert in the region, thirty-eight year old Sidney Rigdon, a former Baptist and Campbellite minister, whose interest in communal living began with his early exposure to Rappites and Shakers near his Pittsburg home (Rust 15; Rokicky 92; Brooke 207; Van Wagoner 50–51). Rigdon, once a follower of Thomas and Alexander Campbell (the American Restorationist ministers and founders of the Disciples of Christ), broke with them over disagreements about, among other things, the merits of communal living.4 Like many of his day, Rigdon knew of the communal efforts of primitive Christianity and believed that their reimplementation would speed the return of Jesus Christ and usher in a millennial paradise. While a pastor in Mentor, Ohio, he encouraged eleven families of his congregation to establish the communal “Family” on Morley’s farm near Kirtland. Later, he also supported similar efforts by five other families in nearby Mayfield (Givens 22–25; Bushman 148–149).

Fawn M. Brodie, Joseph Smith’s controversial biographer, points to Sidney Rigdon’ s fervent belief in Christian communalism as the catalyst for Smith’s own interest in the practice (105). While this influence is indisputable, Smith—like so many of his contemporaries—was hardly a stranger to utopian communalism when he made Kirtland his home. A reader of the New Testament, for instance, Smith was no doubt aware of the account in Acts 4 of early Christian communalists who sold their “lands or houses” and “laid [their earnings] down at the apostles’ feet” for “distribution [. . .] unto every man according as he had need” (Acts 4.34–45, 32–37). Also, by the time he organized his church in 1830, at least two communes existed within a forty-mile radius of his home near Palmyra, New York—the Groveland Shaker community to the northeast and Jemima Wilkinson’s New Jerusalem community to the South (Hayden 106). In fact, more than sixty such communes were established in America between 1730 and 1830, and more than thirty were still in operation when Smith left New York for Kirtland (Stockwell 233–234). In Canada, Smith even had an uncle, Jason Mack, who, according to Smith’s mother, established a commune “on a tract of land” in New Brunswick for “the purpose of assisting poor persons to the means of sustaining themselves” (Smith, Papers 50). At this commune, Mack directed the labors of “some thirty families” and sold whatever “they raised [. . .] and wished to sell” in markets as far away as Liverpool (50). While it is unlikely that Smith ever met this uncle—apparently, Mack’s last visit to Lucy’s family was at least four years before Smith was born—it is entirely possible that his mother spoke of her older brother’s efforts to live and work communally.

In this respect, Joseph Smith was very much a man of his times. Antebellum interest in communalism had its roots in the Puritan experience, a legacy he inherited from his parents, Joseph, Sr. and Lucy Mack Smith, whose Massachusetts forbearers included John and Tillie Howland, Mayflower Pilgrims, and Samuel Smith, a Salem witch accuser (Rust 25; Bushman 14). According to Donald E. Pitzer, the Pilgrims primarily adopted communal practices as a way to survive the privations of their first three years in Plymouth Colony, rather than as an outgrowth of their millennialism. Governor John Winthrop of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, however, evoked millennialistic rhetoric when he called upon another group of colonists, the Puritans, a decade later to make their new American home a beacon for the world (Pitzer 6). As outlined famously in his 1630 sermon A Model of Christian Charity, which he delivered while still on board the Massachusetts-bound ship Arabella, Winthrop imagined the Puritan community as a people who “must be knit together” in the work of God “as one man”:

We must entertain each other in brotherly affection, we must be willing to abridge ourselves of our superfluities, for the supply of other’s necessities. We must uphold a familiar commerce together in all meekness, gentleness, patience and liberality. We must delight in each other, make other’s conditions our own, rejoice together, mourn together, labor and suffer together, always having before our eyes our commission and community in the work, our community as members of the same body. (105)

For Winthrop, such mutual commitment was meant particularly to be a reflection of the colony’s greater commitment to God, the one true path to the ideal community. “For we must consider that we shall be as a city upon a hill,” Winthrop reminded them (105). “The eyes of all people are upon us, so that if we shall deal falsely with our God in this work we have undertaken, and so cause Him to withdraw His present help from us, we shall be made a story and a by-word through the world” (105). In a sense, John Winthrop and the Arabella Puritans saw themselves as the world’s last chance. By entering into a covenant with each other and with God, they believed that they could lay the foundation for a cooperation-based community that could show the world how to be a people with enough divine “wisdom, power, goodness, and truth” to transform society in a positive, permanent way (105).

The Puritans derived this notion from earlier millennial-utopian thought. Revelation 20.3–6 speaks of a period during which Satan is shut up in a “bottomless pit” for a thousand years while resurrected martyrs “for the witness of Jesus” live and reign with Christ. Revelation also describes the “new Jerusalem,” a beautifully adorned foursquare city, which descends from heaven and offers sanctuary to the righteous from all the pains and evils of mortality (Rev. 21). Written at the close of the first century, when Christians were facing their “first large-scale, sustained, legal persecution,” the vision predicted Christ’s second coming and the imminent demise of his adversaries, which “must shortly come to pass” (Olson 72–74; see also Rev. 1.1). That this Parousia did not, in fact, “shortly come to pass” led early Christians to scramble for meaning, often in the form of refocusing and refashioning their millennial longings to take account of the delay (Olson 84). In his study of early Mormon millenarianism, for example, Grant Underwood references one theory that suggests that the institutionalization of Christianity, in the form of the Catholic Church, emerged from the inexplicable dilemma of Christ’s delayed coming. In order to assure themselves that “the movement was right after all,” Christians aggressively sought doctrinal validation by converting the world and fortifying their institution (14). Such efforts, in turn, led to the rise of thinkers such as Augustine, who read Revelation metaphorically and argued that God’s kingdom had arrived in the form of “the prosperous career of the church” (16). During the Reformation, however, this tendency abated as some Protestant thinkers in Germany and England looked to the last days as a time when an outpouring of the Spirit would herald in a literal fulfillment of Revelation’s prophesies concerning the New Jerusalem (17–18). As literal readings of apocalyptic prophecy increased in popularity, so too did the desire among some European believers to separate themselves from the “wicked” and prepare for the looming millennium in isolated communities. Among these groups were the Labadists of Germany and the Netherlands, who moved their community to Maryland in the late seventeenth century and established the community of Bohemia Manor “to purify themselves for the millennium” (Durnbaugh 17; Berry 3). Another group, German Pietist followers of Jacob Zimmerman, a mathematician who predicted the millennium would come in 1694, banded together under the leadership of Johann Kelpius and immigrated to Pennsylvania, where they established a utopian community known as “The Woman in the Wilderness” and “watch[ed] the skies” for the fulfillment of Zimmerman’s prophecy (Berry 4). Like Winthrop, and later Joseph Smith, these groups saw in America the promise of a new beginning, a place where Old World corruption could be abandoned and the new land prepared and perfected for Christ (Berry 2; Rokicky 2).

Within this context, Joseph Smith’s engagement with millennialism and communal utopianism is unsurprising. Moreover, that Smith came of age against the backdrop of the Second Great Awakening (1800–1830), the revivalist movement that advanced the notion that society itself could be changed, improved, and placed “in harmony with God’s will,” further places Smith in contact with millennialist and utopian ideals (Berry 10–11). Although best known for its high emotionality and frenzied camp meetings, the movement also spurred the rise of reform movements in the United States, which had no small effect on antebellum American culture (Hankins 5). Energized by revivalism and the belief that the Millennium was right around the corner, early nineteenth-century Christians like Smith worked tirelessly to prepare America for it, stitching their beliefs and values into American culture by founding new religious movements, communal utopias, and constructing a Benevolent Empire of relief societies, Sunday schools, theological colleges, and Christian publishing ministries (Underwood 22). In fact, as a child of the “burned-over district,” the highly evangelized region of western New York during the Second Great Awakening, Joseph Smith would later credit the “war of words and tumult of opinions” of the era as the catalyst for his first theophany in 1820, an event Mormons refer to as the First Vision (“Church History” 4). While the earliest account of this experience is charged with the millennial undercurrents of the day, it says nothing about communalism or other utopian outgrowths of millennial thought. However, it does present a dualistic view of the world—common in millennialism—wherein the Kingdom of God is at odds with the sinful “inhabitants of the earth” (Underwood 8–9, 24). Later, in some of Smith’s earliest revelations, this dualism would be a central part of the rationale behind the organization of the new church—and the building of a utopian community.

Among these early revelations, none sparked Mormonism’s millennial-utopian imagination more than Smith’s “inspired revision” of the King James Bible. Begun shortly after the Church’s organization, the “inspired revision”—which Mormons today call the “Joseph Smith Translation”—was meant to be a restoration of the biblical text, which Smith believed had become corrupted over the centuries. When the newly-baptized Sidney Rigdon arrived in New York to meet Smith for the first time, the prophet was in the process of “translating” the first part of Genesis, and he and his other scribes had already begun a long digression involving Enoch, a minor biblical figure who appears in only eight verses in the Old and New Testaments, but in 110 verses in Joseph Smith’s revision (Bushman 132–133, 138; Van Wagoner 71–74). Significantly, after Rigdon took over as scribe, the Enoch narrative casts the biblical patriarch not only as a fiery preacher-prophet, but also as the founder of the first utopian community. Much like what utopians aspired to do in nineteenth-century America, Enoch establishes a land where his followers “dwelt in righteousness” away from the “wars and bloodshed” that characterize the rest of the world. Together they flourish such that the Lord calls them “Zion” they become a people “of one heart and one mind” who “dwel[l] in righteousness” and have “no poor among them.” Ultimately, this people build a city, which they call “the City of Holiness, even Zion,” which “in the process of time” is “taken up unto heaven” to be with God and spared the destruction that rains down upon the wicked world (Moses 7.17–21).

If the Enoch narrative’s dualistic view of humanity as separated into righteous and wicked camps and its emphasis on the rapture-like ascension of the City of Zion seem millennialist in tone, then Enoch’s later vision of the last days, which is also part of Smith’s inspired digression, only makes the connection more explicit. Indeed, with his city now in heaven, Enoch witnesses the future day when “the heavens shall be darkened” and “great tribulations shall be among the children of men” (Moses 7.61). As in his day, Enoch learns, the Lord’s people will be preserved and truth and righteousness will be sent from heaven “to bear testimony of [the] Only Begotten” and made “to sweep the earth as with the flood, to gather out [the] elect from the four quarters of the earth, unto a place which [the Lord] shall prepare, an Holy City [. . .] called Zion, a New Jerusalem” (Moses 7.62). Eventually, Enoch’s Zion will descend and merge with the new Zion and the righteous of old will rejoice with their new brothers and sisters in a reunion of millennial bliss:

Then shalt thou and all thy city meet them there, and we will receive them into our bosom and they shall us see us; and we will fall upon their necks, and they shall fall upon our necks, and we will kiss each other; and there shall be mine abode, and it shall be Zion, which shall come fourth out of all the creations which I have made; and for the space of a thousand years the earth shall rest. (Moses 7.63–64)

Like the Reformation thinkers before him, Smith understood apocalyptic prophecy literally—particularly prophecy that came from his own mouth. Accordingly, upon arriving in Kirtland in January 1831, Smith began making preparations to establish a community worthy of joining with Enoch’s in the latter days.5 In February, he recorded a revelation that commanded church members to “remember the poor” and make a covenant to “consecrate” their property to the bishop of the church for the support of the needy (Doctrine and Covenants 42.30). The bishop, in turn, would redistribute the property as a “stewardship” to individuals within the order, which stewardship would be sufficient to cover the living needs of the individual’s family (42.31–32). The “residue,” or surplus property, would remain in reserve in a “storehouse” for any additional needs the “poor and the needy” may require and for the temporal needs of the church proper (42.33–37). In this system, “all things” were to be “done in cleanliness before [the Lord]” (42.41). Members were to be hardworking contributors. “Thou shalt not be idle,” the revelation admonished; “for he that is idle shall not eat the bread nor wear the garments of the laborer” (42.42). Nor were they to have strife among them, but rather they were to live together in love” and “weep for the loss of them that die, and more especially for those that have not hope of a glorious resurrection” (42.45). Most important for those who bristled under the ambiguities of the “Family” system, the new revelation directed that those who were to abide under this law were to “stand in the place of [their] stewardship” and not encroach upon or appropriate the stewardship of another:

Thou shalt not take thy brother’s garment thou shalt pay for that which thou shalt receive of thy brother. And if thou obtainest more than that which would be for thy support, thou shalt give it into my storehouse, that all things may be done according to that which I have said.6

Mormons attempted to live according to this revealed law, which they called the Law of Consecration, from 1831 to 1833. Due to lack of order and planning, however, not to mention the poverty of the Mormons and the opposition they faced from their non-Mormon neighbors, the system did not work (May 141–142). Neither did their plans to build a holy city of peace and economic equality under the Law of Consecration. Indeed, on 25 July 1833, nearly two years after laying the first log of the new “City of Zion” in Jackson Country, Missouri, Smith sent a city plan from Kirtland to the struggling Missouri leadership. The plan, which Smith titled “The Plat for the City of Zion,” proposed an ambitious city of wide intersecting streets laid out in an orderly grid, but much to Smith’s disappointment, this utopian dream also never fully materialized.7 By mid-November 1833, however, the Missouri Mormons had to cease this utopian project when they were forcibly exiled from their homes in Zion and compelled to seek refuge in nearby Clay County.

The Law of Consecration fared no better in Kirtland, and the law as outlined in Smith’s revelations was never strictly followed as it proved too difficult and impractical under the Mormons’ impoverished condition. Mormon communalist experimentation tapered off during Joseph Smith’s final years, but it found new life in Utah under Brigham Young. In and around the Intermountain West, Mormons founded ninety-six settlements in the 1850s, 150 in the 1860s, and 120 in the 1870s (Berry 75). Brigham Young believed strongly in independence and self-sufficiency—especially from the federal government that had offered Mormons little assistance during their troubles in Missouri and Nauvoo—and encouraged his followers to strengthen local industry and refrain from doing business with outsiders (76). In the 1850s, spurred by a spirit of revivalism called the “Reformation” and a string of crop failures that devastated the Utah economy, Brigham Young encouraged his followers to live communally by the Law of Consecration. These efforts did not succeed, possibly due to the crisis surrounding the Utah War of 1857–58,8 but Young renewed his push toward Mormon economic self-sufficiency in the 1860s with his advocacy for community cooperatives. Centralized around a local retail store, these cooperatives sold affordable shares in the business—around five to ten dollars per share—that could be purchased in cash or commodities, and used its profits to fund other cooperative enterprises, like a sawmill, tannery, or textile mill. These enterprises, in turn, employed workers—often shareholders in the cooperative—to produce goods that would be sold at the retail store or used in the production of goods that would be sold there. In total, the Mormons created some 150 cooperatives. The most successful of these was Brigham City, which achieved eighty-five percent self-sufficiency (May 146–147). As these communities were often deeply committed to the principle of polygamy in addition to utopian communalism, however, they became a target for federal marshals who came to Utah to enforce the Edmunds Act of 1882, an anti-polygamy law that severely crippled the Mormons’ ability to maintain their communities. Moreover, the unrest of the younger generation and the prosperity of surrounding towns, which had become rich from surrounding silver mines, also contributed to their demise (Arrington 333–337; May 149–150). When LDS Church President Wilford Woodruff officially called an end to the practice of polygamy, he also sapped the utopian energies of many of his people.

Early Mormon Millennial Utopianism in Poetry

As one would expect, this tradition of Mormon millennial utopianism is reflected in their poetry. The first published examples of Mormon poetry were printed in early Mormon newspapers like The Evening and the Morning Star (1832–1834), The Latter Day Saints’ Messenger and Advocate (1834–1837), and Times and Seasons (1839–1847). In general, these early publications ran at least one or two anonymous poems or hymns per month—some authored by Mormons, some not—and these often treated a combination of the themes of Zion, the Millennium, and the Second Coming of Christ. For example, in the first issue of The Evening and the Morning Star, the Mormon newspaper published in their makeshift utopia in Missouri, five “hymns” appear, each of which looks forward to the promised return of Christ and the establishment of Zion prior to the millennium. The first hymn, “What fair one is this, in the wilderness trav’ling,” an original Mormon hymn penned by W. W. Phelps, the editor of the paper, follows familiar imagery from Revelation—standard millennialist material—in imagining the church as “the fair bride of the Savior,” whom it conflates with the woman in Revelation 12.1–6 who flees into the wilderness seeking refuge from the dragon:

What fair one is this, in the wilderness trav’ling,
Looking for Christ, the belov’d of her heart?
O this is the church, the fair bride of the Savior,
Which with every idol is willing to part.
(“What fair one” lines 1–4)

Throughout the remainder of the poem, Phelps continues to rely upon biblical imagery while drawing upon the motifs of a sacred journey, exile, and exodus, which were common in early American hymnody (see Bohlman 8). Like the woman in Revelation, the saints of the church are “on their way home to glory” and “[d]etermin’d [. . .] to reach the blest land” where they can safely avoid the taunts of “Old formal professors” and “high-minded hypocrites,” and “rejoic[e] to see priest-craft fall” (lines 11–16). Reaching further back in biblical prophecy, the poem ends with an allusion to the vision described in Daniel 2 of the “Stone of the mountain” that “will soon fill the earth” (lines 31–32). For Phelps, it is a promise of the global recompense the Saints will receive for their long, labored devotion to Christ.

The image of the Saints wandering through the wilderness in search of “the blest land” of Zion continues in another hymn in the issue, “Redeemer of Israel,” which Phelps adapted from Joseph Swain’s “O Thou in whose presence my soul takes delight.” Similarly drawing upon familiar biblical imagery, “Redeemer of Israel” imagines the church as a modern Israel that has long “wandered/ As strangers in sin,” yet perseveres knowing Christ’s return will shortly end its wandering and deliver it from the “valley/ Of death”:

We know he is coming
To gather his sheep,
And plant them in Zion, in love,
For why in the valley
Of death should they weep,
Or alone in the wilderness rove?
(lines 7–12)

“Redeemer of Israel,” however, ends before this longed-for gathering occurs. Instead, the “children of Zion” are ever-waiting, reveling in the “Good tidings” and “tokens” of the last days, and trusting that “the hour of redemption is near” when they will come to occupy Zion, the antithesis of “the valley/ Of death” (lines 19–24).

Such is not the case, however, in “The time is nigh that happy time,” an original Mormon hymn by Parley P. Pratt who, along with Phelps, was one of early Mormonism’s most prolific writers. In the hymn, Pratt pushes the end-times hopes of “Redeemer of Israel” a step further by describing the utopian splendor of a Christian millennium where Jews and Gentiles unite, infidelity is overcome, and brotherhood and friendship are affirmed:

In one sweet symphony of praise,
The Jews and Gentiles will unite;
And infidelity, o’er come,
Return again to endless night.
From east to west, from north to south,
The Savior’s kingdom shall extend,
And every man in every place,
Shall meet a brother and a friend.
(lines 13–20)

As this hymn shows, Pratt’s vision of the Kingdom of God—like Phelps’s—is expansionistic. In order to overcome infidelity and disharmony, it extends its influence over all people until they come together as one large millennial family. Significantly, though, such a notion was hardly unique to Mormon poetry. Alongside these hymns, in fact, The Evening and the Morning Star published two slight variations of hymns by Protestant authors: John Newton’s “Glorious things of thee are spoken,” and “On mountain tops the mount of God,” a popular eighteenth-century hymn. Like “The time is nigh that happy time,” “On mountain tops the mount of God” describes Zion as a unifying force that “Shall lighten every land” as “Her King [. . .] reign[s] a thousand years/And all the world command[s]” (lines 11–12). Its focus is not solely on the geographic extent of Zion, though, but rather on Zion’s peace and beauty:

No war shall rage, no hostile band
Disturb those peaceful years;
To plow-shares men shall beat their swords,
To pruning-hooks their spears.
Come then, O house of Jacob, come,
And worship at his shrine;
And, walking in the light of God;
With holy beauties shine.
(lines 9–24)

As editor, Phelps likely selected “On mountain tops the mount of God” for the first issue of The Evening and the Morning Star because it presents a vision of the millennial state that accords well with the millenarian world view he and other early Mormons espoused, which was itself influenced by the evangelical discourse of the day. As Grant Underwood points out, in fact, Mormons in the 1830s were much in tune to the “religious ethos in America at the time,” and “actually deviated little from the morals and mores of nineteenth-century evangelicalism” (10). As these hymns suggest, early Mormons acquired their millennial imagery either first or second-hand from the same biblical passages Protestants appropriated. Moreover, they followed the tendency, which Stephen A. Marini identifies in most American evangelical hymnody, of “rely[ing] on classic British eighteenth century texts to express the unruly and often confusing tenet of the Second Coming of Christ” (141). Importantly, however, Mormon editors like Phelps would often modify the wording in hymns even further to give them a Mormon flavor. The Evening and the Morning Star’s version of Newton’s “Glorious things of thee are spoken,” for example, changes the original “On the rock of ages founded,/ What can shake thy sure repose?” to “On the Rock of Enoch founded,/ What can shake thy sure repose?” (lines 5–6, emphasis added) in order to connect the New Jerusalem of Revelation, the subject of Newton’s hymn, more explicitly to the Enoch of Joseph Smith’s “inspired revision” of the Bible (see Moses 7.18).

As Mormonism matured, distinctive elements of their theology began to color their utopian expressions more. When she gathered hymns for the first Mormon hymnal in 1835, Emma Smith, the Prophet’s wife, followed the practice of The Evening and Morning Star and other Mormon newspapers by including popular Protestant hymns and new Mormon hymns alike, many of which struck a decidedly utopian note. W. W. Phelps’s “Now let us rejoice in the day of salvation,” for instance, meditates on the utopian condition of the saints in Zion prior to the Second Coming of Christ:

We’ll love one another and never dissemble,
But cease to do evil and ever be one;
And while the ungodly are fearing and tremble,
We’ll watch for the day when the Savior shall come:
When all that was promis’d the saints will be given,
And none will molest them from morn until even,
And earth will appear as the garden of Eden,
And Jesus will say to all Israel: Come home!
(lines 9–16)

Apart from the harmonious picture it paints of a united utopian community’s hope in the future Edenic state of the earth, this hymn portrays the desired outcome of “the Gathering,” a distinctive Mormon doctrine which Underwood identifies as “the pivotal premillennial event in Mormon eschatology” (29). Like many religious utopians of the day, Mormons believed that the righteous needed to build a special community where they could gather to prepare for the Millennium. However, as pre-millennialists, they viewed this gathering place specifically as a spot to weather the calamities of the Second Coming. In one of Smith’s revelations, recorded in September 1830, he and his followers were commanded by God to “bring to pass the gathering of [the Lord’s] elect” and gather them “in unto one place upon the face of the land, to prepare their hearts and be prepared in all things against the day when tribulation and desolation are sent forth upon the wicked.”9

Along with “New let us rejoice,” one of the most millennialist and utopian of these early Mormons hymns is “This earth was once a garden place,” also written by Phelps, published in The Latter Day Saints’ Messenger and Advocate in June 1835, and later collected as “Hymn 23” in Emma Smith’s hymnal. In the hymn, Phelps references a place called “Adam-ondi-Ahman,” which one of Smith’s revelations from earlier in the year had identified as the place where Adam, three years prior to his death, had “bestowed [. . .] his last blessing” upon the “residue of his posterity who were righteous” (Doctrine and Covenants 107.53). While Smith himself said little to suggest this about Adam-ondi-Ahman, Phelps’s hymn envisions it as the setting of an Edenic, egalitarian civilization similar to Enoch’s Zion, which the hymn also references:

This earth was once a garden place,
With all her glories common;
And men did live a holy race,
And worship Jesus face to face,
In Adam-ondi-Ahman.
We read that Enoch walk’d with God,
Above the pow’r of Mammon:
While Zion spread herself abroad,
And saints and angels sung aloud
In Adam-ondi-Ahman
Her land was good and greatly blest,
Beyond old Israel’s Canaan:
Her fame was known from east to west;
Her peace was great, and pure the rest
Of Adam-ondi-Ahman.
Hosanna to such days to come—
The Savior’s second comin’—
When all the earth in glorious bloom,
Affords the saints a holy home
Like Adam-ondi-Ahman.
(Phelps, “This earth was once a garden place”)

Typical of early nineteenth-century millenarian expression, the hymn looks forward to the Second Coming of Christ as a time when the Saints will have a home apart from “mammon.” Yet it also draws upon a distinctly Mormon adaptation of the Christian mythos to recast history as a narrative of paradise lost and regained: Adam-ondi-Ahman, an ancient land where Adam and his posterity establish a post-Edenic egalitarian civilization, acquires “fame [. . .] from east to west,” falls, and becomes a dream of “days to come” when the “glorious bloom” of Adam-ondi-Ahman will be restored to the earth. In doing so, it endeavors to assert—more so than, say, the largely derivative “Now let us rejoice in the day of salvation”—a Mormon identity founded upon a millennial-utopian vision comprised of elements (Enoch, Adam-ondi-Ahman) unique to the Mormon eschatology.10

Around the time Emma Smith compiled her book of hymns, the first book-length collection of Mormon poetry was published in Boston: Parley P. Pratt’s The Millennium, A Poem to which is added Hymns and Songs (1835). The title work, a long poem comprising six chapters of heroic couplets, draws heavily upon Smith’s Zion-centric eschatology and sacralization of America. Tracing the history of the Lost Ten Tribes of Israel from their ancient dispersal in Jerusalem to their gathering in the last days, Pratt pays special attention to Native Americans, whom The Book of Mormon (1830) identified as lost descendants of Joseph of Egypt. Throughout the poem, their history merges with that of American colonization; the American, French, Greek, and Polish Revolutions; and Joseph Smith’s efforts to restore primitive Christianity. Most interesting, however, is the way Pratt depicts Andrew Jackson’s Indian removal policy as a measure that unwittingly gathers “Joseph’s scattered remnants” (i.e. the Native Americans) to the trans-Mississippi region where the Saints intended to build the City of Zion:

See Congress stand, in all the power of state,
Destined like Cyrus, now to change the fate
Of Joseph’s scattered remnants! long oppressed,
And bring them home, unto a land of rest;
Beyond the Mississippi’s rolling flood,
A land before ordained by Israel’s God!
Where Zion’s city, shall in grandeur rise,
And fill the wondering nations with surprise!
(“The Millenium” 5.19–26)

As this passage shows, Pratt’s enthusiasm for the Gathering of Israel blinds him to the injustices of Indian removal, which would only intensify before the decade’s end. Like many millennialists, Pratt’s zeal for the hastening of the end-times calamities subordinates the need for immediate justice to the anticipation of a fairer future, thus enabling him to rejoice guiltlessly in the displacement of the “long oppressed,” who are on their way to “a land of rest.” This subordination also gives him reason to revel in the orgy of blood and destruction, the ultimate manifestation of God’s justice on those who would abuse the oppressed:

Kingdom on kingdom, in confusion hurl’d
System on system wreck’d throughout the world,
Sect against sect in bloody strife engage,
Man against man, in single combat rage,
While widows mourn the loss of husbands slain,
And virgins for their bridegrooms, weep in vain,
While pining famine wastes their strength by day,
And pestilence oft seizes on its prey,
Earthquakes in turn, in bellowing fury roar,
And ocean’s waves roll frightful to the shore.
See through the heavens, the sun in sackcloth mourn,
The moon to blood in frowning anger turns,
The stars affrighted, from their spheres are hurled,
System on system wreck’d and world on world,
Earth’s whole foundation, to the centre nods, and nature trembling, feels the power of God.
(5.101–116)

Terryl L. Givens and Matthew J. Grow, Pratt’s biographers, attribute this “emphasis on the vivid reality of apocalyptic death and destruction” to Pratt’s culture and a personality “inclined to calamity howling” (110). A committed premillenialist, Pratt read biblical end-times prophecies literally, rejecting the postmillennialist tendency to read these prophecies as metaphor, which was “a form of priestcraft [Pratt] felt compelled to refute” (110). Accordingly, his final description of the Millennium should be read not simply as an adaptation of metaphorical biblical prophecies, but as a literal forecast of the utopian state of the world after Christ’s Second Coming:

Lo! Satan bound in chains, shall rage no more,
Nor tempt mankind, till thousand years are o’er;
But perfect peace and harmony extend,
Their wide domain, to earth’s remotest ends.
All flesh shall feel the spirit from on high,
The wolf and lamb in peace together lie.
(“The Millennium” 6.1–6)

Aside from Pratt and Phelps, the Mormons had other utopian poets. Eliza R. Snow, one of the most prolific early Mormon poets, frequently included utopian imagery in her poems about Zion and the Millennium. In “The glorious day is rolling on,” one of her first poems written after her 1835 conversion to Mormonism, Snow describes the millennial day in typical Protestant fashion:

The glorious day is rolling on—
All glory to the Lord!
When fair as at creation’s dawn
The earth will be restor’d.
[. . .]
The saints will then, with pure delight,
Possess the holy land;
And walk with Jesus Christ in white,
And in his presence stand.
(lines 1–4, 13–16)

Like Phelps’s poetry, Snow’s poems later acquired a more Mormon cadence. On the verge of the 1838 Mormon War in Missouri, for example, when Mormons were again being threatened with expulsion from their homes, Snow wrote “The Gathering of the Saints, and The Commencement of the City of Adam-Ondi-Ahman,” a long poem that recounts her people’s persecution. In it, she speaks of “places chosen for the Saints’ abode;/ Beyond the Mississippi’s lucid flow,/ Where Zion’s towers will yet with splendor glow” (lines 34–36), and ends looking forward to the advent of a map-altering Millennium, when the scattered people of God will again be one:

Roll on thy glorious work, Eternal God,
Till Zions terror shall be known abroad;
[. . .]
When one day’s time shall give a nation birth,
And Zion’s glory spread o’er all the earth:
When Judah’s mountains shall become a plain,
And the two continents unite again:
Then shall the long-lost Tribes of Israel come
To “dwell in Zion, at Jerusalem.”
(lines 187–198)

Like Phelps and Pratt, Snow’s early Mormon poetry crystalizes around the literal establishment of Zion in America, the Second Coming of Christ, and the promised justice and peace of the Millennium. Moreover, it imagines the Millennium as a glorious return to the utopian state of the world before it became physically and spiritually corrupted. This return is the essence of early Mormon utopian expression; rather than asking readers to place their faith in an unprecedented future utopia, these poems ask them to look to the Mormon Zion for the restitution of a golden age of unity, equality, and peace. Significantly, they also depict the Saints as relatively passive actors in the end-times drama, wanderers content to leave the restitution of utopia in the hands of God. This posture would change as the Mormons’ early experience with persecution and displacement gave way to an era when settlement and community-building in Utah required the Mormons to work together—and think of themselves—as a community of God’s chosen people.

Later Mormon Utopian Poetry

After failing to establish permanent utopian communities in Missouri, Ohio, and Illinois, the Mormons relocated to the Intermountain West in 1847 and drew upon their earlier utopian ideals to found Salt Lake City and other communities. Meanwhile, the term “Zion” became more ambiguous as it evolved to mean both the New Jerusalem in Missouri and the Mormon settlements in the Utah Territory. Interestingly, one of the consequences of this ambiguity is a tendency to superimpose the attributes of the “ideal” Zion on the “real” one, making a utopia of the Saints’ rustic settlement. Such a tendency is apparent in Snow’s “To a Sister Abroad,” an 1850s-era poem that encourages an unnamed woman to gather with the Saints in the Utah Zion:

Come, come here and dwell with the Saints of God—
Come, partake of the fountains which flow from heav’n;
Where the light of truth freely spreads abroad
And the sweet peace of God to the heart is giv’n.
[. . .]
Dear Sister, no longer in Babylon roam,
Where the accents of friendship and truth are few:
In the midst of the Saints in our mountain home,
The purest of hearts fondly beat for you.
(lines 1–4, 17–20)

The idyllic picture of Utah that Snow draws for her reader in these lines was, of course, a far cry from the rustic settlement it was in the first decade of the Mormons’ occupancy. Snow, however, deliberately heightens the beauty of the Saints’ “mountain home” to contrast it with Babylon, where “the accents of friendship and truth are few”; again assert a unique Mormon identity over and against Babylon, its antithesis; and establish the dualism that was so crucial to the millennialist poetry of early Mormons and their contemporaries.

In other poems, Snow demonstrates more awareness of the disconnection between the ideal society and her own. In her 1855 poem “A Word to the Saints Who Are Gathering,” for instance, she addresses the flux of European converts who were in the process of gathering to the Utah Territory, warning them that the Zion in the American West is not the abstract utopia of scripture, but a “furnace” designed to “purify” them with the realities of hardship:

Think not, when you gather to Zion
Your troubles and trials are through—
That nothing but comfort and pleasure
Are waiting in Zion for you.
No, no; ’tis designed as a furnace,
All substance, all textures to try—
To consume all the “wood, hay, and stubble,”
And the gold from the dross purify.
(lines 1–8)

With these lines, Snow seeks to disassociate the concept of Zion with the notion of a fully-realized ideal community by making a refinery of utopia. Doing so, she anticipates Fátima Viera’s notion that utopia is a process of becoming, a “strategy of creativity, clearing the way for the only path that man can possibly follow: the path of creation” (23). While still firmly committed to the idea of Zion-as-ideal-community, Snow nevertheless rejects the “comfort and pleasure” of traditional utopian imagery to conceptualize Zion as an ongoing process of creative social betterment. In a sense, she asks “the Saints Who Are Gathering” to think beyond the unproductive limits of their own (and often culturally-prescribed) utopian imaginations to understand Zion as more than its teleological promises. As we see in “A Word to the Saints Who Are Gathering,” Zion becomes almost synonymous not with relaxation and comfort, but with creative cooperative labor:

Think not, when you gather to Zion,
The Saints her have nothing to do
But attend to your personal welfare,
And always be comforting you.
No; the Saints who are faithful are doing
What their hands find to do, with their might;
To accomplish the gath’ring of Israel,
They are toiling by day and by night.
(lines 17–24)

Snow was not alone in imagining an imperfect, furnace-like Zion. In slightly more subtle fashion, Scottish convert John Lyon uses his poem “The Apostate: A Fragment” to warn European Mormons against having high hopes and unrealistic expectations as they prepare to immigrate to Utah. Written around the same time as Snow’s “A Word to the Saints Who Are Gathering,” the poem describes a Scottish convert’s early enthusiasm for Mormonism diminish as “the roots of bitterness” grow “to putrid cancer in his soul” (lines 1–2). Like the “Gathering Saints” in Snow’s poem, the convert’s vision of the American Zion is unrealistically utopian, which leaves him unprepared for the refining tribulations that come with the Gathering:

The Gathering was his constant theme; for he
Had dreamed of golden gates, and pearly walls,
And palaces, and ghostly saints at ease
Reclining ’neath the palm-tree’s shade at noon.
And so he left, to seek this fairy land
Uncounselled, in his own imaginings.
But ah! he thought not of the fiery path
Where persecution, poverty, and death,
Await the just, ere they can sing the song
Of ransom’d ones, by suffering perfect made.
(lines 22–31)

When the convert arrives in Nauvoo, the city Joseph Smith and the Mormons founded in Illinois after their Missouri expulsion, the “stern realities of life” set in and “His hope,/ Like morning mist, evaporated quite,/ And with it, all his dreams of phantom bliss/ Which nightly pictur’d out Elysian fields,/ Woods, lawns, and bowers, and wizard, winding streams,/ By crystal founts, and cool refreshing groves!” (lines 34–39). Gradually, “disaffection’s deadly ’venomed sting” poisons the convert and he falls “from his gigantic height,/ As we have seen a falling meteor fall/From out the starry vault” (lines 44, 60–62). Within two years, the convert is back in Scotland, a “strange, outlandish looking man at church/Among the Saints”—one who goes through the motions of a believer, yet still harbors the “gnawings of the bitter worm within” (lines 69–70, 76). He has become an “apostate,” and his perception of Zion is now the antithesis of the “fairy land” he once imagined:

The Prophet, Saints, and all their labours, were
His theme of execration and contempt,
Anon he railed of horrid, murd’rous deeds,
Of av’rice, cruelty, and heartless fraud,
Pollution, and a thousand evil ways
Unheard of, save in his degen’rate heart.
(lines 83–88)

Like “A Word to the Saints Who Are Gathering,” “The Apostate” does not seek to be a soothing lyrical balm for the weary convert. In the disaffected Scottish convert, readers find a warning against the dangers of self-centric utopian dreaming. The convert’s apostasy is a result not of some doctrinal dispute with Mormonism, but rather of his individualistic desire to pursue “[u]ncounselled” the Zion of his “own imaginings.” Ultimately, he proves unable to “reconcile his blasted hopes” with the imperfect Zion he finds in Nauvoo because his disillusionment leads him to “distrust” everything about his new community, including its “holy men,” whom he perceives as “mere swindling vagabonds” (lines 41, 48, 50). The “convert” becomes the “apostate” in part because he is unwilling to surrender his “selfish soul” to an understanding of Zion as a process of creative social betterment rather than a perfect, fully-realized Elysian community (see lines 90–95).

While the Zion-as-Furnace motif of Snow and Lyon became standard in the second half of the nineteenth century, idealized portraits of Utah and the City of Zion remained a staple of Mormon poetry and utopian expression. In his poem “Sing Me the Song,” for instance, Lyon describes a mountainous paradise where “tyrants” and “stern oppressors” are powerless, a “mother’s eye ne’er sheds a tear,” and a “maiden’s heart ne’er sad shall be” (lines 1, 4, 7, 16)—which the final stanza reveals to be “Deseret,” the name the Mormons originally gave to Utah:

But where shall we find this fairy vale
Where the naked are clothed and the hungry fed,
Where the ear is not stunned with sorrow’s wail,
Nor the sound of pollution’s voice is heard?
Then hear ye the song, for the time is come,
To know where the pure in peace shall rest:
That land is the freeman’s mountain home!
Sing on, sing on, for Deseret’s best.
(lines 19–26)

Emmeline B. Wells, another prominent nineteenth-century Mormon poet, likewise idealized Utah in her poem “Peaceful Vales,” which figures the “Grand and noble” Rocky Mountains as “nature’s bulwarks” raised to protect “the pleasant valleys” of Zion. Like “Sing Me the Song,” the poem presents Utah as a mountain land of peace, happiness, and rest:

Peaceful vales where Saints may dwell,
And praise the God of Israel;
While happy children join and sing,
Glory to the Heavenly King.
And the angels of Jehovah
Watch forever on the towers,
That, like sentinels are stationed
Round this glorious land of ours,
Which the Saints in peace inherit
As their resting place foretold,
Where they gather round the standard,
And the flag of truth unfold.
(lines 9–20)

As these poems indicate, representations of Zion in the writings of late nineteenth-century Mormons were contradictory in their application of utopianism. On the one hand, they could cast a utopian glow over Utah in a way that attracts new converts, yet obscures the difficulties of frontier life and fosters unrealistic expectations. On the other hand, they could encourage the Saints to view Zion as a trial by fire, which, if endured, could refine and perfect them as a community. In both instances, Zion promises something better than what the Saints already have, which is an essential aspect of utopia. This tension between Zion-as-rest and Zion-as-labor, however, suggests that the passive millennialism of their earlier years had reached an impasse with the realities of their exiled situation. The Saints, therefore, continued to long for and imagine an ideal community where they could live peacefully and safely as a chosen people while God punished the wicked; yet, they also realized that this community would not be handed to them. They would have to build it from the ground up, patiently, and not without additional trials.

One interesting trend to develop out of this impasse was a militant millennial utopianism that appropriated earlier millennial motifs as invectives against the Church’s principal antagonist in the late nineteenth century: the United States government. Indeed, after a decade hiatus from persecution, the Mormons again faced intense opposition when the federal government adopted an aggressive agenda against polygamy and the Mormons’ theocratic dominance of the Intermountain West. Under the direction of President James Buchanan, for example, 5,000 U.S. troops marched to Utah in 1857 to occupy Salt Lake City and put down a rumored Mormon rebellion against federal authority. This so-called “Utah War” did little to end polygamy, but it did instate a non-Mormon governor in the territory and signal the beginning of the end of the Mormons’ isolated mountain utopia. More effective were the legislative actions the government took in the coming decades, beginning with the Morrill Anti-Bigamy Act of 1862 and the Poland Act of 1874, which outlawed polygamy and placed Utah territorial courts under the jurisdiction of the federal government. When these laws proved too ineffective, congress passed the Edmunds Act of 1882 and Edmunds Tucker Act of 1887, which further curtailed Mormon civil liberties. Combined, these laws stripped Utah women and polygamous men of their voting rights, disallowed polygamists from holding political office or serving on juries, forced legal wives to testify against their polygamous husbands in court, dissolved the Church’s corporation status, allowed for the confiscation of most of the church’s property, disinherited the children of polygamous unions, took control of the public school system, and enacted further measures to cripple Mormon power in the region (Leone 149–151; Alexander 4; Flake 28). The Church also lost two important Supreme Court battles—Reynolds v. United States (1879) and The Late Corporation of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints v. United States (1890)—which upheld these laws and left the Mormons feeling demoralized and deeply resentful. It was perhaps the darkest time in Mormon history, and it is not surprising that Mormon poets looked to the millennial utopia for hope, identity, and revenge.

This is particularly true in the poetry of Orson F. Whitney, the preeminent poet of Mormondom’s second generation, whose work frequently attacked the injustices of federal anti-Mormon legislation. His collection The Poetical Writings of Orson F. Whitney: Poems and Poetic Prose (1889) was released at the height of federal opposition to Mormonism and polygamy, and published in part to help alter public opinion about the character of the Mormon people. As Whitney states in his preface:

it may be these humble songs will help dispel the dense cloud of prejudice and misapprehension hanging like a pall over the true history and character of my people, and show that the author of these lines, if he cannot create poetry, can at least admire it, and linger if not follow in the footsteps of those whose divine mission is to make the world more lovely and more lovable by producing it. That the name “Mormon” is not necessarily a synonym for coarseness and carnality, need not be told to those cognizant of the truth. (iii–iv)

Despite the meekness of these sentiments, The Poetical Writings offers no olive branch to the federal government or American people. For instance, one of the poems in the collection, “Lines on the Exodus,” excoriates “Babylon”—a thinly-veiled reference to the United States—for the persecutions it has heaped upon “a modern Israel”:

O Babylon! what streams of human blood
Unite to swell thy crimson-rolling flood!
The cry of millions, bound within thy thralls,
Deceived and lost, of God for vengeance calls;
The prayers of martyrs, murdered for the truth,
Appeals of widows for their orphaned youth,
The blood of innocence thy hand hath shed,
Pronounced a curse upon thy guilty head.
And thou shalt fall, and great thy fall shall be,
A ponderous mill-stone cast into the sea;
Eternal night shall shroud thee in its gloom,
And Truth shall triumph in thy day of doom.
(lines 23–34)

This “day of doom,” of course, is the Second Coming, when modern Israel’s wrongs will be righted, and the law of Zion will bring a unifying order to a world long-oppressed by Babylon’s tyranny. For Whitney, the Second Coming and Millennium are the epitome of divine justice. Through these eschatological events, the wrongs the Mormons have experienced under corrupt federal laws will be righted as the wicked nation topples. As Parley P. Pratt did earlier in the century, Whitney revels in the destruction of the wicked and pleas for the swift judgments of God:

“[. . .] Come, let us fly the judgments of that day,
When wickedness from earth shall pass away.
And all who answer not the warning call,
With Babylon must crumble in her fall.”
Thy virtue virtue’s votaries shall draw,
And out of Zion shall go forth the law,
Till all the nations under heaven’s sun
United are, eternally in one.
Thy dawn, thus “kindling to eternal day.”
Resplendent over all the earth shall sway.
(lines 47–56)

In other poems in The Poetical Writings, Whitney wields his poet’s pen and millennial convictions in similar defiance of the United States. In his poem “Waiting,” Whitney longs for a day when the sons of Jehovah no longer have to “Lick the dust of Gentile feet” and see the laws of God “trampled/As the stone of yonder street?” (lines 9–12). He also decries the social inequalities that so troubled Joseph Smith and aches for the rise of “a glorious Zion” that would put an end to them. In an optimistic turn, the poem follows the conventions of earlier millennial expression to describe the “Day of Zion’s glad redemption”:

Freedom waves her joyous pinions
O’er a land, from sea to sea,
Bright with beams of heavenly glory,
Home of light and liberty;
O’er a people happy, holy,
Gifted now with every grace;
Free from self, that sordid fetter
That enslaves our fallen race.
Union, love and fellow-feeling—
These the watch-words of the hour;
Rich and poor in all things equal—
Righteousness their rock and tower.
(lines 33–44)

The remainder of the poem celebrates Christ’s expected victory over “mammon,” another veiled reference to the United States. Culture overturns crudeness and Faith and Truth win out over the “tyrant’s sceptre” and the “bigot’s power” (lines 49–50). The “future glory” of Zion also becomes visible: “Lovelier than painter’s limning,/ Fairer than a poet’s dream,/ Brighter than the noonday-splendor,/ Or the midnight’s starry beam” (lines 77–80). As with its earliest predecessors, “Waiting” reaches back to biblical imagery and draws upon the standard journey motif to express the most basic utopian anticipation, a better future. It imagines “hope’s pilgrims, worn and weary” climbing “a craggy way” to “Greet the morn on glory’s hill-top,/When the night hath passed away!” (lines 89–92). Characterizing the Saints as an oppressed and downtrodden people, the poem assures them that will find lasting peace from their oppressors if they can only hold out until the Millennium.

Conclusion: A Whispered Affirmation of Utopia

History, of course, tells another story. Rather than holding out until the Millennium, the Mormons—threatened with incarcerations and the confiscation of their temples—reluctantly capitulated to federal laws in the fall of 1890 and disavowed the practice of polygamy. In the thirty years following this policy change, Mormonism underwent radical changes that would alter the way Mormons thought—and wrote—about themselves and their utopian ideals. For instance, while they never abandoned their intentions to build the City of Zion in Jackson County, Missouri, they came to talk less about returning to their holy land as the intensity of their millennialism dissipated into the twentieth century. As Underwood notes, “the brighter day majestically rising upon the world [took] longer than enthusiastic Latter-day Saints first expected,” and they, like the primitive Christians before them, moved on (139). Today, he observes, “talk about the end times” in Mormon congregations has “a detached and textbookish quality,” and the “social ramifications of [the Mormon] eschatology” are seldom a topic of conversations or Sunday school discussions (141–142). Likewise, the “more abrasive features of millenarianism”—which informed much of the graphic imagery of Pratt’s and Whitney’s poetry—have all but disappeared behind ecumenism and a kinder view of the world’s inhabitants (141–142). That era of Mormon millennialism has passed, as has the doomsaying. In the LDS Church’s October 2011 General Conference, in fact, President Boyd K. Packer of its governing Quorum of the Twelve Apostles told Mormon youth not to fear the end of the world. “You can look forward to [. . .] getting married, having a family, seeing your children and grandchildren, maybe even great-grandchildren,” he said (19). Likely, if any of these youth awake to see a Leonids meteor shower, as Joseph Smith did in 1833, they will not think of it as a “sure sign” of the Second Coming.

Mormon millennial utopianism has not altogether disappeared, however. While Mormons may not dwell on calamity as much as they used to, they still hope for a brighter future—even if that future is not always imagined as a gleaming City of Zion. Also, vestiges of their earlier communalist efforts persist, the most apparent of which is their colossal welfare program, which came about during the desperate days of the Great Depression. Through this program, Mormons endeavor to achieve the utopian goal of social betterment by assisting the poor and needy in their congregations and broader civic communities, offering aid during major disaster relief efforts or in local causes, like soup kitchens and women’s shelters. As Dean L. May notes in his study of Mormon utopianism, these remnants of their old “[c]ommunal values are essential to the Mormon church as it presently functions,” even though the Church’s current leadership occasionally downplays Mormonism’s early involvement in utopian communalism (154). In the twenty-first century, Mormons are post-utopian in that they are no longer actively seeking to build the ideal community that Joseph Smith imagined; however, as they continue to hope for a better world (both before and after the Millennium), and aggressively pursue programs of social betterment and welfare, they remain committed utopians with an eye to the Second Coming of Christ. Even their poetry, which has progressed well beyond its early millennial themes, continues to express utopia on occasion. For instance, the title of the most recent collection of Mormon poetry, Fire in the Pasture (2011), comes from a poem entitled “Finding Place” by Doug Talley, a Mormon poet from northeast Ohio, a region where so many nineteenth-century utopians tried—often in vain—to create heavens on earth. Talley’s poem lacks the millennial fervor of its nineteenth-century predecessors, yet in its assurance that “we find the peaceable kingdom/within then above, beneath, and all around” is a whispered affirmation of the millennial utopia’s ubiquity in everyday life (lines 13–14). It is a gentle reminder that while Mormon millennial utopianism has changed over time, it has not been extinguished.

1) Over the years, scholars have found a number of ways to distinguish between modes of millennialist thinking. In his study of American millennial thought, for example, Ernest Lee Tuveson makes the important distinction between “millenarians” and “millennialists” (33–34). For Tuveson, millenarians are those who believe that a literal second coming and millennium will follow “a series of wonderful” and “preternatural occurances.” Largely self-educated, millenarians are premillennialists who are anti-progressive in their adherence to the belief that nothing need be or can be done to prepare for the second coming, which will happen quickly and unexpectedly. Among millenarians, Brian J. L. Berry also distinguishes between “apocalyptic” or “premillenarians,” or millenarians who believe in a future, predictable, and instant advent of Christ; and “progressive” or “postmillenarians,” or millenarians who believe that the advent of Christ has already happened, leaving believers with the task of following wise prophets in efforts to build perfect communities (11). These are in contrast to what Tuveson calls millennialists, or those who view the second coming as allegorical and believe that history, guided by the hand of God, will ultimately bring about the millennium as human beings collectively practice and promote Christian principles. Unlike millenarians, millennialists are postmillennialist and progressive in their belief that one must actively work to change the conditions of the world (Tuveson 33–34). Both millenarians and millennialists were prevalent among Americans—to a greater or lesser degree—during the revivalism of the eighteenth and nineteenth century, although Grant Underwood notes that postmillennialism “reigned supreme” in the 1800s (22). In this study, however, I use the term “millennialist” generally as Mormons display characteristics of millenarians and millennialists.

2) Since the twentieth century, scholars have tied the concept of utopia to desires for hope, change, and social betterment. For example, Ernst Bloch, one of the twentieth century’s most influential theorists of utopia, rejects a narrow form-based definition of the word and argues that “the whole totality of philosophy becomes necessary [. . .] to do justice to the content of that designated by utopia.” Rather than merely “the fairytales of an ideal state,” or a literature describing such, Bloch’s utopia is a “breadth of anticipations, wishful images, [and] hope-contents” that appears everywhere in culture and casts a forward glance to real “future possibilities of being different and better” (15, 144). Following this definition, Lyman Tower Sargent defines utopia as “social dreaming,” and associates the term with the way humans “envision a radically different society than the one in which [they] live” (3). Frederic Jameson follows a similar line of thinking in Archaeologies of the Future by understanding utopia as “a representational meditation on radical difference, radical otherness, and on the systemic nature of social totality” (xii). Elsewhere, however, he clarifies this definition by suggesting that utopia “is not a representation but an operation calculated to disclose the limits of our own imagination of the future, the lines beyond which we do not seem able to go in imagining change in our own society and world” (23). In the essay “The Concept of Utopia,” Fátima Viera likewise thinks of Utopia in operative terms, identifying it as “a strategy for the questioning of reality and of the present,” “a programme for change and for a gradual betterment of the present,” and “a strategy of creativity” that “[clears] the way for the only path that man can possibly follow: the path of creation” (23). Ruth Levitas, however, sees utopia as something more innate and confessional: “the expression of the desire for a better way of being” (8). Eric Rabkin, in a similar fashion, associates the term with “the drive to make the ideal world real” (305). Other definitions follow this progressive track. Arrigo Colombo, for example, argues that utopia is “a society based on justice” (181), while Michael Marien insists that it is a notion entwined with “social betterment” (24). I prefer this final definition—“social betterment”—best because of its simplicity. By “millennial utopianism,” I mean the pursuit of social betterment from the context of a millennial world-view.

3) Millennialism is an aspect of utopianism, but not all intentional or utopian communities in the nineteenth century were millennialist. Lyman Tower Sargent, one of the foremost scholars of utopia, defines a utopian community as “a group of five or more adults [. . .] who come from more than one nuclear family and who have chosen to live together to enhance their shared values or for some other mutually agreed upon purpose” (15). These communities, both spiritually and secularly-oriented, were widespread in Joseph Smith’s day and frequently captured national attention. Ralph Waldo Emerson, for example, remarked to Scottish writer Thomas Carlyle that the United States was so “wild” with “projects of social reform” that there was “[n]ot a reading man” in America “but ha[d] a draft of a new Community in his waistcoat pocket” (169).

4) Shortly after Rigdon’s conversion to Mormonism in October 1830, Thomas Campbell warned Rigdon in a letter that “the pretended duty of common property among Christians is anti-scriptural, being subversive of the law of Christ and inimical to the just rights of human society” (Howe 121).

5) Although evidence suggests that Joseph Smith aspired to build this earthly Zion before Rigdon’s New York arrival, it should not be overlooked that Rigdon’s arrival in New York put Joseph Smith in contact with someone who had experience with the kind of communalism Smith found in the Bible and in his revelations. Eber D. Howe, editor of The Painesville Telegraph, a newspaper serving the Kirtland area, noted in the 16 November 1830 issue that Mormon missionaries claimed that they were headed “for the regions beyond the Mississippi,” where they hoped to pave the way for a “City of Refuge” their prophet hoped to build for the righteous (qtd. in Van Wagoner 63–64). Since this report predates the Enoch “translation” by a month, the missionaries are likely referring to a millennial prophecy in The Book of Mormon, which claims that the New Jerusalem will be built upon the American continent (see Ether 13:2–3, 8). While Rigdon may not have been the initial source of Smith’s interest in communalism and utopian city building, his enthusiasm for and experience with communalist practices no doubt assured the young prophet that his dream of a New Jerusalem on the American continent could become a reality through mutual cooperation and communal living.

6) Doctrine and Covenants 42.53–55. As several scholars have pointed out, this new law struck a satisfying middle ground between the communalism of the “Family” and “individualist orientation” of the members of Joseph Smith’s New York congregations, many of whom looked warily at common property practices. “In developing the Law of Consecration and Stewardship,” Dolores Hayden argues, “the Mormons attempted to eliminate inequalities between rich and poor while maintaining a certain amount of competition to spur economic growth” (107). Dean L. May likewise notes that “significant elements of individualism” were essential to the system’s plan “to equalize standards of living” (140). For instance, while ownership of all property was in the hands of the bishop and dispensed at his bishop’s discretion, the “management of property” once redistributed was left to the stewards themselves. Accordingly, how a steward went about his individual business—the prices he would set on goods and services, for example—was his choice rather than the bishop’s. Moreover, individual families abiding by the law also were not expected to live in shared dwellings or eat at a common table with the rest of the community, as was a common practice among other American communalists. Aside from consecrating their property and increase to the church, Mormons were to live as any other people laboring in a free market.

7) A written explanation that accompanied the plan mandated that the initial plot of the city would be “one mile square” of parallel ten-acre residential squares laid out in a checker-board of alternating north-south and east-west squares (see “History” 357–59). Each residential square was divided into half-acre lots open for domestic development and beautification, and each lot was to contain only one brick and stone house, which had “to be built twenty-five feet back from the street, leaving a small yard in front, to be planted in a grove, according to the taste of the builder.” Gardens were to fill the remainder of the lot, while agricultural structures, like barns and stables, were relegated to the outer-most squares of the plat, convenient to the farms and pastures situated just outside the square mile. In the center of the city, three large center squares were reserved for public buildings, including a Bishop’s storehouse. Significantly, Smith reserved two of these large, center squares for what would be a cluster of twenty-four temples, which were to act as headquarters for the church’s two priesthoods, and serve as the spiritual hub for the City of Zion.

8) I return to the Utah War later in the essay. In brief, it was a largely non-violent conflict between the Mormons in Utah and the United States government under President James Buchanan. In 1857, Buchanan sent a force of 5,000 soldiers to subdue the Mormons, who were rumored to be in rebellion, and replace Brigham Young as the governor of the Utah Territory. For more information on the Utah War, see Bigler and Bagley, The Mormon Rebellion: America’s First Civil War, 1857–1858 and Moorman and Sessions, Camp Floyd and the Mormons: The Utah War.

9) Doctrine and Covenants 29.7–8. In time, early Mormons would build upon this directive, interpreting existing scripture and further revelation to identify two central gathering places: Jerusalem in the Old World, where the Jews would gather, and Zion in the New World, where the Saints and the Lost Tribes of Israel would gather (Underwood 29–31; Bushman 122–123). In these cities, which were to serve during the Millennium as twin capitols of the world, God’s elect could live peaceably together, as the hymn suggests, and “watch for the day when the Savior shall come.”

10) Significantly, Joseph Smith recorded a revelation in 1838 that designated Spring Hill, Davies County, Missouri as the location of Adam-ondi-Ahman. In doing so, Smith further sacralized the American continent in the minds of his followers. Not only was America to be the literal home of the New Jerusalem, but it was also the place where Adam and Eve dwelt following their expulsion from Eden. After his death, Smith’s close associates also taught that he had identified Jackson County, Missouri, the site of City of Zion, as the original location of the Garden of Eden. Wilford Woodruff, for example, who would later lead the Church and end the practice of polygamy in 1890, reported that Joseph Smith told Brigham Young “that the garden of Eden was in Jackson Co Missouri, & when Adam was driven out of the garden of Eden He went about forty miles to the Place which we Named Adam Ondi Ahman, & there built an Altar of Stone & offered Sacrifice” (305). That Smith did so, however, was not altogether inconsistent with his times. Like the Puritans of Winthrop’s day, who saw America’s utopian potential as a “City on a Hill,” many European transplants saw the New World as an unspoiled Eden, although not usually as literally as Joseph Smith and his followers did (Brown 113–114).

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