Establishing—and becoming—Zion

Zion is more than a physical place. It is a spiritual state, which means it can be established anywhere—even here in New York City.

Article I, Section 2 of the Constitution of the United States requires that a census be taken once a decade. The primary reason for this is to determine how many representatives each state should receive in Congress, but the Census also provides lots of other interesting information. Through the Census, we can trace the way our country has grown and changed over the last 220 years since the first enumeration was made in 1790.

But in those two centuries, one thing has always remained the same: New York City has always been the biggest city in the United States. Today, with 8,175,133 people, it is over twice the size of the next biggest city, Los Angeles. Way back in 1810, New York weighed in with 96,373 people, which made it nearly twice as large as the next biggest city, Philadelphia. The city’s northern border was around Houston Street. (Remember that Brooklyn was a separate city back then.) Virtually everything north of Houston was farmland and wilderness filled with forests, creeks, and wild animals.

Even though New York City was a relatively small city—London, by contrast, had over a million people in 1810—almost on the edge of the wilderness in a very young country, its business and political leaders had big dreams. Just as Americans believed their country’s “manifest destiny” was to fill North America from the Atlantic to the Pacific, so New Yorkers believed their city’s manifest destiny was to fill Manhattan Island from the Battery to the Harlem River.

William Bridges’s map of Manhattan’s future, 1814. This map is a copy of cartographer and surveyor John Randel’s map of the Commissioners’ Plan of 1811. Read more »
William Bridges’s map of Manhattan’s future, 1814. This map is a copy of cartographer and surveyor John Randel’s map of the Commissioners’ Plan of 1811. Read more »

So in 1811 New York adopted a plan called the Commissioners’ Plan. It ignored Manhattan’s topography—its hills, creeks, and ponds—and laid out a system of streets, a grid. “Avenues” ran north to south, starting with 1st Avenue by the East River and continuing across the island to 12th Avenue by the North River, or the Hudson River as we call it today. “Streets” ran from river to river, starting with 1st Street near Houston and Christie streets and continuing today to 220th Street (in The Bronx it continues all the way to 263rd Street). It allowed for virtually unimpeded growth as the city marched northward—and it allowed landowners and businessmen to make lots of money.

New York was not the first or only American city to follow such a plan. Indeed, the idea that the physical form of a city says something about that city and the country as a whole is recurrent throughout American history.

A depiction of William Penn’s 1682 plan for Philadelphia. In this plan you can see the four squares, which are (clockwise from upper left) Logan, Franklin, Washington, and Rittenhouse. The central square, at the intersection of Broad and High (today Market) streets, was intended for public buildings. Appropriately, today the central square is the location of Philadelphia’s grand city hall, which is the largest and tallest municipal building in the United States.

In 1681, William Penn, a Quaker who himself had felt the bitter sting of persecution, founded a “city of brotherly love” where all people could worship as they wished. It was to be a “city on a hill” [Note 1]—not a physical hill, but a reflection of Jesus Christ’s teaching in the Sermon on the Mount [2]. He laid out this city, Philadelphia [3], on a grid that spanned land from the Delaware River to the Schuylkill River. Among the features of this grid were four squares, today called Franklin, Logan, Rittenhouse, and Washington, that were to serve as public parks for all the city’s residents. In the statehouse constructed next to Washington Square, a group of men met in 1776 and founded a new country. A decade later some of those same men, joined by others, again met in that same building near Washington Square, now called Independence Hall, and wrote a constitution that established a new government for that nation.

Article I, Section 8 of this Constitution established a special federal district as the national capital. In the 1790s, George Washington commissioned Pierre Charles L’Enfant to create a plan for the capital city, which consisted of a street grid overlaid by diagonal avenues named for the states. At the very center of this city was the People’s House, the Capitol, where Congress—the representatives of the people (or the people who could vote, which at the time was white men who owned land)—created the laws that governed the nation. Susan, Fiona, and I lived in Washington, D.C., before we moved to Brooklyn. Our address was 2480 16th Street Northwest, which meant we lived about 25 blocks north and 16 blocks west of the Capitol. If business and moneymaking were central to New York, government was the center, literally, of Washington.

Each of these cities was similar in form, and these designs represented what their founders believed was an ideal model for a city in the New World. America, after all, was a democracy, unlike European monarchies, and American cities used orderly street grids, unlike the cities of Europe. [4]

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These very American ideas about city planning made their way into the efforts of the early members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Under the direction of the Prophet Joseph Smith, converts to the Church gathered together in one place to build Zion. The Prophet and his associates even created a plan for what that city should look like. The plan was called the Plat of the City of Zion, and it specified that the streets of Zion should form a grid with perfectly square blocks and, at the center of the city, a space was set aside for the temple.

These first gathering spots were literal physical places, first in Kirtland, Ohio, near modern-day Cleveland; then Jackson County, Missouri, near present-day Kansas City; and then Nauvoo, Illinois, on the Mississippi River.

Healing in Nauvoo

When Latter-day Saints started gathering in summer 1839 to build Zion in Illinois, Nauvoo was still a swamp swarming with mosquitos. These mosquitos spread malaria, or “the ague” as they called it then. The Prophet Joseph Smith himself became very ill. But on the morning of 22 July, he arose, filled with the Spirit of God, and began administering to the sick with the members of the Quorum of the Twelve.

From Nauvoo they went across the Mississippi River to Montrose, Iowa. There they found a man named Elijah Fordham, bedridden and unable to speak. Wilford Woodruff, who later became president of the Church, recorded what he saw:

Brother Joseph walked up to Brother Fordham, and took him by the right hand. …

He saw that Brother Fordham’s eyes were glazed, and that he was speechless and unconscious.

After taking hold of his hand, he looked down into the dying man’s face and said: “Brother Fordham, do you not know me?” At first he made no reply; but we could all see the effect of the Spirit of God resting upon him.

He again said: “Elijah, do you not know me?”

With a low whisper, Brother Fordham answered, “Yes!”

The Prophet then said, “Have you not faith to be healed?”

The answer … was: “I am afraid it is too late. If you had come sooner, I think it might have been.”

He had the appearance of a man waking from sleep. It was the sleep of death.

Joseph then said: “Do you believe that Jesus is the Christ?”

“I do, Brother Joseph,” was the response.

Then the Prophet of God spoke with a loud voice, as in the majesty of the Godhead: “Elijah, I command you, in the name of Jesus of Nazareth, to arise and be made whole!”

The words of the Prophet were not like the words of man, but like the voice of God. It seemed to me that the house shook from its foundation.

Elijah Fordham leaped from his bed like a man raised from the dead. A healthy color came to his face, and life was manifested in every act.

As the early Latter-day Saints exercised their faith in following God’s command through a prophet to build the City of Zion, they were blessed. [5]

Carried through icy waters

Eventually the Prophet Joseph Smith and his brother Hyrum were killed and the Latter-day Saints were driven from Nauvoo. Under the direction of Brigham Young they trekked across the Great Plains to the Salt Lake Valley in the Rocky Mountains to establish Zion there and throughout Utah and the West.

They followed the Prophet Joseph Smith’s Plat of the City of Zion and laid out perfectly square, ten-acre blocks, 660 feet on one side. And, as in Nauvoo, the temple was at the very center of it. Even today, just like in Washington, D.C., where all addresses indicate their location relative to the Capitol, every address in the Salt Lake Valley is according to its proximity to the Salt Lake Temple. For example, an address at 420 South 800 East means that it is about 4 blocks south and 8 blocks east of the Salt Lake Temple. The center of New York is money; the center of Washington, D.C., is government; and the center, physically and spiritually, of the City of Zion is the temple and the covenants we make there. In other words, the center of Zion is the gospel of Jesus Christ.

Over the next two decades, thousands of Latter-day Saints from across the United States and Europe gathered to Zion. Many walked with handcart companies. One of these, the Martin Handcart Company, embarked on its journey across the Great Plains late in the season in 1856, almost a decade after the first Latter-day Saints settled in the Salt Lake Valley. While crossing Wyoming, they ran into snow and bitter cold. Daily they had to bury members of their company who had died. On 5 October, a Sunday, the sabbath, Brigham Young spoke to members gathered for general conference after he learned of the Martin Company’s situation. He said:

The text will be, “to get them here.” …

I shall call upon the Bishops this day [remember it was a Sunday, and general conference was about to begin], I shall not wait until to-morrow, nor until next day, for 60 good mule teams and 12 or 15 wagons. …

I will tell you all that your faith, religion, and profession of religion, will never save one soul of you in the celestial kingdom of our God, unless you carry out just such principles as I am now teaching you. Go and bring in those people now on the plains. [6]

Because of the weather, it took the relief parties some time to find the handcart company stranded in the snow and ice in Wyoming. In another October general conference, this one 125 years later in 1981, President Gordon B. Hinckley described what happened next.

When the first rescue team reached the Martin Company, there were too few wagons to carry the suffering people. The rescuers had to insist that the carts keep moving.

When they reached the Sweetwater River on November 3, chunks of ice were floating in the freezing water. After all these people had been through, and in their weakened condition, that river seemed impossible to cross. It looked like stepping into death itself to move into the freezing stream. Men who once had been strong sat on the frozen ground and wept, as did the women and children. Many simply could not face that ordeal.

And now I quote from the record: “Three eighteen-year-old boys belonging to the relief party came to the rescue, and to the astonishment of all who saw, carried nearly every member of the ill-fated handcart company across the snowbound stream. The strain was so terrible, and the exposure so great, that in later years all the boys died from the effects of it. When President Brigham Young heard of this heroic act, he wept like a child, and later declared publicly, ‘that act alone will ensure C. Allen Huntington, George W. Grant, and David P. Kimball an everlasting salvation in the Celestial Kingdom of God, worlds without end.’”

Zion is the pure in heart

In the face of such hardship, why were early Church members so anxious to establish and come to Zion? Early in the history of our church we find that Zion is synonymous with an actual geographic location. But is that all that Zion is? In the Pearl of Great Price we read about another physical place, an ancient city also called Zion. Its leader was a very righteous man named Enoch. This city and its inhabitants were so righteous, we read, that “God received it up into his own bosom.” Zion was so good that God took the entire city up to heaven.

For the Latter-day Saints, was there something about streets laid out on a grid that would carry them to heaven? If so, they already had New York, Washington, D.C., Philadelphia, or countless other American cities they could gather to—and, to my knowledge, no American city has ever been lifted up into heaven. The answer to this question must be no.

Was there something about these places they had gathered to? They suffered bitter persecution in Ohio. Missouri was a wild, outlaw frontier. Nauvoo, in Illinois, was a swamp. Utah was a desert wilderness. Was one of these places the portal to heaven? The answer clearly is no.

The answer, I believe, lies in the fact that, in its truest sense, Zion is not actually a physical place. Then what is Zion? The Lord explained its true meaning in a revelation to the Prophet Joseph Smith:

Therefore, verily, thus saith the Lord, let Zion rejoice, for this is Zion—the pure in heart ….

We can establish Zion here

Since Zion is a spiritual state and not a physical place, it can be established anywhere the “pure in heart” are found. And who are the pure in heart? Quite simply, those who make and keep baptismal and temple covenants—those who, like the physical City of Zion, place Jesus Christ and his gospel at the center of their lives.

Our branch, the Bushwick 1st Branch, lies at the very heart, the geographic center, of New York City. (I have read that it is at one of two possible locations: Broadway and DeKalb Avenue, or maybe on Stanhope Street between Wyckoff and St. Nicholas avenues. But it is within our branch’s boundaries.) As we, too, follow the example of our pioneer ancestors—and whether you have actual pioneer ancestors or not, we all share the heritage of pioneers—and as we make the temple, our covenants, and the gospel of Jesus Christ the center of our lives, we can have Zion here in the heart of New York City.

And that is exactly what we all should strive to establish and to become.


  1. See Matthew 5:14
  2. Matthew 5–7
  3. The city’s name in Greek is Φιλαδέλφεια, which is a compound of φίλος (philos, or “loving”) and ἀδελφός (adelphos, or “brother”).
  4. Not entirely true, of course. A number of European cities use grids, some dating back to Roman times. Notable gridded cities in Europe include Turin, Barcelona, and Glasgow, among others.
  5. Story and Wilford Woodruff’s words: Church History in the Fulness of Times Student Manual (2nd edition, 2003), pages 217–219
  6. Church History in the Fulness of Times Student Manual (2nd edition, 2003), page 360

This is based upon a talk Dustin gave in the sacrament meeting of the Bushwick 1st Branch on 17 February 2013.

This article appeared on pages 14–15 of Issue 10 | April 2013.

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