Skip to main content Accessibility help

Mormonism's “Gathering”: an American Doctrine with a Difference

  • William Mulder (a1)


America in 1830 could have taken Joseph Smith's Book of Mormon as portent and symbol. Itself the narrative of an ancient religious migration, the book begot a greater wandering, an epic in-gathering of believers from Europe and the States seeking New Jerusalem on the American frontier. Every Mormon proselyte knew by heart and in his own tongue the words of Father Lehi, refugee from Babylon, American immigrant circa 600 B. C.: “We have obtained a land of promise, a land which is choice above all other lands…Yea, the Lord hath covenanted this land unto me, and to my children forever, and also all those who should be led out of other countries by the hand of the Lord.” That was the book's portent, big with history and promise. America, it said, had always been promises.



Hide All

1. “The Second Book of Nephi,” 1:5, The Book of Mormon (1928 ed.), 50.

2. Sermon, February 10, 1884, Journal of Discourses (Liverpool, 18541886), XXV, 8693.

3. This is clear from the order in which the Book of Mormon and the revelations contained in Doctrine and Covenants appeared; and George A. Smith, official Church Historian, made this explicit in an early sermon: “Among the first principles that were revealed to the children of men in the last days was the gathering; the first revelations that were given to the Church were to command them to gather, and send Elders to seek out a place for the gathering of the saints.” Journal History (L.DS. Church Historian's Office), ms., March 18, 1855.

4. A Deseret News (Salt Lake City) editorial on February 5, 1853, contrasted the oneness of the Saints with the “divisions among nations, sects, creeds,” and tried to imagine a gathering under any other principle: “…suppose proclamation be made to all, gold in California and Australia, free to the inhabitants of the earth, for going after and digging; millions run, millions dig; are they one? one only in discord, strife, and confusion; one in quarreling, contention and murder; one to get what they can, and keep what they get, if they can. But are they one to love their neighbor as themselvcs?” What the Saints did not realize was that what seemed solidarity to them looked like insularity to outsiders, an exclusivism that was to provoke sad and endless misunderstandings.

5. Sermon, Janaury 10, 1886, Journal of Discourses, XXVI, 367.

6. Dent, George, “Gathering,” The Latter-day Saints' Millennial Star (Liverpool), XLVII (10 19, 1885), 659.

7. A neighbor in Salt Lake City, Mrs. J. H. Iverson, gave nie her childhood recollection of the rocking chair game; Peter Nielsen, Diary, ms., December 31, 1857; A. Christensen, Letter from Aalborg, Denmark, February 2, 1863, Millennial Star, XXV (02 28, 1863), 143.

8. Early Mormon hymn books devoted a whole section to “Gathering of Israel,” so labeled, and one titled “The Second Coming of Christ.” The all-pervading theme of the gathering got into folksong too. The Californian Crusoe… A Tale of Mormonisin (London, 1854) reproduces the following verse “sung to a lively tune” at a prayer meeting aboard a sailiag vessel oa its way from Liverpool to New Orleans in 1841: A Church without a gathering is not the Church for me, The Saviour would not order it, whatever it might be; But I'ye a Church that's called out, From false tradition, fear, and doubt, A gathering dispensation—oh that's the Church for me; Oh that's the Church for me; oh that's the Church for me.

9. Reproduced in Biography of Maria Wilhelmina C. K. Madsen, Utah State Historical Society, PWA. Writers Project Biographies, ms., 2. There were to be many disappointments, of course, but the language of even the complaints reveals the original ardor, the propelling image. John Codman describes an encounter in the small village of Chicken Creek, Juab Valley, Utah, in 1874, with a young sheepherder who had come there from “loway” two years before. “‘Father,’ he said, ‘told us all along the road that we was comrn ing to Zion. Well, this is the cussedest old Zion I ever want to see. I'd rather have a foot of ground in loway than all these here mountings of the Lord, and I guess the Lord would too if he had ever seen Towny!’” And in the coal-mining settlement of Wales, a convert from old Wales told Codman: “I've often wondered why we couldn't have been Mormons in Wnles as well as here and had some comfort in life besides what we get in religion. They talk about coming to these holy mounsins there too, nnd don't they belong to the Lord just as much?” “Through Utah,” Galaxy, XX (04, 1875), 618, 795.

10. “Second General Epistle of the Presidency of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, from the Great Salt Lake Valley, to the Saints Scattered throughout the Earth,” Millennial Star, XII (04 15, 1850), 122.

11. Loc. cit.

12. Everywhere encountered in Mormon literature, the aphorism is attributed to Lorenzo Snow, who meant it to express Joseph Smith's doctrine of eternal progression. Snow, Eliza R., Biography and Family Record of Lorenzo Snow (Salt Lake City, 1884), 46.

13. Quoted in Jenson, Andrew, History of the Scandinavian Mission (Salt Lake City, 1927), 170. In the Sandwich Islands the Saints were gathered to “one of their native isles, as they are generally poor and destitute of the means of traveling any considerable distance” hut the objectives were the same: “They are a kind and simple people, but, like many other barbarous nations, they have become still more degenerated through the licentious vices of a corrupt Christian civilization. The great object of gathering these Saints out by themselves is to separate them as much as possible from these evil influences, nud to place them where they can be taught the useful arts of life, and more fully instructed in the practice of the principles of righteousness.” “Foreign Intelligence,” Millennial Star, XVII (04 21, 1855), 250.

14. This is the view of Chase, Daryl, Joseph the Prophet (Salt Lake City, 1944), one of the few Mormon accounts willing to set the Prophet against the background of contemporary religious movements.

15. Emerson called Mormonism “an after-clap of Puritanism” and the farthest reach of Father Abraham. Thayer, James B., A Western Journey with Mr. Emerson (Boston, 1884), 3940. The British traveler Hepworth Dixon concluded that for the Mormons “Abraham is their perfect man; who forsook his home, his kindred, and his country, for the sake of God. Sarah is their perfect woman; because she called her husband Lord, and gave her handmaid Hagar into his bosom for a wife. Everything that Abraham did, they pronounce it right for them to do; all gospels and commandments of the Church, ali laws and institutes of man, being void and of no effect when quoted against the practices of that Arab Sheikh.” New America (Philadelphia, 1867), 172. Local historian Edward Tullidge ventured the opinion that “ The same religious stock which in the Seventeenth Century formed the Cromwellian Puritans, in the Eighteenth Century became Wesloyan Methodists, and, in the Nineteenth Century, Mormons.” “Joseph Smith,” Tullidge's Quarterly Magazine (Salt Lake City), I (01 1881), 259. An enlightening discussion of Mormon ideology in this connection is David Brion Davis, The New England Backgrounds of Mormonism,” New England Quarterly, XXVI (06, 1953), 147168.

16. Unlike the pastor cited in Hansen, Marcus Lee (The Atlantic Migration, p. 171) for whom the Israelites of his day were the poor laborers and artisans oppressed by a collective Pharaoh, the state of society, Joseph Smith meant a literal Israel, the blood descendants of the dispersed tribes. Those who were not of this lineage but accepted the guspel were Israel by adoption.

17. “The first men of talent who became converts … had nearly all been preachers, teachers, or exhorters, and they were not slow to discover that the Old Testament abounded with, to them, evidences of prediction about America, Joseph Smith, the Book of Mormon, and the reign of the Saints on earth. The Bible, that before was a sealed book, suddenly opened with living truths of the closest personal application to the new disciples and their destiny. Every verse from Genesis to Revelation was scanned with microscopic scrutiny for evidence relative to the new faith…” Stenhouse, T.B.H., The Rocky Mountain Saints (London, 1874), 3. Advent titles like Times and Seasons, The Millennial Star, The Evening and the Morning Star were Mormonism's equivalent of the Harbingers and Watchmen of other sects.

18. The Doctrine and Covenants of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Salt Lake City, 1921 edn.), Section 110, verses 11–16. Hereafter cited as D. & C.

19. Goudy Hogan from the Norwegian settlement at Sugar Creek, Iowa, as a boy of fourteen remembered hearing the Prophet preach in “the grove” at Nauvoo. “In this meeting he said that North and South America would become Mount Zion and that the Constitution would hang on a single untwisted thread and that the Latter- day Saints would save it” Diary, ms.,6.

20. Bernard, John, “The Father of His Country,” in Nevins, Allan, American Social History as Recorded by British Travelers (New York, 1923), 32.

21. The Book of Mormon made its appearance in 1830, at Palmyra, New York; Doctrine and Covenants was first published in 1833 at Zion, Jackson County, Missouri, under the title Book of Commandments for the Government of the Church of Christ.

22. Spring Hill, Daviess County, Missouri, “named by the Lord Adam-oadi-Ahman, because, said he, it is the place ivhere Adam shall come to visit his people, or the Ancient of Days shall sit, as spoken of by Daniel the prophet.” D. cf C. Section 116.

23. Sermon, , Jonrnal of Discourses, I (1854), 333. “Different portions of tIm earth have been pointed out by the Almighty, from time to time, to His children, as their everlasting inheritance…Ia the resurrection, the meek of all ages and nations will be restored to that portion of the earth previously promised to them … while those who cannot prove their heirship to be legal, or who cannot prove that they have received any portion of the earth by promise, will be cast out into some other kingdom or world, where, if they ever get an inheritance, they will have to earn it by keeping the law of meekness during another probation.” Loc. cit.

24. Bernard DeVoto, to whom Mormonism seems “a system utilizing religious energy for financial ends,” attacks this materialism as “the American monstrosity called ‘practical mysticism.’ A man is a better farmer or a better carpenter when he believes that by plowing an acre or shingling an outhouse he is making himself into an archangel, confounding the Gentiles and glorifying God … ”DeVoto pictures “Jens Christopherson, newly arrived from Norway and set to forking out his bishop's snnnure pile,” sharing “glories that no Gentile cnn ever behold, and he will increase his share in them forever. Meanwhile, his church can take over another block of New York Central at the market.”“The Centennial of Mormonism,” American Mercury, XIX (01, 1930), 113. An astringent interpretation, but, its imputations right or wrong, it confirms an important point: the convert actively and devoutly identified himself with “a cooperation of energized believers working in the name of God for an earthly Kingdom that will persist into eternity …The Kingdom must actually be sanctified in the present, so that the believer may keep a lively sense of grace from day to day; and it must extend into eternity, so that he will always have a stimulus to greater exertion.”

25. D. & C., Sections 28, 29.

26. Ibid., Section 41.

27. Ibid., Section 45.

28. Ibid., Section 52.

29. Ibid., Section 57. “… the line runing directly between Jew and Gentile …” meant the Indian border. Jackson County has remained the seat of Zion in Mormon thinking to this day; the expectation is that it will be eventually “restored”. The expulsion after the Missouri troubles beginning in 1833 and the final retreat to the Far West were long regarded ns temporary; the exiles looked to their momentary return. Folklore has it that in the big barn en his estate behind the Eagle Gate in Salt Lake City, Brigham Young kept one carriage in readiness for the event.

30. “ “Newell Knight's Journal,” Scraps of Biography, quoted in Andrew Jensen, “Church Emigration,” Contributor (Salt Lake City), XII (08, 1891), 376ff.

31. Jensen, op. cit., 401–2.

32. This use of the word “stake” as a territorinl nnd administrative division is peculiar to the Mormon Church and merits special quotation in Matthews, M. M., ed., A Dictionary of Americanisins (Chicago, 1951), II, 1633. “Stakes” and “Zion's tent” reflect a characteristic Mormon absorption and mingling of agrarian and Biblical influences.

33. “The Elders Stationed in Zion to the Churches Abroad, in Love, Greeting,” The Evening and the Morning Star (Independence, Mo.,), II (07, 1833), 67, quoted in Leonard Arringtoa, J., “Early Mormon Communitarianism: The Law of Consecration and Stewardship,” The Western Humanities Review, VII (Autumn, 1953), 351.

34. “British Emigration by Years,” in Richard L. Evans, A Century of Marmo-nism in Great Britain (Salt Lake City, 1937), 245.

35. “History of Joseph Smith,” Deseret News, 04 9, 1856, quoted in Cannon, M. Hamlin, “The Gathering of British Mormons to Western America A Study in Religious Migration” (American University, unpublished doctoral dissertation), 76. A few years later in Salt Lake City, despite the Mormons' severest setbacks, Jedediah M. Grant displayed a similar enthusiasm: “This piecemeal business of gathering Saints! we want it upon the wholesale principle. That's the doctrine. I tell you, a few more boys breaking the crust of nations, like brother Cam, after a while, by driving their little wedges, will bring them over by nations …” Sermon, , Journal of Discourses, II (1854), 74.

36. D. 4- C., Section 136.

37. This may be claiming too much for both the role of the gathering and for the influence of Brigham Young's “Camp of Israel” epistle, but in view of the factions into which Mormonism splintered at the death of Joseph Smith, and their failures, this emphnsis seems justified. At any rate, the epistle is a significant document, anticipating as it does the temper, the morality, and the practicality of the instructions that would govern the migrations from Europe.

38. “Preface,” Cambridge History of American Literature (New York, 1917), I, vi.

39. Texts could backfire. A hostile editor quoted Jeremiah 17:5,6: “Cursed be the man that trusteth in man, and maketh flesh his are, and whose heart departeth from the Lord. For he shali be like the heath in the desert, and shall not see when good cometh; but shall inhabit the parched places in the wilderness, in a salt land and not inhabited.” He found it fulfilled to the letter in “the followers of Joe Smith, that have gone to Utah Territory; there they are in a salt and barren land, and they do not know when good comes.” Quoted by Orson Hyde in a sermon in Salt Lake City, October 8, 1854, Journal of Discourses, II, 68.

40. Millennial Star, XI (1849), 342.

41. “Second General Epistle of the Presidency of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints,” Millennial Star, XII (1850), 122.

42. From “The Handcart Song,” in Utah Centennial Commission, Arts Division Source Book (Salt Lake City, 1947), C15.

43. “Second General Epistle …”, 121.

44. To a country determined to make an end of polygamy and the theocratic state in Utah, the flow of proselytcs from Europe (from the British Isles, for example, 43,195 by 1890, and from Scandinavia 26,303) was long a source of vexation. As early as 1857 Stephen A. Douglas was ready to repeal the organic law of the territory on the ground the Mormons were “alien enemies.” (Missouri, Republican, 06 18, 1857.) While the Mormons contested the constitutionality of the anti- bigamy mw of 1862, Congress debated a succession of bills which sought to put teeth into it, and nearly every President in his annual message, persuaded that immigration fed polygamy, called for measures to prevent the “importation” of Mormons into the country. It was not until 1891 that the specification “polygamists” was added to the federal list of excluded classes. Secretary of State William Evarts considered Mormon missionary activity in Europe “criminal enterprises beyond the reach of the law of the United States” and in 1879 appealed to foreign governments to prevent the departure of Mormon converts as prospective lawbreakers. (“Diplomatic Correspondence, Circular No. 10, August 9, 1879, Sent to Diplomatic and Consular Officers of the United States,” Papers Relating to the Foreign Relations of the United States 1879, 11, 12.) In 1883 territorial governor Eli H. Murray in his annual report to the Secretary of the Interior protested against the special legal privileges under which a Mormon corporation known as the Perpetual Emigrating Fund Company operated, placing “the whole system of emigration…under the control of the Church.” (“Annual Report of the Governor of Utah,” Secretary of the Interior, Annual Report, 1883, 48th Cong., 1st sess, House Executive Documents, no. 1, part 5, XI, 627.) The Edmunds-Tucker act of 1887 disincorporated the P.E.F. Company as part of a similar action against the church itself. The assets of what the governor alleged was a “richcorporation” proved to be all in the form of uncollectable promissory notes— $417,968.50 worth. (Larson, Gustive O., Prelude to the Kingdom, 278.) The strength of the church emigration system had never lain in idle wealth but in its constant use as a revolving fund. Its life, now over, had drained into the lives of the people it had assisted. A further attack on Mormon recruiting came from some unsympathetic federal judges who denied convert-immigrants citizenship because of their allegiance to a church considered treasonable. The foreign-born were believed to he particularly subservient to the hierarchy in Utah, voting at their dictation and supporting them with “heavy taxes” in the form of tithing— a criticism which overlooked the fact that tithe-paying was voluntary and that Mormon proselytes were to be found on both sides of the political fence.

45. Richards, Stephen L., “Building Zion Today,” The Improvement Era, XXXVII (1935), 231, 267–70. In 1953 the Church announced the purchase of temple sites in England and Switzerland.

46. “Seventh General Epistle of the Presidency of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints,” Millennial Star, XIV (1852), 325.

47. Editorial, , Millennial Star, LIII (1891), 264.

Recommend this journal

Email your librarian or administrator to recommend adding this journal to your organisation's collection.

Church History
  • ISSN: 0009-6407
  • EISSN: 1755-2613
  • URL: /core/journals/church-history
Please enter your name
Please enter a valid email address
Who would you like to send this to? *


Full text views

Total number of HTML views: 0
Total number of PDF views: 0 *
Loading metrics...

Abstract views

Total abstract views: 0 *
Loading metrics...

* Views captured on Cambridge Core between <date>. This data will be updated every 24 hours.

Usage data cannot currently be displayed