Thursday, March 19, 2009

So, Does "Gathering" Work?

Gathering is a big Mormon theme. Almost from its modern foundation, the Church has gathered. As insiders, we tend to think of gathering in pretty positive terms. We gather together for affirmation, strength and safety. We gather together in stakes to strengthen each other and to build the Kingdom. We gather to the temple to learn and save our ancestors. Examining it from the inside, gathering is all good, right?

To the outside observer, I am not sure are gathering has always been successful. The first commandment to gather to a specific location directed the Saints to Kirtland, Ohio. (See D&C 37). But then, almost immediately, Jackson County, Missouri was identified as Zion and gathering began there, too. Unfortunately, both gatherings were temporary and did not provide much peace or safety. Persecution and apostasy (fueled by the collapse of a Church sponsored bank) plagued Kirtland. Responding to the perceived threat of a concentration of (arguably arrogant) Mormons, mobs and an all-out war drove the Mormons from Missouri.

The story in Nauvoo is not that different. The Saints gathered there, almost out of default. They built a very successful city and started a temple. Soon, however, understandable Mormon efforts to consolidate power and defend themselves led to more fear and persecution, and the martyrdom of the Prophet and his brother. Another gathering place was abandoned.

The Mormons moved west and gathered in an isolated valley - - this time away from the rest of society. From around the world, members of the Church were commanded to gather to the latest Zion, in the Rocky Mountains. At incredible sacrifice, Saints left families, livelihoods and homes and dragged themselves across a continent. For fifty years or so, the gathering continued. Many died and were impoverished. Wards and branches in Europe emptied. Salt Lake City grew into a major city. But, maybe that was just the law of averages. You know, third (or fourth) time the charm.

So, does gathering work? It clearly has accomplished amazing things. Cities and temples and a place for God’s Church to grow. But it has almost always engendered fear and suspicion, pride and persecution. Could there have been another way of doing this? Or, to paraphrase Winston Churchill’s famous statement on democracy, is gathering the worst system for building the Kingdom of God, except all others that have been tried?


  1. It has to work... it is our job to make it work.

  2. I just read a book about Sidney Rigdon. The author made the point that the gathering in Kirtland and Nauvoo were unsuccessful because church leaders were engaging in real estate speculation, essentially gouging new, poor converts who followed the command to gather. This is what caused the economies to both communities to collapse, and hence why the efforts to gather failed in the long run. (This also seems to explain many reasons why consecration failed.)

    The author seemed to imply that things were different in Utah under Brigham's leadership, but still noted that Brigham became quite wealthy.

  3. In the D: I think that is a good point and one that could be the jump-off point for a good class discussion. For example, what were the obstacles to gathering in the past and how can we overcome them, etc.

  4. Heretic: That is interesting - - I was unaware of that kind of issue in Nauvoo. I thought that other issues led to problems with surrounding communities there, but I would be interested to know more.

  5. Certainly, there were other issues in Nauvoo--polygamy, Joseph's death and succession crisis, etc. But according to the author, even though the Law of Consecration wasn't officially practiced in Nauvoo as it was in Kirtland, there were still similar real estate problems in Nauvoo. Sidney Rigdon even declared bankruptcy in Nauvoo, which hurt many of the Saints financially. I'll be doing a few posts on Sidney, so stay tuned.

  6. The gathering concept is also fertile ground for a discussion of the dangers of overzealousness, as forewarned in D&C 101:68-72. Without leveling undue criticism, nor to downplay a powerful symbol of faith for hundreds of thousands of Saints, there were some overzealous elements in the Willie and Martin handcart companies that exacerbated their problems in Wyoming, for example.

    But I no longer teach that specific example. It's increasingly becoming anathema.

  7. Easton: Interesting scriptural reference. That could lead to some very interesting discussions. I actually had the Martin and Willie handcart companies very much in mind as I was writing my post. I descend from pioneers in both companies and have thought a lot about their stories. Many of the European saints in the mid- and late 1800s faced significant pressure to gather to Zion (Utah), and I have wondered about how that general requirement was applied in individual situations. Thanks for the insight.

  8. Teach, do you plan on using Willie and Martin in your discussion of gathering?

    I always found it to be a very interesting historical episode in that there were warning voices among one experienced individual (a Brother Savage - I forget his first name) to delay the journey to Zion until the following summer and allow the wood for the carts to cure properly.

    And then the warnings given by the Lord in the D&C cited above, long before the gathering to Utah, coupled with Brigham's warnings to the Saints to not gather in haste, quite some time prior to Willie and Martin.

    Add to that Hugh Nibley's masterful analogy (Zeal Without Knowledge) about zeal being the engine that drives the machine, but without brakes and steering it becomes a thing of destruction (literally taking life in some cases), and I think you have a very pertinent discussion.

    But I'm worried that so much heroism has been placed in that episode that one cannot discuss the human aspect anymore. What do you think?

    I also think that the lesson shouldn't be limited to just the historical discussion, but should include the gathering of the 12 tribes through missionary work, baptism, and receiving knowledge of their adoption into, or actual bloodlines within the 12 tribes, an equally fascinating topic. What would the gathering be without knowledge of tribal affiliation?

    In that regard, the gathering most definitely works.

  9. Easton: I have considered talking about the handcart companies, but have hesitated for a couple of reasons. One is the reason you mention; the heroics of the pioneers and the rescue party have made a discussion of the reasons leading to the disaster complicated. The other (and to me, the more persuasive) is that I generally try to focus pretty narrowly on what was going on in the specific revelation(s) we are studying. For me, to jump ahead 25 years to the handcart companies would not fit with the way I usually teach these lessons. On the other hand, if the lesson was going to be more like my post (What is “gathering?” When and how have we done it? When has it worked or not worked, and why?), it would be a good topic for discussion.

    My view is that you can discuss a wide range of topics in class, if you think through how you are going to raise them. I am certainly not a perfect teacher or person, but I try to remember that my role as the teacher is to help the class strengthen their testimonies and learn the gospel. I think raising challenging questions can help on both fronts, if done in the right way. I also try to keep my eye single to God's purpose in teaching the lesson (i.e., what does He want the class to learn from this material?) I think we can talk about lots of topics in a respectful, constructive, edifying way, if we try to do those things.

  10. By the way, along the lines of "what does HE want the class to learn," I think IntheDoghouse's point (that it is our job to make gathering work) is a good area for exploration.

  11. Teacher,

    I've been blogging in detail about some of the problems with gathering the saints. You'll definitely want to read not only Part 3, but Part 2 of my Sidney Rigdon review as well.

  12. Heretic: I have been following your posts on Sidney Rigdon. They are very interesting. Sorry I have not had a chance to comment. I am very busy at work right now and it is cutting into my bloggernacle time!


Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.