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Image by Clark Kelley Price. 

It was a September day in 1842 when George and Ann Quayle Cannon stood with their six children on the windswept dock at Liverpool ready to board the great ship Sidney for America. Crowds of emigrants thronged the gangplank, worried over details, and clutched a few remnants of the home they were about to leave behind.  They carried boxes, beds, and assorted bundles.  Some had cabbages, some cheese, some bread and butter stored in tins.

Like so many others, the Cannons were uprooting themselves and leaving England, but not for the bounties of America.  In fact, George had written his sister in America, asking, “Please let us know what are the most necessary things to take to America in respect to clothing and utensils…You have never mentioned what sort of a country it is, or how people are employed there, and how land is sold (whether high-priced or cheap).”

Even without this knowledge, the Cannons would go—go even though they “got nothing” for their furniture, not even their clock of “drawers,” which had long belonged to the family; go even though Ann’s brother did not bother to come and see them off; go even though Ann was in the midst of a sickly pregnancy and had the premonition that, should they leave then, she would not make it to America.

Yet for a long time she had kept a secret savings, skimmed from their household accounts and squirreled away to surprise her husband that they might emigrate. They had waited so long while they had helped pay for other Saints to sail, counted while their months turned into years, and Ann felt it intolerable to wait any longer.  What was worth all this fuss, this price, and finally for Ann, the ultimate sacrifice?  Too weak and seasick to hold anything down, she died on board ship and was buried somewhere in the vast Atlantic Ocean. George and Ann were coming to build Zion.

“Oh Zion, dear Zion.” Creating Zion was the burden of the prayers of the early Saints.  They yearned for it, carried it like a fire in their hearts, longed for that society away from the oppressions of the world where a celestial order prevails. It was a heavenly homesickness they carried with them, a sense that “the world we have made and are making is not the world God meant us to have.” God has far better designs and happier ways for his children.

So, from the earliest times of the Restoration, new converts left their fields and fortunes, going, “one from the bed, the other from the grinding,” and bade farewell to all they had known to gather.

They came first to Kirtland, then Missouri, then Nauvoo, and finally rumbled across fourteen hundred miles of plains and mountains, breaking their carts and wagons, but not their spirits in pursuit of Zion.

“Thy kingdom come,” they prayed, and they were willing to shoulder their part to make it happen, even if they left a heartbreaking string of graves, across the prairies and their backs were bowed under the weight of what they had given up.

Historians who see the great western movement of the Mormon pioneers merely as an escape from persecution miss the point.  Much more than escape, the pioneers were involved in a monumental creative effort.  They felt themselves called out of the world because they wanted Zion. “Go ye out from Babylon.  Be ye clean.” They were to gather to Zion for “a refuge from the storm” that would soon be poured out upon the whole earth.”

They would gather because, according to the parable of the wheat and the tares, “the time of harvest is come.” They would gather to one place “to prepare their hearts and be prepared in all things” for the second coming of the Lord. With particularly poignant meaning for those who had been forced from their sacred temples in Kirtland and Nauvoo, they would gather to build a temple to God where they could make eternal covenants to be his people.

The Bible gives a fairly detailed description of Zion, but the Saints are distinctive in their response to the message. For them, Zion is not a promise of a faraway impossible tomorrow.  They believe “that Zion is possible on this earth, that men possess the capacity to receive it right here and are therefore under the obligation to “waste no time moving in the direction of Zion.”

Still, when the Saints were driven from Missouri and there was no gathering place, Joseph Smith instructed the missionaries in England not to teach the doctrine of gathering.  But, according to John Taylor, they “could not keep the spirit of it from the people.” Heber C. Kimball had not told George D. Watt anything about the doctrine of the gathering, but just ten days after George became the first man in England to be baptized, he came to Heber “his face shining like that of an angel, and said he, just as sure as the Lord lives the Saints will gather to America.”

John Taylor told of a sister in Liverpool, England, who said to him, “Brother Taylor, I had a very remarkable dream or vision.  I don’t know which, and it went something like this:  I thought that the Saints were gathered together on the Pier Head—and there was a ship about to sail. The people said they were going to Zion, and they were singing what they called the songs of Zion, and rejoicing exceedingly; you were among them, and you were going also.  Now I want to know if you can tell what that means?”  Clearly Zion swells in the hearts of her citizens.

The Saints felt the urge to gather because “the Spirit of the Lord rested upon them, and they could not stay themselves.”  John Taylor told the British Saints, “[When the elders laid their hands] upon your head, among other things you received the Holy Ghost and the spirit of the gathering.  But you did not know what it was that was working in you, like yeast sometimes under certain conditions, producing an influence causing you to come to Zion.  Yet you could not help it.  If you had wanted to help it, you could not while you were living your religion.”

Brigham Young said of the pioneers “the spirit of the Lord was all the time prompting them…They could not do anything else, because God would not let them do anything else.  The brethren and sisters came across the plains because they could not stay; that is the secret of the movement.”

Alma Ash said in 1885, “Whenever I saw another Mormon family emigrate to Zion, it used to cause very peculiar feelings to enter my heart.  And oh, with what joy I pondered upon the gathering. The possibility of our family emigrating to Zion in the near future would give me the greatest joy.  Indeed, I know of nothing which brought so much joy to my young heart as to talk about going to the Salt Lake valley. Many times we young Mormon exiles played “Going to the valley” by constructing a train and a ship and the like, of chairs and tables.  Then we would imagine we were traveling along.”

Though that silent, inner stirring is sometimes unnamed, the spiritual inclined feel a longing, almost a memory, of a former, better state, and they wish to regain it.  Zion is the answer to that longing, designed on God’s principles, where every institution and relationship promotes joy. It is a place of beauty, whose standard in all things is a light to the world.  It is a place of peace and unity, where the false pride, follies and selfishness of the world are forgotten. The buildings, walls, streets and gates, the throngs in shining robes are not the essence of Zion. When all else is stripped away, Zion is the pure in heart.

Those who wanted to build Zion, then had to begin by looking to their own hearts. “We are trying to be in the image of those who live in heaven:  we are trying to pattern after them…to walk and talk like them, to deal like them, and build up the kingdom of heaven as they have done,” said Brigham Young.  Yet it is hard for those who have so long lived in the world, immersed in Babylon, to envision Zion:  hard to be a Zion people when one cannot yet conceive it, can only catch glimpses of its beauty from a distant shore.

Thus, a pattern emerges in the scriptures.  Those who would go to the promised land, those who are longing for Zion, must first learn its principles in the wilderness journey.

It is a difficult journey whose tests are to be endured, a necessary labor to be performed in order to find the safety and joy of the promised land.  The children of Israel trudged through the desert for forth years. Nehi and his family trekked the most foreboding desert of the world. At some future time, there will be another coming out of Babylon, which is the world, to build Zion.  In every case the promised land is reached only after the tedious and difficult journey, and the heart is transformed in the process.

Priorities become clear to converts who shed every precious keepsake along the trail, who dragged on when their bodies cried out in utter exhaustion. They came to know and pave the Lord when human strength was gone and He was there to compensate, when their faith, like gold seven times purified. they learned to give freely to each other and bear one another’s burdens in the furnace of affliction. These are Zion lessons that the world cannot offer.

Brigham Young, who said he had Zion constantly in his view, put it simply: “I want hard times, so that every person that does not wish to stay, for the sake of religion will leave.” Zion could not be built by those who would come on false pretenses. Though it didn’t always succeed, the trail was to strip Babylon from the heart of one who wanted to build Zion.

So they came from Vermont and Kentucky, from England and Wales, came in a growing swell to build their beloved Zion and then be driven from it again. Finally, weary of being a driven people, they sought refuge in the mountains in an arid valley that nobody else wanted and formed a city called Great Salt Lake. By some estimates, nearly seventy thousand people brought rickety wagons and carts and tramped those plains; six thousand of them died along the way, their dreams of Zion buried in a trailside grave.

For the rest it was “Carry on, carry on”—and they did, leaving a legacy that burns in every Mormon heart.

This is an excerpt from The Gathering by Scot and Maurine Proctor.