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When You Gather to Zion

By: Ardis E. Parshall - March 04, 2014

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.

Eliza R. Snow’s hymn was written as a caution to those gathering to Zion that the streets of Utah were not paved with gold, and that newcomers, rather than being treated as heroes for their efforts to come, were expected to work harder than they had ever worked before. It was a needed caution: too often missionaries spoke too glowingly of conditions at home; too often converts focused on the goal of emigration without giving much thought to what would come after.

In a way, such emigrants were like brides whose every thought is on the wedding, with no idea of the hard work of wedded life that stretches beyond. Sometimes new arrivals, shocked by the barrenness of the desert, removed from the solicitous care of missionaries, were unable to cope; like a disappointed bride running home to Mother, they hurried off from Utah, sometimes bearing exaggerated tales of the horrors of living among the Mormons.

Think not, when you gather to Zion,
That all will be holy and pure –
That deception and falsehood are banished,
And confidence wholly secure:
No, no; for the Lord our Redeemer
Has said that the tares with the wheat
Must grow, till the great day of burning
Shall render the harvest complete.

This problem didn’t go away with time:

In 1896, leaders warned that “those who intend to emigrate and remain faithful to their covenants must be prepared to pass through almost any trying scene. If they will obtain this feeling and retain it, they will have not the slightest cause to regret the step; but if they think only of themselves they will become dissatisfied and look for an excuse to turn them away from the Gospel.” The First Presidency actually discouraged Europeans from emigrating at all at that point, because of the difficult economic situation in Utah: “The lack of employment has already tried the faith and patience of many of our emigrating saints to an extent more than they can bear, resulting, we are sorry to say, in sore disappointment, and, in some cases, apostacy from the Faith.”

In 1919, following the advice of a missionary to their Alabama home, my great-grandparents headed for Salina, Utah, where, the elder had assured them, every crop could be easily grown. But when Grandpa Hall stepped off the train, one look at the surrounding landscape told him that the watermelons and sugarcane he knew how to raise would never grow in that desert, and he didn’t have the faintest idea what would grow. The family got back on the train. They could easily have returned to the South, but instead, they went to the nearest “big” city – Manti – where Grandpa Hall transformed himself from a farmer to a carpenter. By the time I was old enough to hear the family story a half century later, there was complete charity for the missionary who had directed them to Salina: He hadn’t deliberately misled them; he was only homesick.

Following World War II, when there was another upswing in emigration from Europe to the western United States, Church leaders cautioned members abroad to stay home if they had any decent work there, and urged mission presidents to warn their emigrating members that they must be prepared to accept any kind of work that was available – too often, they said, new arrivals expected to be furnished with professional employment that simply was not available. In some cases, people accepted work but then did not perform it to expectations – Dutch sisters, for example, who found domestic work, refused to wash windows because, in the Netherlands, that was traditionally men’s work. The conflicts between expectations and reality were still causing Saints to lose the faith.

Think not, when you gather to Zion,
The Saints there 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 gathering of Israel,
They are toiling by day and by night.

I wonder if it isn’t time to revive this hymn, or at least the attitudes that it embodies, in a 21st century context.

Emigrants are no longer relocating in a physical sense in response to the Gospel call. In another sense, every year brings a new wave of Church members who mature in years and knowledge and curiosity, who want a closer relation, a deeper understanding, of their faith, its teachings, and the history of the Church they belong to. Via Google searches, online communities, and personal inquiry, they seek a more direct awareness of all things Mormon.

Sometimes what they find shocks and disillusions them. There can sometimes be a great gulf between the expectations they imbibed as children and the realities they face as adults. Sometimes that is the fault of their teachers – like homesick missionaries, or missionaries who think there is no necessity of describing the hardships to be faced in Utah, their teachers have given them only the most glowing, most simplistic account of Church history. Sometimes that is the fault, to some extent, of the members themselves – like emigrants who failed to consult available guidebooks, they were content to listen passively without seeking out even the most widely available fuller accounts.

And now they are faced with reality. Some square their shoulders and go to work, adapting to conditions as they are. Some flounder, unsure of what to do, where to find satisfactory answers, especially when those they should be able to depend on seem too busy “to attend to [their] personal welfare, and always be comforting [them].” Some climb back on the train and flee from Zion entirely, and some who do so speak against their former home with all the missionary zeal of the 19th century leavers-of-Zion.

Maybe those of us who are already firmly entrenched in the Zion of mature faith can offer more time and more love, reaching out to the newcomers who are, for the first time, facing a landscape they did not expect.

Maybe those who are emigrating from the simplistic Zion of unquestioning childhood and youth can hang on a little longer, learn from those who have made the adjustment, and keep the faith that has sustained generations of Saints who have matured in the real Zion.

Think not, when you gather to Zion,
The prize and the victory won –
Think not that the warfare is ended,
Or the work of salvation is done:
No, no, for the great Prince of Darkness
A ten-fold exertion will make,
When he sees you approaching the fountain
Where the truth you may freely partake.



12 Comments »

  1. You make a great, important point, Ardis.

    Comment by Gary Bergera — March 4, 2014 @ 8:44 am

  2. Framing this essay with Eliza’s hymn is a masterful touch. Thanks for this.

    Comment by kevinf — March 4, 2014 @ 9:24 am

  3. What a revelation. I loved this. I’m sure Eliza is nodding in agreement, too.

    As to the substance, it is a wonderful parallel you make. I see two aspects to the dissonance you speak of: Zion is embodied in both the wider Church, as well as ones local congregation. Because no one’s gathering to Utah, but we are still to be Zion here in our own zip code, it places the burden squarely on us–me–to show love and kindness to those struggling to find their footing.

    Comment by David Y. — March 4, 2014 @ 9:30 am

  4. P.S. One more thing: this essay seems well suited to an oral reading. I plan to read it aloud to my wife. It’s easiy digestible, but poetic, too. What a gift, thanks.

    Comment by David Y. — March 4, 2014 @ 9:34 am

  5. As we’ve seen converts baptized into our ward over the years, my husband has sometimes said that they should be given a copy of this song at their baptism, but until reading your essay here, I’d never thought to apply the message to myself!

    There is a performance of this song on a podcast about Eliza R. Snow and her music (Mormon Channel: History of Hymns: Eliza R. Snow). It’s at about 26:45.

    It’s worth listening to the whole podcast (the whole series, actually) but if you only have a few minutes, don’t miss the contrasting “Song for the Camp of Israel” at about 20:00.

    Comment by Amy T — March 4, 2014 @ 9:52 am

  6. This was in the old brown (1948 edition) hymnal, and I wish I would have found it before settling in Utah after completing my schooling there.

    My first two business deals were with Mormons (boss and landlord) and both took advantage of me. After eight years I moved away, but I can honestly say that living in Utah County was harder on my testimony than anywhere else I’ve lived. (I guess I was close enough to the face of the Church to see the warts.)

    I’m not saying this to complain, but in an attempt to show that that the message of the hymn is still as true in a literal sense as it is in the figurative sense the OP intended.

    Comment by The Other Clark — March 4, 2014 @ 3:06 pm

  7. Thanks! I really appreciate this posting, and I admire the artistry in weaving the song into the essay, and in linking the past and the present. Masterfully done!

    Comment by ji — March 4, 2014 @ 4:41 pm

  8. Sometimes what they find shocks and disillusions them. There can sometimes be a great gulf between the expectations they imbibed as children and the realities they face as adults.

    This is so true. We have had several of the children in our families who became disillusioned and left the church.

    Comment by Maurine — March 4, 2014 @ 11:41 pm

  9. Thanks for this beautiful essay of encouragement, Ardis. I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the power of mentors in negotiating the challenges of changing faith. Something you said really stood out to me:

    “Maybe those of us who are already firmly entrenched in the Zion of mature faith can offer more time and more love, reaching out to the newcomers who are, for the first time, facing a landscape they did not expect.”

    I think part of the problem is that there seem to be far, far fewer mentors of mature faith than there are people who desperately need them. I think the internet and other factors have truly caused a sharp increase in the number of members struggling with historical and social issues, and finding a trusted mentor who has faced similar questions and come to some kind of peaceful resolution can be difficult. As I have been undergoing a faith transition myself, I have come to appreciate how rare that kind of advice and relationship are. For those of us who are struggling, it is a lot easier to find others who are similarly adrift–we commiserate, complain, and comfort one another, and sometimes we stumble upon nuggets of wisdom that really help–than it is to find a mentor who has also crossed this river and made it to the other side. In fact, one of the things that keeps me going when I feel like the contradictions are too unbearable is the thought that some day, if I ever figure out this tangle, I might be able to be that mentor for someone else.

    Comment by Flounder — March 5, 2014 @ 1:54 pm

  10. Hang on, Flounder.

    It might seem presumptuous to say this, but one of the reasons I keep Keepa going is because I want to be one of those places — niche blog though I am — that shows people that others have looked at the kinds of issues they’re struggling with, and still believe it what matters: God, the atonement of Jesus Christ, the restoration through Joseph Smith, and a grundle of smaller things. It isn’t the same thing, perhaps, as the mentoring that you look for, but it’s a community of believers that you’re certainly welcome to take part in, especially when you can join in support of whatever slivers you *have* figured out and can mentor others in.

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — March 5, 2014 @ 4:17 pm

  11. Thanks for your input, Flounder. Yes, hang in there.

    I think your final line is one of the most selfless and Christlike sentiments I’ve encountered in a while:

    “In fact, one of the things that keeps me going when I feel like the contradictions are too unbearable is the thought that some day, if I ever figure out this tangle, I might be able to be that mentor for someone else.”

    Beautiful.

    Comment by David Y. — March 5, 2014 @ 4:36 pm

  12. That’s why I put Keepa on my kids’ reading lists.

    Comment by Carol — March 6, 2014 @ 10:22 am

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