Last week, business took me to rural Iowa, where after meetings I drove through fields of corn and beans, wending my way back home. Living in a highly developed area of country, I forget how much open space there really is. I drove north for hours and the topography changed while the local vocations remained the same. One thought struck me particularly forcefully as I remembered the words of one pioneer missionary-widow (“Winter Quarters has quite the appearance of a City. and I never saw the Ladys dress half so well in Nauvoo as they do here. we have a firstrate Mill here and in fact it is quite a business City”): Mormonism is essential urban.
The night before leaving Iowa, I looked on Mormon.org to see where the closest LDS congregation was. It was one and a half hours away and I tried to envision missionaries walking the miles between farms or a young Mormon family leaving the corridor to settle. Both are equally unlikely. The modern Church simply isn’t constituted to foster congregational growth in these areas. However, 160 years ago and in the same country, the Saints built a city, even while starving, destitute of capital and destined to move on.
For me, one of the lingering images of Bushman’s Joseph Smith is the prophet in Manhattan. The Joseph who saw beyond the corruption to see the transcendent possibility. The Joseph that after being beat time after time set the Saints to urbanizing the wilderness. Kirtland, Independence, Far West, Nauvoo. The inhabitants of Nauvoo, especially the immigrants, didn’t even have the skills to farm. Joseph saw a Holy city, even if he didn’t have the skills to completely realize it.
This urban vision didn’t stay at the forefront of Church thought. The pragmatism of settling the intermountain west was to constantly disperse the Saints, still capital poor. However, while there are still pockets of pioneer rurality, the emphasis has been on education for over a century. Even once-rural areas like Draper, UT are now centers of sprawl. True it is, that our city center wards have struggled in the past. Proclivity for children is often coupled with desire for the suburban comfort of big house and backyard. However, as the diaspora continues to cast the Saints, there are larger and larger groups who find life in the city. I have heard that the oldest and most urban ward in Seattle is filling with children and the stake no longer concentrates these families across the stake into a single ward to service their needs.
I believe that the Saints, despite an eternal fondness for fresh grown tomatoes, are forever past the rural life. Unfortunately, all of our Zion archetypes are centered in the post-Joseph agriculture economy. Joseph’s vision was beyond that and it seems that it is our great challenge to realize it ourselves.
- Mary Haskins Parker Richards, Letter to Samuel Richards, Winter Quarters, June to August, 1847, reprinted in Maurine Carr Ward, ed., Winter Quarters: The 1846-1848 Life Writings of Mary Haskin Parker Richards, (Logan: Utah State University Press, 1996), 172.