Sacred City

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”[1]): Mormonism is essential urban.

The night before leaving Iowa, I looked on 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.

  1. 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.


  1. Glad you had a chance to enjoy a little bit of God’s Country. Where were you exactly? I currently reside in the SW Iowa area.

    “I tried to envision missionaries walking the miles between farms.”

    Still happens. And most missionaries love it.

  2. A couple of hours south of Minneapolis and an hour and a half or so east of 35. It was beautiful…more green than I remembered the midwest in August.

    I need to note that I received my information about the old Seattle ward from a friend, and that while accurate, it isn’t particularly approved of by the Stake. Another friend informs me that the Stake still wants to concentrate them in a “family ward.”

  3. Steve Evans says:

    J., I can confirm the information about the Seattle ward, since it’s my ward.

  4. I had never really thought of this, but it makes sence. Thanks for sharing the thought.

  5. California Condor says:

    J. Stapley,

    You went to rural Iowa for business last week… do you work for the Mitt Romney campaign?

  6. Nope.

  7. I believe the saints…are forever past the rural life.

    I think you are correct, Jonathan. I’ve been wondering about how we might envision Zion in an urban setting where we are only 2% – 3% of the population. All our previous attempts took place in rural environments among a concentrated population.

  8. Waterloo?

  9. As he notes, Steve is in the ward you mention and I am in the ward which the Stake continues to designate for all families with children 12 and up. A few families with older children have stayed in Steve’s; most who live in his ward boundaries have come to my ward (as I am hoping he will someday). But there is no influx of school age children in Seattle wards. At last count we had 17 youth in the Third. Babies, yes. My husband has suggested playing the Elephant Walk as prelude music for all the pregnant women and worries someone is slipping fertility drugs into the sacrament water. Newly wed and nearly dead. As soon as families are ready to buy a house, they go to the suburbs, the far suburbs, not the close in suburbs, as the urbanization of which you speak is both a suburbanization and an urbanization.

  10. I believe the saints…are forever past the rural life.

    I guess that would depend on what country you live in…

    The word ethnocentric comes to mind.

  11. The word ethnocentric comes to mind.

    You think? I have attended ward services on several continents and see the same pattern as outlined in my post. Perhaps I am wrong, but I don’t think I am ethnocentric.

  12. I live in the Bellevue Stake, just east of Seattle, and Molly is correct. All the young families are for the most part skipping over the traditional eastside suburbs of Belevue and Kirkland for Sammammish, Issaquah, and further east. We disbanded a ward about 8 years ago that was reflecting the urbanization that has taken hold in Seattle. They divided the ward up amongst four other wards. Our ward, ended up with the most families. One of the other wards got over 40 widows, and 2 elderly high priests out of the division. Newly wed and nearly dead is the urban reality here, and even though our ward still has some youth, we can see the future. My own home is on the verge of being an empty nest, as I only have one of my six children still at home, and he is about out the door any day now.

    It may or may not be related, but the decline in youth in our urban stakes may be a contributing factor, along with many others, of the decline of the marriage rate for young single adults, and a decline in birth rates as well. Not to mention that our SP recently said that 80% of our young singles are inactive, by which he explained that mostly no one knows where they are, officially. I know that there are huge efforts being expended, both in time and money, to reach and engage the young singles.

  13. Kevin Barney says:

    Early Christianity had a similarly urban focus. You may be interested in Wayne A. Meeks, The First Urban Christians: The Social World of the Apostle Paul; here is the Amazon link.

    Indeed, English “pagan” derives from Latin pagani, meaning those who lived in the country.

  14. As someone with little kids who went “further east” from Seattle, this is absolutely true. There are many reasons why, but a big one would obviously be economic. The tiny home we could afford in Bellevue or Seattle wouldn’t hold up against a large home and a big yard in the east- and so we go.

  15. JM #10, in many parts of Latin America, there aren’t even missionaries outside of urban areas — large ones and medium-sized ones, for the most part. Small towns and countryside areas simply don’t have many missionaries, and probably as a consequence have few if any members.

  16. Sure J.

    The rural days are fading away. I am now 2 generations off the SE Idaho farm.

    We are not an Urban church by any stretch though. We are a suburban church here in the US. Tracy M’s family is like mine. Out to the far suburbs we go when the kids arrive.

    Here in Dallas/FT Worth the city proper wards and stakes are shrinking and the far suburban wards and stakes are growing rapidly. Even the older suburban wards are shrinking.

    Same was true when we lived in Chicago in the late 1990’s

  17. I guess that would depend on what country you live in…

    My European experience says otherwise. Very few missionaries that I know of will travel to the outer reaches of a ward’s boundaries, which in some areas might include thousands of square miles. As a missionary in NL/Belgium, we were told not to go out to the villages or far-flung suburbs because the travel time would be excessive and we wouldn’t meet our prescibed goals.

    (I was actually thinking about this the other day: what if American Mormonism was only established in biggish cities? What would it look like and how strong would it be?)

    I totally agree that we are an increasingly (sub)urban church. Of course the rural life still carries significant cultural and even moral weight, starting with examples used in general conference and the weight of the pioneers as farmers and such (rather than urban dwellers). One of my MP’s more annoying habits was to praise the ‘farmboys’ who worked like ‘oxen in our missionfield.’ (This, BTW, translates into Dutch very awkwardly, making some of us giggle. Imitating the MP’s Dutch was a favorite pastime.)

  18. Stapley, quit ransacking my old posts as inspiration for your posts.

  19. Here’s another contributing factor:

    Fifty years ago, there were two wards in this area. Our ward used to be the suburban ward; the other ward was the city ward. As the Church grew, other units split off from the original two, shrinking the ward boundaries for the original wards continually over the years. Our ward now has little new home construction, as that is happening in the suburbs further out from ours.

    For our ward, this means that the people who have been living within our current boundaries long-term have had fifty years of missionary contact. Of course, there are plenty of those who have not been contacted by the missionaries, but the percentage is much lower than in the newer suburbs. With that long-term exposure, it is even more critical that the members take the lead in bringing friends and associates to church meetings and activities.

    Finally, our stake has two wards that encompass the fastest growing outer suburbs. Not coincidently, these wards have been the largest and fastest growing wards in our stake – not necessarily from conversions, but from influx of members moving into the area. Many of the conversions have come from the influx of teenagers into the outer suburb schools – youth who stand up for their standards and are influencing their peers. We aren’t seeing a percentage growth in the schools in our ward like what is happening in the outer suburban wards.

  20. Norbert,
    I’ve actually been curious what General Conference stories will be like in 20 or 30 (or maybe fewer) years. Part of the reason we still get farmer stories is because the GAs tend to be 2 or 3 generations prior to our own, and did, themselves, grow up on a farm. Heck, my grandpa did, before he moved to the California suburbs.

    I’m curious, too, about the trend of suburbanization. The retreat from urban centers is reversing itself in the general US population (or at least, cities are growing faster than they have in a long time). Although in the 90s, and maybe even now, people with kids are leaving, American saints do tend to lag the greater American culture by some number of years; do you think (in 10 or 20 years, if the affluent influx back to the cities continues) that we’ll see more urbanization (as opposed to suburbanization) in the future?

  21. There’s quite a bias toward cities in almost all ancient writings, especially scriptures, because the increased specialization of labor in the city allowed for a writing class to exist.

  22. Sam B.

    Here is why the LDS tend towards the suburbs

    1. Homes are cheaper in the far suburbs. Lots cheaper.


    2. Public Schools are terrible in the major US cities


    3. LDS people have lots of kids (limiting the ability to pay private school tuition)


    Suburban LDS population

    The Urban renewal is largely a trend limited to singles and childless people or people who can afford to send one or two kids to private schools. I cannot see a scenario where large numbers of LDS families would be attracted to major US cities for a long term stay anytime in the future.

  23. bbell,
    As to your (1) and (2), kind of true, but not entirely. Homes may be cheaper in the exburbs, but most suburbs I’m aware of are close to the price of cities. You get more space, true. And New York, for example, has some amazingly good public schools alongside some amazingly bad ones.

    But even granting your points, you’re talking about today (or, realistically, 10 years ago). As the middle- and upper-classes return to the cities, public schools will possibly increase. And at some point, the time and expense of commuting will possibly weigh toward paying more rent/mortgage and living in the city.

    I didn’t say it would happen today, but the cities I’ve been in recently are far more hospitable, even to largish families, than they are rumored to be. And as more and more young LDS families start out in cities, even if they move away, they may well get the taste, and want to go back.

    I don’t know if it will happen, but if you’d asked me 10 or 15 years ago, I wouldn’t have predicted the exodus from the suburbs to the cities that we’re seeing today.

  24. Oh, and from what I’ve seen and read, the urban renewal is not limited to single and childless people; in large part it involves people with one or two kids, but (both NPR and the NY Times have now reported it!), apparently 4 is the new 2.

  25. “Here in Dallas/FT Worth the city proper wards and stakes are shrinking and the far suburban wards and stakes are growing rapidly. Even the older suburban wards are shrinking.” (#16)

    This phenomenon of families leaving even the older suburban wards would be why a few years ago our former bishop wondered (only half-jokingly) if he would end up being released as a branch president. We are starting to grow a little again, but there are other newer, more upscale suburban areas that attract the people who used to flock here.

    I wouldn’t be surprised if those in the city wards thought the same thing about the older suburban wards when they [meaning the older suburban wards] were in their prime…

  26. DKL (21)- but there is also a bias against cities in favor of the farm life due to it’s “closeness to nature.”

  27. #21 – and the perception of rampant crime and immorality, and the inability to insulate based on race or religion, and the perceived exploitation of the minority community by the ruling elite community, and the proliferation of legal restrictions ad infinitum.

    People in small towns and villages and farms always have distrusted the cities, for many reasons – literacy being a minor one, IMO. The existence of a writing class actually is a major theme in ancient writings praising the cities – a “We are better than the poor, uneducated masses outside the city walls” mentality that still exists in the ivy towers of modern academia. I think that is almost indisputable.

    There was a hot-selling t-shirt during my college years that had a map of the USA. It was titled “A Bostonian’s View of the USA” and had great detail along the East Coast, Chicago, Texas, moderate detail in California and absolutely nothing else. The urban writing class can be just as ignorant and biased as the rural masses.

  28. As someone who still likes to consider himself more towards the “youth age” end of the spectrum (regardless of what the law and sunday school roster say), I think that the suburban areas are simply more appealing for families. A larger group of people in the area means more ability to choose those with whom you wish to associate. In high school I was able to avoid certain people and groups in favor of friends who shared my interests and values because there was such a large number of students (over 800 in my graduating class alone, with grades 10-12 in one building).

  29. Note: satire alert


    Re: LDS church congregations in inner cities and near suburbs versus far suburbs and exurbs:

    I think you may have missed an important cause of the exodus from inner cities to outer exurbs.

    A prominent sociologist of religion offered the following thoughts on another thread with respect to our theological cousins:

    “I have a Demographic question for you. If I walked into 10 COC congregations at random who would be in the pews?

    “I ask because my impression is that it would be very different then my suburban LDS ward. (AKA majority of people on sunday are under 20 in my current ward) (120 kids under 12, 40-45 kids under 20 and maybe 100-120 adults)

    “My feeling is that the Demographics in COC are similar to say a Episcopal or other mainline church. Tending towards older folks and singles.

    “I ask this because I have observed that.

    “A. Liberal theology


    “B. Low birthrates/marriage rates”


    My followup analysis–

    Inasmuch as inner city/near suburban LDS wards and branches look like liberal mainline protestant congregations (which are also losing members and families with children), it must be on account of the liberality of those LDS and leaders who stay.

    And, indeed, there is significant additional evidence that the inner city/near suburban LDS Church is more “liberal” than the exurban core of the Church.

    That is, I would wager that in a typical inner city LDS ward or branch, we would see significantly more colored shirts, fewer ties, more prayers referring to “you” rather than “thou”, more democrats and fewer republicans, more tattoos and piercings, more women in pantsuits, more single parent homes, more adult singles generally, more undocumented workers whose first language is not english, more married women in the workplace who have children at home, more people recovering (or not recovering at the moment) from various substance or other addictions, more people receiving assistance from the government (either instead of or in addition to church assistance) than we would find in a model exurban ward of the Church. Not to mention a longer list of disaffected members who do not attend church and have requested no contact or who are on the verge of requesting name removal.

    All of these seem like symptoms of a declining liberal church–not to mention the aging population (with a few newlyweds who leave relatively quickly).

  30. Jacob: but there is also a bias against cities in favor of the farm life due to it’s “closeness to nature”

    Nonsense. The ancients viewed nature as hostile and uncontrollable. Forests were creepy, dangerous, haunted places. The notion of “being close to nature” is altogether an invention of modern romanticism, and it exists nowhere in any scriptures that we Mormons use.

    In short: “close to nature” = “far from Jesus”

    Embrace mother nature and be damned.

  31. Read HCK on urban Salt Lake. He had some fairly vitriolic words for the corruption of the big city.

    And all of JSJ’s Zions were surrounded by communal farmland which was to be managed by those who dwelled together in the city.

  32. It wasn’t just HCK, though you are right that he tends toward the dramatic. I heart Heber.

    I also find Joseph’s city planning fascinating. The lots in Independence, etc. It would seem that his model didn’t work out so well, though. Was Nauvoo set up that way? I don’t seem to remember it being so…but this isn’t a particular area of focus, so I may just be ignorant.

%d bloggers like this: