We were at the end of a fast-paced, exciting trip through six countries of Northern Europe, feeling something of a let-down because it was over. We were going home—but all the processes in the airport seemed to be working against us. I am not what most people would call a world traveler, but over the years, I have passed through major airports on six different continents, and I felt justified in calling the security clearance process at this airport the most inefficient, and the airport and airline employees the most indifferent, I had ever seen. The flight left an hour late, and it seemed likely we might miss our connecting flight when we arrived in the United States. I let my irritation be known.
It was about 35,000 feet above the Atlantic, watching movies and eating snacks in our padded seats, when I remembered my ancestors who made this trip some 180 years ago. I was immediately ashamed of my petty impatience.
Those pioneer ancestors left the beautiful, green country of England, went down to the Albert Dock in Liverpool, and joined other converts to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints on a sailing ship bound for America. Some knew they might never again embrace the families they left behind, never again see the beauty of their English countryside. In faith, they were going across an ocean to the place where they hoped to build their Zion, a city of peace and harmony and love.
Their ocean crossing would take at least six weeks, often in cramped and unpleasant conditions and with frightening storms at sea. Some would arrive on the East Coast and travel overland while others would arrive in New Orleans and take a steamer up the Mississippi to what was then their Church’s headquarters, a city called Nauvoo, Illinois. In the mid-1840s, after mobs drove these “Mormons” out of the thriving city they had built, they would face a slow, exhausting trek by ox-drawn wagons across the middle of North America to the valley of the Great Salt Lake. A few years later, in the 1850s, some converts from Europe would gather in Iowa City, Iowa, at the end of the railroad, to assemble handcarts in which they pulled a meager food supply and a handful of personal belongings across the plains, step by painful step, to Salt Lake City. The physical challenges they faced are unimaginable, but some who survived them would later testify that received divine help and came to know God “in our extremities.”
Wherever the immigrants came from, they hoped to be part of building Zion, a place of peace, love, and security for which they longed.
Arriving in Utah, they would learn that their city of peace and love was a work in progress—that the “Saints” among whom they lived were like those New Testament “saints” often chastised and exhorted by the Apostle Paul—imperfect mortals struggling to live by the faith they had pledged to follow.
Today, we can easily cross an ocean and two-thirds of a continent in less than 24 hours. We will never know the challenges that some of those pioneers faced. Their physical struggles and suffering along the trail westward have become legendary. Many who didn’t make it were buried on the plains. When they saw the semi-arid Great Basin that would be their new home, they must have longed for those green hills of England. (Drive a few miles beyond Salt Lake City today into Utah’s West Desert and you can still see the uninviting sagebrush-and-cedar landscape that awaited them.)
The Great Basin may not have been the kind of place where they expected to find Zion, but with faith, irrigation, and hard labor they made it work anyway. They took root and grew.
Objectively, we have to say they never faced some of the challenges we face today. They never faced a world in which basic moral values were largely questioned or ignored, a world in which faith in God is constantly challenged or ridiculed, a world in which self-serving, dictatorial leaders have in their hands the power to destroy humanity, a world in which weapons meant for war are used by unstable people full of hate to mercilessly slaughter children in school.
Searching for Zion today, where would we look?
The holy scriptures prophesy that in a future day, Zion will be established among people obedient to the Lord, and that the Redeemer will rule in Zion, where He will gather His people and they will find refuge (see Isaiah 14:32, Romans 11:26, and 3 Nephi 21:1 in the Book of Mormon, for example). But until that day comes, we must look to Zion not as a destination or place where we can finally arrive, but as a spiritual state which is developed within us. Like those pioneer ancestors I remembered, we follow the road to Zion through the choices we make each day. Zion is not so much a place as it is something that exists in our hearts—something we become.
There is no high road to Zion, except the road of faith and service to our Heavenly Father and His other children.
I do not think that Zion will be an exclusive club only for those who practiced Christianity during their lifetime on Earth. Many good people never had the opportunity to know of Jesus Christ during their mortal lives. But throughout the history of the world, a loving Heavenly Father has sent His children inspired teachers to help them live according to true and righteous principles so they could prepare for greater blessings He has in store after this life. (Parenthetically, throughout history there have been those who co-opt and corrupt religious beliefs—Jewish, Christian, Muslim, Hindu, and others—to justify their evil acts of slaughter and depredation. But so far as I know, every system of belief that promises happiness calls for peace and love toward our fellow beings.)
It is a tenet of my faith that all Heavenly Father’s children will have the opportunity, either in this mortal life or the life that comes after, to choose to follow the principles of charity and service taught by Jesus Christ during His mortal ministry. All will have the the opportunity to become more like Him. We prepare for Zion by what we become.
It is also a tenet of my faith that, “There is a law, irrevocably decreed in heaven before the foundations of this world, upon which all blessings are predicated—
“And when we obtain any blessing from God, it is by obedience to that law upon which it is predicated” (Doctrine and Covenants [a book of modern revelation] 130:20-21). Surely all who obey those heavenly laws will receive the decreed blessings, no matter what religion that person professes. The name of the Church we attended in mortality will not in itself save us or condemn us. It is what we practice that will make the difference.
The Church of Jesus Christ, the one He founded during His mortal ministry, has been established again on the earth to administer certain blessings that lead to eternal progress after this life. This Church provides a way for anyone who lived on earth without knowing Jesus Christ to have the opportunity to choose those blessings. And according to those laws decreed in heaven, people who lived on this earth will be rewarded by a loving Father for everything they did in mortality to become more like their Redeemer.
After we returned home from Europe, I went again to look at a a historical marker on U.S. Highway 89 a few miles from where I live. The marker tells of British settlers, some of those pioneers from The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, who made this area productive and green like their beloved England. One of them was Ann Elizabeth Walmsley Palmer, described as the first woman from Europe baptized into the Church. She was carried into the waters of baptism as an invalid but walked out of the river on her own. Emigrating to America in 1842, she would drive an ox team across the plains to Utah in 1849 and in 1863 moved to southeastern Idaho with pioneers called to establish a new settlement. She died in 1890 after a life of faith and service.
If we are looking for the route to Zion, we can start by following the path those pioneers took, the path that leads us to become something more.