There is a tension in Mormonism between our pragmatism and our Millenarianism. Every Saint in this dispensation has wondered if they would live to see the great and terrible day. Most believed they would, only to be corrected by death’s disappointment. Kirtland. Independence. Nauvoo. Salt Lake City. The Mexican Colonies. Each held their promise of fulfilling one of the great precursors of the Lords return: Zion. Not simply the pure in heart of which we now frequently speak, but the institution that so many of our people died for – the community of God.
The early saints did not look back. The promises of Independence were abandoned for Far West, Nauvoo and then again for the new Territory. The most important issue was not where, but what, as Wilford Woodruff explained:
…before Christ comes, a people have got to be prepared by being sanctified before the Lord. Temples have got to be built; Zion has got to be built up, there must be a place of safety for the people of God while his judgments are abroad in the earth, for the judgments of God will visit the earth, there is no mistake about that, the revelations are full of promises to this effect and as the Lord has declared it, he will not fail in keeping his word. (Journal of Discourses vol.18 pg.192)
That Zion be established before the Lord comes is a central tenant of the restoration. It wasn’t until after the great accommodations of the modern era that the vision of an independent Zion was abandoned. In the place of this active pursuit, a retrospective anticipation of Independence as the seat of Zion returned. The idea has evolved such that where, not what, has become paramount.
If we are disappointed in the night of our slumber, perhaps it will be that in the stress of concurrently looking to the future and at the present we chose not to build the successor to our grand attempts at Zion, but to simply hope for their return.