We are safe in taking the word of modern prophets that the society described in Fourth Nephi was actually a Zion society. However, if we examine the question for ourselves, we can discover in greater detail what it was that actually made their society a Zion, and, better understand how to build our own today.
What makes a society a Zion? Perhaps Moses 7 contains the best definition of a Zion society in the scriptures. It’s not just anyone’s definition, it’s the definition given by the Lord. So, if a society matches the conditions mentioned by the Lord, we can safely assume that that society qualifies to be called “Zion”.
In Moses 7:18, it states, “And the Lord called his people Zion, because they were of one heart and one mind, and dwelt in righteousness; and there was no poor among them.” We can break this statement down into three defining attributes of a society that makes it qualify for the “Zion” label.
1. They were of one heart and one mind, and
2. they dwelt in righteousness, and
3. there was no poor among them.
Sadly, the Lord leaves us to guess what these three attributes actually mean to Him. We can infer some things from the language itself. The words “of one heart and one mind” suggests a type of unity, perhaps a unity of purpose. “Dwelt in righteousness” suggests there was no “wickedness”. And “no poor among them” suggests some kind of economic equality.
Let’s now examine the account in Fourth Nephi to determine if (and how) that society meets the Lord’s standard for Zion.
Of One Heart and One Mind
What evidence does Fourth Nephi give that the people described there were “of one heart and one mind”?
Well, four times the author mentions that the people experienced “no contention” among them. In verses 2, 13, 15, and 19 this condition is pointed out. We might conclude that being “of one heart and one mind” means “no contention”, or at least, that the unity they enjoyed leads to a lack of contention. However, does a mere lack of contention guarantee the presence of unity? Does the lack of a particular disease mean you’re perfectly healthy? Not necessarily. The lack of a negative doesn’t guarantee the presence of a positive, it just means the negative is not present.
So, were the people of Fourth Nephi “of one heart and one mind”? Conveniently, verse 15 tells us what generated their lack of contention. It says, “there was no contention in the land, because of the love of God which did dwell in the hearts of the people” — that would be our positive. Apparently, having the love of God in one’s heart unifies a people to the degree that not only do they have no contention, but they are motivated to work together to do good things like overcoming poverty, which the people did. It’s easy to imagine that if an entire community of people had the love of God dwelling in their hearts that they would enjoy a unity of purpose and action. So, we’re probably safe in assuming the people of Fourth Nephi were “of one heart and one mind” – their hearts united in love, and their minds united in accomplishing God’s will.
Dwelt in Righteousness
As with the previous term, verse two is also a possible evidence of their dwelling “in righteousness”. It states that “every man did deal justly one with another.” If we assume that dwelling in righteousness means everyone dealing justly with one another, then wickedness must mean where people deal unjustly with each other — which is certainly the case when people engage in crime and corruption, violating the natural rights of others.
If one is dealing justly with others at all times there would be no “whoredoms, nor lyings, nor murders, nor any manner of lasciviousness” as described in verse 16. Between the lack of wickedness, and the presence of so much “just dealing”, it looks like we can safely say that the people in Fourth Nephi were dwelling in righteousness.
No Poor Among Them
This one is easy. Fourth Nephi comes right out and says, “there were not rich and poor”.
So, there we have it. The society described in Fourth Nephi definitely qualifies as being Zion, by the Lord’s definition in Moses 7:18; all three elements appear to have been present.
Lessons from Zion’s Decay
As the Zion society described in Fourth Nephi becomes corrupted and decays, by contrast we can learn a little more about each of the three Zion elements. Although there had been one splinter group peeling off from the main society prior to verse 24, that is where the decay really gets going.
Pride Goeth Before the Fall
Verse 24 is where pride manifested itself, which had apparently replaced the love of God in some hearts. That pride creates a series of cascading events which results in the destruction of their Zion society.
So if pride is what destroys a Zion society, perhaps “the love of God” which we’ve seen above creates the conditions of no contention, is what constitutes pride’s opposite. As it is pride that unravels a Zion society, perhaps “the love of God”, as pride’s opposite, is what weaves a Zion society together and preserves it.
According to President Ezra Taft Benson’s landmark talk “Beware of Pride”, pride is where we think of ourselves as being better-than (or less-than) others. Reading “The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich”, which is essentially a biography of Adolph Hitler, convinced me that it was Hitler’s pride, his thinking that Germans were superior to other peoples, that fueled his rise to power, his abuse of other peoples, and his eventual downfall. It was pride that motivated him to sacrifice the lives and property of others to enrich his own nation. Pride is destructive to personal and national peace and long-term prosperity. As President Benson repeated for emphasis, “Pride is the great stumbling block to Zion”.
Love your neighbor as yourself
In an apparent attempt to counsel us in overcoming pride, thinking ourselves better-than others, the Lord also repeated an injunction that we should value our neighbors as ourselves. In D&C 38:24-25, the Lord counsels, “And let every man esteem his brother as himself, and practice virtue and holiness before me. And again I say unto you, let every man esteem his brother as himself.” The Lord doesn’t repeat himself often, this admonishment must really be important.
In contrast to pride, could it be that “the love of God”, which fuels a Zion society, be where we esteem our neighbor as ourselves? Could it mean that we believe in the deepest part of our souls that “all men are created equal” and are of equal and infinite worth? and, therefore, should all be treated with dignity and respect? Were we to see our neighbors through the lenses of the love of God, wouldn’t we value the fulfilling of the needs of others to be just as important to us as filling our own? And, that we would never ever, like all the pride-based tyrants of history, sacrifice the well-being of others for our own benefit?
Economic Unity – Pride’s first casualty
In Fourth Nephi, verse 24, the introduction of pride into their Zion society first manifested itself when some of the people sought to stand out from others by wearing nicer clothes. Now, where they acquired these nicer clothes is unknown, but reason suggests someone, either a member of their society, or another society, sought personal gain through the production of “costly apparel”. This commercial activity then triggered a collapse of the economic unity which their Zion society had enjoyed up to that point. The very next verse reports, “And from that time forth they did have their goods and their substance no more common among them.”
It appears likely that it wasn’t just the desire for nice clothes, but it was the introduction of commerce, the buying and selling of goods and services, which triggered the collapse of their unity. Before those who desired nice clothes entered some marketplace, the people “did have their goods and their substance” in “common among them”. In other words, everyone likely had a share in the produce of the land; the people worked together as one large family to produce the goods and services they all needed. Enter commerce, and the family-style economic unity crumbles.
It happened to the early Nephites too.
In Jacob 2, the collapse of the Nephite’s economic union is overshadowed by Jacob’s sermon about chastity. However, it wasn’t just immorality Jacob called an “iniquity and abomination”, it was pride-based commerce. Follow me here. In Jacob 2:12, Jacob recounts how some Nephites had gotten involved in mining gold and silver. He reports, “And now behold, my brethren, this is the word which I declare unto you, that many of you have begun to search for gold, and for silver, and for all manner of precious ores, in the which this land, which is a land of promise unto you and to your seed, doth abound most plentifully.”
Now, mining in and of itself is not bad, it’s what they did with the gold and silver that caused problems. Imagine with me the early community of Nephites back when Nephi and Jacob were the leaders. They likely operated as one big family, having “all things common” among them. Now, some Nephites go out and start mining gold and silver. They find a bunch because it did “abound most plentifully” as Jacob records. Apparently, they didn’t bring it back to the Nephite village and say, “Hey everyone! Look at all this gold and silver we found! How can we best use it to bless all our lives?” — which they would have done had they had the love of God in their hearts and esteemed their neighbor’s needs as their own. Instead, they kept the gold and silver for themselves (they earned it!) and used it to purchase costly apparel! Just like the “unity-collapsers” do centuries later in Fourth Nephi.
Here’s how Jacob reports on this event in Jacob 2:13:
And the hand of providence hath smiled upon you [miners] most pleasingly, that you have obtained many riches; and because some of you have obtained more abundantly than that of your brethren ye are lifted up in the pride of your hearts, and wear stiff necks and high heads because of the costliness of your apparel, and persecute your brethren because ye suppose that ye are better than they.
Then Jacob lowers the boom in the very next verse, “And now, my brethren, do ye suppose that God justifieth you in this thing? Behold, I say unto you, Nay. But he condemneth you, and if ye persist in these things his judgments must speedily come unto you.”
A more modern witness
Is Jacob’s claim that God would disapprove of these miner’s hard work, spending the fruits of their own diligent labors on themselves? Yes. Doctrine and Covenants 104:18, the Lord declares, “Therefore, if any man shall take of the abundance which I have made, and impart not his portion, according to the law of my gospel, unto the poor and the needy, he shall, with the wicked, lift up his eyes in hell, being in torment.” That’s exactly what happened, the Nephite miners took of the abundance which God had made and did not share it with those less capable of mining. Instead, they used their surplus to gratify their pride in purchasing clothing nicer than that worn by their neighbors. Again, the language Jacob used to describe this behavior was “iniquity and abomination”.
A Cascade of Corruption
Back in Fourth Nephi, we see that as soon as some Nephites started buying and selling “the fine things of the world”, triggering a collapse of their economic unity, their society “began to be divided into classes” (which is bad), and then came the corruption of religion by the profit motive (verse 26) and persecution of those deemed “less-than” (v.29). That was followed by a corruption of government as seen in verse 30 where their public officials “did exercise power and authority over the disciples of Jesus” casting them in prison, furnaces of fire, and into the dens of wild beasts.
Next came a greater moral corruption of the people (verse 34) followed by a division of the society into Lamanites and Nephites (vss 35-38). After that, bigotry (vs.39), and then secret combinations (vss.42 & 46). Then, in the next chapter, the people have become so wicked that the Lord removes his disciples and the Holy Ghost from among them, and a series of wars begin, and never end until the Nephite nation is completely destroyed — all because a few people wanted to appear “better-than” others by buying nicer clothes! How tragic!
Why then do we persist?
Given the high costs of pride, as illustrated in Fourth Nephi, why do we Latter-Day Saints persist in our devotion to pride-based commerce? Somehow we’re going to be immune from the cascade of corruption which follows in its footsteps? Do we have a fine clothing industry? Is our society separated into classes? Are our religions and governments corrupted by the desire for profit and power? Are the people morally corrupt? Do we suffer from bigotry and secret combinations?
It doesn’t take a prophet to see that pride indeed goes before the fall, and as a nation we’ve caught the pride flu. Our choice is clear, we can either repent of pride, embrace Zion’s values, or be destroyed as a people.
Let’s work together to build Zion
Instead of drifting towards the unhappy end of this pride flu epidemic, how about we LDS choose to work together to build, or at least participate in, more Zion-like social institutions like humility-based schools and businesses? Such institutions might actually catch on among the Saints and the world!
The Gentiles actually have made great strides in this department. The Sudbury Valley School in Massachusetts (and its dozens of copy-cat schools around the world) is a great example of the application to education of the mutual esteem the Lord wants us to have for each other. Worker-owned cooperatives, which are fairly popular in Wisconsin and Minnesota, are examples of applying mutual esteem to business organizations. There is also a growing movement among the younger generations who are seeking an “Alternative Economy”. We Saints could provide that alternative!
We have a rich history of economic experimentation of which most of us are unaware. Let us re-discover and embrace the find-a-way spirit of our pioneer ancestors who were anxiously engaged in building a Zion society in Territorial Utah. Let’s become an even greater blessing to our fellow Americans by leading out in establishing and participating in more Zion-like schools and businesses — finding new and creative ways to incorporate the love of God into our day-to-day lives.