(To see Cal Grondahl’s cartoon that goes with this post, click here.) In Sunday School class, there was some debate, and mild concern, when the teacher explained to students that there is not a specific physical transfer of the lost tribes of Israel to one location in the USA. One student, a former bishop, pointed to The Articles of Faith, number 10, which reads, “We believe in the literal gathering of Israel and in the restoration of the Ten Tribes; that Zion (the New Jerusalem) will be built upon the American continent; that Christ will reign personally upon the earth; and, that the earth will be renewed and receive its paradisiacal glory.”
Another elderly student pointed out that the Lord had revealed that the waters of the earth would open up and allow the gathered tribes of Israel to walk on dry land to the American continent for the final gathering.” He’s right; if one reads Doctrine and Covenants, Section 133, Verses 26 and 27, which read, “And they who are in the north countries shall come in remembrance before the Lord; and their prophets shall hear his voice, and shall no longer stay themselves; and they shall smite the rocks, and the ice shall flow down at their presence.
“And an highway shall be cast up in the midst of the great deep.”
Let me backtrack a bit now and explain a piece of Mormon lore that every active Mormon over the age of 30, as well as many others who are younger, has heard. It’s that one day, the Lord, through the prophet, will call on ALL the Saints to put aside their lives and with their families gather in Jackson County, Missouri, to await the Second Coming of Christ. In my lifetime, I have heard countless discussions about the future global migration and speculations about how many of the Saints will have the faith to follow the prophet and head to Jackson County.
In fact, I’d place the restoration of scattered Israel and the ensuing migration as one of the most appealing doctrinal beliefs of Mormonism. It provides a preview of the Second Coming of Jesus Christ and specific instructions on how to receive the return of the Lord. It’s a testament to its popularity that several years after the restoration of Israel doctrine shifted in its interpretation, that many of the church’s members still adhere to the migration belief, and are unaware of, or fail to remember, an important LDS General Conference address, in 2006, by LDS Apostle Russell M. Nelson.
The discourse, titled, “The Gathering of Scattered Israel,” subtly shifts the participation in the Gathering as “A Commitment by Covenant.” Nelson explains near the end of the address:
“The choice to come unto Christ is not a matter of physical location; it is a matter of individual commitment. People can be “brought to the knowledge of the Lord” without leaving their homelands. True, in the early days of the Church, conversion often meant emigration as well. But now the gathering takes place in each nation. The Lord has decreed the establishment of Zion in each realm where He has given His Saints their birth and nationality. Scripture foretells that the people ‘shall be gathered home to the lands of their inheritance, and shall be established in all their lands of promise.’ ‘Every nation is the gathering place for its own people.’ The place of gathering for Brazilian Saints is in Brazil; the place of gathering for Nigerian Saints is in Nigeria; the place of gathering for Korean Saints is in Korea; and so forth. Zion is “the pure in heart.” Zion is wherever righteous Saints are. Publications, communications, and congregations are now such that nearly all members have access to the doctrines, keys, ordinances, and blessings of the gospel, regardless of their location.
“Spiritual security will always depend upon how one lives, not where one lives. Saints in every land have equal claim upon the blessings of the Lord.”
It’s interesting that Nelson uses Scriptures, including the Doctrine and Covenants and The Book of Mormon, as support for his statements. I have no problem with Nelson’s re-interpretation of the Gathering of Scattered Israel. With the international growth of the church over the past three generations or so, the migration of millions of Saints to one portion of the USA is impossible. (I also understand that many of my fellow LDS believers will argue that the doctrine has not changed, that the literal migration will occur during the Millennium, or that the literal restoration was always meant to be a spiritual one.)
That’s bunk, though. Scriptures and doctrinal revelations are meant for our religious comprehension, and often cannot be relied on for scientific or historical verification. And, in a church that claims continuous revelation, the meaning of doctrines can shift. It is a fact that the migration of the scattered tribes was taught as one that would be a a specific physical trek from across the world to the United States.
Here’s a excerpt from the once-popular LDS religious book, “Prophecy and Modern Times,” by W. Cleon Skousen. The publisher was Deseret Book. The book’s forward was written by then-LDS Apostle Ezra Taft Benson, a future LDS Church president and prophet. On page 56, it reads:
“Mountains, ice and a continent of water will stand between the Ten Tribes and the land of Zion when they first appear, but they will ‘smite the rocks. and the ice shall flow down at their presence.’ As they come to the great body of water, dry land will be cast up in the midst of it so that a mighty highway will spread before them.”
Footnotes for that section include Doctrine and Covenants, Section 133, Versus 26 and 27, which prophesy of the mighty highway through the seas. In “Prophecy and Modern Times, the need for a migration to America is considered urgent. Skouson later writes on page 59:
“”… They (special ambassadors) must go into the mountains and deserts, the cities and hamlets, among caves and rocks, hunting out the Saints and warning them to gather to America.”
Mormon history, as well as its doctrine, is extremely interesting to read and write about. Perhaps one day I’ll have time to look for views –from the same time period — that publicly contested Skousen’s (and by extension, Benson’s) viewpoints of the gathering of Israel.
While Nelson, in his speech, clearly reaffirms the Gathering of Israel, the interpretation has shifted in a manner that makes its fulfillment much easier to accomplish.