Book of Mormon

From Zion to Destruction:

By Andrew C. Skinner

Listen Download Print Share

For those who seek to establish Zion in our day, 4 Nephi may offer the most instructive description found in holy writ.

It seems the Lord uses every tool and technique at His disposal—scriptures, living prophets, and temples—to teach us that He wants (and has always wanted) His covenant people to be moving toward establishment of Zion. For example, the tenth article of faith reaffirms our belief that Zion will be built, again, on the American continent, and the Prophet Joseph Smith stated that “we ought to have the building up of Zion as our greatest object.”1 In 1829, before the Church was organized, the Lord gave this counsel to Joseph Smith, Oliver Cowdery, Hyrum Smith, Joseph Knight, and David Whitmer: “Keep my commandments, and seek to bring forth and establish the cause of Zion” (D&C 6:6; D&C 11:6; D&C 12:6; see also D&C 14:6).

Yet of all descriptions of Zion in holy writ, none is as instructive as the one in 4 Nephi. It not only teaches us about the social and religious characteristics of Zion in more detail, it also illuminates the root causes of the demise of the kind of society that Zion embodies.

Principles of Zion

Though the concept of Zion is multifaceted, the Lord has decreed that at least three ingredients must exist among the people of Zion: purity, unity, and equality. In 1833 the Lord spoke to the Prophet Joseph Smith at Kirtland about purity, saying, “Let Zion rejoice, for this is Zion—THE PURE IN HEART; therefore, let Zion rejoice, while all the wicked shall mourn” (D&C 97:21). In 1834 the Lord spoke again of Zion and emphasized the necessity of unity and equality:

“But behold, [my people] have not learned to be obedient to the things which I required at their hands, but are full of all manner of evil, and do not impart of their substance, as becometh saints, to the poor and afflicted among them;

“And are not united according to the union required by the law of the celestial kingdom;

“And Zion cannot be built up unless it is by the principles of the law of the celestial kingdom; otherwise I cannot receive her unto myself” (D&C 105:3–5).

Elsewhere the Lord said, “For if ye are not equal in earthly things ye cannot be equal in obtaining heavenly things” (D&C 78:6). Unity is the fundamental principle of celestial law—the principle by which the celestial kingdom operates, and it has application in economic and material issues.

The idea that Zion can be established on earth rests on the premise that there is a celestial prototype, a heavenly society composed of exalted beings who live in unity in God’s literal presence. Zion on earth is to be patterned after that celestial society. Thus, God’s desire for the ultimate destiny of a Zion community is that it be taken into His presence, for “Zion cannot be built up unless it is by the principles of the law of the celestial kingdom; otherwise I cannot receive her unto myself” (D&C 105:5; emphasis added).

Anciently, the people of Enoch’s city molded their lives to conform with the principles of Zion and were taken unto the Lord, or translated.

“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.

“And Enoch continued his preaching in righteousness unto the people of God. And it came to pass in his days, that he built a city that was called the City of Holiness, even ZION. …

“And it came to pass that the Lord showed unto Enoch all the inhabitants of the earth; and he beheld, and lo, Zion, in process of time, was taken up into heaven. And the Lord said unto Enoch: Behold mine abode forever” (Moses 7:18–19, 21).

These verses emphasize the same principles of purity, unity, and equality discussed above, and tell us that attempts to establish Zion began long before the Prophet Joseph Smith’s day in the beginning of the dispensation of the fulness of times. The Lord has cared about the establishment of Zion throughout the history of our world. President Marion G. Romney of the First Presidency (1897–1988) taught, “Whenever the Lord has had a people who would accept and live the gospel, He has established the united order. He established it among the people of Enoch.”2

Zion As Described in 4 Nephi

The remarkable community of Zion described in 4 Nephi was established on the American continent sometime between the 34th and 36th years after the birth of our Lord.3 Discipleship in Christ was the foundation of that community. All social progress and goodness centered in Jesus Christ, whose visitation to America after His Resurrection established an age of righteousness lasting about 165 years. Every individual was wholly converted to the Savior—to His ideas and exemplary behavior (see 4 Ne. 1:2). This conversion changed the inner person through repentance (see 4 Ne. 1:1). Every person was thus prepared to participate in the life-giving and renewing ordinances available through the Melchizedek Priesthood, especially the gift of the Holy Ghost (see v. 1).

A natural by-product of the constant influence and power of the Holy Ghost prevalent among the citizens of this society was the desire on the part of all the people to deal justly and fairly with each other. Therefore, the people had all things in common and all acts conformed to the pattern of the Savior’s life. In sum, complete conversion to the Lord eliminated contention, produced unselfish self-regulation, and resulted in economic and political equality and freedom.

The scriptural phrase “had all things common” is used to characterize those who lived the law of consecration (see Acts 2:44; Acts 4:32; 3 Ne. 26:19; 4 Ne. 1:3). Yet such a system was not a type of “Christian Communism.”4 Every covenant member of this order held some private property and had access to consecrated surpluses according to justified “wants” and “needs” (see D&C 82:17–18).

A striking feature of Mormon’s description of Zion in 4 Nephi is the total lack of contention in the land, which he mentions no less than four times (see 4 Ne. 1:2, 13, 15, 18). This surely must have been due to the complete unity of a civilization in which there were neither Nephites, Lamanites, nor any manner of -ites, but all were one in Christ (see 4 Ne. 1:17) because the love of God dwelt in their hearts (see 4 Ne. 1:15).

Mormon was something of an expert on contention or civil strife, having read much about it in the records of Alma, Helaman, and Nephi, and having experienced it firsthand during his lifetime. The complete harmony and total unity of the people living in the society which had witnessed the Savior’s visitation surely must have been a stunning development in Mormon’s panoramic view of Nephite history.

The civil structure described in 4 Nephi displayed a total absence of destructive or divisive elements, including poverty, selfishness, and social Darwinism (survival of the fittest). This resulted in a kind of classlessness, eliminated crime, and allowed society’s resources to be applied to and focused on urban renewal:

“And the Lord did prosper them exceedingly in the land; yea, insomuch that they did build cities again where there had been cities burned.

“Yea, even that great city Zarahemla did they cause to be built again. …

“And there were no envyings, nor strifes, nor tumults, nor whoredoms, nor lyings, nor murders, nor any manner of lasciviousness; and surely there could not be a happier people among all the people who had been created by the hand of God.

“There were no robbers, nor murderers, neither were there Lamanites, nor any manner of -ites; but they were in one, the children of Christ, and heirs to the kingdom of God” (4 Ne. 1:7–8, 16–17).

Only true conversion to Christ and strict adherence to His example and teachings can bring significant and lasting renewal and reconstruction to a people. Only true conversion to Christ can do more than offer mere stop-gap measures to solve problems. President Ezra Taft Benson said:

“The Lord works from the inside out. The world works from the outside in. The world would take people out of the slums. Christ takes the slums out of people, and then they take themselves out of the slums. The world would mold men by changing their environment. Christ changes men, who then change their environment. The world would shape human behavior, but Christ can change human nature.”5

Certainly the pattern of events described in 4 Nephi bears this out.

In addition to socioeconomic reform, civic rejuvenation, and urban renewal, the people of Nephi enjoyed increased health, strength, and vigor: “And now, behold, it came to pass that the people of Nephi did wax strong, and did multiply exceedingly fast, and became an exceedingly fair and delightsome people” (4 Ne. 1:10).

In the Christ-centered society of 4 Nephi, the people also witnessed a rich and astounding outpouring of miracles, including those which symbolized the mortal Messiah’s absolute power over life and death: raising the dead. And, indicative of the Christ-centered nature of this religious society, we are told that no miracles were done “save it were in the name of Jesus” (4 Ne. 1:5).

The covenant community of Zion described in 4 Nephi was a literal fulfillment of the much-repeated prophetic teaching throughout the Book of Mormon that if people would keep God’s commandments they would prosper in the land, seemingly in all ways. As Mormon says of the people living during the post-Resurrection era of 4 Nephi, “The Lord did bless them in all their doings” (4 Ne. 1:18).


What happened to the people of 4 Nephi? Defection from, and rebellion against, the celestial order of civilization did not happen all at once. The power and influence of the Savior’s literal, physical presence among the Nephites was so strong that they lived the principles of Zion well into the second generation after Christ’s visit. But sometime before A.D. 194 (see 4 Ne. 1:21), social and religious divisions drew away part of the people. Even though at first it was only a small percentage of the population, its seriousness should not be underestimated. Mormon clearly pointed out its cause: conscious rebellion. “The people … had revolted from the church and taken upon them the name of Lamanites; therefore there began to be Lamanites again in the land” (4 Ne. 1:20; emphasis added).

The word apostasy comes from the Greek term apostasia and means literally “to stand apart from,” “to rebel,” or “to revolt.” This is the kind of apostasy witnessed in New Testament times which occurred years after the Savior’s post-Resurrection visit with disciples of the early Church in the Old World.

The Apostle Paul’s Old World prophecy of the Great Apostasy beginning in the middle of the first century A.D. helps us understand what happened to the people of 4 Nephi:

“For I know this, that after my departing shall grievous wolves enter in among you, not sparing the flock.

“Also of your own selves shall men arise, speaking perverse things, to draw away disciples after them” (Acts 20:29–30).

Here one immediately associates these predicted apostates with the aims and goals of priestcraft as described in 2 Nephi 26:29: “Priestcrafts are that men preach and set themselves up for a light unto the world, that they may get gain and praise of the world; but they seek not the welfare of Zion.”

As it was in the Old World, so it went in the New World. Priestcraft did reappear, as Mormon makes clear: “Nevertheless, the people did harden their hearts, for they were led by many priests and false prophets to build up many churches, and to do all manner of iniquity. And they did smite upon the people of Jesus; but the people of Jesus did not smite again. And thus they did dwindle in unbelief and wickedness, from year to year, even until two hundred and thirty years had passed away” (4 Ne. 1:34).

Mormon links apostasy and priestcraft with two other evils profoundly detrimental to maintaining a pure society. These are pride and social stratification, which began to appear in A.D. 201, less than a decade after the initial cracks in society were first noted by Mormon. The prosperity of the people of Nephi, owing to their faith in Christ, had eventually produced exceeding wealth among the populace. Unfortunately, this in turn led to pride and materialism when the people forgot the source of their strength. The result is made crystal clear, thanks to Mormon’s succinct editing: “And from that time forth they did have their goods and their substance no more common among them” (4 Ne. 1:25).

Here the insidious nature of pride is laid bare, and its destructive effects on Zion are seen in an unmistakable way. Pride destroys unity and promotes selfishness. “Pride gets no pleasure out of having something, only out of having more of it than the next man.”6 Pride seeks to create divisions among people purely for the sake of self-interest, that some may place themselves above others and exploit them. President Ezra Taft Benson stated: “It was essentially the sin of pride that kept us from establishing Zion in the days of the Prophet Joseph Smith. It was the same sin of pride that brought consecration to an end among the Nephites.

“Pride is the great stumbling block to Zion.”7

There can be no misunderstanding: pride was the root cause of social stratification among the people of 4 Nephi. The book of Helaman describes this process, which was also seen in an earlier period of Nephite history: “For behold, the Lord had blessed them so long with the riches of the world that they had not been stirred up to anger, to wars, nor to bloodshed; therefore they began to set their hearts upon their riches; yea, they began to seek to get gain that they might be lifted up one above another” (Hel. 6:17).

Mormon is also quick to implicate social stratification as a goal of priestcraft: “And they began to be divided into classes; and they began to build up churches unto themselves to get gain, and began to deny the true church of Christ” (4 Ne. 1:26).

Greater and greater dissent from the true Church resulted in the desecration of sacred things, especially the ordinances of salvation (see 4 Ne. 1:27). By A.D. 211 this provided Satan with the chance to get greater hold on the hearts of the people (see 4 Ne. 1:28). The true followers of Christ suffered increasing opposition, which led to persecution (see 4 Ne. 1:29–33). And those in open rebellion against God “were taught to hate the children of God” (4 Ne. 1:39).

From this point on, Mormon’s inspired abridgment portrays a dismal picture. The downward slide of this civilization began to pick up momentum. The division of society into classes resulted in irreparable tears in the social fabric. In A.D. 231 there appeared what Mormon calls the “great division among the people” (4 Ne. 1:35). We might refer to this as the “-ite” phase of New World apostasy, with the Nephites, Jacobites, Josephites, and Zoramites, on the one hand, still preserving the true worship of Christ, and, on the other hand, the Lamanites, Lemuelites, and Ishmaelites “willfully rebel[ling] against the gospel of Christ” (4 Ne. 1:38).

The eventual result of the rebellion which Satan was able to instigate among the people of this once pure and idyllic society was the formation of secret combinations: “The wicked part of the people began again to build up the secret oaths and combinations of Gadianton” (4 Ne. 1:42). Mormon had earlier prophesied that these secret combinations would prove to be the overthrow and entire destruction of the Nephite people (see Hel. 2:13). Three hundred years after Christ’s coming, Satan’s power grew in such strength and came to dominate the population so completely that “both the people of Nephi and the Lamanites [became] exceedingly wicked one like unto another” (4 Ne. 1:45).

Viewing the collapse of this celestial society from Mormon’s inspired and panoramic perspective, we are able to see that the decline was progressive. It happened a step at a time, with each successive step further destroying the purity, unity, and equality of the people. This panoramic perspective of the destruction of Zion in America validates and demonstrates the great truth declared by the prophet Nephi at the beginning of the Book of Mormon:

“For behold, at that day shall [Satan] rage in the hearts of the children of men, and stir them up to anger against that which is good.

“And others will he pacify, and lull them away into carnal security, that they will say: All is well in Zion; yea, Zion prospereth, all is well—and thus the devil cheateth their souls, and leadeth them away carefully down to hell” (2 Ne. 28:20–21).

Likening 4 Nephi to Ourselves

The Saints of this last dispensation can learn much from the description of Zion in 4 Nephi. It is the greatest and most detailed scriptural model of those conditions that must exist in order for Zion to be established. Sadly, it also presents the fundamental pattern of apostasy and serves as the quintessential model of events that bring about the dissolution of Zion. Thus, 4 Nephi is of tremendous value. As the first Nephi said long ago, if we will “liken all scriptures” unto ourselves and our circumstances, it will “be for our profit and learning” (1 Ne. 19:23).

Without question, Satan was at the very heart of all that destroyed the Nephite society. He inspired the hearts of wicked people to combine against righteousness, and he concocted and administered the oaths and covenants of his kingdom of darkness (see Hel. 6:26). However, Satan could not have made any inroads among the people of 4 Nephi without initial overtures from the people themselves. The Prophet Joseph Smith taught that “the moment we revolt at anything which comes from God, the devil takes power.”8 The people of 4 Nephi were guilty of this revolt, or rebellion; they consciously rejected light and truth. But it need not have happened. It was not inevitable. The Prophet Joseph further noted, “All men have power to resist the devil.”9 Once the people of 4 Nephi rebelled and Satan took power, the chillingly prophetic words of Mormon were fulfilled:

“And thus we can plainly discern, that after a people have been once enlightened by the Spirit of God, and have had great knowledge of things pertaining to righteousness, and then have fallen away into sin and transgression, they become more hardened, and thus their state becomes worse than though they had never known these things” (Alma 24:30).

In these last days, the Lord has taught us concerning the benefits deriving from the establishment of Zion. However, the scriptures teach that Zion can be built only by following the principles described in 4 Nephi and by making conscious correct choices every day. President Spencer W. Kimball said that “creating Zion commences in the heart of each person.”10 He further noted:

“Zion can be built up only among those who are the pure in heart—not a people torn by covetousness or greed, but a pure and selfless people, not a people who are pure in appearance, rather a people who are pure in heart. Zion is to be in the world and not of the world, not dulled by a sense of carnal security, nor paralyzed by materialism. …

“… We must sacrifice whatever is required by the Lord. We begin by offering a ‘broken heart and a contrite spirit.’ We follow this by giving our best effort in our assigned fields of labor and in our callings. We learn our duty and execute it fully. Finally we consecrate our time, talents, and means as called upon by our file leaders and as prompted by the whisperings of the Spirit.”11

The Lord has given us the scriptures as a blueprint to show us how to be a Zion people. If we study and live the principles given in 4 Nephi, we will enjoy happiness and avoid the tragic mistakes its people made.

Scripture Study, by Del Parson

Jesus Christ Visits the Americas, by John Scott

Below: Illustrated by Paul Mann; Right: Detail from Lehi’s Dream, by Greg K. Olsen

The Return, by David Hoeft

Photo by Steve Bunderson

Show References


  1. 1.

    Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith, sel. Joseph Fielding Smith (1976), 160.

  2. 2.

    “The Purpose of Church Welfare Services,” Ensign, May 1977, 92.

  3. 3.

    The commonly accepted dates of A.D. 34 and 36 that are associated with the beginning of 4 Nephi rest on the Book of Mormon dating of Christ’s birth as being 1 B.C.

  4. 4.

    The Doctrine and Covenants Student Manual (Church Educational System manual, 1981), 425.

  5. 5.

    “Born of God,” Ensign, Nov. 1985, 6.

  6. 6.

    Ezra Taft Benson, “Cleansing the Inner Vessel,” Ensign, May 1986, 7.

  7. 7.

    “Beware of Pride,” Ensign, May 1989, 4.

  8. 8.

    Teachings, 181.

  9. 9.

    Teachings, 189.

  10. 10.

    “Becoming the Pure in Heart,” Ensign, Mar. 1985, 4.

  11. 11.

    Ensign, Mar. 1985, 4–5.

  • Andrew C. Skinner is chair of the Department of Ancient Scripture at Brigham Young University.