In the early days of the LDS Church, converts all over the world were commanded to gather in one place with all other Latter-day Saints. The appointed gathering place moved from Missouri to Illinois and finally to Utah. According to Brigham Young, the purpose of the gathering was
“…for the express purpose of purifying ourselves, that we may become polished stones in the temple of God…We are here for the purpose of establishing the kingdom of God on earth. To be prepared for this work it has been necessary to gather us out from the nations and countries of the world, for if we had remained on those lands we could not have received the ordinances of the Holy Priesthood of the Son of God, which are necessary for the perfection of the Saints preparatory to His coming…
This work the Lord commenced over thirty years ago, and it is still progressing; the call is still to His people among the nations of the earth—Gather out of her my people, be not partakers of her sins lest ye receive her plagues. When the righteous are thus gathered they will then be prepared for the coming of the Messiah.” (Brigham Young, February 16, 1868, Journal of Discourses 12:161-163)
In those days, the physical gathering of the Saints was imperative:
“In this dispensation there is a principle or commandment peculiar to it. What is that? It is the gathering the people into one place. The gathering of the people is as necessary to be observed by believers, as faith, repentance, baptism, or any other ordinance. It is an essential part of the Gospel of this dispensation, as much so, as the necessity of building an ark by Noah, for his deliverance, was a part of the Gospel of his dispensation. Then the world was destroyed by a flood, now it is to be destroyed by war, pestilence, famine, earthquakes, storms, and tempests, the sea rolling beyond its bounds, malarious vapors, vermin, disease, and fire by the lightnings of God’s wrath poured out for destruction upon Babylon.” (Joseph F. Smith, September 3o, 1877, Journal of Discourses 19:192)
The commandment to gather caused 85,000 Latter-day Saint converts from all over Europe to immigrate to North America between 1840 and 1890. But by the turn of the 20th century the idea of physical gathering began to shift. Over time, without express orders from their ecclesiastical leaders, the emigration of Saints from their native lands slowed to a trickle. Eventually, in 1972 Bruce McConkie announced at an Area Conference,
“’The place of gathering for the Mexican Saints is in Mexico; the place of gathering for the Guatemalan Saints is in Guatemala; the place of gathering for the Brazilian Saints is in Brazil; and so it goes throughout the length and breadth of the whole earth. … Every nation is the gathering place for its own people.’ (Mexico and Central America Area Conference, 26 Aug. 1972, p. 45.)” (quoted in Ensign, November 1992, pages 71 ff)
At the following April General Conference President Harold B. Lee confirmed the Church policy as announced by Bruce McConkie. Since then the commandment to gather has been formally understood to be a spiritual gathering, not a physical one.
But as demonstrated, the early Latter-day Saints were required to gather or immigrate to Zion (i.e., Missouri, Illinois, or Utah); obedience to this call was as necessary for each individual as was faith, repentance and baptism. Indeed, if they had heard Joseph F. Smith’s preaching on the subject, they must have feared for their lives and greatly lamented any delay interfering with their trip to America. Very serious business.
Given that history, isn’t it funny that the First Presidency Message in the October 2008 Ensign said this:
“Why did so many faithful members leave their home countries in those early days of the Church? Many reasons can be named: to escape persecution, to help build the Church in America, to improve their economic circumstances, to be close to a temple, and many more” (Dieter F. Uchtdorf, page 7).
I would suppose that a lot of different things played motivating roles in the decisions of each of these 85,000 emigrants, but doesn’t it seem that the first and foremost driving reason would have been their desire to obey the commandments of their new religion? If immigrating to Zion was as important to their spiritual lives as was baptism into the “one true church,” isn’t it odd that President Uchtdorf didn’t even mention it?
And isn’t it interesting that this imperative command to physically gather the Latter-day Saints to Zion was slowly and quietly changed to mean a spiritual gathering of believers into the LDS Church, as if it were merely a shift in policy?