The Tenacity of Premortal Folklore

I’ve been grateful to see how assiduously many of us resist the temptation to countenance the morally bankrupt pseudo-Christian folklore of racial distinction. As I wandered through a publication from a recent BYU/CES symposium, though, I was struck by a section heading: “Foreordained Roles, A Reward for Premortal Diligence.” The essay, a presentation on the doctrine of human preexistence, nowhere provides any evidence for the claim of the second clause in its analysis of the premortal calling of particular prophetic figures. The line just hangs there like an awkward odor at a dinner table. Should we protest that connection back to hurtful folklore? Or is it someone merely seeking language for the notion of prophetic foreordination? Does prophetic foreordination entail the reverse, premortal curses, or are curses other than blessings withheld? How does such a doctrine square with what I have understood to be our belief that we are all created with equal chance of being exalted and equal love from God at our inception?

Comments

  1. a random John says:

    Sam,

    How does such a doctrine square with what I have understood to be our belief that we are all created with equal chance of being exalted and equal love from God at our inception?

    What does “equal chance” mean? At what point in our progression have we affected our chances?

    I wonder if you are throwing out the baby with the bathwater on this one. The bathwater is the idea that one could classify large segements of the population as having been less valiant because of some aspect of their mortal condition. The baby would be the idea that we had a meaningful premortal experiences that shape us as individuals.

  2. Julie M. Smith says:

    If the talk (which I couldn’t google–do you have a link?) said anything about race, then it was reprehensible.

    But if it didn’t, then the title seems easily in line with Abraham 3:22-23, although “reward” is not a word I am crazy about. Consequence or result would have been nicer, and the article should have focused on responsibility and gratitude, not crowing.

  3. Since when in this world do any of us actually get an equal chance? Why did I deserve to be born to an abusive father? Here I am now one of the “elect” on this earth, a member of the church. I’m not on equal footing with many others right from the get go because I was abused, which did some serious damage. Did I deserve that abuse? Of course not. But that’s how the world operates.

    I’m with you that WHERE and WHEN we are/were born here on this earth does not have something to do with our “diligence” in the pre-mortal life, and that we don’t “deserve” the punishment we receive in this life because of something we did or didn’t do in the pre-mortal life. But we’re also NOT born here on equal footing, and life really is unfair and unjust.

  4. Kevin Barney says:

    The Preexistence is a great doctrine, and one of the things I love about Mormon thought. But it is easily subject to abuse. We have a tendency to want to ply it to solve all sorts of problems of seemingly unjust differentiation in this life. Superficially, an appeal to the Pre-existence seems to resolve the difficulty by showing that God wasn’t arbitrary in placing people in different circumstances in this life (whatever those may be and whatever topic we are applying the Pre-existence to). But if we dig just a little deeper, these appeals are almost always problematic. The folklore of blacks not being valiant is just the most well known and egregious example.

    I think we need to resist the impulse to pull out the Pre-existence as a [thoughtless] theological deus ex machina.

  5. Steve Evans says:

    Agreed, Kevin. It’s interesting, isn’t it, how those doctrines of the Restoration that have the most interest and the most potential to expand our minds and understanding also seem prone to the most horrible abuses.

  6. #1 it’s that fine line between “shape us” and constrain our agency or reify hierarchies that don’t warrant it.
    #2 no, nothing about race, just that seemingly innocent clause after prophetic foreordination. it’s a sidney sperry symposium from the last decade.
    #3 note i suggested equal chance for exaltation. the implication of the prophetic foreordination doctrine is that starting out certain people have differential access to God’s grace/exaltation. I’m resisting that implication. Those of us with sad or twisted or dangerous fathers ought not to believe that this was a punishment for premortal decisions, which would make it just. i agree with you, it is UNJUST.
    #4/5, I’m with you. I love the doctrine, but not the importation of Kipling stories attempting to reverse engineer a theodicy.

  7. #4 & #5 are spot on.

  8. Good (albeit uncomfortable) point Sam. There is a tendency in the church to hint at a sort of karma causing the circumstances of our births as a result of premortal choices. But as Kevin noted, this idea creates as many problems as it solves. Using it to talk about “royal generations” and whatnot can be fun but then we have to try to ignore the implications such ideas have regarding the poor in Bangladesh or wherever.

  9. When I was in the MTC, My MTC branch president quoted BRM along the lines that sometimes people were placed in situations due to pre-existant needs, sometimes because they were supposed to have certain parents, and sometimes other.

    Anyone know where he would have gotten that quote?

    What I like about this is that it illustrates the problem that making a blanket statement is a mistake, in that there could be a variety of different reasons depending on the individual and the situation.

    Personally I believe that atleast all men were born “foreordained” to the pristhood.

  10. I’m a convert and not as familiar with all the premortal lore out their, but it seems to me, that there’s a lot of angst over what other church members think of us.
    What happened to praying about something and finding out for yourself if it’s true? If you haven’t had the spirit confirm to you it’s true, i wouldn’t give it much more thought….
    And as far as whether our valiance in the pre-existance effected when and where we were born on earth… Can’t it be both? Maybe for some it did and maybe for some it didn’t?
    I suspect we can’t know everything…. or is that too humble for this crowd???
    If an arguement can be made that a person was born into a bad situation because he was not valiant in the premortal life, couldn’t the opposite arguement also be made? A person was so valant he chose to be in a bad situation, because they knew they would come out of it through Christ??? Now, i’m not saying that’s the case? But i’ve had a patriaracel blessing that tells me I did choose the family i would be born to? And it wasn’t an ideal one, and yes abuse happened…. of course, at the end of the day, which ever way you want to look at it, negatively or positively, in the end, it requires faith…
    Then again, if you’re trying to eliminate the need for faith in our Savior, then that’s something entirely different.
    Don’t sweat the small stuff… Who cares what people think of how valant you were before you were born, better to concearn your self with how valent you are now and what your father in heaven thinks of you am I right?

  11. My problem with this alleged “placing” by God of people into mortality — as if life was “The Match” — is that it would seem to have rather scary implications for free will. Also, with God micro-managing conception so that spirit X can be born to white American Mormon family y, one can only feel sorry for the unhappy brute who was born into brown Darfurian family z. The only way of salvaging this situation is to then imagine we somehow deserve our lot, which brings us back to Sam’s original problem. Yuck.

  12. The alternative to people’s placement on earth being determined by their diligence is that their placement is determined either what’s best for their own spiritual salvation, or what is best for the good of the whole of humanity. That opens up a whole ‘nother can of worms, but I think we should recognize that premortal actions are not the only possible determinant for placement here.

    I’d also point out that another reason for inequality in spirituality might have to do not with behavior in pre-mortal life, but in inherently inequal natures – if we are made from pre-existing “intelligences”, then there is the possibility that God was working with different materials for each person.

  13. Alma 13 addresses many of these questions:

    2 And those priests were ordained after the order of his Son, in a manner that thereby the people might know in what manner to look forward to his Son for redemption.

    3 And this is the manner after which they were ordained—being called and prepared from the foundation of the world according to the foreknowledge of God, on account of their exceeding faith and good works; in the first place being left to choose good or evil; therefore they having chosen good, and exercising exceedingly great faith, are called with a holy calling, yea, with that holy calling which was prepared with, and according to, a preparatory redemption for such.

    4 And thus they have been called to this holy calling on account of their faith, while others would reject the Spirit of God on account of the hardness of their hearts and blindness of their minds, while, if it had not been for this they might have had as great privilege as their brethren.

    5 Or in fine, in the first place they were on the same standing with their brethren; thus this holy calling being prepared from the foundation of the world for such as would not harden their hearts, being in and through the atonement of the Only Begotten Son, who was prepared—

  14. Matt W.,
    If you look in the 1954 ed (?) of Mormon Doctrine, you will find it under the entrie on castes (and in similar entries).

    I don’t mind the doctrine in abstract, but I have only ever heard it put to bad use in specifics (either those people deserve their lousy place or we deserve our special place).

  15. So, Alma 13 seems to be saying something very interesting — they were given their place according to diligence — but as far as I can tell, not because of their behavior in the preexistence, but because of their good behavior in the mortal life, “according to the foreknowledge of God” before they actually had lived it!

    That certainly puts a different spin on things. Rewarded for something they hadn’t done yet . . .

  16. Luwanna,
    You make an excellent point; “A person was so valiant he chose to be in a bad situation…” Sure a person like Jesus Christ who was crucified or Joseph Smith who was persecuted before being jailed and shot to death by a mob for example.

    Many valiant spirits volunteered for hazardous duty in this life. As a convert and being born into abuse, you may well be one of them! I read something recently by an LDS psychotherapist who has had many of these patients. He reported that they are often “saviors” for their families. Through their sacrifice and growth the cycle of abuse often stopped and was replaced by the gospel, providing opportunity to their children that their parents never had.

  17. This is another case where I would prefer to stick to what we accept as canonized revelation (understanding even that is given “in their language to their understanding”) and leave the speculation alone – lest we end up in BRM’s shoes saying, “Ignore everything we’ve ever said about this subject.”

  18. Ray,
    What is the canonized revelation?

  19. John C.:

    The 1979 edition carries no such entry under Caste System. It only has pernicious false doctrine which BRM himself later clearly rejected but unfortunately never got edited out. Even the entry under pre-existence does not say what I am attributing to BRM above. It could be I am incorrect and BRM never said such, but I’d love to find it IF he did say such. I think he was talking specifically in regards to handicapped, or at least my branch president was using it in that light…

  20. Howard re: 13, that’s a wonderful text to bring into the conversation. It’s fairly ambiguous, though. The preexistence doctrine is a fascinating one. Blake Ostler has written about it in Dialogue, though there is more of the story to be told. There is a clear creep from Christ’s preexistence (which was widely advertised in antebellum evangelical sources, recognizing that it was an old bone of contention among various Christian groups) to possible preexistence for the mightiest prophets, to preexistence for all. The Alma passage, though, seems to suggest that priestly callings were mortal rewards for diligence, that all were slated to receive such glory, but only those who held firm through mortality were able to participate in a structure designed from the beginning of the world.

    I can see how the scripture would be used in defense of the theology of contingent mortality, and I don’t think it’s absurd prooftexting, but a) that is not how it was understood initially by early LDS, and b) the text itself appears ambiguous on this point.

  21. Matt W.,
    It is in the 1st edition. I am not surprised that it didn’t make it to later editions.

  22. #18 – Sorry; meant to type “canonized revelation in scripture” instead of just revelation.

  23. Howard,
    “You make an excellent point; “A person was so valiant he chose to be in a bad situation…” Sure a person like Jesus Christ who was crucified or Joseph Smith who was persecuted before being jailed and shot to death by a mob for example.”
    But can you show any indication that JS knew that would be his plight before he was born? We know prophets are foreordained, but the rest of his life? I think you cannot. Furthermore, if people volunteered to be in abusive situations, then did someone volunteer to be the abuser? From what you say it appears that it would work something like this:
    1. Everyone would know in the preexistence that they would be born into certain families (kind of like Saturday’s Warrior?), some would be abusive, some would not.
    2. Some people would volunteer to go to the bad homes.
    3. It is only logical then that potentially abusive people knew that they would go down to earth and be abusive.
    4. Lucky for them they would be saved by a child.
    5. How then would anyone be judged for their decisions, if it is supposed to happen? No one can sign up for hazardous duty unless everyone knew it would be?
    “I read something recently by an LDS psychotherapist who has had many of these patients. He reported that they are often “saviors” for their families.”

    Did the psychotherapist recognize, as you seem not to, that this is not a healthy role to play? It is the construct of being in a severely dysfunctional home. Trying to be a savior is a symptom of codependency and is psychologically, emotionally, and spiritually unhealthy. That does not mean to be someone cannot be a good influence and example and lend a hand—but a savior? I draw the line.

    “Through their sacrifice and growth the cycle of abuse often stopped and was replaced by the gospel, providing opportunity to their children that their parents never had.”
    This makes total sense, but can’t that happen anyway through faith in the atonement and hard work without predestination for a crappy family situation?
    Clearly these are some of the problems that arise by accepting hookline and sinker premortal folklore.

  24. John C., can you hook me up?

  25. Can’t today. I’ll be at the Y tomorrow and I could look it up then if you like.

  26. Legitimizing power with unfalsifiable knowledge claims such as preordination can be dangerous because it denies subjects the right to resist unjust domination (see The Open Society and Its Enemies by Karl Popper).

    Fortunately, that does not seem to be a big problem in Mormonism. I have never heard anyone demand obedience because they were preordained. I know, however, several Mormons who perceive themselves as less deserving because their families were not among the early general authorities.

    My hunch is that it might be best to remove the Book of Abraham from the canon. In the past, it has been the foundation of racist and anti-evolution theology. The English text does not reflect the meaning of the Egyptian facsimiles anyways, which justifies removal.

  27. “I have never heard anyone demand obedience because they were preordained.”

    But isn’t it like Lord of the Rings? “If you do not find a way, no one will?” :)

  28. mmiles,
    “…can you show any indication that JS knew that would be his plight before he was born?”

    No, as smb points out “There is a clear creep from Christ’s preexistence…to possible preexistence for the mightiest prophets, to preexistence for all.”

    Christ IS our model. Christ knew. JS is not far removed from Christ.

    “…then did someone volunteer to be the abuser?”
    I’m not making or implying this assertion.

    “Everyone would know in the preexistence that they would be born into certain families (kind of like Saturday’s Warrior?), some would be abusive, some would not.”

    Luwanna wrote that she had a patriaracel blessing saying that she choose the family she would be born to. I’m not addressing “everyone”.

    “Did the psychotherapist recognize, as you seem not to, that this is not a healthy role to play?”

    mmiles, the “role” had been underway for most of the patients lives before they ever sought therapy. The psychotherapist was NOT encouraging unhealthy behavior.

  29. This is a question that I think is way to complex to sum up with one argument. Is it possible that some of us chose our families? I believe we did. I also believe that we weren’t much different than we are now. We had agency to make decisions that would affect our eternal salvation. Does that include the decision of where we would be placed on earth and our situations? We know that we were forordained to certain things, but again, when we get here we still have a choice. And who says that choosing a “bad” situation was a curse or a blessing? Depending on how we respond to challenges determines whether it is or not. I count many of the most difficult times in my life as my greatest blessings. And if we were given the choice, not everyone would make wise choices. Some would choose to go with the ones they loved regardless of thier skills, faithfullness, etc. Others would carefully choose and seek divine counsel. Just like the wife who refuses to leave her abusive husband or the person who has every chance to escape from poverty and refuses. I tend to believe that we had a choice rather than the idea that there was a judgement placed on us when we came to earth. How would this life be a true test of our faith if we were placed on uneven ground?

  30. Hellmut, take it up with the FP and the 12. *no grin*

  31. Walch, think through that with regard to those who die of AIDS after living 15 years or so of horrible pain and suffering through no fault of their own. Whether it is true or not, it smacks of the condescension of the blessed.

  32. Ronan: My problem with this alleged “placing” by God of people into mortality — as if life was “The Match” — is that it would seem to have rather scary implications for free will.

    I’m not sure what the alternative would be Ronan. If our spirits (and presumably our minds/personal identities) did exist before we arrived here then what other options are there? Are you saying there were no divine decisions involved in the circumstances of our births? I don’t think that is really viably in play in Mormon theology.

    I obviously agree that there are uncomfortable implications when we compare upper middle class white folk with people in Darfur. I think the Mormon problem is that we are one foot in the karma camp and one foot out when it comes to our lots in life regarding birth circumstances. One solution that you know I’ve discussed is to jump all the way in like Heber C. Kimball and friends did and assume full fledged multiple probations over the eternities. Are there other good solutions you know of?

  33. Ray: I see what you mean. As I said, it tends to get complicated. We are dealing not only with our own choices, but the choices of billions of others. The depth of our pain is only understood by Christ through his atonement. In the end it will have less to do with what we had here and more to do with what we did with it and I wouldn’t dare to begin to make that kind of judgement.

  34. #32

    I’ve not heard of the idea of multiple full-fledged probations before. Do you have a reference for further reading/investigation (it is an interesting idea)?

  35. AC — It has been discussed/debated at some length here.

  36. Geoff: Are you saying there were no divine decisions involved in the circumstances of our births?

    In all but the most extreme circumstances (e.g. Jesus), yes.

  37. John C. You can send it to me at lmwitten at prodigy dot net

    That would be awesome. I’ve been looking for that for a while…

  38. Ronan’s right, you know.

  39. Matt,
    here are the three most pertinent passages (it’s the 1958 edition (there is no 1954 one)).

    From “Caste System,” pp. 107-108

    However, in a broad general sense, caste systems have their root and origin in the gospel itself, and when they operate according to the divine decree, the resultant restrictions and segregation are right and proper and have the approval of the Lord. To illustrate: Cain, Ham, and the whole negro race have been cursed with a black skin, the mark of Cain, so they can be identified as a caste apart, a people with whom the other descendants of Adam should not intermarry….
    All this is not to say that any race, creed, or caste should be denied any inalienable rights. But it is to say that Deity in his infinite wisdom, to carry out his inscrutable purposes, has a caste system of his own, a system of segregation of races and peoples. The justice of such a system is evident when life is considered in its true eternal perspective. It is only by a knowledge of pre-existence that it can be known why some persons are born in one race or caste and some in another.

    Also the following from the entry on “Negroes,” pp.476-477:

    In the pre-existent eternity various degrees of valiance and devotion to the truth were exhibited by different groups of our Father’s spirit offspring…
    Of the two-thirds who followed Christ, however, some were more valiant than others. Adam and all the prophets so distinguished themselves by diligence and obedience as to be foreordained to their high earthly missions…The whole house of Israel was chosen in pre-existence to come to mortality as children of Jacob…Those who were less valiant in pre-existence and who thereby had certain spiritual restrictions imposed upon them during moreality are known to us as the negroes

    and finally, from the entry on “Races of Men,” p. 554:

    If we had a full and true history of all races and nations, we would know the origins of all their distinctive characteristics. In the absence of such detailed information, however, we know only the general principle that all these changes from teh physical and spiritual perfections of our common parents have been brough about by apostasy from the gospel truths…
    The race and nation in which men are born in this world is a direct result of their pre-existent life.”

    Checking the 1966 edition, in which the Caste System entry is identical (at least in those sections, pp. 114-115); this section of the Negroes section is identical (pp. 526-527); and this section of the Races of Men entry is identical (p. 616). I don’t have a 1978 version handy to check it. Anyhoo, these are the kinds of doctrines that this idea has tended to produce when asked to get specific, in my experience.

  40. I realize that my comments are late to this discussion, but this particular issue caused me countless days of reading, research and prayer, so I offer some of what I have discovered and believe to be true if it can help someone else. If it doesn’t, that’s ok too. If anyone wants clarity or sources, feel free to just ask.

    Please note that nothing that I believe or share below is directed towards, or has anything to do with, racial distinctions.

    All Spirits are/were not equal- McConkie, Talmage, Monson, Ludlow and many others all agree that men (and women) are NOT born into this world with equal talents, abilities, potentials etc. In his book “Charter of Liberty-The Inspired Origin and Prophetic Destiny of the Constitution author William O. Nelson says “In Latter-day Saint theology, there never was, there is not now, nor will there ever be equality of intelligence” and adds the footnote that “ President J. Reuben Clark, Jr., called this principle “spiritual relativity.” He explained: “We were not all equal at the beginning; we were not all equal at the Grand Council; we have never been all equal at any time since, and apparently we never shall be.” (Conference Report, October 1956, p. 84.)

    I do not believe that the fact that our spirits are unequal affects God’s ability to love us all equally or to offer every spirit an equal chance at exaltation. (see Fair and Just below)

    I have not come upon anything in LDS sources (so far) that states that spirits are in fact equal-but I am open to anything that someone else may have found.

    Placement on earth- Talmage says “from among the hosts of His un-embodied children God chose for special service on earth such as were best suited to the accomplishment of His purposes.”
    (Vitality of Mormonism) In Encyclopedia of Mormonism under Foreordination : “Latter-day Saints further believe that the times, places, and circumstances of birth into mortality may be the outcome of former covenants and decisions as well as that which would be best, in divine wisdom, to provide both opportunities and challenges for the individual’s growth and development. Additionally, foreordination may also be based on God’s own purposes and plans to bless all of his children. The specifics of these factors remain unclear. As a result, a person’s premortal character can never be judged by his or her present station in life.”

    Different tests/trials are the only fairness- In my opinion; it would be unfair to require unequal spirits to endure equal mortal trials or testing. Since I don’t remember what my premortal strengths or weaknesses were, I have to trust that the God who knows me better than I know myself, also knows exactly which situations and circumstances I need to experience here in order to obtain His fullest blessings for me. That is a major part of my personal definition of faith.

    Fair and Just: The scriptures, curriculum and doctrine of the LDS Church agree that every person who has ever lived on earth will get an equal chance to hear the gospel and either accept or reject it. Every person who chooses to accept it, repent of their sins and obey the commandments of God will obtain every blessing they qualify for, up to and including exaltation. Every person who does not accept it at all, or accepts that it is true and that Christ is the Savior (every knee will bow) but refuses to repent or obey the law of God will be restricted (the Latin word from which damnation is derived means “loss” or “injury” of something that should have been possessed) in how far they can progress and how much glory they can inherit. In light of this I believe that the Father’s plan is perfectly fair.

    The scriptures and doctrine also agree that all sins, except for murder and sin against the Holy Ghost, that are genuinely repented for will be forgiven by Christ who paid the debt required for those sins. All who refuse to repent are required to personally pay the price for their sins. Because the price for every sin will be paid one way or the other, I also believe the Father’s plan is perfectly just.

    The doctrine/gospel of Jesus Christ and God the Father with all of its promised blessings and perfecting power encompasses not just mortality, but premortal and post-mortal life as well. I personally find it impossible to understand or resolve any one phase completely outside of its relationship to the other two, and when I focus on one phase apart from its proper context, the appearance of any unfairness or injustice is resolved again once the context is restored.

  41. Ronan-

    My problem with this alleged “placing” by God of people into mortality — as if life was “The Match” — is that it would seem to have rather scary implications for free will.

    Because I define agency as the ability to choose between obedience and liberty or sin and bondage, I’m not sure how our agency would be affected by where we are placed in life or by whom we are placed there. Would you be willing to clarify your comment for me?

    Also, with God micro-managing conception so that spirit X can be born to white American Mormon family y, one can only feel sorry for the unhappy brute who was born into brown Darfurian family z. The only way of salvaging this situation is to then imagine we somehow deserve our lot, which brings us back to Sam’s original problem. Yuck.

    FWIW, the way I approach this issue goes something like this: because I can accept the idea that my future glory and exaltation will be the result of a combination of how willing I am in mortality (or the spirit world) to accept and obey God’s laws and his eternal grace, I can also accept the idea that my mortal conditions may be the result of how willing I was to accept and obey God’s laws in the premortal sphere and his eternal grace. If God really does love each of us equally (I know he does) and is not a respecter of persons that would unfairly bless some of his children and not others (I know he is not) then the differences we see in the mortal blessings or lack of them from one person to the next simply cannot be random and must meet his eternal requirements of loving fairness and justice.

  42. Abish,

    If we are predestined to be in our families the crack whore and the guy impregnates her while cheating on his wife are merely fulfilling God’s will. If my children were destined to be mine, I had no choice but to marry my wife and all the generations before me had no choice in spouses (or non-spouses possibly) either. Divorce must be the will of God if either party later has children. We are also working against God if we: a) don’t have sex every night, and b) do anything to prevent God from sending us the children (and only the children) he wants us to have. Predestination gets messy quickly.

  43. What Kyle said.

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