The History of Pre-Heaven

Professor Terryl Givens is the James A. Bostwick Chair of English at the University of Richmond. He is the author of By the Hand of Mormon, The Viper on the Hearth, and most recently The Latter-day Saint Experience in America. We invited him to guest post regarding his latest project.

I am currently involved in a project regarding which I would be happy to have input and suggestions from a larger LDS/academic community. John Tanner and I are working on a book that will be the first to attempt a comprehensive “history of pre-heaven.” With the working title “The Life Before: Pre-mortal Existence in Western Thought,” our study will be organized chronologically and topically, yet aim at much more than a survey or catalogue. We are attempting not only to document the presence of this idea historically but to attend to its meaning for those who embrace it, the reasons for its prevalence, the literary, cultural, ideological, and theological functions that is has served, and the reasons for its demise or disappearance at various times in Western history.

We believe that even Latter-day Saints generally familiar with the concept will be surprised at the immense scope of the idea and its analogues. There are roots in Ugaritic tablets and other Semitic sources, an abundant apocryphal and pseudepigraphical tradition, and rabbinic versions. Plato’s writings on the subject are well-known, but John Locke, David Hume, and Immanuel Kant also weighed in on the subject. In the twentieth century, the British philosopher J. Ellis McTaggart emphatically asserted that “the belief in human pre-existence is a more probable doctrine than any other form of the belief in immortality.” More recently, Daniel Dennett, Thomas Nagel and Roderick Chisholm have revisited the conundrum of free will and the problem of created moral agents, with direct bearing on the matter of pre-existence. Perhaps most curiously of all, the Platonic legacy finds an echo in the work of Artificial Intelligence “extropians,” a field where pre-existence, technology, philosophy, and science fiction combine in fascinating synthesis.

In poetry, Latter-day Saints know Wordsworth’s “Ode” almost by heart, but few are as familiar with literary treatments in a tradition extending from Vergil, through Spenser and a host of 17th century Platonists, an extensive coterie of Romantic and Victorian poets, and including Robert Frost and a Nobel Prize winning Polish poet in the 20th century.

Where we also hope to go beyond conventional treatments of pre-mortality is in our examination of a variety of concepts that perform comparable intellectual work, attesting to the archetypal dilemmas and enigmas of the human condition (principally but not solely in the realm of epistemology) that have called forth the pre-existence as a solution or palliative idea–concepts such as Kant’s mental categories, Freud’s “oceanic,” Jung’s collective unconscious, Chomsky’s pre-wired mind,” and even Darwin’s principle of evolution (which Darwin explicitly identified as a counterpart to pre-existence). All these paradigms have been summoned in order to account for a human inheritance that seems to transcend the immediate and purely biological, or in order to explain elements in our human identity that seem to derive from a nebulous past, a heritage whose import and influence seem to demand expression in quasi-mythic terms. The question the book hopes to illuminate in this regard is not, is pre-mortality a truthful reflection of reality, but rather, what moral, epistemological, psychological, and cultural work does the paradigm perform? How, in other words, do they satisfy our need to explain: why there is injustice in the conditions we are born into; why we seem to know things there is no accounting for?; why we have yearnings for God, when as Augustine said, we can only seek what we have known and lost; and how to make sense out of cultural and personal affinities that we feel transcend blood and earthly association?

We would both welcome leads and criticisms.


  1. Kevin Barney says:

    A great idea for a book!

    You may find it helpful to look at a paper I wrote, entitled “On Preexistence in the Bible.” This was an apologetic piece (obviously with a narrower scope than your project), intended as a response to the Christian apologist James Patrick Holding (a pseudonym) in his book _The Mormon Defenders_.

    The website at which my article was posted is no longer up. But you can see my piece, with Holding’s interlineated comments, at the following:

    If you would like a clean copy of the paper, e-mail me at klbarney at, and I’ll see if I can find which computer I saved it on.

  2. S.P. Bailey says:

    I do hope you somehow include in your study that Ur-text of Mormon pop-culture: Saturday’s Warrior.

  3. Steve Evans says:

    I am curious as to what remains of the mormon interpretation of Abraham 3:22-23 post OD-2. Do we still believe in the mortal effects of pre-existential righteousness?

  4. Sounds like a great book, and I look forward to reading it. I don’t know how much this counts, but I thought I should mention that within linguistics (though I can’t speak for related disciplines), Chomsky is a powerful force, but his linguistics are only somewhat less debated than, say, his politics. In fact, the few LDS linguists I know (and know of) generally reject his generative linguistics programme all but entirely.

  5. S.P. Bailey says:

    Regarding No. 3: interesting Steve, particularly in light of my general sense that many patriarchal blessings touch on that (pre-mortal righteousness).

  6. Last Lemming says:

    I have occasionally pondered the possiblity of writing a paper contrasting the Mormon pre-existence with Hobbes’ state of nature and Rawls’ original position. All three purport to describe conditions under which real (in the case of Mormons) or hypothetical (in the cases of Hobbes and Rawls) pre-existent beings agree to the conditions under which they will live in the world. Because each envisions the pre-existent conditions differently, they come to different conclusions about how society should be organized now.

    But perhaps this is too far afield for you, particularly since neither author actually believed in his hypothetical construct, and each used it primarily for prescriptive, rather than descriptive, purposes.

  7. Terryl Givens says:

    Thank you for the input so far. How could we even think of neglecting the Saturday’s Warrior phenomenon in this study! (the 70s answer to Nephi Anderson’s “Added Upon”). No,we havent heard much recent theorizing about relations between pre-existent rightousness and present conditions, but what interests me here are the connections with other traditions that employed the construct of pre-existence to similar ends (in the Ramayana, for instance, the hero repeatedly insists that his conduct in a prior incarnation readily explains his present sufferings and quandaries). I am a novice in linguistics, but my impression is that the field has nonetheless assimilated for most purposes some version of the pre-wired brain model to explain language acquisition and commonalities across cultures. As for Hobbes and Rawls, I will take a look at them. I dont recall the intimation there that there was any choice involved in acquiescing to the conditions of mortality–even hypothetically. (Is that what you are saying?-and if so, I’d appreciate some specific leads or references).

  8. As long as youre accepting pop cultural references, here is one certain to be the most treacly:

    Wherein Shirley Temple character and brother visit heaven and talk with children who are about to be born, the children get on a ship to be taken down to the delivery room, but some are left behind because their intended parents didnt want them.

    Surely, you already have Milton’s _Paradise Lost_ on your list, as well as the Jewish traditions:

  9. Hi Terryl,

    You didn’t mention Clement of Alexandria or Origen, but I assume you’re aware of both of them. They are the most famous early Christian sources for this doctrine. And don’t forget Philo.

    What a fun project!

    I attended a lecture yesterday on the sticky passage from Genesis 1:2 “tohu wa bohu.” The paper claimed that Jubilees was written (in part) to correct a reading of Genesis 1:2 that suggested elements existed prior to the creation. This remains a worry in Philo, Gamaliel, etc. (although the Gamaliel reference is likely influenced by Tertullian)

    Not directly on topic, but not irrelevant either. The theological concerns that fueled the development of the doctrine of creatio ex nihilo are some of the same concerns lurking behind the rejection of pre-mortally existing souls.


  10. I am curious to see how exactly you define pre-existence. For example, Wordsworthe’s Ode, when not being drafted into the service of Mormon theology, strikes me as rather neo-Platonic, with us as little sparks trailing clouds of glory from God, who is our origin. If this is right, then the pre-mortal existence is less about some sort of conscious agent existing prior to birth and rather more like some kind of pre-birth entity from which we emenate. I may have completely mangled the Ode with this reading, but it does seem to me that there is a real question of what kind of existence counts as existence for purposes of your Pre-Mortal Existence analysis.

  11. “I may have completely mangled the Ode with this reading”

    Indeed. Here’s the bit you’re thinking of:

    Our birth is but a sleep and a forgetting:
    The Soul that rises with us, our life’s Star,
    Hath had elsewhere its setting,
    And cometh from afar:
    Not in entire forgetfulness,
    And not in utter nakedness,
    But trailing clouds of glory do we come
    From God, who is our home:
    Heaven lies about us in our infancy!

    But in my mind the more interesting part, and one that goes beyond your (narrow!) reading of Wordsworth, comes later in the Intimations of Immortality:

    Our noisy years seem moments in the being
    Of the eternal Silence: truths that wake,
    To perish never;
    Which neither listlessness, nor mad endeavour,
    Nor Man nor Boy,
    Nor all that is at enmity with joy,
    Can utterly abolish or destroy!
    Hence in a season of calm weather
    Though inland far we be,
    Our Souls have sight of that immortal sea
    Which brought us hither,
    Can in a moment travel thither,
    And see the Children sport upon the shore,
    And hear the mighty waters rolling evermore.

  12. Amri Brown says:

    This pre-mortal righteousness brings temporal, earthly blessings idea really gets my dander up. I think it’s a play off of the peculiar people idea. God loves us more, we are special, chosen, more paid attention to blah blah. I think it’s social ranking and human nature’s desire to be better than others around them, or a reason to think they’re special.
    I just can’t believe that I was more righteous isn heaven and that’s why I’m Mormon and not living on a dollar day and don’t have AIDS. That’s not congruent with the God I believe in either.
    This is one of those doctrines I sure hope is wrong. Grrr.

  13. Emmy Canuck says:

    Nate, Steve (#s 10,11), if the Wordsworth angle is interesting enough to you, you might be interested in, “The perennial heresy: Pre-existence as a serious belief in Wordsworth’s ‘Immortality Ode’”
    by Zimmer, Robert Brian, QUEEN’S UNIVERSITY, 1996. I think it is availablein the Proquest dissertation database.

  14. Last Lemming says:

    I don’t have Hobbes handy. From Rawls’ A Theory of Justice, paragraphs 2 & 3 under “The Main Idea of the Theory of Justice (pages 11 and 12 in my volume):

    “Thus we are to imagine that those who engage in social cooperation choose together, in one joint act, the principles which are to assign basic rights and duties and to determine the division of social benefits. Men are to decide in advance how they are to regulate their claims against one another and what is to be the foundation charter of their society…

    “… The original position is not, of course, thought of as an actual historical state of affairs, much less as a primitive condition of culture. It is understood as a purely hypothetical situation characterized so as to lead to a certain conception of justice…The principles of justice are chosen behind a veil of ignorance. This ensures that no one is advantaged or disadvantaged in the choice of principles by the outcome of natural chance or the contingency of social circumstances…” (emphases mine)

  15. Last Lemming,

    I’m not following your thought process here. Other than by way of extremely loose analogy how does the original position relate to the doctrine of pre-mortal existence? Rawls invents the original position as an imaginative construct—it’s a thought experiment, not a metaphysical claim.

  16. As you’ll know better than I, Murray’s English Reader was the reading/rhetorical primer that was very popular in early 19th century America, including in Joseph Smith’s neck of the woods.
    I read through it a couple of years ago, and I think I remember noting that one or two selections seemed to carry a concept of pre-existence. The book had more selections from Scottish Presbyterian Hugh Blair than from any other author. If the selections I’m thinking of were from a Blair sermon, perhaps he was responding to Hume.

    You likely have already read the Mormon Studies works related to your book topic. 3 that come to mind are:

    Blake Ostler, “The idea of pre-existence in the development of Mormon thought,” Dialogue, 15:1 (1982).

    Charles Harrell, “The development of the doctrine of preexistence, 1830-1844,” BYU Studies, 28:2(1988).

    Arnold Green, “Gathering and Election: Israelite Descent and Universalism in Mormon Discourse” Journal of Mormon History 25:1 (1999).

  17. Steve: My reading is no doubt narrow and wrong (story of my life!), but the passages that you quote also seem rather neo-Platonic me. All of the talk of “the being of the eternal silence” and the endless sea that wafts our souls sounds a lot more like the Great Chain of Being than the Pearl of Great Price.

  18. LL

    I suppose you could throw in Arrow’s (I think) infinite state contingent markets where all goods are bought and sold by all actors ever to exist prior to the beginning of the first period.

    Arrow’s model implies somewhat different things than Rawls’ does. Well, actually it is probably easily generalizable to include the Rawlsian ignorant actors. SO it could be thought of as a generalized case.

  19. “sounds a lot more like the Great Chain of Being than the Pearl of Great Price.”

    That’s just because WW didn’t have access to the papyri. But I agree that the notions are not immediately transferable to mormon doctrine, despite our wrestings to the contrary.

  20. Amri #12:

    Amen! Tell ’em, brother! A group of my LDS friends uses the term calculus benedictus to refer to this general phenomenon, as seen in microcosm in this formulaic (and on some level disturbing) exchange:

    Teacher: Is there a volunteer for the closing prayer?

    (awkward silence for 10-15 seconds)

    Someone: (exuberantly/lethargically/ironically) I will(!/…/.) I could use the extra blessings(!/…/.)

    I hear this all the time, and I don’t mean to be hard on people who’ve ever participated in it (lest I condemn myself), but honestly, doesn’t the occasional sighting (and in some places, prevalence) of this mindset among church members disturb anyone else?

    If any one or thing is directly, temporally, and observably blessed by the righteousness of individuals, it is the society or community relating to those individuals. If any one or thing is directly, temporally and observably cursed by the wickedness of individuals, it is likewise their own community.

  21. Bryan Warnick says:

    I like the idea of including something about Rawls. Sure the Original Position was just a thought experiment, and of course Rawls didn’t believe it was ever a reality, but even as an explicitly hypothetical and imagined sort of pre-existence it seems to fall in line with the broad goals of project. If Mormon thought is any indicator, the idea that the pre-existence is a moral realm where people make contracts with each other about the terms of their future existence may be an important theme for the book to bring out. (Here I am thinking of the line from TPJS where Joseph talks about us collectively “sanctioning” the plan that is presented in the preexistence.) In short, the book could include the theme of the preexistence moment (whether real or imagined) setting the standard for subsequent morality.

  22. D. Fletcher says:

    If you have any evidence that genders were pre-existing, I’d love to read that.

  23. Sadly, I am not nearly well enough read for a cogent addition to the inquiry of the post.

    However, as it realates to the Mormon conceptions of blessings in this life as a funciton of premortal valor, it would seem that the analyses presented in the comments here are a bit off the mark. The traditional Mormon reading is that Isreal (whatever that is) are those who are likely to accept the gospel and that Isreal are those valorous souls. If this is indeed the case, the premortal valiant are born to the empoverished 3rd world, overwhelmingly.

  24. Re #12 – But what happens if the doctrine ends up being correct? What’s the end game then?

    Re #22 – I assume you’re referring to things other than the commentaries from Packer, et al?

  25. With respect to comment # 3. “Do we still believe in the mortal effects of pre-existential righteousness?”

    My understanding is that forordination is a fundamental LDS doctrine in which the lineage of Israel (declared through a patriarcal blessing) and the rights to the priesthood are or were bestowed upon an individual because of the demonstration of faith and obedience of that individual in the preexistance and their continued obedence and faith in this life. This is explained in Alma chapter 13 where Alma teaches about the premortal traits of those who merit the high priesthood in this life.

    As a father of 6 children, I marvel at the individual differences and talents of each of my children. These differences can not be solely dependent on genetics or the environment in which they are raised. My explanation for the unique talents that my children have is due to the skills and attributes that they posessed as spirits before they were born. This realization has been impressed upon me through multiple priesthood blessings and other personal spiritual promptings concerning them.

  26. I hope you get a chance to investigate and discuss my favorite obscure Mormon idea that is related to our existence prior to this earth — multiple mortal probations. The concept is often confused with reincarnation and I’m wondering if there is a premortal doctrine in some of the Eastern religions that teach reincarnation.

  27. Geoff J, I think your multiple mortal probation idea may be better suited to a discussion on what the second death is, what outer darkness is, and what the ultimate fate of the sons of perdition could be.

    I believe that Heber C. Kimball, Brigham Young and George A. Smith elude to that in parts of the Journal of Discourses.

    One quote of interest is from George A. Smith that reads

    “The clay that was marred in the potter’s hands was thrown back into the unprepared portion, to be prepared over again. So it will be with every wicked man and woman … they will be thrown back to the native element from which they orginated, to be worked over again and be prepared to enjoy some sort of kingdom” Journal of Discourses 2:24

    Could not reincarnation be a false doctirne related to the “reworking” of the spirits of those sons and daughters of perdition after their second death.

  28. I agree that would be an interesting discussion Darren, but many prominent Mormons (including Heber C. Kimball) reportedly believed that this life is just another in a long series of mortal probations on the path of eternal progression/retrogression so I think the MMP subject would be an excellent fit for a survey of pre-mortal existence concepts.

  29. Terryl,

    I am posting this quotation from Proverbs Chapter 8 that I read a couple of weeks ago for all to ponder. There are not too many passages of scripture that talk much about the preexistance but this is one of the best.

    (Old Testament | Proverbs 8:22 – 31)
    22 The LORD possessed me in the beginning of his way, before his works of old.
    23 I was set up from everlasting, from the beginning, or ever the earth was.
    24 When there were no depths, I was brought forth; when there were no fountains abounding with water.
    25 Before the mountains were settled, before the hills was I brought forth:
    26 While as yet he had not made the earth, nor the fields, nor the highest part of the dust of the world.
    27 When he prepared the heavens, I was there: when he set a compass upon the face of the depth:
    28 When he established the clouds above: when he strengthened the fountains of the deep:
    29 When he gave to the sea his decree, that the waters should not pass his commandment: when he appointed the foundations of the earth:
    30 Then I was by him, as one brought up with him: and I was daily his delight, rejoicing always before him;
    31 Rejoicing in the habitable part of his earth; and my delights were with the sons of men.

  30. Geoff,

    I can’t believe anyone would want to go through puberty more than once:)

  31. Good luck and God bless, I think this is a vitally important concept. It has always spoken truth to me. I’m not a “know” kind of person, but I believe this totally. A good thing you’re doing.

  32. Excellent Idea. Don’t forget to include writings of the early church fathers, particulary Justin and his take on premortal existence and the eternal nature of matter (in regard to forming the earth). Also, you might want to contact Roger Cook at BYU, who has written a wonderful paper on premortal councils in heaven.

  33. Great topic!

    I’d like to know if you are going to address the idea of rank, i.e., great and noble and less great and noble per se as well as how pre-heaven effects mortality.

    And will the War in Heaven be discussed?

  34. [Is this thread still open?…]

    I am unclear about how wide a net you cast when you say: “Where we also hope to go beyond conventional treatments of pre-mortality is in our examination of a variety of concepts that perform comparable intellectual work…”.

    For example, one of the ways I see LDS use pre-mortality myths is as a way to insulate themselves from unpleasant physical or social realities–by asserting that things should be a certain way because of a pre-existing (and “therefore” essential) identity. Thus, one might console oneself with the patriarchal blessing line, “you were one of the noble ones” (and by extension, still are) when they feel like–and are commonly regarded as–a loser; the group consoles itself similarly with the idea of being of pre-mortally righteous Israel.

    The intellectual work of the PM myth in this (simplistic) case is to support/define a claim of essentialism. If I am accurate in this characterization, then it would seem anything that supports or defines a claim of essentialism would be doing “comparable intellectual work.” Thus, individuals who prefer same-gender sex who adopt a “gay” lifestyle provide a buffer between themselves–“This is the way I am” vs. “This is what I do”–and changing moral, social, and scientific arguments; they also provide a way for others who do not share their sexual predilections to deal with them–“That is the way they are,” etc. The gay identity myth serves a similar function as a pre-mortality myth in this case.

    Along these same lines, I think the invention of childhood and its expansion of late to something near thirty years creates (together with genetic folklore) a mythic space similar to a pre-mortality myth in that gives us something to which we can attribute all subsequent attributes. I think this is at least partially a response to the ever-expanding social and biological determinism of modernity (and Enlightenment): as science identifies more and more correlations between physiology, experience, and behavior mythic childhood expands both to allow time for the experience and development and to allow room for otherwise unaccountable extra-biological behavior.

    Is this (a portion of) the sort of analysis you are undertaking?

  35. There actually seem to be quite a few references to premortal life in the Old Testament and the New Testament. Here is one I recently came across:

    ECC 4: 2-3

    Wherefore I praised the dead which are already dead more than the living which are yet alive.
    Yea, better is he than both they, which hath not yet been, who hath not seen the evil work that is done under the sun.

    It seems to me that this is a complaint that angels who have not been born yet into the evils of this world are better off than those who are living as mortals or those who have lived as mortals. Thus both premortal life and postmortal life are covered here … as a complaint, really, but the complaint assumes a basic understanding of who we are, where we came from, and where we go.

    Another interesting passage, which is more about postmortal life than premortal life is in Isaiah:

    ISA 8: 19

    And when they shall say unto you, Seek unto them that have familiar spirits, and unto wizards that peep, and that mutter: should not a people seek unto their God? for the living to the dead?

    This shows that God is the one who knows where the “dead” are … and that they are actually still alive. It also subtly hints that you not only can ask God about people on another plane of existence besides the mortal one, but that you should do so. That no one is ever “not-alive” is also corroborated in Mark:

    MAR 12: 27

    He is not the God of the dead, but the God of the living: ye therefore do greatly err.

    It could be argued that since God is a God of the living, we were always living because God has always been God.

    Here are more scriptures on premortal existence which you’ve probably already explored:

    JOB 38: 4

    Where wast thou when I laid the foundations of the earth? declare, if thou hast understanding.

    ISA 40: 21

    Have ye not known? have ye not heard? hath it not been told you from the beginning? have ye not understood from the foundations of the earth?

    ISA 51: 16

    And I have put my words in thy mouth, and I have covered thee in the shadow of mine hand, that I may plant the heavens, and lay the foundations of the earth, and say unto Zion, Thou art my people.

    This last one in Isaiah 51 indicates that Zion is the name for the Lord’s people before they were born, back in the eternities … those who followed him and wanted most to be with him … in fact, those born on this planet … before they were born on this planet. That means they were a people before the earth was founded … ergo, premortal life.

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