The doctrine of premortality can strengthen and reassure us in all circumstances, as it doubtless did Joseph when, at sunset, he peeked through the grates of "this lonesome prison." Whether we are confronted by confinement or vastness, the doctrine succors us. Indeed, while gazing at the heavens on a starlit night the thoughtful soul can have an inkling, though on a very small scale, of how Moses must have felt after the spectacular but humbling panorama the Lord presented to him regarding this one particular planet: "And it came to pass that it was for the space of many hours before Moses did again receive his natural strength like unto man; and he said unto himself: Now, for this cause I know that man is nothing, which thing I never had supposed" (Moses 1:10).
Overwhelmed by both the vastness of "the world upon which he was created" as well as the demographic detail-"all the children of men which are, and which were created"-Moses "greatly marveled and wondered." What he saw confirmed man's worth in the sight of God even though, comparatively speaking, a meek man may feel he is "nothing" (see Mosiah 4:5). In God's plans, man, as God's child, is as "everything" to him. Our loving, redeeming Father has so said, declaring to an overwhelmed and meek Moses: "For behold, this is my work and my glory-to bring to pass the immortality and eternal life of man" (Moses 1:39).
This declaration is consistent with other declarations from the Lord and his prophets:
For thus saith the lord that created the heavens; God himself that formed the earth and made it; he hath established it, he created it not in vain, he formed it to be inhabited: I am the lord; and there is none else (Isaiah 45:18).
Behold, the lord hath created the earth that it should be inhabited; and he hath created his children that they should possess it (1 Nephi 17:36).
He doeth not anything save it be for the benefit of the world; for he loveth the world (2 Nephi 26:24).
For we saw him, even on the right hand of God; and we heard the voice bearing record that he is the Only Begotten of the Father-
That by him, and through him, and of him, the worlds are and were created, and the inhabitants thereof are begotten sons and daughters unto God. (D&C 76:23-24.)
The truth about man's premortal existence thus can cradle us amid the vastness and the otherwise inexplicableness of space, reassuring us of man's worth and of God's overseership. As we encounter the "what" of space, the plan of salvation gives to us the "why." If it were not so we might myopically conclude that "all flesh is grass" (Isaiah 40:6), ultimately as well as proximately. Isaiah's words, however, pertain not to man's worthlessness but to the transitoriness of this second estate. It is the briefest of our estates, like unto the "small moment" twice emphasized by the Lord to Joseph in the prison-temple.
This powerful, plain doctrine of premortality contains nourishment, both explicit and implicit, to sustain us during our afflictions and adversities-which, comparatively, "shall be but a small moment" (D&C 121:7). Indeed, in the words of the hymn, we should let this doctrine "as the dew from heaven distilling" revive us, "thus fulfilling / What [God's] providence intends" (Hymns [new edition], no. 149).
As pertains to this expansive doctrine, we should do what King Benjamin advised-"Believe that man doth not comprehend all the things which the Lord can comprehend" (see Mosiah 4:9-10). If necessary, we should even be willing to say, "Lord, . . . help thou my unbelief"(Mark 9:24).
The acceptance of the reality that we are in the Lord's hands is only a recognition that we have never really been anywhere else.
As already observed, this doctrine of premortality is not, however, an excusing or relaxing doctrine. For each of us there are choices to be made, chores to be done, adversities and ironies to be experienced, time to be well spent, and talents and gifts to be well employed. Because we were chosen "there and then" surely does not mean that we can relax "here and now." Having been chosen and having been prepared "then," the work remains to be done by us "now."
It was surely hard work for foreordained Joseph, through whom this doctrine was revealed, but, as promised, Joseph liked to do the work to which he had been called "before the world was."
In fact, adequacy in the first estate may have merely insured a stern second estate with many duties and no immunities. Additional schooling by suffering (along with the suffering common to man which is caused by our own mistakes and sins) appears to be the pattern for the Lord's most apt pupils (see Mosiah 3:19;mosiah 1 Peter 4:19).
How earnestly the adversary has striven to keep the doctrines of the premortal existence of man and the reality of the resurrection from coming generally within man's circle of awareness, let alone conviction! When people are thus deprived, this creates a one-dimensional man. If created ex nihilo, man did not really exist before; this false doctrine, Joseph said at the 1844 Follett funeral, "lessens man" (Words, p. 359).
Denying the doctrine of the premortal existence of man shrinks man's perspective. He begins to think, mistakenly, that this life is all there is; that the insignificant "me" of a tiny "now" is not only all there is, but all there ever was. The adversary is quick to use the "what if" there is no purpose to life in order to induce some to act "as if" such were the case. The resultant misbehavior only deepens the despair (see Moroni 10:22).
Naturally, such a view tends to be accompanied by a diminished belief or a pronounced unbelief in the resurrection and a perpetuation of personality, which pushes a person's hope for the future down to nil. This "no-answer" attitude equates with a "no-answerability" concept that too often leads to the "eat, drink, and be merry" outlook. Thus one-dimensional mortality relentlessly promotes a one-dimensional morality!
The coming forth (through "a choice seer") of the "other books" of scripture, however, makes possible the confounding of the false doctrine of ex nihilo man-man created from nothing. More than anyone else in modern times, the "choice seer" did battle with this heresy that became orthodoxy, using the reality of our premortality as his sword. More than we as Church members yet appreciate, this precious truth frees us from the dichotomy of the Creator-creature and from the awful challenge of explaining evil in a mankind created ex nihilo! With the truth about our identity comes clarity as to our accountability.
Utilizing full gospel perspective man soon begins to see how everlasting life is. Though very imperfectly, he can then begin to see how purposeful this life is and how bright the future can be. On the other hand, without the full doctrine of the plan of salvation and premortal existence, not only is one's view of life affected but one's view of the universe is shrunken.
Just as the restored gospel expands our understanding of things, secularism shrinks them. It is so easy for one-dimensional man with a one-dimensional view of the world to focus intensively on the cares of this world and to yield to the appetites of this world and of this moment.
Given all the disapprovals of past synods and councils, the doctrine of premortal existence is demonstrably not one that could have been reestablished by backward reasoning or research. It could only have come through modern revelation and restoration. Though the doctrine does not abuse logic, it is more than logic alone can fully support. It rests upon the certitude and direction which can come only from divine revelation and affirmation, which is precisely what occurred.
As is so often the case, these powerful truths must rest awhile upon the mind and upon the soul. They must ripen before they begin to nourish our individual comprehension, and certainly before they provoke our individual articulation. It seems to have been so for Joseph.
Chronologically, as already noted, Joseph Smith would have first encountered this doctrine when he was translating the great bulk of the Book of Mormon. (April-June, 1829.) Whether he then merely intellectually noted the doctrine, amid the relentless pressures of a highly compressed work of translation, we do not know.
Joseph's incomplete but inspired translation of the Bible brought about, as earlier indicated, the revelation we know as the book of Moses. This would have heightened the Prophet's awareness of other worlds, God's plan for man, and, significantly, the creation of all things spiritually before they were naturally on the earth. Even so, Joseph did not often cite the relevant biblical passages pertaining to premortality, as he sometimes did with regard to other key doctrines-such as the nature of God.
Liberty Jail seems to have hastened the process of the Prophet's "going public" with this doctrine. His epistle from the prison-temple to the Church in March, 1839, urged Church leaders and members alike to improve, especially in view of their having been "called and chosen ... before the foundation of the world." Moreover, Joseph was told in the prison-temple about a "Council of the Eternal God of all other Gods" before the world was (Writings, pp. 397, 398). The curtains were being parted ever wider.
The book of Abraham came still later, being published in 1842. It gave immense illumination: "If there be two spirits, and one shall be more intelligent than the other, yet these two spirits, notwithstanding one is more intelligent than the other, have no beginning; they existed before, they shall have no end, they shall exist after, for they are gnolaum, or eternal" (Abraham 3:18).
While the Book of Mormon gave us "precious" information about our premortal existence, it was not given there in overwhelming abundance. This is attested to by the statement of Elder Orson Pratt about the unfolding of this vital doctrine: "Joseph Smith ... was commanded to translate the Bible by inspiration. . . . This same doctrine [premortal existence] is inculcated in some small degree in the Book of Mormon. However, I do not think that I should have ever discerned it in that book had it not been for the new translation of the Scriptures [Bible], . . throwing so much light and information on the subject." (Journal of Discourses, 15:249.)
Nor was this doctrine "in the air" in America. All of which makes its coming in its fulness and uniqueness stunning to contemplate.
All we have mentioned on this subject except the book of Abraham came very early in Joseph's ministry. Yet there is an apparent "gap" of six years before the Prophet began to speak or write publicly of the doctrine of premortal existence. With his first recorded public utterance in writing in the March 1839 epistle, his first mention in public speaking was in early August 1839, not long after his Liberty Jail experience.
Willard Richards recorded these words of Joseph Smith:
The spirit of man is not a created being; it existed from eternity and will exist to eternity. Anything created cannot be eternal; and earth, water, etc.-all these had their existence in an elementary state from eternity. Our Savior speaks of children and says their angels always stand before my Father.
The Father called all spirits before him at the creation of man and organized them. (Words, p. 9.)
The Prophet held forth on this important doctrine on a number of later occasions, according to those who kept some record of his sermons. Several times he spoke about things having been instituted prior to "the foundation of this earth" or noted that "the morning stars sang together [and] the Sons of God shouted for joy" (Words, pp. 38-39). Periodic discussions of premortal existence continued thereafter: "At the first organization in heaven we were all present and saw the Savior chosen and appointed, and the plan of salvation made and we sanctioned it" (Words, p. 60).
The most remarkable example of Joseph's having developed this doctrine more fully later in his ministry occurs in his King Follett sermon given to ten thousand people, perhaps more, on April 7, 18441 (Words, pp. 340-62). The latest and most complete study of this special sermon is that of Donald Q. Cannon and Larry E. Dahl, published by Brigham Young University's Religious Studies Center.
In this sermon the Prophet spoke of our mortal existence in the context of our being spirit children of our Father in Heaven. Consistent with the May 1833 revelation (section 93), Joseph described the existence of intelligence even before our spirit birth.2 "Intelligence is eternal and it is self-existing. . . . God has made provision for every spirit in the eternal world" (Words, p. 346).
A few weeks later the Prophet noted that:
Brother Joseph Smith was chosen for the last dispensation or seventh dispensation. [At] the time the grand council set in heaven to organize this world Joseph was chosen for the last and greatest prophet to lay the foundation of God's work of the seventh dispensation. (Words, p. 370.)
At the general and grand council of heaven, all those to whom a dispensation was to be committed, were set apart and ordained at that time, to that calling. The Twelve also as witnesses were ordained (Words, p. 371).
Joseph's preoccupation with this doctrine can be gauged by these lines: "The great thing for us to know is to comprehend what God did institute before the foundation of the world. Who knows it? It is the constitutional disposition of mankind to set up stakes and set bounds to the works and ways of the Almighty." (Teachings, p. 320.)
Also late in his ministry, of course, the Prophet Joseph Smith was heavily involved with teaching and administering the temple endowment and its plain but penetrating truths.
These major doctrines, intertwined, may have been part of what Joseph was so anxious to impart to the Saints-"I never have had opportunity to give them the plan that God has revealed to me," he wrote from the temple-prison (Writings, p. 387). Certainly Joseph's urgency about unfolding things is seen in the way he prepared the Twelve subsequently. From January 1844 until his martyrdom, he met with the available members of the Quorum of the Twelve frequently.
The pattern, then, was one in which the impressions and revelations concerning this important doctrine, accumulated over an earlier period of time, appeared in the sermons and writings of Joseph Smith during the last year or so of his prophetic ministry. Even then, Joseph may have been more ready than the members of the Church were to receive and explore the doctrine, as the reactions, then and since, to the King Follett sermon have amply demonstrated.
Though this doctrine of premortality was not "in the air," it is a doctrine fully consistent with the divine instructions to us to strive to become perfect as are the Father and the Son (Matthew 5:48;Matthew 3 Nephi 12:48; 27:27).
Yet, interesting as the process of its coming forth is, the important thing is that it came forth! Its substance, even more than the process, invites examination and appreciation.
It is a doctrine which brings both unarguable identity and severe accountability to our lives. It underscores the actuality of the brotherhood of man as a result of the actuality of the Fatherhood of God, both as the Father of our spirits and as a loving Father whose plan of salvation for his children is his work and glory; this second or mortal estate is the unfolding which follows the shaping first estate. It is also a doctrine which explains things as they really were, are, and will become.
This is a doctrine, likewise, which reminds us mortals that we do not have all of the data. There are many times when we must withhold judgment and trust God lest we misread, as did Jesus' disciples when they inquired about the man blind from birth and Jesus gave the immortal reply: "Neither hath this man sinned, nor his parents: but that the works of God should be made manifest in him" (see John 9:1-3). Trusting God's plan even in the midst of "all these things" is thus made easier, because he has so declared his purposes, plainly and simply, concerning the proving and tutoring dimensions of mortality.
This precious doctrine also allows for both promises we earlier made to God and promises we were given earlier by him, back beyond time. We begin to understand that certain mortals were especially called and prepared before the foundations of the world were laid. It thus permits us to have a sense of identity, and to allow for blossoming in our individual lives as well as in the general unfolding of the plan of salvation. Thus we can praise God for all that he has done with us and for us. Moreover, though justifiably unimpressed with ourselves now, we can see that a loving and redeeming God has done so much for us, considering what he had to work with.
The precious knowledge which flows from this doctrine also permits us to maintain both a backward and a forward perspective. It gives us, for instance, cause to entertain a hope such as generous Sir Thomas More expressed with regard to his accusers and defamers (see chapter 6). Such perspectives can make us less inclined to rush to judgment, giving us more humility and more trust in God, for we are truly in his hands. Still!
In light of this doctrine developmental discipleship assumes genuine significance, inasmuch as our individual spiritual growth is so vital to our happiness and salvation. These words of King Benjamin take on added meaning: .... . and becometh as a child, submissive, meek, humble, patient, full of love, willing to submit to all things which the Lord seeth fit to inflict upon him, even as a child doth submit to his father" (Mosiah 3:19; see Alma 13:28).
It is no accident that Alma's words about what we should be in the process of "becoming" (Alma 13:28) follow by a few verses his preaching about the premortal existence.
Thus, for the Christian, individual existence is not only a continuum but also the motivation for seeing a particular developmental outcome. "All these things" which can give us relevant "experience," as the Lord told Joseph in the prison-temple, can be for our "good."
The grand scheme of tutoring has been under way for a very long time. It was in our first estate that we received our "first lessons in the world of spirits and were prepared to come forth in the due time of the Lord" (D&C 138:56).
All of this brings us now to the need to examine a doctrine within a doctrine within a doctrine. Within the plan of salvation is the doctrine of premortal existence; we then encounter the delicate but important doctrine of foreordination.
The doctrine of foreordination is one of the doctrinal roads "least traveled by." Yet it clearly underlines how very long and how perfectly God has loved each of us and known each of us, with our individual needs and capacities. It is so powerful a doctrine, however, that isolated from other doctrines, or mishandled, it can induce false pride, stoke the fires of fatalism, impact adversely upon agency, cause us to focus on status rather than service, and carry us over into the false doctrine of predestination. President Joseph Fielding Smith warned:
It is very evident from a thorough study of the gospel and the plan of salvation that a conclusion that those who accepted the Savior were predestined to be saved no matter what the nature of their lives must be an error. . . . Surely Paul never intended to convey such a thought. . . . This might have been one of the passages in Paul's teachings which caused Peter to declare that there are in Paul's writings "some things hard to be understood, which they that are unlearned and unstable, wrest as they do also the other scriptures, unto their own destruction" (Improvement Era, May 1963, pp. 350-51; see 2 Peter 3:16).
Paul stressed running life's race the full distance; he did not intend a casual Christianity in which some had won even before the race started.
Yet, though foreordination is a difficult doctrine, it has been given to us by the living God, through living prophets, for a purpose. It can actually increase our understanding of how crucial this mortal second estate is and can further encourage us in humble good works. This precious doctrine can also help us go the second mile, because it indicates that we are doubly called.
In some ways our second estate, in relationship to our first estate, is like agreeing in advance to surgery. Then the anesthetic of forgetfulness settles in upon us. Just as doctors do not de-anesthetize a patient in the midst of authorized surgery to ask him, again, if the surgery should be continued, or varied to meet a now-discovered need, so in mortality we are not periodically asked to reaffirm our previous agreement to come here and to submit ourselves to certain experiences. Of our situation, Truman Madsen has said, "Our amnesia is God's anesthesia." And the surgeon stays with us!
Of course, when we mortals try to fully comprehend rather than graciously accept foreordination, the result is finite minds futilely trying to comprehend omniscience. A full understanding is for now impossible. We simply have to trust in what the Lord has told us, realizing that we are not dealing with guarantees from God but with extra opportunities-and certainly heavier responsibilities. Foreordained Joseph Smith found himself, for instance, in Liberty Jail and finally in Carthage. He was buffeted by the world from the moment he left the Sacred Grove.
If one's responsibilities are in some ways linked to past performance or to past capabilities, it should not surprise us. If the tutoring one receives bears down especially upon what remains to be refined, why should it be otherwise?
The Lord said, "There is a law, irrevocably decreed in heaven before the foundations of this world, upon which all blessings are predicated. And when we obtain any blessing from God, it is by obedience to that law upon which it is predicated." (D&C 130:20-21.) This eternal law prevailed in the first as well as in the second estate. It should not disconcert us, therefore, that the Lord has indicated that before they came here he chose some individuals to carry out certain assignments in mortality, and that these individuals were foreordained or set apart to those assignments.
Foreordination is like any other blessing-it is a conditional bestowal subject to the recipient's faithfulness. Prophecies foreshadow events without determining the outcome, this being made possible by a divine foreseeing of outcomes. So foreordination is a conditional bestowal of a role, a responsibility, or a blessing which likewise foresees but does not fix the outcome. Remember John's sequence-"called, and chosen, and faithful" (Revelation 17:14).
There have been those who have failed or who have been, in one degree or another, treasonous to their trust or callings-people such as David, Solomon, and Judas. God foresaw the fall of David but was not the cause of it. It was David who saw Bathsheba from the balcony and sent for her and who ordered what happened to her husband, Uriah. But neither was God surprised by such a sad development.
Thus foreordination is clearly no excuse for fatalism, or arrogance, or the abuse of agency. It is not, however, a doctrine that can be ignored simply because it is difficult. Indeed, deep inside the hardest doctrines are some of the pearls of greatest price.
The doctrine pertains not only to the foreordination of prophets but also to God's precise assessment beforehand as to each of those who will respond to the words of the Savior and the prophets. From the Savior's own lips came these words: "I am the good shepherd, and know my sheep, and am known of mine" (John 10:14). Similarly he said, "My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me" (John 10:27). Further, he declared, "And ye are called to bring to pass the gathering of mine elect; for mine elect hear my voice and harden not their hearts" (D&C 29:7).
This responsiveness could not be gauged without divine foreknowledge concerning all mortals and their response to the gospel-a foreknowledge so perfect that it leaves the realm of prediction and enters the realm of prophecy.
It does no violence even to our frail human logic to observe that there cannot be a grand plan of salvation for all mankind unless there is also a plan for each individual. The salvational sum will reflect all its parts.
As part of his infinite foreknowledge, for example, the Lord would need to have perfect comprehension of all the military and political developments in the Middle East for all time. Some of these are unfolding only now, bringing to pass a latter-day condition in which Jerusalem, as Zechariah foretold, will be a "cup of trembling," a "burdensome stone for all people." "All nations" will be gathered "against Jerusalem to battle." (Zechariah 12:2, 3;Zech. 14:2.)
It should not surprise us that the Lord, who set bounds and habitations before the world was (see Acts 17:26; Deuteronomy 32:8), would know centuries before the event how much money Judas would receive-thirty pieces of silver-at the time he betrayed the Savior (Matthew 26:15, Matthew 27:3, Zechariah 11:12). Or that the Lord would watch over and encourage his prophet in a Missouri jail.
We are permitted at times, through a process we call inspiration and revelation, to access that divine databank-the knowledge of God-for the narrow purposes at hand. No wonder that experience is so unforgettable!
There are clearly cases of individuals with special limitations in life, conditions we mortals cannot now fully fathom. For all we now know, the seeming limitations may have been an agreed upon spur to achievement-a developmental equivalent of a "thorn in the flesh." Like him who was "blind from birth," some come to bring glory to God (John 9:1-3). Some are spiritual pioneers in developing nations who are called by revelation in the midst of environmental deprivation.
(Neal A. Maxwell, But for a Small Moment , p.87-98)