A Veil of Forgetfulness: Its Origins Forgotten
Mormon theology has many different sources. One way of understanding how doctrine is developed is to explore the notion of a veil of forgetfulness. The idea seeks to answer the question of why men and women do not remember premortality. The answer is that a “veil of forgetfulness” was instituted by God so that we may walk by faith, instead of direct knowledge. Where did this idea come from? The Gospel Principles manual presents it as a matter of course, as completely obvious, and yet its origins and history are all but forgotten.
The Gospel Principles manual provides no scriptural references for this idea. There is a reason for this. Simply put, the teaching of a veil covering our former memories from a distant past cannot be traced to any scripture in the Bible, Book of Mormon, or Doctrine and Covenants. The LDS Guide to the Scriptures (published only in non-English editions of the LDS scriptures) explains that the veil refers to a “God-given forgetfulness that blocks people’s memories of the premortal existence” but cannot point to a scripture that explicitly supports this idea.
Joseph Smith and Parting the Veil
On October 25, 1831, during a general conference, Joseph Smith taught, “It is the privilege of every Elder to Speak of the things of God &c, And could we all come together with one heart and one mind in perfect faith the vail might as well be rent to day as next week or any other time and if we will but cleanse ourselves and covenant before God, to serve him, it is our privilege to have an assurence that God will protect us at all times.”1 The Lord would shortly reveal to Joseph that inasmuch as the elders humbled themselves, “the veil shall be rent and you shall see me and know that I am—not with the carnal neither natural mind, but with the spiritual.” (D&C 67:10).
The Lectures on Faith, second lecture, taught that no veil separated Adam and Eve from God while in Eden. Yet, “though our first parents were driven out of the garden of Eden, and were even separated from the presence of God by a vail, they still retained a knowledge of his existence, and that sufficiently to move them to call upon him.”2 It wasn’t that Adam and Eve forgot their memories with God, but rather, that the veil separated them from the presence of God.
For Joseph, the veil was not one of forgotten memories but a veil that today separates man from God. “If the veil were rent today,” Joseph preached on April 7, 1844, man would be able to see God as he is. Joseph’s understanding of the veil was temple-centric, and to rent the veil was an allusion to the temple. Furthermore, for Joseph, “passing through the veil” was not a euphemism for death as much as it signified the ordinances of entering into the presence of God.
The notion of the veil that most Latter-day Saints are familiar with (that related to premortal existence) would not be articulated until after Joseph’s death. While Joseph taught the concept of premortality, he focused more on the divine council and callings that those in his life may have received before mortality. His sermons do not evidence a concern with premortal memories.
Brigham Young and Waking up from a Dream
In one of the very first articulations of the veil in reference to premortal memories, Brigham Young spoke July 10, 1853:
“In regard to eternal things, they are all out of sight to them, and will so remain, unless the Lord lifts the curtain. . . . We are short sighted, and deprived of the knowledge which we might have. I might say this is right, without offering any explanation.
“But there are many reasons, and much good sound logic that could be produced, showing why we are thus in the dark touching eternal things. . . .I say, the greatest good that could be produced by the all wise Conductor of the universe to His creature, man, was to do just as He has done-bring him forth on the face of the earth, drawing a vail before his eyes. He has caused us to forget every thing we once knew before our spirits entered within this vail of flesh. For instance, it is like this: when we lie down to sleep, our minds are often as bright and active as the mind of an angel, at least they are as active as when our bodies are awake. They will range over the earth, visit distant friends, and, for aught we know, the planets, and accomplish great feats; do that which will enhance our happiness, increase to us every enjoyment of life, and prepare us for celestial glory; but when we wake in the morning, it is all gone from us; we have forgotten it. This illustration will explain in part the nature of the vail which is over the inhabitants of the earth; they have forgotten that they once knew. This is right; were it different, where would be the trial of our faith? In a word, be it so; it is as it should be.”3
Young thus provides one of the main justifications for the veil. That is, despite Joseph’s teaching that the glory of God is intelligence and that a man is saved no faster than he obtains knowledge, Young taught that without forgetting our former knowledge, there would not be a trial of faith for we would know. Thus, God advances man’s agency through a kind of purposeful amnesia.
Parley P. Pratt the Veil between Estates
Parley P. Pratt introduces the idea that while there is a veil between us and the past, the past eternity can be a source of intelligence. Pratt conflates revelation with recollection. Again, while Joseph wanted to pierce the veil, or take it away, to look into the heavens presently, Pratt suggests that memories can be an archive of heavenly knowledge.
“In passing the veil which separates the first and second estates, man becomes unconscious, and on awakening in his second estate, a veil is wisely thrown over all the past. In his mortal tabernacle he remembers not the scenes, the endearing associations, of his first primeval childhood in the heavenly mansions. He therefore commences anew in the lessons of experience, in order to start on a level with the new born tabernacle, and to redevelop his intellectual faculties in a progressive series, which keep pace with the development of the organs and faculties of the outward tabernacle. During his progress in the flesh, the Holy Spirit may gradually awaken his faculties; and in a dream or vision, or by the spirit of prophecy, reveal, or rather awaken the memory to a partial vision, or to a dim and half defined recollection of the intelligence of past. He sees in part, and he knows in part; but never while tabernacled in mortal flesh will he fully awaken to the intelligence of his former estate. It surpasses his comprehension, is unspeakable and even unlawful to be uttered.”4
Note that Pratt borrows language from Paul in 1 Corinthians 13:12 (“know in part”). Pratt read Paul’s account of the man who “was caught up into paradise, and heard unspeakable words, which it is not lawful for a man to utter” (2 Corinthians 12:4) and in an important way, elevates our premortal existence to that of paradisaical realms.
Orson Hyde and the Forgotten Country
In October 6, 1859, in contrast to Young’s dream analogy, Orson Hyde invokes a travelers metaphor. He describes coming to mortality in a language of mission, with a conflicted sense of duty and reluctance. Here too, Hyde explains that the veil cannot completely suppress our memories of the past.
“We all acknowledge that we had an existence before we were born into this world. How long before we took our departure from the realms of bliss to find tabernacles in flesh is unknown to us. Suffice it to say that we were sent here. We came willingly: the requirement of our heavenly Father and our anxiety to take bodies brought us here. We might be sent on a mission to some foreign country, and feel under obligation to go, not only from respect to the moral condition of the people to whom we are sent, but also out of respect to the authority which required the service at our hands. But if we were to consult our own feelings, and be allowed our choice to go or stay with equal approval, we might prefer to remain at home. . . . The vail is thick between us and the country whence we came. We cannot see clearly-we cannot clearly comprehend-we have forgotten! For instance, when we leave our homes on earth for a long time, and roam abroad in foreign lands, we forget many of the little incidents of our nativity, barely recollecting and being impressed that we have a home in some far-off country, while in other the thought is entirely obliterated from their memory, and is to them as though such things had never existed. But our forgetfulness cannot alter the facts.”5
Hyde is most likely speaking from experience since in 1841, eighteen years earlier, he made what then would have been a long and arduous journey to Jerusalem and from the Mount of Olives dedicated the land unto the Lord.
Orson Pratt and Renewing Friendships
Perhaps in no other sermon has the notion of heavenly recollection been expounded more poignantly and beautifully, filled with as much promise and hope, as that given by Orson Pratt in 1872. Orson Pratt also begins a tradition of pondering the the veil’s effect on Christ’s mortal sojourn, a line of thought that will be continued by Talmage.
“Now admit, as the Latter-day Saints do, that we had a previous existence, and that when we die we shall return to God and our former habitation, where we shall behold the face of our Father, and the question immediately arises, shall we have our memories so increased by the Spirit of the living God that we shall ever remember our previous existence? I think we shall. Jesus seems to have gained this even here in this world, otherwise he would not have prayed, saying, “Father, glorify thou me with that glory which I had with thee before the world was,” showing plainly that he had obtained by revelation a knowledge from his Father of something about the glory that he had before the world was. This being the case with Jesus, why not his younger brethren also obtain this information by revelation? And when we do return back into the presence of our Father, will we not there also have our memories so quickened that we will remember his face, having dwelt in his presence for thousands of years? It will not be like going to visit strangers that we have never seen before. Is not this a comfort to persons who expect to depart this life, like all the rest of the human family? They have a consolation that they are going not among strangers, not to a being whose face they never saw, but to one whom they will recognize, and will remember, having dwelt with him for ages before the world was. Looking upon it in the light of reason, independent of revelation, if a person were to form a system of religion according to the best light that he had, would it not be more happifying and calculated more in its nature to give joy and peace to the mind to suppose that we were going back to a personage we were well acquainted with, rather than to one we had no idea of? I think I should prefer, so far as reason is concerned, to be well acquainted with people I am going among.
These are the expectations of the Latter-day Saints: we do not expect to go among strangers. When we get back there we expect this place to be familiar to us, and when we meet this, that and the other one of all the human family that have been here on the earth, we shall recognize them as those with whom we have dwelt thousands of years in the presence of our Father and God. This renewing of old friendships and acquaintances, and again enjoying all the glory we once possessed, will be a great satisfaction to all who are privileged to do so.”6
Orson F. Whitney and Memory Recall
Orson F. Whitney touches on the question as to when, if ever, we may get our former memories back. He explains that the time will come when we will recall everything. Like Parley P. Pratt, Whitney also links the veil of forgetfulness to Paul’s language in 1 Corinthians, weaving together many scriptures from the Doctrine and Covenants (for example D&C 76: 94 “see as they are seen, and know as they are known”). It is here that Whitney actually uses the set phrase “veil of forgetfulness” for the first time in our brief survey (April 19, 1885).
“We are placed in this world measurably in the dark. We no longer see our Father face to face. While it is true that we once did; that we once stood in His presence, seeing as we are seen, knowing, according to our intelligence, as we are known; the curtain has dropped, we have changed our abode, we have taken upon ourselves flesh; the vail of forgetfulness intervenes between this life and that, and we are left, as Paul expresses it, to “see through a glass darkly,” to “know in part and to prophesy in part;” to see only to a limited extent, the end from the beginning. We do not comprehend things in their fullness. But we have the promise, if we will receive and live by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God, wisely using the intelligence, the opportunities, the advantages, and the possessions which He continually bestows upon us-the time will come, in the eternal course of events, when our minds will be cleared from every cloud, the past will recur to memory, the future will be an open vision, and we will behold things as they are, and the past, present and future will be one eternal day, as it is in the eyes of God our Father, who knows neither past, present or future; whose course is one eternal round; who creates, who saves, redeems and glorifies the workmanship of His hands, in which He Himself is glorified.”7
Talmage and The Veil of Forgetfulness
Like Parley P. Pratt, Jame E. Talmage tells the story of two veils: one that veils our former memories, and one that veils us from the hereafter. This second veil, however, has nothing to do with memories, but rather can only be understood to prevent us from peering into the spirit world. Yet, Talmage notes that the veil at times can be lifted.
“A veil of forgetfulness has fallen between us and the past, effectively hiding from view and shutting out from recollection the scenes of our primeval childhood, even as another veil hangs between us and the hereafter. Sometimes, perhaps as the hour of death approaches, a glimpse of the glorious future is permitted, even before the spirit has left its mortal tenement; so, too, at times, in blessed moments of sacred communion and holy thought, half memories of the past steal into our souls. As a European writer has declared, one seems to hear and feel the melody of songs which once he sang, but for which now he can find neither words nor music fit.”8
Like Orson Pratt, Talmage inquires into the effect the veil had on Jesus in his mortality. Where Orson Pratt reflected on Christ’s mortal experience to understand how it must be possible for the veil to be lifted, Talmage understands the veil to have facilitated the Christ child’s growth on earth.
“In such simplicity is the normal, natural development of the Boy Jesus made clear. He came among men to experience all the natural conditions of mortality; He was born as truly a dependent, helpless babe as is any other child; His infancy was in all common features as the infancy of others; His boyhood was actual boyhood, His development was as necessary and as real as that of all children. Over His mind had fallen the veil of forgetfulness common to all who are born to earth, by which the remembrance of primeval existence is shut off. The Child grew, and with growth there came to Him expansion of mind, development of faculties, and progression in power and understanding. His advancement was from one grace to another, not from gracelessness to grace; from good to greater good, not from evil to good, from favor with God to greater favor, not from estrangement because of sin to reconciliation through repentance and propitiation.”9
While this application of the veil to Jesus may seem strange to those outside the Latter-day Saint tradition, it reflects the Mormon understanding that Jesus really did experience mortality as one of us. Yet, Talmage balances this teaching with a reverence that in some ways His advancement was unique and different from ours and appropriate to the Son of God.
When We Will Remember Everything?
Since Brigham Young, the main justification for the veil has been that it is necessary in order for man to fully exercise his agency and growth. Neal A. Maxwell, who perhaps more than any other modern apostle has written and spoken more frequently about the veil, takes the premise to its logical conclusion and reasons that if we are still required to exercise agency in the hereafter, then the veil will not be removed in the next life, but must continue in some respects. He writes:
“The veil of forgetfulness of the first estate apparently will not be suddenly, automatically, and totally removed at the time of our temporal death. This veil, a condition of our entire second estate, is associated with and is part of our time of mortal trial, testing, proving, and overcoming by faith- and thus will continue in some key respects into the spirit world.” (emphasis added).10
From Joseph’s temple language of parting veils and seeing God today, to veils that separate us from the spirit world but may thin at certain moments, to articulations of veils that equate recollection with revelation, there have been many analogies used to explain the veils, what they are and what they mean to us today.
Joseph speaks of veils functioning as in the holy of holies, separating us from the presence of God (space), while others speak of the veil separating us from the past (time). Merging the doctrine with agency, Young saw the veil as an important part of human progression and learning, yet, depending on certain conditions, Latter-day Saints speak of the veil as “thin” meaning that we can nearly pierce the veil and either catch glimpses of eternities past and remember lessons and even friendships. The “Veil of Forgetfulness” has been couched in language such as waking up from a dream, being on a long journey in a foreign land far from home, and remembering familiar melodies.
The veil of forgetfulness comes out of Latter-day Saints thinking and reflecting on their human situations and experiences and the doctrine of preexistence left to them by Joseph Smith. This brief treatment can only scratch the surface of the rich tradition of Latter-day Saints pondering the veil and the former life.
1. Donald Q. Cannon and Lyndon W. Cook, eds., Far West Record: Minutes of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 1830-1844. (Deseret Book Co., 1983), p. 20. (original spelling).
2. Lectures on Faith 2:12-25.
3. Brigham Young, July 10, 1853, Journal of Discourses, vol. 1, p.352
4. Parley P. Pratt, Key to the Science of Theology (London: L.D.Saints’ Book Depot, 1855), p.51-52.
5. Orson Hyde, October 6, 1859, Journal of Discourses, vol. 7:, p.315
6. Orson Pratt, December 15, 1872, Journal of Discourses, vol. 15, p.250.
7. Orson F. Whitney, Tabernacle address given Sunday Afternoon, April 19, 1885. Journal of Discourses, vol. 26, p.194.
8. James E. Talmage, Improvement Era, 1905.
9. James E. Talmage, Jesus the Christ: A Study of the Messiah and His Mission According to the Holy Scriptures Both Ancient and Modern (The Deseret News, 1915), pp. 111-112.
10. Maxwell, Neal A. The Promise of Discipleship. (Deseret Book Company, 2001), p. 111.