Remnants of Pre-Official Declaration 2 Theology in Gospel Principles
In discussing the Gospel Principles manual, some have noted that citations to Mormon Doctrine, written by Bruce R. McConkie while serving as a Seventy, have been removed, and have suggested that this decision is in some way significant. It is important to note that the 1978 edition of Gospel Principles only contained four references to Mormon Doctrine and none of the references were necessary to support any point of doctrine. The references “See Mormon Doctrine” were akin to saying “for more information, see Mormon Doctrine.” The 2009 edition does remove the “See Mormon Doctrine” citations, but the preceding text remains the same. In fact, other citations have been removed while keeping the preceding text intact.
What has not been considered is whether the particular language and articulation of teachings in Gospel Principles contain remnants of pre-Official Declaration 2 theology.
“Wherein do we differ? In the talents that are given us, and in our callings.”
Chapter Two contains the heading “We Developed Our Personalities and Talents While We Lived in Heaven.” In the flow of the chapter, it seems to come out of nowhere. Indeed, the manual will devote a entire chapter on developing talents (Chapter 34). None of the principles in that chapter require the premortal existence. The question “How have other people’s talents blessed you? How can your talents and gifts bless others?” thus seems out of place for a chapter on the premortal existence. What is the logic for introducing this idea and where did the idea come from?
The manual cites Alma 13 and Abraham 3, but neither passage of scripture includes the terms “personalities” or “talents.” Neither passage of scripture includes the concept of developing personalities or talents in the pre-existence. With respect to Alma 13, one could argue that it doesn’t refer to a pre-existence at all. Where then did this idea come from?
One clue may be a citation from 1978 edition, which was removed in the 2009 edition.
“We were not all alike in heaven. We were given different talents and abilities, and we were called to do different things on earth (See Discourses of Brigham Young, p. 51).” Gospel Principles 1978, p. 10.
Discourses of Brigham Young is a collection of sermons selected by John A. Widtsoe and published in 1941. Here is the selected quote by Widtsoe:
“We were created upright, pure, and holy, in the image of our father and our mother, the image of our God. Wherein do we differ? In the talents that are given us, and in our callings. We are made of the same materials; our spirits were begotten by the same parents; in the begetting of the flesh we are of the same first parents and all the kindreds of the earth are made of one flesh; but we are different in regard to our calling. 3:365.”
Unlike McConkie’s compilation of Joseph Fielding Smith’s teachings, Widtsoe at least provides us with the reference Young’s sermon in the Journal of Discourses. In the sermon, Young spoke on the gifts of the spirit enjoyed by the saints in the early days of the Church. An examination of the entire sermon reveals that Young is speaking about the gifts of the spirit we receive in this life.
“By a close application of the gifts bestowed upon us, we can secure to ourselves the resurrection of these bodies that we now possess, that our spirits inhabit, and when they are resurrected they will be made pure and holy; then they will endure to all eternity. But we cannot receive all at once, we cannot understand all at once; we have to receive a little here and a little there. If we receive a little, let us improve upon that little; and if we receive much, let us improve upon it. If we get a line to-day, improve upon it; if we get another to-morrow, improve upon it; and every line, and precept, and gift that we receive, we are to labor upon, so as to become perfect before the Lord. This is the way that we are to change ourselves, and change one another, pertaining to the principles of righteousness. As brother Joseph observed this morning, “Joseph must be Joseph; Brigham must be Brigham; Heber must be Heber; Amasa must be Amasa; Orson must be Orson; and Parley must be Parley;” we must be ourselves. What should we be, and what are we? I will take the liberty of saying a few words upon this. We were created upright, pure, and holy, in the image of our father and our mother, in the image of our God. Wherein do we differ? In the talents that are given us, and in our callings.” Journal of Discourses, vol. 3, p.365
The full sermon reveals that Young says nothing about developing personalities and talents while in the heaven. He doesn’t seek to explain “wherein did we differ?” Young is speaking about our obligation to use our talents to build up the kingdom on earth.
Why did the curriculum writers include this quote in a section about the premortal existence? The reason is because Widtsoe placed Young’s quotation under the heading “Pre-existence” in his compilation. Widtsoe has erroneously categorized Young’s quote, and the curriculum writers, using Widtsoe’s collection as a source, assumed the context. This explains part of the mystery, but it doesn’t explain this notion about “developing personalities” which still cannot be traced to any source cited in the chapter or any scriptural reference.
Developing Personalities and Talents in Premortality
These ideas can be readily traced to statements by Joseph Fielding Smith and Bruce R. McConkie, which were made before the priesthood ban was lifted. Joseph Fielding Smith wrote in particular:
“The spirits of men were created with different dispositions and likes and talents. Some evidently were mechanically inclined, from them have come our inventors. Some loved music and hence they have become great musicians. We evidently brought to this world some if not all of the inclinations and talents that we had there. The fact that one person finds one bent, like mathematics easy and another finds it difficult, may, in my judgment, be traced to the spirit existence. So with other talents and skills. It was these characteristics that enabled our Eternal Father to choose certain individuals for certain work on the earth, such as Adam, Abraham, Moses and Joseph Smith. The Lord chose Cyrus and named him one hundred years before he was born to perform the work assigned to him on the earth. It is my judgment that thousands of others were chosen for their special fields because they showed talents and dispositions in that spirit world.” Joseph Fielding Smith, Answers to Gospel Questions, vol. 5, p.138.
Answers to Gospel Questions is listed in the Books Cited section of the 1978 edition. It is highly likely that curriculum writers chose to simplify the language for their target audience and used “personalities and talents” rather than the original “talents and dispositions.”
This idea was perhaps most fully articulated by Bruce R. McConkie in his work the Mortal Messiah. While it was published in 1979, McConkie had taught the concepts earlier:
“Being subject to law, and having their agency, all the spirits of men, while yet in the Eternal Presence, developed aptitudes, talents, capacities, and abilities of every sort, kind, and degree. During the long expanse of life which then was, an infinite variety of talents and abilities came into being. As the ages rolled, no two spirits remained alike. Mozart became a musician; Einstein centered his interest in mathematics; Michelangelo turned his attention to painting. Cain, was a liar, a schemer, a rebel who maintained a close affinity to Lucifer. Abraham and Moses and all of the prophets sought and obtained the talent for spirituality. Mary and Eve were two of the greatest of all the spirit daughters of the Father. The whole house of Israel, known and segregated out from their fellows, was inclined toward spiritual things. And so it went through all the hosts of heaven, each individual developing such talents and abilities as his soul desired.” Bruce R. McConkie, The Mortal Messiah: From Bethlehem to Calvary, vol. 1, p.23.
The idea that we developed personalities and talents in premortal existence seems benign enough, and certainly reasonable. We seem to develop personalities and talents in this life, so why not teach we developed them in the past life? What is the harm in this teaching?
June 9, 1978. Those familiar with Latter-day Saint history know that it was this day that President Spencer W. Kimball announced to the world the revelation received the previous day, on the eighth, that “all worthy male members of the Church may be ordained to the priesthood without regard for race or color.” The Gospel Principles manual was published in the same year, 1978, but the writing had begun much earlier.
It is beyond the scope of this post to recount the history leading up the lifting on the priesthood ban, yet it is critical to realize that justifications for the ban universally appealed to the doctrine of premortal existence. The teaching didn’t just stop with saying we developed our talents in the premortal existence. It went further.
Many sought to explain that certain souls in the pre-existence developed their talents and spiritual capacities and thus merited the priesthood in this life, while others did not. Thus, the doctrinal architecture created a kind of premortal determinism, where race, place of birth, and all other situations are determined by acts made in a premortal realm that no one can remember. By placing the idea in the premortal existence, it was largely shielded from serious inquiry. Even after Official Declaration 2 was announced, many members of the Church continued to accept this premortal narrative in regards to blacks and the priesthood.
While the heading “We Developed Our Personalities and Talents While We Lived in Heaven” alone certainly causes no offense, I have reservations about this being the best way to introduce Gospel Principles. My misgivings partly stem from this history, but also it partly stem from concern that such a focus has the potential to undermine the importance of agency. It is not agency to teach that the specific circumstances of your life was decided based on your premortal talents and dispositions, on which you have no memory. This is more akin to determinism.
The scriptures say very little about our premortal careers, but unequivocally state that everyone who is born in this life “kept their first estate.” Yet, under the above view, the fact that some “kept their first estate” seems to have little weight as to their mortal life. If Cain was a liar in the premortal existence, then he was a liar in mortality. It was his disposition, his personality. Not only do you have to worry about the consequences of your bad choices in this life, you have to worry about all the horrible things you possibly did in the premortal existence that is the cause for the evils or limitations placed on you in this life.
The scriptures, however, do not teach that we merited specific rewards in this life due to premortal valiance or performance. While we may relish the notion that we have good qualities brought with us from the premortal existence, there is nothing to stop an individual, in moments of darkness, from accepting that weaknesses, negative qualities, learning disabilities or perhaps even tendencies and inclinations towards addiction were carried with us from the premortal existence. Such a pernicious possibility would undermine the fact that today is the day to choose God and that mankind indeed is free to choose.
Is there harm in teaching that we developed personalities and talents in the premortal existence? Not necessarily. Yet, it isn’t clear why this should be the focus of the lesson, and the scriptures do not teach such an idea.
There needs to be a more serious scrutiny provided for these ideas. Sources used in the manual are often based on misquoted statements, and are not fully grounded in scriptural teachings. And here, sadly, they seem to perpetuate the seeds of premortal determinism or merit based on premortal performance. Which teaching, historically, has not served the Latter-day Saints well.
Elder Jeffrey R. Holland, in an interview for the PBS program “The Mormons” was asked about the folklore in connection with the priesthood ban. He said:
Well, some of the folklore that you must be referring to are suggestions that there were decisions made in the pre-mortal councils where someone had not been as decisive in their loyalty to a Gospel plan or the procedures on earth or what was to unfold in mortality, and that therefore that opportunity and mortality was compromised. I really don’t know a lot of the details of those, because fortunately I’ve been able to live in the period where we’re not expressing or teaching them, but I think that’s the one I grew up hearing the most, was that it was something to do with the pre-mortal councils. … But I think that’s the part that must never be taught until anybody knows a lot more than I know. … We just don’t know, in the historical context of the time, why it was practiced. … That’s my principal [concern], is that we don’t perpetuate explanations about things we don’t know. …
We don’t pretend that something wasn’t taught or practice wasn’t pursued for whatever reason. But I think we can be unequivocal and we can be declarative in our current literature, in books that we reproduce, in teachings that go forward, whatever, that from this time forward, from 1978 forward, we can make sure that nothing of that is declared. That may be where we still need to make sure that we’re absolutely dutiful, that we put [a] careful eye of scrutiny on anything from earlier writings and teachings, just [to] make sure that that’s not perpetuated in the present. That’s the least, I think, of our current responsibilities on that topic. … Jeffrey R. Holland, Interview, 4 March 2006. (emphasis added). Full Interview here.
Hopefully, well-prepared and sensitive teachers will make sure to keep in mind Elder Holland’s concern: “my principal [concern], is that we don’t perpetuate explanations about things we don’t know.”
Armand L. Mauss, All Abraham’s Children: Changing Mormon Conceptions of Race and Lineage (Chicago and Urbana, Illinois: University of Illinois Press, 2003).