Before the Beginning

Creación de Adán (Miguel Ángel)

The origin of individuals, as perceived by Mormons, is radically different from any other religion. I realized this anew this past week, when searching for the term that would correspond to eschatology (from the Greek for “last study”). Eschatology is the study of the end of life, whether the end of an individual life, the end of the age, or the end of the world and our entrance into the Kingdom of God.

I wanted to use a recognizable religious term for the study of man’s beginnings.

I could not find such a term.

The term should be protatology (from the Greek for “first study”). The word protatology doesn’t exist. [Turns out the term is protology – Thanks gundek! You have to be careful though, because auto spell functions will always turn protology into proctology. So it’s obviously still an obscure word.] The closest common term for the study of origins is cosmology, which discusses the origin of the universe for different belief systems.

Joseph Smith’s teachings regarding our existence before birth are truly radical. And I mean this in the best possible way. The Bible contains verses that point in the direction of a pre-existence.

John the Revelator gives us the most complete version of what Mormons refer to as the War in Heaven:

And there appeared a great wonder in heaven; a woman clothed with the sun, and the moon under her feet, and upon her head a crown of twelve stars: And she being with child cried, travailing in birth, and pained to be delivered.

And there appeared another wonder in heaven; and behold a great red dragon, having seven heads and ten horns, and seven crowns upon his heads. And his tail drew the third part of the stars of heaven, and did cast them to the earth: and the dragon stood before the woman which was ready to be delivered, for to devour her child as soon as it was born.

And she brought forth a man child, who was to rule all nations with a rod of iron: and her child was caught up unto God, and to his throne. And the woman fled into the wilderness, where she hath a place prepared of God, that they should feed her there a thousand two hundred and threescore days.

And there was war in heaven: Michael and his angels fought against the dragon;

And the dragon fought and his angels, and prevailed not; neither was their place found any more in heaven.

And the great dragon was cast out, that old serpent, called the Devil, and Satan, which deceiveth the whole world: he was cast out into the earth, and his angels were cast out with him.[ref]Revelation 12:1-9[/ref]

Isaiah would also touch on this heavenly conflict:

How art thou fallen from heaven, O Lucifer, son of the morning! how art thou cut down to the ground, which didst weaken the nations! For thou hast said in thine heart,

“I will ascend into heaven, I will exalt my throne above the stars of God: I will sit also upon the mount of the congregation, in the sides of the north: I will ascend above the heights of the clouds; I will be like the most High.”

Yet thou shalt be brought down to hell, to the sides of the pit.[ref]Isaiah 14:12-15[/ref]

Jeremiah would clarify that humans were known to God before they were conceived:

Before I formed thee in the belly I knew thee; and before thou camest forth out of the womb I sanctified thee, and I ordained thee a prophet unto the nations.[ref]Jeremiah 1:5[/ref]

Joseph, however, was the one who taught that we are eternal, un-created beings. Though God brought us into spiritual life, He did not make us. When it comes to mortal life, we chose Christ. In so choosing, we chose to come to this life.

As discussed in Revelation 12:11, we overcame Satan in that great conflict between God and the serpent by the blood of Christ, and by the word of our testimony. We loved not our lives unto that death which is rejection of God and His Christ, the rejection that the serpent tried to teach us.

Yet we live in a world that remains fundamentally uninformed of this uniquely Mormon protology. The various philosophies of the world think each individual life begins no earlier than conception and as late as birth. They act in accordance with the view that they are finite beings, with no history before this mortal life. Far too many accept that life ends as they believe it began, when the living soul traverses the portal between mortal life on the one side and nothingness on the other.

Is it any wonder that God told the boy Joseph that the philosophies of the world “were all wrong…that all their creeds were an abomination in his sight; that those professors were all corrupt… [that] ‘they draw near to me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me, they teach for doctrines the commandments of men, having a form of godliness, but they deny the power thereof.'”

God and Christ had promised us salvation and eternal life. Each of us entered life with the hope of return. This was the great promise to which Elijah was given the keys, keys that were conferred on Joseph Smith in this last dispensation.

We are to find all those who, like us, resisted the great serpent, who trusted in the promised Atonement of Christ, who had faith enough to be born into mortality, into the family of Man.

In Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, the fictional Marley had ignored the poor who surrounded him in life in his pursuit of money. Dickens shows us the ghostly Jacob Marley crying out in anguish “Mankind was my business. The common welfare was my business; charity, mercy, forbearance, benevolence, were all my business.”

Joseph Smith expanded our scope beyond that imagined by Dickens. Mankind throughout all ages is our business. The common welfare of all mankind and the future generations of mankind are our business. Charity, mercy, forbearance, and benevolence to all nations, all kindreds, and all tongues is our business.

There are times when the mercy of God seems harsh. It is like the “mercy” of a parent who refuses to let a child eat themselves sick on Halloween candy, or requires a child learn to drive before they are given the keys to the car.

I believe Jeremiah. I believe John the Revelator and Isaiah. Most of all, I believe God and Christ, who promised to save all mankind.

I believe Joseph Smith. I am an uncreated, eternal being. I am a child of God. And you are my glorious and beloved fellows in this grand eternal journey.

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About Meg Stout

Meg Stout has been an active member of the Church of Jesus Christ (of Latter-day Saints) for decades. She lives in the DC area with her husband, Bryan, and several daughters. She is an engineer by vocation and a writer by avocation. Meg is the author of Reluctant Polygamist, laying out the possibility that Joseph taught the acceptability of plural marriage but that Emma was right to assert she had been Joseph's only true wife.

28 thoughts on “Before the Beginning

  1. Well, non-Mormons do know of the doctrine, but all they know is that we teach that Jesus is Satan’s brother. That’s good enough for most people.

  2. That’s like saying people know about babies, but all they know is that they are organic masses that emit loud noises and produce feces. Humans don’t desire babies merely for the sound effects and other emissions.

  3. Great article! Very interesting that there’s no word to describe origins studies. Terryll Givens in his book Wrestling the Angel does an outstanding job tracing the history behind the concept of a premortal existence. Though no other other Christian religion has institutionally endorsed the doctrine, the concept was hardly original with Joseph. But as you correctly point out, where Joseph was truly revolutionary was in the idea that we are uncreated beings, ontologically equal with God.

    Also, sorry to nitpick but the book of Revelation does not have an s at the end. It was a singular revelation to John rather multiple revelations. You have it incorrect in both the body of the article and in the notes. If it wasn’t the title of a book in Holy Writ it wouldn’t matter, but alas it is a title in scripture and so I believe it does matter. Thanks again for the article.

    [Meg: Thanks for the catch – fixed.]

  4. A form of popular belief in a premortal-existence was manifested in a movie featuring Shirley Temple, called Blue Bird.

    A meme that has recently been making the rounds is:

    — The purpose of the universe is to turn hydrogen into people. —

    Which hints at more Mormon theology than the atheists who repeat it would likely be willing to admit.

    You have to know a bit about the Big Bang, star and planet formation, etc., to understand the progression from single protons (or whatever their most basic makeup/origin was in the Big Bang), to elements, to life, to evolution, etc.

    But to admit that the universe has _purpose_ (teleology?) is tantamount to there being a “purposer”.

    And the end-point of the purpose of physical/mortal/temporal creation/universe, at least the physical/mortal/temporal end-point, being human beings, wow, that’s practically Mormonism. Moses 1:39.

  5. Protatology, nice word, even though ‘eternal life’ should be sufficient if properly understood. The knowledge of our unbeginning, unending existence that balances on the fulcrum of the choices that we make is one of the great strengths of the Restoration. From the point of view of parenthood it destroys the idea of ownership of offspring and replaces it with stewardship. When we understand that those we have been given stewardship to raise are our eternal brothers and sisters and may well be far advanced if we could know their true potential, our parenting takes on the aspect of a trust. Instead of viewing a child as a blank tablet on which we have the right if not the duty to write their fate, we see them as a challenging and delightful puzzle that reveals its true potential as we exercise patient nurture. Even when our children are beset by challenges that seem to limit their potential we recognize those limits as relatively temporary and look forward to a time when all will be perfected.

  6. I’d highly recommend “When Souls Had Wings” by Terryl Givens, which is a history (dating back before Christ) of the concept of a human pre-existence. What I found most fascinating about the book is how many times in the last 2000 years various Christian writers, leaders, and theologians argued that there was in fact a pre-existence — and it was always rejected by the institutional Christian churches because they saw it as conflicting with what they felt were key doctrines (original sin, election, unique nature of God, etc.).

    On a related note, some 30 or more years ago, someone in Evangelical circles (I think it was reported in the magazine Christianity Today) conducted a survey of Americans asking them about certain doctrinal questions that were all related to LDS beliefs (pre-existence, children of God, eternal families, etc.). To their dismay, they found those beliefs were more widespread and popular among self-identified Christians in America than they expected. As I recall, they attributed it to the large numbers of Americans who had at one time or another actually had a few discussions with LDS missionaries, but I question that — I think that the percentage of Americans back then who had actually let missionaries into their homes and had either received discussions or read pamphlets was very small. Instead, I think — as you note — that people respond to those doctrinal concepts because they make sense and they uplift us.

  7. Protology rather than protatology. Excellent!

    Alas, it is sufficiently obscure that there is nothing about it in And when I searched for an etymology, I mostly got listings regarding proctology…

    I suggest that there should still be much more written about the protology of the individual.

  8. I suggest that there should still be much more written about the protology of the individual.

    I hope more is not written. Essentially nothing has been revealed, so anything that might be written would be supposition and speculation overly affected by modern sensibilities disguised as Mormon theology, and I suppose almost all of it would be wrong. To me, it is sufficient to know the revelations of God as revealed, to give thanks to God for everything, and to follow the earthly example of our Savior in faith, hope, and charity. However, it is an interesting subject for contemplation and small-group discussion — not for speculation about details, but for wonder.

  9. What do you mean “Essentially nothing has been revealed…”?

    I agree that Saturday’s Warrior elaborates on the pre-mortal experience enough to wander into the realm of speculation. But LDS scripture makes it clear that we are eternal and that our spiritual form came about when we became spirit children of God.

    It makes a huge difference if I consider that I am uncreated and eternal, rather than believing my entire existence is a mere accident of gamete union during a fumble beneath the sheets.

  10. You’re right that LDS scripture says we’re uncreated and eternal. That’s wonderful! However, LDS scripture does not make it clear that our spiritual form came about when we became spirit children of God. Even so, that we’re uncreated and eternal is all the scripture says, so anything that might be written beyond that would be supposition and speculation overly affected by modern sensibilities disguised as Mormon theology, and I suppose almost all of it would be wrong. If any of it was right, that would be luck.

  11. In some respects, an adoptive model for spiritual parentage is more consistent with scripture than a birth model. But either could be correct. That’s how little we really know.

    We know man is uncreated and eternal. We know he was in the beginning with God. We know he first exercised agency before birth. Christ appeared to Jared to have human form, but he may not be typical of preexistent spirits in that respect. (He certainly isn’t in others.) We have some indications (D&C 138) that preexistent spirits mingle with postmortal spirits in the spirit world, though this is slightly ambiguous.

    But that’s really about it.

  12. Hum. I guess my viewpoint is informed by having individuals of my acquaintanceship who have seen spirits, specifically the spirits of infants who had recently passed. The spirits of these recently deceased infants were full grown and matured spirits.

    I myself have seen spirits, though I don’t believe I’ve seen spirits of individuals who passed away as infants.

    I have also had experiences, theophanies I think they call them. And I am interpreting scripture through the lens of those experiences.

    I am sorry if you have not had similar experiences.

  13. Living in the East coast time zone enables us to visit other churches on general conference weekend. This year we visited a neighbor’s non denominational, modern, nothing-but-grace church.
    I wasn’t impressed with anything but the child care. The music was so loud as to give someone a headache, we were unfamiliar with any of the songs, and only words, no music was provided, the lighting was dim, but not from the ambiance of cathedral style, but rather like a restaurant with dim electric candelabra. The sermon was very eisigetic with the pastor not even knowing the meaning of the word prodigal. The high point of the sermon was to tell people to stop trying so hard, as though grace was meant to encourage sloth. But the point relevant to this post was that it appeared that belief in God’s fatherhood of us was something they were struggling to accept, they expressed a desire to do so, but expressed a sever difficulty as well. I remember thinking, that’s not a very hard issue for us, collectively, we emphasize it a lot. I guess on an individual basis some may struggle.
    However, I recognize that several of their congregants were helped by this type of societally, and in some generic sense were helping those people. I just wonder if it would have been more efficient if they had an easier time accepting God as our Father, as Paul recognized that even the pagans knew…

  14. Hi ji,

    I wasn’t pitying so much as attempting to push back on your assertion that anything more than what you are willing to accept must necessarily be mere “supposition and speculation overly influenced by modern sensibilities…”

    My husband, who I adore, used to indulge in speculation about the nature of God’s foreknowledge that drove me nuts, because my family and I have had experiences that precluded some options he insisted on holding open. I eventually realized it was because he hadn’t had those experiences (e.g. Having dreams of future events).

    I trust that when we all see as we are seen and are no longer looking through a glass darkly that you and I will no longer be separated by experiential differences and the clumsy communications associated with text messages posted on the Internet.

    No offense was intended, merely assertion that I and mine have had experiences that extend my schema in this matter beyond what you are willing to accept.

  15. Well, then, go ahead and continue pitying me.

    At least now, you are attributing your thoughts to your own spiritual experiences, rather than to scripture. That’s good, because scripture doesn’t support them. There is room for private revelation for private purposes.

  16. If you don’t believe scripture supports them, then please feel free to elaborate. Otherwise it is ad hominem.

    As for private revelation, I think that is more along the lines of keeping a clean palate for each individual to experience what they are about to experience. That’s cool

    On the other hand, I’ve seen people intentionally ignore available knowledge in a misguided attempt to be original We saw this with a recent drama production set in a historical period. The hair or costume folks for some reason decided they wanted to be utterly original. So they refused to even research the clothing and hair styles for the period.

    Minimalism is a valid style. But I would object if someone who likes only modern industrial aesthetic tried to mandate that everyone else has to have that same experience in their homes and wardrobes. It is similar for our Church experience. You (ji) appear to favor a minimalistic approach to truth, and that is fine. But your choice does not mean that I must kowtow to your preferences in my experience and belief.

  17. More than once in the past 30 years, various members of the Q15 have said in general conference that our Heavenly Parents “clothed intelligences in spirit bodies.” That’s not Scripture with a capital S, but it’s scripture with a small s. And it supports Meg’s framework.

    So it appears to me that our _intelligence_ is co-eternal with God, and the “spirit matter” of which our bodies are composed, may also be co-eternal. But the assemblage of that spirit matter into a spirit body, and its association to our intelligence is something done to us, or for us, by our Heavenly Parents.

    Meg, Wiki says that a theophany is the appearance of diety to a human.

  18. Hi Meg,

    I enjoy your thoughts and writings. And thanks for the books, I’ve been enjoying it. That said, I also find that that great gift of enmity with which I’ve been bequeathed generously causes me to be slow to accept most assertions. In part, my skepticism arises because so many assert faith-promoting rumors for evidence (this is not directed towards you).

    On this basis, I’m sympathetic with ji’s minimalist approach. I believe such a cautious approach indeed is obedient to the Lord’s injunction to preach nothing but faith, repentance and other basic elements of the gospel. If the Lord’s ways are indeed higher than our ways as the heavens are higher than our terrestrial vantage point, then even the data points we do have can do little more than convey a sense of direction of how things might be or migh have been beyond our mortal veil. And this does nothing to discount the personal experience which you have had.

    Warm regards.

  19. That works, as long as no one tries to limit my options due to their limited understanding of eternity.

    I would opine that a reluctance to concretize eternity leads to the phenomenon I’ve witnessed, where women have no clue regarding the glorious role that awaits the faithful woman in eternity. Since some of those women have aligned with the groups politicking Church HQ, it just makes me angry that they appear to be so blind.

    But I see that they may merely be surrounded by those unwilling to grant credence to any of the concrete teachings we have been given (e.g., Eliza Snow’s viewpoint implicit in her hymn, O, My Father).

    As for me and my house, we will love Our Lord, and glory in what we think we understand about eternity, always willing to be given more correct light as necessary.

  20. Meg,

    I apologize for so offending you. Nothing I wrote was intended to limit your options. You really know nothing about my understanding of eternity or my spiritual experiences — I wish you wouldn’t make suggestions about how poor they are. But this is your thread, and I do apologize for offending you.

  21. Hi ji,

    I’m not offended. Certainly not “so” offended.

    Hi Bookslinger,

    God hasn’t “appeared” to me visibly, but He does make Himself heard and understood. So I would argue that could be considered a “manifestation of God that is tangible to the human senses.” Not that I can be guaranteed to accurately express a totality of the messages He may have hoped to impart.

    To say it in other terms, I have had experiences where I perceived intent and content conveyed by a being other than myself, a being I consider to be God. If someone wants to argue that wasn’t “real” enough to qualify for the term “theophany,” then I would be happy to have my vocabulary expanded to include the term that does honor the reality of the experience I have had.

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