Uh Oh. Foreordination.

Foreordination is an interesting doctrine. What are its boundaries? Its nuances?

I only ask this, because among the speaking topics in our ward this week was the foreordination of the family of Israel. I don’t mean Reuben, et al. particularly. A retired MD gave the talk, and I don’t doubt his intellect or his faith. But he said something during his address which made me perk up. In case you’re ignorant of the facts, we Mormons are big believers in the preexistence of the human soul.

While discussing the idea of foreordination, which for Mormons seems inextricably linked to preexistence (rather than what went on in God’s mind pre-creation) the speaker mentioned the effects of birth circumstances and offered the proposition that “it was only reasonable” that privileged birth circumstances reflected higher faithfulness (we sometime hear “more valiant”).[1] The temptation to assign seemingly random rewards/hardships/birth circumstance to success or failure in a previous existence is fairly common in Mormon discourse. And of course, it is that same slippery slope that founded a strain of thought which tried to explain priesthood restrictions in Utah.[5]

Preexistence of course leads to all kinds of questions about the effect of that previous life on the present one, especially since we don’t actually recall much about it. <grin> Can an unremembered life influence our present tendencies, choices and life trajectory? Amnesia studies seem ambivalent on the matter for several reasons. Mind/soul/brain/body interface(s) are not understood. There is no revelation or science apparently that can answer those questions, only perhaps nibble around the edges.

We know we are responsible for our choices in this life. That is firm doctrine (judgement bar of God, D&C 76, etc.).[2] In a general way, we are responsible for decisions in the previous one. More especially, we did seem to be graded on performance/development/inherent abilities there in some ways (“these I will make my rulers”). At least one NT passage suggests (“who sinned that this man was born blind”) that present circumstance may be unrelated to preexistence in a direct way. (But I can hear/see in my head one of my fellow high priests: “but perhaps this was a privilege this man earned, to interact with and be healed by Jesus” – well, maybe).

But to the point. The doctrine of foreordination has some foundation in Mormon scripture, but also in the sermons of Joseph Smith:

every man who has a calling to minister to the Inhabitants of the world, was ordained to that very purpose in the grand Council of Heaven before this world was–I suppose that I was ordained to this very office in that grand Council [3]

Another witness of the same remarks:

At the general & grand Council of heaven, all those to whom a dispensation was to be committed, were set apart & ordained at that time, to that calling.
The Twelve also as witnesses were ordained. [4]

The remarks suggest that founders of “dispensations,” in the Mormon vernacular, were foreordained to do so. Such assignment is tradtionally thought of as not having the force of Calvinist predestination. Though how an assignment you cannot recall can make a difference in your personal life course would be mysterious. One generally thinks of such things as explanations for present circumstance [see above]. This sort of thing seems ok, but there is a temptation to play this card for everything that comes along.[5]

In fact the temptation is strong to make this “premortal call” a kind of universal. A modern source for this egalitarian view was J. Reuben Clark, Jr. Clark was a U.S. diplomat in the early 1930s who was called as it were, out of the blue, to be a counselor of LDS President Heber J. Grant in 1933. Clark was not an insider in the hierarchy, didn’t come up through the ranks, etc. And he felt comfortable with extending Joseph Smith’s idea (which probably came from the Book of Abraham) to the rank and file “Joes” of the church. But much earlier, Wilford Woodruff did more or less the same thing:

Joseph Smith was ordained before he came here, the same as Jeremiah was. Said the Lord unto him, ‘Before you were begotten I knew you,’ etc. So do I believe with regard to this people, so do I believe with regard to the apostles, the high priests, seventies and the elders of Israel bearing the holy priesthood, I believe they were ordained before they came here; and I believe the God of Israel has raised them up, and has watched over them from their youth, and has carried them through all the scenes of life both seen and unseen, and has prepared them as instruments in his hands to take this kingdom and bear it off. If this be so, what manner of men ought we to be? If anything under the heavens should humble men before the Lord and before one another, it should be the fact that we have been called of God. [6]

Clark was a little more hesitant in his egalitarianism. But he was also inclusive: motherhood was foreordained too. Neal Maxwell came up with a better term for the distaff version of foreordination. A prize for whoever comes up with it first.

Foreordination. Sunday afternoon gospel fun.

[1] I think he was referring more to a being “born in the church” type of thing, but I’m not sure it didn’t apply more generally. See note 5.

[2] Pinning it down however can be a little tough. What about persons who have low intelligence or are pin-ball wizards? Or emotionally disturbed, psychotic killers. There is certainly a spectrum of life conditions to consider I suppose.

[3] Thomas Bullock report of sermon of May 12, 1844.

[4] Samuel Richards report.

[5] Did my daughter get diabetes by divine appointment? Joseph Fielding Smith: “There is a reason why one man is born black and with other disadvantages, while another is born white with great advantage. The reason is that we once had an estate before we came here, and were obedient, more or less, to the laws that were given us there. Those who were faithful in all things there received greater blessings here, and those who were not faithful received less…. There were no neutrals in the war in heaven. All took sides either with Christ or with Satan. Every man had his agency there, and men receive rewards here based upon their actions there, just as they will receive rewards hereafter for deeds done in the body. The Negro, evidently, is receiving the reward he merits.” Doctrines of Salvation, 1:61, 67. The wonderful prejudice of the remark seems out of place today. But unless you have a look at religious language of the time in the US you might come away with the idea that this was unique in its time. It was not, at least in the general racial speech of the 1940s-50s. (Witness Amos Criswell’s statement on Brown v. Board (“Baptist Message” 33 (March 1, 1956): 1, or Mississippi circuit judge Tom Brady in his “Black Monday.” The SBC’s 1995 statement was a long time coming, and it’s still a problem with many.

[6] From an October 10, 1880 sermon. (JD 21:317)

10 Responses to Uh Oh. Foreordination.

  1. Shelby says:

    So you’re saying that I was really, really, really bad in the pre-existence? That actually explains a lot! Are you also saying that I can do whatever I want now because I’ve basically earned my lot in this life (and thus, in the next)?

  2. Yikes. As often as I’ve heard JFSjr credited with saying “there were no neutrals in heaven” (it was referred to in one of my posts last week, in fact), it has always been with the sense of praising JFSjr for trying to dispel one of the myths that had become attached to the priesthood issue. But I’ve never read that statement in its context. I’ll have to look it up myself to see how much ground is covered by your ellipsis, but from the way you have used it, it would appear that the statement doesn’t say blacks were equal because they were not neutral; it really appears to say that blacks are disfavored here because they were not valiant there — he seems to say that they weren’t neutral, but were worse than neutral! If the context justifies this interpretation, I think I will never quote that statement again, at least not as I’ve used it in the past.

    As for your speaker’s take, it’s just as logical in the logic of the gospel to say that privileged earthly circumstances are a curse because they can make a man proud and less likely to respond to the gospel. Ergo, the privileged are being punished in this life because they were less faithful in the premortal world. That’s what happens when you make up doctrine by stretching little understood ideas beyond the breaking point. Somebody else can stretch them just as far in the opposite direction.

    • WVS says:

      Ardis, one of the things I don’t like about DofS is it’s very poor documentation. Of course it was written in a different era.

    • Latter-day Guy says:

      Luckily, though, the BY comment––recorded in WW’s journal (1869)––seems to suggest the opposite:

      Lorenzo Young asked if the Spirits of Negroes were Nutral in Heaven. He said someone said Joseph Smith said they were. President Young said No they were not. There was No Nutral spirits in Heaven at the time of the Rebelion. All took sides. He said if any one said that He Herd the Prophet Joseph Say that the spirits of the Blacks were Nutral in Heaven He would not Believe them for He herd Joseph Say to the Contrary. All spirits are pure that Come from the presence of God [emphasis mine].

  3. ricke says:

    An egalitarian view of foreordination seems consistent with many of Joseph’s other teachings and practices. Wasn’t being “ordained” in that era often equivalent to what we call in the Church today being “set apart?” If so, foreordination would not necessarily even have been limited to priesthood offices. In fact, one could imagine a premortal foreordination being essentially similar to a patriarchal blessing, in which many of mortality’s roles and situations might be very generally addressed. Thus, we might have been “foreordained” to have challenges and adversities, opportunities and callings. Of course, all of this is simply speculation, but it has been a useful way for me to imagine all of God’s children gettting some sort of premortal encouragement, admonition and direction.

    • WVS says:

      The word foreordained was frequently used (by Joseph) as we might say “preordained.” In other words, some kind of decree. Whether Joseph uses the word “ordain” in the quote above in the sense that it is commonly employed now is a question. No doubt some would argue strenuously in favor of that, but I rather think it is bogus. The use of the word casts an unwarranted shadow on things if one engages in presentism.

  4. J. Stapley says:

    There is a great line in BY’s Office Journal, Book D, about how wealth has nothing to do with valiancy and offers the Savior as an example.

  5. WVS says:

    A Nibleyesque observation, J.

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