BYU Religion Dean on Premortal Life, Part I: Race and Nobility

BYU Religion Dean on Premortal Life, Part I: Race and Nobility March 19, 2008

Last week Terry Ball, Dean of the College of Religious Education, gave BYU’s weekly devotional address (mp3 file available here, Daily Universe report here). His talk raises many issues relevant to recent discussions here and elsewhere. My reaction to his talk will be divided into two posts: first, a discussion of some of the problematic themes that Ball raises, and second, an analysis of the way this Professor of Ancient Scripture handles scripture. The topic of his talk, which was entitled “To Confirm and Inform: A Blessing of Higher Education,” springs from the well-known 2 Nephi 9:28-29: “To be learned is good if they hearken unto the counsels of God.” He argues that a higher education can “confirm and inform” one’s faith if three conditions are met: 1) The faith is based on true things 2) one is obedient to the commandments of God, and 3) one is observant in her or his study. There is much material to discuss in the first two points, and even a little controversy (I invite you to listen for yourself), but I want to focus on his exemplification of principle #3.

In this point, he attempts to get at the ways one’s major can confirm and inform one’s faith, and he talks of how his own training in archaeobotany has revealed the scriptures to him. He then shows how his training confirms and informs his faith by quoting from the end of Isaiah 28, a parable of a farmer. The farmer, the parable says, knows where and how to sow which seeds, and knows also how to harvest the different types of grains produced by these seeds. What Dean Ball makes of this parable, and the “wonderful principles it reveals”, raises some interesting issues:

“I believe Isaiah wants us to liken the farmer to our Heavenly Father, and the seeds to ourselves. Have you ever wondered why you were born where and when you were born? Why you were not born 500 years ago in some primitive, aboriginal culture in some isolated corner of the world? Is the timing and placing of your birth capricious? For Latter-day Saints the answer is no. Fundamental to our faith is the understanding that before we came to this earth we lived in a premortal existence with a loving heavenly father. We further understand that in that premortal state we had agency. And that we grew and developed as we used that agency. Some, as Abraham learned, became noble and great ones. We believe that when it came time for us to experience mortality, a loving Heavenly Father who knows each of us well sent us to earth at the time and place and circumstances that would best help us reach our divine potential and help him maximize his harvest of redeemed souls. So some of you are fitches and cumin, you were born and raised in tight-knit and supportive communities and you are a vital and contributing part of that community. Others of you are wheat, you’ve been placed in exceptionally fertile and promising places because God , who knows your special potential, is counting on you to produce so much. Some of you are barley and rye, you’ve been placed in some difficult circumstances, perhaps having to face handicaps and hardships, but god knows you, he knows your needs and your hearts and your abilities and he knows you can reach your divine potential, even in the face of great trials. Perhaps it’s the very trials that will help you reach your potential. Perhaps he allows you to face those trials so you can help others reach theirs as well. Some of you may be zucchini. It wouldn’t matter where you were planted. You’d grow and flourish and produce extraordinary amounts of fruit to be foisted upon unsuspecting neighbors.” [Transcript made by me from audio recording available through links above. Emphasis mine.]

Now, my first thought was that we had moved away from this kind of rhetoric. Observe how very similar ideas were encapsulated–and to what ends they were used–by the following General Authorities in the 1950s and 1960s. (And note especially the similarity in the questions posed by Alvin R. Dyer):

Why is it that you are white and not colored? Have you ever asked yourself that question? Who had anything to do with your being born into the Church and not born a Chinese or a Hindu, or a Negro? Is God such an unjust person that He would make you white and free and make a Negro cursed under the cursing of Cain that he should not hold the Priesthood of God?… There were three divisions of mankind in the pre-existence, and when you are born into this life, you are born into one of these three divisions of people. There is an imposed judgment placed upon everyone who leaves the Spirit World just the same as there will be when they leave this life and go into one of three places. When they left the Spirit World, they had already been judged by what they had done in the Spirit World and in their previous life. From what judgment is determined how they shall be born in this life? When you understand that, you know that God is not unjust to cause a righteous spirit to be born as a cursed member of the black race or to be cursed as one of the other people who have been cursed. Everything is in order. The procreation of man is orderly and in accordance with the plan of life and salvation. … All of this is according to a well worked-out plan, that these millions and billions of spirits awaiting birth in the pre-existence would be born through a channel or race of people. Consequently, the cursed were to be born through Ham…. The cursed people are the descendants of Ham. The chosen people are the descendants of Shem… Through these lineages the spirits that compare with their station are born in this life. This is why you have colored people, why you have dark people and why you have white people…. the day will come when you know who you are, because you are a person of nobility. You may not fully know that now, but you were a person of nobility in the pre-existence. If you were not, you would have been born into one of these other channels, and you would not have been born in this day and age, because the Lord has withheld the choice spirits of the pre-existence to come forth in this, the last dispensation. (“For What Purpose?,” a talk given by Alvin R. Dyer at a missionary conference in Oslo, Norway, March 18, 1961, Widely distributed in typescript. LDS Church Archives. Also printed in The Negro in Mormon Theology, pp. 48-58.)

Joseph Fielding Smith, Doctrines of Salvation:

“There is a reason why one man is born black and with other disadvantages, while another is born white with great advantages. 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.” [Doctrines of Salvation, 1955, Vol. 1, page 61.]

Mark E. Petersen:

“Is there reason then why the type of birth we receive in this life is not a reflection of our worthiness or lack of it in the pre-existent life?… Can we account in any other of way for the birth of some of the children of God in darkest Africa, or in flood-ridden China, or among the starving hordes of India, while some of the rest of us are born here in the United States? We cannot escape the conclusion that because of performance in our pre-existence some of us are born as Chinese, some as Japanese, some as Indians, some as Negroes, some as Americans, some as Latter-day Saints. These are rewards and punishments, fully in harmony with His established policy in dealing with sinners and saints, rewarding all according to their deeds….

“Let us consider the great mercy of God for a moment. A Chinese, born in China with a dark skin, and with all the handicaps of that race seems to have little opportunity. But think of the mercy of God to Chinese people who are willing to accept the gospel. In spite of whatever they might have done in the pre-existence to justify being born over there as Chinamen, if they now, in this life, accept the gospel and live it the rest of their lives they can have the Priesthood, go to the temple and receive endowments and sealings, and that means they can have exaltation. Isn’t the mercy of God marvelous?” [Emphasis mine. Coincidentally, this was delivered to the Convention of Teachers of Religion on the College Level, Brigham Young University, August 27, 1954.]

Let me be clear. I am not accusing Terry Ball of racism, and his statement is certainly not on the order of those of the General Authorities. He does try to salvage the concept of pre-existence as determinative of one’s station by recourse to Abraham and to the concept of individually-determined “divine potential”, known by a Heavenly Father who placed each one in their proper place.

What these comparisons force one to ask, however, is whether the idea of nobility in premortality can ever fully get away from its racist implications. One has to ask what Ball meant by the pejorative reference to “some primitive, aboriginal culture in some isolated corner of the world.” Certainly he’s not counting “them” as wheat, since they’re not planted in the ripest ground. Ball sets up a chronological, geographical, and cultural hierarchy dependent on premortal “agency”, not unlike Dyer, Petersen, and Smith. Some of the BYU students he references, for example, have that “special potential” that accounts for their placement. Apparently, those primitive aborigines had no special potential determined in the pre-existence. It’s our job to go out and convert them, because we have to help God “maximize his harvest of redeemed souls.” If the comment about aborigines is not outright racist, can it be anything other than elitist, colonialist, etc.?

Although Ball certainly doesn’t draw the distinction between peoples down racial lines, (although one wonders what he had in mind by “primitive” and “aboriginal”), his statements cannot help but to construct a system of cultural elitism that retrojects contemporary “blessings” back into the pre-existence. How big a chasm is there between Ball and the General Authorities quoted? Can we salvage anything from this doctrine? (After all, he bases it on Abraham 3, which is chalk-full of premortal hierarchy.) How does Ball’s quote not help to reify the rumors about “Generals in Heaven” that the church is currently trying to squelch? How is this not an assertion of divine right, where one’s relationship to God is assumed, based on current privilege?

Coming up in part two… Why Isaiah meant nothing of the sort.

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