At a BYU devotional on March 26, 1989, Elder Neal A. Maxwell gave a talk entitled “A Wonderful Flood of Light.” You can watch it here: https://speeches.byu.edu/talks/neal-a-maxwell/a-wonderful-flood-of-light/
It has no written version, so I snagged the closed-caption feed from youtube and transcribed it myself as I watched. It’s a fascinating talk about the importance of the doctrine of pre-mortal life and well worth your time to read or watch it. Please forgive any punctuation or grammatical errors as I was working as quickly as possible. Paragraph separations are all mine.
“A Wonderful Flood of Light” by Neal A. Maxwell
Coleen and I feel privileged to be with you tonight, brothers and sisters. We appreciate joining with you in that prayer, and as we shall sing again together, O My Father, if I fail at my task tonight, the hymn will take care of the necessary theology. My remarks are entitled, “A Wonderful Flood of Light,” words taken from a 1909 First Presidency statement on the doctrine of premortality. I hope and pray this will be a fitting doctrinal focus on an Easter evening, as we celebrate the central event in the triumph of God’s plans and purposes.
Describing poetically our coming to Earth while trailing clouds of glory is evocative imagery. Another writer, uninstructed by true doctrine, mused “How everything is arranged in this life, as though we had entered it carrying a burden of obligations contracted in a previous existince. Obligations which seem to belong to a different world, founded upon kindness, which we leave in order to be born into this world.” C.S. Lewis declared, “Disgraced man may be, yet is not dethroned and keeps the rags of lordship once he owned.” However, so much more important than the faint glow emanating from such expressions as these is the striking and illuminating brightness of the Restoration’s revealed truths. It could not be otherwise, brothers and sisters, for as the prophet Jacob declared, “No man knoweth of God’s ways save it be revealed unto him.”
The same previous First Presidency further stated, “The doctrine of preexistence revealed so plainly, particularly in the latter days, pours a wonderful flood of light upon the otherwise mysterious problem of man’s origin.” The doctrine of premortality declares, brothers and sisters, that before his mortal birth, man was also in the beginning with God. Intelligence, or the light of truth, was not created or made neither indeed can be. Therefore, as identifiable individuals, you have been you for a long, long time. Furthermore, with important details as yet unrevealed, certain spirit elements of man are eternal and have no beginning since intelligence or the light of truth was not created or made, neither indeed can be. This spirit of man, said Joseph Smith, is not a created being; it existed from eternity, and it will exist to eternity.
So, whether as a spirit son or daughter of our Heavenly Father, you were sent here from your first estate to undergo this joyful, yet stressful, mortal second estate. Being the literal premortal spirit of children of the Father, you and I can, by going from grace to grace, eventually receive of the fulness of the Father as Jesus did. In addition to being resurrected, we can become perfect, or in one set of meanings from the greek, finished, completed, and fully developed, but only if we worship God and truly follow the example of our Redeemer, Jesus Christ. After all, brothers and sisters, the ultimate adoration is emulation. Small wonder the prophet Joseph Smith taught that “if men do not comprehend the character of God, they do not comprehend themselves.” However, such comprehending clearly requires an understanding of the doctrine of premortality.
Therefore, we really are God’s spirit children, indeed. And we really do come trailing clouds of glory, which contain dim flakes of fire, still pulsating with borrowed light from our eternal home. In one form and degree or another, the vital concept of preexistence is found in the Holy Bible, in early Christian documents, in Greek and Jewish literature, and in other sources as well. However, once again, only from the restoration, with its confirming, clarifying, and elaborating revelations, do we get the clear and definitive truths about man’s origins. Thus, the plain and precious doctrine of premortality, in President Harold B. Lee’s words, “Can provide an awakened realization of who we are.”
Brothers and sisters, think of yourselves, not only for what you now are, but also for what the possibilities you have to become. President Joseph F. Smith said, “Through obedience, we often catch a spark from the awakened memories of the immortal soul which lights up our whole being as with the glory of our former home.” Then, President Smith further instructed us by saying, “Notwithstanding the fact that our recollection of former things was taken away, the character of our lives in the spirit world has much to do with our disposition, desires, and mentality here in mortal life. This spirit influences the body to a great extent, just as the body in its desires and cravings has an influence on the spirit. Environment and many other causes,” said President Smith, “have great influence on the progress and destiny of man. But we must not lose sight,” he said, “of the fact that the characteristics of the spirit, which were developed through many ages of a former existence, play a very important part in our progression through mortal life.”
Someday when the obscuring dust of history settles, we shall see much more clearly that gospel fullness existed in Adam’s time, including the doctrine of premortality. This precious doctrine, along with other doctrines, suffered later diffusion and distortion. President Joseph F. Smith observed again, “Undoubtedly the knowledge of this law, and of other rights and ceremonies, was carried by the posterity of Adam into all lands and continued with them, more or less pure, to the flood, through Noah, to those who succeeded him, spreading out in all nations and countries. Adam and Noah, being the first of their dispensations, to receive them from God. What wonder then,” continues President Smith, “that we should find relics of Christianity, so to speak, among the heathens and nations who know not Christ and whose histories date back beyond the days of Moses and even beyond the flood, independent of, and apart from, the records of the Bible.”
In developing real faith, the doctrine of premortality is a fundamental building block just as is the doctrine of postmortality. This doctrine of premortality represents a profound response to man’s search for meaning. Without understanding premortality, this life may seem puzzling. Some regard it as the inexplicable human predicament. Without knowledge of the preceding there and then, the injustice and the unevenness of the here and now cause some to call into question God’s justice along with his cosmic competency. Without an understanding of premortality, mortals often fail to make adequate allowance for the proving and tutoring dimensions of mortality. Life’s trials are then used by some as an argument against God instead of accepting these trials as something common to man or as the needed tutorials which last but for a small moment. Without the perspective of premortality and instead of understanding that all these things shall give thee experience, we can become drenched in doubt and wrenched by irony and adversity, lamenting “why me? why this? why now?” Without the perspective of a purposeful mortality, and of long-standing covenants between God and certain peoples, Israel’s wanderings in Sinai would be a senseless sojourn. Yet instead, however, God really has plans for us mortals.
These words from Deuteronomy, “And thou shalt remember all the ways the Lord thy God led thee these fourty years in the wilderness: to humble thee, to prove thee, to know what was in thine heart, and whether thou wouldest keep his commandments or no.” God’s divine designs in mortality include to prove us herewith. Not so informed, however, then doctrinally deprived mortals, in Nephi’s words, “stumble exceedingly.” For instance, a severe stumbling, a major misreading of reality, is evident in the attitudes of hopelessness on the part of those who say, “mankind is destined to extinction, there is nothing we can do.” Or as another wrote, “We have no personal life beyond the grave. There is no God. Fates knows no wrath or compassion.” Such mortal lamentations as these bring to mind in contrast the great and reassuring lines of Jacob concerning the precious perspective of divine truth, “The spirit speaketh of things as they really are and all things as they really will be.” Truth also includes a knowledge of things as they were; thus, as we sing, “truth is the sum of existence.” Jesus said gaining eternal life requires us to come to know God and His Son Jesus Christ. Then, so knowing and so worshiping them, we will genuinely strive to become more like them and to partake of their fullness. For now, however brothers and sisters, we mortals are merely errand embryos. We possess certain underdeveloped possibilities and qualities, qualities such as love and mercy and patience and meekness and spiritual submissiveness, though enormously less spiritually developed than Jesus, nevertheless we too were with the Father in the beginning. Many of our Christian friends sincerely hold with the traditional views that each individual is created out of nothing, either at conception or birth. This is so different from knowing that as differentiated individuals we were with God in the beginning in the premortal world. Thus, there is contained in the simple hymn that we have sung, “I am a child of God,” more true doctrine on this matter than in the communicades of various synods of centuries past. Deliberation and discussion are not substitutes for revelation.
How and when did this precious doctrine of pre mortality become lost or distorted? We do not know precisely. Some things the scriptures say were kept back and others taken away from that which much later became our treasured Holy Bible. However as your own professor Stephen Robinson has written, “one needs to realize that by the time the dispute arose over the origin of souls, the scriptures that answered that question had already been excised. Therefore, those who deliberated were left to sift through their conflicting traditions without benefit of Scripture on this point.” Whatever the particulars, this plain and precious doctrine was stilled for centuries. Then, one false doctrine usually leads to another. The more spiritually significant the doctrine, the more quickly it is discarded when apostasy occurs. By way of example, pre mortality, the reality of the physical resurrection which we celebrate today, and the concept that man can become a god are early casualties. False doctrines, by the way, almost always seem to cause a lessened sense of personal identity, a lessened sense of personal accountability, and a lessened sense of personal joy. Furthermore, mistakened beliefs often lead to a heightened sense of hopelessness about the human circumstance. Thus, the doctrinally deprived really do stumble exceedingly.
Another severe example of stumbling because of a false doctrine is seen in the doctrine of predestination. Why worship a God who is capricious and unjust? Before predestination grip had faded, it helped to set the stage for a succeeding falsity, “pervasive irreligion” which like a flood covers the world today. Ironically, other mutant secular beliefs postulate their own forms of determinism: economic determinism, historical determinism. Whatever the form, however, false doctrines diminished human understanding of the reality that we mortals are free to choose. Historically, too, a general lack of understanding about God’s plan of salvation added to the ebbing sea of Christian faith. Described by Matthew Arnold with “It’s melancholy long withdrawing roar, retreating to the breath of the night wind, down the vast edges drear, and the naked shingles of the world.” Remember, one of the purposes of the restoration the Lord declared was to increase faith in the earth.
When the restoration, came the absence of these vital truths began to be remedied. Appreciation and understanding of these doctrines was not always widespread in the church nor immediate among church members. Sequentially, though not then fully recognized by all, the precious truths concerning the doctrine of premortality, in accordance with the line upon line pattern of Revelation, were unfolded in the restoration in April or May 1829, Alma chapter 3. Much more in 1830 while Joseph was translating Genesis and received the Book of Moses. More came in 1832, 1833 and so on. Still more came in 1842, when the Book of Abraham was published. Most recently in 1918, we received what is now section 138. Joseph Smith began to preach a portion of the doctrine of premortality publicly in 1839. Later, just prior to his martyrdom, there came the soaring King Follett sermon. Whether this gap between early revelation and later recognition and articulation reflected imperfect record keeping, the Lord’s timing, Joseph’s degree of disclosure, for he did not tell all he knew, the people’s readiness to receive, or all of the above, we do not know. In any case, the revelations came incrementally, and Joseph’s understanding and articulating apparently came likewise. But back to us and this powerful stunning doctrine.
Presently, we may puzzle over those occasions when we sense that we belong to another place which is somehow imprinted upon us. In pondering these emotions, we can only speak the smallest part, which we feel. There is certainly no sustained surf of recall, only the delicate mists of memory. These evaporate quickly under the baking heat of the mortal day. But only after evoking, however briefly, an unmistakable longing in us, though estranged, we hunger for reunion. Meanwhile, only a few come to this mortal experience with substantial ? already intact. Rather, our individual best is but the bud of possibility. Even so, these buds of possiblity are unmistakeably there. While unfolding and enlarging over time, these key qualities should also grow together to produce full felicity. When you and I experience these celestial qualities in others, even though not fully developed, we rejoice. We rightly associate these traits with greatness, whether in neighbors, friends, or those of high station. The selflessness of Mother Teresa speaks for itself, so did the meekness of that remarkable George Washington.
Since our individual identities and personalities did not begin here in mortality, there emerges, too, a more glorious appreciation of the Atonement as inwardly, and reverently, we conjoin the Scriptures pertaining to the Atonement with the things of the Holy Temple. The impending real reunion and real reconciliation have so much greater meaning. In theological fact, brothers and sisters, the more complete our understanding of the great Atonement, the more it is linked to the premortal world, just as Professor Hugh Nibley has so thoughtfully expressed.
If as some sincerely but mistakenly aver, we had been created here out of nothing, whether at conception or birth, how could we really be going home to a place we never knew as individuals? How could there be real, individual reconciliation with a father whom we did not know before our birth as individuals. Actually, we were nurtured near God’s side, and then came here for a wise and glorious purpose. This all points to a time when the faithful shall regain God’s presence in resplendent reunion. No wonder the Prophet Joseph Smith could speak of the gospel of reconciliation. We know almost nothing about ourselves or about our conditions before our spirit birth. But whatever existed, or whatever we were before our spirit birth, this was incorporated into Father’s merciful plans. We became his literal spirit sons and daughters, thereby being ushered into our first estate. Even in the premortal there and then, Heavenly Father left his children free to choose. Hence, the ideological war in heaven.
During this stressful sojourn on this earth, we should make no mistake, therefore, about who we and others really are. Amid our budding possibilities, in the words of CS Lewis, we are “in a society of possible gods and goddesses in which there are no ordinary people. We have never talked to a mere mortal. Nations, cultures, arts, civilizations, these are mortal and their life is to ours as the life of a gnat. But it is immortals whom we joke with, work with, marry, snug and exploit.” When you and I begin to know who we are, brothers and sisters, then we also know much more clearly what we might become and also how and when. The gospel thereby emancipates us from uncertainty as to our identity. But this precious perspective also brings with it an intensification of our personal accountability. While man is that he might have joy, other scriptures repeatedly tell us, for instance, that the natural man clearly prefers perishable pleasure.
With this heightened accountability, for instance, how can an eternal entity on leave from the Royal Courts on high treat another individual as an object of sexual pleasure? Do child abusers realize whose child they have abused? Since Jesus descended below all in order to lift us all up, why are we so busy putting each other down? With regard to poverty and to disease, even if people have actually brought upon themselves their misery, how can we withhold since we know who they really are? Inasmuch as we were all with God in the beginning, and can be with him throughout eternity, how childish it is to take advantage of another human, whether in dating in business or in politics? Since God lends us breath from moment to moment, how wrong to use any of that precious breath to lie, to bear false witness, or to dig a pit for one’s neighbor. Knowing we live in eternity, how can we say we have no time for children? Furthermore, may not the many wounded, strewn along life’s way, justifiably expect us Eternals not to be in too big of a hurry.
Even after all the premortal tutorials, including for the noble, who were called and prepared from the foundation of the world, we were placed in a mortal environment amid real challenges because it was the only way to tame the raw self further. President Lorenzo Snow said “I dare say, that in the spirit world when it was proposed to us to come into this probation and pass through the experience that we are now receiving, it was not altogether pleasant and agreeable. The prospects were not so delightful in all respects as might have been desired. Yet, there is no doubt that we saw and understood clearly that in order to accomplish our exaltation and glory, this was a necessary experience, and however disagreeable it might have appeared to us, we were willing to conform to the will of God, and consequently, we are here.” It’s a nice quote to offset the scripture we use often, and I think justifiably, about people shouting for joy at the prospect of coming here because there are days, as all of us know, when we might wonder what all that shouting was about.
Free to choose between liberty and life and captivity and death, we now experience firsthand the bitter and the sweet. It is a process of polishing even for those souls already significantly spiritually submissive. There will be little spiritual achievement, however, by reluctant embryos who are unwilling to participate in the requisite learning in order that their performance can be consecrated for their own good. Yet, even now, brothers and sisters, the power is in us to do much good if we but will. God’s work will truly become our own, only as we strive to become more like him by accessing the powers of heaven through increased personal righteousness. Besides it’s no use craving more of God’s power without first having more of his love. This is what so much of our mortal training is all about: coming to an understanding through experience of how vital the cardinal Christian virtues are.
Coming here not entirely in forgetfulness, our present drives for status and power and recognition and ascendancy may ironically involve twisted muted memories of glories and dominions we witnessed before we came here. But how can one wisely exercise any extensive dominion without first developing dominion over himself? We may desire to have spiritual glory and power, but we cannot without emulating God’s qualities and attributes. Besides, real glory requires real humility. Moreover, a larger future glory finally involves larger future service to others. Isn’t this obvious from the declared purpose of God’s own work and glory. It seems that regal repose and idle indifference are out of place in the celestial kingdom. During all of our protracted developmental process we are very dependent on God’s long-suffering which provides us with the much needed time and space in which to repent and to grow. If we fail to learn who we are, however much under information we acquire here, we shall be ever learning but never coming to a knowledge of the truth. Without the key spiritual truths, such as pre mortality, learning even in the best of institutions will be a Sisyphus-like process in which all ignorance toboggans into no and trudges back up to ignorance again.
With, however, the acceptance of knowledge about pre mortality, there comes a greater realization of what it means to be true to ourselves and to our possibilities. We can even understand better the role of life’s disappointments and of opposition, the full shock of wish we will still feel at times, but within the absorptive framework of faith. With the true doctrines, we are not only made aware of many more things in our lives which need to be put right, but now there are real reasons to put them right. With us, other mortals are actually members of an eternal community. Our obligations and ethics in that community transcend that which is merely mutually agreed upon for the moment. The devastating weakness of situational ethics is their failure to take into account man’s real and full situation. Only the gospel gives us that. So illuminated by true doctrine, no wonder life’s process must be so relentless. There is so much to be done in so little time. Thus a blessing is often quickly succeeded by a soul stretching. Spiritual exhilaration is soon followed by frustration or temptation. Reveries are followed by adversities. Since left too long in extended spiritual reveries, we would quickly forget others in need. We must get on to the next challenge. Life is thus largely what we choose to make of it and of our inborn talents. The same musical scale was available to Beethoven for composing his fifth symphony as to the composer of chopsticks. These compositions even share several opening notes, but what an enormous emerging difference.
So brothers and sisters here we are in Eden, and Eden become Babylon. Perhaps we have grown too accustomed to the place. Even if we leave Babylon, some of us endeavor to keep a second residence there or we commute on weekends. Quoting President Romney, “Some go on trying to serve God without offending the devil.” Furthermore, Babylon does not give exit permits gladly. An ironic implementation of that ancient boast, “one soul shall not be lost.” Babylon is also a noisy distracting place. No wonder, therefore, some who live therein are called many times and would not hear. No wonder Jesus’s marvelous invitation to leave Babylon slums and join him in the stunning spiritual highlands goes largely unheeded. There, however, redeeming Jesus waits with open arms to receive us. Meanwhile, we do not as some say, live in a unsponsored universe, or in an empire of chance, rather we live amid the divine design which characterizes the enveloping empire of Elohim. Him about whom we shall see shortly.
With an understanding of the fullness of the gospel, we can see our lives here as part of a continuum rather than being deceived by the philosophy of eat, drink, and be merry, for tomorrow we die. Gospel fullness, likewise, replaces the algebra of agnosticism with its one known factor, all others being unknown. The gospel also refutes human-isms, “no deity will save us, we must save ourselves.” Eliza Snow lyracized about your and my yearnings, saying it was not until the key of knowledge was restored, she knew why, that key of knowledge is the fullness of the scriptures. The religious establishment of Jesus’s time not only wrested what scriptures they had, but they lacked the key of knowledge, the plain and precious things.
Many weeks ago, when this talk was essentially prepared, I pondered how the very preciousness of the restoration makes it unwise for us to tamper with its truths, to attempt to dilute its doctrines, or to misuse its authority. I reflected further how I, for one, would not want to belong to a church which I could remake in my image. Rather it is the Lord’s image I should come to have in my countenance. The doctrines are his, not mine. The power is his to delegate, not mine to manipulate. Those who want to shape and remake things to their own liking have ample and legitimate opportunities to do so in political parties and mortal organizations. Our spiritual task, brothers and sisters, is to make God’s work our own, not the other way around.
There are those, in this second estate, whether consciously or otherwise, who try running away from God. Running away from God, mind you! God who has created worlds without number, and yet who notices the fall of every sparrow. Such runaways cannot even make it unnoticed off the front porch, let alone into the suburbs. Besides returning prodigals, those who have been all over the world, and some parts of Santaquin, soberly but gladly confirmed that it is impossible to run away from God’s love or beyond his redemptive reach. God’s love for us is of even greater duration than we now realize. Suppose, brothers and sisters, given any ancient or inherent individuality on our part, and given our opportunities to choose, suppose as God is doing the best even he can do in those circumstances. The marvel is that he persists and pursues his plan of happiness for us while preserving our freedom to choose. Seeing the great distance we had to travel, seeing our flaws and nevertheless commencing his work with whatever was before our spirit birth. Yet, God loved us enough to initiate this divine process over measureless periods. God our Father is truely and organizing as well as a loving father. Back of the beyond, he saw what was but he also saw what could be. There appears to have been no other way for him to increase our happiness and our joy. What long-suffering love! What true fatherhood! And all of his works are designed so that you and I can be added upon and thereby enjoy greater happiness and pointing us to the day, when if faithful, we might partake of all that the Father hath.
The Prophet Joseph Smith taught us that God even comprehended our perspective errors long ago: “The great Jehovah contemplated the whole of the events connected with the earth pertaining to the plan of salvation before it ever rolled in to existence or ever the morning stars sang together for joy. The past, the present, and the future were and are with God one eternal now. He knew the depth of iniquity that would be connected with the human family, and he has made ample provision for their redemption.”
I stand all amazed, not only at the love he offers me, but at the ample provision he has made for the human family. He was willing to allow the sacrifice of his first born spirit son, his only begotten in the flesh, in order to exemplify for us and to atone for us. Our father’s intelligence and his power are unfathomable, but even more staggering brothers and sisters, is the felicitous fact of his perfect love. Even as you and I come to love him, as the apostle reminded us, God loved us first. All the while he endures our insensitivity, our ingratitude, and our relapses. All the while, he honors our individuality. Things are to be done in God’s own way. Someday, probably at or near the resurrection, we will get our pre mortal memories back. These memories will give us even more abundant reasons to praise God forever.
Little wonder when Judgment Day arrives, and all mortals kneel and confess before him, each will openly acknowledge that God’s love, his justice and His mercy are perfect. In my opinion, brothers and sisters this grateful collective acknowledgment will pertain not only to this second estate but to all of our remarkable relationship with him. He does nothing save it be for our benefit. Oh it is wonderful! God the Father was redemptively at work long before mortal time was on this earth, and he will still be at work even after mortal time is no more. My beloved brothers and sisters, the doctrine of premortality is among what Paul called the deep things of God which God has revealed to us. For that divinely dispatched wonderful flood of light, which illuminates this deep doctrine, oh my father, I give you my deep gratitude, in the name of Jesus Christ, Amen.