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Growing up in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, I'm very familiar with the LDS Church's teachings of a premortal existence. I'm interested in the development of that teaching though.

For example, in 1833 Joseph Smith received a revelation that intelligences have always existed with God. In part of the King Follett discourse, mentioned in the comments, Joseph taught about the eternal existence of matter. Then, in 1835, Joseph translated ancient Eqyptian writings that told the story of our pre-existence and the grand council in heaven.

I know all these teachings and stories, but I'm wondering if there exists any deep dive into the history and development of this teaching, as Latter-day Saints have it today. I'd be interested in perhaps a book or a BYU research paper or something. It doesn't even have to be sourced from a Latter-day Saint scholar.

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    Wikipedia - Pre-Existence has all the information you need. Plato, Baha'i, Buddhism, Chinese Mythology and Origen all teach such things. It did not start in 1830.
    – Nigel J
    Commented Sep 15, 2023 at 20:09
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    @Alamb I found the following article on this here: ldsliving.com/… From reading this article it seems that it was revealed to Joseph Smith by Heavenly Father. So what this means, (at least to me) is we have to take Smith's word for it in his writings. That is a huge problem because one has to "assume" that his writings are legitimate or really from Heavenly Father.
    – Mr. Bond
    Commented Sep 15, 2023 at 20:23
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    @Mr.Bond Suggesting that Latter-day Saints just "assume" that Smith's writings are legitimately from God is like saying Christians just "assume" that the Gospels are legitimately from God. In reality, there are a variety of reasons why Christians accept the Bible as legitimate, and referring to those reasons as just an assumption is unfairly reductive. Likewise, there are a variety of reasons why LDS accept Smith's teachings as legitimate. You may disagree with or criticize those reasons, but calling those reasons just an assumption is also unfairly reductive.
    – T Hummus
    Commented Sep 15, 2023 at 21:27
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    @Alamb Just out of curiosity since Smith claims he received this teaching by revelation from Heavenly Father would that not be the end of the matter? It akin to Smith saying in his first vision as a young boy God the Father and the Son appeared to him. He then ask what church he should join and he was told he must not join none of them because they were all corrupt. My point is the fact that this is the end of the matter based on Smith's word. So how can you go or deep any further? Btw, are you still LDS?
    – Mr. Bond
    Commented Sep 15, 2023 at 23:55
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    What is up with this comment chain, this seems like a question about history. It doesn't matter at all to the question where Joseph got these doctrines from, just what he started to teach publicly when. It's a history question.
    – kutschkem
    Commented Sep 18, 2023 at 7:51

2 Answers 2

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I'm unsure of any books about the history/development of this specific belief (see first item below under See also, haven't read it but it sounds like it may address your question), but there an official statement made in 1909 mentions some of the history:1

...

Inquiries arise from time to time respecting the attitude of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints upon questions which, though not vital from a doctrinal standpoint, are closely connected with the fundamental principles of salvation. The latest inquiry of this kind that has reached us is in relation to the origin of man. It is believed that a statement of the position held by the Church upon this subject will be timely and productive of good.

In presenting the statement that follows we are not conscious of putting forth anything essentially new; neither is it our desire so to do. Truth is what we wish to present, and truth—eternal truth—is fundamentally old. A restatement of the original attitude of the Church relative to this matter is all that will be attempted here. To tell the truth as God has revealed it, and commend it to the acceptance of those who need to conform their opinions thereto, is the sole purpose of this presentation.

“God created man in his own image, in the image of God created he him; male and female created he them.” In these plain and pointed words the inspired author of the book of Genesis made known to the world the truth concerning the origin of the human family. Moses, the prophet-historian—“learned,” as we are told, “in all the wisdom of the Egyptians”—when making this important announcement was not voicing a mere opinion, a theory derived from his researches into the occult lore of that ancient people. He was speaking as the mouthpiece of God, and his solemn declaration was for all time and for all people. No subsequent revelator of the truth has contradicted the great leader and lawgiver of Israel. All who have since spoken by divine authority upon this theme have confirmed his simple and sublime proclamation. Nor could it be otherwise. Truth has but one source, and all revelations from heaven are harmonious with each other. The omnipotent Creator, the maker of heaven and earth, had shown unto Moses everything pertaining to this planet, including the facts relating to man’s origin, and the authoritative pronouncement of that mighty prophet and seer to the house of Israel, and through Israel to the whole world, is couched in the simple clause: “God created man in his own image” (Gen. 1:27, Moses 1:27–41.)

The creation was twofold—first spiritual, secondly temporal. This truth, also, Moses plainly taught—much more plainly than it has come down to us in the imperfect translations of the Bible that are now in use. Therein the fact of a spiritual creation, antedating the temporal creation, is strongly implied, but the proof of it is not so clear and conclusive as in other records held by the Latter-day Saints to be of equal authority with the Jewish scriptures. The partial obscurity of the latter upon the point in question is owing, no doubt, to the loss of those “plain and precious” parts of sacred writ, which, as the Book of Mormon informs us, have been taken away from the Bible during its passage down the centuries (1 Ne. 13:24–29). Some of these missing parts the Prophet Joseph Smith undertook to restore when he revised those scriptures by the spirit of revelation, the result being that more complete account of the Creation which is found in the book of Moses, previously cited. Note the following passages:

“And now, behold, I say unto you, that these are the generations of the heaven and of the earth, when they were created, in the day that I, the Lord God, made the heaven and the earth,

“And every plant of the field before it was in the earth, and every herb of the field before it grew. For I, the Lord God, created all things of which I have spoken, spiritually, before they were naturally upon the face of the earth. For I, the Lord God, had not caused it to rain upon the face of the earth. And I, the Lord God, had created all the children of men; and not yet a man to till the ground; for in heaven created I them, and there was not yet flesh upon the earth, neither in the water, neither in the air;

“But, I, the Lord God, spake, and there went up a mist from the earth, and watered the whole face of the ground.

“And I, the Lord God, formed man from the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living soul, the first flesh upon the earth, the first man also; nevertheless, all things were before created; but spiritually were they created and made according to my word” (Moses 3:4–7; see also Moses 1, Moses 2, and compare with Gen. 1 and Gen. 2).

These two points being established, namely, the creation of man in the image of God, and the twofold character of the Creation, let us now inquire: What was the form of man, in the spirit and in the body, as originally created? In a general way the answer is given in the words chosen as the text of this treatise. “God created man in his own image.” It is more explicitly rendered in the Book of Mormon thus: “All men were created in the beginning after mine own image” (Ether 3:15.) … If, therefore, we can ascertain the form of the “Father of spirits,” “The God of the spirits of all flesh,” we shall be able to discover the form of the original man.

Jesus Christ, the Son of God, is “the express image” of His Father’s person (Heb. 1:3.) He walked the earth as a human being, as a perfect man, and said, in answer to a question put to Him: “He that hath seen me hath seen the Father” (John 14:9). This alone ought to solve the problem to the satisfaction of every thoughtful, reverent mind. The conclusion is irresistible, that if the Son of God be the express image (that is, likeness) of His Father’s person, then His Father is in the form of a man; for that was the form of the Son of God, not only during His mortal life, but before His mortal birth, and after His Resurrection. ...

“And I, God, created man in mine own image, in the image of mine Only Begotten created I him; male and female created I them” (Moses 2:26–27).

The Father of Jesus is our Father also. Jesus Himself taught this truth when He instructed His disciples how to pray: “Our Father which art in heaven,” etc. Jesus, however, is the firstborn among all the sons of God—the first begotten in the spirit, and the only begotten in the flesh. He is our elder brother, and we, like Him, are in the image of God. All men and women are in the similitude of the universal Father and Mother and are literally the sons and daughters of Deity.

“God created man in His own image.” This is just as true of the spirit as it is of the body, which is only the clothing of the spirit, its complement—the two together constituting the soul. The spirit of man is in the form of man, and the spirits of all creatures are in the likeness of their bodies. This was plainly taught by the Prophet Joseph Smith (D&C 77:2).

...

What more is needed to convince us that man, both in spirit and in body, is the image and likeness of God and that God Himself is in the form of a man?

When the divine Being whose spirit-body the brother of Jared beheld took upon Him flesh and blood, He appeared as a man, having “body, parts and passions,” like other men, though vastly superior to all others, because He was God, even the Son of God, the Word made flesh: in Him “dwelt the fulness of the Godhead bodily.” And why should He not appear as a man? That was the form of His spirit, and it must needs have an appropriate covering, a suitable tabernacle. He came into the world as He had promised to come (3 Ne. 1:13), taking an infant tabernacle and developing it gradually to the fulness of His spirit stature. He came as man had been coming for ages and as man has continued to come ever since. Jesus, however, as shown, was the Only Begotten of God in the flesh.

Adam, our first progenitor, “the first man,” was, like Christ, a preexistent spirit, and like Christ he took upon him an appropriate body, the body of a man, and so became a “living soul.” The doctrine of the preexistence—revealed so plainly, particularly in latter days—pours a wonderful flood of light upon the otherwise mysterious problem of man’s origin. It shows that man, as a spirit, was begotten and born of heavenly parents and reared to maturity in the eternal mansions of the Father, prior to coming upon the earth in a temporal body to undergo an experience in mortality. It teaches that all men existed in the spirit before any man existed in the flesh and that all who have inhabited the earth since Adam have taken bodies and become souls in like manner.

...

Man, by searching, cannot find out God. Never, unaided, will he discover the truth about the beginning of human life. The Lord must reveal Himself or remain unrevealed; and the same is true of the facts relating to the origin of Adam’s race—God alone can reveal them. Some of these facts, however, are already known, and what has been made known it is our duty to receive and retain.

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, basing its belief on divine revelation, ancient and modern, proclaims man to be the direct and lineal offspring of Deity. God Himself is an exalted man, perfected, enthroned, and supreme. ...

Man is the child of God, formed in the divine image and endowed with divine attributes, and even as the infant son of an earthly father and mother is capable in due time of becoming a man, so the undeveloped offspring of celestial parentage is capable, by experience through ages and aeons, of evolving into a God.

Joseph F. Smith

John R. Winder

Anthon H. Lund

First Presidency of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, November 1909

Other Official References:

See also:

1 Origin of Man, re-reference Feb 2002 Ensign

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  • Thank you @depperm. Looks like I have some reading to do!
    – Alamb
    Commented Sep 19, 2023 at 4:12
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There is a book that deals with this teaching of a premortal existence, which seems to have been explained to Latter Day Saints by Brigham Young and Apostle Orson Pratt (and others). The book, however, does not give a chronological order of the doctrine or say whether it developed in different ways later on. However, the author had direct access to very early LDS teachings, writing about her upbringing in a book published in 1980.

The author was born to fourth-generation Latter Day Saint Cecil Lehi Smithson, making her the great-granddaughter of LDS pioneer John D. Lee, one of the bodyguards of Joseph Smith and Brigham Young. She and her parents struggled during the Great Depression in a tight-knit Mormon community in Cactus Flat, Arizona (designated 'Lebanon' on the map). I met her personally in 1983, hearing her speak in the presence of local LDS men in my town. She died a few years later. This preamble is given to show that she is qualified to speak about the very early, open teachings of the LDS religion. There are many quotes from official LDS literature in her book.

She was brought up to believe that being born to LDS parents was a special privilege, an earned-in-heaven reward, a mark of distinction. Her parentage signified that she had been one of God's most intelligent and obedient born-in-heaven spirit children. There, in a primeval childhood, she had diligently applied herself to all the mandates and instructions of the heavenly Father and her own heavenly mother (p.2 of her book). She was also taught that God the Father had once been a tiny human baby, born aeons ago on another planet, growing from babyhood to manhood. While living on that earth the LDS way, God the Father had been required to fulfill all the LDS gospel requirements including celestial marriage in an LDS temple, and the siring of a multitude of mortal offspring, followed by his death and resurrection. To quote directly now:

"In heaven myriads more spiritual offspring reportedly were - and still are - born to God the Father and His wives through celestial procreation and gestation. Thus, God the Father had progressed from a celestial pre-existence to babyhood, to manhood, and on to godhood just as I would do too if I were an obedient, diligent Latter-day Saint.

Just as my grandparents long ago had set themselves to do, my parents, too, would follow God the Father's purported gospel pattern. They would 'practice their religion,' obeying the commandments and ordinances of the Mormon church paying their tithes, church and temple assessments in full. Then they, too, could be married and sealed for eternity in a Mormon temple and wear the authorized holy undergarments of the Mormon priesthood. And, most certainly Mama and Papa would 'live their religion' by providing earthly bodies for God's purported millions of spirit children, as many as they possibly could." Mormomism, Mama & Me, pp.3-4, Thelma Geer, Calvary Missionary Press, Arizona, 3rd ed. 1983

All of that was the teaching of the day, and she provides quotes from authorised LDS literature, for example, Joseph Smith, History of the Church Vol. 6, p.476 building upon his Conference talk in April, 1844, known as the "King Follett Funeral Discourse". She has a page of quotes from it in that History, Vol. 6 book. See also Doctrine and Covenants Section 93:29, 33.

Brigham Young, *Journal of Discourses* Vol. 1 pp50-51; Vol. 3 p.319; Vol. 4, pp 218 & 271; Vol. 6 p.275; Vol. 7 p.285 & 290.

Orson Pratt, The Seer, pp.1-2 & p.158. He was one of the original 12 Apostles chosen by Joseph Smith. In 1853 he was appointed by Brigham Young to write and publish the principles and doctrines of the LDS church.

Bruce McConkie, Mormon Doctrine, pp.547, 742; also, The Promised Messiah, p.468

All of the quotes from those references (and many more) are printed in Thelma's book so I will not repeat them here. The ISBN number is 0-912375-00-0, Library of Congress Catalog No. 81-146846, available online at archive.org. But here is an important quote that might help account for modern-day reluctance to admit to those original teachings:

"From sad experience the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, with her more than four million (1979) members, knows that these teachings must not be made public, for most persons would find them reprehensible... The Mormon hierarchy, therefore, attempts to shield Mormonism's secret doctrines by merely denying their existence... accusing all 'anti-Mormon' writers and lecturers of distortion, misrepresentation or worse." (Ibid. Geer, p.62)

You may, therefore, not get much information from official LDS quarters, and just get the latest official teaching that largely dismisses what went before. However, my source is soundly based on original LDS teachings, as all the quotes given in the book are sourced and can be checked. Appendix C, Reference Material, allows for 'back-up' from photocopy sources. Her history starts with Joseph Smith himself, includes her own beliefs as one brought up as a fourth generation LDS, and takes the reader right up to the early 1980s. The history in that book - of the teaching of a pre-mortal existence - should provide what you seek to learn about the origin of this teaching.

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    I don't believe posting an anti-LDS source as an answer to a LDS question is good for civil dialogue. Being born LDS, or with LDS ancestors, doesn't give any additional credence to one's words. Mormon Doctrine is not endorsed by the LDS church. Journal of Discourses is not an official LDS publication (official statement)
    – depperm
    Commented Sep 18, 2023 at 12:22
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    This was interesting to read! However, the random comments of a single member on a fairly esoteric and erudite aspect of doctrine can't be held to be representative of an official timeline of revelation several generations before she was born. How likely is the average Catholic to give an accurate answer on why Donatism is a heresy? I don't think that this can be taken as a useful source for the question asked, although it is an interesting data point for understanding how amorphous the average believer's understanding of the premortal existence might be.
    – Lige
    Commented Sep 18, 2023 at 13:18
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    @Lige There is nothing random about this lady's 180-page book which is full of citations that can be checked for her accuracy in quoting in context, without misrepresenting matters. She covers various essential LDS doctrines but because of her direct involvement as an LDS member for decades, is better placed than modern members who may not have heard of some of the things she directly heard and sourced. Just get her book and check it out for yourself.
    – Anne
    Commented Sep 18, 2023 at 13:36
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    I started reading the first few pages and already I know where some of your beliefs (from previous comments - other answer) come from and also don't have any sources beyond the author's (parent's teachings?) personal experience/memory. You could maybe stretch the meaning of some teachings/comments by church leaders but there is a lot of inferences made that isn't explicitly taught/confirmed by LDS leaders.
    – depperm
    Commented Sep 18, 2023 at 15:05

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