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Appreciation for Terryl Givens’s When Souls Had Wings

The Fearful Symmetry of Premortal and Postmortal Life

Latter-day Saints ought to think more deeply and seriously about the implications of believing in a premortal life. And there is no better starting point than Terryl L. Givens’s book When Souls Had Wings: Pre-Mortal Existence in Western Thought.

Givens’s underappreciated masterwork, first published in 2010, puts bones, sinews, and flesh on the shadowy and sometimes overly sentimental conceptions we hold about where we came from and, in doing so, also puts to rest once and for all the myth that this belief originated in the early days of the restored Church.

While nearly all religious people today believe in some kind of afterlife, Latter-day Saint teachings about a pre-earth life would seem new and strange to most of them. However, Givens’s work reveals in near-encyclopedic comprehensiveness and astute clarity of expression why this should not be so.


Replacing Sentiments with Substance

Rather than starting with a broad overview of Givens’s book, I want to share thoughts that came to me recently as I studied two statements about premortal existence from non-Latter-day-Saint sources. This experience reminded me of why I cherish our doctrine on this subject as a long-neglected cornerstone of the plan of salvation.

In a Nauvoo sermon, Joseph Smith taught that we need to rightly understand what happened at the very beginning of things to comprehend everything that has followed since, saying, “If we start right, it is easy to go right all the time; but if we start wrong, it is a hard matter to get right.”1

Terryl Givens discusses his book, “When Souls Had Wings” in this 2007 FAIR conference lecture.

Even for those who have never encountered any of the copious sources in religion, philosophy, and other classics that Givens has assembled, the ubiquitous literary trope of the hero’s journey is something that no breathing human in our day can have missed. In myriad books and movies, the journey of the protagonist’s adventure is rarely portrayed as a one-way ascent from dust to glory, but rather as a more natural and satisfying symmetry of departure and return—“a sleep and a forgetting”2 followed by a concomitant “awakening and remembering” that leads to a glorious end.

Mortality is not a simple walk in the garden

Of course, this literary and religious theme is not a modern invention.3 The story of Adam and Eve’s expulsion from the Garden of Eden and their return to the presence of God parallels a common pattern in ancient Near Eastern writings: departure from home, mission abroad, and happy homecoming.4

The pattern is at least as old as the Egyptian story of Sinuhe from 1800 BCE5 and can be seen again in accounts of Israel’s apostasy6 and return as well as in the lives of key individuals in scripture.7 To the ancients, however, it was more than a mere storytelling convention, since it reflected a sequence of events common in widespread temple ritual practices for priests and kings.8

More generally, it is a microcosm of the plan of salvation, as seen from the personal perspective. Not surprisingly, the symmetric pattern of departure and return shapes the Savior’s parables of the Prodigal Son9 and the Good Samaritan.10

When Latter-day Saints look outside the scriptures for writings by others about preexistence, we cannot help but encounter William Wordsworth’s (1770–1850) well-known verse:11

Our birth is but a sleep and a forgetting:
The Soul that rises with us, our life’s Star,
Hath had elsewhere its setting,
And cometh from afar:

Not in entire forgetfulness,
And not in utter nakedness,
But trailing clouds of glory do we come
From God, who is our home:

Though these lines describe the descent of souls to earth with unequaled beauty and clarity, the additional context provided in Givens’s book—likely new to most readers—reveals that Wordsworth eventually came to see his “intimations of immortality” as “shadowy”12 sentiments that he could endorse, at best, only half-heartedly.

He does not stop there.

Ultimately, his misgivings brought him to the point where he—like his fellow Romantic poet, Samuel Taylor Coleridge (1772–1834)—felt impelled to write a formal, though somewhat self-contradictory, disclaimer to repudiate the notion that he had ever considered the idea of pre-existence as anything more than a convenient poetic device to describe his poignant longings:13

I think it right to protest against a conclusion, which has given pains to some persons, that I meant to inculcate such a belief [in a prior state of existence]. It is far too shadowy a notion to be commended to faith. … [Nevertheless,] the notion of pre-existence [has] sufficient foundation in humanity for authorizing me to make for my purpose the best use of it.

William Wordsworth

Of course, there is nothing inherently wrong with Latter-day Saints quoting Wordsworth’s beautiful sentiments, even if he didn’t believe them literally.

However, what is of more significance is how little insight they actually offer into the subject they offer. As they stand, they are “nothing more than nostalgic memories of lost hope … too weak to call forth the reality they evoke.”14

Far more robust and satisfying than Wordsworth’s backward-looking expression of regret for the inevitable loss in adulthood of the divine spark that animates childhood is William James’ rhapsodic, forward-looking speculation about how the prospect of earth life might have looked from the perspective of a premortal state:15

Suppose that the world’s Author put the case to you before creation, saying: “I am going to make a world not certain to be saved, a world the perfection of which shall be conditional merely, the condition being that each several agent does its own ‘level best.’ I offer you the chance to take part in such a world. Its safety, you see, is unwarranted. It is a real adventure, with real danger, yet it may win through. It is a social scheme of cooperative work genuinely to be done. Will you join the procession? Will you trust yourself and trust the other agents enough to face the risk?”

William James

Though James was arguing a particular point about his philosophy—not claiming that an event like this took place in pre-earth life16—he had, unlike Wordsworth, at least more satisfactorily framed the subject.

How is that?

Because his characterization of the descensus and (potential) ascensus of God’s children not merely as a symmetry, but rather—in a sense that builds on Northrop Frye’s appropriation of William Blake’s fraught term—a “fearful symmetry.”17

Why fearful?

Because, as James described, our “adventure” in mortality is not a simple walk in the garden, even for those who have accepted God as their guide.18 It involves real “risk” and “real danger”—an invitation to give our all in a “scheme of cooperative work” that cannot be undertaken unless we also face the possibility of losing our all in a mortal “world not certain to be saved.”

Said differently, God’s gift of mortal life enables us “to take the state of innocence into the state of experience.”19

Givens has gone where no other Latter-day Saint writers have gone before.

Experience teaches us that innocence is made to suffer in a fallen world. As we age, we witness repeatedly, as it were, “the butcher’s knife … waiting for the unconscious lamb.”20 Importantly, however, we are never compelled by these realities to retreat into hardened cynicism. Like our “forerunner,”21 the Lamb of God, we can benefit from experience while retaining innocence—eventually coming to fully “unite the state of experience with that of innocence.”22

That is why, with prophetic insight, the initial, memorable, backward-looking line of the song “I Am a Child of God” was eventually further counterbalanced to symmetry by the addition of new, forward-looking lines.

These adjustments remind us that the main business of life is not to fixate on our heavenly starting point but rather to live, forward-facing, in the present reality, happily embracing our divinely provided opportunity to “do” and “endure.”23

Importantly, scripture never discusses the details of our family arrangements in the life before, but instead focuses almost exclusively on the premortal announcement24 and commissioning of those who bear responsibility to help carry out the plan on earth.

By virtue of baptism, we are no longer just God’s children, but have also “become his sons and daughters,”25 “children of the covenant.”26 Only those who become well-practiced in both the songs of innocence and the songs of experience will be prepared to “sing the song of redeeming love.”27

Of course, Givens has written eloquently about these and other doctrines relating to mortal suffering in many places elsewhere.28 What has most struck me, as I have returned to his work on premortal existence, is how beautifully his writings on all these subjects cohere.


Broadening Latter-day Saint Discourse

When Souls Had Wings broadens the substance of typical Latter-day Saint discourse by making us aware of Jewish and early Christian writers who, unlike Wordsworth and James, seriously argued for the premortal origins of humanity.

But Givens does not stop there. His chapter titles read like a survey course in the intellectual tradition of the West up to the present, with a sampling from the ancient Near East thrown in for good measure.

Indeed, the breadth of the literature dissected in depth by Givens was so broad that in order to compose an effective review of the book, BYU Studies Quarterly was required to assemble four scholars with different specialties (plus John W. Welch as a moderator) in order to do minimal justice to Givens’s discussion of the wide-ranging sources:29

  1. James L. Siebach (Philo, Augustine, and Classical Varieties),
  2. Dana M. Pike (Ancient Near Eastern Traditions),
  3. Jesse D. Hurlbut (Middle Ages), and
  4. David B. Paxman (Romantics, Transcendentalists, and the Modern Age).

Their discussion highlighted a few minor quibbles and some requests for more detail on a handful of subjects but overall had little new substance to add to Givens’s previous demonstrations.

Givens’s thorough written responses to these scholars hold an interest all their own. A few years later, no doubt spurred in part by further study after encountering Givens’s discussion of Jeremiah 1:5, Pike went on to draw the following conclusion—of great significance to Latter-day Saint teachings about this verse:30

Beyond what Jeremiah 1:5a conveys with the declaration that YHWH “knew” Jeremiah before he was conceived, the biblical text declares that YHWH created Jeremiah in the womb and that after Jeremiah was conceived—after he became a viable and recognizable human life-form in his mother’s womb—he was, according to the Israelite perspective preserved in the Bible, “appointed” to become a prophet of YHWH. I think there is no avoiding this plain sense of the verse, although what the theological implications are is open to question. Thus, Jeremiah 1:5, in its biblical context, is best understood as attesting to two pre-birth phases of Jeremiah’s existence. It also witnesses an Israelite understanding of two phases of pre-birth election, that which occurred before conception and additionally, that which occurred post-conception but in the womb. Although this raises questions we cannot currently answer, such queries in no way annul the biblical depiction, nor diminish the Latter-day Saint perspective on Jeremiah’s premortal existence.

Dana M. Pike

Readers of When Souls Had Wings will be happy to learn that Givens, after having written his larger opus for a general audience, later dedicated a substantive chapter in a 2015 book, Wrestling the Angel: The Foundations of Mormon Thought: Cosmos, God, Humanity to specific topics in Latter-day Saint theology on subjects relating to premortal life that were not previously covered in any detail.31

After an overview of events and revelations that bear on Joseph Smith’s general teachings on preexistence, Givens tackles a set of related but more specific topics that deserved deeper discussion: Latter-day Saint teachings on spirit adoption, sex and gender, personality and lineage, and the interplay of beliefs about preexistence and the former restriction on the priesthood for Black Latter-day Saints.

An entire book could be written on these topics alone—and I hope someday someone will do it.


Conclusion

I hope the very small sampling given here of the rich ideas and sources assembled in When Souls Had Wings will inspire new readers to plumb its depths. We are deeply indebted to Terryl L. Givens for having (again) gone where no other Latter-day Saint writers have gone before.


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Further reading

When Souls Had Wings Resources

Footnotes

  1. J. Smith, Jr., Joseph Smith Discourse, 7 April 1844 (Times and Seasons), p. 613. Compare J. Smith, Jr., 7 April 1844 (Papers), p. 15.
  2. See W. Wordsworth, Ode: Intimations of Immortality stanza 5 (lines 59-66), p. 470.
  3. See, for example, N. Frye, Secular Scripture.
  4. A. Gileadi, Literary, p. 12.
  5. See, for example, J. B. Pritchard, ANET, pp. 18-22.
  6. See, for example, J. E. Coleson, Life Cycle; A. Gileadi, Decoded; S. D. Ricks, Prophetic.
  7. See, for example, the story of Jacob in Genesis 27-33. See also M. L. Bowen and J. M. Bradshaw, From Jared to Jacob (TMZ 2022); J. M. Bradshaw and M. L. Bowen, Jacob’s Temple Journey (TMZ 2022).
  8. See, for example, D. E. Callender, Adam, pp. 211-18. From a ritual perspective, these three parts correspond to van Gennep’s classic stages of separation (préliminaire), transition (liminaire), and reintegration (postliminaire) (A. van Gennep, Rites, p. 11).
  9. Luke 15:11–32. See, for example, R. L. Millet, Lost; M. R. Linford, Parable.
  10. Luke 10:29–37. See, for example, J. W. Welch, Samaritan (1999); J. W. Welch, Samaritan (2007).
  11. L. Richards, Marvelous, p. 290. Originally published in W. Wordsworth, Ode: Intimations of Immortality, stanza 5 (lines 59-66), p. 470. Senior members may recall having heard the following lines from William Wordsworth in the Church-produced film for the 1964–65 New York World’s Fair, Man’s Search for Happiness, or having read them in LeGrand Richards’ now out-of-print missionary resource, A Marvelous Work and a Wonder.**
  12. In a later comment, Wordsworth qualified his degree of certainty about the ideas of premortality expressed in the poem, stating that the concept was “far too shadowy a notion to be recommended to faith” (quoted in R. Brantley, Wordsworth’s Natural Methodism, p. 125).
  13. Cited in T. L. Givens, When Souls, p. 251.
  14. E. Drewermann, Parabole, p. 283. Drewermann was applying this conclusion not to Wordsworth, but to the feeble remainder of Antoine de St. Exupéry’s “vestigial Catholicism” that is woven into the story of The Little Prince.
  15. W. James, Pragmatism and Religion, pp. 290–297. Elder B. H. Roberts also admiringly cited a longer version of this passage in B. H. Roberts, Seventy’s Course 4 (1911), pp. 30–32 and B. H. Roberts, The Truth, pp. 286–287. In a marginal note in a volume by James Roberts asked, “Had James read of the council in heaven?” (T. G. Madsen, Defender, p. 439n34). Sterling M. McMurrin commented as follows about James’ statement ((S. M. McMurrin, Theological, p. 34): “Nowhere is the radical finitism of James more effectively expressed in contrast to traditional Christian absolutism than in his famous lines in Pragmatism,” a statement that “warms the heart of every Mormon reader.”
  16. The intent of James in this passage is not to make a specific metaphysical claim about what actually happened in a hypothetical premortal life. Instead, he is “discussing the ‘logic’ of scientific inquiry,” by which ordinary people, like scientists, develop their beliefs, i.e., “we have these habits to believe in God and salvation and this generally works out well for us” (I. Cran, Why We Won’t Ever Arrive): For example, James says, “It would contradict the very spirit of life to say that our minds must be indifferent and neutral in questions like that of the world’s salvation.” We care for the world’s salvation by nature—this is our shared spirit of life. An ethicist might make an argument of the form: if you assume my x, y, z premises are true and you are a rational-minded person, then you should do this or that. James describes us as a scientist would: look around, we observe x, y, and z, and this theory accounts for what we observe.
  17. N. Frye, Fearful Symmetry: A Study of William Blake.
  18. As Carlfred Broderick puts it (C. Broderick, Adversity): The gospel of Jesus Christ is not insurance against pain. It is resource in event of pain, and when that pain comes (and it will come because we came here on earth to have pain among other things), when it comes, rejoice that you have resource to deal with your pain.” Now, I do not want to suggest for a moment, nor do I believe, that God visits us with all that pain. I think that may occur in individual cases, but I think we fought a war in heaven for the privilege of coming to a place that was unjust. That was the idea of coming to earth—that it was unjust, that there would be pain and grief and sorrow. As Eve so eloquently said, it is better that we should suffer. Now, her perspective may not be shared by all. But, I am persuaded that she had rare insight, more than her husband, into the necessity of pain, although none of us welcome it.
  19. N. Frye, Fearful Symmetry: A Study of William Blake, p. 238. Elder B. H. Roberts eloquently emphasized the central role of experience in the purpose of life when he attempted to harmonize the justice of God with the seeming injustice of the highly varied circumstances in which God’s children come into the world: (B. H. Roberts, What Is Man, p. **): 
    • Remember, we must keep in view the fact that God is just, and no respecter of persons. Then how do you reconcile this fact I have pointed out with the justice of God? I reconcile it by the knowledge which comes to us through the doctrine of the pre-existence of man’s spirit, and I believe that conditions in this life are influenced and fixed by the degree of faithfulness, by the degree of development in the pre-existent state. Otherwise the diversified conditions in which men find themselves placed cannot be reconciled with the justice of God. Then how blessed, indeed, some one will exclaim, must they be who are born to riches, who were born to titles, to dukedoms, earldoms, and lordships! How faithful must they have been who inherit these privileges and blessings! whose life is one continual summer, whose existence is as a sea without a ripple! Nay, I pray you, take no such view of it as that. This class that I have described are not the most blessed among men. When you would point to those who are the favored sons of God, and who enjoy the best and highest privileges in this life, you must take into account the object for which man came here. That object is to gain an experience. Hence, those are the most blessed who live in the midst of conditions that give the widest experience. The favored sons of God are not those furthest removed from trial, from sorrow, from affliction. It is the fate, apparently, of those whom God most loves that they suffer most, that they might gain the experience for which men came into this world. … I take it that the life of Jesus Christ and these His words to the Prophet demonstrate the truth for which I was contending, that not those furthest removed from trials and afflictions are most blessed; but those who are called to pass through the thickest of afflictions are the most blessed; for the Son of Man hath passed through them all.
  20. In a discussion of Blake’s imagery of the tiger in his Songs of Experience, we see the face of “our accusing enemy who frightens us out of Paradise behind the menacing blaze of a tiger’s eyes” (N. Frye, Fearful Symmetry: A Study of William Blake, p. 237): This is the only world the child can grow into, and yet the child must grow. The Songs of Experience are satires, but one of the things that they satirize is the state of innocence. They show us the butcher’s knife which is waiting for the unconscious lamb. Conversely, the Songs of Innocence satirize the state of experience, as the contrast which they present to it makes its hypocrisies more obviously shameful. Hence the two sets of lyrics show two contrary states of the soul, and in their opposition there is a double-edged irony, cutting into both the tragedy and the reality of fallen existence.
  21. Hebrews 6:20. See J. M. Bradshaw, Freemasonry and the Origins of Latter-day Saint Temple Ordinances, p. 76; J. M. Bradshaw, Temple Themes in the Oath, pp. 61–62.
  22. N. Frye, Fearful Symmetry: A Study of William Blake, p. 238, emphasis added.
  23. Church President Spencer W. Kimball himself requested that the line reading “Teach me all that I must know” be changed to “Teach me all that I must do.” Similarly, the later addition of a fourth verse to the song emphasized that “celestial glory shall be mine if I can but endure.” For details of these changes, see S. H. Bradshaw, I Am a Child of God; A. Olsen, Beloved Song; New Verse Is Written, New Verse Is Written; S. J. Weaver, Hymn Writer Tells.
  24. See J. M. Bradshaw and R. J. Head, Mormonism’s Satan; J. M. Bradshaw, Tree of Knowledge.
  25. Mosiah 5:7. See J. M. Bradshaw and M. L. Bowen, By the Blood Ye Are Sanctified, p. 50.
  26. 3 Nephi 20:26. See R. M. Nelson, Children of the Covenant; R. M. Nelson, Choices for Eternity.
  27. See Alma 5:9, 26. See J. M. Bradshaw, Faith, Hope, and Charity, pp. 103–104 [journal reprint, p. 251].
  28. See, e.g., T. L. Givens and F. Givens, God Who Weeps.
  29. J. D. Hurlbut et al., ‘When Souls Had Wings’.
  30. D. M. Pike, Formed, p. 332.
  31. T. L. Givens, Wrestling the Angel, pp. 147–183.

References

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