Latter-day Saints usually think of pre-existence as a doctrine unique to Mormonism, known to Abraham and alluded to by Wordsworth in an oft-cited poem, but otherwise long lost to the Christian world. In actual fact, belief in the soul’s pre-mortal existence constitutes a rich if largely forgotten tradition in Western thought.
Several philosophers from Plato through Leibniz and Kant to twentieth-century Cambridge intellectuals, dozens of poets from antiquity to Robert Frost, and numerous religious thinkers throughout the Jewish and Christian traditions, propounded a pre-earthly realm peopled by the souls of men and women yet unborn. Pre-existence has been invoked to explain “the better angels of our nature,” including the human yearning for transcendence and the sublime; it suggests a reason for the frequent sensation of alienation and the indelible sadness of human existence.
Pre-existence has been urged to account for why we know what we should not know, to explain the unevenly distributed pain and suffering that are humanity’s common lot, and has been triumphantly invoked to rescue God’s justice and honor. Lives lived in pre-mortal realms have explained convincingly the uncannily instantaneous bonds between friends and between lovers, forged so profoundly they seem to possess their own mysterious prehistory. And many philosophers have found in human premortality the necessary precondition for a will that is genuinely free and independent.
Tracing the Idea
In my work on this topic, I have attempted to trace the genesis of the idea in Western thought, understand the reasons for its demise in the 5th and 6th centuries A.D., and its persistence and even resurgence in subsequent centuries, and to catalog the several functions the paradigm served, the needs it addressed, the problems it resolved, and the questions to which it provided compelling answers. Paradigms and belief structures, like myths and mythologies, persist because of their explanatory power. The most successful are those that are used more effectively than others in the interpretation of experience. They do important intellectual and cultural work, which is to say, they order reality, satisfy emotional yearning or longing, rationalize the incongruities and traumas of existence, or simply explain why the sky is blue, birds fly, and things are the way they are. Pre-mortal existence is such a paradigm.
Here, then, is a brief sketch of the idea’s history in Western thought. The oldest religious system known to scholars is that of ancient Mesopotamia. And in some of their oldest creation narratives, we already find tantalizing hints of a human soul that not only survives death, but originated in heaven. The poem Atra-Hasis (ca. 1700 BC), for example, recounts how a council of gods decided to create the human race, and took the spirit of a divine being to insert in the shell of clay, thus making the first man. The poem also suggests an apprehension on the part of the council, lest the man remember his divine origin and claim his rightful place among those gods.
Plato (428-348 BC), the father of Western philosophy, wrote several dialogues in which preexistence featured prominently. He employed the concept in order to explain human intuition of certain ideas, to account for human love, and to make sense out of a world of pain and sorrow.
The earliest Christian theologian to defend preexistence was Church Father Origen (185-254), once considered the greatest teacher after the apostles themselves. He acknowledges that the scriptures are vague on the question, but argues that reason inevitably leads us to affirm human preexistence as the only way to make sense of a universe populated by beings-human and heavenly-that range from angelic to demonic. The preexistence of the soul also seemed to generations of early Christians-and to many in the centuries since-vastly preferable as the theory of the spirit’s origins to the two alternatives, each with profound problems of their own. If God created the spirit at the time of conception (“creationism”), such a pure and innocent spirit would seem a living contradiction to the doctrine of original sin that Christians were coming to espouse. But if the spirit were created by the parents (“traducianism”), that would give to mortals a power to create something ineffable and immortal, which only God should be able to do. For these reasons, preexistence won out as a less problematic explanation in the debates and minds of many religious thinkers.
Augustine (354-430), the most influential theologian of Christianity after Paul, similarly found preexistence the most logical explanation of the soul’s origins. Among his many reasons was his sense that our yearning for God is a desire to return to a familiar state of happiness we have forgotten. By Augustine’s day, however, preexistence was coming under increasing attack from ecclesiastical leaders. Several implications of the doctrine were seen as hostile to developing conceptions of God and man: preexistence was too often associated with the Gnostics-a loosely defined group considered heretics and the gravest threat to Christian orthodoxy. Creation ex nihilo [out of nothing] was becoming the dominant version of the world’s origin, and that doctrine was incompatible with belief that humans pre-existed or co-existed with God. In addition, the innate immortality suggested by preexistence was thought to belong to God alone. Most disturbingly, preexistence suggested to influential theologians like Jerome (347-420) a dangerous collapse of the distance that should separate man from his Creator. Like the Mesopotamian gods, Jerome feared belief in an origin among the gods would lead man to assume he could return to claim a place there. When Augustine abandoned his explicit defense of the doctrine around 400, its fate was sealed. By the sixth century, emperors and church councils were issuing the first of several official denunciations of the doctrine of preexistence.
Where preexistence demonstrates its most powerful appeal and resilience is in how tenaciously it survived after its official expulsion from Christian dogma. Jewish writers were immune to Christian anathemas, of course, and they kept the tradition alive through a host of rabbinical and mystical texts. Christian mystics as well, like Hildegard von Bingen (b. 1098), Julian of Norwich (1342-1416), and Jacob Boehme (1575-1624) articulated different versions of preexistence.
The seventeenth century witnessed a full-fledged revival of the idea, when several clergymen philosophers in England known as the Cambridge Platonists argued passionately for a return to two early Christian doctrines: preexistence and what they called “deification.” These men and several contemporaries (including England’s first woman philosopher, Anne Conway), wrote an array of treatises, essays, and poetry, defending and celebrating preexistence, which their greatest member, Henry More (1614-1687), called one of the two keys to understanding the true nature of the universe (Copernican astronomy was the other).
By this time, the greatest philosophers in the European tradition are taking up the subject. Rene Descartes (1596-1650), the father of Rationalism, tries to account for innate ideas without employing the idea of preexistence, but a little over a century later, the greatest philosopher of the era, Immanuel Kant (1724-1804), propounded a series of explicit defenses of the doctrine. One of his most original was his insistence that if the soul of man is eternal like God, it can hardly be conjured into existence by an accident of sexual passion or trivial circumstance. In these centuries, other famous names appear periodically at the peripheries of the saga of preexistence.
Philosopher John Locke enters the debate only to say, if we don’t remember the preexistence, and memory forms our identity, then the preexisting I was a different I. American statesman Benjamin Franklin found the idea “well intended,” but thought it impertinent to press the issue beyond the veil.1
The Nineteenth Century
In the nineteenth century, building on the prestige of Kant, German theologians like Wilhelm Benecke (1776-1837) used preexistence to escape the quagmire of original sin (when Paul says “all have sinned,” he reasons, he can only mean in the preexistence, not through Adam), and Julius Muller (1801-1878) employs preexistence to explain human accountability (if our spirit is created at the time of birth, God would have to be responsible for our disposition to sin; only a preexisting spirit can be truly accountable for its actions).
So when Joseph Smith propounded the doctrine of preexistence in 1833 (D&C 93), he was asserting a concept that was swirling about in the intellectual currents of the age, being debated by philosophers, expounded by theologians, and celebrated in the poetry of myriad authors. What is striking about Smith’s treatment of the doctrine, is that it bears no evidence of influence from his contemporary world. Smith’s treatment takes us back to the Mesopotamian heavenly assemblies, with their myriad divine beings and contested plans, not to the world of Plato or Origen with humans sinning and falling from heaven.
Mormon views on preexistence made little impact on their contemporaries. But more famous contemporaries were more successful in stirring controversy. In 1840, it was discovered to public shock that Dr. Ashbel Green, minister and president of Princeton University, considered it “most rational . . . to suppose that all souls were created at the beginning of the world; that they remain in a quiescent state till the bodies which they are to inhabit are formed.”2
An even more illustrious contemporary of Joseph Smith upped the ante dramatically, following a spiritual epiphany where the doctrine was revealed to him in the midst of a crisis of faith. Edward Beecher (1803-1895) was son of Lyman Beecher, the “last great Puritan minister,” brother of Henry Ward Beecher, arguably the “most famous man” in post-Civil War America, and also brother of Harriet Beecher Stowe, author of Uncle Tom’s Cabin. From this most noted American family, Edward’s religious views were bound to attract more attention, and serious engagement, than those of a visionary farm boy. So when Beecher published his four-hundred page defense of preexistence in 1853, it elicited a firestorm of controversy. One reviewer noted of the book, “It has been reviewed and re-reviewed in Newspapers, Magazine Articles, Courses of Lectures, and in book-form. . . .It seems to have come down on pulpit and religious press like rain upon mown grass, as showers that water the earth in time of drought. The crop has been abundant.”3
In the same age, it was hard to find a poet of Romanticism-or later of the Victorian era-who did not wax rhapsodic on the subject: William Blake, William Wordsworth, Samuel Coleridge, Percy Shelley, and Lord Byron led out in the English speaking world, with Goethe and other Germans following suit. Lord Tennyson, Dante Rossetti, and Robert Browning continued the tradition a generation later.
The American Transcendentalists, led by Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803-1882), gave their own unique twist-and rationales-to the concept of preexistence. The soul is “ancestor of the world,” wrote his colleague Amos Alcott, “dateless, timeless. Coeval with God.”4 In the Concord School of Philosophy, prominent philosopher Hiram Jones lectured on preexistence year after year going into the 1880s (finding support, notes one account, from Miss Peabody, Nathaniel Hawthorne’s sister-in-law). By 1878, one bibliography of works on preexistence found the idea in “hundreds of philosophers, physicians, and poets” of the past, with a virtual explosion of interest in Germany.5
As Darwinian evolution took the scientific community by storm, poets and popularizers thought these new developments fit quite nicely with a view of the soul’s spiritual progress from pre-existence to limitless ascent, moving in parallel with the species’ physical development through aeons of time.
Few Vocal Sponsors
By the twentieth century, growing secularism in the intellectual world, and declining interest among philosophers in metaphysics, left the idea with few vocal sponsors. The great Russian philosopher Nicholas Berdyaev (1874-1948) would be a notable exception, arguing repeatedly that “we ought to admit the pre-existence of souls in another sphere before their birth on earth.”6 And Cambridge philosophers J. M. E. McTaggart (1866-1925) and John Wisdom (1904-1993) made powerful defenses of preexistence as a precondition for freedom of the will.
Poets like Nobel laureate Wislawa Szymborska found preexistence a fruitful poetic subject, as did Robert Frost (1874-1963), who wrote a magnificent poem on preexistence in the style of heroic Greek epic (“Trial by Existence”). More recently, a number of theologians and scholars of religion, when they address the subject, are frequently puzzled as to the precipitous and, to their minds, unjustified abandonment of a paradigm with so much explanatory power. Gerald Bostock thought it “hard to believe that the case against pre-existence [could] be closed by the theological timidity of the sixth century.”7 Elizabeth Clark ascribed its demise to a shift in interest from human potential, which preexistence richly suggested, to human sinfulness, which it did not. As a consequence, she notes, “Christianity was perhaps poorer.”8 And Cambridge classical scholar M. F. Burnyeat notes with irony, that “however many readers . . . believe that their soul will survive death, rather few, I imagine, believe that it also pre-existed their birth. The religions that have shaped Western culture are so inhospitable to the idea of pre-existence that you probably reject the thought out of hand, for no good reason.”9
A respected biblical commentary is in this regard entirely emblematic of the long history we have surveyed. Commenting on the clear allusion to pre-existence in chapter nine of John, where the disciples inquire about pre-mortal sin, the scholar acknowledges the appeal of such anthropologies that posit a relationship between present circumstance and prior existence.
In such a view there are no enigmas and no baffling problems of providence to puzzle and confuse the mind. It is all clear, and understandable, and absolutely just. . . . And what we are today, our circumstances, what befalls us in our present existence, and the like, these are not chance-blown, but are the fruit of what we were and did . . . . All the disabilities that beset us arise from our own mistakes and wrongdoings in the past . . . . We have no possible grievance against anyone or anything. . . . There is something majestic in this conception of a fundamental justice woven into the very web of life, running through all things, and working itself out in everything that happens to us: a conception which leaves no room for whimpering, or whining, or self-pity, or railing against fate.
The most vexing religious challenge of the Western tradition, theodicy, or the vindication of God’s justice in the face of evil, pain, and suffering, is hereby solved definitively, or so it would seem. Nevertheless, our commentator concludes with unexpected curtness, “surely it is much too crude and easy a solution.”10
Some beliefs deservedly meet a demise as definitive as their implausibility. Others persist with uncommon tenacity across millennia and across cultures, a tribute to their powerful satisfaction of logical, moral, and aesthetic imperatives.
Preexistence is such a belief.
In coming articles:
Here are a series of questions that philosophers and theologians have posed in centuries past. In subsequent articles, I will elaborate on how these questions led various thinkers to consider, and champion, the power of pre-existence to address the most vexing conundrums of the human condition.
1. Why is it that we instinctively yearn for God?
2. How can a theory of human freedom be grounded?
3. Why do we respond to truth and light?
4. How to explain the suddenness and intensity of human love?
5. How can we reconcile God’s justice with the pain and suffering in the world?
6. How are human origins and destiny related?
1 Benjamin Franklin to Jane Mecom, cited in The Works of Benjamin Franklin, 10 vols., ed. Jared Sparks (Boston: Hilliard, Gray, and Company, 1840), 7:58-59.
2 Green’s article appeared in The Christian Advocate volume 3 (1825): 530. The delayed reaction protest took fifteen years to hit the pages of the Christian Observer 19.32 (6 August 1840), which printed excerpts of the article.
3 H. B., “Review of The Divine Character Vindicated,” Universalist Quarterly and General Review (April 1855).
4 A. Bronson Alcott, “Orphic Sayings,” The Dial 4 vols. (New York: Russell & Russell, 1961), 1.3 (January 1841): 361.
5 William Rounseville Alger, The Destiny of the Soul: A Critical History of the Doctrine of a Future Life, 10th ed. (Boston: Roberts Brothers, 1880), 4.
6 Nicolas Berdyaev, The Beginning and the End IV.9.2, trans. R. M. French (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1952), 240-41.
7 Gerald Bostock, “The Sources of Origen’s Doctrine of Pre-Existence,” Origeniana Quarta: Die Referate des 4. Internationalen Origenskongresses (Innsbruck: Tyrolia-Verlag, 1985), 263.
8 Elizabeth A. Clark, The Origenist Controversy: The Cultural Construction of an Early Christian Debate (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1992), 250.
9 M. F. Burnyeat, “Other Lives,” London Review of Books 29.4 (22 February 2007).
10 George Arthur Buttrick, ed., The Interpreter’s Bible, 12 vols. (New York: Abingdon, 1952), 8: 611.