In April 2020 Conference, President Oaks said the following:
In the Council in Heaven, all the spirit children of God were introduced to the Father’s plan, including its mortal consequences and trials, its heavenly helps, and its glorious destiny. We saw the end from the beginning. All of the myriads of mortals who have been born on this earth chose the Father’s plan and fought for it in the heavenly contest that followed. Many also made covenants with the Father concerning what they would do in mortality. In ways that have not been revealed, our actions in the spirit world have influenced our circumstances in mortality.
That last sentence struck a nerve with a lot of people, because the doctrine of the preexistence has in the past been misused to promote racist and ethnocentrist religious ideas. But I’d like to propose a better way of seeing that statement, informed by our personal experiences.
A quick scavenger hunt. I would suggest to understand President Oaks’ message, first watch and/or read Truman G. Madsen’s talk On How We Know. Pay special attention to his discussion of remembering the preexistence. Especially this quote from Joseph F. Smith:
But in coming here, we forgot all, that our agency might be free indeed, to choose good or evil, that we might merit the reward of our own choice and conduct. But by the power of the Spirit, in the redemption of Christ, 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.
Second, go to Facebook and watch Darcy Warne’s testimony. Listen to what she says at the :55 mark about her experience of coming to belief: “you’re going to believe it, almost like you’re remembering it.”
Third, go to YouTube and watch Eric Samuels’ conversion story on Saints Unscripted. At the 20 minute mark, listen to his characterization of his response to the missionaries’ teachings, especially beginning at 21:13 “And the more I learned about preexistence…things just started clicking..I was like ‘I feel like I remember some of these things…maybe I’m going crazy, but it feels like there’s things I remember or things I already know.’”
In light of the testimony of those two credible witnesses, go back and reread President Oaks’ statement quoted above.
Finally, my contribution to the discussion.
Early in my mission, I had a companion who was obsessed with the preexistence. He used to read about it and speculate about it constantly, and talk about promises we made there, relationships we developed there, and so forth. I was always eager to change the subject, because I figured those things were not knowable.
On the very last day of my mission, before I traveled to the mission office to head home, I baptized a woman. I had been in that area for 7 months, and this woman had been attending church every week during my time there. In fact, she had been attending church every week for 22 years. Over those years, countless pairs of Elder and Sister missionaries had taught her and challenged her to baptism, and she gave us all the same answer: “you are not the right one.” Her decision to be baptized had nothing to do with the principle itself; she had been waiting for a particular missionary to come to teach her. She couldn’t describe this missionary in any way; she just insisted that she would recognize him or her when the time came.
26 days before the end of my mission I got a new companion (also from California), and he bore his testimony that Sunday in church. After church, our eternal investigator came up to me and said “He is the one.” We went and taught her the discussions again, and she accepted every principle and every commitment. She told my companion that she recognized him from some time in the past, even though they had never met.
Maybe you have experienced a connection with a particular person after you met them for the first time, where you felt you had known each other and played a role in each other’s lives somehow. You might have also sensed that you were reliving conversations you had before, and influencing each other in positive and healing ways that you had before. If someone has taught you the gospel in a very particular way that seems very uniquely compatible with and familiar to your spirit and helps you see things with clarity, then there is a possibility that some form of that teaching happened before. My mission president taught us that the war in heaven was a war of teaching and persuading, and the only thing that has changed is the battleground.
Anyway, I have had experiences like this that have led me to believe in the preexistence, and how things we did there have influenced our lives here. Elder Richard G. Scott said in October 1999 Conference:
The Lord has placed currents of divine influence in your life that will lead you along the individual plan He would have you fulfill here on earth. Seek through the Spirit to identify it and carefully follow that direction that the Lord has put in your life. Align yourself with it. Choose, willingly, to exercise your agency to follow it.
I wonder if those currents often lead us to people we have known and taught and influenced before, and returning to Pres. Oaks’ statement, maybe that is how our actions then affect our circumstances now.
Aside from being a viable doctrinal context for President Oaks’ remarks, I think it illustrates a very important model of revelation that is fully unique to Latter-Day Saints: it’s revelation in the form of remembering things that we have known since preexistence.
p.s. after telling that mission story recently, a convert friend responded with the following:
I remember the first time I saw the missionary that stood in the font and baptized me. As soon as I saw him, I thought “I KNOW this guy from somewhere, but how could I? He’s from Utah.” I didn’t say anything but I felt like I knew him for years. He then looked at me—don’t forget that this is our first lesson—and he said “I don’t ever tell people this, but I feel prompted by the Spirit to say this.” I won’t go into too much detail, but he went on to tell me that he felt we knew each other before we came here. Needless to say, my entire body had chills. I then told him what I was thinking. I have no doubt the three of us—those two missionaries and I—knew each other well before we came here.
Finally, one of our best-known examples of remembrance as revelation is found in Eliza R. Snow’s poetry that forms the hymn O My Father.
O my Father, thou that dwellest
In the high and glorious place,
When shall I regain thy presence
And again behold thy face?
In thy holy habitation,
Did my spirit once reside?
In my first primeval childhood
Was I nurtured near thy side?
For a wise and glorious purpose
Thou hast placed me here on earth
And withheld the recollection
Of my former friends and birth;
Yet ofttimes a secret something
Whispered, “You’re a stranger here,”
And I felt that I had wandered
From a more exalted sphere.
I had learned to call thee Father,
Thru thy Spirit from on high,
But, until the key of knowledge
Was restored, I knew not why.
In the heav’ns are parents single?
No, the thought makes reason stare!
Truth is reason; truth eternal
Tells me I’ve a mother there.
When I leave this frail existence,
When I lay this mortal by,
Father, Mother, may I meet you
In your royal courts on high?
Then, at length, when I’ve completed
All you sent me forth to do,
With your mutual approbation
Let me come and dwell with you.