In 2001, an email containing the following excerpt from a talk attributed to Boyd K. Packer circulated rapidly in LDS circles:
You were in the War in Heaven and one day when you are in the spirit world you will be enthralled with those who you associate with. You will ask someone in which time period he lived and you might hear, I was with Moses when he parted the Red Sea, or I helped build the pyramids, or I fought with Captain Moroni. And as you are standing there in amazement, someone will turn to you and ask, ‘Which prophet’s time did you live in?’ And when you say Gordon B. Hinckley, a hush will fall over every hall, every corridor in heaven and all in attendance will bow at your presence. You were held back six thousand years because you were the most talented, most obedient, most courageous, and most righteous. Are you still? Remember who you are.
As you might expect, it wasn’t long before this quote found its way into sacrament meeting talks and Sunday school lessons. And if Twitter and Facebook had existed back then, it undoubtedly would have gone viral. There was only one problem. Elder Packer never said this. In a statement published in the Church News, he declared: “I did not make that statement. I do not believe that statement.”
It will probably come as no surprise that this email enjoyed a second life in 2008 when President Hinckley passed away. This was swiftly followed by another repudiation of the quote by church leadership. (This email, by the way, was not a hoax. The quote was ultimately attributed to Jack Marshall, a Mormon motivational speaker, who was quoted in the book Tips for Tackling Teenage Troubles, by LDS author and educator, Brad Wilcox. An anonymous individual then disseminated it, attributing authorship to Elder Packer.)
One explanation for the widespread popularity of this email can be found in the way in which it appeals to what Professors Reeve and Van Wagenen call “a sense of Mormon exceptionalism.” The recipients of the email counted themselves among the privileged few. They saw themselves as a “chosen people,” members of a “Rising Generation” held in reserve to fight God’s battles in the last days. But in this, we are not unique.
With few exceptions, each generation of Christians, starting with the first, has embraced, to one degree or another, two beliefs: (1) the Second Coming is imminent, and (2) they would play an important role in this grand event. These sentiments are captured perfectly by biblical scholars E. Randolph Richards and Brandon J. O’Brien. For many, the apocalyptic texts in the Bible seem meaningless unless the events they describe were planned to occur in their lifetime? “Of course the world couldn’t end before I got here, but now that I’m here, there isn’t any reason for God to wait any longer.” No one would ever say this out loud, but the underlying sentiment is not alien to us.
I find the notion of a “rising generation” troublesome. There is scant scriptural support for it, and it often breeds pride, tempting us to see ourselves as better than others, thereby diminishing the contributions of our forefathers and the essential work being done by individuals of other faiths. And it has a darker, pernicious side.
As LDS scholar Terryl Givens astutely observes in his new book, The Pearl of Greatest Price, if we believe we are destined to play an essential part in the end times, the temptation to find a causal connection between our elevated status in this world and our supposed behavior in a prior state of existence becomes appealing. Consistent with the natural tendency to equate blessedness with virtue, many church leaders have been inclined to see “present privilege as following from pre-mortal righteousness.” And, as Givens notes, it “didn’t help that the Book of Abraham, like the Old Testament, reinforced such logic.” The “souls that . . . were good” in the pre-mortal world, God declared to the patriarch, would be made his “rulers.” (Abraham 3:23.)
Tragically for the church, this idea was carried to extreme when it was employed to explain the plight and discriminatory treatment of the black race. Beginning in the 1840s, it was offered as a justification for the Priesthood Ban, frequently premised on the notion that blacks had been neutral or uncommitted bystanders during the War in Heaven. It wasn’t until 2013 that the church disavowed the belief that the pigment of one’s skin is a sign of disfavor or cursing, a vile idea that sadly continues to resurface—as we have seen in the 2020 Come Follow Me Manual—much to our collective disgust and mortification.
So, where does this leave us? How do we make sense of this? Let’s start with the context in which the Lord showed Abraham the “noble and great” among the intelligences that were organized before the world was, the ones he would make his rulers.
The setting for this narrative is commonly referred to as the Council in Heaven. This was not just a divine assembly, Givens notes, but also a special gathering where, according to Joseph Smith, “we were all present and saw the Savior chosen and appointed, and the plan of salvation made and we sanctioned it.” (Joseph Smith Papers-D7, p. 495.) We were active participants in the plan devised for our mortal existence, all of which suggests we had a pretty clear idea as to what was in store.
As noted, at this time the Father chose the Savior, instead of Lucifer, as the vehicle by which the plan of salvation would be implemented; hence, one of the names by which he is known is “the Chosen.” (Moses 7.39.) But this is only half the story. Before Christ could be selected, he had to volunteer. “And the Lord said: Whom shall I send?” And the First Born answered: “Here am I, send me.” (Abraham 3:27.)
This motif occurs elsewhere in the scriptures. The Lord, for example, in the year when King Uzziah of the Old Testament died, needed someone to deliver a harsh and unpopular message to the people. At this moment, Isaiah “heard the voice of the Lord saying, ‘Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?’ And I said, ‘Here am I; send me!’” (Isaiah 6:8 NRSV; see also 1 Kings 22:20 KJV: “And the Lord said, Who shall persuade Ahab, that he may go up and fall….”)
Abraham also answered that call, along with other noble and great ones. But who were they?
If the Father began by asking for someone to volunteer for a life of torment, ending with abandonment, vicious persecution, and eventual crucifixion, and if it was understood that many of his children would be expected to endure extreme hardships of their own, it stands to reason that the request for volunteers did not end with the Savior, as we saw with Isaiah. And God might have continued the process in a similar manner:
• “Because of the imperfect nature of the world to which you are going, some will be born with debilitating and painful defects or otherwise experience a truncated life beset with physical pain. Who believes they can endure such affliction and still keep their faith in me?”
• “Some will be enslaved by people they now call their brothers and sisters, who will beat and abuse them and sell their children to other masters in distant lands, causing untold grief and heartache. Who among you can bear such cruelty and not allow hatred to darken your soul?”
• “My revelations, teachings or even knowledge of my very existence will be unavailable to some because of the circumstances of their birth, which will place them in a world of ignorance and darkness. Do you have the strength to find me on your own through contemplation and in prayer and in the natural world around you?”
Sadly, when these and similar questions were being asked, I envision myself staring at my feet while many of those to my right and left raised their hands and stepped forward.
Is it possible that the noble and great, and the ones who will be the rulers through eternity, are not necessarily the men and women of prominence who we idolize today, but include the infirm, the downtrodden, the persecuted and the indentured? Consider the etymology of the verb “to rule,” which is derived from the Latin regula meaning, “to straighten,” “to guide,” “to move in a straight line.” Who better to lead us than those whose faith, like that of the Savior’s, did not waiver during severe trials?
I believe Plato got it right when he taught (as paraphrased by Givens) that: “Lives of deprivation and hardship and disadvantage might be indicative of a noble soul’s willed decision to embrace a more arduous path in mortality than the way of ease and privilege chosen by others less daring.” So perhaps when Christ said, “Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me,” (Matt. 25:40 KJV), he was saying: “These folks are my true brothers and sisters, the ones who, like myself, accepted a difficult calling, one devoid of any earthly reward. They are my family.”
Maybe we were borne into the church or were led to it by others not because we were exceptional but because we were among the weakest of God’s children. Instead of the Lord reserving us for the last days, perhaps we were the ones who booked the reservation, asking to be sent to a time and place of great freedom and prosperity. If so, it should prompt us to read these words of the Savior in a different light: “From everyone to whom much has been given, much will be required; and from the one to whom much has been entrusted, even more will be demanded.” (Luke 12:48 NRSV.) This just might be the Lord’s way of saying: “Okay, you passed on all the tough assignments; now, your debt to me has come due.”
I don’t know if my scriptural interpretations are correct. But if nothing else they help me, as a Latter-day Saint, recalibrate with humility—if not with fear and trembling—my views regarding our preferred status in the eyes of the Lord.
 Reeve, W. Paul, Michael Scott Van Wagenen, Between Pulpit and Pew, Utah State University Press, 2011.
 Richards, E. Randolph, Brandon J. O’Brien, Misreading Scripture with Western Eyes, InterVarsity Press, 2012.
 Givens, Terryl with Brian M. Hauglid, The Pearl of Greatest Price, Oxford University Press, 2019.
 The Joseph Smith Papers–Documents, Volume 7 Church Historian’s Press, 2018, p. 495.
13 thoughts on “The Rising Generation and the End Times”
From what little experience I have had over the years, my Priesthood leaders simply referred to the rising generation as the current generation of young people, and have never attached and special “endowment” in so saying.
This is just my opinion, good brother.
The idea that we volunteered for our position in life is interesting, but I wonder if so, how much did we understand? Supposing we didn’t have bodies, did we understand physical pain, disability, hunger, or loss as anything more than an abstract idea? A person who chose a life of physical disability may have known in theory about the pain they might endure, but their spiritual self may have been limited in making a understanding the extent of that physical issue.
Perhaps our spirits volunteered based on concepts that they (we) understood in a spiritual sense. This would be similar to now, when we make decisions based on physical senses to our benefit or detriment. Maybe things like responsibility, loyalty, faith, love, or relationships were weighed heaviest.
Victor Hugo wrote “In this world, evidently the vestibule of another, there are no fortunate.” While I agree it is distasteful to believe that as a member of the Church of Jesus Christ I am anything more than peculiar, I also find little utility in equating another’s earthly suffering to their premortal nobility.
I’m unsure why we chose what we did in our previous state, but I do agree that we likely had a choice. Agency is pervasive throughout the entire process and how we chose then matters much less than what we chose now.
Great to hear from you, Michael, as always.
My experience, and that of my father and of my children, has been different. We were all told on multiple occasions that we were special, members of an exceptional generation who were preordained to come to earth in the last days. (I think we were often told this in an effort to get us to behave differently. Didn’t always work, though.)
General Authorities have frequently echoed this sentiment, as illustrated by this statement made by Ezra Taft Benson to the students at BYU in March 1979. “For nearly six thousand years, God has held you in reserve to make your appearance in the final days before the Second Coming of the Lord.” Pronouncements such as these help explain why so many church members never questioned the bona fides of that bogus email attributed to Elder Packer and were willing to embrace it a second time several years later even after it had been renounced by the church.
Whether the term “rising generation” is always used when this message is conveyed was not central to the point I was trying to make. But I can see how other church leaders could use it in a different context, so you’re point is well taken.
Clay, thanks for sharing those thoughts. Your point regarding how much, as spirits, we really understood about physical pain is one I had not considered.
As I indicated, I’m not sure that my reading of these scriptures is entirely accurate. But I do believe there is utility in considering the possibility that another person’s premortal choice to endure hardship in this life was grounded in their noble character. If by doing so we, as you eloquently put it, come to realize that we may be nothing more than peculiar, then perhaps a valuable purpose has been served.
I loved this the first time I read it – and I love it more reading it again. Thank you, Eric.
Thank you, Summer. You are most kind.
Thank you Clay, for your musings on our antemortal experiences and the possible conditions suggested. Those questions caused me to recall Elder Holland’s remarks in April 2009 and gives an intimate look into the final and lonely period until the end …
“Now I speak very carefully, even reverently, of what may have been the most difficult moment in all of this solitary journey to Atonement. I speak of those final moments for which Jesus must have been prepared intellectually and physically but which He may not have fully anticipated emotionally and spiritually—that concluding descent into the paralyzing despair of divine withdrawal when He cries in ultimate loneliness, “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?”
Here is the excerpt in a short video …
It just may be that His final days and hours of sorrow and pain, are to be considered, the “things in life that matter most”
Again, thank you.
Strangely enough I have often had these same feelings and expressed the thought that I was probably a weaker spirit to not have to suffer through the horrible trials and challenges so many of God’s children face on this earth. I live with plenty of physical comfort and opportunities. A part of me actually is ok with being a weaker spirit if if it means I have less to overcome.
I love the Plato quote summarized by Givens “Lives of deprivation and hardship and disadvantage might be indicative of a noble soul’s willed decision to embrace a more arduous path in mortality than the way of ease and privilege chosen by others less daring.” So perhaps when Christ said, “Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me,” and this follow up: (Matt. 25:40 KJV), he was saying: “These folks are my true brothers and sisters, the ones who, like myself, accepted a difficult calling, one devoid of any earthly reward. They are my family.”
Karen, I pretty much feel the way you do, which only heightens my awareness of how much is now expected of me.
Nothing very notable or wise to add, just to acknowledge that you have raised some very thought- provoking and useful points. I well remember church leaders telling me how special our generation is (or was). How faithful are we when we aren’t extra special but just another in a line of God’s children? Anyway, thank you.
Jeff, I really like the question you pose: “How faithful are we when we aren’t extra special but just another in a line of God’s children?”
One of the principal reasons we focus so heavily on the individual and less on the community is because of western culture. It was the Enlightenment that brought the individual to the forefront and freed him from the notion that the station in life he acquired birth was his destiny. He should be free to chart his own course and his right to do so should be guaranteed and protected.
While I think the Enlightenment was a positive and much-overdue development, if carried too far, the individual will feel that his “specialness” is more important than the welfare of the community as a whole. This cultural attitude sometimes finds expression in our church, which is problematical. But it is a far more serious problem in the western world today where people tend to think of themselves as a member of an “identity group,” not society as whole. People are losing the shared national narrative that binds them together. And with that loss comes moral relativism. If this trend continues, it bodes ill for our country.
When the Soviet Union collapsed, Gorbachev said to the United States, “We are now going to do to your country the worst thing we have ever done. We are going to take away your enemy.” It seems we are doing our best to fulfill his prophecy.
It’s interesting how closely your thoughts on the Council of Heaven resemble the “original position” thought experiment that is at the heart of philosopher John Rawls’ highly influential “A Theory of Justice” (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/A_Theory_of_Justice) — but with the fascinating twist that some might choose more difficult lives.
I’m embarrassed to admit, Doug, that I have not read Rawls’ “A Theory of Justice.” Your comment, which I find most intriguing, is the kick in the pants I needed to correct that oversight. Just ordered a copy from Amazon. Thank you.