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.