Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Evolution of Official Birth Control Teachings in the Mormon Church: From Depravity and Perversion to a Sacred Matter Between the Couple and God

It appears from comments received on my last post that some are unaware of the development of official policy of the Church regarding birth control. The purpose of this post is to clarify official teachings and to demonstrate that policy has filtered down variously in different local areas.

Since its inception in 1830, the LDS Church has maintained a positive stance toward the propogation of the human race. Due to its doctrine of premortal existence, members have been urged to welcome spirits to earth by providing them physical tabernacles. Married LDS couples today are counseled to desire children and to prayerfully decide how many they can provide for physically, emotionally, and financially. Thus, it is not always apparent that the rhetoric on having children today represents a large shift from previous policy.

Recent counsel to "decide" how many children to have presupposes that there is an accepted way to curtail the birth of children after the decided-upon number has been reached. Nowhere is it officially stated that birth control is approved. But this can be assumed by the counsel which recognizes choice in number of children. This tacit acceptance of birth control is a recent move which began tentatively in the late 1970's and did not gain momentum until the presidency of Gordon B. Hinckley.

The evidence of ancient contraceptive knowledge is impressive. A list of pre-19th century contraceptive methods include: withdrawal by the male; melting suppositories designed to form an impenetrable coating over the cervix; diaphragms, caps, or other devices inserted over the cervix and withdrawn after intercourse; intrauterine devices; douching after intercourse designed to kill or drive out the sperm; condoms; and varieties of the rhythm methods. None of these methods are new. Increased availability of mass-produced and medically sound methods of birth control was seen in the United States in the early 1800's. Modern condoms were produced in the U.S. beginning about 1830. The "womb veil," an early diaphragm, was widely used by 1860. Legislation concerning birth control began to be introduced in 1873 when Anthony Comstock pushed a bill through Congress which defined contraceptive information as obscene.

Birth control became a subject that Church leaders felt constrained to clarify, affecting as it did a doctrinal matter. I would like to emphasize that every president of the Church from Brigham Young to Spencer W. Kimball spoke strongly against birth control and unequivocally denounced the use of artificial means to stop children from coming to earth. Additionally, official statements under the auspices of the First Presidency were issued to reinforce the teaching. The following statements by the latter-day prophets are representative of their teachings on the subject:

Brigham Young

"There are multitudes of pure and holy spirits waiting to take tabernacles, now what is our duty? -- To prepare tabernacles for them; to take a course that will not tend to drive those spirits into the families of the wicked, where they will be trained in wickedness, debauchery, and every species of crime. It is the duty of every righteous man and woman to prepare tabernacles for all the spirits they can." (Brigham Young, Discourses of Brigham Young, p. 197.)

“To check the increase of our race has its advocates among the influential and powerful circles of society in our nation and in other nations. The same practice existed forty-five years ago, and various devices were used by married persons to prevent the expenses and responsibilities of a family of children, which they must have incurred had they suffered nature's laws to rule preeminent. That which was practiced then in fear and against reproving conscience, is now boldly trumpeted abroad as one of the best means of ameliorating the miseries and sorrows of humanity. Infanticide is very prevalent in our nation. It is a crime that comes within the purview of the law, and is therefore not so boldly practiced as is the other equally great crime, which, no doubt, to a great extent, prevents the necessity of infanticide. The unnatural style of living, the extensive use of narcotics, the attempts to destroy and dry up the fountains of life, are fast destroying the American element of the nation; it is passing away before the increase of the more healthy, robust, honest, and less sinful class of the people which are pouring into the country daily from the Old World. The wife of the servant man is the mother of eight or ten healthy children, while the wife of his master is the mother of one or two poor, sickly children, devoid of vitality and constitution, and, if daughters, unfit, in their turn, to be mothers, and the health and vitality which nature has denied them through the irregularities of their parents are not repaired in the least by their education.” (Brigham Young, Journal of Discourses, v. 12, pp. 120-121.)

John Taylor
"...parents are afraid to fulfill the first great law of God, "Be fruitful and multiply, and replenish the earth;" and by desperate circumstances are almost forced to the unnatural wish of not propagating their species; while, corrupted with a correspondent depravity with that which reigns among nations, they are found using suicidal measures to prevent an otherwise numerous progeny from increasing their father's misery, and inheriting his misfortunes." (John Taylor, The Government of God, Chapter 2.)

Wilford Woodruff
"As to the lesser sin of preventing conception, no general rule can be laid down, there are so many different circumstances distinguishing one case from another and such a difference in motives that each particular case has to be judged by itself and decided by the light of the Spirit. But we believe where persons sincerely repent and cease the practice, they should be permitted to enter the Church. This is not the unpardonable sin, and like other misdeeds, can be forgiven when penitence and reformation are shown." (Wilford Woodruff and Joseph F. Smith to Job Pingree, Jan. 23, 1894.)

Joseph F. Smith
“Those who have taken upon themselves the responsibility of wedded life should see to it that they do not abuse the course of nature; that they do not destroy the principle of life within them, nor violate any of the commandments of God. The command which he gave in the beginning to multiply and replenish the earth is still in force upon the children of men. Possibly no greater sin could be committed by the people who have embraced this gospel than to prevent or to destroy life in the manner indicated. We are born into the world that we may have life, and we live that we may have a fullness of joy, and if we will obtain a fullness of joy, we must obey the law of our creation and the law by which we may obtain the consummation of our righteous hopes and desires -- life eternal.” (Joseph F. Smith, Gospel Doctrine, p. 276.)

"I believe that where people undertake to curtail or prevent the birth of their children that they are going to reap the disappointment by and by. I have no hesitancy in saying it is one of the greatest crimes of this world today, this evil practice." (Joseph F. Smith, Gospel Doctrine, p. 278-279)

Heber J. Grant
“Another of the great evils of the age is race suicide. This also is not consistent with the gospel of Jesus Christ. Providing opportunity for the spirit children of our Father in Heaven to come to earth and work out their own salvation is one of our sacred privileges and obligations. We teach that among the choicest of eternal riches are children.” (Heber J. Grant, Gospel Standards, p. 154.)

George Albert Smith
"Children are a heritage from the Lord, and those who refuse the responsibility of bringing them into the world and caring for them are usually prompted by selfish motives, and the result is that they suffer the penalty of selfishness throughout eternity. There is no excuse for members of our Church adopting the custom of the world. . . We have been better taught than they." (George Albert Smith, "Birth Control," Relief Society Magazine, Feb. 1917, p. 72)

David O. McKay
“Any effort or desire on the part of a married couple to shirk the responsibility of parenthood reflects a condition of mind antagonistic to the best interests of the home, the state, and the nation. No doubt there are some worldly people who honestly limit the number of children and the family to two or three because of insufficient means to clothe and educate a large family as the parents would desire to do, but in nearly all such cases, the two or three children are no better provided for than two or three times that number would be. Such parents may be sincere, even if misguided; but in most cases the desire not to have children has its birth in vanity, passion, and selfishness. Such feelings are the seeds sown in early married life that produce a harvest of discord, suspicion, estrangement, and divorce. All such efforts, too, often tend to put the marriage relationship on a level with the panderer and the courtesan. They befoul the pure fountains of life with the slime of indulgence and sensuality. Such misguided couples are ever seeking but never finding the reality for which the heart is yearning.” (David O. McKay, Relief Society Magazine, v. 3, no. 7, July 1916)

Joseph Fielding Smith
“Those who attempt to pervert the ways of the Lord, and to prevent their offspring from coming into the world in obedience to this great command, are guilty of one of the most heinous crimes in the category. There is no promise of eternal salvation and exaltation for such as they, for by their acts they prove their unworthiness for exaltation and unfitness for a kingdom where the crowning glory is the continuation of the family union and eternal increase which have been promised to all those who obey the law of the Lord.

...it is only a matter of time before those who so strongly advocate and practice the pernicious doctrine of ‘birth control’ and the limiting of the number of children in the family, will have legislated themselves and their kind out of this mortal existence.” (Joseph Fielding Smith, Relief Society Magazine, v. 3, no. 7, July 1916.)

"Birth control is wickedness. The abuse of this holy covenant has been the primary cause for the downfall of nations. When the sacred vows of marriage are broken and the real purpose of marriage abused, as we find it so prevalent in the world today, then destruction is inevitable.

No nation can endure for any length of time, if the marriage covenants are abused and treated with contempt. The anger of the Almighty was kindled against ancient nations for their immorality. There is nothing that should be held in greater sacredness than this covenant by which the spirits of men are clothed with mortal tabernacles.

When a man and a woman are married and they agree, or covenant, to limit their offspring to two or three, and practice devices to accomplish this purpose, they are guilty of iniquity which eventually must be punished. Unfortunately this evil doctrine is being taught as a virtue by many people who consider themselves cultured and highly educated. It has even crept in among members of the Church and has been advocated in some of the classes within the Church.

It should be understood definitely that this kind of doctrine is not only not advocated by the authorities of the Church, but also is condemned by them as wickedness in the sight of the Lord." (Joseph Fielding Smith, Doctrines of Salvation, Vol. 2, Pg. 85-9

Harold B. Lee
“We declare it is a grievous sin before God to adopt restrictive measures in disobedience to God's divine command from the beginning of time to ‘multiply and replenish the earth.’ Surely those who project such measures to prevent life or to destroy life before or after birth will reap the whirlwind of God's retribution, for God will not be mocked.” (Harold B. Lee, Conference Report, October 1972, p. 63.)

Spencer W. Kimball
"I have told many groups of young people that they should not postpone their marriage until they have acquired all of their education ambitions. I have told tens of thousands of young folks that when they marry they should not wait for children until they have finished their schooling and financial desires. Marriage is basically for the family, and there should be no long delay. They should live together normally and let the children come. . ." (Spencer W. Kimball, "Marriage is Honorable," Speeches of the Year, 1973, p. 263)

"The tendency for many of our girls and many of our married women to put off or to reduce their families is not pleasing to your Heavenly Father, for He said, 'multiply and replenish the earth,' and He knew what He was doing, and any of our personal opinions don't amount to much as compared to the wisdom of God. And he said as he concluded this great effort of creation, 'And I . . .saw everything that I had made, and behold, all things which I had made were very good . . .' He stood off and looked them over. He had made no errors; He had made no mistakes; He had created man and woman for a purpose. That purpose was not fun; that purpose basically was to live together in harmony and peace and to rear children in righteousness . . ." (Spencer W. Kimball, Address to Special Interest Fireside in Tabernacle, 29 Dec. 1974, pp. 4-5)

Ezra Taft Benson
The world teaches birth control. Tragically, many of our sisters subscribe to its pills and practices when they could easily provide earthly tabernacles for more of our Father's children. We know that every spirit assigned to this earth will come, whether through us or someone else. There are couples in the Church who think they are getting along just fine with their limited families but who will someday suffer the pains of remorse when they meet the spirits that might have been part of their posterity.” (Ezra Taft Benson, Conference Report, April 1969, p. 12.)

"Young mothers and fathers, with all my heart I counsel you not to postpone having your children, being co-creators with our Father in Heaven. Do not use the reasoning of the world, such as, "We will wait until we can better afford having children, until we are more secure, until John has completed his education, until he has a better paying job, until we have a larger home, until we have obtained a few of the material conveniences," and on and on. This is the reasoning of the world and is not pleasing in the sight of God. Mothers who enjoy good health, have your children and have them early. And, husbands, always be considerate of your wives in the bearing of children. Do not curtail the number of children for personal or selfish reasons. Material possessions, social convenience, and so-called professional advantages are nothing compared to a righteous posterity. In the eternal perspective, children -- not possessions, not position, not prestige -- are our greatest jewels." ("To the Mothers in Zion," Parents' Fireside, Salt Lake City, Utah, 22 February 1987.)

“True to form, many of the people who desire to frustrate God's purposes of giving mortal tabernacles to His spirit children through worldwide birth control are the very same people who support the kinds of government that perpetuate famine. They advocate an evil to cure the results of the wickedness they support.” (Ezra Taft Benson, Teachings of Ezra Taft Benson, p. 539.)

Howard W. Hunter
“Honor your wife’s unique and divinely appointed role as a mother in Israel and her special capacity to bear and nurture children. We are under divine commandment to multiply and replenish the earth and to bring up our children and grandchildren in
light and truth (see Moses 2:28; D&C 93:40). You share, as a loving partner, the care of the children. Help her to manage and keep up your home. Help teach, train, and discipline your children” (Howard W. Hunter, Conference Report, Oct. 1994, 67; or Ensign, Nov. 1994, 50.)

The earlier statements of these latter-day prophets may have been somewhat euphemistic, but there was clearly no provision for a couple "prayerfully considering" how many children to have. These sentiments were echoed by many other Apostles and General Authorities, too numerous to list here.

There has always been a percentage of Church membership which has had difficulty with the absolute proscription of any kind of family planning. By the early 1900's, the issue of what to do when childbirth took a toll on the health of the mother was beginning to be discussed. Elder Orson F. Whitney of the Quorum of the Twelve wrote:

"The only legitimate 'birth control' is that which springs naturally from the observance of divine laws, and the use of procreative powers, not for pleasure primarily, but for race perpetuation and improvement. If this involves some self-denial on the part of the husband and father, so much the better for all concerned." (Orson F. Whitney, Relief Society Magazine 3, no. 7 (July 1916).)

In a similar statement, Joseph Fielding Smith announced that even in cases of sickness, "no prevention is legitimate except through absolute abstinence." (Joseph Fielding Smith, Improvement Era 11:959-61.)

There were several official statements which were circulated in the Church under the auspices of the First Presidency. One such statement appeared in the Relief Society Magazine in February of 1917 from the office of Joseph F. Smith, Anthon H. Lund, and Charles W. Penrose:

“Officers, members of the Relief Society, herein you have the word of the Lord, on this subject. Can anything be clearer or more emphatic? It is a very strange thing that people can believe that the Lord of Life could countenance for one moment, the refusal of his children to comply with the first commandment given to Adam and Eve. It is so easy to avoid parenthood, if people wish to do so, and that, too, innocently, even if selfishly. Men and women can remain unmarried. That is all there is to it.” (First Presidency {Joseph F. Smith, Anthon H. Lund, Charles W. Penrose}, Relief Society Magazine, v. 4, no. 2, February 1917, pp. 68-69.)

Despite these types of official Church statements, the feelings of Church members and local leaders varied from ward to ward and from stake to stake. Many members had made their own decisions about birth control. A 1935 poll of 1,159 BYU students showed that 89% believed in birth control in some form. Church leaders were aware of this and continued to warn members. In 1942 the official Church magazine, the Improvement Era, included an article entitled, "Should Birth Control Be Practiced?" In it, John A. Widtsoe made a strong case against artificial means of birth control. He warned of dire consequences accompanying the use of contraceptives:

"Since birth control roots in a species of selfishness, the spiritual life of the user of contraceptives is also weakened. Women seem to become more masculine in thought and action; men more callous and reserved; both husband and wife become more careless of each other." (John A. Widtsoe, Improvement Era, Dec 1942.)

Nonetheless, Widtsoe demonstrated an understanding that at times a mother's health might be a consideration for limiting family size. In exceptional cases he suggested, "careful recognition of the fertile and sterile periods of woman would prove effective in the great majority of cases. Recent knowledge of woman's physiology reveals the natural method for controlling birth."

When McConkie's Mormon Doctrine was published in 1958 the entry on birth control quoted from Joseph Fielding Smith, "Those who practice birth control...are running counter to the foreordained plan of the Almighty. They are in rebellion against God and are guilty of gross wickedness." (Bruce R. McConkie, Mormon Doctrine, first ed., 1958, p. 81.) For about 20 years, Mormon Doctrine remained one of the most authoritative sources most Mormons had on their bookshelves. But family size among active Latter-day Saints continued to shrink.

In 1979 a seminal article on the subject of birth control appeared in the Ensign magazine. The article was not written by a General Authority. It was composed by LDS doctor Homer Ellsworth, but its appearance in the Church's official magazine necessitated approval by Church authorities. In the article, Ellsworth gave his opinion that decisions regarding the number and spacing of children were to be made by husband and wife righteously and empathetically communicating together and seeking the inspiration of the Lord. He cited the then current counsel of the First Presidency in the General Handbook of Instructions and testified that he was inspired by this statement that "the health of the mother and the well-being of the family should be considered." The entire text of the First Presidency Statement Ellsworth referenced reads as follows:

“Presidents of Stakes, Bishops of Wards, and Presidents of Missions
Dear Brethren:
The First Presidency is being asked from time to time as to what the attitude of the Church is regarding birth control. In order that you may be informed on this subject and that you may be prepared to convey the proper information to the members of the Church under your jurisdiction, we have decided to give you the following statement:
We seriously should regret that there should exist a sentiment or feeling among any members of the Church to curtail the birth of their children. We have been commanded to multiply and replenish the earth that we may have joy and rejoicing in our posterity.

Where husband and wife enjoy health and vigor and are free from impurities that would be entailed upon their posterity, it is contrary to the teachings of the Church artificially to curtail or prevent the birth of children. We believe that those who practice birth control will reap disappointment by and by.
However, we feel that men must be considerate of their wives who bear the greater responsibility not only of bearing children, but of caring for them through childhood. To this end the mother's health and strength should be conserved and the husband's consideration for his wife is his first duty, and self control a dominant factor in all their relationships.

It is our further feeling that married couples should seek inspiration and wisdom from the Lord that they may exercise discretion in solving their marital problems, and that they may be permitted to rear their children in accordance with the teachings of the gospel.” (First Presidency {David O. McKay, Hugh B. Brown, N. Eldon Tanner}, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Office of the First Presidency, April 14, 1969.)

This letter has been called a "master of diplomacy." This is because the statement can and has been used to justify both sides of the birth control debate. Notice however, that it is made clear that artificial means of curtailing the birth of children is contrary to the Church's teachings, and that "self control" is advocated when considering the mother's health and strength to bear further children.

As can be seen in the comments to my last post, this Ensign article was hailed by members all over the Church as a signal that the Church position on birth control had relaxed. In fact, this was far from the case. Church president and prophet Ezra Taft Benson continued to make many strong statements against contraception throughout his ministry. But the tide could not be held back. Throughout the seventies and eighties, Stake Presidents and Bishops freely expressed varying views in private to their respective flocks. By the time President Gordon B. Hinckley took office, the Church's historical position regarding birth control had been largely forgotten. Since 1984, a subtle shift in rhetoric has allowed members to feel comfortable with their own prayerful decisions regarding family size:

Gordon B. Hinckley
"Of course we believe in children. The Lord has told us to multiply and replenish the earth that we might have joy in our posterity, and there is no greater joy than the joy that comes of happy children in good families. But he did not designate the number, nor has the Church. That is a sacred matter left to the couple and the Lord." (Gordon B. Hinckley, Cornerstones of a Happy Home, Satellite fireside broadcast, Jan 29, 1984, then distributed in the pamphlet of the same name)

Proclamation on the Family
The first commandment that God gave to Adam and Eve pertained to their potential for parenthood as husband and wife. We declare that God’s commandment for His children to multiply and replenish the earth remains in force. (Proclamation on the Family, Ensign, Nov 1995, 102.)

Church Handbook of Instructions
It is the privilege of married couples who are able to bear children to provide mortal bodies for the spirit children of God, whom they are then responsible to nurture and rear. The decision as to how many chldren to have and when to have them is extremely intimate and private and should be left between the couple and the Lord. Church members should not judge one another in this matter.

Married couples also should understand that sexual relations within marriage are divinely approved not only for the purpose of procreation, but also as a means of expressing love and strengthening emotional and spiritual bonds between husband and wife. (Church Handbook of Instructions, January 1999)

True To the Faith--a Church published booklet referencing a number of gospel principles:
When married couples are physically able, they have the privilege of providing mortal bodies for Heavenly Father’s spirit children. They play a part in the great plan of happiness, which permits God’s children to receive physical bodies and experience mortality.

If you are married, you and your spouse should discuss your sacred responsibility to bring children into the world and nurture them in righteousness. As you do so, consider the sanctity and meaning of life. Ponder the joy that comes when children are in the home. Consider the eternal blessings that come from having a good posterity. With a testimony of these principles, you and your spouse will be prepared to prayerfully decide how many children to have and when to have them. Such decisions are between the two of you and the Lord.

As you discuss this sacred matter, remember that sexual relations within marriage are divinely approved. While one purpose of these relations is to provide physical bodies for God’s children, another purpose is to express love for one another—to bind husband and wife together in loyalty, fidelity, consideration, and common purpose. (True to the Faith: A Gospel Reference, 2004, p. 26.)

Thus we see a subtle but important shift in the doctrinal teachings of the Church on the subject of birth control. Official statements by the Church continue to be careful in their wording. Unequivocal pronouncements such as "birth control may be used for the spacing of children" are absent from official sources, but may form counsel given by local leadership or members. At present, it is generally accepted that any Mormon couple, while encouraged to have children and create a family, may make their own inspired decisions in regards to contraception and family size.


ungewiss said...

Having read the comments to your prior post, I have to say that this was immensely satisfying for me to read. I always enjoy a strong rebuttal. Take 'em to school, BiV!


sarah k. said...

Ditto ungewiss's comment. Also interesting is the heavy leaning on abstinence as acceptable (where the mother's health is at stake, of course), but only as the responsibility of the husband. As if the wife didn't enjoy sex at all, and only did it for the purpose of procreation.

I worked at the BYU library's religion reference desk, where we had a file drawer dedicated to "hot topics" in LDS life. There was one on birth control, and everything any president or apostle of the church ever said on the subject was in there. I'm pretty sure you have reproduced that folder, and then some. They didn't have any of Hinckley's quotes.

Even back then, in my naivete, I found it curious than the last statement on the subject was from 1979, and I assumed that things had relaxed a little. Maybe that's just from my own conversations with my somewhat progressive mom, though.

This is a stunning post. Thank you for putting it all together.

Justin said...

This letter has been called a "master of diplomacy."

Who called it that?

Anonymous said...

Thank you for this. My decision to remain childfree in high school predates my joining the LDS church by nearly 15 years. I am glad to see that the number of children is left to the family. Zero is a number, also.

Ann said...

Another killer post, my friend.

I would like to comment on your first Brigham Young quote. That particular statement is often taken out of context as an anti-birth-control screed, but I believe that it is part of a larger lecture rebuking women who are past child-bearing age who did not want their husbands to take additional wives.

Bored in Vernal said...

Ann, thanks for the interesting info on that BY quote.

Justin, the phrase is mentioned in Babies, Bodies, and Birth Control-an article by Melissa Proctor in Fall 03 Dialogue. Additional quotes on birth control by Apostles and other GA's can be found in this article.

Anon, I feel I must say that in every case official statements of the Church reaffirm the importance of having children and assign eternal consequences to this decision. Of course, we are all free to choose, but in no way can authoritative teachings of the Church, even the more recent ones, be interpreted to approve not having children at all.

Anonymous said...

I re-read the sentence that was highlighted:

"...you and your spouse will be prepared to prayerfully decide how many children to have and when to have them. Such decisions are between the two of you and the Lord."

My wife and I got married nearly 5 years ago. She just turned 40 a month ago and I turn 40 in July. We decided that due to our advanced age and our respective careers (she's a 6th grade teacher, I am an executive in the broadcasting industry) that it would be inappropriate to have children. While I knew I didn't want kids since I was in high school, she said that after she turned 30 that she was ambivalent about having kids. She is not opposed to having kids, but right now she feels that the window of oppportunity has passed and she is happy with life as it is.

So, we prayerfully decided how many children to have (zero) and when to have them (never). That decision is between the two of us and the Lord.

Bored in Vernal said...

Anon, thank you for coming back and for sharing some of your story with us! As the handbook says, "Church members should not judge one another in this matter." (I just wanted to make sure the official position of the Church was not misrepresented.)

Cheryl said...

I don't comment often but I wanted you to know you write one of my favorite blogs.

Thanks for being true to yourself, for your intellectual honesty, and putting this stuff out there.

Cheryl McGuire

Anonymous said...

I'm interested to hear other people's takes on why teachings (Birth Control, Polygamy, Blacks and the Priesthood) can do 180's like this. I keep thinking of the comment in the last post on the feelings of wives in polygamus marriages when polygamy was stopped. "What eternal principle was I learning by being obedient to this obviously non-eternal commandment?" Or the modern version: "Why was I denied the guilt-free enjoyment of non-procreative sex with my spouse?"

As I see it, one can look at these types of changes in teachings in two ways.
1. They were misinterpretations of truth that the Lord allowed because they wouldn't lead the church too far astray.
2. They were temporary commandments given to protect the church and it's members from evils of the era.

#1 is hard to live with for the people who's lives were defined by obedience to a false principle. Would this kind of deception really happen the in Lord's church?
#2 really leads me to believe that the gospel as it is taught now is a lot more like the OT Law of Moses than we think. God really seems to be hedging around eternal principles in the latter days with this explanation.


Jared* said...

According to his biography, Spencer W. Kimball personally approved the publication of Ellsworth's article. As to birth control by abstinence, he once told Ellsworth, "Abstinence for married people is not a good answer." And although he did not think couples should postpone having children, he did not think that women had to have all of the children she physically could.

Nice post.

Anonymous said...

I think that now that add the "prayerfully consider" because if you and your spouse prayerfully consider, you will probably have more children than you would with only your own ideas on the subject.

I see the prophet's statements as seeing a definite need to bring children into LDS families. They perhaps have changed how they have worded the commandments, and how specifically go about it, but it is clear the Lord wants spirits to be born into our families, and whether by general commandment or by personal revelation, we are asked to multiply and replenish.

Anonymous said...

Here are some interesting things to consider.

Divorce is evil. Divorce is destroying our society. Prophets speak out against divorce. Divorce is wrong. Divorce is contrary to God's law.
Yet.....it is possible to pray and receive personal revelation that divorce is the best option for you.

Perhaps you can envy women today for their "choices." But they have other challenges that were less prevelant in your day. How many LDS wives have husbands with porn addictions due to the internet? The Lord is never unaware of your own personal challenges, or society's influences of the current times. That is why we have a prophet to guide us.
LDS mothers today may have fewer kids, but we perhaps take the responsibility for raising each individual child more seriously. It is a different type of burden.
I also wonder about your opinion vs. your husband's opinion on the subject. Did you ever discuss how many children you were having and how you felt about it? Were you both gung-ho?
Also, even though women in the church use bc more often now, they still manage to have unplanned pregnancies. Sometimes more than one. They are not getting off quite as "scott-free" as you may imagine.

My final point:
My convert friend asked me once: How are you supposed to do everything? Not wait to get married, get schooling, not wait to have kids, stay married, stay out of debt, have the mother stay home with the kids.....its impossible.
My reply to her was that for some who meet their future spouse right before graduating from college and then their husband's have a degree and can earn $$$ right when a baby is born....for those few it works out perfectly. For others, it takes a lot of planning and frugality and faith. And for some, they have to prayerfully consider what is most important in their lives. Is getting married the right thing? When? Is having kids right away the right thing even if you have to work? Is debt the right way to go? Or should the husband get a second job or the wife work?


J. Stapley said...

It wasn't just the Brethren. The old RS Mag has some doozies in it. If this is a subject that interests you, you should check out Lester Bush's papers at the UU.

me said...

"For about 20 years, Mormon Doctrine remained one of the most authoritative sources most Mormons had on their bookshelves."

This statement is misleading. Mormon Doctrine was not published by the church. There was a lot of disagreement between McConkie and the First Presidency about its publication. Since McConkie was a General Authority they never wanted to publicly make a statement against the book even though he published it without their full consent. A lot of this is documented in the book David O. McKay and the Rise of Mordern Momornism. There are many other examples of things that we take as doctrine, but are not official church doctrine.

me said...

"some are unaware of the development of official policy of the Church regarding birth control"

I'm troubled by this. "official policy"... so you select which quotes are "official"? How did you get such a responsibility? Can you give me all the official quotes on blacks and the priesthood. There are lots of statements, but how many were revelations? At least you used the word policy instead of doctrine, but a lot of these quotes read as interpretations and opinions. Everything the prophet says isn't to be followed or believed in a black and white manner.

This is similar to how anti-Mormon literature isolates anything that anyone ever in authority says as official. Even in the quotes you isolate there is wiggle room for further interpretation.

Ann said...

Forty years after its publication, a posthumous biography reveals the private, unpublished, unspoken concerns of David O. McKay about a book written by an apostle that declared itself to be "Mormon Doctrine."

Members THOUGHT it was authoritative. Nobody in authority ever corrected that assumption. BiV's statement is not misleading; your disclaimer is. It is not the members' fault that concerns about McConkie's prestige and authority overrode the First Presidency's concern for doctrinal clarity.

Ann said...

I also find it astounding that people are citing as counter-evidence things prophets never said publicly during their lifetimes.

Bored in Vernal said...

me--I regard as official statements those that are presented in official Church publications such as the RS magazine, the Improvement Era, and the Ensign. I also accept as official that which is published in General Conference Reports. Additionally, statements of the First Presidency which circulate under their letterhead are official. Lastly, wording which is found in the Church Handbook of Instructions is official.

I appreciate and agree with your comments about "Mormon Doctrine." However, you will notice that BRM is here quoting an official statement by President Joseph Fielding Smith. My point in that paragraph was that although the teachings on birth control were widely available at that time, members continued to limit their families.

In your comment, are you attempting to assert that the Church's past counsel not to use birth control was not "official?"

Bored in Vernal said...

kwk--I love your comment, and I hope more people will address this.

Steve M. said...


Awesome, awesome post.


Your comment about Mormon Doctrine doesn't refute BiV's assertion about the book's authoritativeness. Whatever qualms McKay and others had about the book, and however sneaky McConkie was in getting it republished, that doesn't say anything about the tremendous impact the volume has had on Mormon thought. I still hear MD quoted on a near-weekly basis in Sunday School.

me said...

For something to be official for me (and this is personal), a prophet (or anyone in the church) needs to say something and then the Spirit needs to confirm to my soul that I should follow that counsel and that the way my mind is interpreting that counsel is indeed a correct perception of God's will. There are too many contradictions and interpretations to just follow what I think might or might not be the official policy of the our Father. I'm more interested in God's will rather than a list of rules and regulations that we should all blindly follow without first petitioning God for his input on how I should govern my own life.

Similarly, with the McConkie book. It was only as authoritative as members allowed it to become. Did anyone questions why it wasn't published by the Church? Why was the prophet no holding it up in General Conference and saying this is scripture? Were there First Presidency messages instructing every family to obtain a copy? Why do members so blindly latch onto anything without petitioning God on the matter?

Isn't one of the first and basic teaching of the Book of Mormon that Nephi obtained a testimony of God's will and his brothers didn't. So they either blindly followed their father or rebelled. Nephi on the other hand could follow with confidence and understand according to the Spirit. Similarly the Church is founded on the principle of Joseph Smith obtaining revelation, and not blindly following anything that the scriptures or anyone in perceived authority might say. We should follow his example even as we study his teachings.

All members have the gift of the Holy Ghost and the responsibility to learn how to cultivate that spirit and understand how to use it to govern their own decisions. I do things in my life that may seem a contradiction to the culture and perceived doctrine of the Church. Do I feel conflicted? Not really. The Spirit confirms to my soul that the way I am living is in agreement with God's will and at the end of the day that is all that matters.

me said...

forgive all my typos in the post... it's early and i have to run.

Rich said...

Biv, you continue to amaze me with your blogged-scholarship!

A friend of mine (who teaches at the Y no less) once confided to me that she felt that Bruce McConkie was guilty of teaching more false doctrine to the church than any man who has ever lived.

At any rate, I find it incredibly sad that the brethren can seemingly never bring themselves to contradict past proclamations, however flagrantly wrong. We're all fallible humans, prophets notwithstanding.

fallingaway said...

This was fascinating! I have done some research on this, but it is great to see all of this information in one place. Thank you.

RainGull said...

The potential problem with Anonymous' repeated statements is that he asserts that the decision was made by him alone in high school and that his wife is indifferent (not decided). This is bad enough on the face of it (absent more information), but where is the required third party? No single quote omitted the Lord as the active third party to EVERY decision of such character.

I do not assume that Anonymous lacks this third party support, but if so he is misrepresenting his own position by leaving that part out whilst constantly reasserting that he alone made the decision in high school and his wife is indifferent (which coming from his wife and directed at someone who doesn't want children comes across as a positive affirmation more than support of the negative!).

Anonymous, if you have the Lord's okay on this and your wife is not being caged into honoring your desires, (if the three of you are united in this) then please do correct your position by telling us those more important facts, but as it stands your position is either misrepresented in omission of the relevant facts (clouded all the more by the inclusion of contrary facts)or in opposition to the Lord's policy.

I leave you alone to judge the matter.

Anonymous said...

Anonymous, You either misrepresent your position or are in error.

The Lord is a required third party, without a three party consensus, your high school decision to which your wife is indifferent (not decided) is invalid.

Allen said...

We profess to believe in latter-day prophets. Yet, we get upset when a later prophet disagrees with statements from earlier prophets. We seem to be saying that when a prophet speaks, his words are forever sunk in "concrete". We seem to be saying that the Lord can't give different counsel to later generations who live in different conditions than earlier generations.

I see a trend in the words of the prophets that I think is good.


"It is the duty of every righteous man and woman to prepare tabernacles for all the spirits they can."

"But he did not designate the number, nor has the Church. That is a sacred matter left to the couple and the Lord."

Brigham Young and subsequent prophets taught we should follow an absolute law to let the children come as they may. Gordon B. Hinckley taught that we are responsible for the choice of how many (and when) children we should have. I welcome policies that shift from the Lord to us the responsibility for decisions about our lives.

Matt Jacobsen said...

Thanks for the post, BiV. Very interesting stuff.

While my personal approach to doctrine seems to be similar to yours, I must point out a contradiction. At first you criticize BiV for trying to demonstrate what the official teachings on birth control use were, as if there's no way she had the right to do so. Then you say that official doctrine, as far as you're concerned, is only what the Lord tells you it is. I don't think you can have it both ways.

Last Lemming said...

You made the Deseret News!



Anonymous said...

The writer states, "The purpose of this post is to clarify official teachings." Holy cow! I submit to all that it is the sole responsibility and purview of the First Presidency and the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles to "clarify official teachings."

m_and_m said...

I wrote on this a while back and compiled quotes from the last decade. These suggest to me that the underlying doctrines really haven't changed. (http://iammullingandmusing.blogspot.com/2007/05/on-multiplying-and-replenishing.html).

The doctrine still is to multiply and replenish. Sure, there is less direct condemnation of birth control per se, but the doctrinal teachings have not changed as far as I can tell. We still have a duty and responsibility to bring children into the world. There is the recognition that not every couple will be able to have lots of children, but there were even exceptions to the counsel to multiply and replenish in earlier days as well, particularly related to women's health.

I also think that with the choices we have come significant responsibility and accountability that sometimes is not really addressed when this topic comes up. Being able to 'prayerfully consider' what to do does not mean that we have license to limit our families just because. (This is said by someone who has felt inspired not to have more due to health reasons, so I know first hand that answers like that can come.)

In all of my reading and study of this topic (and I have done a lot of it), I see the condemnation of the attitudes that lead to the use of birth control as much as birth control itself. In this vein, I don't see any lessening of warning about selfish attitudes nowadays (see Sister Beck's recent talk, and the worldwide conference as two very recent examples), even if they perhaps say it in a little less "this is evil" kind of rhetoric. The doctrine is still there -- we should be putting faith and family first, not materialistic or selfish goals.

To me, the responsibility we have that comes with the choices we have (that others in the past may not have had) should sober us to the core.

m_and_m said...

p.s. It's not that I don't realize that there were some specific statements against artificial birth control. I do. But I think it is easy to overstate things by saying that doctrine has changed. I don't think it has. The doctrine is 'still in force' -- words used even 'back then.' In fact, if you look over many of those quotes, they don't address birth control specifically, but rather teach what is still being taught (that is where my post might be interesting to compare to ... much of the teaching is about the purpose of life, the importance of the commandment to multiply and replenish, the joy that comes from posterity, etc. -- this kind of teaching is consistent across the board).

The agency we are given to figure out how to fulfill that doctrine and commandment has increased, in my view, but in my mind, that is serious responsibility, not simple freedom. Selfishness will still be a perversion of God's plan. If we don't approach this with soberness, we still might reap disappointment by and by. Do any of us want to be found wanting in that great day of judgment?

I still think we need to approach this with some measure of fear and trembling -- not the paralyzing fear that we sometimes get trapped in, but with humility and soberness to realize the great responsibility we have to figure out God's will for our families. That is no small thing. It used to be that nature decided how many children to have -- that decisions was made for them. Now that decision rests squarely on our shoulders, and the accountability does, too. Like I said, I find it completely sobering. It sobers me every day to have that kind of weight on my shoulders.

m_and_m said...

Thought this might be worth reading, given the date especially:

"Often when young couples come, they ask the specific question, “How many children should we plan to have?” This I cannot answer, for it is not within my province to know. With some persons there are no restrictions of health, and perhaps a number of children will be born into the family. Some good parents who would have large families are blessed with but one or two children. And, occasionally, couples who
make wonderful parents are not able to have natural offspring and enjoy the marvelous experience of fostering children born to others. Planned Parenthood involves a good deal more than just the begetting of children. Nothing in our lives deserves more planning than our responsibilities in parenthood. (Boyd K. Packer, Conference Report, Oct 1966, p. 132)

Are things really so different?

Ann said...

Michelle, I disagree with your statement that the doctrine hasn't changed. Doctrine isn't some underlying, unchanging eternal principle. Doctrine is what is taught. Period.

It used to be taught that nobody would obtain the highest degree of the celestial kingdom without entering into plural marriage. That was Doctrine. Now, temple marriage is required for the same kingdom, but plural marriage is not. THAT is Doctrine.

What is taught changes with time, and thus, the Doctrine does. That's not a bad thing. It's a GOOD thing.

Even prophets and apostles can learn line upon line, not just us poor peons.

m&m said...

Doctrine isn't some underlying, unchanging eternal principle. Doctrine is what is taught. Period.

Ann, you can disagree, but doctrine as defined by our leaders is something that is unchanging. Take, for example, the following from Pres. Packer (Ensign, November 1993):

Some things cannot be changed. Doctrine cannot be changed.

“Principles which have been revealed,” President Wilford Woodruff said, “for the salvation and exaltation of the children of men … are principles you cannot annihilate. They are principles that no combination of men [or women] can destroy. They are principles that can never die. … They are beyond the reach of man to handle or to destroy. … It is not in the power of the whole world put together to destroy those principles. … Not one jot or tittle of these principles will ever be destroyed.”

Separating out doctrine (the underlying principles that don't change) and counsel or the specifics of commandments (which can change) can, imo, help us process change when it happens.

So according to the above definition, I do not see counsel regarding birth control as doctrinal at all. And I think there is sufficient evidence to show that the doctrinal teachings about the important roles of marriage and parenthood in the plan of God have not changed through the ages. Specific counsel and commandments have, but not the underlying principles. Marriage between man and woman has always been foundational to the plan, and parenthood a duty and important responsibility. Both lead to the fulfillment of God's eternal purposes to bring to pass our immortality and eternal life. That's doctrine.

m_and_m said...

p.s. But even those definitions don't preclude prophets and apostles learning, too. :)

Allen said...

Ann & M&M,

Perhaps it would help to not think in terms of doctrine that does or doesn't change, but to think in terms of principles that don't change and policies that can and do change. Another category is folklore, things that LDS (including leaders) believe but which aren't based on scriptural or historical truth.

Mel said...

While I do not want to get into condemnation and all that, I believe that people who do postpone and prevent having children will still feel those things that were mentioned by the prophets - sorrow, disappointment, remorse, etc. Even if there is a more "open" view of birth control, I think those consequences will still follow, and they will not be easily put away. Oh, and I have taken birth control, so I suppose I can expect to feel (and CONTINUE to feel) those things myself. I believe they are natural consequences, even if they are not immediate ones.

Bored in Vernal said...

Anonymous, my husband was the principal editor of Ezra Taft Benson's teachings book. In the 1980's when DH was compiling these quotes we were starting our family. The section you have quoted had a great influence on us. You're right, it covers everything: eternal principle of procreation, birth control, tying tubes, delaying family, and those who cannot have children.

Anonymous said...

More food for thought: Genesis 18:11-12. Look up the root of the Hebrew word for pleasure. My philosophy in regard to spiritual decisons is to take the less travelled path -- one that requires greater personal sacrifice and discipline -- especially if the majority are taking the other path.

tim said...

Can't help but think the real lesson here is not about birth control but about doctrine, authority, and prophets. One is a rule, the other a principle. We can apply the principle to more than birth control.
It reminds me of a discussion I frequently have with a Jehovah's Witness friend who defaults to the absolute authority of Bible scripture in all times and places and situations. He is in a tortured marriage that my personal opinion is would be better for both to be dissolved. But he refuses to do this based on his understanding of what the Lord and the apostle Paul said regarding marriage in the New Testament. He is absolutely inflexible on this point. I, on the other hand, have gently tried to talk about the process or prayer, the workings of the Holy Ghost, living by the spirit, and the importance of ongoing revelation, which I believe trump all rules of doctrine, personal interpretations of scripture, prophetic teachings, internet blogs, favorite sayings of former bishops, mothers and fathers, or mis-directed voice mails. Now, many will immediately want to accuse me of teaching the irrelevance of all of the above, and that would not be correct. But, this is what I think I have been taught and personally now believe. Notice the insertion of the qualifying word NOW. Such is the gospel.

Anonymous said...

I don't think the principle has ever changed. The only thing that has changed is the harshness with which the principle is declared.
People often forget the 'Lord' part in the equation. It's true that the church will not dictate what number of children you have or when. But it does matter to the Lord. And what all of these statements are essentially saying is this:
Having and raising a righteous posterity is the purpose of marriage. Following the pattern that the Lord has set forth will make you happy. The commandment has been made. It is between you and the Lord whether or not you will obey it.
This is a subject about which I have researched and prayed a lot. This is the testimony I have recieved. The answer may be different for other people as they pray about this intimate matter. I just hope that people don't make the mistake of justifying any reasonings they have by what other members of the church do or say. It is between the couple and the Lord and we will all be held accountable, so we should be sure we are doing the right thing.


CoriAnton said...

Just came across this and wanted to say thanks for putting this up... I've seen pretty much all of this scattered around the internet before, but you've done a great job putting it all together... Great job