By Bill McKeever
An LDS Church Handbook on Instruction issued in late 1998 may bring an end to the LDS trademark of large families. As it has done so many times in the past, the LDS Church has once again reversed a doctrinal position as bishoprics and stake presidencies are now being told that family size is no longer a concern of the church. “The decision as to how many children to have and when to have them is extremely intimate and private and should be left between the couple and the Lord,” the manual says. Before we examine this latest change in policy, it would do well to understand why the LDS Church of days gone by took a very different position.
The purpose of having large families was based on the LDS doctrine of eternal progression. Mormonism insists that all men are the literal offspring of the Mormon God (Elohim) and one of his heavenly wives. Every human being born on earth once existed in heaven as one of his spirit-children. However, if the spirit-child of God was to achieve exaltation and Godhood, it would be necessary that they become human and be tested and tried to be found worthy of such a position. “Our heavenly parents provided us with a celestial home more glorious and beautiful than any place on earth. We were happy there. Yet they knew we could not progress beyond a certain point unless we left them for a time. They wanted us to develop the godlike qualities that they have. To do this, we needed to leave our celestial home to be tested and to gain experience. We needed to choose good over evil. Our spirits needed to be clothed with physical bodies” (Gospel Principles, p. 14).
Brigham Young insisted that it was the duty of every Latter-day Saint to prepare human bodies for those children of God. Failing to do so would have dire consequences. Said 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” (Discourses of Brigham Young, p. 197).
In the same message Young proclaimed, “the doctrine of plurality of wives was revealed (so that) the noble spirits which are waiting for tabernacles might be brought forth.” In the past, church leaders seemed to have little patience for those who would artificially limit the size of their family. Sixth President Joseph F. Smith said, “I regret, I think it is a crying evil, that there should exist a sentiment or a feeling among any members of the Church to curtail the birth of their children. I think that is a crime wherever it occurs, where husband and wife are in possession of health and vigor and are free from impurities that would be entailed upon their posterity. I believe that where people undertake to curtail or prevent the birth of their children that they are going to reap disappointment by and by. I have no hesitancy in saying that I believe that is one of the greatest crimes of the world today, this evil practice.” (Quoted in Doctrines of Salvation 2:88,89).
In a conference message given in October of 1947, President David O. McKay included birth control as one of “insidious and vicious enemies” that would tend to “disintegrate the very foundation of the Christian home” (CR, October 1947, p. 119, Gospel Ideals, p. 487).
Tenth President Joseph Fielding Smith called birth control “wickedness” because it was an abuse of the marriage covenant. He said that 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” (Doctrines of Salvation 2:87). On the same page, President Smith offered what could quite possibly, under present circumstances, be an indictment against his own church! He went on to say, “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.”
Smith clarified what he meant by punishment a few pages later when he said, “Those who wilfully and maliciously design to break this important commandment shall be damned. They cannot have the Spirit of the Lord” (Doctrines of Salvation 2:89). He strongly denounced the concept of the small family and likened it to refusing to take on “the responsibilities of family life.” He said “this commandment given to Adam has never been abrogated or set aside. If we refuse to live by the covenants we make, especially in the house of the Lord, then we cannot receive the blessings of those covenants in eternity. If the responsibilities of parenthood are wilfully avoided here, then how can the Lord bestow upon the guilty the blessings of eternal increase? It cannot be, and they shall be denied such blessings” (Doctrines of Salvation 2:90).
Twelfth LDS President Spencer W. Kimball decried the philosophy that marriage and children should be considered only after certain goals in life have been met. “Too many young people set their minds, determining they will not marry or have children until they are more secure, until the military service period is over; until the college degree is secured; until the occupation is more well-defined; until the debts are paid; or until it is more convenient. They have forgotten that the first commandment is to ‘be fruitful, and multiply, and replenish the earth, and subdue it.’ (Genesis 1:28.) And so brides continue their employment and husbands encourage it, and contraceptives are used to prevent conception… The Church cannot approve nor condone the measures which so greatly limit the family” (Teachings of Spencer W. Kimball, p. 328).
In a conference address given in April of 1969, 13th LDS President Ezra Taft Benson said, “The first commandment given to man was to multiply and replenish the earth with children. That commandment has never been altered, modified, or canceled” (Conference Report, April 1969, p. 12).
No doubt many Latter-day Saints would respond to this reversal as another example of Latter-day revelation. But let us think through this for a moment and consider the adjectives that have been given when it comes to the subject of birth control. Words such as evil, crime, insidious, vicious, and wicked have been applied to this practice by those whom LDS people have been told cannot lead them astray. Are we now to believe that somehow limiting an LDS family has become acceptable to the God of Mormonism? What reason can the LDS leadership possibly give for this reversal that has not already been condemned by the leaders of the past?
The Christian Position
When such an array of contradiction can be demonstrated within the ranks of Mormonism, it is not uncommon for the LDS to rebut by asking, “Well, what about all of the other Christian groups? Don’t they have conflicting views on this subject?” Yes they do. But this difference of opinion is based more on a lack of biblical evidence rather than abundance. We find no command in Scripture that states that limiting the size of the family is a sin or that such a practice is punishable by damnation. Christians are free to have as many children as they wish or as few as they wish. It is up them to prayerfully decide what is best in their given situation. Christians can hold a more dogmatic position than this, but to do so would be without solid biblical support.
It would be difficult for a Mormon to criticize this view since this now seems to be the position of the LDS Church! Finger pointing at non-Mormons does not resolve this LDS dilemma since it is the LDS Church that claims to be led by divinely called prophets — whose job it is to give the Mormon people guidance. LDS leaders of the past have spoken on this subject – and spoken quite forcefully I might add.
Can a Mormon, in good conscience, merely sweep these comments under the rug as off-the-cuff remarks or mere opinion? Were past leaders telling the truth when they said limiting the family was a sin that would lead to damnation or were they themselves misinformed and misled? If they were, in fact, led by God in making such pronouncements, would it not make sense that the LDS people are being mislead by this new set of guidelines?