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The conflict of ages

PDF In a conversation with Terryl Givens, he pointed me to this amazing book, which was one of his sources for his own book, When Souls Had Wings: Pre-Mortal Existence in Western Thought. The author, Edward Beecher, Brother of Harriet Beecher Stowe (author of Uncle Tom's Cabin) was one of three prominent preacher/abolitionist brothers (the others being Henry Ward and Charles Beecher). His other sister, Catharine Beecher, was also a notable author and educator. This prominent religious family (of the Calvinist tradition), were contemporaries of Joseph Smith (Beecher was born two years before Joseph, in 1803) but never to my knowledge acquaintances. There is no mention of Mormonism in the book, nor does Beecher seem to be aware that pre-mortal life is a fundamental doctrine of the Latter-day Saints.
The actual conflict addressed in The Conflict of Ages (and which it takes Beecher over 100 somewhat tedious pages to reveal) is this: 1. God is perfect and is thus bound to act according to "principles of honor and right" in regard to his creatures, and 2. Due to the sin of Adam, all mankind inherit a fallen depravity from the beginning, and are then placed into a spiritually hostile environment where they are destined to sin. These two principles are in apparent conflict in Beecher's mind:
"The subject of this conflict has been the greatest and most affecting that can interest or excite the human mind…. Through a long course of centuries, the Christian world has been divided into opposing parties on this great question" (p. 2).
Now from an LDS perspective, his conflict is based on a false premise: The inherent depravity of man. Calvin noted that man's fall was "a hereditary depravity and corruption of our nature, diffused through all parts of the soul." Infants, "bring their condemnation with them from their mother's womb, being liable to punishment, not for the sin of another, but for their own. For although they have not as yet produced the fruits of their iniquity, yet have they the seed enclosed in themselves; nay their whole nature is, as it were, a seed of sin; therefore it cannot but be odious and abominable to God" (63-64).
[By contrast, Latter-day Saints understand that "the Son of God hath atoned for original guilt, wherein the sins of the parents cannot be answered upon the heads of the children, FOR THEY ARE WHOLE FROM THE FOUNDATION OF THE WORLD" (Moses 6:54). The fall of Adam brought physical death and spiritual death as well in the sense of our separation from God. But little children are born with no taint of sin, though all who reach the appropriate age will inevitably sin as free agents.]
Given Beecher's grasp of the problem he notes that "He who holds that God…gives existence to men with natures radically corrupt and depraved, anterior to any knowledge, desire or choice of their own, with full power to do evil and none to do good, and them places them under the all-pervading influence of corrupt and corrupting social systems…cannot, at least, with any apparent consistency, sat that the Creater has fulfilled towards them the demands of honor and of right" (80).
Beecher then proceeds to trace how, throughout Christian history, different theologians have dealt with this conflict. For me, this was the great exercise in this book, clarifying the untenable nature of Creedal Christianity: A God who is clearly a blatant respecter of persons, who hates the sinner (which is ALL men created AS SUCH by an omnipotent creator, without any choice on the part of the creature) places his creatures into a further hostile environment. The vast, vast, vast majority of those creatures, who never come to know Christ will subsequently be punished in unspeakable torture throughout all eternity, worlds without end.
But Beecher has a doctrinal solution! A pre-mortal existence! This would explain how God is indeed following principles of honor and of right.
He almost got it right! We DID indeed have an existence prior to our mortal lives with agency as a part of it. Beecher's solution, however, is that we must have sinned pre-mortally, and hence came here as fallen creatures by virtue of our own agency (having been newly created beings by God at some point prior to our mortality, then having rebelled against God). Not a bad attempt. But not as sufficient as the actual truth, which is that "Man was also in the beginning with God. Intelligence, or the light of truth, was not created or made, neither indeed can be" (D&C 93:29). Hence God is NOT to be held responsible for what we innately are.
This book is not light reading. It is long and often tedious. It takes Beecher 211 pages to get to the solution to the Great Conflict, then another 340 pages to defend it. But for me, it was a great primer into one of the primary doctrines of "Historical [creedal] Christianity."
By the way, [a little history - according to Givens] when Beecher first shared his pre-existence hypothesis with friends and family, they urged him not to publish it; it would ruin his career. It was too radical a notion. He held off for several years, but ultimately the argument was too compelling for Beecher was too great, the issue to central to his faith, and he went to print. It did hurt his career and standing in the religious community, although he continued to have a congregation throughout the rest of his life.
The book is out of print, but photocopies are available through google.

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