Summary: When a Mormon speaks of premortal life he is referring to the belief that each person existed before their birth, that the spirit preexists conception and that we all had lives, thoughts, friends, and beliefs during that time.You, me, Jesus, Lucifer, and everyone else who has been, are now, or will be living on the earth are all children of God.
The term preexistence refers to a time before the creation of the earth when we all existed and during which several important events occurred. One of those events was the war in heaven. Eventually, everyone chose one of two camps: followers of Jesus and followers of Lucifer. The war led to the expulsion of Lucifer and his followers. It is believed by Mormons that 1/3 of the preexistent spirits followed Lucifer. The remaining 2/3 followed Jesus and were born to earth, or will be born to earth. Lucifer and his followers will never have that privilege.
Everyone born to this earth was at one time a follower of Jesus. Though, some of them were more valiant than others.
Our belief in the preexistence contributes greatly to our larger view of life, such as the origin of evil, the nature of Christ, and how we are related to each other. It also affords a generally optimistic view of humanity and allows us to see other religions in a favorable light.
It gives additional meaning to this life, providing a sense of purposefulness to the positive elements of history. Elder Neal A. Maxwell (Apostle) explained, “There cannot be a grand plan of salvation for all mankind, unless there is also a plan for each individual. The salvational sum will reflect all its parts” (“A More Determined Discipleship,” Ensign, Feb. 1979).
What was it like?
The very popular hymn “O my Father” captures the spirit of our belief of what the preexistence was like.
O my Father, thou that dwellest in the high and glorious place!
When shall I regain thy presence, and again behold Thy face?
In thy holy habitation did my spirit once reside?
In my first primeval childhood was I nurtured near thy side!
For a wise and glorious purpose, thou hast placed me here on earth,
And withheld the recollection of my former friends and birth;
Yet ofttimes a secret something whispered, “You’re a stranger here;”
And I felt that I had wandered from a more exalted sphere. (“O my Father,” Hymn 292)
That hymn, probably better than any other, captures the spirit of our belief in what preexistent life was like. We lived and worked and had friendships. A premortal spirit has shape, form, and gender; but not race. The Church’s Proclamation on the Family says,
Gender is an essential characteristic of individual premortal, mortal, and eternal identity and purpose…In the premortal realm, spirit sons and daughters knew and worshiped God as their Eternal Father and accepted His plan by which His children could obtain a physical body and gain earthly experience to progress toward perfection and ultimately realize his or her divine destiny as an heir of eternal life. (The Family: A Proclamation to the World)
Upon being born into this life a “veil of forgetfulness” is drawn over the mind. Brigham Young explained, “it has also been decreed by the Almighty that spirits, upon taking bodies, shall forget all they had known previously, or they could not have a day of trial” (JD 6:333). Elder Neil A. Maxwell (Apostle) called it a “film of forgetting which covers the memories of earlier experiences. This forgetfulness will be lifted one day, and on that day we will see forever—rather than ‘through a glass, darkly’ (1 Cor. 13:12)” (“Patience,” Ensign, Oct 1980, 28).
But there is more to this story then simply believing we had a premortal life. During that primeval childhood we had our agency; we were free to choose between good and evil. So if our moral freedom is the source of conflict in this life it stands to reason there were conflicts in the premortal world.
The war in heaven
So who then is the Devil? And who are his angels?In Mormon belief they are simply the preexistent sons and daughters of God who rebelled and were cast out of heaven. This part of the narrative goes back to a great council in heaven. The Father, our Father in Heaven, gathered us together and revealed the plan by which we could continue our eternal progression: “We will go down,” it was said, “for there is space there, and we will take of these materials, and we will make an earth whereon these may dwell; And we will prove them herewith, to see if they will do all things whatsoever the Lord their God shall command them” (Abr. 3:24-25). This plan, however, necessitated that we have freedom to choose between good and evil; and given our freedom to choose we would unavoidably sin.
Therefore God our Father provided a savior, a redeemer, an intercessor between us and Him. During the great council the Father said, “Whom shall I send [to be savior]?” (Abr. 3:27). Two people came forward. One was God’s Beloved Son “whom the Father loved” (D&C 76:25). The other was Lucifer, a son of the morning “who was in authority in the presence of God” (D&C 76:25). The Beloved Son said, “Father, thy will be done, and the glory be thine forever” (Moses 4:2). But Lucifer sought to alter the Father’s plan by removing our agency from the equation, arguing, “here am I, send me, I will be thy son, and I will redeem all mankind, that one soul shall not be lost, and surely I will do it” (Moses 4:1); But the Father proclaimed, “I will send the first.” Lucifer “was angry…and, at that day, many followed after him” (Abr. 3:27-28).
Thus began the war in heaven. Elder Russell M. Nelson (Apostle) said that
Satan’s selfish efforts to alter the plan of God resulted in great contention in heaven. The Prophet Joseph Smith explained: “Jesus said there would be certain souls that would not be saved; and the devil said he could save them all, and laid his plans before the grand council, who gave their vote in favor of Jesus Christ. So the devil rose up in rebellion against God, and was cast down.” This war in heaven was not a war of bloodshed. It was a war of conflicting ideas—the beginning of contention. (“The Canker of Contention,” Ensign, May 1989)
No one knows how long this war raged, but eventually a third of the hosts of heaven turned away from God (D&C 29:36). The book of Revelation informs us that
Michael and his angels fought against the dragon; and the dragon fought and his angels, And prevailed not; neither was their place found any more in heaven. And the great dragon was cast out, that old serpent, called the Devil, and Satan, which deceiveth the whole world: he was cast out into the earth, and his angels were cast out with him. (Rev. 12:7-10)
Such is the origin of the Devil and his angels of whom James speaks of, “[who] kept not their first estate” (Jude 1:6). In this light we interpret New Testament passages in which the demons knew and recognized Jesus. Because they were not born into the world a veil of forgetfulness did not come over their minds. Therefore they knew and recognized Jesus: “I know thee who thou art, the Holy One of God” (Mark 1:24); “And unclean spirits, when they saw him, fell down before him, and cried, saying, Thou art the Son of God” (Mark 3:11). This is also used to explain why devils desire to possess the bodies of men. Because of their rebellion against God they were denied physical bodies: “So the devils besought him, saying, If thou cast us out, suffer us to go away into the herd of swine” (Matt. 8:28).
Those who did not rebel kept their first estate, that is, they were faithful during the preexistence and were permitted to be born into mortality (the second estate) and progress as the Father intended them to. They are you and me. Those who are faithful and repent in this life keep their second estate, and they “shall have glory added upon their heads for ever and ever” (Abr. 3:26).
The war continues
The war that began in heaven continues here on earth. In his great vision John the Revelator saw that after Satan was cast out of heaven, he made war with those who “keep the commandments of God, and have the testimony of Jesus Christ” (Rev. 12:13-17). President Ezra Taft Benson, an ardent anti-Communist, saw this struggle between good and evil in the cold war. He wrote in his book Our Three Great Loyalties,
The fight against Godless communism…is the fight against slavery, immorality, atheism, terrorism, cruelty, barbarism, deceit, and the destruction of human life through a kind of tyranny unsurpassed by anything in human history. Here is a struggle against the evil, satanical priestcraft of Lucifer. Truly it can be called “a continuation of the war in heaven” (God, Family, Country: Our Three Great Loyalties, p. 347).
The Encyclopedia of Mormonism points out that “In LDS cosmology, eternal laws of cause and effect were applicable in the premortal existence, as they are for inhabitants of the current temporal world” (“World Religions (non-Christian) and Mormon”). One of our books of scripture teaches that Abraham saw “the intelligences that were organized before the world was.” Because many of them were “noble and great” God decided, “These I will make my rulers.” Abraham was informed, “Thou art one of them; thou wast chosen before thou wast born” (Abr. 3:22-23). As was Jeremiah: “Before I formed thee in the belly I knew thee; and before thou camest forth out of the womb I sanctified thee, and I ordained thee a prophet unto the nations” (Jer. 1:5). The prophets, both ancient and modern, can be numbered among those “great and noble” ones who were “called and prepared from the foundation of the world…on account of their exceeding faith and good works” (Alma 13:3). Other great people may also have been among those choice spirits. (See Election.)
What about this life?
We believe “there is a law, irrevocably decreed in heaven before the foundations of this world…[and] when we obtain any blessing from God, it is by obedience to that law upon which it is predicated” (D&C 130:20-21). One unfortunate consequence of this belief is that some people see having “the good life” as a reward for premortal righteousness—but this is erroneous, the Father “sendeth rain on the just and on the unjust” (Matt. 5:45). But if some people were given privileged positions in this life because of their faithfulness during premortality what of those who were less faithful? It is widely known that the Mormon Church withheld priesthood ordination from black men until 1978. The reasons and history behind this are somewhat complicated, but it seems to have grown, without any initial theological justification, out of 19th century white America’s attitudes about black people. After it became policy some kind of justification was needed and preexistence fit the bill. It was once widely believed that black people were less faithful during the preexistence, and thus were born into the black race. They did not rebel against God, but they were fence sitters. (See Blacks and the Priesthood.) For example, in his book The Way to Perfection Joseph Fielding Smith (President of the church in 1970; d. 1972) wrote, “We naturally conclude that others among the two-thirds did not show the loyalty to their Redeemer that they should [have]…[they were] permitted to come to the earth-life with some restrictions placed upon them. That the Negro race, for instance, have been placed under restrictions because of their attitude in the world of spirits, few will doubt” (p. 43). This belief about the church’s priesthood proscription is much less common now; I don’t recall hearing any preaching from church leaders on it. Personally I don’t believe it. But it has had a long history in the Church.
But there is another uncomfortable interpretation to our doctrine of premortality which was also once widely believed. Elder Bruce R. McConkie (Apostle; d. 1985) wrote in his book Mormon Doctrine, “It is only by a knowledge of pre-existence that it can be known why some persons are born in one race or caste and some in another” (“Caste System,” Mormon Doctrine). And General Authority B.H. Roberts (d. 1933) wrote “I believe that conditions in this life are influenced and fixed by the degree of faithfulness, by the degree of development in the pre-existent state. Otherwise the diversified conditions in which men find themselves placed cannot be reconciled with the justice of God” (Collected Discourses, vol. 4). On this very subject one LDS writer wrote,
Recently the bishop of a nearby ward addressed the young people of our stake on the subject of making correct choices. In the course of his remarks he assured these young men and women that they were special spirits, reserved to come to earth in the last days to stand as witnesses for the Lord and to spread his gospel throughout the world. He explained that this was a reward for their righteous actions in the premortal existence. He contrasted their situation with those who were less righteous and therefore less blessed in their earthly circumstances and referred to those living in the streets of Calcutta, relating their impoverished status to their less-than-valiant premortal behavior.
Having just adopted an infant girl from Calcutta, I was amazed to find that without meeting her the speaker could immediately assign her to the lower cast of the less valiant. (Lee Copeland, “From Calcutta to Kaysville: Is Righteousness Color Coded,” Dialogue, vol. 21, no. 3, 1988)
I remember when I was a young boy telling my mother how grateful I was that I had been born in the United States, white, and a member of the church; I must have been very righteous during the preexistence. She seemed very annoyed at this and I couldn’t understand why. To me it seemed a logical conclusion.But what do I believe now? I don’t believe that those born into any race or country were more or less valiant during their premortal life. I prefer to believe that God’s determination of when, where, and under what circumstances each person would be born is unknowable for almost all cases. I believe that circumstances in this life are based on factors such as premortal choices, and challenges needed for spiritual growth; perhaps God even sends a persons’ premortal friend to help him along the way. Some even believe they were destined to marry their “true love” whom they knew during the preexistence—though that doesn’t have any doctrinal basis and generally is seen as being a bit silly; but it does make for some entertaining fiction, such as Saturday’s Warrior. It’s also reasonable to believe that God considers what each person wants. God does not “exercise control…upon the souls of the children of men” (D&C 121:37). Though “limits and bounds…[are] fixed irrevocably” on heavenly beings, those limits are “voluntarily subscribed to in their heavenly estate by themselves” (Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith, p. 325). It is perfectly consistent with LDS doctrine to believe that during our preexistence we had, to some degree, a choice about when, where, and under what circumstances we would be born. We have freedom in this life; we had it in the previous life. At the very least there was freedom to refuse. Elder James E. Talmage (Apostle; d. 1933) wrote about the circumstances of birth in relation to premortality,
…there are no simple answers. Our finite limitations and our lack of knowledge of the innate capacities of all men do not let us envision the complexities of the Lord’s system for sending his children to mortality…[the Lord] always offers as much of his own system to men as they are willing to receive. (New Witness for the Articles of Faith, p. 35).
There are no simple answers. Jesus’ mother was born into a poor family, but during her premortal life she was chosen to be the mother of the Son of God. Jesus taught, “Blessed are they that mourn: for they shall be comforted. Blessed are the meek: for they shall inherit the earth” (Matt. 5:4-5). When Jesus’ disciples saw a blind man they wondered if being born blind was punishment for some premortal sin. They asked, “Master, who did sin, this man, or his parents, that he was born blind?” (emphasis added). Jesus’ response was, “Neither hath this man sinned, nor his parents: but that the works of God should be made manifest in him” (John 9:2-3). In May 2002 Conference Elder Russell M. Nelson (Apostle) spoke of a family very dear to him and his wife, whose child was “afflicted with multiple anomalies affecting virtually every system of his little body.” The child’s parents “did not ask, ‘Why did this happen to us?’ Instead, they declared: ‘We know that this child is meant for us. God has entrusted this special baby to us. We will love him and care for him to the best of our ability’” (“How Firm Our Foundation,” Ensign, May 2002).But what about other people? and other circumstances? Was Plato chosen to be a great philosopher and blessed with the necessary genius? Was Martin Luther ordained during his premortal life to bring about the Protestant Reformation? What about Joan of Arc, Mother Teresa, and Susan B. Anthony? Were they chosen to do what they did? Were the Founding Fathers of the United States set apart to write the Constitution of the United States? Was Confucius born into the world to teach important moral truths? And was Columbus destined to discover the Americas? Naturally I don’t know, but I believe at least many them were. The church teaches that
The great religious leaders of the world such as Mohammed, Confucius, and the Reformers, as well as philosophers including Socrates, Plato, and others, received a portion of God’s light. Moral truths were given to them by God to enlighten whole nations and to bring a higher level of understanding to individuals…We believe that God has given and will give to all peoples sufficient knowledge to help them on their way to eternal salvation. (Statement of the First Presidency Regarding God’s Love for All Mankind, February 15, 1978; see “World Religions (non-Christian) and Mormon,” Encyclopedia of Mormonism )
That being given, it then seems reasonable to believe that during the preexistence God selected certain people to be non-Christians during mortality, and “teach his word…in wisdom” to non-Christian peoples, “all that he seeth fit that they should have” (Alma 29:8). In 1921 Elder Orson F. Whitney (Apostle; d. 1931) said,
Providence is over all…[he is using] other peoples as well, to consummate a work, stupendous, magnificent, and altogether too arduous for this little handful of Saints to accomplish by and of themselves…other good and great men, not bearing the Priesthood, but possessing profundity of thought, great wisdom, and a desire to uplift their fellows, have been sent by the Almighty into many nations, to give them, not the fulness of the Gospel, but that portion of truth that they were able to receive and wisely use. Such men as Confucius, the Chinese philosopher; Zoroaster, the Persian sage; Gautama or Buddha, of the Hindus; Socrates and Plato, of the Greeks…They were servants of the Lord in a lesser sense, and were sent to those pagan or heathen nations to give them the measure of truth that a wise Providence had allotted to them. (Conference Report, April 1921).
This quote was repeated by Elder Howard W. Hunter (Apostle) in November 1991 General Conference (“The Gospel—A Global Faith,” Ensign, Nov. 1991).
We get many things from our doctrine of preexistence. Though we don’t know when the spirit enters the body, belief in the preexistence of souls is one of the reasons most Mormons are opposed to abortion: it is in opposition to God’s plan to give his children a mortal life. Though we don’t know the absolute origin of evil, it can be traced to before the fall of Adam and Eve, back to the preexistence. Christ is our elder brother. Opposition, testing, and growth are part of God’s plan for mortal life. Elder Richard G. Scott (Apostle) said, “Each one of us encounters unique challenges meant for growth.” And Elder Dallon H. Oaks (Apostle) said, “We are sent here to be tested. There must be opposition in all things.”
Our belief that the devil and his angels are the cast out and fallen preexistent sons and daughters of God permits us to have a somewhat optimistic view of mankind. One LDS writer noted, “The dropouts of heaven are not among us…the family of the Father is more homogeneous now than it was prior to the fall of Lucifer and his associates. The majority of evil-natured intelligences have been skimmed off, leaving a preponderance of good-natured intelligences” (Rodney Turner, “The Moral Dimensions of Man,” Dialogue, vol. 3, no. 1).
We are all brothers and sisters from a premortal life. As Paul wrote, “the whole family in heaven and earth” (Eph. 3:14-15).
 A once common belief was that the race a person was born into was a direct consequence of premortal behavior. But race itself did not exist during the preexistence. President David O. McKay (d. 1970) said,
Manifestly, from this revelation [Abr. 3:23], we many infer two things: first that there were many among those spirits different degrees of intelligence, varying grades of achievement, retarded and advance spiritual attainment; second, that there were no national distinctions among those spirits such as American, Europeans, Asiatics, Australians, etc. Such “bound of habitation” would have to be “determined” when the spirits entered upon their earthly existence or second estate. (Llewelyn R. McKay, Home Memories of President David O. McKay, pp. 226-231; cited from Rodney Turner, “The Moral Dimensions of Man,” Dialogue, vol. 3, no. 1)
 B.H. Roberts said,
…man, at least to some extent, and perhaps to a very great extent, is rewarded in this life for that degree of faithfulness that he exhibited in that pre-existent state; and that the variety of circumstances under which men and women live here is but the result, is but the station, for which they fitted themselves in that pre-existent state. That being true, that men and women receive in this life that which they merited, and that which their acquired degree of fidelity and enlightenment entitled them to, that sweeps away at once the groundwork that the infidel has established for impeaching the justice of God, and we find that these conditions existing here are but the outgrowth of causes that existed and operated in the sphere in which we lived before we came here. It is in this way, on this particular phase of the subject, that Mormonism draws the thread of consistency through all those facts that we see, and that is what I mean when I say that Mormonism is the uniting force of all truth and of all fact in the world. (“Mormonism: The Force Which Blends All Truth,” June 21, 1896; from Collected Discourses, vol. 5).
 On another occasion Roberts said,
Not only do the revelations given through Joseph Smith explain to us our pre-existence, but we are given to understand that in that pre-existence are there various degrees of development and of intelligence, and God selected the noble ones and said concerning them, “I will make these my rulers.” Hence God took these noble spirits and from time to time, in different ages of the world, has given them to a nation or race of men to bless them. And to the ancients He gave a Seth, an Enoch, a Noah, an Abraham; and moving out of that direct line of the recognized servants of God, I may say that He sent a Confucius to the Chinese, who, if he did not teach them a religion, did teach them a philosophy that has stood them in very good stead. He raised up a Plato and a Socrates among the Greeks. He also remembered that branch of Abraham’s family, the Arabians, the descendants of Abraham by Hagar-He raised up to them a Mahomet. And if these men did not teach the fulness of the Gospel of Christ, they did at least teach that measure of truth that the people could receive, and it has been a benefit to them. Thus He has had a care over His children, and has raised up from time to time wise men and teachers to lead them in the way of truth. (Delivered by Elder B. H. Roberts in the Tabernacle, Salt Lake City, Sunday, January 27, 1895; cited from Collected Discourses vol. 4)
 The church permits abortion for the following circumstances. (1) when pregnancy results from rape or incest. (2) if the life or health of the mother is in serious jeopardy. And (3), if the fetus has severe defects that will not allow the baby to survive beyond birth. (Abortion, LDS Newsroom)
As far as embryonic stem cell research is concerned,
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has no official position on the moment that human life begins. Further, the Church has not taken a position on the issue of embryonic stem-cell research (Embryonic Stem-Cell Research, LDS Newsroom).
One young women who had two abortions confessed,
I wonder about the spirits of those I have aborted—if they were there, if they were hurt. I was under three months each time, but a mother feels life before she feels movement. I wonder if they are lost and alone. I wonder if they will ever have a body. I wonder if I will ever have a chance again to bring those spirits back as mine (Neal A. Maxwell, “Reasons to Stay Pure,” Liahona, March 2003)
 Elder Richard G. Scott, “Finding Forgiveness,” Ensign, May 1995.
 Elder Dallin H. Oaks, “Give Thanks in All Things,” Ensign, May 2003.