Thoughts on Birth Control
By Loyal to the Word

 

         Birth control is a sensitive topic for many people. These days members of the Church are not very likely to hear condemning speeches or talks on the matter of birth control usage, but this was not always the case. The teachings from Church leaders regarding birth control have undergone a slight transition. It is clear that over the years the Church has softened its stance on birth control. While being far from birth control advocates, where once the Church and the Brethren who lead it were quite hard line on this issue, there has been a definite backing off. “Why?” one wonders. This article will take a look at representative quotes and teachings on the matter and discuss the reason for the Church’s change in attitude on the issue of birth control.

 

Earlier Statements from the Brethren

 

         Statements from the brethren, beginning with Brigham Young most notably, all the way up until the administration of President Gordon B. Hinckley, was decidedly against birth control. This was not without excellent doctrinal justification. The reader should consider, for instance, Brigham Young’s famous statement regarding birth control:

 

                                                 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)

 

        It is very clear from Brigham Young’s statement here that the concern is for the spirits in heaven awaiting birth. In order to provide a proper home environment where these spirits may be raised in the gospel, the logic clearly indicates, that Latter-day Saints are obligated to allow these children to be freely born into their homes.
         Many successors to the presidency of the Church have also strongly spoken out against birth control. Another common quote on the issue comes from Joseph F. Smith, a former counselor to Brigham Young and all other Presidents of the Church until he himself became the Church’s sixth President, and who was also the son of Hyrum Smith and nephew of the Prophet Joseph 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 fulness of joy, and if we will obtain a fulness 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)

 

         President Joseph F. Smith also 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 this is one of the greatest crimes of the world
                                                 today, this evil practice.
                                                 (Joseph F. Smith, Gospel Doctrine, p. 277)

 

         Joseph F. Smith’s quotes use fairly strong language regarding birth control, saying that there is “Possibly no greater sin” for Latter-day Saints, and calling it “a crying evil,” and “one of the greatest crimes of the world today,” and an “evil practice.” With such considerations and doctrinal basis, it is no wonder that birth control has been preached against for almost the entire existence of the Church. In fact, birth control has been preached against all the way up until Gordon B. Hinckley became President of the Church. For a further look at what Presidents of the Church throughout time until President Hinckley have said, we will continue to view quotes. Joseph Fielding Smith, the great scriptorian, for instance, taught that birth control is a sin that will deprive its participants of the celestial kingdom:

 

                                                 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, 2: 87)

 

                                                When young people marry and refuse to fulfill this commandment given in the
                                                beginning of the world-and just as much in force today-they rob themselves of the
                                                greatest eternal blessing. If the love of the world and the wicked practices of the
                                                world mean more to a man and a woman than to keep the commandment of the Lord in
                                                this respect, then they shut themselves off from the eternal blessing of increase.
                                                Those who wilfully and maliciously design to break this important commandment shall
                                                be damned.
                                                (Joseph Fielding Smith, Doctrines of Salvation, 2: 89)

 

                                                After marriage young wives should be occupied in bearing and rearing children. I 
                                                know of no scriptures or authorities which authorize young wives to delay their
                                                families or to go to work to put their husbands through college. Young married
                                                couples can make their way and reach their educational heights, if they are
                                                determined.
                                                Supreme happiness in marriage is governed considerably by a primary factor-that of 
                                                the bearing and rearing of children. 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. Relatives and friends and even mothers sometimes encourage birth
                                                control for their young newlyweds. But the excuses are many, mostly weak. The wife is
                                                not robust; the family budget will not feed extra mouths; or the expense of the
                                                doctor, hospital, and other incidentals is too great; it will disturb social life; it 
                                                would prevent two salaries; and so abnormal living prevents the birth of children.
                                                The Church cannot approve nor condone the measures which so greatly limit the family.
                                                (Spencer W. Kimball, The Teachings of Spencer W. Kimball, p. 328)

 

                                                Do not use the reasoning of the world, such as, “We'll 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've 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.
                                                (Ezra Taft Benson, To the Mothers in Zion)

 

The Present, Softer Stance

 

         After all the foregoing strong quotes denouncing the use of birth control, more recently, President Hinckley made a quote that eased off the issue very significantly. While the quote was spoken in 1983, during the administration of President Kimball, it nevertheless indicated the beginnings of a subtle shift from anti-birth control preaching to a more “let the people govern themselves” policy. He said: 

 

                                                  Much has been said . . . about birth control. I like to think of the positive side
                                                  of the equation, of the meaning and sanctity of life, of the purpose of this estate
                                                  in our eternal journey, of the need for the experiences of mortal life under the
                                                  great plan of God our Father, of the joy that is to be found only where there are
                                                  children in the home, of the blessings that come of good posterity. When I think of
                                                  these values and see them taught and observed, then I am willing to leave the 
                                                  question of numbers to the man and the woman and the Lord.
                                                  (Gordon B. Hinckley, Teachings of Gordon B. Hinckley, p. 35-36)

 


         Today, the official teaching of the Church regarding birth control is this:

 

                                                  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.
                                                  (True to the Faith, p. 26)

 

         This statement is very obviously permissive of the use of birth control, at the prayerful discretion of the husband and wife. The wording, “decide how many children to have and when to have them” is indicative of birth control usage. Furthermore, the Church website, which can be considered official material, says this regarding birth control:

 


                                                 God has a plan for the happiness of all who live on the earth, and the birth of
                                                 children in loving families is central to His plan. The first commandment He gave to 
                                                 Adam and Eve was to “be fruitful, and multiply, and replenish the earth”
                                                 (Genesis 1:28). The scriptures declare, “Children are a heritage of the Lord” 
                                                 (Psalm 127:3). Those who are physically able have the blessing, joy, and obligation
                                                 to bear children and to raise a family. This blessing should not be postponed for
                                                 selfish reasons.
                                                 Sexual relations within marriage are not only for the purpose of procreation, but
                                                 also a means of expressing love and strengthening emotional and spiritual ties
                                                 between husband and wife.
                                                 Husband and wife are encouraged to pray and counsel together as they plan their
                                                 families. Issues to consider include the physical and mental health of the mother
                                                 and father and their capacity to provide the basic necessities of life for their
                                                 children.
                                                 Decisions about birth control and the consequences of those decisions rest solely
                                                 with each married couple. Elective abortion as a method of birth control, however,
                                                 is contrary to the commandments of God.[1]

 


         Here we have further indication that the Church permits the practice of birth control, mentioning that it is the husband and wife’s prerogative to “plan their families,” considering issues that affect the children, such as whether the parents have the capacity to provide for them. It should be clearly noted, however, that the postponement of having children “for selfish reasons” is of course still strongly discouraged. As the foregoing statement indicates plainly, having children is still an “obligation.”

 

The Reason for the Church’s Change in Attitude toward Birth Control

 

         In light of the very strong teachings against the use of birth control for most of the Church’s existence, what can account for this change in attitude on the subject? Could it be that it is no longer as financially manageable to have a large family in today’s world? No doubt this is a contributing factor. Could it be that the Church leaders of the past were wrong or unenlightened? Absolutely not; this author rejects that notion entirely.
         The answer to this problem can be found in the scriptures. The reason for the Church’s change in its stance on birth control is similar to the Lord’s policy on divorce. Consider the following story in the New Testament in which the Lord Jesus Christ is queried regarding the laws of divorce in Matthew 19:3-11:

 

                                                 3 The Pharisees also came unto him, tempting him, and saying unto him, Is it lawful 
                                                 for a man to put away his wife for every cause?
                                                 4 And he answered and said unto them, Have ye not read, that he which made them at
                                                 the beginning made them male and female,
                                                 5 And said, For this cause shall a man leave father and mother, and shall cleave to 
                                                 his wife: and they twain shall be one flesh?
                                                 6 Wherefore they are no more twain, but one flesh. What therefore God hath joined
                                                 together, let not man put asunder.
                                                 7 They say unto him, Why did Moses then command to give a writing of divorcement,
                                                 and to put her away?
                                                 8 He saith unto them, Moses because of the hardness of your hearts suffered you to
                                                 put away your wives: but from the beginning it was not so.
                                                 9 And I say unto you, Whosoever shall put away his wife, except it be for fornication,
                                                 and shall marry another, committeth adultery: and whoso marrieth her which is put
                                                 away doth commit adultery.
                                                 10  His disciples say unto him, If the case of the man be so with his wife, it is not 
                                                 good to marry.
                                                 11 But he said unto them, All men cannot receive this saying, save they to whom it is 
                                                 given.

 

         This scripture indicates that God’s grand standard is that divorce should never happen, “except it be for fornication [i.e. infidelity]” (Matt. 19:9). Yet, even with the Gospel restored in its fullness today, the Lord permits divorce. This is “because of the hardness of [our] hearts” (Matt. 19:8; see also Dallin H. Oaks, “Divorce”, Ensign, May 2007). In other words, because God’s people are not prepared to live his full standard, the Lord mercifully holds them accountable instead to a lesser law.
         It should also be mentioned that in relating this doctrine, Jesus did not mean for it to apply to all people everywhere. In considering it to be so, the apostles said, “If the case of the man be so with his wife, it is not good to marry” (Matt.19:10). This of course, is an absurd conclusion, since marriage is essential for exaltation (D&C 131:1-4) and is “honourable in all” (Heb. 13:4). But nevertheless if this standard of no divorce was always binding on all married people, and people being as they are, the apostles were right in considering it risky to marry and perhaps not prudent to do so. Christ, however, indicated that this was not the case, since “All men cannot receive this saying, save they to whom it is given” (Matt. 19:11). In other words, the grand standard of no divorce is binding only in certain circumstances.
         Had Jesus made heaven’s no divorce standard binding on all people at all times, then divorce for any other reason than an adulterous affair would cause the divorcees to themselves commit adultery (Matt. 19:9), which is a base sin worthy of the damnation of hell (D&C 76:103). Surely, under these circumstances, divorcing and marrying again or marrying a divorced person would constitute a “crying evil” (Joseph F. Smith, Gospel Doctrine, p. 277).
         Now taking this principle and applying it to the issue of birth control, let us consider the facts. For a long time, birth control has been preached against by the very highest Church authorities. It has even been taught, for instance, that practicing birth control will keep a member of the Church from exaltation. Yet, recently the Church has taken a softer stance on the issue. How do we reconcile this circumstance? It is reconciled by this principle: “Because of the hardness of [our] hearts,” God now allows us to put some planning into our families, rather than holding us to account for the full grand celestial standard of the “multiply and replenish” command. Were it not so, very, very few of even the most faithful of today’s Latter-day Saints would have an inheritance in the celestial kingdom. 
         This same principle of the Gospel, that when God’s people are not prepared to live his full standard, the Lord instead holds them accountable to a lesser law, was demonstrated also with the United Order. When God re-established the United Order in 1831 through Joseph Smith, faithful Saints were expected to comply. God said, “For I, the Lord, have decreed in my heart, that inasmuch as any man belonging to the order shall be found a transgressor, or, in other words, shall break the covenant with which ye are bound, he shall be cursed in his life” (D&C 104:5). Yet because the people demonstrated a failure or inability to keep the full principles of the United Order, the Lord instituted the lesser Law of Tithing to be a “standing law” unto the Saints until the proper time when the United Order should once again be established (D&C 119:4). As a result, today the Saints are not under the penalty of a curse if they do not comply with the United Order. And so it is with birth contol. Like compliance with the United Order, the Saints are not under penalty for the use of birth control.
         Was birth control usage ever sufficient to make it so a person would lose their exaltation? Very likely at one time the answer was yes, so long as the Church was teaching against the practice. But the “hardness of [our] hearts” principle now mercifully allows members of the Church the ability to make choices of family planning without coming under condemnation.

 

Does This Mean the Concept of the Family is Changing?

 

         This provision within the Gospel, to not require the Saints to live the full grand law of multiplying and replenishing the earth at this time, does not suggest in the least respect that the idea of family is subject to change. The Church’s present softer stance on birth control does not modify the purpose of families any more than the Lord permitting divorce to occur without condemnation (Matt. 19:9). The pattern of family, set forth both in the Creation accounts of the Scriptures (Moses 4:22-25) and in The Family: A Proclamation to the World, indicates that mothers must always be nurturers rather than neglecting these duties to focus on careers, that fathers are always called to preside and to provide, and that parents are obligated to bring forth children. Women are far too important in the home and for the children to leave their role (Moses 4:22; Alma 56:46-48). Men are called to preside over the family (Moses 4:22) and are temporally and spiritually obligated to act in the capacity of providers (Moses 4:23-25). And the married family is the mechanism meant by God to bring children into the world (D&C 49:16-17). These principles of the family are eternal and not subject to change, whether the home has within it ten children or two.   

 

Our Duty

 

         To quote President Brigham Young above, “now what is our duty?” (Discourses of Brigham Young, p. 197). Our duty as Latter-day Saints is simply this: God’s command that we must “multiply and replenish” still “remains in force” (The Family: A Proclamation to the World). We cannot take license from the Church’s softer stance on birth control to mean that we can postpone having children for trivial reasons. This is sin. What President Benson said still applies to us, which is: “Do not curtail the number of your 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.” (Ezra Taft Benson, To the Mothers in Zion).
         But, on the other hand, we are permitted to prayerfully decide, together with our spouse, when it is appropriate for us to have our children, and what number is appropriate, taking into consideration our ability to provide for the spirits which make their way into our homes.

 

Conclusion

 

         Birth control has been a much condemned practice by the leaders of the Church. Yet in recent times God has decided to not hold the Saints to the fullness of his grand standard to “multiply and replenish the earth” because of “the hardness of [our] hearts” and the general unready-ness and unwillingness towards this commandment. While we are still commanded to multiply and replenish the earth, we are given latitude on when and exactly how much we will choose to do this. As Latter-day Saints are now permitted to plan their families with the guidance of the Lord, let them use his Spirit to guide them in these important decisions.

 

 

[1] http://lds.org/ldsorg/v/index.jsp?index=2&locale=0&sourceId=579639b439c98010VgnVCM1000004d82620a____&vgnextoid=bbd508f54922d010VgnVCM1000004d82620aRCRD on 11/17/2009.

 
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