The World of the Latter-day Saints–A Life Plan Model

By: Melvyn Hammarberg

Originally Published in 2002

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The 2002 Winter Olympics brought worldwide attention to Salt Lake City, headquarters of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. The church, whose members are often referred to as Mormons, has shaped its state politically, culturally, and socially. Rapid growth during the past 50 years has extended the reach of the church around the world.


The LDS church began in upstate New York in the late 1820s under the leadership of prophet-founder Joseph Smith, Jr. Its roots are in the Christian restorations movement, a populist effort to return to the practices of the early, New Testament church. Persecuted for their innovative beliefs and practices, the Mormons moved increasingly westward before the Civil War to several areas, including Kirtland, Ohio; the area near Inde­pendence, Mo.; and Nauvoo, Ill. After Smith was killed in 1844, leadership passed to Brigham Young, who led followers across the Rocky Mountains into what was then Mexican territory. From 1847 on, the church’s pio­neers settled in Utah’s Great Basin area. The land was reincorporated into the United States by the treaty of Hidalgo-Guadalupe in 1848.

Following the Civil War, the Mormons were increasingly harassed by the federal govern­ment for their polygamous mar­riage and family system. These were practices that the LDS church reluctantly renounced in 1890. During the 20th century, the LOS church entered the American mainstream. And in the period fol­lowing World War II, the church developed a massive worldwide missionary outreach, an ongoing effort that was no doubt augment­ed by high media visibility during the Winter Olympics. In recent years, membership in the church has expanded meteorically (see sidebar this page).


Among Latter-day Saints, the life of every person involves three main stages — the preexistence, mortal existence, and postmortal existence. Spiritual development is conceived as beginning in the preexistence, where the spirit self as a member of the hosts of heaven par­ticipated in what the LDS church calls the council in heaven. In this council, Heavenly Father announced his plan of salvation and chose Jesus Christ as his son to work out its conditions. In the words of former gen­eral authority Bruce R. McConkie, Heavenly Father’s “spirit children would go down to earth, gain bodies of flesh and blood, he tried and tested in all things, and have opportunity by obedience to come back again to the Eternal Presence.” Another spirit person, Satan, also sought the son’s role of redeemer, promising that “one soul shall not be lost,” but at the cost of free agency. The central issue in this story is “agency,” the freedom of all spirits to choose the good, right, and beneficial order of life as proposed by Jesus Christ or to be coerced as proposed by Satan. In what is referred to as the war in heaven, one-third of the hosts of heaven chose Satan’s plan and were then cast down to earth as the devil and his angels. Mortal life on earth is there­fore viewed as a time of testing in the use of spiritual agency and as preparation for a postmortal existence that offers a return to eternity in the presence of Heavenly Father in the kingdom of God.


If the first status of a person is as a preexistent spirit, the first transition of the life plan is birth. Birth is viewed as a transition for the spirit self as it passes through a “veil” between the preexistence and mortal existence, at which time memories of the preexistence are clouded over. Shortly after birth, an ordinance of naming and blessing children, called a “father’s blessing,” is performed dur­ing a monthly fast and testimony meeting held in the local ward chapel. Wards are both local congregations and their geographic neighborhoods. Ordinances, in LDS understanding, are rituals having effects that enhance the physical, emotional, and spiritual welfare of recipients; they must he done under the authority of the church’s Melchizedek priesthood, which comprises all of the church’s worthy adult men. The naming and bless­ing ordinance identifies a child as born in the covenant, inaugurating early childhood.

During the first eight years of life, a child is viewed as morally innocent, though acquiring an initial spiritual awareness. During a discussion group with mothers, Nancy Tingey said, “We’ve talked about children’s spir­itual development as if they’re starting from a clean slate, hut to me they already know a lot of what we’re talking about. It’s just that the veil has been drawn at birth.” After age 8, a child is viewed as accountable not only to Heavenly Father but also to earthly members of God’s kingdom, and must he appropriately reminded and prepared to take on this increased responsibility.
Personal agency or choice, therefore, is to be exercised through obedience to God’s laws and commandments. One of the most important early choices a child makes concerns whether or not to be baptized into the church. This decision, which cannot be made until age 8, depends on the development of an initial “testimony” of the truth of the “Gospel” (the church’s teachings about the plan of salvation, its history, implementation, and ordinances). At the time of her baptism, 8-year-old McKenzie Mayne understood its essence as “choice.” She told me, “It’s really an exciting experience where you get to choose if you want to get baptized or not, and when you get baptized…you just get under the water once…all the way under, without anything sticking up.” The ordinance of baptism, then, marks a second point of transition which, when coupled with the ordinance of confirmation for receiving the gift (or power) of the Holy Ghost, bestows membership in the church and inaugurates later childhood.

Later childhood is a period of learning more about the Gospel while broadening one’s spiritual awareness and experience, and thus increasing and strengthening one’s testimony. Boys and girls seek knowledge of the Gospel, which is confirmed through feelings of the pres­ence of the Holy Ghost, who is viewed as a manifestation of Heavenly Father’s presence and guidance. The increasing strength of one’s testimony is partial prepara­tion for the next stage in the cultural life plan beginning at age 12, when boys enter the Aaronic Priesthood and girls enter the Young Women’s program. Only young men are called, set apart, and ordained by a special ordi­nance, however. The alternative status for young women is preparation for motherhood, with its powers, rights, duties, and responsibilities, but there is no sepa­rate and special ordinance that confers it.


From age 12, then, young men and young women follow separate but parallel paths, while also sharing many joint activities. The young men pass through Aaronic priest­hood callings as deacons, teachers, and priests, involving age-graded powers and responsibilities. These roles are paralleled by similar group roles for young women iden­tified as beehives, MIA maids, and laurels, but without the explicit priesthood powers. During these teen years, young people learn church standards of worthiness that are common to all church members — chastity, obedi­ence, and tithing — and participate in a study program called Seminary, which offers church-based classes dur­ing the high school years. Many young people test the limits of these standards and some drop out.

At age 19, young men become Elders in the Melchizedek Priesthood as preparation for taking out their Endowments in the temple, prior to going on a mission. With a new kind of seriousness, a “worthiness interview” precedes these callings because they imply adult responsibilities within the church as the kingdom of God on earth. In a worthiness interview, a member examines his life and commitment to the Gospel in consultation with the ward bishop. If he finds himself worthy of the kingdom according to the church’s norms and standards (as judged by keeping the Word of Wisdom, following the guidance of the living Prophet, paying his tithing, and living a morally clean life without sexual misconduct), then he will receive a “recommend” signed by the bishop for admission to temple ordinances.

At the same time, young women enter upon adult­hood by becoming members of the Women’s Relief Society, and they consider either marriage or going on a mission of their own. Women generally postpone taking out their Endowments until one of these deci­sions is reached. Going on a mission is essentially obligatory for young men aged 19 to 26, though not all take up or complete a mission For young women, going on a mission is a privilege rather than an obligation. It is not to be undertaken before the age of 21. On the other hand, motherhood has about it a sense of obligation and duty parallel to the priesthood.

The Endowment is an ordinance preparatory to full participation in temple work and, in that sense, is a symbol of initial adult participation in the life of the church. The ordinance itself symbolizes and enacts central elements in the plan of salvation and includes covenants of fealty to Heavenly Father and the church. No one may go on a mission without taking out his or her Endowments.


For both young men and young women, marriage becomes the next transition toward full adulthood in the church’s culture. In the cultural model of church standards, marriage is a temple ordinance that seals a husband and wife to each other for time and eternity under priesthood authority. It therefore depends upon the worthiness of each partner; both must hold a temple recommend. A civil ceremony is simply an accommodation to the laws of the land and the short-term needs of couples who have chosen to marry; after a period of reflection and the attainment of worthiness, these couples may progress to a temple marriage. Not surprisingly, church authorities exert considerable pressure to seek a temple marriage from the beginning. And for those who do not marry, there is a burgeoning crisis of identity, mitigated somewhat by the church’s development of singles’ wards and special programs, and by the hope for marriage in the postmortal world.

The birth of a child is viewed by members as the real­ization of full adulthood in the church and as increasing the blessings of a temple marriage. Children born of par­ents sealed in the temple are viewed as “born in the covenant,” while children born to parents of a civil union do not have this status. Should a couple who have mar­ried civilly have children and later enter upon temple marriage, then children born before the temple mar­riage may be sealed to their parents as a way of binding them into the covenant of their parents’ marriage. These children acquire a retroactive status similar to being born in the covenant.

Added blessings come to the marriage when the chil­dren themselves marry and bear grandchildren. Then a Latter-day Saint can look across at least five generations in the building up of the kingdom of God — their own grandparents and parents, their generational peers, and their children and grandchildren. Many people in the church have direct face-to-face relationships with ancestors and descendants beyond even these genera­tional boundaries. The family network of kin, so real to members, also serves as a metaphor for all spirit selves as children of Heavenly Father, and by impli­cation, Heavenly Mother, from eternity to eternity ­an understanding that is the basis for the church’s extensive genealogical program.

One of the complications of this marital and kinship arrangement is divorce, which may involve either civil divorce or both civil and temple divorce. Under priest­hood authority, temple divorce dissolves the sealing ordinance for time and eternity and therefore puts the eternal status of the parties at risk. Because of earlier plural marriage practices, the continuing hold of the plural marriage doctrine, the role of patriarchy, and the implications of divorce (and remarriage) for kinship connections, temple divorce is an area of church regula­tions that is hedged about in a number of ways. Men, for instance, have no need to seek a temple divorce because the plural marriage doctrine allows for multiple wives in eternity. Women are discouraged from seeking a temple divorce so that they may be assured of a marital relationship in eternity for the sake of their children, and in order to enter the highest degree of glory in the celestial kingdom themselves.


Adult life among the Latter-day Saints is filled with a myriad of activities in church callings, temple work, and opportunities for service. To hold a calling means to be called, sustained, and set apart for a special role within one of the many spheres of organized church life, such as Primary instruction, Sunday School, the Aaron and Melchizedek priesthoods, Young Women’s and Young Men’s organizations, the Relief Society, and other special areas of responsibility in wards, stakes, and churchwide offices. If a calling is a priesthood calling ­into a Bishopric, for instance, or the stake Presidency or stake High Council — then one will be not only called, sustained, and set apart, but ordained as well. These callings will last for varying periods of time, until a person is released at the discretion of the priesthood-calling authority. The assortment of callings and releases is varied, without any necessary progression, and comes in addition to one’s occupational, family, and community roles, which are also seen as extensions of church service.

Men who hold priesthood callings at the highest levels of the church — including members of the First Presidency, the Quorum of the Twelve, and members of the first two quorums of Seventies — are referred to as General Authorities, men revered as worthy, holy, and wise. The First Presidency includes the president of the church, who also carries the titles of prophet, seer, and revelator. Currently, that man is 90­ year-old Gordon 13. Hinckley, the 15th president of the church. He stands in the order of direct succession from Joseph Smith, Jr., as a living prophet in the dis­pensation known as “the fullness of time.” He also stands in the succession of all prophets through whom Heavenly Father has spoken to all of the spirit chil­dren who have ever been born into mortality. For Latter-day Saints, there is no greater authority on earth. He embodies the guiding rule of Heavenly Father and presides over the priesthood.

Supporting the president are the first and second counselors in the First Presidency, who are chosen for their callings by the president. Thus, the president does not serve alone and can call upon and delegate duties and responsibilities to his counselors. The call­ing as prophet, seer, and revelator continues until the death of the president. The senior member of the Quorum of the Twelve then succeeds to the Pre­sidency, reorganizes the First Presidency, and fills any vacancies. Together, the First Presidency and the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles number 15 people, whose utterances are a form of scripture to guide the faithful. What the president commands in presiding over the priesthood is essentially the word and rule of God as current and binding revelation for the church.

Discipline is also a necessary part of adult priest­hood responsibility in the church. It is administered in wards and stakes under priesthood authority by exhortation, private counsel, and by formal discipli­nary councils. The dark side of mortal life is that the devil and his minions are at work in the world, seek­ing to counter Heavenly Father and seduce people into disobedience. Sin is interpreted as giving in to the temptation to set oneself against Heavenly Father in violation of God’s rule. Satan falsely promises a grant­ing of godhood without effort and righteous living, and, in his role as the devil, uses deceit to entice fol­lowers. That is why Jesus worked out redemption as a way by which godhood can be achieved, even by those who have succumbed to sin, if they will give up the sin, repent, and return to the true path, allowing Jesus to pay the penalty of their sin for them. This payment, called the Atonement, is a sacrifice Jesus has already made by his death and resurrection. Disciplinary councils, therefore, are “councils of love” because they are intended to restore to the true path those who have succumbed to temptation.

Temple work is a key element of adult activity. The LDS church now has more than 100 temples operat­ing around the world or planned or under construc­tion. These buildings are not places of congregational worship, but rather places where living members perform vicarious “work for the dead,” consisting of proxy baptisms, endowments, and scalings for deceased ancestors. This temple work is guided by a belief that all persons who have ever lived on earth are the spirit off­spring of divine parents to whom they may return as worthy of a heavenly glory if these ordinances are performed under priestly authority. The spirit of the deceased person may accept the ordinance work that is done on earth on their behalf. Many forms of service occupy LDS adults, including work in the church’s welfare system and callings in the mission system.


A funeral marks the completion of the mortal phase of existence. The body is dressed with temple gar­ments when this is appropriate. Members of the Relief Society assist in this preparation for deceased women, and Melchizedek priests assist for deceased men. A service is usually held in the ward chapel, fol­lowed by the burial of the body. In LDS belief, the postmortal spirit self then enters a state of existence called either “paradise” or “spirit prison.”

Not all spirits will have completed their ordinance work or met the conditions of righteous obedience nec­essary for progression in the celestial kingdom, and some will have actively opposed the plan of salvation. However, those who have met conditions of obedience can serve as “ministering angels” to those in spirit prison. And all may progress along the path toward a more per­fect condition by repentance and acceptance of the vicar­ious temple work done on earth on their behalf, until all the ordinances are completed. In this way, agency of the spirit self is preserved in postmortem existence. Then, with the first resurrection, all spirits will he clothed with immortal bodies of flesh and bones, and Christ will reign with the saints for a thousand years.

The second resurrection will inaugurate the final destiny of all spirits. The highest hope and glory of the plan of salvation, as foretold in the Endowment ordi­ nance, is for those reembodied spirit persons who have fulfilled their covenants to return to Heavenly Father and Mother as married persons in their own extended family. They will meet the Lord face to face in the high­est realm of glory in the celestial kingdom. There, with their spouses, they will become gods among the gods on earth transformed into the full kingdom of God.

The hope of happiness, joy, and perfection is a strong guiding force in the lives of Latter-day Saints and is what they conceive as their quest for glory. Entering the realm of glory is the ultimate objective of the model that is the Latter-day Saints’ life plan. As the church continues to grow, its life plan will serve as a culturally constituted template that has directive force and orients increasing numbers of far-flung Mormons to the ongoing processes of social life.

Melvyn Hammarberg has been conducting anthropological research among the members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints since the early 1970s. He is currently writ­ing a book on the churches contemporary culture with the working title Quest for Glory. He is Consulting Curator; American Section, UPM, and Associate Professor, Depart­ment of Anthropology, University of Pennsylvania. He serves as chair of the graduate group in American Civilization and undergraduate chair in the Department of Anthropology. He is author of The Indiana Voter: Historical Dynamics of Party Attachment (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1977) and editor of Interpreting American Culture: A Regional Approach (Dundee, Scotland: Modern Studies Association, 1992). He authored the Penn Inventory for Post-traumatic Stress Disorder (1990), employed worldwide for assessing PTSD.

Acknowledgments: I wish to acknowledge the helpful comments of Daymon Smith, Maxine Stone Davidson, and Dean May on earlier versions of this cultural model.


Cite This Article

Hammarberg, Melvyn. "The World of the Latter-day Saints–A Life Plan Model." Expedition Magazine 44, no. 1 (March, 2002): -. Accessed February 22, 2024.

This digitized article is presented here as a historical reference and may not reflect the current views of the Penn Museum.

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