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The Eternal Family

Provo TempleBy President Merrill J. Bateman

God’s plan for the happiness of his children is designed around families, a focus often emphasized by his prophets. In 1995 the First Presidency and the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles again stressed the importance of families when they issued “The Family: A
Proclamation to the World.” The proclamation serves not only as a handbook for family living but also as a compass for family research and advocacy. Responding to the proclamation, BYU has recently created a School of Family Life to help scholars, teachers, and students implement the document’s principles and enhance their efforts to strengthen the families of the world.

Almost four years ago in a Saturday evening session of a stake conference in New York, I listened intently to a young Hispanic sister bear witness of the promptings and feelings that occurred during her conversion. “As I listened to the missionaries explain the plan of salvation,” she said, “I suddenly felt a confirming witness that I am more than a speck in the universe. My life is important not only to me but to a loving Heavenly Father and his Son. They know me! There is purpose to life, and God has a plan for me to achieve that purpose. I can never feel worthless again!”

The truth of that young sister’s testimony burned within me that evening. The hope and joy she felt as she learned of God’s plan are the hope and joy we each feel as we come to understand that we are part of God’s eternal family. For us, his children, he has designed a plan of happiness that centers around and is made possible in families. The plan includes a premortal existence in which men and women were spirits, “born of heavenly parents, and reared to maturity in the eternal mansions of the Father, prior to coming upon the earth in a temporal body to undergo an experience in mortality” (“The Origin of Man,” November 1909, in James R. Clark, comp., Messages of the First Presidency of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 6 vols. [Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1965­75], 4:205).

The plan also includes an earthly, temporal sojourn, during which we receive a physical body with procreative powers and the opportunity to form eternal families of our own. The formation of such families is a key purpose of God’s plan. By creating our own families, it is possible for fathers and mothers to learn eternal lessons and develop Godly traits. It is within the family that exaltation is achieved.

The creation of the earth, the fall of Adam, and the atonement of Christ are essential elements or pillars in the Father’s plan for the progression and development of his children–both as individuals and as families. The earth’s creation provided a new state of existence apart from our spiritual home; as children and parents in this new family setting, we are able to love, trust, care, learn, and serve in a different environment. The fall of Adam made it possible for children to be born and, therefore, for families to be created (see 2 Ne. 2:23, 25). The atonement of Christ opens the doors of salvation for the individual and of exaltation for the family (see D&C 131:1­4, 132:22). These three doctrinal pillars of the plan of salvation are intimately involved in the creation of new eternal families and their extension into the eternities.

Rexburg TempleThe family-oriented nature of God’s plan is also reflected in God’s kingdom on Earth. Church organization and gospel principles, when properly applied, strengthen us as families in our efforts to follow the plan of our Father. In addition the prophets of God have charged us–individually and collectively–to advocate, build, and support positive family relationships and environments.

In September 1995 the First Presidency and the Council of the Twelve Apostles issued “The Family: A Proclamation to the World” (Ensign, November 1995, p. 102). The statement is an extraordinary document outlining Church doctrine concerning the family and the relationships between husband and wife, parents and children. On a number of occasions during the past two years, President Hinckley has been asked why the proclamation was issued. Typical of his answers is the following:

Much of the world is in serious trouble over the disintegration of the family. The family is the basic unit of society. No nation is stronger than the homes of its people. . . .

Lawrence Stone, the noted Princeton University family historian, says: “The scale of marital breakdowns in the West since 1960 has no historical precedent that I know of, and seems unique. . . . There has been nothing like it for the last 2,000 years and probably longer.” (Quoted by David Popenoe, “A World Without Father,” The Wilson Quarterly, Spring 1996, p. 13.) You are familiar with the fruits of broken homes. I think the home is the answer to most of our basic social problems, and if we take care of things there, other things will take care of themselves.

We are trying to preserve the traditional family–father, mother, and children–working together in love toward a common goal. In large measure we are succeeding against great odds. [Washington, D.C., media luncheon, Dec. 2, 1996, quoted in Teachings of Gordon B. Hinckley (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1997), pp. 209­10]

Following the issuance of the proclamation, all members of the Church have been challenged to become familiar with its doctrines and to apply them. It is particularly revealing to compare the teachings of the proclamation with contrasting philosophies and practices of the world.

Ordained of God

The first principle taught by the proclamation is that “marriage between a man and a woman is ordained of God.” We believe the first marriage was performed by God and that that marriage had no end (see Gen. 2:22­24, Moses 3:21­24). Marriage is a sacred relationship. When a marriage is performed in the right place by the right authority, an everlasting covenant is established between the man, the woman, and the Lord (see D&C 132:15­19). The covenant has the potential of creating an eternal unit.

Men and women are created as complements–not only physically, but also emotionally and spiritually. Men and women have different strengths and weaknesses, and marriage is a synergistic relationship in which spiritual growth is enhanced because of the differences.

We believe that procreative powers are sacred and are to be used only between a man and a woman legally and lawfully married. When they are used outside of marriage, they may destroy relationships rather than build them.

In contrast, many people in the world treat marriage as a mere association by consenting adults (see Bruce C. Hafen, “Covenant Marriage,” Ensign, November 1996, pp. 26­28). The association may or may not be based on a contract. Sexual relationships outside of marriage are widely seen as acceptable. Open marriages without a contract are more and more prevalent as young people live together on a trial basis. Some people are now asking that an association between partners of the same sex be recognized as marriage. It is clear that m arriage is not considered a sacred relationship in many quarters. In fact, some argue that the state or society has no interest or stake in marriage.

We believe that society has a stake in marriage because the physical, emotional, spiritual, and economic health of its citizens is determined by the quality and duration of marital relationships.

Central to the Father’s Plan 

The second principle taught by the proclamation is that the family is central to the Father’s plan for the destiny of his children. The plan calls for mortal probation and the testing of God’s spiritual offspring (see Abr. 3:22­26). In the testing process the family is essential for the proper training of children in the faith (see D&C 68:25, 28). Father and mother are important role models in nurturing and rearing children. We believe that children’s self-respect and identity are partially determined by the love their father and mother have for each other. President McKay often repeated the saying, “A father can do no greater thing for his children than to let them feel that he loves their mother” (see Teachings of Gordon B. Hinckley, p. 201). My experience suggests that a child’s identity and feelings of security are threatened when parents argue and condemn one another. The home is the best place for children to experience the bonds of love and learn virtue, honesty, and good citizenship. The home is the primary place where children learn to treat others with respect.

What are the world’s vie
ws with regard to the family? There are many who assume that there is no plan because there is no God. Life is an accident. Marriage and the family are temporal associations. The association between consenting adults has as its purpose pleasure and individual satisfaction. If the association no longer serves that purpose, it should end, regardless of the impact on one’s partner or children. Given these views, is it any wonder that marriages do not last? More than half of all civil marriages in the United States end in divorce. Based on these philosophies, it is not difficult to propagate an argument recently heard in a Hawaiian court that children can be nurtured as well by two adults of the same sex as by the natural father and mother. (See Brief for Amici Curiae Bronfenbrenner et al., Baehr v. Miike, No. 91-1394-05 [Haw., May 23, 1997].) Also, if marriage is a temporary association that may end at any time, it is then simple to extrapolate that governments should assume primary responsibility for training and educating children.

One can assume that the longer the view a woman and man have regarding their marriage, the greater the probability of success. The divorce rate for temple marriages is well below that of civil marriages, and civil divorce rates are exceeded by separation rates for open marriages. (See Tim B. Heaton and Kristen L. Goodman, “Religion and Family Formation,” Review of Religious Research 26, no. 4 [June 1985]: 343­59; John O. G. Billy, Nancy S. Landale, and Steven D. McLaughlin, “The Effect of Marital Status at First Birth on Marital Dissolution Among Adolescent Mothers,” Demography 23, no. 3 [August 1986]: 329­49; and Larry L. Bumpass and James A. Sweet, “National Estimates of Cohabitation,” Demography 26, no. 4 [November 1989]: 615­25.) A view of marriage and the family based on eternal principles increases the probability of success. When one takes the long view, one tries harder to be patient, long-suffering, kind, gentle, and meek. These characteristics, in turn, strengthen the marriage.

Building Successful Families 

The proclamation teaches that “successful marriages and families are established and maintained on principles of faith, prayer, repentance, forgiveness, respect, love, compassion, work, and wholesome recreational activities.” In other words, the Lord measures the success of a family by the quality of its relationships. In a home where faith, love, and forgiveness are dominant, members find joy and satisfaction in being together. Ideally the father presides in love and righteousness, provides the necessities of life, and protects the family, while the mother is primarily responsible for nurturing the children.

In contrast, the world often measures family success by the accumulation of worldly things and the size of the estate that is passed on to the children.

Many programs and practices in the Church are designed to strengthen the family. These include family home evening, family councils, family history work, family prayer, father’s blessings, and family scripture study.

One of the most important activities in the home occurs when parents use the scriptures to teach their children, young and old, about the Savior. The scriptures are filled with symbols of Christ that help us and our children better know him. We hope that our children will know that Abel sacrificed the firstlings of the flock as a reminder that Jesus is the firstborn in the spirit and the first to be resurrected (see Gen. 4:4; John 1:1; Col. 1:15, 18). We hope that our people will recognize the Israelite sacrifice of the “lamb without blemish” as a symbol of Christ’s offering for sin and his innocence and perfect character (1 Pet. 1:19; see also Ex. 12:5). The manna from heaven provided for the children of Israel should remind us that Christ is the bread of life and that through him we receive the food of eternal life (see Ex. 16:15, John 6:32­35). Moses smiting the rock to obtain water for Israel teaches us that Christ is the fountain of life, and his living water (the gospel) quenches our thirst forever (see Ex. 17:6, John 4:7­14). The blood of Israel’s sacrificial lambs reminds us that Christ bled from every pore in Gethsemane and that his blood was spilled on the cross as the price for our sins (see Ex. 12:21, 24:8; Luke 22:44; D&C 19:18).

We must teach our children that the greatest act of love in the history of the world is the atoning sacrifice of the Only Begotten of the Father. The Atonement reveals the intense feelings of both the Father and the Son for all mankind–their family. Jesus taught Nicodemus about the Father’s love: “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son” (John 3:16). And Jesus taught the Twelve about his own love: “Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends” (John 15:12­13). If we and our children learn about the Lord’s life and sacrifice, we will love him “because he first loved us” (1 John 4:19).

Promoting the Family

Provo TempleThe final point made in the proclamation is a call to action: “We call upon responsible citizens and officers of government everywhere to promote those measures designed to maintain and strengthen the family as the fundamental unit of society.”

Although there is much in the world that seeks to destroy the family, as Professor Alan J. Hawkins noted in a recent devotional address, there are also “strong, counterbalancing forces for good that will help God’s children today build strong families” (“Some of BYU’s Responses to ‘The Family: A Proclamation to the World,'” BYU 1997­98 Speeches [Provo: BYU, 1998], p. 252). Some of those counterbalancing forces are found here at BYU, where professors teach family classes, conduct family research, and promote family values. We have, on this campus, the largest undergraduate enrollment in family sciences in North America. Many of our students who take these classes go on to become family life professionals, helping husbands and wives improve their marriages and families. Others become researchers and help to promote the values and ideas in which we believe. But the majority of these students don’t use their family science education as professionals or professors; rather, these students use their education as parents and as husbands and wives. They learn how to manage their families, how to teach their children, and how to better create a loving home.

We are doing much at BYU to promote the family. But we can, and we must, do more. In his devotional address, Professor Hawkins spoke of the proclamation as “a latter-day Liahona for those seeking guidance through the wilderness of contemporary family life.” He said, “The proclamation can be both a personal and an institutional Liahona to those who will place even a grain of faith in its truths” (1997­98 Speeches, p. 252).

As faculty, students, graduates, and friends of BYU, we should do as Professor Hawkins has urged. We should place faith in the truths of the proclamation. We should trust in this Liahona and use it to guide our efforts in our research, our advocacy, our study, and our homes. At BYU we have recently announced the formation of the School of Family Life, the founding charter of which is the family proclamation. This change will enable us, as a university, to better use the proclamation and to better serve the families of the Church and the world.

The day we announced the School of Family Life, I was interviewed by one of the local television stations about this new school. The reporter said to me, “But President Bateman, wouldn’t you rather have your students studying a profession, so that when they leave here they can make money?”

My answer was the following: “Do you realize that the major cause of poverty is the breakdown of the family? That’s where we can really help people in every way–by training our young people, giving them a sense of who they are, how to build the family, how to relate to their companions, and how to live a celestial life on this earth. That’s the goal of this school, to make sure first that the young people who leave here understand how to be good companions and how to build good families. Then we will be able to impact the rest of the world.”

Brothers and sisters, the family is meant to be eternal. Each one of us may be part of an eternal family if we are obedient to gospel principles. A fullness of joy is found only within the framework of an exalted family. Some people may scoff at the seventh commandment, which requires chastity before marriage and fidelity afterward, but “political correctness” is not a substitute for the plan of happiness. Marriage is a sacred relationship between a man and a woman. May each of us live so that we may partake of the greatest blessing the Lord has in store for us, that of eternal life with our families.