Over the past several years, in many different settings, I have had some interesting discussions about the topic of birth control and/or the commandment to multiply and replenish the earth. (Note that these are not necessarily the same topic!) Over the past hundred years, and even in my lifetime, we have seen some difference in the way these topics are addressed. In particular, we rarely hear anything specifically about birth control per se. We also hear that the decisions about family size and planning are personal, between a couple and the Lord.
I want to suggest that even as specific directives related to birth control might not be as plentiful as they used to be, the doctrine related to the commandment to multiply and replenish has basically remained the same through the course of the past century. Our leaders have never stopped talking about the importance of having children and how "multiply and replenish" is a commandment, part of our covenant responsibility. They have repeatedly expressed concern about the ways the adversary is undermining the family, including falling birth rates and changing attitudes about having children. They have also talked about the blessings that come from having children, and also the consequences, both on a general and individual level, when the plan is not followed as designed and taught. I think a lot of these concerns were those that underpinned past teachings by Church leaders as well.
I think our leaders leave it up to us to listen carefully and prayerfully consider their counsel and concerns. I see a lot of teaching correct principles and trusting us to govern ourselves. We are not "command[ed] in all things" with regard to specifics (the "how"), and we shouldn't expect to be. But we are taught repeatedly about the "what" and "why." I believe the Lord wants married couples to learn to have ears to hear and discern truth in prophetic and scriptural counsel, and to then work together and with Him to make specific decisions. (This process obviously would apply to individuals as well with most other topics.) Therefore, our leaders have given us general counsel and direction and it is up to each couple to prayerfully consider what to do about that counsel. Paraphrasing President Packer, "True doctrine, understood" is what ultimately influences and "changes behavior."
Let me be clear that I firmly believe that God will not simply play a headcount game in the judgment day; rather, I believe He will consider our hearts, motives, desires, and priorities. Counsel about multiplying and replenishing is not simply about family size or headcount, because there are factors (such as fertility issues or health problems) that can sometimes be outside of our control and affect our ability to choose how or when children come. When prophets speak of those who, through no fault of their own, will receive the fulness of God's blessings, they not only speak to those who don't have the chance to marry and have children, but also to those who face physical or other limitations that limit the number of children they can have, even as they wish they could have more. The Atonement can cover what we cannot do if our desires and hearts are in line with the commandments we have been given. (On a personal note, as someone who, because of health issues (and after prayer and fasting) has (with her husband) felt that she should not at this point have more children, I find this to be extremely comforting. I keep hoping my situation will change, but....)
I also believe that part of the purpose of life is to learn how to exercise our agency for good and for God's glory. As such, it is imperative that we remember that no one can decide specifically for another what the "right approach" is to implementing prophetic and scriptural counsel. We cannot tell someone else when to have children or how many to have. All we can do is consider the counsel and the principles together.
Therefore, the purpose of this post is basically to review counsel that has been given in a variety of contexts by a variety of leaders. The post also includes general information from the Church website and/or Church manuals and other materials. I have sought to include only counsel given during the past 15 years from those leaders who are currently living (and/or similarly current statements in our magazines and manuals, and on the website). I do this both because this will be long enough as it is (!!) and also because I'm interested in what is being said in our time by our current leaders, even though there has been much doctrinal consistency throughout the decades with the ideas discussed herein. The exception to this approach will be when current materials such as manuals or talks quote earlier statements, which in essences bring earlier statements to a place of current relevance.
As you review these things, I think that Elder Eyring's counsel is worth keeping in mind:
"In our own time, we have been warned with counsel of where to find safety from sin and from sorrow. One of the keys to recognizing those warnings is that they are repeated. For instance, more than once in these general conferences, you have heard our prophet say that he would quote a preceding prophet and would therefore be a second witness and sometimes even a third.... The Apostle Paul wrote that “in the mouth of two or three witnesses shall every word be established” (2 Cor. 13:1). One of the ways we may know that the warning is from the Lord is that the law of witnesses, authorized witnesses, has been invoked. When the words of prophets seem repetitive, that should rivet our attention and fill our hearts with gratitude to live in such a blessed time" (emphasis added).
Note that some of the following counsel deals directly and specifically with the commandment to multiply and replenish, other counsel deals with concerning trends, and still other counsel was included (e.g., on covenants, the adversary's efforts to undermine God's plan, on decision-making) because I think it could be applicable to the topics at hand. (I have noticed that often there are gems of wisdom and insight embedded in a talk that appears to be on one topic but also teaches about other topics as well. I'm sure there are plenty of these types of statements that I didn't find.)
Oh, and did you note the warning that this will be LONG? I've tried to organize in a way that makes the post visually accessible so you can skim and skip as desired, but there is only so much I could do. I wanted this to be fairly comprehensive. (That said, I'm sure I have missed quotes; I finally reached a point where I needed to just post this! If you find one missing, please let me know.)
I'll begin with some general information as given in Church resources, not specifically tied to any particular leader.
(One last thing: A request for this post is not to shoot the messenger. If you don't like what is said here, don't take it up with me, and don't make any attacks on the leaders or the Church. Remember, in the end, this issue is between you and your spouse and the Lord so take it up with Him. :) This post is also not intended to send someone into a tizzy of guilt (to which I am personally prone); again, it's a topic that in the end can only be fully explored with one's spouse and with the Lord. The compilation of counsel is meant to be as an aid in that process.)
First of all, let's just consider what one would find if searching in the index of topics on lds.org on the topic of birth control.
Some similar concepts are discussed in the True to the Faith entry on birth control.
Note again the emphasis on doctrine that can help couples prepare to make appropriate decisions about family planning.
In an Ensign article on this topic, we read:
Bringing children into the world is certainly not convenient. Most often it involves physical pain followed by great sacrifice and selflessness. But the blessings of keeping God’s command to rear children are some of the sweetest blessings He offers. Indeed, in many ways parenthood gives us a foretaste of
Marriage and Family Relations study guide (copyright 2000):
(From a talk by Elder Boyd K. Packer.
From the First Presidency and Quorum of the Twelve:
The Family: A Proclamation to the World
Note the preface that President Gordon B. Hinckley gave when he read the Proclamation for the first time.
President Hinckley said: “Of all the joys of life, none other equals that of happy parenthood. Of all the responsibilities with which we struggle, none other is so serious. To rear children in an atmosphere of love, security, and faith is the most rewarding of all challenges. The good result from such efforts becomes life’s most satisfying compensation” (in Conference Report, Oct. 1994, 74; or Ensign, Nov. 1994, 54).
President Hinckley, as quoted by Elder Oaks (original talk by Pres. Hinckley is: “If I Were You, What Would I Do?” Brigham Young University 1983–84 Fireside and Devotional Speeches, Provo, Utah: University Publications, 1984, p. 11). [In his quote, there is the trust and tone that I think our leaders in general have taken. They focus on the doctrine and trust that we will prayerfully ask the Lord how He would have us implement that doctrine.]
President Gordon B. Hinckley: "You have nothing in this world more precious than your children."
President Thomas S. Monson: "No sacrifice is too great, no pain too severe, no waiting too long....
It is our solemn duty, our precious privilege—even our sacred opportunity—to welcome to our homes and to our hearts the children who grace our lives."
President James E. Faust was quoted in this article about concerning trends.
President James E. Faust talks about his views on attitudes that some have that we need to control the population to save the earth.
President James E. Faust talks of the happiness that comes from marriage and parenthood.
President James E. Faust talks about how parenthood is a covenantal responsibility.
President James E. Faust talks about decision-making and serving the Lord with our decisions.
President James E. Faust talks about being co-creators with God.
President James E. Faust speaks again on covenants.
President Boyd K. Packer: "Do not be afraid to bring children into the world. We are under covenant to provide physical bodies so that spirits may enter mortality (see Gen. 1:28; Moses 2:28). Children are the future of the restored Church."
President Boyd K. Packer speaks on the importance of parenthood.
President Boyd K. Packer said that the words in the Proclamation on this subject have "taken on the status of scripture." He also expresses concern about trends such as declining birthrates and how such trends bring consequences. Here he talks of the consequences to the Lord's work. He also mentions that having children is the "paramount purpose" of marriage.
Pres. Boyd K. Packer talks about how we shouldn't have to ask what the Church's position is on this topic and others.
President Boyd K. Packer talks about how marriage and parenthood are key to receiving the fulness of joy mentioned in the scriptures (he lists the following: 2 Ne. 2:25; 2 Ne. 9:18; D&C 11:13; D&C 42:61; D&C 101:36).
Elder Boyd K. Packer talks about how having children is a key part of the great plan of happiness, and that they must speak about this plan in boldness even when not everyone's life fits the ideal. (FYI, in this talk, he mentions contraception.) He also speaks of teaching rules, not exceptions.
Elder L. Tom Perry: "Families lie at the center of our Heavenly Father’s plan."
Elder L. Tom Perry
Elder Russell M. Nelson talks of how the adversary seeks to undermine parenthood.
Elder Russell M. Nelson talks about priorities, about faith in our family life, and that bringing children to the world is heeding prophetic counsel -- and brings great blessings! He also speaks about concerning social trends such as declining birth rates.
Elder Russell M. Nelson (this is a little older, but to me reflects the
recognition that we can receive personal revelation about how to obey the
Elder Dallin H. Oaks: To the first man and woman on earth, the Lord said, “Be fruitful, and multiply” (Moses 2:28; see also Gen. 1:28; Abr. 4:28). This commandment was first in sequence and first in importance. It was essential that God’s spirit children have mortal birth and an opportunity to progress toward eternal life. Consequently, all things related to procreation are prime targets for the adversary’s efforts to thwart the plan of God.
Elder Dallin H. Oaks speaks on priorities and putting God's work first, which includes the "birth, nurturing, teaching, and sealing of our Heavenly Father’s children. Everything else is lower in priority." We should consider the eternal impact of the decisions we make.
Elder Dallin H. Oaks talks of laying up treasures in heaven, our children and posterity. He also quotes Pres. Kimball who said, “It is an act of extreme selfishness for a married couple to refuse to have children when they are able to do so” (Ensign, May 1979, p. 6). We should have as many children as we can care for (in every way).
Elder Dallin H. Oaks gives his talk about the importance of making life decisions. He quotes Elder Earl C. Tingey who talks of concerning social trends, and Elder Oaks speaks of these himself, talking of the adversary's opposition to the plan.
[In this address, not fully reprinted in the Ensign, Elder Oaks also mentioned Elder Nelson's talk on "Faith and Families" which is linked above. He mentioned particularly the fact that he and his wife followed prophetic counsel to have [five!] children even while he was pursuing his extensive education. He also mentioned that talks prepared under the inspiration of the Spirit and given by our leaders are not to be "enjoyed" but to "inspire, edify, challenge, or direct." We should not "trifle" with the words spoken but should open our ears to hear, as King Benjamin counseled (Mosiah 2:9). He also reiterated what has been said before about prophets teaching the general rule, not the exception. I think all of these concepts are relevant to this post.]
Elder M. Russell Ballard talks of how the Proclamation came in the midst of concern that the Brethren had for the many ways the family was being attacked. The Proclamation was created through the divinely-inspired council system. He also reminds us that "the family is the basic unit of eternity." He expresses the concern that marriage is too often seen as a relationship for adults, not an "institution for rearing children. Children are considered a choice rather than a blessing."
Elder M. Russell Ballard says that the main purpose of the earth is so children can come and progress and the commandment to multiply and replenish is still in force.
Elder Richard G. Scott says that we have the responsibility to bear and raise children as part of the plan. Study Adam and Eve to see how they lived according to the plan, even when it was difficult.
Elder Robert D. Hales says that Satan attacks the family and discourages childbearing as one of our highest priorities in marriage.
Elder Henry B. Eyring talks of the commandment to multiply and replenish and disagrees with theories that concerns about poverty overpopulation are not a reason to not have children.
Elder David A. Bednar talks of the plan and the commandment to multiply and replenish.
From Seventies and other General Leaders (in no particular order):
Elder Merrill J. Bateman gave a powerful talk about the important years between ages 18-30 and how decisions we make during those years can affect us eternally. He spoke particularly of the gift of procreation and how whether or not that gift will rise with us in the resurrection depends on how we receive and exercise that gift on earth.
Elder Douglas W. Shumway talks of the adversary's attacks on the family, including encouraging couples to avoid parenthood.
Elder Charles Didier: A key purpose of marriage is procreation, key to the plan.
Elder F. Burton Howard says that we are one with the Creator when we fulfill the commandment to multiply and replenish.
Sister Susan Tanner says that many miss the blessing of parenthood by seeing it as an inconvenience.
Elder L. Aldin Porter talks about the sacred doctrines in the Proclamation and how they should be carefully considered as we build our homes and families (and/or as we seek marriage companions). He talks of the world's trends to see parenthood as a barrier to personal fulfillment. The Proclamation teaches us otherwise.
Elder J. Ballard Washburn says that the covenant of marriage includes a willingness to have children. As a doctor, he expresses concern about "false doctrines of the world" that could cause us to break covenants. (Here he basically spoke against deliberately limiting families.)
Elder Ben B. Banks: We cannot overemphasize the importance of parenthood and the family.
Other places for more quotes, from our manuals:
Teachings of the Presidents of the Church: David O. McKay
Teachings of the Presidents of the Church: Wilford Woodruff
Teachings of the Presidents of the Church: Heber J. Grant
Teachings of the Presidents of the Church: Joseph F. Smith
Teachings of the Presidents of the Church: John Taylor