A close friend recently mentioned that it would be interesting to see how the use of the phrase “chosen generation” had changed in general conference over the years. He remembered hearing it a lot growing up, but not as often now. So I decided I would try to do just that, see if I can find some trends in how the phrase has been used over the years.
I started by simply looking at the number of times that phrase was used. It quickly became apparent that different people interpreted 1st Peter 2:9 in different ways. So first I went through each reference in all the talks which said “chosen generation” and tried to put them in categories. I ended up these categories:
1. Merit – This was a category for those who felt that this phrase was a special distinction for those who followed Christ’s teachings sufficiently to be considered part of a “chosen generation.” For example, Joseph Fielding Smith said the following in 1971:
If we will walk in paths of virtue and holiness, the Lord will pour out his blessings upon us to a degree we have never supposed possible. We shall be in very deed, as Peter expressed it, ” a chosen generation, a royal priesthood, an holy nation, a peculiar people.”
2. Membership – Many used this phrase and scripture in 1st Peter to refer to members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. One example is from Russel M Nelson in 1995:
When we embrace the gospel and are baptized, we are born again and take upon ourselves the sacred name of Jesus Christ. We are adopted as his sons and daughters and are known as brothers and sisters. He is the Father of our new life. We become joint heirs to promises given by the Lord to Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and their posterity. Peter used uplifting terms in a prophecy regarding our day. He identified members of the Church as “a chosen generation, a royal priesthood, an holy nation, a peculiar people.”
3. Priesthood – Several used this phrase and passage to refer specifically to the priesthood. Thomas S Monson (who has only ever used this phrase when referring to priesthood) said in 1996 Priesthood session:
What a vast audience is attending this general priesthood meeting this evening. The Apostle Peter aptly described you: “Ye are a chosen generation, a royal priesthood, an holy nation, a peculiar people; that ye should shew forth the praises of him who hath called you out of darkness into his marvellous light.”
4. Inherent – Starting particularly in 1970, and becoming a more frequently used interpretation, the phrase was used to refer to the youth of the church and the fact that they were strong spirits, reserved through the eternities to come forth in this particular day and age. Frequently this usage of the phrase abandons a direct reference to the passage in 1st Peter. Joseph Fielding Smith in 1970:
Our young people are among the most blessed and favored of our Father’s children. They are the nobility of heaven, a choice and chosen generation who have a divine destiny. Their spirits have been reserved to come forth in this day when the gospel is on earth, and when the Lord needs valiant servants to carry on his great latter-day work.”
Those four categories seemed sufficient for categorizing most of the uses in general conference. There were several however which could fit equally in two of the categories. One example of this is seen in the graph above, where a quote could be seen as meaning either that one must live in a way that qualifies them to be worthy of the term, while also implying that it is tied to membership, one such example is the following from Rufus K Hardy in 1939:
Let me read to you what the Apostle Peter said, because I believe we can apply it to ourselves: But ye are a chosen generation, a royal priesthood, an holy nation, a peculiar people; that ye should shew forth the praises of him who hath called you out of darkness into his marvelous light. I think we are doing that as best we can, but I believe we can do better if we try just a little harder.
I should acknowledge that this categorization is a subjective process and others likely could have categorized things differently. However, I believe that while this is the case, the general trends shown and described here would still hold true.While reading the various texts from general conference talks, I noticed that occasionally a similar phrase would be used to describe the same concept as the “chosen generation.” So I started looking for other phrases referring to the same concept. They were:
One can see how including these affects the graph:
I didn’t include every instance of the word “generation” in this list. There are references to a “wicked generation,” “rising generation” and many others. However because my focus is on the rhetoric of the “chosen generation” of youth who were reserved to come forth at this time because they were “noble spirits,” I was primarily looking for general conference talks which either perpetuated that idea, or which showed historic use of the phrase “chosen generation.”
Variety of Uses
While reading through all of these, I found some interesting uses I found for the phrase “chosen generation.” In the 1940′s Oscar A Kirkham used the phrase “greatest generation” in referring to the youth and prefaced the phrase with “I feel in my heart” and “In my humble opinion.” In 1947 Milton R. Hunter used the term “chosen generation” to refer to the early mormon pioneers who crossed the oceans and plains. In 1999 President Hinkley used the passage in 1st Peter to refer to all the members of the church in this last dispensation. In 2006 Paul B Pieper gave a specific interpretation of the phrase “chosen generation” to refer to the first generation of a family to join the church; that first member to join becomes the chosen generation through which past and future generations are blessed.
Theodore M. Burton prefaced quoting from 1st Peter by saying “I feel.” The year before President Smith’s comment, President Hugh B Brown said the following after quoting from 1st Peter:
Whether or not all will agree that these characterizations are applicable to the Saints of this day, I am sure most will at least agree that we are a peculiar people — not in any unkind way, but perhaps most would say we are a different people.
I find such phrasing (the acknowledgment of a variety of interpretations) very refreshing.
Inherently Special Youth
As is evident in the graphs, the most interesting thing is the sudden and dramatic rise in the use of the phrase to refer to the youth as special spirits of a superlative nature. Based on my readings of all the general conference talks with the phrase “chosen generation” it seems that this new use began in 1970 by Pres. Joseph Fielding Smith.
Our young people are among the most blessed and favored of our Father’s children. They are the nobility of heaven, a choice and chosen generation who have a divine destiny. Their spirits have been reserved to come forth in this day when the gospel is on earth, and when the Lord needs valiant servants to carry on his great latter-day work.
The next year Theodore M. Burton used the phrase “chosen generation” in a similar way, which implied that the youth at that time were inherently special and unique. Two years after that, David B. Haight used it in this same manner.
This “chosen generation” = ‘the current youth are royal/special’ has not only continued, but has snowballed. This has reached epic proportions too because mormonism makes for an incredible game of telephone. Most don’t bother looking up or citing sources. As a result, when I was in seminary I put a piece of paper in my scriptures which had a fake quote on it about my generation being a chosen one. Times and Seasons had a post which talked all about it (comment #36 is particularly applicable to this current post). People took this idea and went crazy with it. Here is a site which considers most of the quotes to be gospel truth, but noted the mistaken quote. This is the only site I’ve found which hunted down the origin of the quote. The false quote was popularized by Brad Wilcox (famed EFY speaker) but apparently originated with Jack Marshall (an institute director in Pasadena, CA).
Why This Matters
As many of the comments on the Times and Seasons post noted, this is likely a harmless faith-promoting story to help encourage the youth. On the other hand, I’ve had individuals point out that simply giving praise to someone (especially children/teens) for their inherent abilities as opposed to abilities which they work to develop can be detrimental. Just check out this psychology study. If you look up the original paper, there were two groups of students. Each was given a simple test and all the students performed well. One group was praised for their innate ability (you’re so smart), while the other was praised for their work (you worked so hard at it). The students were then given a very difficult test. None of the students performed well. A third test was administered which was moderately difficult and the group praised for their efforts vastly outperformed the group praised for their innate ability. The conclusion drawn was that when the students had the very difficult test those who had been told they were inherently smart began to question that fact and felt that they must not be smart. However, the other group (which had been told they had worked hard for the previous test) simply assumed that they must not have worked hard enough for the difficult test and exerted even more effort in studying for the 3rd.
How much can/does this apply to the topic of the “chosen generation?” I see many parallels. I see all of these comments as an effort to encourage, help, and strengthen the rising generation. I see nothing but the best of intentions with all of them. Perhaps if we can focus more on the effort the youth exert in being loving people and overcoming obstacles we can better empower them for future struggles. Many quotes did just this. When discussing this topic with some, one person seemed irritated that President Smith ever said the original quote after seeing the life the idea gained from it. I pointed out to him that President Smith didn’t ever beat on that point repeatedly. In fact, the very next year after his original quote, he said this (emphasis added):
If we will walk in paths of virtue and holiness, the Lord will pour out his blessings upon us to a degree we have never supposed possible. We shall be in very deed, as Peter expressed it, ” a chosen generation, a royal priesthood, an holy nation, a peculiar people. ” (1 Pet. 2:9.)
It doesn’t appear at all that President Smith was confined to one interpretation of the phrase or passage.
A Shift in Views or Speakers?
Because I saw that President Smith used “chosen generation” in a few different ways, I wanted to see who used the phrase in a consistant manner. To do this, I first only selected those who used the phrase multiple times within multiple conference talks. Then based on each use of the phrase within each talk I placed each onto a spectrum:
You’ll notice I place President Smith outside of the chart. He was the first I could find to indicate that our youth are an inherently chosen generation, yet he also used it as a status we merit through our choices, as well as referring to the general membership. He truly spanned the spectrum in how he used the phrase. President Hinkley really loved expressing his love for the youth and how much respect he had for them. As a result many of his statements reflected the “inherently chosen” variety. In fact, most living people on the chart are noticeably on the far right in the “inherently chosen” or a mixture of that and ‘chosen = membership.’ The notable exception is President Monson. It appears that he’s only ever mentioned this phrase in the context of quoting 1st Peter and always in Priesthood session. Below is the number of talks in which each person used the phrase “chosen generation”:
It will be interesting to listen for how new Apostles and Seventies use this phrase since individuals are likely to use it in a consistent manner. Observing this might give us a clue as to how the church understanding of the phrase will shift in time.
So what are your thoughts? How did you understand the use of “chosen generation?” What trends did you notice? Why do you think this idea of an inherently chosen generation took off so quickly? I’d love to hear thoughts.