Plan of Salvation Happiness

Note: I was unaware of it at the time I wrote this post, but there’s a much more in-depth look at these terms, as well as some additional ones like “plan of redemption” at the blog Nearing Kolob.

When I was growing up and I learned in church about God’s plan to get people back to live with him, the plan was always called the “plan of salvation.” But sometime between my childhood (1980s) and now, this plan has come to be described more often as the “plan of happiness.” The two terms are clearly used to refer to the same thing. For example, here’s Elder Nelson in an April 2013 Conference talk:

The Book of Mormon . . . explains God’s great plan of happiness—the plan of salvation.

I don’t recall when the change took place, though. So I did some digging in the Corpus of LDS General Conference Talks. The corpus goes all the way back to the 1850s, but it looks like the first usage of “plan of happiness” didn’t even take place until 1979. And it didn’t really become popular until 10-15 years later. I’ll make a graph to show you some more complete data.

This graph shows five-year moving averages for how often the phrases “plan of salvation” (hereafter, PoS) and “plan of happiness” (PoH) have been used in General Conference in the past 30 years. I see two interesting patterns. First, PoH appears to have risen to popularity in a relatively short period of time. In the early 1990s, PoH was pretty rare. But by the late 90s, it had already passed PoS in popularity. The second interesting pattern is that PoH has not really been a substitute for PoS. Instead, PoS has continued to be used even after being surpassed by PoH, and has even increased its frequency of usage in the past decade or so. I guess this means that we’re generally getting more talk about God’s plans, whether they be PoS or PoH.

plan of salvation happiness by time Another interesting question is which of the Conference speakers did the popularizing. The graph below shows the breakdown by speaker for five-year periods since 1979. To make the graph easier to look at, I’ve only split out individual speakers who used PoH relatively frequently.

It looks like Elder Maxwell referred to PoH a few times in the 1980s (1980, 1982, 1984), but he really wasn’t the one who got the trend going. It had died down for a while before Elders Packer, Nelson, and Oaks revived it in the early 1990s. The graph isn’t fine-grained enough to show it, but 1993 was really the crucial year, as these three members of the Q12 really made a push for the term by using it several times in Conference talks. (As Kent Larsen pointed out in a post at T&S on this topic a few years ago, then-Elder Packer gave a CES address in 1993 where he explicitly equated the PoS and PoH, and this may have kicked off the increase in usage.) Elder Scott really took up the torch and has carried it for a long time (along with President Packer to a lesser degree). But by the late 1990s, the trend was pretty much self-sustaining, as can be seen by the larger and larger gray bars that represent all other Conference speakers. Elder Scott may still be saying PoH a lot, but it’s likely no longer having an effect, because everyone else has already been won over.

plan of salvation plan of happiness by speakerI don’t have any grand conclusions. I just thought this would be a fun question to look at. Like I said at the beginning, I was raised in the 1980s, so PoH still sounds a little weird to me, and PoS more normal. My feelings are well-summarized by a commenter named mike on Kent Larsen’s post that I mentioned earlier. Mike said:

To me “Plan of Happiness” sounds like something the Chinese communists came up with. It sounds too cult-like to me. I wince a little bit every time I hear it. I prefer the “Plan of Salvation” with its hints of similarity to Protestant salvation. Salvation is something we can’t do to ourselves, but requires Christ.



  1. Just a guess, but could it be reflecting greater emphasis on the Book of Mormon? Alma 42:8 is the first reference to the PoH that I can find. Sometime in those years, the mid to late ’80s as I recall, President Benson called us back to reading and teaching more from the Book of Mormon.

  2. Ironically, plan of salvation not only shows up much more in the Book of Mormon, but it appears (not for the first time) just prior to the reference in Alma 42…in verse 5.

  3. Maybe it took time to percolate? Or it could just reflect the preferences of the speakers and what they had been reading recently in the scriptures. I was about to suggest that it took that long to get through correlation, but that would be unkind of me.

  4. Cool chart Ziff!

    I keep meaning to show you my study on BoM citations in GC talks that shows a quick inflection point a few years prior to Benson’s presidency. I keep meaning to polish it up and do a blog post but can’t seem to get my visualization right.

    Perhaps this just means I grew up in the 90’s, but I dramatically prefer Plan of Happiness to plan of Salvation. Plan of Happiness connects Mormonism to utilitarianism in a concrete way that lines up with the ethical framework I find in so much of Mormonism (e.g. “Happiness is the object and design of our existence”).

    More than that though, I love how it emphasizes the practical payoffs of Mormonism. I think the best argument made against religion is that it asks people to ignore suffering now in exchange for greater happiness in some distant, and uncertain, future. This can result in apathy towards Earthly problems that I find troubling. In contrast Mormonism focuses on increasing happiness here and now as well as any possible future. To quote Joseph Smith again, “if we go to hell, we will turn the devils out of doors and make a heaven of it.”

    Years ago I read a protestant book that asserted that the first purpose of life is to provide God pleasure by praising him ( This idea doesn’t resinate with me. Mormonism is a lot more like Buddhism than most versions of protestantism. An enlightened being gives us a path to become like him and the benefits of that path are felt in this life and the worlds to come.

  5. Thanks for your comment, David. I agree that tying religious observance to happiness–something everyone can appreciate the value of–makes sense. I’ve actually wondered if we moved toward it more than “plan of salvation” in order to avoid the problem of bringing up arguments with other Christians about what exactly salvation is. Happiness is a much easier thing to hold on to, since as you point out, it’s a here-and-now thing too.

  6. I am another child of the 80s, and preferred the Plan of Salvation until recently when I learned that some scholars believe some of the ancient Israelites used Happy as a play on words to refer to the Goddess Asherah, which some have equated to Heavenly Mother. Now, when I use the term PoH, I think of it as a subtle tribute to Mother in Heaven and of Her being a coauthor of the Plan.

    I am not saying that general conference talks started using PoH for this reason. As far as I know, (please correct me if I am wrong) Mormons didn’t seem to really get into the idea of Asherah until the “Nephi and his Asherah” atlrticle, which I believe wasn’t published until 2000.

    So, while I doubt this connection has anything to do with why the phrase is common in conference talks, it has a lot to do with why I have started using it.

  7. Ziff,

    You know I love these mini studies. I wonder if part of the shift was the result of the fusion of our teaching that “Men are that they might have joy” with the plan of salvation. Also, I glanced and the use of the word “happiness” itself has been higher each decade from 1960 until now than it ever was before that time.

    Also, I’d personally hope that it reflects a greater concern for what the gospel can do for us now rather than after death. Plan of happiness seems to deal more with life now than Plan of Salvation.

  8. Thanks, geoffsn! And I hope you’re right. A focus on here-and-now happiness and not just next life payoff seems like a good thing.

  9. Thanks, Lynne!

    sar, good thought! It looks like the copyright date on Elder Ballard’s book is 1995, so it’s totally the right time frame.

  10. As you know, Ziff, I do love me some Mormony language change. Interesting stuff!

    Another element that might effect this (or might not) is the use of “plan of salvation” as a Christian term more generally. I know it had some currency among 19th-century Protestants, but I’m also pretty sure it’s gone out of fashion in the 20th century. I don’t know how big of an effect this would have on Mormon English, since we don’t always care what other Christians are doing linguistically (I swear we discovered the word “grace” just in the last decade), but I can imagine that a faint sense that “plan of salvation” is starting to sound old-timey might contribute to the trend toward “plan of happiness” instead. Also, as far as I know, “plan of happiness” is exclusively Mormon, which makes me kind of like it even though I agree it sounds a little culty.

  11. Great stuff as usual, Ziff. I’m willing to bet the Brethren’s tendency to quote each other in GC talks is a big factor in this kind of vernacular change.

    And this is a topic for another day, but when did Jesus ever promise we’d be happy in this life? The moments when I feel “happy” in life are actually rather fleeting and far between. Most of the time I’m just getting through the day or experiencing some very mild form of suffering (kids screaming, failed plans, etc.). Jesus promises me rest (Matthew 11:28), and there are quite a few scriptural references to people being filled with joy (i.e. Nephi felt joy when partaking of the fruit in 1 Nephi 8). But “happiness” seems like a modern self-help program. Or communist plan – I like that even better.

  12. Thanks for the pointer, Nearing Kolob. Sorry–I wasn’t familiar with your post before writing mine. But you’ve definitely done a much more thorough job than I did!

  13. Ziff, I thought I had put a smiley face after my above comment. I didn’t mean to come across as an #&^$ hole.

    I definitely didn’t do better and I love your second figure above. Very interesting.

    Ziff, I love most of your posts, but my all-time favorite has to be the posts on the Proclamation authorship and predicting who will live to be president of the Church. Awesome work!

  14. Oh, no problem at all, Nearing Kolob! I really did appreciate your more thorough post: you went into a ton more detail thinking about the issue than I did.

    And thanks for your kind words on my other posts! I’m glad you enjoy them! And I’m so happy to find that you enjoy blogging with quantifiable stuff about the Church just as much as I do!

  15. Do you take requests, Ziff? I love your analyses of word change over time, and I’ve been wondering a lot about the word “nurture.” It seems to saturate our discourse about women, but in the scriptures, the only time it appears it’s referring to men training their children in the “nurture and admonition of the Lord.” I can’t help but wonder how and when it became so dominant, what other words it might have replaced in our discourse, or if it was always part of it. Anyway, cool post!

  16. Thanks, Snowdrop! That’s a great idea! I’ll definitely put it on my list. (Sorry–I’m a slow blogger, and the best I do is to keep a list of fun ideas, and pull one off now and again to try to write.) I’d actually love to hear your ideas on what other words it might be replacing, because I’m having a hard time coming up with alternatives. I mean, it seems like it’s probably coming out of an attempt to keep women in their place (i.e., role), but it seems like it might be hard to tell what other ideas about women it might be replacing.

  17. I perused some old issues of the Relief Society Magazine online today (briefly and quite haphazardly) to try to answer my question. I was thinking nurture might have replaced words like kindness or charity. It looks like nurture has always been around and used to describe women’s interactions with children. But it’s not used as frequently as I expected–two issues that I searched in turned up one “nurture” in seven hundred pages of text, and one turned up three. It’s not exactly scientific, but I’d bet my left arm that there’s no way the church could produce a 700-page text geared towards women today with only one use of the word nurture. The term nurture is also used more broadly than I expected, i.e. nurturing converts, nurturing plants, nurturing interest in literature. I’d need to look more closely at the content of the other articles to see what other ideas about women were being promoted if not nurturing–or if nurturing is being promoted under another name. I feel like I’ve just nicked the surface of a really interesting study–I don’t have your stats skills, Ziff, but I’ll add this to my to do list as well!

  18. Thanks for the pointers, Snowdrop! This does sound very interesting! I’ll probably use more of my usual word-counting strategy, but I appreciate you giving me some starting points!


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