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Are the unborn messengers to their parents?

Some tell researchers they heard or saw children before birth

And there appeared unto him an angel of the Lord. . . . (and) the angel said unto him, Fear not, Zacharias: for thy prayer is heard; and thy wife Elisabeth shall bear thee a son, and thou shalt call his name John . . . — Luke 1:11-15

Dramatized in holiday pageants throughout the Christian world, the story of an angelic messenger announcing the future birth of children has long captured the imagination of children and adults alike.

The original Christmas story in the New Testament includes not one, but three accounts similar to what modern researchers call "announcing dreams," where a heavenly messenger brings word of a child to be born. The first appearance is to Zacharias, who was to become the aged father of John the Baptist; the second to Mary, mother of Jesus; and the third to Joseph, the man to which Mary had been espoused.

The story of the conception of Christ, revered as the Son of God, has always been viewed by believers as a unique event in the history of the world. But the conception of Mary's cousin, Elizabeth, following a heavenly visitation to her husband, includes a pre-birth announcement of a fully mortal man. While some of the story elements differ, modern researchers say such announcements are more common among today's population than previously thought, and that the "messengers" delivering the news to parents-to-be are often the souls of the very children to be born.

A number of recent books and journal articles discussing the concept and particulars of life before birth have been written, some discussing the possibilities in general, and others dissecting the particulars of what have come to be known as pre-birth experiences, or PBEs. The spate of recent discussion comes a quarter century after a ground-breaking book by physician-researcher Raymond Moody called "Life After Life," which became the catalyst for scientific research into near-death experiences that continues to this day.

Harold Widdison, a medical sociologist at Northern Arizona University, said the evidence that souls live in a different sphere before they are born — as well as after they die — continues to grow as he and other researchers interview "perfectly sane, ordinary people" who say they heard and/or saw their children "in spirit" before birth.

"We have accounts of children appearing to . . . encourage them to let them (the child) be born or to announce that they are on their way. Children have unique personalities before they come, and many of them have names," that are given to the parents before birth. Widdison talked to "one woman who was hiking on a mountain here in Arizona, when she heard voice say, 'My name in Nicholas.' She looked, but there was no one around. Then he announced it again." In many cases, parents actually see and converse with a child old enough to speak and reason, or even a young adult they come to understand is a child that will be born to them, Widdison said. "In some accounts, the child will announce his or her name, and the mother heard a wrong name, so the child goes out of the way to spell the name.

"One woman who was expecting twins said (the pair) had announced the names to (the parents), telling them, 'If the babies are born Caesarean, the first one out will be Benjamin; if they're born normally, the last one out will be Benjamin."

Carl Jones, a certified childbirth educator and author of a 1997 book, "The Secret Life of The Expectant Mother," has classified four types of "intuitive dreams of pregnancy," which are experienced by parents and others close to the family: "announcing dreams, revealing information about the baby; naming dreams, where the baby communicates with parents and usually says his or her name; prodromal dreams, revealing information about current conditions . . . ; and precognitive dreams, announcing ESP-perceived future events."

In announcing dreams, the dreamer "often sees the child's gender, physical characteristics, such as eye or hair color, or even personality traits. Often the child appears to be speaking to the dreamer. It is almost as if the dreamer is communicating with the spirit of the unborn," Jones wrote. Such dreams "are most likely to occur in cultures or among people who accept and expect this sort of phenomenon."

For example, announcing dreams "are part of the cultural expectations of the Tlingit Indians and are likely to be remembered," Jones wrote, noting that of physician/psychiatrist Ian Stevenson's research into some 600 cases of purported reincarnation, "almost half come from areas such as northern India, Burma and Thailand, where reincarnation is part of the cultural belief system."

Widdison is convinced that religious belief can play a part in, but does not determine, whether people have pre-birth experiences. He and Craig R. Lundahl, professor emeritus of sociology and business administration at Western New Mexico University, have each spent more than 20 years researching, writing and teaching about near-death experiences. Both men are members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, and recently co-authored "The Eternal Journey: How Near-Death Experiences Illuminate Our Earthly Lives," published in 1997 by Warner Books.

One chapter is devoted to a variety of near-death experience accounts in which those who died saw or remembered a "pre-mortal world" populated by spirits waiting to be born. Many of the accounts cited were gleaned from interviewing fellow Mormons, whose theology and scripture is filled with details about "life before life" and is unique among Christians.

Widdison said a Gallup Poll conducted in 1991 estimates that some 19 million people have had a near-death or pre-birth experience. What are the common factors among them? "They are all humans. It's not affected by race, age, sex or religious denomination, though women are more willing to talk than men. They range from very small children to elderly people, across cultures and levels of educational experience. It runs the range of the human population, and it doesn't change over time," he said, citing written accounts of experiences as far back as 250 years.

Author Sarah Hinze, who is also LDS, has spent 10 years interviewing people who say they've had a pre-birth experience. Her fascination with the growing field of research came out of her own personal experience. "About 35 to 40 percent of the stories are now coming from non-LDS people, though still a good 60 percent come from Latter-day Saints.

"Some are of great depth and others are more general. From that standpoint, I can't say that I see a difference in religious preference. The terms they use to describe what they experience are different."

Hinze, who has published two books detailing a variety of pre-birth experiences — "Life Before Life" and "Coming From the Light: Spiritual Accounts of Life Before Life" — has just co-authored a third book with her husband, Brent, titled "The Castaways: Safely In His Arms," which dissects a variety of pre-birth experiences that deal with abortion, the unborn's attempts to avoid it and the fate of those souls who were aborted.

Though she doesn't claim scientific research credentials, Hinze is increasingly sought out by researchers who want more information about her interviews. She said current research into pre-birth studies mirrors what was happening with near-death studies 25 years ago, and she sees a move toward increasing acceptance of the phenomenon.

"I've done 10 national TV shows. I just did one for Lifetime LifeTime and they asked me for another story. I think we're in a spiritual renaissance in the world. There's an increase in interest in angels and TV movies of a spiritual nature." Hinze has plans in the works for a cable TV show featuring pre-birth stories, something akin to the cable series, "It's a Miracle," she said.

She and her husband, a psychologist, have spoken to anthropology classes at Arizona State University and travel frequently on speaking assignments. The subject "is amazingly well-received. I'm always amazed at how interested most people are."

Interest in Utah, at least, seems to be piqued at present, with yet another new book on the subject.

Richard Eyre, a management consultant, former Utah gubernatorial candidate and a Mormon, has also jumped into the field with his new book, "Life Before Life." Released in the past few weeks by Shadow Mountain, a division of Deseret Book, Eyre's work begins with the question, "If we are spiritual beings, where did our spirits originate?"

His treatment of the discussion is nondenominational, though LDS readers will recognize their own theology as the basis for his work, which deals mostly with framing the concepts of pre-Earth life rather than recounting reported pre-birth experiences.