The Plan of Salvation is one of Mormonism’s chief selling points. Douglas J. Davies argues that its power resides in the fact that it is presented as a sweeping narrative, and narrative “is of the essence of humanity.”1 According to Davies, shifting Mormon emphases on certain elements of the Plan are good indicators of Mormonism’s creative adaptation to changing historical circumstances. Mormon theology is influenced by the wider culture in which it participates, even as it influences believers. Such influence can be detected in the sort of theological questions Mormons confront, the language used to confront it, and the ways Mormons draw on LDS scripture and tradition to resolve theological problems.
One of the chief uses to which the Plan of Salvation has been put over the years is to confront the problem of suffering/evil/tragedy. In this post I’ll quickly discuss only two instances when the Plan has been used to account for difficulties in the Mormon experience.
According to the Plan, humans are situated within what Boyd K. Packer has called a “three-act play,” spanning pre-mortal, mortal, and post-mortal existence. By understanding our situatedness in an ongoing salvation drama, Packer suggests we will be “better able to make sense of life and to resist the disease of doubt and despair and depression.”2 In Act I we each chose to risk mortality, ensured that through faith we would see a “Happily Ever After” in Act III. But Packer emphasizes that in Act II things may not always seem fair, although we will learn at a later date “that the Plan is fair; however it appears, it is fair.”
Mormons haven’t been shy about using this schema to explain troubling or seemingly unfair aspects of Act II, even when they seem to reach beyond the specifics of the “script”—what Packer identifies as the scriptures and prophetic teachings. Let’s call such extrapolation LDS fan-fiction. The first example that probably comes to mind is the “folklore” about blacks and the premortal life, where blacks were said to be “fence-sitters,” less valiant, or somehow not deserving of the same privileges that would be afforded to non-blacks.3
It makes sense that Mormons would find such ideas compelling. I believe the fact that the priesthood/temple restriction required such expansion indicates a discomfort (or at the least, a defensiveness) on the part of Mormons who felt the racist implications of the restrictive policy. This theological “pressure point” resulted in creative (and I think unfortunate) attempted resolution via the Plan of Salvation. A source of discomfort or puzzlement (blacks restricted from full participation in the church) was resolved by weaving it into existing Mormon beliefs about the plan of salvation–namely, that our behavior or decisions in the “First Estate” partially determined our status in this, the “Second Estate” (see Jude 1:6, which Packer also cites, and which Mormons in the past have somewhat inappropriately employed as a proof-text for the doctrine of a pre-mortal life). Of course, one big problem is that such a resolution could be used to justify practically anything. The Church hasn’t to my knowledge officially repudiated this particular use of the premortal life, but Elder Jeffrey R. Holland asserted that it “must never be taught” by members of the Church again. One of the biggest reasons, according to Holland, is because “we just don’t know.”4
The priesthood/temple restriction for blacks isn’t the only instance in which Mormons have used the Plan to resolve difficult problems. At first glance, this second example seems less harmful than the first. According to the story, a child with Down Syndrome was told in a patriarchal blessing that he “played a key role in ushering Satan out of God’s presence. The young man was told that he was so hated and despised by Satan, that he was blessed to come into this life in such a state as to be beyond the power of the adversary.”5
Notice that both stories try to account for a particular present problem: a seeming “restriction” in mortality–one from priesthood/temple access, the other regarding cognitive ability. The former seems to be an element of punishment due to bad acts, the latter a blessing and protection because of good acts. Interestingly, the blessing/protection reasoning was more recently applied to the priesthood/temple problem by former BYU professor Randy Bott. The restriction was protective, much like the Down Syndrome condition.6
Unlike the priesthood/temple teachings I haven’t yet found an instance of the Down Syndrome explanation in an official or even quasi-official Church publication. (Still looking, stay tuned.) But I have heard individual church members suggest that some disabilities are the result of pre-mortal valiance, or that the person simply needed a physical body, and in the meantime they serve as a good object lesson or method of training for care-givers. Such explanations tend to skip over the difficulties of a mortal life of disability by looking ahead to Act III, when in the resurrection such disabilities will vanish. In these and other ways, Act II for a person with disabilities becomes massively short–hardly an important scene in the overall play.
I have more to say on this in the future, but for now I want to point out that a recent addition to the Church’s Handbook of Instructions seems to indicate an awareness on the part of Church leaders that such speculations can be detrimental to faith:
“Leaders and members should not attempt to explain why the challenge of a disability has come to a family. They should never suggest that a disability is a punishment from God (see John 9:2–3). Nor should they suggest that it is a blessing to have a child who has a disability.”7
This caution is seen in Elder Ronald A. Rasband’s recent General Conference address in which he shared personal reflections about his grandson Paxton who was born with severe disabilities. Rasband includes a quote from an apostle observing that some people are born with “physical limitations…[f]or reasons usually unknown.” He goes on to situate Paxton’s disabilities in the framework of the Plan of Salvation:
That plan, when presented in the pre-earth life, prompted us all to shout for joy. Put simply, this life is training for eternal exaltation, and that process means tests and trials. It has always been so, and no one is spared. Trusting in God’s will is central to our mortality. With faith in Him, we draw upon the power of Christ’s Atonement at those times when questions abound and answers are few.8
By invoking the concept of the Plan of Salvation in tandem with disability, Rasband runs the risk of perpetuating something like the Down Syndrome story. At the same time, an explicit debunking of such a story also runs the risk of upsetting Church members who may have been comforted by the idea that a loved one’s cognitive condition signals a brighter past and a more hopeful future. (Debunking here seems more risky than dealing with racial speculations.) Rasband seems to pivot away from outsourcing present suffering to the doctrine of premortality by concluding that “answers are few,” and that faith is required to live with such conditions. The willingness of Church leaders to acknowledge theological gaps was also manifest in the LDS Newsroom’s official response to the Bott controversy.9 It is likely that, at least for Mormon readers, the Plan of Salvation hovers implicitly in the background of the Newsroom’s statement as an overarching explanation for such gaps, as it does more explicitly in Rasband’s address.
As the Handbook suggests, Rasband also appeals to John 9, in which Jesus answers “neither” when the disciples ask whether a man was born blind because of his sins or the sins of his parents:
Shortly after precious Paxton was born, we knew Heavenly Father would bless us and teach us special lessons. As his father and I put our fingers on his tiny head in the first of many priesthood blessings, the words came into my mind from the ninth chapter of John: “that the works of God should be made manifest in him.” (John 9:3)
God’s works are definitely being made manifest through Paxton.10
Even as the teachings regarding premortal justifications for mortal priesthood/temple restrictions for blacks fade from Mormon discourse, the Plan of Salvation still offers a persuasive opportunity for Mormons to account for disability and other mortal puzzles and difficulties.
These two examples of Plan of Salvation usage hold important implications for the ways Mormon belief/doctrine/theology might be situated within particular cultural contexts to demonstrate a diversity of perspectives over time. Mormon doctrine is not static, unified, univocal, or complete. This discussion can also be brought to bear more closely on questions about differences between official and unofficial (or folklore) doctrines and the ways various beliefs circulate between pulpit and pew. It also helps illuminate potential reasons why Church officials recently seem more reluctant than some of their predecessors to indulge in overt speculation even as they uncomfortably deal with past teachings. It also serves as a warning that present Mormon doctrine may still be unduly influenced by past speculations. It thus serves as a call for researchers to more rigorously engage Mormon theology historically constituted. Perhaps the trickiest part of all for Mormon researchers in particular is the impulse to identify the hand of God within this messy, contextual, historical sojourn.
In the future (ie, in the process of completing a thesis) I hope to provide more info specifically about the place of cognitive disability within LDS theology and practice by analyzing how it has been discussed in official and non-official venues. I will highlight specific ways Mormons have used scripture, tradition, and creativity to engage pressing problems in different ways over time. Situating Mormon thought historically need not be understood as a mere matter of debunking, or denying the hand of God in history, but rather as a way to better understand Mormon belief about continuing revelation by God through humans. While epistemic humilty is expected on the part of the researcher, this does not prevent highlighting the perspectives of those who believe in revelation or other “supernatural” occurrences. In other words, it isn’t necessarily incumbent upon me as a researcher to adjudicate truth claims in terms of where the hand of God can be identified. Rather, it would be my task to identify where such beliefs informed the claims of Mormons themselves.
Ultimately I hope my analysis will unmask some of the negative cultural assumptions about disabilities which have become entrenched within Mormon belief. Such unmasking can assist Mormon philosphers, theologians, leaders, and laypersons articulate fruitful responses to problems presented by cognitive disability–problems which we all face here in “Act II.” Outsourcing such problems to the first and third acts is not necessarily the best theological option for Mormons. Perhaps we can do better for our sisters and brothers with disabilities, as well as for the families and caretakers who know and love them as being more than pre-mortally-valiant lumps of clay awaiting a future resurrection. The architecture of Mormon practice is already well-poised to provide meaningful spiritual experiences for people with disabilities and their caregivers. Such experiences stand to be greatly enhanced when cognitive disability is better understood within the framework of Mormon theology.
As this overall post suggests, I’m no disinterested or strictly objective researcher, but rather a participant in ongoing theological discussions and explorations from within and toward Mormonism. In the next few months in addition to sharing a few thoughts on my specific research and perhaps soliciting a little feedback, I also hope to discuss my feelings about being a practicing Mormon who is also engaging in research on Mormonism using the tools of religious studies. Where does one draw the line between scholar and Mormon? I’ve also played a little fast and loose with some of the terminology and details here, and hope to flesh things out more in the coming months.
1. Douglas J. Davies, Joseph Smith, Jesus, and Satanic Opposition: Atonement, Evil and the Mormon Vision (Ashgate, 2010), 3-4
3. I put “folklore” in scare-quotes because it has been employed to describe Mormon teachings regarding blacks and premortality despite being taught by high-ranking Church officials including Bruce R. McConkie, Joseph Fielding Smith and others. The general idea of premortal behavior impacting mortal station was affirmed in a 1949 statement by the First Presidency. Referring to it as “folklore” in the present seems to downplay the quasi-official status it once held for many practicing Mormons. The dichotomy between official and unofficial doctrine/folklore overlooks the actual ways Mormon theological ideas transfer between pulpit and pew. Let’s talk about that later.
5. D. Keith Shurtleff, Whited Tombs: The Tactics of the Enemies of Christ’s Kingdom Ancient And Modern (Lincoln: iUniverse, 2006), 64.
7. See section 21.1.26 at lds.org/handbook/handbook-2-administering-the-church/selected-church-policies#21.1.26.
9. The statement observes: “It is not known precisely why, how, or when this restriction began in the Church but what is clear is that it ended decades ago. Some have attempted to explain the reason for this restriction but these attempts should be viewed as speculation and opinion, not doctrine. The Church is not bound by speculation or opinions given with limited understanding.” mormonnewsroom.org/article/racial-remarks-in-washington-post-article, 29 February 2012, just in time for the last day of Black History Month. For more on this issue see my podcast with Max Mueller here. An unattributed claim that “We don’t know for sure” was also part of the first published Mormon discussion of intellectual disability: “But the law by which God judges idiots he has not revealed to us,” an unsigned editorial from 1836 explains, “we can only judge from the principle upon which he has said that he would judge the world….” See n.a., John Whitmer, ed., “Let every man learn his duty,” Latter Day Saints’ Messenger and Advocate 2, no. 4 (January, 1836): 248-250.
10. Rasband, Ibid.