Part 2 of my series, “Intellectual disability in Mormon thought…”
When political tabloidist Ann Coulter called the President of the United States a “retard” via Twitter the other night she received a number of responses reminding her that the “R” word is considered by many to be an offensive slur. Ironically, some of the folks responding to her tweet referred to her as a “moron,” a term which itself is a distant cousin of “retard.” This got me thinking about one aspect of my current project on Mormonism and intellectual disability. This project requires me to pay close attention to the historical terms used to describe and classify variations of disability, and to trace how those terms shift over time.
Suppose this kerfuffle happened back in 1910. Coulter wouldn’t have used the word “retard,” which didn’t come into prominent use until the mid-twentieth century. Now the term has become too pejorative and has been replaced with “disability,” preceded by a modifier like “cognitive” or “intellectual.” Also, those replying to Coulter wouldn’t call her a “moron” which was actually a new diagnostic label used to differentiate “high-grade idiots” from more-obviously disabled people. Today, Coulter will deservedly get a lot more criticism for saying “retard,” while others can use “moron” as a way of saying she is stupid, without being reprimanded for insensitivity. Word connotations change.
The obvious similarity between the words “Mormon” and “moron” has proved handy for folks looking to make an easy wise-crack about Latter-day Saints, as a simple Google search reveals. Interestingly, this connection hasn’t always been so obviously made. I argue this is because the term “moron” itself emerged at a time when Mormons were already well into the process of assimilating to wider American culture, thus it wouldn’t make sense to attach a medical label to them. Despite being homophonetic, “moron” and “Mormon” weren’t immediately connected so far as I’ve seen. Here’s why:
In 1910, The American Association for the Study of the Feeble-Minded developed a three-tiered hierarchy of mental disability (or “feeble-mindedness”). The levels reflected long-held assumptions, but were bolstered by a brand new “scientific” means of measuring mental age–the I.Q test. “Idiots” were the lowest level, with a mental age of a one- or two-year old. Next were “imbeciles,” at the three-to seven-year-old status. People in these two levels were relatively easy to identify, and social controls were in place to segregate, sterilize, and institutionalize them ostensibly for the protection of wider society. But the third level was most dangerous: The “moron” reached a mental age of up to twelve years, so they blended in quite well despite being thought to lack impulse control or sound moral reasoning. Proponents of the popular eugenics movement (purify the race through proper breeding!) raised the alarm: if left to their own devices, morons would procreate at a higher rate than the rest of the population and thus over-run the country leaving a wake of vice, crime, and illegitimate children.1 All three levels were thought to be the result of inferior breeding: children born with disabilities were mostly the result of heredity (imperfectly understood at the time) with a little bit of environmental influence on the side.
In fact, Progressives at this time linked medical theory and moral admonition to posit a world where vice and crime were products and producers of inferior breeding. These ideas had their roots in 19th century theories about heredity, and were thoroughly believed by Mormons as well as anti-Mormons as seen in their public battles over the propriety of polygamy. Anti-Mormons looked on in horror as Mormon polygamy produced degenerate Mormon offspring in the western US.2 Mormons, in response, assumed the same things about transmitting virtue to the next generation but asserted that polygamy was producing a superior people. Joseph F. Smith publicly outlined the “benefits naturally accruing to both sexes, and particularly to their offspring, in time, say nothing of eternity, [which] are immensely greater in the righteous practice of patriarchal marriage than in monogamy.”3 Mormon leaders weren’t making a merely moral argument that American monogamy resulted in crime, pauperism and prostitution. It was also an argument about the effects of improper breeding and faulty heredity which would result in, among other things, intellectual disability in relation to criminal activity.4
Critics were unconvinced. They decried Mormon idiocy and feeble-mindedness–identifying intellectual disability as being the literal results of Mormon practices. Such disabilities were also invoked as explanations for conversion to Mormonism; one traveler spoke for many by saying “the whole d—-d thing was a prodigious fraud and fit only for idiots and lunatics.”5 One US Army surgeon named Roberts Bartholow went as far as positing a new Mormon “race,” describing Mormon facial features with obvious similarities to assumptions about the appearance of people with intellectual disabilities: “thick, protuberant lips; the low forehead,” etc.6 Thus, for Batholow, Mormon degeneracy was actually visible; distinguishable signs meant that Mormons could not pass for regular folk, unlike the later-described “moron,” who was such a danger precisely because s/he could blend right in physically. The underlying premises about good birthing, good citizens, and good intellectual abilities carried on through the twentieth century.
Thus, had polygamy–and such stereotypes about its offspring–continued, Mormons would not be well-suited for the “moron” class of 1910. Remember, “morons” could blend right in, and were high-grade idiots. The “Mormon/moron” rhetorical joke wouldn’t have made much sense. But that isn’t why the “Mormon/moron” connection was hardly ever made until recently, once the original meaning of “moron” fell away from public consciousness. By 1910, when the three-tiered system was developed and the “moron” appeared, Mormons were in the process of rapid assimilation to wider American culture.7 The Manifesto had been issued, so the threat of a rising race of degenerate Mormons born of polygamy was subsiding.8 Mormons shifted their emphasis on raising up a strong seed via polygamy to raising a strong seed by adhering to a stringent health code called “the Word of Wisdom.”9
The larger American public forgot about the “Mormon menace” and largely left the task of criticism to Christian sectarianism. Mormons became model Americans, which helps explain why the only contemporary reference I could find which plays on the Mormon/moron similarity is a lighthearted line in a popular magazine. In 1927, Life magazine sponsored a “Travel Contest” which featured letters written by Kay Vernon describing her travels to the “principle cities of the United States.” Her letters included deliberate mistakes which readers could identify for cash prizes.
“Brigham Young, the old dear, had four residences in Salt Lake City—no less! He and his wife lived in each of them for part of each year. He was a Mormon, but no moron.”10
The term “moron” appeared on the scene slightly too late for it to be connected with the similar-sounding “Mormon,” despite the fact that connections between Mormons and intellectually disabled people were frequently assumed by critics of Mormonism and denied by Mormons. Interestingly, the Book of Mormon actually contains a place and person named “Moron,” a fact which did appear in critical literature, but not in the context of intellectual disability. Two examples–one from the 19th and the other from the early 20th century–stand as interesting clues as to why the “Mormon/moron” connection wasn’t made until the last few decades. First, Mark Twain, who hastened to make a play on the name “Ether” in his humorous travel narrative Roughing It, completely missed the opportunity to make a play on “Moron,” misspelling it as “Moran.”11 In his 19th century context the term itself simply wasn’t on the radar. Second, a 20th century psychologist called Walter Prince included “Moron” in his list of proper names Joseph Smith must have derived from “Morgan,” the last name of a famous Mason said to have influenced the young prophet. If Prince privately chuckled about the similarity, such ridicule would be out of place in a dry academic treatise. I suggest that the diagnostic term, as it existed at the time, wouldn’t have made much sense anyway, given Mormonism’s assimilation with the wider American public.12
The “Mormon/moron” connection seems to have laid dormant for the next several decades. Today, people use “moron” as a synonym for stupidity without knowing the historical connection the term has to intellectual disability. Both meanings for the term, however, are still found in Webster’s.
1. See Allison C. Carey, On the Margins of Citizenship: Intellectual Disability and Civil Rights in Twentieth Century America (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2009), 63.
2. See Terryl Givens, Viper on the Hearth (New York: Oxford University Press, 1997) and Spencer Fluhman, A Peculiar People: Anti-Mormonism and the Making of Religion in Nineteenth-Century America (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2012).
3. Joseph F. Smith, “Plural Marriage—For the Righteous Only—Obedience Imperative—Blessings Resulting,” Journal of Discourses vol. 20 (1878): 30. Many other examples could be given. Stay tuned.
4. See, for instance, John Taylor, “Design of God…Distinction Between Polygamy and Prostitution [etc.],” Journal of Discourses vol. 25 (1884): 303-17.
5. John W. Clampitt, Echoes From the Rocky Mountains (Chicago: National Book Concern, 1888), 342. Clampitt diplomatically placed the expression on the lips of his traveling companion, rather than expressing the opinion himself. “Lunatics” were often lumped into lists of less-worthy humans alongside idiots, criminals, prostitutes, etc., but lunacy referred more to what we think of today as psychiatric or psychological problems, not intellectual disability per se.
6. Bartholow’s account was included in a 1860 “Statistical Report” by one Richard Coolidge, cited in Fluhman, Ibid., 113.
7. The classic studies on this period are Armand Mauss, The Angel and the Beehive: The Mormon Struggle With Assimilation (Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1994) and Thomas G. Alexander, Mormonism in Transition: A History of the Latter-day Saints, 1890-1930 (Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1996).
8. I will argue that concerns about racial purity, and the threat of the “feeble-minded” as a claimed outcome of Mormon polygamy had much to do with national opposition to the practice, a factor to which previous studies have not called attention. This stigma about defective offspring also played into the various ways Mormons treated and imagined other marginalized groups including African Americans and American Indians. Post-manifesto polygamy helped fuel rumors that the practice wasn’t actually gone, and some pointed out that Mormons still believed in polygamy although they claim not to practice it anymore. See for example Eugene R. Smith, ed., The Gospel in All Lands Illustrated (New York: Missionary Society of the Methodist Episcopal Church, 1897), 413.
9. This is a fascinating connection I’ll be developing further as I go along. Jan Shipps long ago noted how the decline of polygamy coincided with the rise of Word of Wisdom adherence, positing that the need for a social boundary marker helps explain the shift. I will argue to the contrary that both practices are informed by the same underlying concerns about producing healthy offspring. For fun, check out your current Teachings of the Presidents of the Church manual on George Albert Smith. The chapter on the Word of Wisdom has several interesting excerpts which directly support my reading.
10. Kay Vernon, “All-American Travel Contest,” Life (December 29, 1927): 82-3. Incidentally, a little comic of Brigham Young greedily and happily looking at a tax return listing his multiple wives appears a few pages above Vernon’s letter.
11. Mark Twain, Roughing It (Hartford: American Publishing Company, 1873), 133.
12. Walter Franklin Prince, Ph.D., “Psychological Tests for the Authorship of the Book of Mormon,” American Journal of Psychology, Vol. 28 No. 3 (July 1917): 379. Prince’s creativity is fun to think about: “The tests which we are to apply are concerned mainly with the proper names in the Book of Mormon. The principle upon which they rest is found in the influence which memory-and-emotion complexes exert upon the invention of combinations of consonantal and vowel sounds.” haha.