Mormons and Morons

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.

Footnotes:

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.

Comments

  1. PS- Consider this post also as an invitation to delete “retard” from your personal vocabulary.

  2. Done. But I’m still going to keep the proper use and conjugation of “lay” and “lie” in mine–though they’ve been abandoned by thousands.

  3. J. Stapley says:

    Paul Reeve has done some good work looking at this from a racial perspective. The Eugenic impulse as found in polygamy discourse (both anti-monogamy and anti-polygamy) is really fascinating.

  4. This is fantastic work, Blair! The place of the eugenics in Mormonism is finally starting to get some attention. One of the more interesting articles I’ve read on it is from the 1920s and argues that Mormon theology itself is amenable to eugenics because of its emphasis on eternal progression and the importance of children being born into proper bodies. Unlike current Mormon folk theology, which often argues that children born with intellectual disabilities are blessed because they are unable to experience temptation, the article argues that intellectual disabilities slow the development of a soul and prevent it from reaching the highest heavens.

    On a side note, my grandma delight in the the similarity between the terms Mormon and moron when I was a kid and always said that someone was a member of the Moron Church.

  5. I’ve been bothered lately by the anti-Obama bumper sticker/t-shirt/internet meme “I’ll take the Mormon over the moron,” finding it a lame way to be throwing around the term “Mormon.” I assume it originated with evangelicals, but I wouldn’t be surprised to learn it had Mormon origins.

  6. Very interesting Blair. As a boy I recall being showered with such terms during my baseball days. I admit to using them on myself when I realize I’ve done something like put a head gasket on backwards. The polygamy mental degradation thing was fairly often mentioned in newsprint I think, but I don’t have specific examples in front of me. Anyway, nice stuff.

  7. Kerry A. Shirts says:

    COOL stuff dude. But then we have come to expect this kind of analysis from your sharp mind and insights…….thanks! Always food for thought reading you.

  8. John Mansfield says:

    Fascinating. Did those studying the feeble-minded a century ago fabricate the term moron out of nothingness, stringing together a chain of letters or phonemes that had the right feel for the task at hand?

  9. Now that Mormons have been striving for assimilation for a while, does the “moron” label better apply? I’m thinking of the criticism that Mormons are secretive and SEEM like everyone else, but are really very different because of beliefs that they don’t tell you about at first, and that they wear religious undergarments. In other words, Mormons blend right in.

    I’m with you on getting rid of the “r” word (like we are getting rid of the “n” word). Why don’t the words idiot, imbecile, and moron cause the same type of offense?

  10. #9: “Why don’t the words idiot, imbecile, and moron cause the same type of offense?”

    My guess is that the terms have become disconnected enough from their original meanings so as not to call to present minds their actual origin. “Retard” is new enough that actual people remember where it came from and why it’s used. For example, I hope people will check out this open letter to Coulter from Special Olympics athlete John Franklin Stephens:

    http://specialolympicsblog.wordpress.com/2012/10/23/an-open-letter-to-ann-coulter/

    As for the “moron” label, it isn’t used anymore. That classification system is merely a historical relic.

    John, #8: The term was selected from the Greek moros “foolish, dull, sluggish, stupid,” IIRC, someone at some point tried to argue that “Mormon” was based on the Greek “moros.” Now I need to track that down and incorporate it into this narrative. It’s possible that someone posited a “Mormon/moros” connection before “moron” became a technical term.

    JStap #3: “The Eugenic impulse as found in polygamy discourse (both anti-monogamy and anti-polygamy) is really fascinating.

    Yes, I think it was deeply connected to the LDS “plan of salvation” narrative.

    #4 Amanda, do you have a citation for that in case I don’t have it in my bibliography yet?

    Thanks, everyone else!

  11. Great post! Thanks.

  12. I am seeing an increase in moron/”jailed blacks” usage in high school students. As in,

    “if they weren’t morons they would get caught and locked up all the time. That is why the morons fill the jails. “Real gangsters” knew how to be loyal and keep themselves out of prison.”

    (Almost word for word (at least as well as I remembered it at break time) from an essay on African American incarceration rates, on a standardized high school test.)

    I saw several similar references, often with the idea that keeping African American men who committed crimes in jail for most of their lives kept them from making too many babies with women they were not married to.

  13. *they would not get caught

  14. Yes, thanks! And there is more where that came from, Amanda. I’ll send some sources your way if you are interested, too.

  15. Long Time Lurker, First Time Caller says:
  16. Daniel Bartholomew says:

    There is also a Moron in the Book of Mormon – guess we lucked out that he wasn’t a distinguished prophet-editor.

    Ether 11:14-18

  17. Lurker- that is a fantastic source, and one I hadn’t seen yet. It fits my tentative narrative perfectly, too. Notice, though, that “moron” wasn’t mentioned here, but rather “Mormon” was said to mean “idiot” in Greek. This is a shaky translation, of course, but is an argument that a few critics advanced. Especially the notion that Joseph Smith himself was an “idiot.” This wasn’t a simple insult saying Smith was stupid, but can be understood as saying the prophet literally had mental problems. Note the connection between “moron” and “Mormon” is not made here. This is because that label wasn’t employed until the 20th century, as I outline in this post.

    What a great source. Thanks, and thanks to Ardis!

    Daniel, thanks. Also, check out the last part of this post where I note how critics were aware of “Moron” in the Book of Mormon. I cited one from the 19th century and one from the 20th, before and after “moron” became a descriptor for intellectual disability. Neither of them made the connection, however. In the 19th c. this is because the term wasn’t in use yet, and in the 20th I argue it is because Mormons had assimilated enough so as to not qualify for a medical diagnostic label in the public mind.

  18. Do you know how many handicapped children were among the offspring of polygamists? A friend of mine, a descendant of BY, posits that there is a disproportionate number of genetic disabilities among BY’s descendants.

  19. To #19. charlene: Ask your friend to share with us the source of the data to support that claim about disabilities. Until we have a source to verify the claim, we cannot evaluate it.

  20. Charlene, I need to do a bit more work on early Utah census reports, but as for present descendants, I suspect there are too many confounding variables to consider which would prevent any simplistic assumptions about descendants of Brigham. The friend of yours is almost certainly repeating old stereotypes of the kind I describe in this post.

  21. Sorry for the delay. As I read the next posting in this series I remembered that I had commented earlier. The source of my friend’s opinion is personal experience with family stories, attendance at family reunions, other extended family gatherings, and membership in ‘Descendants of …’ organizations. It’s not a scientific sample, but seems to reveal many more disabilities than is encountered in the population at large. My own son’s disabilities were found to be genetic, but we’re not a part of this gene pool.

  22. I have developed an hypothesis/belief/conclusion that makes irrelevant all the speculation, and supposed inspired statements in priesthood blessings, regarding the purpose, or cause, or blessing, of congenital disabilities–mental and/or physical: God had nothing to do with any of them.

    He does not have a “plan” for each of us that consists of customized tests, trials, and tribulations. (And, speaking of the Down syndrome rationale, neither does Satan. Being unaccountable is not a good thing–that eliminates the opportunity to grow in righteousness, intelligence, and knowledge. Being unaccountable means one has no Agency.) All those will naturally occur (perhaps that knowledge, among other information is what persuaded the third that, supposedly, followed Satan).

    God certainly hopes we overcome, find growth in, etc. our “tribulations.” The true principles encompassed in the collection of teachings we refer to as the gospel, and other truths we don’t institutionally include as part of the gospel, if lived and inculcated (line upon line, precept upon precept) by positive exercise of our inherent Agency, will help us be “successful”/righteous/happy/exalted.

  23. One can conceive of “customized test” as temple interviews, and “trials and tribulations” which we were told in the pre-existence was the purpose of this life- as in the temple ceremony script.

  24. bgrbgr: #24. Not sure how your comment relates to my hypothesis. What I meant was that–with very few exceptions, as in a dozen or so–God is not the source of events in our lives that “test” and “try” us. Nor are there purposeful attempts (unique and customized as part of His “plan” for us) to help us grow. There is no “God’s plan for my life” source of these tribulations. They occur through random chance and the natural consequences of our own actions. As for authoritative claims to the contrary from scripture or other canon, all the scriptures are so repleat with myth, legend, purposeful allegory, purposeful ambiguity and misdirection, and non-contextual interpretation, etc. as to make it very difficult to rely on them in understanding the true nature of our existence. That is, what realities and uncreated “laws” of the universe are we and our God operating in as contrasted to what story He wants us to believe for our own good?

    My wife and I both grew up with younger brothers born with significant mental and/or physical disabilities. To the degree that we acted well and learned from our experiences with these brothers, we were benefited. But, God didn’t “make” them that way. Accepting the 3-part “plan of salvation” as axiomatic, our “second estate” is an opportunity to grow and become righteous. Therefore why would God make one of His children unable to exercise complete Agency (the object of the supposed “war in heaven”) by putting them in a body with little or no ability to use it?

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