Part 3 of my series, “Intellectual disability in Mormon thought…”
Through the process of working on my project in Mormonism and intellectual disabilities I’ve had some time to reflect on how my methodological approach stacks up in the present state of Mormon studies. I’m coming from the multi-disciplinary approach of religious studies, but my focus will tell a historical narrative about how Mormons have represented intellectual disabilities over time. History is still king in Mormon studies.
In 1986, shortly after the twentieth anniversary of the Mormon History Association, a young fellow named Grant Underwood published “Re-visioning Mormon History,” a sort of “state of the union” address for Mormon historians. He talked about the direction of historical studies of Mormonism, challenged one of the most dominant aspects of the MoHist narrative (that the faith underwent a monumental shift around the time polygamy was abandoned) and offered suggestions about how future historical works might improve upon the past. The entire article is *highly* recommended, but here’s a brief look at a few specific points and my reflections as to how they relate to my project.
Among other things, Underwood argued that various “trajectories of thought and tradition,” much like in early Christianity, require attention (421). He hoped to see more studies performed regarding regional variations in the faith (417), and the experiences of lay Mormons as opposed to “elites” (415). He wanted to see more “bottom-up” stories to contrast with the “institutional bias” of much of our history (423). He wanted to challenge the “Transition” theory; a hope which was largely dashed by the publication of Thomas Alexander’s Mormonism in Transition shortly thereafter.
All of this is to say that to Underwood, Mormonism is more vibrant and less monolithic than we commonly assume:
“[Historical surveys which present a] [m]onolithic Mormonism on either side of 1900 needs to give way to a more fine-grained analysis. When that is done, a continual process of change and adaptation, of reformation and recidivism will likely be discovered in every decade of the movement’s history” (415).
Perhaps most importantly, Underwood was following the lead of scholars like Quentin Skinner and J.G.A. Pocock by suggesting that Mormon revelations, sermons, journals and other documents can be better understood “only by recreating the religious idiom of the day, since meaning is inextricably bound up in time and language” (422). The best work would pay “much closer attention to the general religious milieu within which Mormonism existed” (422). He employs the fascinating metaphor of “crosspollination” to remind researchers to pay attention to the flowing of ideas between wider culture and the institution itself (423). In my work on intellectual disabilities, this means that I will be performing some intellectual archaeology. Specifically, I’m digging up our “official” discourse about intellectual disabilities, looking at conference reports and church publications, to see how we’ve constructed disabilities, and how those constructions have been influenced by wider Western thought. And holy cow, it’s an archaeological dig into a rabbit hole of Wonderland proportions.
How were Mormon ideas, doctrines and practices in regards to people with intellectual disabilities informed by wider American thought? An institutional study will help us better understand where our assumptions have come from. It will prompt consideration about how our beliefs are infused with cultural baggage which may or may not be necessary or beneficial to the way Mormonism confronts disabilities in general. Within Mormonism, intellectual disabilities have been employed in polemical debates about proper marriage relations, used as cautionary reasons to obey the Mormon health code, cited as providential curses placed upon enemies of the faith, and affirmed to be mechanisms of divine protection placed upon God’s choice spirits. People with intellectual disabilities have been imagined as passive recipients of welfare and charity, as exemplary heroes and object lessons, as child-like innocents without the need for baptism, and as means by which families are tested within the context of the Mormon plan of salvation. The extent to which the personal experiences and actual religious lives of people with disabilities in Mormonism have been recognized will also be examined.
This study has some obvious drawbacks which Underwood’s article cautions me about. For instance, in focusing on the institutional view of disabilities I run the risk of ignoring individual experiences within Mormonism. The Disability studies movement would similarly caution me that my research does not give proper voice to people with disabilities in the past, and thus in the present. This is a problem impacting many studies of intellectual disabilities in particular. Finally, by focusing so closely on the Mormon tradition as opposed to performing a more drawn out comparison with another particular tradition or movement, I risk being a bit parochial in terms of how my research will appear to wider academic circles.
Despite these and other cautions, I proceed with my analysis of how “mainstream” Mormonism, as represented in the official writings, leadership teachings, and instituted practices, has dealt with intellectual disabilities. I will tell the story of what Patrick McDonagh has called the “cultural representation” of intellectual disabilities–which includes but is not limited to medical diagnoses. I hope that, as with Sam Brown’s study of death culture and Mormonism, my research will some day prove valuable to a wider range of readers and scholars despite a largely-internal focus. People with disabilities have been invisible in historical works on religion in general including Mormonism. I believe that by telling the institutional story (focusing on the main LDS periodicals, conference sermons, etc.) we can help lay a nice framework for future “micro” studies with more attention paid to things like regional, class, and gender distinctions–with more attention paid to the voices of people with intellectual disabilities and those who love them. Also, my study will probably include the twentieth and early twenty-first centuries, whereas most histories of Mormonism focus on the 19th century.
I think Underwood was nailing it back in 1986. It’s hard to believe how prescient his article was, and I wonder about the extent to which it actually influenced subsequent Mormon studies, or whether he was simply writing a weather report based on the direction he felt the climate was already headed, and is thus not a leader of the process, but a part of its current. His opposition to the “Transition” lens of turn-of-the-century Mormonism has been largely ignored. But that’s only one reason why his article remains relevant these twenty-plus years later. Read it!
 The parenthetical page numbers in this post refer to the article: Grant Underwood, “Re-visioning Mormon History,” The Pacific Historical Review, 55.3 (Aug. 1986): 403-426. A Google search informs me that Christopher over at JI blogged on this back when JI was just a little homely place.
 McDonagh follows Foucault in focusing on “discursive formations” about “idiocy” in nineteenth-century Britain in particular. This shifts attention away from physiological concerns to the way differences in intellectual abilities are imagined, represented, and valued in popular culture: “Our objective is to obtain a fuller understanding of the various manifestations, articulations, and parameters of the ideas of idiocy and their functions within different social spaces and contexts” (Idiocy: A Cultural History, 16). Or in the words of a legal scholar: ”Intellectual disability is analyzed here as a contested social construction, not an objective biological condition” (Allison C. Carey, On the Margins of Citizenship: Intellectual Disability and Civil Rights in Twentieth-Century America, 13).