Part 4 of my series, “Intellectual disability in Mormon thought…”
Jim Faulconer has depicted Mormonism as “atheological,” meaning that Mormonism lacks the sort of systematic theology found in other traditions, especially Catholicism. He writes that Mormonism privileges praxis over doxy, but I’m not convinced these two elements can be so neatly separated. Belief and practices are intertwined; they inform each other in ways I doubt any researcher can fully untangle. Still, perhaps Faulconer is right to say that, with a few exceptions (the Lectures on Faith, for example), Mormon belief and practice has often been created according to pressing concerns and needs, and is thus not formulated in a systematic manner. Pieces of theology would crop up not only in revealed scripture, but also in table conversations, in a red brick store, in council meetings, in sermons lost to time, in missionary journeys.
This non-systematic development of Mormon thought leads to interesting contradictions. Joseph’s theological project was incomplete at the time of his death, and the “chaos of materials prepared by” the prophet, to borrow a phrase from Parley P. Pratt, have proven fertile ground in which subsequent church leaders and members have harvested a variety of fruits. Joseph’s scriptures and sermons have been employed in a piecemeal fashion to answer questions he didn’t apparently ask. This is especially true in regards to intellectual disability.
My ongoing study of the development of Mormon thought on intellectual disability supports the common claim that Mormon theology developed largely in response to present pressing concerns in the minds of Joseph Smith, converts to Mormonism, and their critics. Many elements of Mormon belief arose as answers to questions about present circumstances, and this is why it is important to pay attention to the historical setting in which early Mormon claims were discussed. I believe this partially accounts for the lack of discussion about intellectually disabled people in early Mormon scripture and theology—a preliminary look at census data suggests Mormons did not interact with a greater number of disabled individuals compared to wider American culture in its earliest years. Beliefs about the nature of “idiots” were in flux in the early 1800s. Most people thought of disabled people in terms of their place in society: what they could or could not do, their level of responsibility, wondering about their ability to be producers not merely consumers. (This wasn’t new–the term “idiot” itself derives from the Greek idiotes, a “private person,” an individual, lacking skill for the community, etc.) It is no surprise, then, that the first mention of disabilities in the official Mormon press focused on these exact concerns, only in regards to eternity as opposed to civil life (and notice how the former is conceptually parallel to the latter!). An unsigned article in the Latter-day Saints’ Messenger & Advocate described Mormon soteriology (doctrine about the nature of and requirements for salvation) in largely legal terms. God declared laws which humans must obey in order to be saved. Once you are made aware of God’s laws you are obligated to obey them to reap the rewards, while the disobedient will suffer the consequences: “Stubbornness, willfulness and tradition is what excludes or hinders men from coming into the kingdom of God and not ignorance.” The author contrasts such culpable people with those who do not know God’s laws:
“Know ye not, that he who has no understanding it remaineth with God to do with them as seemeth him good. If God has created a being and has not given it intelligence would he be just to condemn it upon the same principle, that he would one whom he had endowed with intelligence? no; for an individual, or nation that has no law given to them, become a law unto themselves. But the law by which God judges idiots he has not revealed to us: we can only judge from the principle upon which he has said that he would judge the world, and that is upon the principle of testimony; for God never condemned a nation until he had warned them of what should come upon them, for instance he sent Noah…”
Interestingly, the author paraphrases a revelation Joseph Smith recorded in 1830 without actually specifying the reference (“He that hath no understanding” is rephrased; see D&C 29:50). He also depicts intelligence as being a gift from God as opposed to being part of an eternally self-existent entity or “intelligence,” as Smith would later describe. More interestingly, he applies the imprecise statement about “he who has no understanding” not to the heathen nations or the uninitiated in general, but specifically to “idiots,” the common term at the time for those we now refer to as having intellectual disabilities. The author accepts the vague nature of the revelation despite the presence of a living prophet and employs other revealed doctrines to fill in the gap. This has been the precise method Mormon leaders and teachers have employed to answer questions about the place of people with disabilities within God’s overall plan for humanity to the present time—a recognition of ambiguity and an extrapolation from other beliefs which seem to apply to the circumstances. For instance, the current Handbook of Instruction continues in this line with two notable differences. First, the Handbook is concerned with soteriological requirements, but these are directed to people with disabilities, their families, and leaders who interact with them at Church as opposed to merely employing people with disabilities as a contrast to other people. This reflects the increased recognition of people with disabilities within the Church itself and the need to account for them in regards to church governance and participation in the present. The pressing eschatological message of early Mormonism is tempered by the mundane descriptions of a carefully-crafted Handbook focused on day-to-day operation. Second, as with the article, the Handbook implies the lack of a specific explanation for the presence of disabilities. But theologically-laden ideas are not only avoided in the Handbook. It contains a specific warning about speculative reasoning:
“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.”
This warning was necessitated by what went on between the 1836 unsigned article and the 2011 unsigned Handbook of Instruction, namely: the crafting of problematic theological explanations for the presence of disability in the world using scriptures and sermons from Joseph Smith. Since Smith didn’t find intellectual disability to be a pressing concern, his revelations do not directly confront it. Since many of the things Smith claimed can be deployed in conversations about disability (human nature, the relation to God, the purpose of mortal existence, the presence of suffering, etc.), his disciples could still employ his views to discuss newer pressing concerns. In the next part I will outline a few examples of Mormon leaders and authors who have participated in these theological negotiations to show how such unsystematic theological method not only allows for theological flexibility in the face of present concerns beyond Smith’s focus, but can also result in unacknowledged contradictions and ironies, especially in the way that premortal capabilities have been invoked to explain the presence of disability. This exploration offers several suggestions about the nature of Mormon theological development, the presence and role of (misnamed) “folklore” doctrine in the church, and the relationship between advancing scientific ideas and theology. I will also highlight some of the problems historians face in trying to analyze the origins and development of Mormon theology.
 Parley P. Pratt, “Proclamation. To the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints: Greeting,” Latter-day Saints’ Millennial Star 5 (March 1845): 152. You must check out Benjamin E. Park’s “(Re)Interpreting Early Mormon Thought: Synthesizing Joseph Smith’s Theology and the Process of Religion Formation,” Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought 45, no. 2 (Summer 2012): 59-88. [.pdf]
 n.a., John Whitmer, ed., “Let every man learn his duty,” Latter Day Saints’ Messenger and Advocate vol. II no. 4 (January 1836): 249-250.
 See Handbook 2 Administering the Church p. 186, or here at 21.1.26).