Part 5 of my series, “Intellectual disability in Mormon thought…”
We’ve been tying intellectual disability to the issue of “accountability,” and thus the scriptures which discuss little children, since the 1830s. Explicit discussion about intellectual disabilities in the eternal scheme of things went under the radar for the next century for reasons I attempt to outline in my thesis. But when the subject cropped back up again we picked up right where we’d left off. Bruce R. McConkie took the time in his Mormon Doctrine to add an entry on “Idiocy.” It simply said “See YEARS OF ACCOUNTABILITY.”1 This not only reminds us of the longevity of a by-then outdated term, but indicates that intellectual disability was at least on McConkie’s radar enough to merit inclusion. People with intellectual disabilities also play a supporting role in his 1977 Ensign article, “The Salvation of Little Children“:
What about the mentally deficient? It is with them as it is with little children. They never arrive at the years of accountability and are considered as though they were little children. If because of some physical deficiency, or for some other reason unknown to us, they never mature in the spiritual and moral sense, then they never become accountable for sins. They need no baptism; they are alive in Christ; and they will receive, inherit, and possess in eternity on the same basis as do all children.
McConkie’s discussion of intellectual disability does not appear to recognize degrees or different types. His definition of the “mentally deficient” is tautological.
Earlier in the article McConkie wonders if it is fair for little children to skip out on a mortal probation. Wouldn’t we all be better off dying young?
President Joseph Fielding Smith once told me that we must assume that the Lord knows and arranges beforehand who shall be taken in infancy and who shall remain on earth to undergo whatever tests are needed in their cases….It is implicit in the whole scheme of things that those of us who have arrived at the years of accountability need the tests and trials to which we are subject and that our problem is to overcome the world and attain that spotless and pure state which little children already possess.
Importantly, McConkie avoids explicit reference to the premortal life as an explanation for “their cases.” But he says it is “implicit” that people who don’t die young must need to encounter the trials of mortality. He refers to Joseph Smith’s teaching that many are “taken away in infancy that they may escape the envy of man, and the sorrows and evils of this present world; they were too pure, too lovely, to live on earth.”2 If this is so, how can it be the case that the “mentally deficient” are equated to “little children” who die before the age of accountability? Were they somehow less pure or lovely than little children who die, but slightly more pure and lovely than those born without obvious disabilities? At the same time, McConkie accidentally leaves the door open to the question of moral and intellectual development of people with disabilities. Can they still be considered to be experiencing mortality for the purpose of learning and growth? These questions create tensions when vestigial remnants of Joseph Smith’s teachings are placed alongside newer theological developments which were not originally discussed by Joseph. More often, they simply remain unacknowledged.
Although McConkie avoided directly attributing mental deficiency to premortal actions or decisions, BYU’s Andrew C. Skinner was less reticent in his 2005 book The Garden Tomb. Citing Elder McConkie, Skinner explains: “The same principles of resurrection and exaltation that apply to little children who die before the age of accountability also apply to those who are mentally handicapped or developmentally challenged in mortality.” Skinner asserts this reveals the meaning and message of Easter as the triumphant victory of Christ over sin and death. (McConkie’s Ensign piece was likewise written for Easter.) Skinner hedges, but still goes beyond McConkie by filling in the gap regarding why people are disabled:
What a different perspective we are given when we begin to understand more fully the Father’s eternal plan, his mercy and goodness, and the incomparable power of the Son’s atonement. Indeed, I am persuaded that we may have gotten some things backwards. Instead of feeling sorry for those who struggle with developmental disabilities, maybe we ought to feel bad that we weren’t more valiant in our premortal life and thereby worthy of the same immediate guarantee of exaltation that is given to little children and individuals with developmental challenges.3
Perhaps this isn’t the worst usage of premortality we’ve tried. Premortal valiance (or rather, the lack of it) was, of course, a fairly common explanation given for excluding blacks from the priesthood and the temple for quite some time. For Skinner, it is the premortally righteous ones, not the fence-sitters, who receive a physical mark on earth. But again, how can this claim be reconciled with Smith’s teaching that those who are too pure are taken from this wicked world before the age of accountability? Skinner is essentially claiming that if a person lives a long life as a disabled person, or dies as a child, the work required of “normal” adults must have already been completed; that way there are no exaltation freebies. We should feel bad that we are actually the developmentally delayed ones.
Of course, no record shows Smith himself teaching this etiology. Perhaps this accounts for the rhetorical hedging above, the “I am persuaded,” “we must assume,” “it is implicit,” and “for some other reason unknown to us.” But the idea that people with intellectual disabilities are actually advanced premortal intelligences has apparently provided comfort to some family members, or to church members in general who would otherwise struggle to confront what seems to them to be a tragedy. On the other hand, these premortal speculations have not always been enthusiastically embraced by all members of the Church. In my study of various theological negotiations regarding intellectual disabilities I’ve struggled to analyze such claims while recognizing that they are desperately beloved by some and vehemently rejected by others:
I have a toddler with Down syndrome, and I utterly reject the he’s-retarded-because-he-was-extra-righteous concept. Such reasoning separates people like my son from the rest of us, and that’s unfair. He’s a person. He’s fundamentally the same as you and me. And apparently that’s a deeply uncomfortable truth for us to swallow.
And we’re scared stiff by random nature, so we come up with lines like “special kids come to special parents.” But how many of us want to be this special? (And if this were true, why are 90% of fetuses with DS aborted?)
I had someone tell me an anecdote about a Stake President “prophesying” that people like my son cast Satan out of heaven with their superpowers, and thus came to earth unaccountable so that Satan couldn’t get his revenge.
People, don’t perpetuate this crap, or anything like unto it. We don’t know why some people have Down syndrome and some don’t.
We think it’s such a tragedy for a child to have DS that we come up with an excuse for God. This only betrays our terrible prejudice. Labeling people as superhuman is just as discriminatory as labeling them subhuman.
Suggesting that my son is here simply to coast through life and be a lesson to others is an insult. He is here to learn and grow, just like the rest of us. If his accountability is limited or even nonexistent, that doesn’t neuter his mortal experience.
*climbs off soapbox*4
McConkie focuses mostly on a guaranteed future exaltation while Skinner more directly accounts for that future by pointing to a veiled premortality. By drawing such a stark boundary between “normal” people and “developmentally challenged” people, both of these good-intentioned theologians may be overlooking the very real, very mortal, very earthy and ongoing experiences of people with various disabilities. Perhaps even people like me and you.
1. Bruce R. McConkie, Mormon Doctrine (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Company, 1966), 372, 852. His entry on “Insanity” does the same. If anyone out there has a 1st edition and can see if this entry is also there I’d appreciate it.
2. McConkie refers to the polished version in Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Company, 1977), 196–97. See the original notes in Andrew F. Ehat and Lyndon W. Cook, eds., The Words of Joseph Smith (Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1989), 106-107.
3. Andrew C. Skinner, The Garden Tomb (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 2005), emphasis mine.
4. Kathryn Lynard Soper, Comment #52, in response to Nate Oman’s “Mormonism’s Poisoned Theodicy,” timesandseasons.org, January 30, 2008. I try to uncover the origins of the “casting Satan out” folklore in my thesis, too.