Part 8 of my series, “Intellectual disability in Mormon thought…”
Throughout the nineteenth century the concept of the “natural” was largely replaced by the concept of the “normal.” This was a massive cultural shift which was produced by and which produced various new social sciences, statistical analyses, Darwinian evolution, and the industrial revolution. This shift is detectable in the writings of various political, religious, and social thinkers all across the spectrum. For example, Edmund Burke and Thomas Paine alike leaned on the rhetorical power of the natural versus the unnatural or monstrous. As one historian described the shift:
The natural was good and right because it conformed to the intent or design of Nature [as for Paine] or the Creator of Nature [as for Burke]. Normality, in contrast, was an empirical and dynamic concept for a changing and progressing world, the premise of which was that one could discern in human behavior the direction of human evolution and progress and use that as a guide.
The ascendance of normality [in the work of people like statistician Adolphe Quetelet] signaled a shift in the locus of faith from a God-centered to a human-centered world, from a culture that looked within to a core and backward to lost Edenic origins toward one that looked outward to behavior and forward to a perfected future. Just as the counterpart to the natural was the monstrous, so the opposite of the normal person was the defective.1
Mormonism was born as this shift was underway, a fact which is reflected in its developing theologies.
Mormon leaders like Parley P. Pratt and Joseph Smith struggled to bridge this divide—not forgetting the Edenic past (in fact, extending it to a premortal existence) while also looking forward to a perfected millennial future. The natural is reflected in God’s creation, but that creation itself is an ongoing development, an eternal progression where the normal functions as the ideal type which gives one the best opportunity to advance. This bias for normalcy is reflected in A Key to the Science of Theology, Pratt’s magnum opus. Part theological exposition, part social program, Pratt’s book cashed in on popular assumptions about heredity to uphold its theology. “Gods, angels and men, are all of one species, one race, one great family,” he wrote, which makes it possible for humans to become like God “in every respect, physically, and in intellect, attributes or powers” by virtue of inheritance.2
In spite of this optimism, Pratt had to account for abnormality, for the defective. He did not exclude such from ultimate regeneration, but the need to provide the most fit bodies for the most noble premortal spirits led Pratt to assert that only those who are ideally “circumstanced and conditioned” should multiply and replenish the earth. Specifically, this included “A man who obeys the ordinances of God, and is without blemish or deformity, who has sound health and mature age” and “A woman, under similar circumstances, is designed to be the glory of some man in the Lord.”3 Meanwhile, his brother Orson depicted Adam and Eve as the prototypical couple who would have originally been eternally married and eternally procreative had they not fallen. The fall was not so fortunate in his view.4
I have more to say about these claims elsewhere, but needless to say, the explicitly proto-eugenic arguments of Parley have gradually faded from Mormon discourse. Still, I wonder how the shift from natural to normal affects Mormonism in the present, especially in regards to the question of evolution. I think those who place more emphasis on a perfect Edenic state interrupted by a fall which is being repaired by Christ’s atonement (back to the natural) will be less likely to embrace the insights of evolutionary theory which understands adaptation (and perhaps progress to a higher state of existence as evinced by Christ’s incarnation) as being normal. Can Mormonism bridge the divide between the God-centered and human-centered world, from a culture that looks within to a core and back to lost Edenic origins (natural) with one that looks outward to behavior and forward to a better future (normal)?
Either way, the monstrous and the defective linger at both ends of this bridge.
1. Douglas C. Baynton, ”Disability and the Justification of Inequality in American History,” in The New Disability History: American Perspectives, Paul K. Longmore and Lauri Umansky, eds. (New York: New York University Press, 2001), 35-36. Lennard J. Davis’s “Constructing Normalcy” provides a good discussion about the rise of the “normal” in the nineteenth century, see Lennard J. Davis, ed., The Disability Studies Reader (New York: Routledge, 2010), 3-19.
2. Parley P. Pratt, A Key to the Science of Theology (Liverpool: F.D. Richards, 1855), 32–33.
4. Orson’s arguments about eternal marriage and eternal procreation were articulated in the first public defense of polygamy, given on August 29, 1852. See his sermon, “Celestial Marriage,” Journal of Discourses 1:53-66. Yet another reminder that we ought to focus on historical Mormon theologies. Check out the Mormon blogger called “aquinas,” who has an ongoing series about Mormon views of the Fall. His post on Brigham Young and Orson Pratt in particular does a nice job of pointing out differing theologies.