Outsourcing theological problems to the pre- and post-mortal life

Part 1 of my series, “Intellectual disability in Mormon thought…”
See also parts 23, 4, 5, 6, 78, and 9.

The Plan of Salvation is one of Mormonism’s chief selling points. Douglas J. Davies argues that its power resides in the fact that it is presented as a sweeping narrative, and narrative “is of the essence of humanity.”1 According to Davies, shifting Mormon emphases on certain elements of the Plan are good indicators of Mormonism’s creative adaptation to changing historical circumstances. Mormon theology is influenced by the wider culture in which it participates, even as it influences believers. Such influence can be detected in the sort of theological questions Mormons confront, the language used to confront it, and the ways Mormons draw on LDS scripture and tradition to resolve theological problems.

One of the chief uses to which the Plan of Salvation has been put over the years is to confront the problem of suffering/evil/tragedy. In this post I’ll quickly discuss only two instances when the Plan has been used to account for difficulties in the Mormon experience.

According to the Plan, humans are situated within what Boyd K. Packer has called a “three-act play,” spanning pre-mortal, mortal, and post-mortal existence. By understanding our situatedness in an ongoing salvation drama, Packer suggests we will be “better able to make sense of life and to resist the disease of doubt and despair and depression.”2 In Act I we each chose to risk mortality, ensured that through faith we would see a “Happily Ever After” in Act III. But Packer emphasizes that in Act II things may not always seem fair, although we will learn at a later date “that the Plan is fair; however it appears, it is fair.”

Mormons haven’t been shy about using this schema to explain troubling or seemingly unfair aspects of Act II, even when they seem to reach beyond the specifics of the “script”—what Packer identifies as the scriptures and prophetic teachings. Let’s call such extrapolation LDS fan-fiction. The first example that probably comes to mind is the “folklore” about blacks and the premortal life, where blacks were said to be “fence-sitters,” less valiant, or somehow not deserving of the same privileges that would be afforded to non-blacks.3

It makes sense that Mormons would find such ideas compelling. I believe the fact that the priesthood/temple restriction required such expansion indicates a discomfort (or at the least, a defensiveness) on the part of Mormons who felt the racist implications of the restrictive policy. This theological “pressure point” resulted in creative (and I think unfortunate) attempted resolution via the Plan of Salvation. A source of discomfort or puzzlement (blacks restricted from full participation in the church) was resolved by weaving it into existing Mormon beliefs about the plan of salvation–namely, that our behavior or decisions in the “First Estate” partially determined our status in this, the “Second Estate” (see Jude 1:6, which Packer also cites, and which Mormons in the past have somewhat inappropriately employed as a proof-text for the doctrine of a pre-mortal life). Of course, one big problem is that such a resolution could be used to justify practically anything. The Church hasn’t to my knowledge officially repudiated this particular use of the premortal life, but Elder Jeffrey R. Holland asserted that it “must never be taught” by members of the Church again. One of the biggest reasons, according to Holland, is because “we just don’t know.”4

The priesthood/temple restriction for blacks isn’t the only instance in which Mormons have used the Plan to resolve difficult problems. At first glance, this second example seems less harmful than the first. According to the story, a child with Down Syndrome was told in a patriarchal blessing that he “played a key role in ushering Satan out of God’s presence. The young man was told that he was so hated and despised by Satan, that he was blessed to come into this life in such a state as to be beyond the power of the adversary.”5

Notice that both stories try to account for a particular present problem: a seeming “restriction” in mortality–one from priesthood/temple access, the other regarding cognitive ability. The former seems to be an element of punishment due to bad acts, the latter a blessing and protection because of good acts. Interestingly, the blessing/protection reasoning was more recently applied to the priesthood/temple problem by former BYU professor Randy Bott. The restriction was protective, much like the Down Syndrome condition.6

Unlike the priesthood/temple teachings I haven’t yet found an instance of the Down Syndrome explanation in an official or even quasi-official Church publication. (Still looking, stay tuned.) But I have heard individual church members suggest that some disabilities are the result of pre-mortal valiance, or that the person simply needed a physical body, and in the meantime they serve as a good object lesson or method of training for care-givers.  Such explanations tend to skip over the difficulties of a mortal life of disability by looking ahead to Act III, when in the resurrection such disabilities will vanish. In these and other ways, Act II for a person with disabilities becomes massively short–hardly an important scene in the overall play.

I have more to say on this in the future, but for now I want to point out that a recent addition to the Church’s Handbook of Instructions seems to indicate an awareness on the part of Church leaders that such speculations can be detrimental to faith:

“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.”7

This caution is seen in Elder Ronald A. Rasband’s recent General Conference address in which he shared personal reflections about his grandson Paxton who was born with severe disabilities. Rasband includes a quote from an apostle observing that some people are born with “physical limitations…[f]or reasons usually unknown.” He goes on to situate Paxton’s disabilities in the framework of the Plan of Salvation:

That plan, when presented in the pre-earth life, prompted us all to shout for joy. Put simply, this life is training for eternal exaltation, and that process means tests and trials. It has always been so, and no one is spared. Trusting in God’s will is central to our mortality. With faith in Him, we draw upon the power of Christ’s Atonement at those times when questions abound and answers are few.8

By invoking the concept of the Plan of Salvation in tandem with disability, Rasband runs the risk of perpetuating something like the Down Syndrome story. At the same time, an explicit debunking of such a story also runs the risk of upsetting Church members who may have been comforted by the idea that a loved one’s cognitive condition signals a brighter past and a more hopeful future. (Debunking here seems more risky than dealing with racial speculations.) Rasband seems to pivot away from outsourcing present suffering to the doctrine of premortality by concluding that “answers are few,” and that faith is required to live with such conditions. The willingness of Church leaders to acknowledge theological gaps was also manifest in the LDS Newsroom’s official response to the Bott controversy.9 It is likely that, at least for Mormon readers, the Plan of Salvation hovers implicitly in the background of the Newsroom’s statement as an overarching explanation for such gaps, as it does more explicitly in Rasband’s address.

As the Handbook suggests, Rasband also appeals to John 9, in which Jesus answers “neither” when the disciples ask whether a man was born blind because of his sins or the sins of his parents:

Shortly after precious Paxton was born, we knew Heavenly Father would bless us and teach us special lessons. As his father and I put our fingers on his tiny head in the first of many priesthood blessings, the words came into my mind from the ninth chapter of John: “that the works of God should be made manifest in him.” (John 9:3)

God’s works are definitely being made manifest through Paxton.10

Even as the teachings regarding premortal justifications for mortal priesthood/temple restrictions for blacks fade from Mormon discourse, the Plan of Salvation still offers a persuasive opportunity for Mormons to account for disability and other mortal puzzles and difficulties.

These two examples of Plan of Salvation usage hold important implications for the ways Mormon belief/doctrine/theology might be situated within particular cultural contexts to demonstrate a diversity of perspectives over time. Mormon doctrine is not static, unified, univocal, or complete. This discussion can also be brought to bear more closely on questions about differences between official and unofficial (or folklore) doctrines and the ways various beliefs circulate between pulpit and pew. It also helps illuminate potential reasons why Church officials recently seem more reluctant than some of their predecessors to indulge in overt speculation even as they uncomfortably deal with past teachings. It also serves as a warning that present Mormon doctrine may still be unduly influenced by past speculations. It thus serves as a call for researchers to more rigorously engage Mormon theology historically constituted. Perhaps the trickiest part of all for Mormon researchers in particular is the impulse to identify the hand of God within this messy, contextual, historical sojourn.

In the future (ie, in the process of completing a thesis) I hope to provide more info specifically about the place of cognitive disability within LDS theology and practice by analyzing how it has been discussed in official and non-official venues. I will highlight specific ways Mormons have used scripture, tradition, and creativity to engage pressing problems in different ways over time. Situating Mormon thought historically need not be understood as a mere matter of debunking, or denying the hand of God in history, but rather as a way to better understand Mormon belief about continuing revelation by God through humans. While epistemic humilty is expected on the part of the researcher, this does not prevent highlighting the perspectives of those who believe in revelation or other “supernatural” occurrences. In other words, it isn’t necessarily incumbent upon me as a researcher to adjudicate truth claims in terms of where the hand of God can be identified. Rather, it would be my task to identify where such beliefs informed the claims of Mormons themselves.

Ultimately I hope my analysis will unmask some of the negative cultural assumptions about disabilities which have become entrenched within Mormon belief. Such unmasking can assist Mormon philosphers, theologians, leaders, and laypersons articulate fruitful responses to problems presented by cognitive disability–problems which we all face here in “Act II.” Outsourcing such problems to the first and third acts is not necessarily the best theological option for Mormons. Perhaps we can do better for our sisters and brothers with disabilities, as well as for the families and caretakers who know and love them as being more than pre-mortally-valiant lumps of clay awaiting a future resurrection. The architecture of Mormon practice is already well-poised to provide meaningful spiritual experiences for people with disabilities and their caregivers. Such experiences stand to be greatly enhanced when cognitive disability is better understood within the framework of Mormon theology.


As this overall post suggests, I’m no disinterested or strictly objective researcher, but rather a participant in ongoing theological discussions and explorations from within and toward Mormonism. In the next few months in addition to sharing a few thoughts on my specific research and perhaps soliciting a little feedback, I also hope to discuss my feelings about being a practicing Mormon who is also engaging in research on Mormonism using the tools of religious studies. Where does one draw the line between scholar and Mormon? I’ve also played a little fast and loose with some of the terminology and details here, and hope to flesh things out more in the coming months. 


1. Douglas J. Davies, Joseph Smith, Jesus, and Satanic Opposition: Atonement, Evil and the Mormon Vision (Ashgate, 2010), 3-4

2. Boyd K. Packer, “The Play and the Plan,” address to young adults in Kirkland Washington, 7 May 1995, 1–2; also cited in the official publication, The New Testament Seminary Resource Manual.

3. I put “folklore” in scare-quotes because it has been employed to describe Mormon teachings regarding blacks and premortality despite being taught by high-ranking Church officials including Bruce R. McConkie, Joseph Fielding Smith and others. The general idea of premortal behavior impacting mortal station was affirmed in a 1949 statement by the First Presidency. Referring to it as “folklore” in the present seems to downplay the quasi-official status it once held for many practicing Mormons. The dichotomy between official and unofficial doctrine/folklore overlooks the actual ways Mormon theological ideas transfer between pulpit and pew. Let’s talk about that later.

4. See the transcript at pbs.org/mormons/interviews/holland.html.

5. D. Keith Shurtleff, Whited Tombs: The Tactics of the Enemies of Christ’s Kingdom Ancient And Modern (Lincoln: iUniverse, 2006), 64.

6. However, Bott used the “curse of Cain” argument rather than the pre-mortality story. See Jason Horowitz, “The Genesis of a church’s stand on race,” The Washington Post, 28 February 28 2012.

7. See section 21.1.26 at lds.org/handbook/handbook-2-administering-the-church/selected-church-policies#21.1.26.

8. Ronald A. Rasband, “Special Lessons,” Conference Report, April 2012.

9. The statement observes: “It is not known precisely why, how, or when this restriction began in the Church but what is clear is that it ended decades ago. Some have attempted to explain the reason for this restriction but these attempts should be viewed as speculation and opinion, not doctrine. The Church is not bound by speculation or opinions given with limited understanding.” mormonnewsroom.org/article/racial-remarks-in-washington-post-article, 29 February 2012, just in time for the last day of Black History Month. For more on this issue see my podcast with Max Mueller here. An unattributed claim that “We don’t know for sure” was also part of the first published Mormon discussion of intellectual disability: “But the law by which God judges idiots he has not revealed to us,” an unsigned editorial from 1836 explains, “we can only judge from the principle upon which he has said that he would judge the world….” See n.a., John Whitmer, ed., “Let every man learn his duty,” Latter Day Saints’ Messenger and Advocate 2, no. 4 (January, 1836): 248-250.

10. Rasband, Ibid.


  1. Sorry for all the tl;dr’s out there.

  2. it's a series of tubes says:

    In these and other ways, Act II for a person with disabilities becomes massively short–hardly an important scene in the overall play.

    As you expand on the concepts in this post, I look forward to your further exploration of this point. Given that throughout history, a significant portion of humanity has died at birth, in infancy, or in early childhood, can we really state that mortality is “hardly important” for such? That position seems in tension with the concept of mortal embodiment being a key stepping stone toward becoming more godlike.

  3. tubes, Thanks. There have been differing views on the death of infants and especially things like still birth in the Church over time. Mormon beliefs on things like multiple mortal probations, the precise time at which an “intelligence” or “spirit” actually comes to inhabit a mortal body, the meaning of such a linkage, and other matters come into play.

  4. it's a series of tubes says:

    Looking forward to more. A topic of particular interest to me since the passing of my 7 year old disabled nephew a few years ago.

  5. Great post Blair. I couldn’t help but also think about missionary beliefs along these lines. A lot of missionaries come home disappointed that they didn’t baptize more people in their 2 year stint. Then they hear stories about people in the premortal life telling each other that they will look for them and baptize them, no matter what. So you don’t have to feel bad you didn’t baptize lots of people; you should rejoice knowing you baptized the people you were supposed to, who you probably knew in the premortal life.

    I don’t know how many members buy into that line of thought, but I’ve heard it expressed before.

  6. J. Stapley says:

    I think that you are correct to identify the deferment of difficult problems for resolution in Act III, as you say (though I suggest that the Millennium is particularly and commonly useful for such usage and may not be the same as Act III). It is the panacea. I’m not sure that I have seen much reference to Act I recently. Seems like it is loosing some favor as a solution to certain types of problems.

  7. Thanks Blair. I have a similar sense to J. Stapley. As Act I explanations have gone out of favor there has been a corresponding increase in Act III explanations. Less speculation about whether someone was valiant or not in the pre-existence = greater speculation that “everything will turn out ok,” even though we don’t have answers right now. Examples include the racial priesthood/temple ban, the gender priesthood ban, same-sex attraction, and many other issues.

    On one hand I am glad to see this development. Rank speculation does not get us to helpful answers. But on the other hand, it is disappointing to see a church that is built on modern revelation in essence punting on all the hard questions. Isn’t the God of Act I and Act III also the God of Act II?

  8. Blair, as always a very thoughtful and important post. But let’s be clear, you are not saying that I was not a General in the preexistence, are you?

  9. All these explanations are going to (some already have) come back to haunt us in imaginable ways. I can tell you that essentially telling people who are living a horrible life that “it will all work out in Act III” is a good way to guarantee they at least try to kill themselves. It is human nature, we do not have an eternal perspective. If The Church has no answers I would _really_effin_prefer they say they do not have answers. Shifting from I to III is just as unhelpful possibly even moreso.

    This of course comes from the equivalent of the 2K Stripling Warriors in my pre-mortal existence. So, you know, take it with that full weight of Gospel street cred.

  10. *unimaginable ways.

  11. The bent towards ACT III explanations/solutions can readily be seen when it comes to Church pronouncements on homosexuality. Just a few years ago the notion was suddenly presented that homosexuals who remained faithful would be ‘cured’ in the next life, and (notably) have the opportunity to marry and receive their exhaltation. This is in direct conflict with D&C revelations on marriage, which state that those who do not marry in this life (specifically men) are basically damned. The doctrine that gays are not accountable under the Priesthood marriage requirement is now canonized in official Church publications (the pamphlet, “God Loveth His Children”, etc.)

  12. Thanks everyone who took the time to read such a long post. I hope to take a closer look at shifts from Act I to III explanations, keeping in mind they have both played a role in theological discussions for a really long time in Mormonism. My concern about outsourcing too readily to Acts I and III in regards to intellectual disability is it tends to overlook the diverse conditions and experiences of people who live with such disabilities.

    Dave: your frustration re: punting and modern revelation has implications for my comment that this investigation bears on Mormon ideas about revelation, too.

    SteveP, IIRC you only rose to the rank of Lieutenant Colonel in the pre.

  13. I suppose we all hope for something better in the life to come.

  14. Great post as always, Blair. “Outsourcing” theological problems to different acts is a really important tension that we tend to overlook. Mormon’s have championed mortality as an integral part of eternal progression but we don’t really know what to do with the fact that for a majority of people born through history, mortality has been “nasty, brutish, and short”–nothing like the moral drama it feels like for those of us born in healthy, comfortable developed modern nations (speaking generally here, not specifically about people w/ disabilities). In a way, while we often herald the trial/progression idea of mortality as a superior answer to the problem of evil than most Christian churches offer, it raises theological questions of our own to answer: if mortality is all about progress, why are so many people–like the countless young children that die early–exempt from it all?

    Looking forward to more posts on this.

  15. My interest before in this strain of disability thought is on two fronts. One is on the idea of a continuity of identity in the phases of premortal, mortal, and post mortal existence. I think its fairly common to hear examples of people in the disability community who cannot imagine their identities existing in a non disabled state. They have become who they are largely because of a specific social and ability context. The things that are important to them and the ways they view the world are tied up in the body they have-not the one they might hope to get later. If LDS doctrine states that the soul is made up of the spirit and body of man then its reasonable to conclude that the state of the body has some bearing on the state of the soul, or in other words your physical status is really part of who you are, at least at the moment. My having a disability doesn’t mean there is a true me in there some where that doesn’t have the disability. The disability is part of the true me expressed at the current time. Later they may be a true me that is radically different, but I won’t know about that until later. I imagine that the memories of the mortal me wouldn’t fit very nicely in the mind of a resurrected me if that resurrected me was unimpaired. It would result in a rather incoherent personality. So much of how I relate to the world and the forces that have shaped me is bound up in a specific ability context. If that ability context changed too much a lot of my personality would need to be thrown out to synthesize the new person I was.

    In countless ways, the presence of a mortal body makes a mortal or resurrected being probably somewhat a stranger to the mortal embodied personality. What does that mean about who I am? Most of my eternal identity has likely happened in a state in which I would be a stranger to my current self. Most of my eternal future also involves me being a stranger to my current self. I think C. S. Lewis once said something about that if we understood the actual glory attached to the people around us we’d be strongly tempted to worship them (It was in “The Weight of Glory,” I can’t remember the exact wording). I’m afraid of people trying to downgrade the existence of current personality based on whether that personality has convenient attributes. Chances are, all of our resurrected selves would find our mortal selves kind of obnoxious and limited, but we are only likely to point out the extent of those differences if we currently feel a need to explain away the proposed differences. If I am supposed to downgrade the value of the my current personality expression as invalid, how am I supposed to allow myself to be valid now? Sure we all fall short of the Glory of God, but acknowledging that about moral choices is encouraging us to do better and/or seek the atonement’s power. There’s action, empowerment, volition involved. Pointing that out about a disability is about action being impossible, semi permanent weakness, lack of ability to chose certain things. So I’d rather that we didn’t really didn’t focus on the eternal me that maybe someday I’ll be if our speculation about the resurrection is right. The me right now needs to be a validated person now as well, not just later.

    The other area I get upset about is the quasi doctrine about weaknesses becoming strengths. The classic verse in Ether about Moroni being nervous about his poor writing ability is, I think, taken entirely out of context. God never promises Moroni that his writing will improve. When a disability is viewed as a weakness that God is promising to turn into a strength it keeps us from being able to see the fullness of God’s hand in our life. The why’s and the maybe’s are really complicated and perhaps will never be clear. They can be a subject of personal revelation, with the answers as personal as the person. If we only see it as a weakness becoming a strength we can put blinders on to everything except the miraculous or the occasional inspirational stories of how a disability actually became an advantage. Thing is, miracles are called miracles because we don’t expect them, and the inspirational stories are only inspirational because they cast a new light on something that is otherwise can be pretty miserable. Putting disabled people under the expectation that they have to be righteous enough so that God’s promise of weaknesses becoming strengths will be fulfilled ignores their actual needs. More on my thoughts on this summarized here: http://crouchingowl.blogspot.com/2009/04/weaknesses-becoming-strengths.html

  16. This is an interesting and vital subject and Blair does a good job of teasing out some of the issues raised by disabilities – some severe enough to make any thought of “moral development” in this life impossible and others such that they present the issue of fairness of God in an acute way. I am more sanguine that Blair, I think, about the possibilities of the pre-mortal life acting as a possible explanatory scenario for such challenges. I’ll have to wait for what he says later to be sure.

    Here is what we know if we accept the canonized revelations: (1) we chose whether to come to mortality – we could have rejected the plan for mortality because some did; (2) we knew that mortal life would present risks — that is the entire point of the argument between Lucifer and the Son; Lucifer wanted to avoid all risk to salvation; (3) we had agency and free will to choose whether to confront the risk by making a choice; (4) one primary issue related to whether to confront mortality was whether the risk presented by free will and choice merited the experiences we would have; (5) little children who die before the age of accountability do not require the kinds of tests that those who live beyond that age do to achieve celestial glory — I presume because they had already achieved such progress toward celestial glory before this life.

    Admittedly there is a lot we don’t know about all of these theological basics — but there is enough to provide fodder to see that an explanatory framework has been revealed to explain why mortality presents risks and potentially at least why some have greater challenges than others. I think that we can suppose from D&C 138:53 that some spirits in the pre-mortal life were charged with particular tasks in mortality as a part of God’s plan and that some were “choice” (chosen?) with respect to such tasks. I am open to the possibility that we agreed to challenges that would give us the opportunity to learn specific lessons and that our experiences present us with the opportunities to do — if we choose to. It is not a stretch to suggest that the challenges presented by our particular mortal bodies were part of the experiences we would have that would give us the opportunity to learn what we came here to learn. It is not a stretch to suggest that some agreed to take on specific tasks for the benefit of others (e.g., Jesus). It seems to me that there are numerous explanatory possibilities that can be explored within such a framework.

    There are always challenges with each supposition. Could a spirit understand what the risks of mortality were like without first having bodily experiences that seem to be a necessary precondition to such understanding? Is it PC to suggest that some have challenges to present opportunities for growth while others do not? How can this be developed in such a way as not to assume that those born without the gospel were “morally inferior” in their pre-mortal progress? I attempt to flesh out these questions in vol. 4 of Exploring Mormon Thought — just how successful I am of course is open to discussion. So I will be interested to see how Blair fleshes it out.

  17. Whether or not it is correct to outsource theological problems to, especially the premortal life, probably depends a lot on how much we believe in fate. So take a mentally disabled person, for example. If a family has a mentally disabled child–for example, my grandparents–were they predetermined to have that child, as a matter of a test, or blessing? Is this God’s way of giving some spirits (disabled people) a free ticket into heaven based on premortal choices, while giving others (my grandparents) a lesson to learn from these individuals? Perhaps, but it is a little fatalistic, in my opinion. Suppose my grandparents never married. To which parent would the spirit of my uncle been born to, if either? How much of assigning birthing spirits to families is actually by divine design? In the case of unaccountable children, if we assume those that die do so because of premortal righteousness, then are they fated to die? Is it possible for them to be born in an environment where these spirits would live past 8? If so, wouldn’t that be unfair of God, since they already, presumably, proved their righteousness? Or, if we aren’t sold on fate, perhaps God promises salvation for innocent children as His way of comforting us given the facts of reality (accidental death is possible).

    My point is, I think the degree to which one ascribes confusing things to fate, or divine design, probably plays a role in one’s likelihood to resolve these issues by appealing to God’s greater plan.

  18. Excellent post. I especially appreciate an approach of how theology functions or has functioned within our religious discourse. One of the great ironies of premortal existence as theological solution is that it is essentially turns into premortal determinism, a line of thought that abrogates or defeats the purpose of agency in mortality. In other words, the solution can also be a threat to the importance of human choice in mortality within Mormon thought.

    For example, McConkie writes that in the premortal existence “Mozart became a musician; Einstein centered his interest in mathematics; Michelangelo turned his attention to painting. Cain was a liar, a schemer, a rebel who maintained a close affinity to Lucifer. … Similarly, when we fall from preexistence to mortality, we bring with us the talents and traits there developed. … Mozart is still a musician; Einstein retains his mathematical abilities; Michelangelo his artistic talents; Abraham, Moses, and the prophets their spiritual talents and abilities. Cain still lies and schemes.” Bruce R. McConkie, The Mortal Messiah: From Bethlehem to Calvary, 4 vols. (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Co., 1979-1981), 1:23-25.

    While the concept is presented as providing the answer to the question of inequality among human capacities and moral inclinations, the answer contains seeds of determinism and in many cases despair. “Who you are now is who you were then and who you will be in the future” is not comforting to those who struggle with addictions and vices in mortality or those who are challenged by negative attitudes and habits. It has the potential to suffocate concepts of atonement.

    We need to do a better at running a cost-benefit analysis of our doctrines. It may be comforting to feel one has the answer to why life isn’t fair or why different people make different choices, but when the costs include feelings of powerlessness to change or essentially determinism, an erosion of the doctrinal potency of atonement and agency, and a general sense of collateral damage in the wake, those costs may be too high.

  19. Last Lemming says:

    Nor should they suggest that it is a blessing to have a child who has a disability.

    Awesome. I’m going to memorize that Handbook citation.

    I think people get confused by the promise of salvation for little children (and, by extension, people with cognitive disabilities). It is true that they will not have to suffer for their own sins, since they will not have committed any. But D&C 130:18 still holds: “Whatever principle of intelligence we attain unto in this life, it will rise with us in the resurrection.” So even if the disability itself is resolved in Act III, the implications of the disability in Act II must still be overcome. But, of course, Act III’s infinite length makes it all fair….

  20. DLewis, I think the best thing about your comment is the way it suggests we should take a look at the way things are actually working here on the ground in comparison to our scriptural narratives. Sometimes such a look will open up difficult questions.


    Justin, you raise important questions especially in regards to the physical, most visible aspects of embodiment. As you note, many people with disabilities have been so shaped and affected by them that to imagine losing them would be like telling someone they would be resurrected without ears and eyes. It wouldn’t make sense to face such a scenario. Several disability-attuned theologies (like Eiesland’s “Disabled God,” a pioneer work) place particular emphasis on Jesus’s embodiment as well as his resurrected state, in which he still bore scars of his death, disabilities if you will in that they do not measure up to the presumed “perfected ideal” of a body. My work is focused on what I think is an even stickier thing, intellectual disabilities, which can be much more invisible, and which seem to affect important LDS beliefs like accountability and rationality (the glory of God is “intelligence”). But neuroscience and other scientific studies show crucial connections between our physical machinery, if you will, and our ability to feel, think and reason. This bears directly into the question of the continuity of identity, as you note. I like how you put it:

    I’d rather that we didn’t really didn’t focus on the eternal me that maybe someday I’ll be if our speculation about the resurrection is right. The me right now needs to be a validated person now as well, not just later.

    The selection about weaknesses becoming strengths is also a part of my research, how has that verse been employed when it comes to disability, and how does such employment obscure present concerns, experiences, and faith? Are there different ways to understand it which seem more “true” to our personal witnesses?


    Very interesting quote, aquinas. I dont think mcconkie’s ideas necessarily provide the best model. would music even make sense to a premortal intelligence? I tend to think not. We think of the veil as an obscuring, something that is placed to block, but why could it not be the simple function of being embodied in such a new circumstance that previous ways of experiencing things are added upon?

    So when Blake asks about the idea of making a rational choice in the premortal existence, when we look at what the scripture narratives say about it, we have to think about the possibility that such descriptions are embedded with assumptions about what it means to make a decision.


    Blake, one of the problems that your particular (somewhat Saturday’s Warrior-esque) premortal story presents in terms of chosen trials and so forth is the question of determinism versus the sort of emergent evolution of God’s creation. Much Mormon thought has assumed omni qualities about God which would require something like micromanaging pretty much everything, which can cause problems when we start to ask about what it means to be a free agent. You’ve written in the past on problems of predictive prophecy, and so forth.


    DavidF raises similar concerns which he refers to as a problem about “fate,” or the degree to which we are fated to be in certain places or conditions at any given time, let alone all of existence. I don’t know how far down that particular rabbit hole the present project will take me. Not because I don’t think such questions are important or interesting, but rather because I don’t think such questions have largely been pressing upon many Mormons, at least insofar as can be seen by looking at our literature. Mainly, my overall thesis will attempt to map the theological options Mormonism has engendered so far while tracing the historical conditions and philosophical/cultural assumptions which have informed the sources of said options (scriptures, sermons, folklore, literature). It won’t be my intent in this project, then, to try to construct a theology, but rather to point to what sorts of theologies Mormons have already been constructing. I hope in turn this can open more space for a wider variety of theological options which may seem more viable for people actually living as or with people with intellectual disabilities. Aquinas has my intention right when he says I want to look at the functions of theology without necessarily trying to argue for or against their “truth” content, despite how important that might be. I anticipate this approach will be uncomfortable for some people who view the Church as a place where all of the “right answers” should be articulated now and always, rather than as an organic and growing body of Christ which will actually hit dead-ends, cul-de-sacs, require reevaluations according to circumstance and so forth. Continuing revelation is required, on this view, to adapt to humans and to help humans adapt. Scripture can serve as temporal course corrections, some of which might even have expiration dates as evidenced by the growth of alternative interpretations, etc.


    Lemming: I expect to write at least a few pages on the ways that our scriptures regarding children and accountability have been re-tooled to apply to people with intellectual disabilities. The problem is that many people with such impairments simply can’t be equated with pre-8-yr.-old children and so it doesn’t really experientially make sense to just shoehorn the categories together that way. How is a 30-yr-old woman with Down syndrome supposed to equate an 8-year-old boy? There are problems with repurposing scriptures this way. It also raises the question of the situatedness of revelation–notice Joseph didn’t seem to have revelations which apply specifically to disabled people, or people born with ambiguous genetalia, or any other number of present concerns.

  21. Blair: In my 4th volume I address at length the issue of agency and God’s providence in relation the experiences of our lives at it relates to pre-mortal agreements and choices. There are all kinds of choices left to us even if God micromanages some things in this life — not to mention the choices already made in a pre-mortal life. E.g., not one of us chooses our genetic make-up as far as free will in this life is concerned. We don’t choose the birth defects and disabilities from which we suffer. Certainly God has at least sufficient power alter the DNA strand or to heal defects — if not, then I don’t think we’re talking about anything like the God revealed in scripture. It seems to me that God is at least one omni- omni-resourceful. (I’d add that he is also omni-benificent). I’ll be interested to see how you develop this, but the notion that God is a deistic observer or that he just lacks power to arrange such things, or is just not interested, or that they don’t have a place in his plan, just don’t seem viable to me.

  22. best of continued success in your research and writing blair.

    about john 9, if i were born blind, i think i would be glad to hear that it was not because of my sin or that of my parents. but i don’t think i would find the other answer much more comforting. what if jesus never came to heal me? and even if he did, w.t.h.: i’m born blind and left to deal with that just so i can be a prop in god’s magic show decades later? so what if i contribute to ticket sales?

  23. I have long been personally troubled by the appeal to Acts I or III to explain the death of little children. As a 7-yr old, I seriously contemplated ending my own life so that I would be guaranteed the heaven I’d been taught was granted to those who died before the age of accountability. I mean, if exaltation is all that ultimately matters, wouldn’t it be worth a short mortal existence? I’m very glad that I did not act out my chain of reasoning, not least because my preferred plan would likely have just left me severely crippled. Looking back, I’ve also come to the opinion that because I was able to think along those lines at that age I was already accountable for my actions, regardless of my age. That experience has deeply impressed upon me the need for restraint when invoking the plan of salvation to explain away a mortal difficulty. (An obvious, and obviously abhorrent, corollary I recognized at that time was that if parents wanted the eternal best for their children, they should kill them as infants. No fuss, no muss.) We do not usually recognize the potential for harm we have when we speak without understanding.

  24. Thanks, Blake. Keep in mind that my specific approach for the thesis will be to map the theological options Mormonism has engendered so far while tracing the historical conditions and philosophical/cultural assumptions which have informed the sources of said options (scriptures, sermons, folklore, literature). I won’t be constructing a theology, I’ll be pointing to what sorts of theologies Mormons have already been constructing. I hope in turn to open more space for a wider variety of theological options which may seem more viable for people actually living as (or with) people with intellectual disabilities during mortality.

    Brian: glad you’re still here!

    g.wesley: I think it’s possible to look at that circumstance as a time-bound adjustment to theological beliefs, the replacement itself being also replaceable. The idea that sin causes such issues (blindness, etc.) was evidently widespread enough, or debatable enough, that the mortal Jesus took it as an opportunity to shift the paradigm. So God’s work being manifest can be understood in that particular case as a wider-reaching blessing of trying to overcome the idea that sin causes such issues. Of course, your reading (magic show) can’t simply be dismissed out of hand.

  25. “replacement itself being also replaceable”

    i like that.

  26. I’m going to agree with Blake that some aspects of our preexistant state pertain to some of our trials here and now. I don’t presume to have authority to convey any specific revelation about another, but I do believe God sometimes answers these questions to and about us individually according to our need and righteous desires. Conversely, I’d think I fair to ask that others avoid telling others what God has or has not revealed to a person about their own circumstances. Sometimes we are so certain about something we make sweeping claims brush aside or downplay others personal revelation (without meaning to).

    One reason why I think some trials may be linked to the preexistence can be seen in the savior. He at times has likened his trials to experiences we have. He was called to his trial before the world was formed. Could not the same be true for us in some things? He is the ultimate example in many regards and while the details are certainly different there are many principles and patterns that our lives and experiences can share with His.

    All that being said, I don’t think he was called to have a blister from his sandal after a long days walk because he qualified for that refining fire in the year -2000BE as a spirit… so many hard things we face in this life are qualifying aspects for eternity that we prequalified for by doing nothing more than agreeing to come. But other aspects of his work he was meant to do based on the preexistence, so why not us too within our own sphere?

  27. Daveonline says:

    I find one of the crucial teachings in the scripture stories is that what we see on the surface to be real or defining of a person, whether wealth or sins or gender or education is not what is most important or valuable in a salvific sense. In fact, more importantly, our salvific question is how we treat those who seem less able than ourselves. I would hope your exploration would also consider whether the scripture reference to “level of intelligence” should have been better written as a plural. By expanding to intellectual disabilities, will you also consider emotional, spatial and mechanical disabilities?
    Lastly, I realize you are only examining current thought, but I suspect the real resolution of this issue is meant to occur in act 2.5, that is the millennium. I would hope that much of the work in that time would be focused on enriching the lives of all those who were denied an earlier opportunity to grow.

  28. @ BHodges on comment 20, I am somewhat amused you found that my comments were more specifically pertinent to the embodiment of disability as opposed to intellectual disability. Severe intellectual disability has its own unique questions to be certain. However, I was actually commenting mostly from my own disability experience and community and I am not “physically” disabled unless, as you said, you consider the physical implications of neuroscience. Mental disability can touch every aspect of a persona. I once actually had a quack science vitamin salesman try to offer my some supplement he claimed would effect a cure and a big part of me was afraid of who I was changing too much. So much of who I am is caught up in a particular set of mental abilities (on basic intellectual ability to understand ideas, really quiet good) and disabilities (don’t ask me to interpret facial expressions, intuitively anticipate other people’s emotional states, understand non literal language when I’m distracted, or be able to engage in normal small talk). How would I understand what it is to be someone else who didn’t have this set of attributes? If those disabilities were to disappear I’d need a long adjustment period just to refigure out who I was, how I could react and relate to people, and to forge a new persona based on being able to do things I had never done before. I like how Jim Sinclair put it in the speech Don’t mourn for us (http://www.autreat.com/dont_mourn.html) “Autism is a way of being. It is pervasive; it colors every experience, every sensation, perception, thought, emotion, and encounter, every aspect of existence. It is not possible to separate the autism from the person–and if it were possible, the person you’d have left would not be the same person you started with.”

  29. The frustration I have with all of the doctrinal speculation and offloading to Acts I & III is that it doesn’t hold the Bretren accountable for their very specific roles as Prophets, Seers & Revelators. It is their responsibility to petition God and obtain answers to these questions for the whole church and for humanity. As a gay Latter-day Saint the offloading of my “recovery” to Act III is offensive and a load of baloney.

    With all proper respect, Blake’s detailed project and impressive thoughts on LDS theology only give cover to the Bretren as they ignore their primary callings. It is time to separate the LDS corporate structure in which we place our leaders from the need for true revelation and understanding of our time in mortality.

  30. Errin says One reason why I think some trials may be linked to the preexistence can be seen in the savior.

    This is an interesting connection, and Douglass Davies makes the same point that in our theology we tend to see Christ as the exemplar for our own mortal experiences. He argues that this is one of the reasons Gethsemane has gained such prominence within Mormonism as the site of atonement because it reflects a suffering moment where Jesus had to exercise agency to accept the trials he faced, and that he did so to bless others. The agential element of the suffering of Jesus then operates in Mormon theology to underscore the idea of human agency.


    In fact, more importantly, our salvific question is how we treat those who seem less able than ourselves. I would hope your exploration would also consider whether the scripture reference to “level of intelligence” should have been better written as a plural. By expanding to intellectual disabilities, will you also consider emotional, spatial and mechanical disabilities?

    Separating intellectual from physical disabilities is somewhat artificial, as you point out, which is becoming even more believed as neuroscience grows in prominence and scientific respectability. Your observation about “how we treat those who seem less able” is interesting in that Church discourse has tended to shift in that direction over time. So we see many conference addresses which raise the question of *why* a particular disability is experienced, then says we don’t know exactly why, but that we should focus instead on helping such people. Alongside these stories are stories about people with disabilities who contribute to the church and who serve as inspiring figures. This “disabled as hero” paradigm isn’t without pitfalls, of course, but it is one of the ways we Mormons have negotiated questions surrounding what it means to be part of the plan of salvation with disabilities.

    As for emotional/spacial/mechanical disabilities, I hope to focus primarily on cognitive things for the sake of not biting off more than I can chew for this particular project. (A thesis.) This is partly because of the importance Mormonism has placed on “intelligence” and “intelligences,” and the ways we define personhood based on such assumptions.

    Justin: you raise important considerations that I want to at least peripherally touch on in my work. By emphasizing the Act III resolution when bodies will be perfected (and thus minds will be enabled to continue to progress?) we tend to obscure how much of our present personalities and relationships are shaped by our cognitive capabilities and experiences in the present time. By over-emphasizing Acts I and III we might be missing out on crucial things we could otherwise be learning about what it means to be a child of God here in Act II.

    Michael raises the problem of the role and function of prophets, seers and revelators. I’m happy to admit my knowledge is limited, but I might be uncomfortable to see church leaders so so, especially if I expect them to be repositories of truths. If they look to be punting on too many difficult unanswered issues will people begin to wonder about their role? In Mormonism, we might argue that leadership is also tied to organization and unity, not simply to the expression of doctrinal “truths,” which is something that could be analyzed by looking at the ways church leaders don’t respond with the particular answers to questions we ask. Leaders might be seen as holding in a sort of boundary in which a diversity of views might be expressed. But I don’t think this is the way most Mormons think of prophetic roles, even if they seem to actually function that way on the ground.

    Anyway, it’s a sensitive issue, and a bit peripheral to the current task. I don’t know how far into that sticky question I’ll get in the current project. But at least taking a look at the diversity of teachings church leaders have offered can give us an idea of the theological possibilities and changes within Mormonism.

  31. Last Lemming says:

    How is a 30-yr-old woman with Down syndrome supposed to equate an 8-year-old boy?

    I should have been more precise in extending the salvation of little children to those with cognitive disabiities. The issue is accountability, not intelligence as we usually understand it. The benchmark for accountability is that of a normal 8-year old. I don\’t think it\’s repurposing the scriptures to make that claim. That benchmark can be reached by a 7-year old Brian or by a 30-year old with Down Syndrome (not just a few of whom have been baptized). I did not mean to imply that anybody with a cognitive disability is automatically saved–just those who do not reach the accountability of an normal 8-year old.

    Which brings me to my 26-year old son with Down Syndrome. He is nonverbal, so the bishop cannot really interview him. So the bishop has basically left it up to us. We, in turn, have left it up to my son. In terms of accountability, he is a borderline case. I have taken him to baptisms and asked him if he wanted to do that, and have not gotten a positive response. But he loves going to Church, and he loves listening to Conference talks at home. So if he indicated he wanted to be baptized, I would be fine with it. But I\’m not sure it would be of any spiritual effect.

  32. It is an interesting switch of focus. For me either mindset…premortal or post mortal can be positive or negative. With either approach you can assume and judge…or provide perspective and be hopeful.

    You can assume trials are a consequence of mistakes in the past and judge where people will go in the future.

    Or you can think that because we don’t know about pre mortal life or what will happen in the future; that there is MUCH more to this soul than the 5 minutes you see them in.

    I have had experiences that have led me to believe that our trials are related to pre mortal life…not as consequences, but by our choosing and being chosen. Unlike the reincarnation idea that places a very worldly concept of success as the reward of good choices…I believe that some people from every walk of life were amazing pre mortal spirits that have chosen and been placed where they are for various reasons.

    I don’t like the those with disabilities are saints approach…associated with the perfect disabled child story of how this child is so loving and wonderful and …. I have met very loving disabled children. All of which were also very human. It is an added burden to place on the caregiver that they are somehow wrong if don’t see their child as perfect as all knowing observer does. The caregiver and family are no doubt aware of the blessing the child has been in their lives…but also exhausted and overwhelmed by the challenges as well. Even if the disabled child were perfect…there would still be a lot of mess to deal with and a ton of physical and emotional challenges for the caregiver.

    We do say children under age 8 are saved, and they aren’t little angels. They are cute to be sure-but everyone accepts that 7yo little George may be saved dispute his habit of making catastrophic messes and blunt comments. Why do we have a hard time allowing older people who have disabilities this same grace? For me it is solely a matter of understand consequences and time. Can you keep a commitment over time-is it mentally possible for you to understand that concept? The difficulty is absolutely in assessing that.

  33. Last Lemming: “He is nonverbal, so the bishop cannot really interview him. So the bishop has basically left it up to us. We, in turn, have left it up to my son.”

    This reminds me of discussions of “prosthetic” minds, so to speak, whereby caregivers close to the person with intellectual disabilities assist in interpreting desires, etc. I think this is probably the best way to approach such a situation, and it sounds like you’ve been happy with it.

    Lesson: “It is an added burden to place on the caregiver that they are somehow wrong if don’t see their child as perfect as all knowing observer does. The caregiver and family are no doubt aware of the blessing the child has been in their lives…but also exhausted and overwhelmed…”

    Well put, thanks.

  34. This is a great introduction to your thinking Blair. I’m excited to see the results of your work. It will be interesting to see how well the theology of disability expressed over the pulpit matches up with the theology of disability that we can see in the lives of members with disabilities, their own attitudes and those of members and leaders without disabilities.

    There are significant practical implications that come from “outsourcing such problems to the first and third acts”, consider the implications to a parent of thinking that act II is less important/relevant to one child than another.

    Elder Maxwell stated “we serve as each other’s clinical material” (Content with the Things Allotted unto Us). To that end we are all here that the works of God may be manifest in and through each other. That is mortality, but to designate that as being the only purpose of someone’s mortal experience can be very problematic.

  35. Blair,

    A few more thoughts as I’ve pondered this discussion over the weekend. First, we need to be precise as to where Act II becomes Act III. Is it at death? Is it at the resurrection? Something else? Yes, BPK draws the line at death, but Joseph’s theology extended the probationary period beyond death. To be fair, when we speaking of “punting” (as I did above) I think most of the time we are not punting to the time post-resurrection, but to the time between death and resurrection. Maybe it’s best to call that period “Act II.5.” It’s still a punt, and we still have to grapple with the question why answers can be expected in the future but not today, but perhaps it is not as much a punt as it would be to punt to Act III.

    Second, an answer to some of the issues may lie in our ability to gain insight and growth from the mortal experiences of others even when we do not personally experience those events. For instance, I have never personally experienced pregnancy, but I have a much greater understanding and empathy for the experience because I’ve supported my wife through it numerous times. To some degree, I can say “I know and understand.” Perhaps similar growth and insight can be gained for those on the other side to degree they work with and share our sufferings. Thus, a person who dies 2 minutes into her life, can still exprience a “mortal probation” vicariously. For all our talk of being “saviors on mount zion” through ordinances for the dead, perhaps it is the dead who do most of the saving.

    Third, I hope your research will consider various church leaders (again, including Joseph) who viewed salvation in its complete sense as more of a collective, rather than individual, enterprise. What amount of “probation” does any person really need in order to partake of exaltation? Are we all required to “decend below all things” as the Savior did? If not, is there really a difference between someone who has 70 years of mortal probation vs. someone who as 7 minutes vs. someone who spends 40 years but is mentally challenged? In all of these cases, the person experienced some amount of probation, but nowhere near the full spectrum of the human condition.

  36. Sharee Hughes says:

    #35, Dave K, your comment about our probationary period extending beyond life , “to the time between death and resurrection” intrigued me. I heard someone once say that, if not, why did we do temple work. Although this idea makes sense to me, and does help to explain why people whose spouses die without being baptized, run right out and have their work one for them the minute a year has passed from that death, it somehow does not ring true to me. It is this life that is our probationary time, not the time after death before the resurrection, when we may have more insight than we do now and perhaps can make the better choice. Although I have also heard it said that repenting will be harder then. I guess we’ll now when the time comes. I do hope you are right, though. It will be joyful for those whose spouses have totally rejected the gospel in this life to think there is still a chance they can be an eternal family.

  37. Dave K, I think the three-act depiction obscures some things about the apparently messier picture Joseph Smith himself painted. I talk a bit about this in my old Dialogue paper on CS Lewis. Ship to the second part of the paper specifically:


  38. Fairsister says:

    I think this scripture from John 9 adds insight “And his disciples asked him, saying, Master, who did sin, this man, or his parents, that he was born blind?Jesus answered, Neither hath this man sinned, nor his parents: but that the works of God should be made manifest in him.” I am glad that this is being discussed as it is easy to stretch the truth of the plan of salvation to try to make sense of our current condition. We live a flawed existence to learn and hopefully become stronger in our faith.

  39. Fairsister, thanks for the comment. That’s the scripture the Church Handbook directs leaders to when thinking of disability, and you’ll notice it was employed by Elder Rasband in his recent address. There are other instances in the NT where Jesus’s words or actions implicitly reinforce ideas about disability resulting from sin, etc., so the record is mixed. But the incident in John 9 seems to me to be a theological step forward within Xtianity.

  40. EOR no. 9: Spot on. No answers? Fob it off to Act 1 or 3; that way, who can argue? The simplest explanations, particularly in the absence of real explanations, rule. And we wonder why the rational struggle to buy into our fairy tale.

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