Is an “Institutional study” still relevant?

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).[1] 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.[2] 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!



[1] 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.

[2] 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).


  1. I agree that Underwood’s article has been wholly under-appreciated. I think his call is finally being answered today with more work in lived religion, but there is still much to be done. Underwood’s “communities of discourse” article is also superb in tracing the intellectual genealogy of early Mormonism.

    This has been an especially interesting topic for me, and I have toyed with the idea in both my first BCC post as well as my continuing project on Edward Tullidge.

  2. Ben P — Speaking of Edward Tullidge, do you happen to know why he changed his middle name?

    Blair — Thanks for the notes about the article, but those of us who are struggling through life without access to JSTOR will just have to take your word for the contents. : )

    That sounds like a fascinating project. Having a medically although not intellectually disabled child, I’ve had to deal with some of the stories and theories that people like to relate about disability. Some of them are helpful; some of them aren’t.

  3. Love this statement: Mormonism is more vibrant and less monolithic than we commonly assume.

    Grant Underwood is one of my favorite scholars. (When he left BYUH to go to BYUP– They gained a true gem and we remained a stepchild in BYU family.) Do I attribute this quote to you for your paraphrase of him, or should I quote it as his idea. Because I’m dying to quote it.

  4. Thx, Dolly. That is my summation of one of Underwood’s key reminders.

  5. Ben P: What’s your take on the relevance or utility of an institutional overview of intellectual disability as I’ve described it?

  6. While I agree that getting at bottom-up history and lived religion are important, that doesn’t make institutional history wholly irrelevant. Knowing what a religion teaches is a necessary first step. Studying lived religion without understanding the religion’s norms is problematic. That is to say, if we don’t have a study on what Mormon leaders have said about intellectual disability, then we need one. Folk stories about valiance in the pre-existence and what not become more meaningful with that background.

  7. Amy: I don’t think he changed his middle name, though perhaps you could help me on that. He was christened with the middle name “William,” and usually used the initial “W” when writing. It was a mistaken editor in New York who mistakenly changed his middle initial to “M.” I don’t know when “Wheelock” became attached to him, but it hasn’t been in the publications I’ve looked through (and I’m through about 1870).

    Blair: as Steve said, institutional history is still necessary to reconstruct the culture people were reacting to. Both methodologies need each other to work the best.

  8. I think that part of the reason so many “nonacademic” members don’t know, or contribute to, Mormon research is that it is hard for a SAHM to pay $12, every time there is an article that sounds interesting. I wish there was a library or organization that I could pay $100ish a month and have access to most LDS academic papers and research journals. I don’t want something for nothing, but if I bought every article that someone links to that I think is interesting, it would lead to bankruptcy. I know that there is always distance between academics and us normal rubes, but Mormon history and research seems one area that there should be some low-price point entry. After all, my tithing pays for a lot of things at BYU.

    I never went there though, so it doesn’t do me any personal good. (I know, I know, we all benefit from an intellectual membership. That only goes so far for me.). Having a way to at least have access to the published research done by and about the church and its history.

    Sorry to rant, but another article that I should “Read It,” but that demands $12 if I can going to just builds on my ongoing frustration with trying to even enter some discussion here and on JI. It is part of what makes me a Keepa’ninnie.

  9. Poetrysansonions: you bring up a good point about the sometimes high-cost of academic scholarship. It is often designed for an academic audience who have access to university libraries (which often have institutional subscriptions to article databases like JSTOR). Are you near any university libraries? JSTOR is a common database even for community colleges.

    It should be noted that the major Mormon journals (JMH, Dialogue, BYUSQ, etc.) make all articles available online for free on their websites once they have been available for two years. I think that’s pretty generous, and we should be very grateful for that. I find it fair to still charge for most recent content since editors and journal office staff need to be paid for their hard work. (And I wouldn’t say a majority of scholarship in these journals are paid for by tithing, since BYU professors make up a minority of these journals nowadays.)

    That said, I fully sympathize that it is ridiculous that Underwood’s article, which is nearly three decades old, is not available for free. So I uploaded it for you:

    Consider it a token of peace from a JIer ;)

  10. Thank you! (I was logged in on my old account before.) If I am at a point I could go to one of those libraries, I might be able to take advantage of those general subscriptions.

    My comment about BYU only comes from the fact that BYU alumni general can keep BYU library access, so that they can get access to things they never do use. I am fully supportive of paying for access to scholarship, I just would like a way to pay a reasonable amount to read scholarship on LDS topics. I don’t believe that institutional subscriptions, to all academic journals about LDS issues, would cost the church more than an adjunct professor, on a yearly basis. Maybe I am wrong, but if the church wanted to be able to make those sources available to the church membership, it would not be hard.

    Thanks again for making this particular article available! :-)

  11. ” Maybe I am wrong, but if the church wanted to be able to make those sources available to the church membership, it would not be hard.”

    Indeed. I’d be happy to work something out ;)

  12. Kristine- To ask a truly “old tyme” Mormon and PBS kind of question: How much would it cost to get an institutional subscription to all the relevant literature? That would give an idea of how many members would be needed.

  13. I don’t know what other journals charge, but Dialogue charges under $200 for an institutional subscription. The problem is with distribution–that subscription allows libraries to give electronic access to patrons, but doesn’t license large-scale distribution. If they wanted to make it available on, that probably requires some legal wrangling–authors retain their copyright under Dialogue’s publication agreement, and there have been some questions about making content available through 3rd-party resellers.

    I’m reasonably sure that it’s neither legal nor financial concern that prevents the Church from seeking such an arrangement ;)

  14. >10

    Julia, BYU alumni (and non-alumni, actually) can check out books from the HBLL for a $50 annual fee, but they don’t retain offsite access to resources like JSTOR (see: Those databases are priced by the number of potential users (among other things), so changing that base from the number of current BYU students (FTEs, technically) to the number of current BYU students + the number of all living BYU alumni would make for a huge jump in price. Even then, the publishers might not allow it, on the basis that alumni have more money than students and so should be able to pay for such resources themselves. (I work at an academic library right next to the woman who is in charge of paying for our database and journal subscriptions, so I hear about this kind of price wrangling all the time. :) )

  15. My own work, Eric G. Swedin, Healing Souls: Psychotherapy in the Latter-day Saint Community (University of Illinois Press, 2003) showed that the LDS community and the institutional church reacted differently to the challenge of the modern psychologies.

  16. Thanks for the heads up, Eric.

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