Line upon [or reading between the] line in the development of Mormon theology

Part 4 of my series, “Intellectual disability in Mormon thought…”

Pastoral with Injured Fool, by Brian Kershisnik

Jim Faulconer has depicted Mormonism as “atheological,” meaning that Mormonism lacks the sort of systematic theology found in other traditions, especially Catholicism. He writes that Mormonism privileges praxis over doxy, but I’m not convinced these two elements can be so neatly separated. Belief and practices are intertwined; they inform each other in ways I doubt any researcher can fully untangle. Still, perhaps Faulconer is right to say that, with a few exceptions (the Lectures on Faith, for example), Mormon belief and practice has often been created according to pressing concerns and needs, and is thus not formulated in a systematic manner. Pieces of theology would crop up not only in revealed scripture, but also in table conversations, in a red brick store, in council meetings, in sermons lost to time, in missionary journeys.

This non-systematic development of Mormon thought leads to interesting contradictions. Joseph’s theological project was incomplete at the time of his death, and the “chaos of materials prepared by” the prophet, to borrow a phrase from Parley P. Pratt, have proven fertile ground in which subsequent church leaders and members have harvested a variety of fruits.[1] Joseph’s scriptures and sermons have been employed in a piecemeal fashion to answer questions he didn’t apparently ask. This is especially true in regards to intellectual disability.

My ongoing study of the development of Mormon thought on intellectual disability supports the common claim that Mormon theology developed largely in response to present pressing concerns in the minds of Joseph Smith, converts to Mormonism, and their critics. Many elements of Mormon belief arose as answers to questions about present circumstances, and this is why it is important to pay attention to the historical setting in which early Mormon claims were discussed. I believe this partially accounts for the lack of discussion about intellectually disabled people in early Mormon scripture and theology—a preliminary look at census data suggests Mormons did not interact with a greater number of disabled individuals compared to wider American culture in its earliest years. Beliefs about the nature of “idiots” were in flux in the early 1800s. Most people thought of disabled people in terms of their place in society: what they could or could not do, their level of responsibility, wondering about their ability to be producers not merely consumers. (This wasn’t new–the term “idiot” itself derives from the Greek idiotes, a “private person,” an individual, lacking skill for the community, etc.) It is no surprise, then, that the first mention of disabilities in the official Mormon press focused on these exact concerns, only in regards to eternity as opposed to civil life (and notice how the former is conceptually parallel to the latter!). An unsigned article in the Latter-day Saints’ Messenger & Advocate described Mormon soteriology (doctrine about the nature of and requirements for salvation) in largely legal terms. God declared laws which humans must obey in order to be saved. Once you are made aware of God’s laws you are obligated to obey them to reap the rewards, while the disobedient will suffer the consequences: “Stubbornness, willfulness and tradition is what excludes or hinders men from coming into the kingdom of God and not ignorance.” The author contrasts such culpable people with those who do not know God’s laws:

“Know ye not, that he who has no understanding it remaineth with God to do with them as seemeth him good. If God has created a being and has not given it intelligence would he be just to condemn it upon the same principle, that he would one whom he had endowed with intelligence? no; for an individual, or nation that has no law given to them, become a law unto themselves. But the law by which God judges idiots he has not revealed to us: we can only judge from the principle upon which he has said that he would judge the world, and that is upon the principle of testimony; for God never condemned a nation until he had warned them of what should come upon them, for instance he sent Noah…”[2]

Interestingly, the author paraphrases a revelation Joseph Smith recorded in 1830 without actually specifying the reference (“He that hath no understanding” is rephrased; see D&C 29:50). He also depicts intelligence as being a gift from God as opposed to being part of an eternally self-existent entity or “intelligence,” as Smith would later describe. More interestingly, he applies the imprecise statement about “he who has no understanding” not to the heathen nations or the uninitiated in general, but specifically to “idiots,” the common term at the time for those we now refer to as having intellectual disabilities. The author accepts the vague nature of the revelation despite the presence of a living prophet and employs other revealed doctrines to fill in the gap. This has been the precise method Mormon leaders and teachers have employed to answer questions about the place of people with disabilities within God’s overall plan for humanity to the present time—a recognition of ambiguity and an extrapolation from other beliefs which seem to apply to the circumstances. For instance, the current Handbook of Instruction continues in this line with two notable differences. First, the Handbook is concerned with soteriological requirements, but these are directed to people with disabilities, their families, and leaders who interact with them at Church as opposed to merely employing people with disabilities as a contrast to other people. This reflects the increased recognition of people with disabilities within the Church itself and the need to account for them in regards to church governance and participation in the present. The pressing eschatological message of early Mormonism is tempered by the mundane descriptions of a carefully-crafted Handbook focused on day-to-day operation. Second, as with the article, the Handbook implies the lack of a specific explanation for the presence of disabilities. But theologically-laden ideas are not only avoided in the Handbook. It contains a specific warning about speculative reasoning:

“Leaders and members should not attempt to explain why the challenge of a disability has come to a family. They should never suggest that a disability is a punishment from God (see John 9:2-3). Nor should they suggest that it is a blessing to have a child who has a disability.”[3]

This warning was necessitated by what went on between the 1836 unsigned article and the 2011 unsigned Handbook of Instruction, namely: the crafting of problematic theological explanations for the presence of disability in the world using scriptures and sermons from Joseph Smith. Since Smith didn’t find intellectual disability to be a pressing concern, his revelations do not directly confront it. Since many of the things Smith claimed can be deployed in conversations about disability (human nature, the relation to God, the purpose of mortal existence, the presence of suffering, etc.), his disciples could still employ his views to discuss newer pressing concerns. In the next part I will outline a few examples of Mormon leaders and authors who have participated in these theological negotiations to show how such unsystematic theological method not only allows for theological flexibility in the face of present concerns beyond Smith’s focus, but can also result in unacknowledged contradictions and ironies, especially in the way that premortal capabilities have been invoked to explain the presence of disability. This exploration offers several suggestions about the nature of Mormon theological development, the presence and role of (misnamed) “folklore” doctrine in the church, and the relationship between advancing scientific ideas and theology. I will also highlight some of the problems historians face in trying to analyze the origins and development  of Mormon theology.



[1] Parley P. Pratt, “Proclamation. To the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints: Greeting,” Latter-day Saints’ Millennial Star 5 (March 1845): 152. You must check out Benjamin E. Park’s “(Re)Interpreting Early Mormon Thought: Synthesizing Joseph Smith’s Theology and the Process of Religion Formation,” Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought 45, no. 2 (Summer 2012): 59-88. [.pdf]

[2] n.a., John Whitmer, ed., “Let every man learn his duty,” Latter Day Saints’ Messenger and Advocate vol. II no. 4 (January 1836): 249-250.

[3] See Handbook 2 Administering the Church p. 186, or here at 21.1.26).


  1. Blair, your prose flows so well that I sometimes have to remind myself to pay attention to the content, which is obviously the result of much careful study and thought. Kudos!

  2. Well shucks, Edward!

  3. Sharee Hughes says:

    I am looking forward to reading more about this. We had a young man in our ward with Downs syndrome. He did not have to be baptized, he was never ordained to the priesthood, yet he was allowed to pass the sacrament, which he did proudly, but with great humility (those terms may seem to be contradictory, but in this man, they were not). Many people say such intellectually disadvantaged people just needed to come to earth to get a body as they were very righteous in the pre-existence. I think that is most likely not true and may be one of the pieces of Mormon ‘folklore” you may mention in future posts.

  4. J. Stapley says:

    Sharee, that is pretty extraordinay. Was there ever a justification given by church leaders? It is perfectly consistent with historical practice, but anomolous today. Would you be able to document it or be willing to be a source for documenting it?

  5. A fantastic series Blair. Just a minor note about Faulconer: several years ago he did, I would say, take a pretty hard line about Mormonism being atheological, most notably represented in his coffee/Coke article. Since then he has nuanced this quite a bit, notably in his Shadow of the Apocalypse article but also in discourse in general. I think he would largely agree with you about belief and practice.

  6. Jacob: I’ve read the Shadow piece (love it), but I think it mainly tries to redirect theologizing away from getting at “facts” about God etc. toward pastoral concerns and discipleship, which is its own theological argument. It is important to note he has shifted on that “atheological” thing.

    Sharee: that is incredible! I’ve never seen any church publication which offers that circumstance as a possibility. (There are a few instructional manuals I still need to get through but I doubt there has been any written instruction about such a practice. It aligns perfectly well with our conceptions about theology, however, and may even be tied to some sort of folkloric theology about receiving the priesthood in the premortal life (riffing on Alma 12, is it?). I’d like to hear more about that, and in future work on the topic it would be an important addition to the data. Like Stapley I’m interested in documenting such a thing.

  7. Sharee Hughes says:

    I will ask my bishop tomorrow what he knows about it. I was some years go, and he was not our bishop at the time,so I don’t know if he is aware of the circumstances. The Down’s Syndrome man and his mother moved out of the ward and Both have since passed away. I remember that his mother told the bishop at the time that since Joe did not need to be baptized (and I’m pretty sure he was not ordained, but the bishop may be able to clarify that), he should be able to pass the sacrament, And he did pretty much every Sunday until they moved. Even with his limited understanding, Joe was a great spirit, a very special person. He would always give everyone a hug and say, “I love you; you’re my friend.” I don’t know how old he was when this happened–Down’s Syndrome people do not seem to age like the rest of us–but he was probably in his forties. I will report back what I find out.

  8. The reason a downs-syndrome victim would not need baptism would be that it did not have the intellectual ability of a child of eight years of age. Why then should they be able to pass the sacrament? Our society has been busy deciding what things we should call disabilities that is difficult find a single person who is not disabled to some degree. In fact the Autistic Syndrome as it is now constituted has been extended to the degree that shy children can easily fit into it. I seriously doubt that any of the church leaders would have meant that all people who we today label as having a disability are unable to understand the difference between right and wrong. This is a very thorny issue.

  9. J. Stapley says:

    YvonneS you don’t need the priesthood to pass the Sacrament of the Lord’s Supper. We have deacons do it because we needed something for them to do. People of all sorts continue to pass the Sacrament every week down the pews.

  10. Thoughtful post Blair. Thanks for sharing. I think that the Book of Mormon teachings on why little children do not need baptism and those who are “without law” are foundational to these kinds of discussions. You mention D&C 29:50. In the same context, 2 Nephi 9 states:

    25 Wherefore, he has given a law; and where there is no law given there is no punishment; and where there is no punishment there is no condemnation; and where there is no condemnation the mercies of the Holy One of Israel have claim upon them, because of the atonement; for they are delivered by the power of him.

    26 For the atonement satisfieth the demands of his justice upon all those who have not the law given to them, that they are delivered from that awful monster, death and hell, and the devil, and the lake of fire and brimstone, which is endless torment; and they are restored to that God who gave them breath, which is the Holy One of Israel.

    In the context of Mormon’s teachings on infant baptism, those without seem to me to include those that do not have sufficient cognitive capacity to understand and follow “the law.” Where there is no law, the atonement satisfies all demands. The role of those with disabilities is thus quite different than those called to abide “the law.” In my 5th volume (gasp) I argue that they have chosen to serve others through their disabilities. Their obligation is not to follow some moral duty or law, but to reflect the love of atonement.

    I look forward to your ongoing series.

  11. Thanks Blake. You are correct in pointing to the BoM assertions about infant baptism as an important contributor to Mormon approaches to intellectual disability. The biggest problem with the collapse of disability into the category of “mental age” is that the best contemporary understanding of disability challenges such a simplistic flattening of the category of the disabled. That is to say, habilitation and development is actually possible for a wide variety of people who have intellectual disabilities. This is one of the main reasons I believe confining the discussion of the disabled to the question of whether or not they merit baptism is problematic. It advances a merit-based soteriology which privileges certain assumptions about the “highest in us,” so to speak—thought to be our rational abilities–in ways that render the mortal lives of many people borderline irrelevant, or simply utilitarian. We set up an ideal against which people with disabilities are then measured, without as much regard to their own experiences. In doing this, we risk eviscerating their own mortal experiences, their own part in the plan of salvation by essentially turning them into sacrificial lambs or utilitarian tools for our own development. It seems you would see such a circumstance as morally objectionable without the consent of those being used to teach lessons, and thus you posit a moment of rational decision (again, privileging an aspect of human nature above other aspects) for people with disabilities in a former estate, which places the responsibility for their being turned into tools on their shoulders.

    Of course, the idea that various physical conditions or mortal abilities are the result of such premortal decision-making or advancement in general has a long history in Mormon thought. Especially as the 19th became the 20th century and Mormonism became more aligned with Progressivist thinking in terms of human development, but it goes back to Parley Pratt talking about people developing musical skills in a premortal spirit world. Using logic perhaps more than explicit scripture, it made sense to hypothesize that if our postmortal state is conditioned on our actions in this life, then our state in this life is likewise conditioned on our actions in the premortal life. The Book of Abraham (not canonized during JS’s life) is the general go-to source on this in regards to many “noble and great ones,” although the text is ambiguous on the source of their merit. It received explicit formulation by general authorities like Widstoe and Joseph Fielding Smith, but it also found expression in Mormon fictional accounts like Nephi Anderson’s influential Added Upon. The first public printed instance which attributed physical disability to premortal decisions was, I believe, a 1914 book in the “Faith Promoting” series of GQ Cannon. The story of Niels P. L. Eskildz attributes the theory of premortal decision making to a dream Eskildz had before converting to Mormonism. It also teaches the idea that our burdens are given to us in order to advance some greater purpose for others, but interestingly places this idea on the lips of a Lutheran priest who gave a special blessing to Eskildz, much like a patriarchal blessing, which included that claim.

    The problem with such speculations is that we have other examples where the premortal life has been employed to account for things like restricting the priesthood from blacks, etc. So using the premortal life in this way deserves a lot of caution. (This is besides the question of the extent to which someone can make a rational decision in the absence of meaningful knowledge about alternatives and experiences, so again we are making big assumptions about the nature of the premortal life in general.)

  12. (I should add, I’m not resisting the idea that people with disabilities have important lessons to teach us in general. In fact, it is possible they have lessons to teach us about the sort of qualities we value most, our assumptions about agency, our views of what constitutes community, and even ideas about our ordinances. For instance, there are more ways to situate baptism than as simply consisting of a soteriological requirement for people who have a certain level of brain power. And importantly, I will be less prescriptive in my thesis than descriptive. My main goal is to set the table with a general overview of public representations of disability in Mormon thought. This will lay out many of the options we have available, as well as some of the roads we attempted to take in the past which are lost to time. Above all, I hope it will help get more discussion on disability going, since Mormon scholarship in general has overlooked the topic.)

  13. One more thought: I think your theory, as far as I understand it from the limited amount you’ve shared, to be problematic in that it sets up a certain distinction between disabled people (as a flat category) and rational people (as a flat category). Disabled people chose to be disabled so as to teach us lessons. But couldn’t one posit that we all chose to become differently-abled when choosing to become mortal in general, which would collapse more than extend the differences between people with more obvious disabilities versus “normal” people ?

  14. Blair: You are probably right that my approach to disabilities has a few problems. However, I am really dealing with disabilities in the context of 3 different approaches to LDS views of cosmology and God’s relation to the world so our projects are a bit different. In any event, I look forward to gleaning insights from your ongoing posts. Hopefully your posts will assist me to think through some of these issues more thoroughly and with better information.

  15. Excellent, thanks Blake.

  16. Another excellent post Blair- I’m again looking forward to the next post in the series. I love your comment about some of the lessons that can be learned from members with disabilities: “…the sort of qualities we value most, our assumptions about agency, our views of what constitutes community, and even ideas about our ordinances.”

    Spot on!

    One point I’ve been thinking about regarding what many perceive as an intellectual requirement for baptism- I think that the aspects considered for or against a person with an intellectual disability being baptized often go beyond a simple IQ test.

    The handbook does talk about understanding when considering whether to perform an ordinance but it also talks about desire and accountability which are very different and not necessarily correlated with intellect.

    In my own family two of my brothers have Down syndrome and their IQ’s are probably quite similar. However, one brother is endowed in the temple while the other brother has not yet been baptized. My opinion, that of my family and more importantly those of my brothers are that we all feel good about those decisions that have been made- it feels like they have been the right decisions. Both brothers can probably “understand” what baptism means, but that hasn’t felt as important as their desires for baptism and accountability to the responsibilities fo the ordinance.

    Of course beyond any soteriological requirements and obligations of baptism there is also a tremendous cultural element of baptism being a marker of being welcomed into the community of saints that further complicates the issue. While this aspect of baptism should not be ignored, neither can the other elements leading to some difficult conversations with individuals, parents and priesthood leaders when making these decisions.

  17. Joseph’s scriptures and sermons have been employed in a piecemeal fashion to answer questions he didn’t apparently ask.

    So true! And so unfortunate…

  18. Interesting thoughts, Blair.

    When disccusiing Mormon theology and disabilities, I rarely see our 2nd Articel of Faith referenced explicitly. Am I simply unaware of those references, or is that somthing that hasn’t been mined actively?

  19. Sharee Hughes says:

    Blair, I was unable to talk to my bishop today, as his schedule was full. I did talk to one of his counselors, but he moved into the ward after the Down’s Syndrome man in question had moved out, so was not aware of the situation. He did say that Joe would have to have been ordained to pass the Sacrament, and would have to have been baptized to be ordained. I know Joe was not baptized. He promised to check with the bishop later and let me know, but I have not yet heard from him. I set up an appointment with the bishop for next Sunday and may have to wait until then to get further info back to you.

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