Intelligences and the Mythology of Coherence

Part 7 of my series, “Intellectual disability in Mormon thought…

Brian Kershisnik, “Burden With Wheels”

You’d imagine one of the fundamental problems to address when considering  “intellectual disability in Mormon thought” would concern the nature of “intelligences.” You’d be right. The problem is, the literature on this point often seems to be “without form and void,” to borrow some scriptural language. That is to say, it is in a chaotic state, awaiting some organization. Without question, one of the biggest theological puzzles Joseph Smith left in his wake regards the nature of the human spirit, or the “intelligence,” and its origin. In his most famous sermon, Joseph had declared that “God never did have power to create the spirit of man at all. He could not create himself–Intelligence exists upon a selfexistent principle–is a spirit from age to age & no creation about it.” He went on to claim that God found himself “in the midst of spirit and glory [and] because he was greater saw proper to institute laws whereby the rest could have a privilege to advance like himself.”1 In a subsequent sermon, Joseph spoke of humans as “Sons of God” who, like Jesus, “can cry Abba Father.”2

In other words, intelligences are apparently in some sense eternal and self-existent, but also sons and daughters of God the Father. Joseph Lee Robinson, an associate of Smith, reported confusion on this point shortly after Joseph’s death. Joseph taught “that our spirits existed eternally with God,” which led church elders to ask “’How is God the Father of our spirits?’ … There was not a person that could or that would even try to explain the matter.”3

But the truth is, they did try.

In one reconciliation Robinson and others made use of Joseph’s claim that all spirit is matter, and that all matter is in some sense eternal, to posit that the human spirit was at some point “organized or begotten or born” from inchoate eternal matter. The Pratt’s seem to have taken this route, though Orson specifically advocated a type of panpsychism in which little eternal spirit matter particles themselves were possessed of some sort of intelligence or cognition. Brigham Young, on the other hand, seemed to view eternal matter particles as less self-aware; they could even be broken down and reorganized in the case of sons of perdition to receive another go-round in the plan of salvation. These subsequent views all overlook the possibility that a unified self-aware spirit itself existed eternally—a possibility which the idea of “spirit birth” helped make obsolete.

I’m not trying to solve this dilemma here, but I’ve concluded that virtually all parties are agreed on at least three key points. First, Joseph taught that all spirits or intelligences are in some sense eternal. Second, that there existed some level of cognition, self-awareness, and personal volition in these entities at some point in time prior to mortal birth. And third, that intelligences were in some sense “organized” by God before the creation of this particular earth.

I argue that the key division amongst the variety of views revolves around the third point: In what sense were “intelligences “organized before the world was” (Abraham 3:22)? Was this an organization in terms of the creation of their individual personhood, or an organization in terms of calling a group of persons together to counsel? I suggest that the description in Abraham, combined with other statements made by Joseph, suggests the latter.4 But that doesn’t solve the problem, because it doesn’t preclude some sort of ontological organization of spirits prior to that time.

As yet, no single study has fully analyzed or fleshed out Smith’s teachings on matter and intelligences.5 But these questions are particularly pressing when considering intellectual disability. Abraham speaks of grades of intelligences like grades of stars. Do such levels refer to intellectual ability in the sense of being able to apprehend and communicate “truth”? Are these levels determined ontologically, or are they the result of conscious work and decision-making on the part of individual agents? Was there some sort of spirit birth process, or rather an adoption process of already-existing entities? Are particles eternal while the mind itself has some kind of origin or emergence as said particles are gathered together, either by a birthing process or of their own volition? Depending on how one answers these questions, intellectual disabilities could be attributed to faulty eternal intelligences, a “defect” in a hypothetical “spirit birth” process, or even a merit-based lag in progression. Folk doctrine has gone the other direction with the view that intellectually disabled people were actually so far advanced premortally that they don’t require the same level of mortal testing as the rest of us. Or in one iteration, that Satan wished to exact revenge on certain intelligences, so God directed their birth into disabled bodies as protection. I explore some of these in my thesis. In these scenarios God could be viewed as the creator or direct cause of disabilities, or as a being who must work with inherently limited intelligences which includes some not as advanced as others, perhaps eternally so. To complicate matters, Joseph taught that God himself was somehow representative of this overall process. “As man now is, God once was” raises as many questions as it answers.

These are only some of the questions which must approached in working toward a fully fleshed out Mormon theology of intellectual disability. One might even ask about the ultimate implications of such beliefs in the face of contemporary neuroscience, or other advances of human knowledge. A constructive theology of intellectual disability in Mormon thought could have large implications for our views on human and divine anthropology, the extent of God’s power, the nature of the pre-mortal life, the implications of mortal embodiment, even the nature of free will, and many other fundamentals. For the purposes of my thesis, however, I’m simply tracing the historical expression of these ideas as they relate to intellectual disability in Mormon publications, and such questions were rarely fleshed out in the public record. Still, this task itself is loaded with traps as much as any attempt to create a more systematic view of disability in Mormon theology is.6

Which brings me to the real point of this post. Perhaps the main problem in all of these attempts to systematize Joseph’s thought on intelligences is that historical investigations are often implicitly informed by what Quentin Skinner calls “the mythology of coherence.” Although any given historical figure may not have been “altogether consistent,” Skinner observes, it becomes “dangerously easy for the historian to conceive it as his task to supply or find…the coherence which they may appear to lack,” or even to operate on the assumption that there was in fact cohesion all along.7 Skinner was referring to academic approaches to Hobbes and other political/philosophical figures, but the same is true for religious figures. In fact, this mythology is perhaps heightened in such cases to the extent that believers assume the existence of a unified, eternal Truth which is merely expressed through the prophetic figure. Joseph claimed to reveal texts of other authors in addition to making his own claims, which complicates matters further. If we assume that Joseph’s revelations and teachings present a unified theology from beginning to end, then we have to perform loop-the-loops to reconcile otherwise contradictory claims. Alternatively, we can try to parse out the development of Joseph’s claims and the ways they were informed by (as they also informed) those around him. Either way, we’re still left with the difficulty of making order from chaos. 


1. See the William Clayton Report of Joseph Smith’s King Follett Discourse (April 7, 1844) in Andrew F. Ehat and Lyndon W. Cook, The Words of Joseph Smith: The Contemporary Accounts of the Nauvoo Discourses of the Prophet Joseph (Provo: BYU Religious Studies Center Monograph, 1980), 360. As early as 1839 Smith taught that “The Spirit of Man is not a created being.” To complicate matters, he added then that “earth, water &c” all “had their existence in an elementary state from Eternity,” although it is unclear if he intended to say the spirit of man also existed in such “an elementary state” which differed from their state as uncreated spirits. See Ehat and Cook, Ibid., 9.

2. Ibid., 381. Smith is playing on Romans 8:15. This point is probematized by pointing out that Smith recognized and employed multiple meanings for “father.” For example, Smith referred to Adam as “the Father of the human family [who] presides over the Spirits of all men,” but that Adam himself is presided over by the “Son of Man” (Christ) who acts under the authority of God the Father, all of whom are uncreated beings. See Joseph Smith, Sermon, circa August 8, 1839, in Ibid., 9.

3. Joseph Lee Robinson Journal (n.p.), 21; cited in Blake T. Ostler, “The Idea of Pre-Existence in the Development of Mormon Thought,” Dialogue: a Journal of Mormon Thought 15, no. 1 (Spring 1982): 63.

4. Smith described the “Grand Council” in multiple sermons beginning in 1839. See Ehat and Cook, Ibid., 9, 60, 341, 359, etc. Perhaps the confusion in regards to spirit creation arose because Smith, in decrying ex nihilo creation of the earth, taught that God created it by using chaotic matter, even that of prior worlds, which led some to analogize that creation with that of the human spirit. See Ehat and Cook, Ibid., 341, 345, 351, 359, 361, etc.

5. The best published work on these questions include Blake T. Ostler, “The Idea of Pre-Existence in the Development of Mormon Thought,” Dialogue: a Journal of Mormon Thought 15, no. 1 (Spring 1982): 59–78 and Charles R. Harrell, “The Development of the Doctrine of Preexistence, 1830–1844,” BYU Studies 28, no. 2 (Spring 1998): 75–96. Articles which are useful, but which touch on the problem more peripherally, include Samuel Brown, “William Phelps’s ‘Paracletes’: An Early Witness to Joseph Smith’s Divine Anthropology,” International Journal of Mormon Studies 2, no. 1 (Spring 2009): 62–81 and Benjamin E. Park, “Salvation Through a Tabernacle: Joseph Smith, Parley Pratt, and Early Mormon Theologies of Embodiment,” Dialogue: a Journal of Mormon Thought 43, no. 2 (Summer 2010): 1–44. There are pages and pages of discussions about it at the thanks-for-giving-your-blog-a-name-that-looks-stupid-in-my-footnotes blog called newcoolthang, and J. Stapley has done a bit of blog-analysis as well.

6. By saying that, I’m not discouraging a more systematic approach to these questions. In fact, we tend to already operate with a largely-unexamined systematization on these questions.

7. Skinner, “Meaning and Understanding in the History of Ideas,” History and Theory 8, no. 1 (1969): 16. And yes, these seven footnotes are in honor of the seven days of creation and the seven seals of the apocalypse.


  1. Was there some sort of spirit birth process, or rather an adoption process of already-existing entities?
    In The God Who Weeps Terryl Givens and Fiona Givens definitely argue the latter, that God became our Father as a matter of choice. The book is fascinating and deserves broad readership among the LDS as its implications clarify our relationship with God and purpose here.

  2. Thanks for this overview, Blair, I’m writing the chapters on this stuff for my dissertation right now. Very good point about “the myth of coherence.” Some sources do help to add to the coherence though.

  3. I wrote a series of posts on some of this that may be useful: here, here, here, and here.

  4. So it is Orson Pratt we have to blame for the midi-chlorians . . .

  5. To me, it squares that a sentience could be planted into a spirit body, so it could act spiritually, that body born into a physical body so it could act physically; tripartite result is spirit (faith), mind (hope), and body (charity).

  6. Just a note on sources. When ascribing material to Joseph Smith, it’s important to understand the fidelity issues. I know that’s not the point of the post, but it’s vital from a text-critical standpoint.

  7. I think you miss the difference between “intelligence” and “spirit.” Joseph used the terms interchangeably in the King Follett Sermon, but elsewhere makes clear distinction. It is similar to the way he uses the word “light” to mean three distinct concepts in D&C 93.

  8. William Schryver says:

    Fascinating and thought-provoking series. I will only add one anecdotal story. I grew up in Farmington, UT where I attended Farmington Elementary in the 1960s, during which time the elementary school was immediately attached to the Monte Vista school, which was a special needs school — or, as it was insensitively called by most of my classmates, “the MR school.” Even so, the Monte Vista students and the Farmington Elementary students all attended lunch together. This made for some uncomfortable experiences, on occasion. But, by and large, we interacted well with the Monte Vista students, many of whom were in their teens and even early twenties.

    My bishop and eventual stake president (whose sons were contemporaries of me and my brothers) also had a DS daughter, “Angie,” with whom we associated on a regular basis.

    Anyway, with that preface establishing the basis for my thoughts on this question, the observation I would like to make is this: In many instances, in my dealings with Downs Syndrome individuals, I got the distinct impression that, somewhere deep inside their minds, there was a strangely profound intelligence, accompanied by an equally profound tranquility. It seemed to me, at least on occasion, and with certain individuals, that the only thing that impeded the full expression of their intelligence was, for lack of a better term, some kind of “malfunction in the mechanisms of expression.” In other words, on several occasions, I got the distinct impression that there was a whole lot more understanding happening inside some of those minds than they were able to functionally express. Sometimes, albeit only rarely, I sensed a certain frustration in them as a result of their impediment. But, more often than not, they seemed to accept their “condition” with a patient tranquility that always attracted me to them.

    In any case, I fully expect to meet Angie again in the great beyond, and I will not be surprised at all to discover that she was more or less fully cognizant her entire life, and, in the final analysis, at least as intelligent as the rest of us.

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