Next week is Disability Awareness Week at BYU, so I thought it would be nice to write a post on the subject. A few weeks ago I was asked to substitute teach for elder’s quorum (I usually teach Sunday school). The lesson happened to be chapter 17 of the President Benson manual, “Keeping the Law of Chastity.” While reading over the lesson I found a few good quotes to build the discussion around.1 While preparing the lesson I came across a certain manual balrog.
“Manual balrogs” are excerpts that seem troubling, confusing, or otherwise inappropriate for your particular class. The manuals instruct teachers to “prayerfully select…teachings that you feel will be most helpful to those you teach,” and this particular quote was not selected for inclusion in my lesson:
“Purity is life-giving; impurity is deadly. God’s holy laws cannot be broken with impunity. Great nations have fallen when they became morally corrupt, because the sins of immorality left their people scarred and misshapen creatures who were unable to face the challenge of their times.”
This quote struck me with such force because it relates to something I’ve thought, studied, and written a lot about: what Latter-day Saints think about disabilities. Then-Elder Benson (the quote is from 1959) taught that “the sins of immorality” resulted in “scarred and misshapen creatures.” It’s worth remembering that he was far from the first to make such a claim, though he is likely among the last (at least within the LDS Church). The irony here is that the exact same [or rather, a related] claim was made against 19th-century Mormons.
In the late 1850s U.S. Army assistant surgeon Roberts Bartholow accompanied federal troops to the Utah Territory during the Utah War. He compiled a report on the Territory’s geography, climate, flora and fauna, but spilled more ink on “medical topography, productions, and upon the social customs of its inhabitants.”2 Bartholow claimed to avoid discussing “anything of the political and religious aspects of Mormonism,” but approached it as a “great social solecism [or deviation from the proper order] affecting the physical stamina and mental health” of the Mormon people. Whether due to their geographical isolation or their “grossly material” religion, the “physical and mental condition” of the Mormon people had rapidly degenerated. If polygamy were allowed to stand, they would raise a degenerate nation of “idiots,” they would in other words become a people of scarred and misshapen creatures. The degradation of mothers wrapped up in polygamy would pass through to the offspring.
Mormons didn’t take such criticisms lightly. In fact, the general response was to turn the accusation around. Polygamy would eventually perfect the race whereas monogamy and the infidelity it spawned would result in the degeneration of humanity. In the 19th century, Mormons and their critics shared the same assumption: immoral sexual practices resulted in deformed offspring which threatened the foundation of society itself. They simply disagreed about what was immoral.3
Our Teachings of the Presidents of the Church manuals are a mixed blessing. One benefit of having living leaders and prophets is that many teachings of the past can be left there—time provides a sifting process whereby truths remain while chaff can be discarded. Living leaders can address issues more pressing to current times. The Church’s “Race and the Priesthood” gospel topics essay is a good example. I applaud the Church for taking measures to sift some of the past errors from our current teachings. Still, we still have strong regard for past leaders and seek to find wisdom and truth in their counsel. As a result, some teachings that might better have been left in the past can crop back up. I believe this short quote about “scarred and misshapen creatures” is an example of that and so it didn’t pass into my lesson. Perhaps it would have been appropriate to actually deal with the quote directly, faithfully, and respectfully during my lesson, but time really was short and I focused instead on positive things that could more immediately help me and the brothers in my quorum.
The claim about “misshapen creatures” is specific enough to trouble me but vague enough to allow for a number of interpretations. Perhaps someone might argue that the claim was figurative. Even so, the quote would still be problematic. Disabilities of any kind should never be employed as a metaphorical trope to teach principles of righteousness and sin, especially given the history whereby such claims were all too literal and damaged many lives. If rather than teaching this lesson I found myself sitting in a class where this quote is read, I would worry that someone in the class has loved ones with disabilities, or is concerned about people with disabilities. I would worry that people who don’t give much thought to disabilities might have their negative stereotypes reinforced. So I might have offered a brief comment like this:
“I notice this quote is from 1959. That makes sense because it expresses an outdated idea about immorality and disabilities when it talks about ‘misshapen creatures.’ I worry that some people might get the impression that disabilities can be simply blamed on immorality. I don’t believe that and the Church teaches against that idea. According to the Handbook of Instructions, ‘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.'” In the spirit of this counsel, I also believe we should avoid using images of disability as metaphors for unrighteousness.
I might, if it seems appropriate, even share this touching quote from Joseph Smith, whose family experienced its share of disease and death:
“It is an unhallowed principle to say that such and such have transgressed because they have been preyed upon by disease or death for all flesh is subject to death…all flesh is subject to suffer—and ‘the righteous shall hardly escape’…many of the righteous shall fall a prey to disease to pestilence &c by reason of the weakness of the flesh and yet be saved in the kingdom of God.”4
(P.S.—Please let’s not turn this into a manual bashing session or a discussion of other things this chapter says that people didn’t find helpful. I’m particularly interested to hear from people with disabilities or their loved ones regarding what they think about this quote. Certainly some of them wouldn’t find it offensive, but others would and I believe that is who we should keep in mind when it comes to quotes like this.)
1. I’ve discovered I only need two or three quotes from any given lesson and if I come up with a few good questions the class can take the lead. This seems preferable to the old “have a class member read the next paragraph and talk about it, rinse, and repeat” teaching method. I found some nice assistance on the Exponent II blog for this lesson, too.
2. Roberts Bartholow, “Sanitary Report—Utah Territory” (September 1858), in Richard H. Coolidge, M.D., ed., Statistical Report on the Sickness and Morality in the Army of the United States: Compiled from the Records of the Surgeon General’s Office, Embracing a Period of Five Years, from January, 1855 to January, 1860, U.S. Senate, 36th Congress, 1st Session (Washington: George W. Bowman, 1860), 300–304. Paul Reeve assisted with the recovery of this source and it plays a prominent role in a chapter of Religion of a Different Color.
3. I wrote about this in my master’s thesis “Intellectual Disabilities in Mormon Thought and History, 1830–1900.” For an overview of the history of such claims in the wider American context, see Janice Brockley, “Rearing the Child Who Never Grew: Ideologies of Parenting and Intellectual Disability in American History,” in Noll and Trent, Mental Retardation in America, 130-164. There’s a lot more history to this idea than can be discussed here, such as the “monstrous birth” phenomenon whereby a disabled child’s condition is blamed on the parents (usually the mother) as a curse from God, and other such beliefs of the past.
4. Dean C. Jessee, Mark Ashurst-McGee, Richard L. Jensen, eds. Journals, Volume 1: 1832–1839. Vol. 1 of the Journals series of The Joseph Smith Papers (Salt Lake City: Church Historian’s Press, 2008), 352-353.