Sins of immorality and misshapen creatures

Part 9 of my series, “Intellectual disability in Mormon thought…”
See also parts 1, 23, 4, 5, 6, 7 and 8.

2015-01-00-teachings-of-presidents-of-the-church-ezra-taft-benson-eng-1Next 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.


  1. dstringham says:

    BHodges, thanks for this treatment. It seems to me that the discussion is incomplete when the narrative of the person with the disability is left out; when the story is framed away from that center, it tends to fix on ‘healing’ (fixing) and becoming a visual aid in the glorification of God (cf. John 9). When the narrative is viewed from a native center, however, the discussion is about personal eschatology and the intricacy of Divine parentage. I can get behind that all day.

    As we’ve researched, Anne (Leahy) and I have been struck by the observations of 19C Deaf people and Saints and their perceived stations even in the face of the marginalization of their time. Some of this language is dated (which makes this totally meta), but to wit:

    “I wish to be good, and obey God and my parents, and love the Mormons and Bible, and have care to be good….I love all Saints….The Bible says, ’that God can give to hear and speak, even the deaf and dumb.’ — God made me deaf and dumb.” — John Sherratt, Millennial Star 8(11), 179-180 19 Dec 1846 “Reflections by a Deaf Man”

    “I am not sorry that I am Deaf and Dumb — it was the will of God; he is very kind to all mankind.” — Anne Hand, student; letter home to her father, 18 May 1835, reprinted in the Nineteenth Report of the National Institution of the Deaf and Dumb of Ireland, 1835

    “[Assistant superintendent of the Deaf Mute Sunday School Laron Pratt] bore a strong testimony of the truth of the Gospel and pointed out to his attentive audience the Divine providence in his behalf in placing him under what most people regarded as an affliction, but in which he realized a blessing for the situation in life which he had occupied… his testimony made a deep and lasting impression upon the people…[that] his apparent affliction was proving a blessing from which the disguise was being removed to his own comprehension.” — Deseret News, ‘Local and Other Matters,’ 49(13), 399, 15 September 1894

    And all are alike unto God.

  2. A few years ago, I would have assumed that statement by Benson was figurative. But as a mother of a son with autism, I have become aware of quotes by Harold B. Lee and others that states blacks and the disabled were less valiant in the premortal existence so they took what bodies they could get. I have also heard the opposite in recent years from local leaders that those with disabilities were more valiant and are already perfect. I haven’t found that helpful either. My son is a wonderfully complicated person. Not perfect, just a great human being. Wish we could just talk about and embrace differences (disability, race, ethnicity, faith status) without going to extremes.

  3. Very mild pushback:

    Have you considered that this reference is not to children born with disabilities, but to the effects of disease on the sexually impure themselves? 1959 was less than a generation after the wide availability of effective treatment for syphilis, a disease that none of us have ever seen in its fully developed form, which can result in physical deformity and absolutely grotesque scarring if left untreated. Untreated gonorrhea can settle in the joints causing deformity, among other effects.

    Google tells me that a 1909 survey showed some 20% of military recruits had syphilis. A major anti-VD (STD) campaign in the 1930s publicized the effects of these diseases, and prompted the premarital blood-testing laws, including Utah’s. There’s a gruesome case of an LDS (American) missionary in England sent home in the 19-teens with symptoms so bad that the mission president wouldn’t even let him stay in the mission home while he waited for his boat, for fear that he would infect other elders.

    I don’t think it’s stretching much to suppose that ETB was very familiar with the “misshaping and scarring” effects of sexually transmitted diseases, whether he had witnessed those effects in the bodies of people he knew, or whether he had only heard about them during the anti-VD crusades of that generation. This is surely a different thing — warning about the disease consequences to the unchaste themselves — than a slur against those born disabled. But it’s not the first thing you’d think of when reading those words, because we’ve never seen it in our generation.

  4. As I get older, I tend to see disability on a sliding scale, with some disabilities just being more apparent or visible than others (i.e., “all flesh is subject to suffer”). As my husband and I discussed the baptism of our own disabled daughter, this article over at Rational Faiths has resonated with me:

    While they may not be having my mortal experience or your mortal experience, it is undeniable that they are, in point of fact, having a mortal experience.
    They often have a certain innocence I love, but that doesn’t mean they can’t learn, they can’t make mistakes, they can’t sin, or that they can’t repent. While these parents and those of us around them do struggle with the seeming injustice of it all, I think this folklore has a danger in that it can saccharinize disability. It trivializes their own purpose and meaning in this life. It leads to patronizing attitudes that stunt the personal growth of children with chronic disease. The fact is that they are here, fully mortal and fully human, and I believe it is for their own experience and good as with any of us.

    Although we still get the occasional “your child was a noble warrior in heaven”, or “special children go to special families”, we have felt, perhaps due to the preponderance disability in our ward, quite ordinary and accepted. In my view, we struggle with engaging those in the middle of that sliding scale who have hidden disabilities, mental illness, or other disorders more than we do the clearly disabled.

  5. Huh. I never would have connected “scarred and misshapen” in this context to those with disabilities without having read this.

  6. Thisgreatdeep,
    I love that quote from Rational Faiths. My younger brother has a range of intellectual and emotional disabilities. He falls into that category of people who can’t be described by one or two diagnoses. Over the years he has been diagnosed with ADHD, Autistic Spectrum Disorder, Bipolar Disorder, Borderline Personality Disorder, and a few others. When I we were children I remember I always just assumed that no matter what he did (and he did a lot of bad things) he was going straight to the celestial kingdom. I assumed every choice he made didn’t really matter because it was all part of his disability. As we have grown older and he has continuously made poor decisions (with a few good decisions thrown in here and there), it has dawned upon me that while he may be judged differently than I, he will still be judged. That sounds really bad as I’m writing it out, but he was sent here just like I was to be tested. He is not exempt from the judgment of how he did on that test. I think it is wrong to assume that he will be put to the same standards as someone without those disabilities, but it is equally wrong to assume he will be put to no standards. That seems to me to make his whole existence not really part of the Plan of Salvation. We need to stop treating people with severe disabilities like they are not people with similar purposes to everyone else.

    That is really interesting and makes a lot of sense. I hope that is what ETB was referring to.

  7. Blair, I kind of agree with Ardis here, that it is not the disabilities people are born with that are referred to, but the diseases–and the misshapen souls that come from immoral living. I never would have considered ETB’s statement to refer to people born with disabilities. That does not seem to be the context of the quote.

  8. dstringham :

    It seems to me that the discussion is incomplete when the narrative of the person with the disability is left out; when the story is framed away from that center, it tends to fix on ‘healing’ (fixing) and becoming a visual aid in the glorification of God (cf. John 9). When the narrative is viewed from a native center, however, the discussion is about personal eschatology and the intricacy of Divine parentage. I can get behind that all day.

    Oh yes, I agree. When the Handbook cites John 9 I think it can serve as a nice quick reference point for members, but there are mountains of considerations underneath it that can’t (or at least probably shouldn’t) be charted a quick class comment.

    Briefly: In John 9 Christ is depicted as restoring sight to the blind. This demonstrates the power of the Son of God but it also serves the evangelist’s desire to relate how Jesus fulfilled messianic hopes, such as those expressed by Isaiah and quoted by Jesus in the synagogue. It’s been a while, I need to look again at the ways John uses the story compared to the healing in Matthew, etc., though I think these details may be unique to John. Recall in John 1 it focuses much on light and darkness. At any rate, the person born blind is not the center of the story when Jesus says the works/power of God would be manifest there because Christ’s ability to heal and Christ’s divine mission is the center.

    I believe this verse can be read differently—likened, so to speak—to teach the idea that our sisters and brothers with disabilities themselves are part of God’s glory, power, works being made manifest in their own right, for who they are now. This is the kind of idea we see expressed by the Saints you quote.

    As for the last quote about an affliction being a blessing, I think the Handbook is wise to recommend against trying to put a story onto people with disabilities that may not in fact be their story. When we tell a person with disabilities (or their loved ones, caregivers, etc.) that their disability is a “blessing,” we may be offering a view that runs counter to their own experiences and beliefs about disabilities in a way that makes them feel alienated, trapped, condescended to, or misunderstood. The brother you quote speaks for himself, testifies of his own belief and experience. The implication is perhaps others should see themselves in the same way but I think that is an unnecessary corollary to his claim.

    And yes, amen to the clear scripture, “And all are alike unto God.”

  9. Rigel Hawthorne says:

    misshapen souls

    that is a good description for what I took away from the comment.

  10. Anna: I feel very similar. I’m reluctant to point people to the idea that disabilities signal some sort of premortal valiance. I realize this has brought comfort to many church members but at the same time I see difficulties with the claim. I wrote more about this here.

    Ardis, yes, and I appreciate the comment. I think you’re right, such things were likely on Elder Benson’s mind. That is still problematic to me for a few reasons. He attributed the literal downfall of civilizations to such things. I’m unaware of syphilis bringing down any nation. I also think it’s problematic to speak of physical maladies as being directly related to spiritual consequences more generally. It’s obvious that drinking alcohol while pregnant can cause severe problems, for example, and we can definitely talk about that, but I don’t think it’s necessary or useful to attribute such things to a curse from God. I think we walk a very fine line when we make promises like “obeying the Word of Wisdom will assure you a healthy long life,” which is something my father and mother-in-law both wondered about when they died at young ages. Yes, being sexually promiscuous puts you at risk for contracting STDs. We can say that, I think I could certainly teach that, but I’m not so convinced we should implicitly tie it to God’s retribution or the literal downfall of civilizations.

    More than these reasons, though, is the fact that such statements can be situated within a longer discourse about disease, disability, death, and sin that we need to be especially careful about perpetuating even if accidentally. This is why TPC manuals are so difficult to create and use. Some teachings fit into particular contexts that shift over time.

    thisgreatdepp: amen and amen!

    JT: You never would have associated it and you’re certainly not alone. That’s one reason it can make a difference to talk about it this way, to let people know that they may be communicating something completely different than they intend to communicate. I couldn’t escape the association and I know there are others who feel the same.

  11. Sharee: I reject the use of “misshapen souls” on the grounds that it denigrates our sisters and brothers with disabilities by turning them into object lessons or metaphors for spiritual problems.

  12. Hook 'em Horns says:

    Often times quotes about disability reflect our desire to understand God’s will, or impose our view onto God. It’s a slippery slope that is typically condescending toward individuals with disabilities.

    Perhaps disability happens for reasons that we don’t understand, or perhaps for no reason at all. Randomness (as we see it) is as much a part of God’s plan as anything else.

  13. Interesting thoughts, BHodges, but with one small problem:

    President Benson wasn’t talking about disabilities.

    No, his talk — from which the quote was extracted — makes no reference to disability, intellectual or otherwise.

    Not once.

    Not at all.

    Not even remotely.

    It is conspicuous by its absence.

    Instead, President Benson’s quote actually refers to *pornography*. See the quote in context:

    His talk doesn’t mention sex *at all* outside of a handful of examples of criminal sexual assault.

    The birth of children — disabled, less-than-valiant, or whatever — is not even mentioned.

    So the idea that this particular talk of President Benson condemned disabled people as cursed by God because their parents had illicit sex has no basis in fact. The idea appears to have sprung fully grown from BHodges’ forehead.

    “…scarred and misshapen…”, by the way, refers to the effects on people who indulge in pornography. It conspicuously omits any reference to future generations, valiant or not.

    More troubling:

    1- That it took less than 10 seconds to Google the original talk, and,
    2- It took less than 2 minutes to figure out that it had nothing whatever to do with birth defects, persons with disabilities, or pre-mortal derring-do.


    I’m assuming BHodges error is rooted in negligence, by failing to put the quote in context. I would not suspect him of the alternative.

    Upon this negligence, however, he constructs a vast superstructure of speculation, all of it unflattering to President Benson. Why?

    His reaction to an entirely imaginary offense speaks volumes.

  14. TL;DR Jonathan really doesn’t like Blair, says that’s not what ETB was really talking about.

  15. Steve Evans: “TL;DR Jonathan really doesn’t like Blair, says that’s not what ETB was really talking about.”

    Kind of you to reply.

    I don’t dislike BHodges. I do disagree with him.

    How long is too long? My comment had 249 words, which is shorter than 6 prior comments.

    Should I assume you dislike me?

  16. I don’t know you. I only know your comments, which are needlessly confrontational. You could have raised the same issue in half the space and been twice as nice about it. But you took a different path, one that I hope you won’t continue to take.

  17. Steve Evans: “I don’t know you. I only know your comments, which are needlessly confrontational. You could have raised the same issue in half the space and been twice as nice about it. But you took a different path, one that I hope you won’t continue to take.”

    Would you rather I hadn’t raised the issue at all?

  18. it's a series of tubes says:

    I just read the original address in its entirety. To be brief and non-confrontational:
    Jonathan’s assessment of the quote in context appears to be accurate. It appears to have literally NO connection to the subject of the OP.

  19. Sighhhhhhhh. I think your issue is just fine. I don’t think it’s particularly interesting or devastating or anything. All the more reason to present it in a way more likely to result in engagement and common understanding instead of argument and contention. See, all this time we could have been addressing your actual concern rather than talking about how you could have been nicer about it.

  20. The context is irrelevant (though we can give you a gold star for doing your homework). Even if ETB was not talking about disabilities of any sort, the use of “misshapen” as a metaphor is problematic.

  21. There was a time not too long ago that quite nearly any Ezra Taft Benson quote would make me furious. Now I sigh, take a deep breath, wait a few minutes and remember something that always makes me smile. J. Edgar Hoover would routinely lie in an effort to avoid Ezra Taft Benson. Hoover felt Benson was too right wing.

  22. Jonathan, If I could, I’d make a bet with you that 999 out of 1,000 members of the Church wouldn’t go seek the original quote in context. In the context of this lesson manual the original context is not relevant because the manual treats the quote as not having an original context. (That’s one of the difficulties of writing and using manuals like this. I’ve written about this before.) So the way the vast majority of members will experience this quote is in this lesson manuals context, not its original context. That’s not to say context doesn’t matter. As I just said, I’ve examined and posted about context for manual quotes in the past. More importantly, the majority of the talk in its original context focuses on pornography as you observe. First, I know of no civilizations whose downfall can be blamed on pornography. Of course, that’s not a pro-porn argument. We need not judge whether something is good or evil based on its ability or the likelihood of its causing the downfall of a civilization. Second, he specifically says “I speak about one aspect of this question of morality which affects all our youth,” initiating a discussion that appears after the disability imagery is employed. It is not limited to pornography, that just happens to be the particular issue he addresses among many “sins of immorality.” The writers of the manual separated the discussion about pornography from the quote about misshapen creatures. You might argue they also misapplied the quote but they recognized, like I do, that the statement about misshapen creatures pertained to more than pornography in its original setting.

    That being said, it seems possible that you didn’t read my entire post, the point of which was not to say Elder Benson was teaching the exact same thing that early critics of Mormons and early Mormon leaders taught about the degeneration of humanity as the result of impure sexual behavior. The point was to situate the employment of disability/morality tropes within a long and problematic legacy and to suggest that we’re better off leaving such tropes in the past. I go on to observe:

    “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.”

    This isn’t something that was simply “pulled out of my forehead,” prominent though it may be, and I go on to explain why in the post itself. So the original context that you raise actually does little to help anyone who hears/reads this quote as it is currently presented in the manual and who understands it as employing images of disability in a discussion about sin. In fact, you’ve only succeeded at reinforcing my main point which is this: Using images that evoke disability (“scarred and misshapen creatures”) is wrong regardless of whether a person recognizes the problematic legacy of such metaphors. We should avoid using images of physical and mental disability in metaphors of sin/righteousness/evil, etc. Real people with real disabilities should not be used as tools to draw theological points from because they, like you and me, are children of God. If you think it’s fine to use images of disability in discussions of pornography or anything else, I strongly disagree and urge you to reconsider. There are people in the church with disabilities, and people who love those people, who you may be actively hurting.

  23. PS- Steve concedes too much to you, Jonathan. The original context doesn’t challenge but actually reinforces the point this post is intended to make.

  24. Actually, I’d bet that 999 of 1,000 members of the Church did not read the lesson, and therefore would not have been troubled by Bro. Benson’s statement.

  25. I believe we have looked beyond the mark. From my time as Bishop I can attest to the real scaring and misshapening that happens from immorality in the spirits, minds and emotions of those indulging in immoral acts. I do not believe for a second president Benson was talking about physical scaring or misshapening of posterity. The spiritual, emotional scars and consequences are far worse than any STD. He was not naive to believe handicapped people were created because of immortality. There was no mention of posterity mishapened in his statement, this would have had to been inferred by the reader. However since you brought it up, Immorality may mishapen and scar a family unit and indiviual ie relationships and ideals for generations which might have been better served with a father and mother . The atonement will in the end correct these even these errors. On a side note those with disabilities may have limitations from their bodies but we should always remember their spirits are not handicapped, mishapened or deformed they are perfect. Our challenge is to communicate in such a way to inspire and bless them. In the end we may come to know our own limitations and handicaps in our abilities to love, communicate, bless and bear with those spirits we consider disadvantaged.

  26. No, Jesse. No daughter or son of God is ever a mere scarred and misshapen creature. We can do better describing sin without using disabilities as metaphors.

  27. Mark B., perhaps. Even fewer will see this post. But like the proverbial starfish, if it makes a difference to just that one… ;)

  28. For those of you arguing that Blair is wrong because Elder Benson was talking figuratively, not about literal scarring and disfigurement: Blair anticipated your argument. In the OP. And responded to it.

    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.

    And he has a really strong point—there’s no reason to believe that Elder Benson was pinning physical disability on sinfulness; I have no reason to believe he was even aware of the history underlying such specious causal speculation. I don’t believe for a second that Blair’s trying to suggest that there is something insidious about what Elder Benson said.

    And yet, deliberate or not, it’s still problematic. Sure, sin hurts us spiritually. So why not just say that? There was no reason that the manual writers had to pull that quotation from him; I’m almost certain (and a quick Google search confirms it) that he spoke other times about the evils of pornography, and that he condemned it just as much those other times as he did this time.

    Blair’s point, it seems to me, is that we collectively can do a better job of being empathetic to our fellow-saints, that part of our duty as members of the body of Christ is to be sensitive to others’ experiences, struggles, and celebrations.

    And that strikes me as both a relevant and a powerful point, and one that we don’t overcome by denying its validity.

  29. Using disability as a negative metaphor worked fine in 1959 (as did insulting sexist stereotypes), but it rankles in 2015. Perhaps not for all, but for enough of us. Bear in mind that in 1959, dyslexia and ADHD were usually treated with a physical punishment at school and now they are commonly diagnosed (maybe even over-diagnosed). Taking comments from that era out of the context of that time and placing them in a manual in 2015 creates problems, and we should be better at avoiding these things. This is an interesting post. Thanks, Blair.

  30. I’m one more person who never would have connected the language of the manual to disabilities, birth defects, etc. It just doesn’t fit the context of the statement. The typical narrative of the rise and fall of civilization is that moral degradation leads to collapse. Not that there is much to support the contention–it was politics when the ancient Romans said it about each other, and it’s politics now.

  31. This has been a deliciously wonderful and throughly enlightening exploration of context, thank you. After reading the full length original text, which does indeed include FBI statistics and a quote from J. Edgar Hoover (far better than actually having J. Edgar Hoover speak in general conference which President Benson invited him to do), perhaps it is also instructive to put Ezra Taft Benson in context.

    I have been at times unusually harsh towards President Benson, but have really tried to extend as much benefit of the doubt. Anyone who spends enough time around nuclear weapons or blindingly brilliant Russians (who, by the way, really are exceptionally skilled at espionage especially women) should be granted a fair degree of legitimately earned paranoia. Fair enough.

    It becomes problematic when one hijacks the Book of Mormon to see secret combinations at every turn up to and including accusing President Eisenhower of being a tool in the Communist Conspiracy. Sometimes paranoia really is just having all the facts. And other times, well, it’s just Ezra Taft Benson.

  32. A salutary call for charitable language…

  33. Appreciated the historical perspective from Ardis. And there was a lot of collateral damage. As in the film “The Secret Life of Mrs. Beeton.”

  34. John Mansfield says:

    There’s a couple in my ward with a grown son who was born with a severely misshaped head, corrected after many years through surgery by Ben Carson himself. I’ll find out their thoughts on Benson’s use of “misshapen” and let you know.

  35. Tread carefully, John. As I said in the OP, certainly some people with disabilities and their loved ones wouldn’t find the statement offensive, but others would and I believe that is who we should keep in mind when it comes to quotes like this.

  36. John Mansfield says:

    That sounds like a “can’t miss” strategy. Best of luck as you wisely apply it.

  37. I wouldn’t have interpreted the original quote to mean disability but I lack Blair’s historical knowledge of the subject.

    I am aware of people who take great comfort in the idea that their disabled child was valiant in the pre-existence. Was this ever an actual teaching that came from leadership? Or did this mainly come from patriarchal blessings? If it comes from an individual child’s patriarchal blessing it makes more difficult to criticize.

    I agree that the “misshapen” metaphor is problematic though. It seems very similar to other bad metaphors we use like “darkness” in spirit.

  38. For those of you who claim that the quote is not problematic because it is referring to spiritual scarring, let’s assume that’s the case and take the quote down to what it is really saying:

    “See that kid over there with all the terrible disabilities? If you sin, that’s what your soul will look like. And it is so bad if your soul is like that kid with the terrible disabilities that if too many people look like that, you know, spiritually, then the whole of civilization will fall.”

    There is no question in my mind that ETB didn’t mean to imply this and that this sort of rhetoric was not out of the norm for the time. It seems to me that the point of this post isn’t to attack ETB, but to suggest that we be more careful when choosing quotes from previous leaders of the Church. Certain quotes that wouldn’t have been problematic at the time, are now. This is one of those quotes.

  39. I’ve been trying to come up with a productive comment on this post from the perspective of the parent of a disabled child. My son had cerebral palsy, was severely spastic, had a seizure disorder, developmental delays, and was “medically fragile” — we spent the majority of his life in and out of the PICU and critical care units of the hospital. He was on a ketogenic diet to control his seizures, which made his breath and body smell strange. He had problems swallowing due to his brain injury that required constant suctioning of fluids, and he coughed up his secretions constantly.

    I can’t adequately describe the way he was marginalized by the wards we lived in while he was alive. People were uncomfortable being around him due to the disabilities I’ve described. No one from the ward ever reached out to him in a meaningful way. As his parents, we were pedestalized for being “valiant in the pre-existence” and “blessed to be the parents of such a celestial spirit,” neither of which were remotely true. The dialogue about the disabled in the church is extremely damaging to families like ours, because it isolates us from the general population of the church — both the marginalization and pedestalization are factors. We needed people just to be there for us emotionally, help shoulder the burdens we carried, and mourn with us. We did not receive that kind of ministry from those who were called to serve us and him.

    This quote is problematic, regardless of the context, because it treats those with disabilities as “the other” rather than being a part of the body of Christ. It marginalizes those with disabilities as being an example of a lesser status or the result of sin. It categorizes those with differences as outside the body of Christ in the church. As I said previously, it is damaging to those with disabilities and their families because it puts them in a context outside what is considered “normal” within the culture of the church.

    I wish the rhetoric surrounding the disabled in the church would change, because it has hurt me, my son, and my family during and after his life. I applaud Blair for bringing these issues to light, and I hope that this discourse begins to foster change and promoter greater inclusion within the church. Thanks, Blair.

  40. Marc: My research has barely got into the twentieth century from the 10th, but I can say that so far IIRC I haven’t found a single example of a General Authority espousing the “more valiant in the premortal life” explanation for disability. You see instances of it being expressed occasionally during the 19th century by individual members of the Church who have disabilities, and a more popular account appears in the early 20th century that seems to have inspired some of the later Patriarchal Blessing accounts (which are much more difficult to access. I’ve yet to actually track a real-life example of such a blessing down). This was both a throwback (to earlier ideas that “simpletons” and “God’s fools” were somehow holy, etc.) and an anticipation of the heroic idealization of disabilities that began to emerge after WWII (remember all the injured vets coming home, etc.).

    In my research and writing I strive to resist criticizing particular theological models that are advanced except to point out that one person’s inspirational story can be another person’s thorn in the side. I would advise members of the Church to avoid pushing particular interpretations as normative (such as the idea that a person was more valiant in the premortal life and was therefore given a disability as a protection or reward).

    And yes, you’ve nailed it exactly. Just as Mormons shouldn’t speak of skin darkening as a result of sin or use dark skin as a metaphor for unrighteousness, so should we not speak of souls becoming misshapen or scarred as a result of unrighteousness, be it sexual immorality or otherwise. (I didn’t bring this up in the post because it was already long enough and I haven’t yet done enough research on it, but I’d be surprised to see such body-based metaphors being used to describe the souls of people who lie, steal, defraud, etc. I’d expect to see such metaphors employed more often with reference to sexual sin, Word of Wisdom violations, and other more body-centric issues. My research could overturn that suspicion, which would be important to take into consideration as well.

  41. EBK: you have managed to do in one short comment what I failed to properly do in my entire post. Your example is spot on. That is in fact the message being delivered to many people who have disabilities and their loved ones: “See that kid over there with all the terrible disabilities? If you sin, that’s what your soul will look like. And it is so bad if your soul is like that kid with the terrible disabilities that if too many people look like that, you know, spiritually, then the whole of civilization will fall.” Exactly! And I think the statement was problematic in its own context as well, but as you say, more understandable as a product of the thinking of the time. Which yes, is why we need to be careful when employing teachings from half a century ago.

  42. amrediske: “We needed people just to be there for us emotionally, help shoulder the burdens we carried, and mourn with us. We did not receive that kind of ministry from those who were called to serve us and him.”

    This is exactly right. Thank you for speaking out. I hope Jonathan and others in the thread can revisit their assumptions about this discussion. Our church desperately needs people who understand these things.

    And again, to Jonathan, the context you describe doesn’t mitigate the quote, which I didn’t misrepresent in or out of its context here.

  43. Everyone agrees that

    1. Using “scarred and misshapen” as metaphor for “damaged by sin” is insensitive.

    2. Manual readers are adults. They understand what is meant (that immorality has lasting consequences, which is true) and know that ETB did not mean to insult people with disabilities.

    The more general question really is about whether to present a really unvarnished portrait of past leaders (including quotes we’d consider mildly offensive and/or scientifically dubious today) or whether to present a more uplifting (some would say whitewashed) selection of quotes. One disadvantage of presenting only the sanitized version is that people might be a little shocked when they reader some of the rougher stuff on the internet. There’s also the issue of how much we trust our local instructors and what we think the purpose of church education should be. Not a simple question.

  44. Google Definition for misshapen:

    not having the normal or natural shape or form.
    “misshapen fruit”

    synonyms: deformed, malformed, distorted, crooked, twisted, warped, out of shape, bent, asymmetrical, irregular, misproportioned, ill-proportioned, disfigured, dysmorphic, grotesque
    “his misshapen feet”

    I won’t argue against the quote being a ‘manual balrog.’ I won’t argue that the choice of words is insensitive. It could be possible that some of the less insensitive synonyms have had a greater connection to the word misshapen in 1959, though I wasn’t there. After reading the quote in it’s context, I do believe there is value to the point that ETB was making. I thought this quote from the full conference report was particularly interesting when considered in our current day context of internet pornography:

    “The dealer in pornography is acutely aware of this progressive facet; his array of material to feed this growing hunger is carefully geared to the successive stages. Like the peddler of narcotics, his only interest is to insure that his customers are ‘hooked.’ He knows that once they are ‘hooked’ they will continue to pay and pay.” Though who needs to pay when so much is free.

    So, I was trying to liken the quote to my personal spiritual challenges to see what the spirit would teach me. In that vein, I tried applying the word misshapen to myself without using it to judge others. “Ill-proportioned” is probably a just description of my creature as a consequence of pornography. When I start looking at it, suddenly the proportion of how much sleep I need compared to how late I can reasonably stay up becomes skewed. “Bent”, though its sometimes use to describe someone’s pension for fetishes is not an unjust description, if the term ‘spiritually bent’ was applied. Though, I suppose you could say that this also hearkens of disability metaphorism if you think of scoliotic or kyphotic spine disorders. Synonyms for ‘bent’ are ‘dishonest’ or ‘corrupt’, which though less offensive, are blander in conveying the literary message. I guess my personal rewrite of the quote would ‘the sins of immorality left their people blemished and corrupt creatures’, although for those with a persistent birthmark, the use of the word blemish might be too strong.

  45. T,
    I think if we didn’t whitewash the ToP manuals than this quote would be less problematic. We could say, ETB said some weird stuff and that’s ok because he taught a lot of really important truths. We just need to sort out the good from the weird.
    The problem is we do whitewash the manuals so that means that when something is included, the implication is that the teachings in it are still valid and true. We can’t say regarding anything in the manuals that this is no longer the view of leadership. We have to a assume that if it made it past correlation, it is a current teaching. It removes the ability we have with the scriptures to disregard problematic versus as mistranslated or applicable at that time but not ours. Whitewashing the manuals means we can’t disregard anything as no longer applicable.

  46. BHodges: “Disabilities of any kind should never be employed as a metaphorical trope to teach principles of righteousness and sin…”

    Matthew 18

    8 Wherefore if thy hand or thy foot offend thee, cut them off, and cast them from thee: it is better for thee to enter into life halt or maimed, rather than having two hands or two feet to be cast into everlasting fire.

    9 And if thine eye offend thee, pluck it out, and cast it from thee: it is better for thee to enter into life with one eye, rather than having two eyes to be cast into hell fire.

  47. And if thy commenters offend thee? Like, because they’re being deliberately aggressive and trollish? Jonathan, strike two.

  48. Jonathan, I thought it would be useful to contact you directly to continue the conversation but you’re using a fake email address. I think anonymity can be a useful thing online, but in this case I wonder why you wouldn’t want to stand behind your comments. Oh well.

  49. “sins of immorality left their people scarred and misshapen creatures”….the people are left spiritually scarred and spiritually misshapen creatures. Why are you taking it literally?

  50. wow.

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