Intellectual Disability in Mormon Thought and History, 1830-1900
This thesis illuminates the "social construction" theory of disability--that disability is not simply an inherent condition in individual persons but rather a socially constructed phenomenon--by analyzing the changing meaning of intellectual disability within the institutional discourse of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Throughout its history, Mormonism has represented disability in its official publications and sermons in a variety of ways. This thesis examines these shifting conceptions from the Church's founding in 1830 to the turn of the twentieth century by focusing on three questions: How has intellectual disability been constructed in Mormonism's public discourse? How were these representations informed by Mormonism's larger cultural context? What uniquely Mormon ideas were brought to bear on the subject? Throughout the nineteenth century, people with intellectual disabilities were conceived of as being akin to innocent little children or as being representative of the degeneration of the human race--constructions which influenced Mormon theological positions about "idiocy." Initial Mormon discussions about idiots centered on their moral accountability. Critics of Mormonism employed disability as a supposed product of Mormon polygamy to justify discrimination against Mormons, while defenders of Mormonism argued polygamy would perfect the human race. This thesis explains the ways Mormons drew on their particular theological tools and broader cultural beliefs to confront an issue (intellectual disability) that affects each religious tradition, every community, and potentially any family.