Guest post, Spencer Lincoln Green, Savage Nobles: Childhood in America and LDS Culture

By October 30, 2013

For our monthly series Childhood, Children, and Youth, we are excited to have a guest post from Spencer Green. Spencer is finishing a PhD in American Studies at Penn State Harrisburg. He focuses his research in folklore and environmental humanities, but as a past president of the Children’s Folklore Society, he makes frequent forays into LDS children’s folklore as well.

An article I wrote which is coming out in the next issue of the Children?s Folklore Review has made me think more about how Latter-day Saints in America view children and childhood. Nearly half of all speakers in General Conference will mention a child?s exemplary actions. This of course follows many scriptural precedents where members are instructed to ?be as little children.? The conspicuous absence in scriptures or general conference addresses of the crying, willful children present in pews every Sunday is understandable, but interesting. Pre-modern Europeans viewed children as little imps, devils or ?hellions? as my mother was fond of saying. Despite all the facebook updates about how wonderful our children are, the popularity of sites like attests to some recognition that this is more than a medieval view, so why the reluctance to speak of our little angel?s darker natures?

If I were to ask the members of most wards I?ve known what they thought of children, most responses would include good, pure, and innocent. I also think that many parents would roll their eyes or sigh in dismay at the new mischief and trouble those good, pure, and innocent children had caused them that morning. Just the noise level during many sacrament meetings attest to something more than ?pure innocence.? How do we really view children? In looking at scriptures, American cultural representations of children, and our own experience, I think our expectations for children are incredibly complex.

Scholars of American culture have identified at least two contrasting views of childhood: children as a ?tabula rasa? in need of ?acculturation,? protection, or shelter, and the child as ?specula naturae,? or mirrors of nature, a type of noble savage. Gary Cross in The Cute and the Cool notes the connection between the Romantic era and the idea of the pure, innocent child. As Wordsworth wrote, children come ?fresh from the hand of God.? Mormonism?s rise in the Romantic era makes the Romantic vision of childhood worth examining. His Ode: Intimations on Immortality even gets quoted in General Conference and includes the lines ?Our birth is but a sleep and a forgetting:/ The soul that rises with us, our life?s Star, / Hath had elsewhere its setting, / And cometh from afar: / Not in entire forgetfulness, / And not in utter nakedness, / But trailing clouds of glory do we come / From God, who is our home: / Heaven lives about us in our infancy!? It portrays the child not as a blank slate, but a noble, pure, innocent being close to heaven and divinity.

So which, if either, of these views do Mormon?s agree with? The tabula rasa certainly suggests the veil. The veil of forgetfulness which has erased our memories of our pre-earth life, giving us a ?blank slate? so that we may live by faith and be tested. However, Christ encourages his disciples to ?become as little children,? and ?humble [themselves] as this little child? (Matt. 18: 3-4). King Benjamin complicates the idea of the noble savage with the idea of the natural man. He says that all men are enemies to God and in a fallen state ?unless [they] yield() to the enticings of the Holy Spirit, and putteth off the natural man and becometh a saint through the atonement of Christ the Lord, and becometh as a child, submissive, meek, humble, patient, full of love, willing to submit to all things which the Lord seeth fit to inflict upon him, even as a child doth submit to his father? (Mosiah 3: 19). Men are naturally savage but children are naturally? what? Good? Pure? Innocent? Certainly children are positive, but if children are naturally good?then where do these horrible natural men come from?

Some of the difficulty in nailing down just what LDS think of children lies in seeing children as good AND innocent. I?m not sure ?goodness? and ?innocence? are entirely compatible in Mormon doctrine. Speaking of which, glancing at McConkie?s controversial work, we see the subheadings of ?Children of Abraham,? ?Children of Belial,? ?Children of Christ,? ?Children of Disobedience,? and more. He goes on, but there seems to be a pattern of seeing children as followers rather than independent entities since the key terms in making these titles positive or negative is not the ?children? part, but the other terms: Abraham, Belial, Christ, etc.

If asked for scriptures that indicate children?s innate goodness, many members might quote the prophet Mormon condemnation of infant baptism. However, his reasons don?t necessarily indicate it is because children are good, but because they are innocent and unaccountable for their actions. Mormon writes that ?their little children need no repentance, neither baptism?. But little children are alive in Christ?. For the power of redemption cometh on all them that have no law? (Moroni 8: 11, 22). Other reasons include the injustice of a God that would condemn innocent children to hell for failure to do something they have no knowledge of or power to do. His reasons focus not on children?s goodness, but their innocence.

Still, the syllogism seems to be that if saints should be good, and saints should be like children, children must be good. Still scriptural examples can still be read as seeing children not as acting righteously, but as being innately righteous. While criticized for ?trying to save ourselves through works,? Mormon theology does require knowledge to act righteously and places prime importance on agency or free will. While Mormon theology asserts that ?salvation was and is and is to come? through the atoning blood of Christ (Mosiah 3: 18), Joseph Smith reveals that ?It is impossible for a man to be saved in ignorance? (D&C 131: 6). The goal seems to be a fusion of the inherently good qualities of a child?especially those of submission to a heavenly father?fused with the understanding, knowledge, and decision-making ability of an adult. Children are naively good, but adults must discern and imitate children?s good qualities.

So, despite the veil, I think Mormonism leans towards seeing children as noble savages. Unruly at times, perhaps, but basically good. In fact, in direct opposition to the tabula rasa, I often hear members speak of how ?the veil is very thin for children.? A folk explanation for why infants smile and giggle at blank walls is that they are seeing angels while a medical explanation would credit gas.

On the other hand, Mormons seem less concerned with what children are and more concerned with what to do with them. ?Train up a child in the way he should go: and when he is old, he will not depart from it? (Proverbs 22:  6), is more than just a proverb in Mormon families. After giving Moses the law, God commands that these things be taught to their children on multiple occasions (see Deut. 4: 10; 6: 7; and 11: 19-21). Ephesians, in the New Testament encourages us to ?bring up [children] in the nurture and admonition of the Lord (Eph. 6: 4), The Book of Mormon includes numerous examples of children being taught (like the Stripling Warriors), Nephi and Enos both reflect on words they were taught by their fathers in their youth (see 1Ne 1: 1 and Enos 1: 1), and Lehi preaches to and corrects his children many times (see 1 Ne 2: 8-9, 1 Ne 8: 37). King Benjamin exhorts his people to ?teach [their children] to walk in the ways of truth and soberness? (Mosiah 4: 15), and the Doctrine and Covenants include the injunction to ?bring up your children in light? (D&C 93: 40), and a warning for parents who do not teach their children (D&C 68: 25). In general conference, sacrament meeting, and church magazines (two of which are aimed exclusively at children), members are counseled on the importance of and how to raise their children. The training and teaching of children is a high priority for the church and its members. All of which indicate a strong belief in and support of the child as a blank slate, the child in need of acculturation and guidance to become proper adults.

So we might believe children are noble savages, but we treat them as blank slates.

To complicate, but not settle, this question a bit more, Terryl Givens in People of Paradox notes that Joseph Smith?s experience in physically meeting God the Father and Jesus the Son, having actual angelic hands placed on his head to confer the power of the priesthood, and translating 50 lb. golden plates imbued him and Mormonism with a predilection for certain knowledge. Contemporary evidence can be seen in monthly testimony meetings in any ward or branch in the church. The emphasis in testimonies thus shared is more on knowledge than simply belief. On the other hand, Joseph Smith also taught that knowledge and progression were a ceaseless struggle that took not only entire lives but were something to work on ?a great while after you have passed through the veil (qtd. In Givens 30).?

Children are associated with innocence and naiveté, adults with knowledge and experience. But this paradox between certain knowledge and ceaseless striving for ever more and greater knowledge extends the spectrum between naiveté and knowledge out to infinity and beyond. When using such a measure, we are all children, childish, childlike. At the conclusion of a conference Joseph Smith stated ?Brethren, I have been very much edified and instructed in your testimonies here tonight, but I want to say to you before the Lord, that you know no more concerning the destinies of this Church and kingdom than a babe upon its mother?s lap. You don?t comprehend it? (Woodruff, Wilford. Conference Report, Apr. 1898, p. 57). While Joseph?s comment was specific to knowing the future of the church, the comparison of even the highest in the church hierarchy to ?a babe upon its mother?s lap,? shows that anyone in mortality can be seen as a child. What do we do with such malleable and conflicted boundaries and terms for the rising generation, our heritage from the Lord, our brothers and sisters, our children?


Article filed under Miscellaneous


  1. Fascinating reflections. This really opens up a subject I have given little thought. I’m especially intrigued by the idea that Mormon thought about childhood is related to a theology of human nature in general. Thanks, Spencer!

    Comment by Ryan T. — October 30, 2013 @ 10:41 am

  2. This is great, Spencer—thank you. It complements nicely, I think, my own post on LDS understandings of childhood spirituality from a couple of weeks ago and answers some of the questions I posed there.

    I look forward to reading your article!

    Comment by Christopher — October 30, 2013 @ 12:17 pm

  3. This piece reminds of the multiple layered meanings and appropriations of the label/title/identity of “child” and “children.” I was particularly intrigued to see how children are called “noble savages” and then to think in turn how indigenous peoples such as Native Americans have been called and identified as “children” for various purposes.

    Comment by Farina — October 30, 2013 @ 2:42 pm

  4. Thanks Spencer! Insightful and fascinating. Looking forward to reading your piece!

    Comment by Brant — October 30, 2013 @ 4:14 pm

  5. Very interesting, Spencer, to think about the competing discourses about childhood parsed. You’re definitely on to something. Like Farina, I wondered about the use of “noble savage” and whether that’s your term or if you’ve found historical sources describing children in those terms.

    Comment by David G. — October 30, 2013 @ 5:55 pm

  6. This was a very helpful post for contextualizing my own work on Mormon girlhood. I do wonder how unique these tensions are to Mormonism versus other religious traditions.

    Comment by Natalie R — October 31, 2013 @ 1:13 am

  7. Thanks, all, for your comments! Yesterday was a hectic day for me, or I would have responded to some of these then.

    Farina and David, the term “noble savage” is connected with Romantic primitivist ideas in Europe, and is just a synonym, in my mind anyway, to this specula natura idea which Gary Cross identifies in his book, The Cute and the Cool.

    And Natalie R, that is a fascinating question I would love to look in to.

    Comment by Spencer — October 31, 2013 @ 11:45 am

  8. Hi Spencer! You introduce yourself as a folklorist but I didn’t see much folklore here. Do you have folkloric examples that represent the lived experiences of Mormons and their views on childhood? I think this would be a great forum for you to share some of your folkloric findings (of course, that is, if you have looked into it)! All the best, Carlos D.

    Comment by Carlos D — October 31, 2013 @ 12:45 pm


Recent Comments

J Stuart on Reassessing the Classics: Armand: “Thanks for this. I think about this book all the time and I'm always glad to have a refresher on its contents and arguments.”

Tyler on Guest Post - Mormonism: “Thank you, all, for your help and support!”

J. Stapley on A Quick Note: Historicizing: “Here is the YM org chart from 1967, which doesn't include a YM's presidency, so perhaps that dating of the presidencies to the mid 1970s…”

Mees Tielens on The Mechanics of Applying: “Just a gentle tip that if you are one of the interdisciplinary folks presenting at MHA your panel will probably not be well attended, but…”

Ardis on The Mechanics of Applying: “Thanks, J. My memory isn't perfect, but so far as it extends I don't recall ever seeing such a comprehensive and easy-to-follow explainer of the…”

J Stuart on 2019 Book of Mormon: “Eccles Conference Center, Rooms 201 and 205. I don't have any further information and their website doesn't seem to be updated.”