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The Feebleminded

Jewish refugees aboard the St. Louis, June 1939

Where Science Meets Religion by Trent Dee Stephens, PhD, for the Come Follow Me lesson October 16–22: 1 and 2 Thessalonians

In 1 Thessalonians 5:14 the King James translation of Paul’s letter to the Thessalonians states, “Now we exhort you, brethren, warn them that are unruly, comfort the feebleminded, support the weak, be patient toward all men.” I have chosen to focus this week on the word “feebleminded” and ask: what does it mean to “comfort the feebleminded”? The term “feebleminded” shows up only once (in 1 Thessalonians 5:14) in all of scripture. As I often do, I first turned to Bible Hub to see what the Greek word is and what are the preferred translations. The Greek word is ὀλιγοψύχους(oligopsychous) and the translations, according to Strong’s Concordance (1890) are: “faint-hearted or of small courage.” Twenty eight of the thirty two translations of 1 Thessalonians 5:14 listed at Bible Hub use the word/words: “fainthearted,” “disheartened,” “timid,” or “feeble souls.” Only one, the King James Version, uses the word “feebleminded.” Three others, Webster’s Bible revision (1833), Young's Literal Translation (1862, 1887), and the Literal Standard Version (2018); all use the term “feeble-minded.” Webster’s revision was a revision of the King James Bible, so it is logical that Webster kept the word “feebleminded” or “feeble-minded.” However, the latter two claim to be “literal translations” of the original Greek or Hebrew. I don’t see how that is possible, and how they came up with the word “feeble-minded” for ὀλιγοψύχους without reference to the King James Bible or, more likely, the Tyndale Bible (see below). Both Ellicott’s and the Pulpit Commentaries prefer the term fainthearted.1

The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) defines feebleminded as: “1. a word for a person with a low level of intelligence that is now considered offensive; 2. weak and unable to make decisions.” The OED also states that “the earliest recorded use of the term in the English language dates from 1534, when it appears in one of the first English translations of the New Testament, the Tyndale Bible. A biblical commandment to “comforte the feble mynded” is included in 1 Thessalonians.”

William Tyndale (c. 1494 – 1536) wrote pieces of what would become known as the Tyndale Bible between 1522 and 1535. He worked directly from the Hebrew and Greek, but he also relied heavily on the Latin Vulgate.

The Latin Vulgate for 1 Thessalonians 5:14 states, “Rogamus autem vos, fratres, corripite inquietos, consolamini pusillanimes, suscipite infirmos, patientes estote ad omnes.” “Consolamini pusillanimes” may be translated as “comfort the little souls” or “small minded.” However, the Tyndale Bible states “comforte the feble mynded.” It is unclear why Tyndale chose those specific words. Jon Nielson and Royal Skousen proposed that about 85% of the King James translation was from the Tyndale Bible. So “comfort the feebleminded” in that translation almost certainly came directly from Tyndale’s “comforte the feble mynded.”2

The Oxford Dictionary defines feeble as: “lacking physical strength, especially as a result of age or illness, faint.” The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines feeble as: “weak, frail, fragile, or infirm.” The Oxford Dictionary defines mind as: “the element of a person that enables them to be aware of the world and their experiences, to think, and to feel; the faculty of consciousness and thought.” Certainly William Tyndale, in the 16th century, would not have equated mind with brain as we do today.

We probably will never know why Tyndale chose the words “feble mynded,” but we can be certain that by the word “mynded” he was not referring to the brain as we know it today. Carl Zimmer, in his book, Soul Made Flesh: The Discovery of the Brain — and How It Changed the World, stated, “In 1600 Western ideas about the soul were still guided by Galen, no matter what a few people like Vesalius thought in private [Andreas Vesalius, 1514 – 1564, who published The Fabrica in 1543, the seminal work in anatomy]. The souls of heart and liver still governed the emotions, desires, and appetites. The rational soul’s faculties still swirled mysteriously in the void of the ventricles.” “Henry More [1614 – 1687] wrote about the brain, he declared that ‘this lax pith or marrow in man’s head shows no more capacity for thought than a cake of suet or a bowl of curds.’”3 The word “phrenic,” as in the phrenic nerve, which innervates the diaphragm, means the “seat of the mind.” This term suggests that the heart, which sits upon the diaphragm, is the mind. Therefore when Tyndale used the term “feble mynded,” he was essentially saying “weak hearted” or “faint hearted,” which is the translation of the Greek we see at Bible Hub and in the Latin Vulgate.

So how did “feebleminded” go from meaning “faint hearted” to meaning a “low level of intelligence”? That idea only first appeared in the late 19th century, and apparently, the culprit was Charles Trevelyan (1807 – 1886), who first used the term “feebleminded” around 1876, apparently in relation to the poor Irish, many of whom he had murdered during the Irish famine of 1845-1849. As Assistant Secretary to the British Treasury, Trevelyan is mostly remembered for his role in refusing to disburse government food and financial aid to the Irish during the Great Famine, due to his strong belief in laissez-faire economics.His opinion was that God’s judgement had sent the famine to teach the Irish a lesson — so who was he to interfere with their starvation. The original classification of mental deficiency apparently was: “idiocy,” at the lowest end of the scale; “imbecility,” in the middle; and “feeble-mindedness” at the highest end of mental deficiency.4

In 1908, the British Royal Commission on the Care and Control of the Feeble-Minded published a report proposing that “…‘mental defect’ was primarily an inherited condition that would not respond to environmental improvements and should therefore be controlled through legislation that enforced certification and custodial care.” The Royal Commission on the Poor Law in 1909 supported the idea of legislative control of the “mentally defective.” The British Eugenics Society, lobbied for such legislation, and the first Mental Deficiency Act was passed in 1913. Section 1 (b) of the Mental Deficiency Act defined “imbeciles,” the “feeble-minded,” “idiots,” and “moral defectives” as incapable of learning and thus deemed them the responsibility of the Board of Control. In 1929, a Mental Deficiency Committee clarified some of the subtleties and classified “low-grade, defective” children as “feeble-minded,” “imbeciles,” and ‘idiots,” who would now all be the responsibility of the Board of Control.5

With the origin of the term “feeble-mindedness” lying in the Tyndale Bible and then the King James Bible, Trevelyan and others must have picked up the term there and then repurposed it to fill in a word they felt necessary within their hierarchy. By the beginning of the 20th century, the term “moron” apparently had sometimes replaced “feeblemindedness.” None-the-less, Edward Sherlock’s 1911 book was entitled, The Feeble-Minded…6 Edmund Burke Huey entitled his 1912 book, Backward and Feeble-minded Children…7 Likewise, Henry H. Goddard, director of Research at the Vineland Training School for Feebleminded Girls and Boys in southern New Jersey, from 1906 to 1918, published his idiotic book, The Kallikak Family: A Study in the Heredity of Feeble-Mindedness, in 1912. In his book, Goddard included tuberculosis and alcoholism under the category “feeble-mindedness.” Apparently, we are supposed to conclude from Goddard’s “data” that someone with tuberculosis is to be considered a “defective” individual, and that in some way, tuberculosis, feeble-mindedness and alcoholism are genetically connected. Environmental influences were not even mentioned.8

In 1908, Goddard traveled to Europe to learn what intellectual testing was being conducted there. He was looking for some quantitative tool to measure intelligence, or the lack thereof. There he became acquainted with the work of the French psychologist Alfred Binet who had coauthored the Binet-Simon Intelligence (IQ) Test. This test was exactly what Goddard was looking for, so he translated the test from French into English for wide dissemination throughout the United States. Very soon, Goddard was training physicians, psychologists, and public school teachers how to impose his new test. Beginning in 1912, Goddard applied the Binet IQ test to immigrants at Ellis Island, to weed out the undesirables. The popular opinion of the time held that too many intellectually inferior people were filtering through Ellis Island into the United States. The flood of undesirables needed to be stemmed. The test questions given to the immigrants were biased, with the results skewed toward supporting the concept of inferior immigrating races. An example of an “IQ” question was: “Which of the two faces is prettier depicted in this image?” Clearly any response to such a question is subjective.9

Francis Galton, a British elitist, self-proclaimed genius, and cousin of Charles Darwin, coined the term “eugenics” in 1883. He defined eugenics as, “the study of agencies under social control that may improve or impair the racial qualities of future generations either physically or mentally.” Galton selected himself as the archetypal pinnacle of human intellectual prowess. He and many other racists, which may at times mean nearly everyone, believed that selective breeding could improve the human gene pool. Racism and a belief in Social Darwinism became the norm across Europe and the Americas. Native Americans were thought of and treated as savages, were forced from their lands, and were hunted, infected and starved to near extinction. Knowledge of their intellectual heritage was actively suppressed. Black slavery in the United States and in other parts of the Americas, followed by the Jim Crow Laws for a century after the emancipation of the slaves as a result of the Civil War, attempted to classify blacks in America as inferior to whites. German and Dutch settlers moved into South West Africa beginning in 1884 and considered the native population to be subhuman. The goal there was to annihilate the native Herero and Nama peoples and settle their lands with German and Dutch immigrants. Africans were referred to as “baboons” and were treated like animals.10 American eugenicists from a number of disciplines and institutions declared certain individuals unfit, “feebleminded” or anti-social, which led to the involuntary sterilization of at least 60,000 people, across 30 states, into the 1970s.11

The “logical” conclusion of eugenics occurred in the German Holocaust. The Nazi German racial, criminal state between 1933 and 1945 used much of its resources to “cleanse” Germany and any territory under Nazi control of those they deemed “unworthy of life.” Under these policies, the Nazis euthanized some 70,000 – 200,000 adults and 5,200 – 100,000 children. They implemented a campaign of forced sterilization that claimed at least 400,000 victims.12 The Nazis, along with their allies and collaborators, murdered six million Jewish people and another six million other “undesirables,” including Soviet POWs, non-Jewish Poles, “Gypsies,” political opponents, blacks, conscientious objectors, and LGBTQ people during the Holocaust.13

But the US was not without blame in the holocaust, we turned away thousands of European refugees before and during the war years. In 1938 alone, American consulates received 125,000 applicants for visas, many of them coming from Germany and annexed territories, but the national quotas for German and Austrian immigrants had been set firmly at 27,000, and so 98,000 of the applications were denied. The most notorious incident occurred in June 1939, when the German ocean liner St. Louis, with 937 passengers, almost all Jewish, was turned away from US sanctuary at the port of Miami. The ship was forced to return to Europe where more than a quarter of the passengers would die in the Holocaust. Why were so many refugees turned away? They may be Nazi spies. “Government officials from the State Department to the FBI to President Franklin Roosevelt himself argued that refugees posed a serious threat to national security.” In February 1942, Roosevelt, fearing Japanese

spies and saboteurs, ordered the internment of tens of thousands of Japanese-Americans.14

In 1944, the Treasury Department released a damning report initialed by attorney Randolph Paul. It read: “I am convinced on the basis of the information which is available to me that certain officials in our State Department, which is charged with carrying out this policy, have been guilty not only of gross procrastination and wilful [sic] failure to act, but even of wilful attempts to prevent action from being taken to rescue Jews from Hitler.” The State Department’s attitude toward immigration was shaped not only by wartime paranoia, but also by downright bigotry. Those actions were fed by the “fear of the foreigner.”15

My oldest daughter, Summer, used to have a bumper sticker on her car, which read, “Illegal immigration began in 1492.” Even today, we are expanding the fence between the US and Mexico. The Pew Research Center reported that in 2021, the US Border Patrol reported 1,659,206 encounters with migrants at the U.S.-Mexico border. Of that number, 608,037 were from Mexico. Most of the remaining refugees came from Ecuador (95,692), followed by Brazil (56,735), Nicaragua (49,841), Venezuela (47,752), Haiti (45,532), and Cuba (38,139).16

Unemployment, governmental instability, as well as the rise in crime and other violence in those countries are driving the need to leave for safer lands.17 Furthermore, recurrent flooding and draught-induced famine, such as are occurring in places like Sudan and the West African Sahel, are producing long-term trends of migration away from ecologically marginal areas to more productive areas, and from rural areas into urban centers.17

When will it all end? God alone knows — probably not until the second coming of His Son. We are told in Matthew 24:32-33, “Now learn a parable of the fig tree; When his branch is yet tender, and putteth forth leaves, ye know that summer is nigh: So likewise ye, when ye shall see all these things, know that it is near, even at the doors.”

I will start the Fall 2023 series of science/religion discussions on Thursday October 26th. We will meet in the Relief Society room in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints at fourth and Fredregill at 6 pm. This Fall’s topic will be “Who is Adam?”

Trent Dee Stephens, PhD


1.; retrieved 5 October 2023

2. Nielson, Jon, and Royal Skousen, How Much of the King James Bible Is William Tyndale's?, Reformation, 3:49-74, 1998

3. Zimmer, Carl, Soul Made Flesh: The Discovery of the Brain — and How It Changed the World, Free Press, New York, 2004, p. 21 and p. 5

4. Thomson, Mathew, The Problem of Mental Deficiency : Eugenics, Democracy and Social Policy in Britain, c. 1870–1959, Clarendon, Oxford, 1998, p. 14

5. Evans, Bonnie, The Metamorphosis of Autism: A History of Child Development in Britain, Manchester University Press, Manchester, UK, 2017

6. Sherlock, Edward Birchall, The feeble-minded: a guide to study and practice, Macmillan, London, 1911

7. Huey, Edmund Burke, Backward and Feeble-minded Children: Clinical Studies in the Psychology of Defectives, With a Syllabus for the Clinical Examination and Testing of Children, Warwick and York Inc., Baltimore, 1912

8. Borowski, Emily, Eugenics in New Jersey: How the New Jersey State Village for Epileptics Perpetuated Eugenics throughout the State, New Jersey Studies, 8:260-318 2022; see also Davenport, Charles Benedict, Heredity in Relation to Eugenics, Holt, New York, NY, 1911

9.; retrieved 5 October 2023

10. Douglas, Robert A, The Spirit of the Gothic; Eugen Fischer and Genocide in South West Africa,, 2014

11.; retrieved 5 October 2023

12. Ibid

13. Holocaus Encyclopedia, retrieved 6 October 2023

14. Gross, Daniel A., The U.S. Government Turned Away Thousands of Jewish Refugees, Fearing That They Were Nazi Spies, Smithsonian Magazine, November, 2015;; retrieved 6 October 2023

15. Ibid

16.; retrieved 6 October 2023

17.; retrieved 6 October 2023

18. (Sadliwala, Batul and Alex de Waal, The Emerging Crisis: Is Famine Returning as a Major Driver of Migration?, Migration Policy Institute, 15 November 2018;; retrieved 6 October 2023

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