The Age of (Un)Accountability

guestbaptism, book of mormon, catholicism, children, christianity, grace, homosexuality, spiritual progression 22 Comments

NOTE: This is the first post for a new Guest Author – The Faithful Dissident. We look forward to many more to come.

Growing up with younger siblings, I always had a hard time believing that Satan couldn’t possess kids under the age of eight.  And that goes for myself too, since if what my parents have said is true, I was a bit of a devil child.  But, in all seriousness, I have some questions that make it hard for me to not see conflicts between the doctrine of the Age of Accountability and other Church doctrine.

“From latter-day revelation, we know that little children are redeemed through the mercy of Jesus Christ. The Lord said, “They cannot sin, for power is not given unto Satan to tempt little children, until they begin to become accountable before me” (see D&C 29:46–47). They are not to be baptized until they reach the age of accountability, which the Lord has revealed to be eight years of age (see D&C 68:27; Joseph Smith Translation, Genesis 17:11). Anyone who claims that little children need baptism “denieth the mercies of Christ, and setteth at naught the atonement of him and the power of his redemption” (Moroni 8:20; see also verses 8–19, 21–24).” (, Topic Definition, Little Children And Baptism)

I’ve always wondered, then, why some kids under the age of eight can do bad things — really bad things — like commit murder, sexual assault, etc.  Although such occurrences are rare, they have happened and I wonder how the doctrine of the Age of Accountability and the power of Satan can explain them.

We believe that God can only influence us to do good and Satan can only influence us to do bad. But since “power is not given unto Satan to tempt little children, until they begin to become accountable before (God),” how are they even capable of doing bad things? That children are influenced by adults and the world around them is certain. Those children under the age of eight who do commit crimes are clearly under the influence of someone or something, but I’m not exactly sure what it is.

A seven year-old who stabs his playmate or displays sexual aggression is not accountable for what he has done and is not guilty of sin in the eyes of God. I understand that. But what is the power driving a child to commit such a crime? If someone is not forcing him to do it, what is influencing him, if not Satan?

I’ve also wondered about how the Age of Accountability applies to matters of homosexuality and gender confusion.  From as far as I can remember (which is about age 4 or 5), I have known that I was attracted to boys (I am female). I was too young to know what a heterosexual was or that I was one. I simply knew that I wanted to chase boys. Many homosexuals and transgenders report much the same thing: that they knew from a very young age that they were either attracted to the same sex, or perhaps felt that their physical gender was in conflict with their mental/emotional gender. Even if they were too young to understand the technicalities or significance of these feelings, they were at least able to recognize the feelings in themselves.

So, getting back to how this applies to children under eight and how Satan cannot influence them, it seems to me that in order for this doctrine of the Age of Accountability to be true, homosexual or gender conflict cannot be categorized as “temptation.”  And if it’s not a temptation, then how can it be from Satan?  If the homosexual feelings or gender confusion (not acts, but desires) are temptations coming from Satan, enticing them to engage in homosexual behaviour or making them desire a gender reassignment operation (both of which are potentially grounds for excommunication among adults), then how could a little child under the age of eight ever be capable of experiencing them? If Satan has no power over them, then they can’t come from him. But to say they come from God would be blasphemous in the eyes of many.  God can only encourage us to go good, while Satan can only entice us to do evil.

So, in conclusion, I have two questions:

1.) How are some children under the age of eight capable of committing heinous crimes, without being forced into it by anyone, if Satan has no power over them?

2.) How can a child under the age of eight experience homosexual desire and/or gender conflict if such thoughts and feelings are to be classified as temptations from the adversary?

Comments 22

  1. In my opinion, the line of reasoning and two questions above are the result of the author overlooking a simple but important fact about the source, or more accurately the sources (plural), of temptation. The fact that Satan tempts us does not mean Satan is the ONLY source of temptation in the world. I could be a source of temptation; you could be a source of temptation; anyone can be a source of temptation for anyone. Moreover, we can all be a source of temptation for ourselves. Satan doesn’t have to be perched on the shoulder of either a child or an adult in order for that person to feel impulses to anger, lust, jealously, greed, etc. Let’s not forget that although we may be spiritual beings inwardly, our spirits are housed in what are essentially animal bodies. We have plenty of self-generated animal tendencies and instincts that need to be tamed.

  2. I agree with #1, in the sense that Satan is not the sole source of sin and/or temptation.

    Also, I tend to believe that little children are capable of all sorts of things, good and bad. However, not being accountable means that the atonement covers them regardless.

  3. To sin implies knowledge of a)the law & b)the consequences of going against that law, then still choosing to go against it. A child who has not reached accountiblity does not have a knowledge base to make those decisions. Therefore, s/he may commit a transgression: going against the law without fully understanding the implications of doing such, but not a sin.

    To answer your first question a little more directly, a child of such an age can commit horrible acts if s/he is taught how to do so by any number of people/influences (see 1 & 2). As a 7 year old, my sister taught me to say “naughty” words in a different language that what we spoke at home, but I did not understand what I was saying.

    Your second question makes a leap in assuming that “such thoughts and feelings are tobe classified as temptations from the adversary…” Again, see 1’s answer. And, take a look at what Dallin H Oaks wrote in March of 1996:

    Some kinds of feelings seem to be inborn. Others are traceable to mortal experiences. Still other feelings seem to be acquired from a complex interaction of “nature and nurture.” All of us have some feelings we did not choose, but the gospel of Jesus Christ teaches us that we still have the power to resist and reform our feelings (as needed) and to assure that they do not lead us to entertain inappropriate thoughts or to engage in sinful behavior.

    Different persons have different physical characteristics and different susceptibilities to the various physical and emotional pressures we may encounter in our childhood and adult environments. We did not choose these personal susceptibilities either, but we do choose and will be accountable for the attitudes, priorities, behavior, and “lifestyle” we engraft upon them.

  4. “I could be a source of temptation; you could be a source of temptation; anyone can be a source of temptation for anyone.”

    I agree that we can be the source of temptation for another person, but are we the original source? Are we self-generators of temptation? Yes, we have “animal tendencies and instincts,” (i.e. anger, lust, jealousy) but are they truly self-generated?

  5. When an adult is experiencing a same sex attraction, he is entertaining thoughts about having sexual relations with another man. If the sexual act is a sin, then how is the sexual thought not a temptation from the adversary, since it could potentially pull him away from the Lord’s prescribed plan for happiness? “Normal” heterosexual desires are acceptable because it’s what drives people to get married and procreate, whereas homosexual desires or transgender confusion — if acted upon — will result in committing sin in the eyes of the Church. Isn’t that exactly what the adversary wants? Is Satan just getting lucky that we are capable of tempting ourselves and are doing his job for him?

  6. I’m going to make an experimental foray…not saying I believe this but here goes nothing

    normal heterosexual desires aren’t from God or the adversary. They are from a person. So, in regards to 4 and 5, yes, they are self-generated. Not chosen, and perhaps the entire mechanism hasn’t been figured out, but these emotions come from you.

    So, homosexual desires could easily also come from within a person as well.

  7. Eight years old is, if I recall correctly, the age at which abstract thought becomes possible for most children. That may have something to do with it.

    Most of us are not really capable of sin until many years older than that–it’s transgression, as we don’t really understand the whys and wherefores.

  8. 1) Even if Satan isn’t directly tempting children, they are still fallen, housed in mortal (or “animal”) bodies. Satan may be indirectly responsible for the Fall, or at least how the Fall turned out, because he tempted Eve to eat the fruit when she had been commanded not to eat it. So children are susceptible to anger, lust, greed, etc. to the extent that their fallen bodies (including hormones) cause them to be. Also, children are particularly impressionable, so they can be taught horrible behavior without understanding it. This was a longish way of restating what Elder Oaks said in #3.

    2) See my answer to #1 above. Feelings may be a “temptation” but that doesn’t mean Satan is standing by a kid’s ear. A child’s homosexual feelings may be a result of hormones, etc. that are only indirectly a result of Satan’s tempting. Also, a child may be influenced by their environment, which may be manipulated by Satan’s tempting. Referring to every influence that guides us to do things against God’s will as “temptations” is accurate, but it is also simplistic and not the whole truth.

  9. “1.) How are some children under the age of eight capable of committing heinous crimes, without being forced into it by anyone, if Satan has no power over them?”

    Imo, children still have the traits and personality characteristics they had in the pre-existence, and they bring those with them into mortality. If at age 6 they are deliberately killing and enjoying it, as some serial killers are reported to have with animals, then they are still committing a ‘sin’ even though Satan had no part in tempting then to do it and the atonement covers their needs without any request. But at some level they may know that they are doing wrong just like in the pre-existence some knew that Satan was doing wrong. Remember that in the pre-existence we and Satan still had the ability to do some limited wrong and some right too. Also the age of eight is a generic line in the sand, some take longer to reach the status of accountability since we are all different.

    2) I’m really having some trouble here believing that you were attracted to boys at age 4. Actually I don’t believe it because that comes with puberty. And this ‘attraction’ is THE difference between us and pre-existence folk, or between us and children. I just can’t see Satan tempting a 10 year old pre-pubescent child into fornication, that child will just ask: what’s all that about?? Unless there are issues of abuse but thats another matter.

  10. Allow me to dabble in some radicalism for a second. The Lord has told us precious little about the definition of accountability. Indeed, the scriptures never point to a connection between the age of accountability and baptism. When a person turns 8, is there some accountability switch that is flipped on the first day of their new year? And obviously, that scripture does not address the myriad cases of mental illness. So what did that verse mean? Given the myriad exceptions, we can not take it as an across-the-board dictum anything like unto “Thou Shalt Not Commit Adultery.”

    Additionally, it’s almost useless attempting to demonstrate that this verse in JST was indeed written down somewhere on a forgotten manuscript…so in a sense, it is only useful to determine how this verse of the Bible interacted with Joseph Smith’s 19th-century mind. As far as I’m concerned, Joseph was receiving this revelation in relationship to the organization of the Church, not as a descriptor for every individual case. There are many 8-year olds who are not accountable. There are probably many 5-year olds who are.

    I conclude that we can deem this verse of the JST to be a societal revelation (the Lord gives them all the time–one set of earrings, modesty, etc.), an easy-to-digest rule that allows us to maintain an order of progression into the Church that was never intended to be a sweeping description of men’s souls.

  11. I agree with Russell. The age of 8 may not be completely arbitrary but it was definitely a blanket-type, administrative decision. We know for sure that there are some people who grow up past the age of 8 physically but never mentally (those with disabilities). There are definite exceptions here.

    And yeah, it’s false to think that temptation only comes from Satan. In the animal kingdom, if a monkey is starving and he sees another monkey with food he just might potentially kill that monkey and eat its food. That doesn’t mean Satan is tempting monkeys. A cat will sit and play with a mouse, bat it around, and eventually kill it to eat it. Torturing another animal? For fun? What’s the deal? That’s not Satan either. It just means that the natural state of this world is to kill or be killed. The natural man is an enemy to God and all that.

    When we’re born a battle begins between our physical, natural selves, and our spiritual selves. It only makes sense to me that our natural selves are not too far from that monkey (Darwin alert! Darwin alert!).

  12. It’s interesting to consider something:

    A) We are told that we will not be punished for Adam’s transgression, but only for our own sins.

    B) I believe if that statement is going to have any real, practical meaning it has to be interpreted in a way that includes the EFFECT of Adam’s transgression on each of us. Otherwise, it’s just theoretical.

    C) How did Adam’s transgression affect us? By making us be born into a world where we are subject to “natural” impulses – to the animal instincts of our physical bodies.

    D) Some of those instincts are fairly superficial and easily controlled – even changeable; some of them are deeply ingrained and very difficult, if not impossible, to change fully.

    E) Every single one of us has some “thorn of the flesh”, like Paul, with which we will grapple until the day we die. That thorn is buried so deeply that it simply won’t come out – no matter how hard we try, since if it finally did, we literally would be perfect in all ways.

    F) Therefore, it seems to me that the 2nd Article of Faith says that the Atonement covers all those things that we didn’t choose by simple virtue of our having been born of Adam and Eve into this fallen world. We need to strive to grow and progress and become perfect (complete, whole, fully developed), but the Atonement covers the gap between what we are and what we want to be.

    G) Satan’s role, therefore, seems to me to be focused on tempting us to “strengthen” those characteristics we inherited (our “natural [wo]man”) that would keep us from becoming like God and “acquire” new negative ones that aren’t natural for us, while the Holy Ghost is working to weaken our inherited negative characteristics (ideally, to eliminate them) and acquire positive ones that aren’t natural for us – to become more complete, whole and fully developed.

    H) That perspective allows for all influences to be active from birth on everyone, including children. The accountability issue, therefore, would be based simply on when the person would be able to understand well enough to work on changing (“repenting”, in the strictest sense of the word). The years up until accountability become a “grace period” where nothing is required of the child; the years after accountability become the time when we are required to engage in active repenting – active change.

    I) Finally, this gives me hope for those who are born with ANY inclination that is considered “natural” and is so strong and deeply ingrained that it can’t be separated from who they are – that can’t be eliminated fully in this life. It gives me tremendous hope for any number of people, but especially for those who literally are attracted sexually only to those of the same sex.

  13. In answer to the post’s two questions, kids commit crimes under the age of eight sometimes because they develop attachment disorder due to an unsafe and unloving environment from birth. This can be as mild as anti-social behavior or as serious as something akin to feral children, people who are never capable of feeling anything. In those cases, I have to think it is a serious mental illness that prevents adult development of things like a conscience. Literally, these are remorseless kids incapable of caring what is right and wrong. I know that sounds like an excuse to law-abiding citizens, but so does much of mental illness.

    On the second question, pre-pubescent gender attraction is not sexual in nature. Sexual behaviors for kids (when more than playing doctor) would be a byproduct of sexual molestation. Gender attraction (wanting to be around that gender) is something that is often natural at a young age, but again, doesn’t necessarily indicate sexual preference. For example, a heterosexual man may be more comfortable around either male or female friends. It’s not an indication of sexual preference. “Chasing boys” as you describe is more likely a byproduct of your social environment either in the family or neighborhood.

    Just a few thoughts.

  14. #13 – “Sexual behaviors for kids (when more than playing doctor) would be a byproduct of sexual molestation.”

    or “premature” exposure to sexuality that wouldn’t fit the standard definition of “molestation” but might fit an expansive definition of “abuse”, which is a whole new topic in and of itself.

  15. 1. Who “tempted” Satan to rebel? No one; he did it himself. The only thing necessary to generate evil is moral agency. If there were no devil, we’d still all act on evil; Adam and Eve would still have transgressed in the Garden, etc. Other commenters have taken up the point of sin being part knowledge of good and evil *and* part willful evil choice. Children can do all kinds of very bad, and very evil things. They just aren’t *accountable* for doing them because of their lack of either knowledge, or capacity to choose, or both. So yes, children can and do perform evil acts of their own volition without “temptation” from an external source. As do we all. The difference only lies in whether we are held accountable for them.

    It is good to keep in mind that theologically we are not dualistic. We don’t believe in Ahura Mazda fighting Angra Mainyu. And giving Satan all the credit for inciting all evil is doing just that.

    2. Preadolescent sexual behaviors are not *biological* in the common sense of the term. They don’t come from the hormonal cues and responses/cell signaling; the glands themselves aren’t sensitive/functioning as the post-adolescent glands do. I am not an endocrinologist, but I play one on TV. Other commenters have said this more clearly than I could.

  16. “Who “tempted” Satan to rebel? No one; he did it himself.”

    So, little kids who do horrible things aren’t tempted, they’re just EEEVIL?

  17. Ray – I was using the term molestation pretty broadly, as you suggest. I always think of it in the term of the Spanish word molestar which is more like “interference” (the literal meaning is “to bother”).

  18. I agree that we can be the source of temptation for another person, but are we the original source? Are we self-generators of temptation? Yes, we have “animal tendencies and instincts,” (i.e. anger, lust, jealousy) but are they truly self-generated?

    I’m quoting Joseph Smith from memory (always a risky prospect), but he said in effect that the spirit of man stands independent of the spirit of God and the spirit of the devil. Clearly we can choose to do good in spite of temptation from the devil; it only stands to reason that we can choose to do evil in spite of influence from the Spirit of God. So, yes, we can self-generation our own choices, and we can certainly tempt, influence, and otherwise affect those around us. ..bruce..

  19. C’mon guys, lighten up. Little kids have moving pieces, some of which (I’ll leave it up to the users’ imagination) go Sproing! They’re curious. They’re not evil, and it doesn’t require, say, should a bit of exploration take place, that either child be put on some list of sex offenders that then ruin their lives forever; nor does it require that a parent determine said child is evil, likewise shaming the kid into, well, you know. Just deal, with as little drama as possible. Sheesh.

  20. Eight years old is, if I recall correctly, the age at which abstract thought becomes possible for most children. That may have something to do with it.

    I’ve thought that was important for about thirty years.

    How did Adam’s transgression affect us? By making us be born into a world where we are subject to “natural” impulses – to the animal instincts of our physical bodies. Or how a child of six or younger can have a serious drug or alcohol addiction.

  21. “the whole need no physician, but they that are sick; wherefore, little cchildren are whole, for they are not capable of committing sin;” (Mor. 8:8)

    Folks. This is not about – do little children do things that are wrong? Of course they do. They specialize in it. It is not – do little children know between right and wrong? They do to an extent. They know what displeases mortals with whom they have contact. They, however, know nothing about the withdrawal of the Spirit.

    “wherefore the curse of Adam is taken from them in me, that it hath no power over them;” (Mor. 8:8)

    By nature, little children should also be carnal, sensual, and devilish. (the curse of Adam) But they are not. Why? Because God said so.

    “And their children shall be baptized for the remission of their sins when eight years old,” (D&C 68:27)

    When God says eight years old, that is what He means. Which is to say that between 0 and 7 364/365 years they are not ‘sick’. They are whole. They are not capable of committing sin. To baptize a child during these years is solemn mockery before God. I don’t know, for sure, what that means but it sounds terrible. Understand! A discussion of baptism is a discussion about well defined law.

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