Jonathan A. Stapley’s The Power of Godliness: Mormon Liturgy and Cosmology (OUP, 2018; publisher’s page) is a short tour of Mormon ritual, stressing the history and development of practices and ordinances such as anointing, sealing, baby blessings, and the like. I feel like the subtitle is somewhat misleading. “Liturgy” in other denominations generally refers to the official text or script that guides public religious worship. “Cosmology” refers to scientific theories of the cosmos, or, in a religious context, to speculative theology in a cosmic vein. Well, there is no script for Mormon public worship and the book engages in little theological speculation. What it does do — very well — is review the history and development of what Mormons call “ordinances.” You will learn a lot reading this book. If you are a mainstream Mormon and have not read D. Michael Quinn’s Early Mormonism and the Magic World View (Signature Books, rev. ed., 1998), you should be sitting down while reading Chapter 5.
Stapley plays it straight with the material, presenting a balanced narrative and staying close to his sources. The average doubting Facebooker, sharing a fact or two from the book, would likely employ ALL CAPS and lots of exclamation marks!!! But that’s not how historians write, and Stapley is writing as a historian. So you have to pay careful attention to recognize a gut-punch claim when you read it, such as: “In this chapter I argue that Joseph Smith and other early church leaders explicitly and selectively translated aspects of this [cunning-folk] culture into the liturgy and cosmology of the LDS Church” (p. 106). That is, they Mormonized parts of the magic world view. So there is a lot to digest in this book. I will touch on each chapter in just a paragraph or two. If you read to the end of this review, there’s a surprise.
In Chapter 1, Priesthood Ordination, Stapley examines what he terms the “cosmological priesthood,” which emerged as part of the liturgy and concepts that Joseph Smith introduced with the Nauvoo Temple in 1842 and 1843. Stapley defines it as “an expanded cosmology in which kingship, priesthood, government, and heaven all became synonymous” (p. 17). This term is to be contrasted with the “ecclesiastical priesthood” as elaborated in revelations from the Kirtland period, now canonized in the D&C and closer to what modern Mormons think of when they hear the word “priesthood.” Polygamy and the Nauvoo temple endowment, as well as other rituals and novel doctrinal concepts, all flowed into this grand idea of cosmological priesthood. Stapley is particularly interested in the LDS idea of sealing. Anointings with oil were sealed. Marriages, both legal and plural, were sealed. Parents were sealed to children. Men were adoptively sealed to other men, generally LDS leaders. This whole array of sealing practices was scaled back and brought under the control of the ecclesiastical hierarchy as the 20th century dawned:
[A]fter the official end of polygamy as an organizational force in Mormonism, the priesthood ecclesiology of the church became the primary means by which to direct and order the lives of church members. (p. 23)
He then follows the rise of ecclesiastical priesthood in the 20th century, right up to the Gospel Topics Essay on “Joseph Smith’s Teachings on Women, the Temple, and Priesthood.” Let me just say that you will read that essay with new eyes after reading Stapley’s book. I should note as well that the essay, in its discussion of female healing in the Church, cites Stapley’s paper on female healing, which he authored along with Kristine Wright, at footnotes 32 and 36.
Chapter 2, Sealings, covers four primary types of sealing performed in the 19th century: man-to-woman sealing (marriage), parent-to-child sealing, man-to-man sealing (adoption), and being sealed up to eternal life (aka having one’s calling and election made sure). This is a terribly interesting chapter, focusing on what one might call “temple doctrine” while largely avoiding any discussion of the related temple practices related to those doctrines. Stapley includes a very interesting discussion of “perseverance,” the Reformed doctrine tied to the idea of predestination and the reception of irresistable grace. (“Perseverance of the saints” is the “P” in TULIP.) The question of whether or not a Christian could fall from grace after receiving assurance of salvation was a very lively one in the early 19th century, and early Mormons, converts all, brought this deep concern with them. Stapley offer some quotes from the 1840s, when sealing prompted discussion along these lines by LDS leaders, but the issue goes right back to the day the Church was established in 1830, as shown in these verses from D&C 20:
30 And we know that justification through the grace of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ is just and true;
31 And we know also, that sanctification through the grace of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ is just and true, to all those who love and serve God with all their mights, minds, and strength.
32 But there is a possibility that man may fall from grace and depart from the living God;
33 Therefore let the church take heed and pray always, lest they fall into temptation;
34 Yea, and even let those who are sanctified take heed also.
There’s also a nice discussion of Wilford Woodruff’s (uncanonized) 1894 revelation realigning temple sealings, so “adoptions” were henceforth folded into parent-to-child sealings. And if you’re going to seal your great-grandfather to his parents, you have to know who they are. So this realignment ignited the Mormon passion for genealogy.
Chapter 3, Baby Blessing, which doesn’t sound like a ripping topic, surprised me; it was really quite interesting. Father’s blessings, blessing of infants in church, naming ceremonies, and patriarchal blessings all developed and were practiced in the first few decades, in somewhat overlapping ways. The wording, for example, in the extant texts of early baby blessings sounds a lot like modern patriarchal blessings and also reflects language used in Nauvoo temple rites (which thousands of early Saints experienced in 1843-46, the vocabulary of which then entered LDS discourse). The very much present-day issues around baby blessings were all there in the 19th century: Can the mother hold the infant during the blessing? Can the father voice the blessing if he isn’t a Melchizedek Priesthood holder? If he doesn’t hold any priesthood at all? What about blessing a baby at home as opposed to before the congregation? With or without a bishop attending? Stapley follows these questions right up to the 2010 Handbook changes limiting participation in some priesthood functions (such as confirmations and ordinations) to temple recommend holders, but allowing non-TR men who were otherwise fairly worthy to bless and baptize their children.
Chapter 4, Healing, Authority, and Ordinances, recounts how the gift of healing was first deemed a spiritual gift to be exercised by men and women, then later incorporated elements from temple rituals but was still practiced by women as well as men. Subsequently, in the 20th century, the ecclesiastical priesthood gradually displaced or overshadowed earlier models of healing, eventually monopolizing the practice of healing by way of anointings and sealings or simple priesthood blessings, all to be performed by priesthood holders only. A term that sprang to my mind reading this chapter was “priesthood creep,” analogous to the term “mission creep” used to describe the changing, expanding goals of a military action or intervention as it stretches far beyond its original time and troop commitments. Another example of priesthood creep (my term, not Stapley’s) is his discussion of grave dedications, which started in the 1870s, was still described as nothing more than a prayer, even if voiced by a priesthood holder, as late as the 1940 Handbook, but by 1948 authoritative guidance from the Church was being quoted as directing that “graves are to be dedicated by the authority of the Melchizedek Priesthood.” Voila, swallowed up by the priesthood, a prayer becomes an ordinance. Priesthood creep.
Chapter 5, Cunning-Folk Traditions and Mormon Authority, is a meaty chapter covering ground that is not so unfamiliar to most readers today as it would have been a generation or two ago when accounts of folk practices and popular religion first entered Mormon historiography. Much of Stapley’s discussion focuses on healing. If you remember that professional medicine didn’t have much to offer for many maladies in the 19th century, the popularity of what we now gently call alternative medicine makes more sense. When modern medicine runs out of treatment for someone facing chronic pain or who is on a terminal trajectory, we’re not that different in the 21st century. Here’s a summary sentence from his conclusion to the chapter: “The attenuated cunning-folk tradition on the edge of society — divination, prophecy, and healing in the face of medical failure — all became, in some measure, normalized within the church” (p. 124).
Stapley recounts an interesting episode involving James Talmage. A trained geologist, he examined and “conducted chemical analyses” on some seer stones — not Joseph’s — and declared them “mundane physical objects.” Stapley described Talmage as “emblematic of church members as a whole, who in the twentieth century grew to see the urim and thummim of Joseph Smith as completely dissociated from ‘seer stones’ and any cunning-folk tradition …” (p. 118). In the 21st century, that’s not such an easy distinction to make. See the Gospel Topic Essay “Book of Mormon Translation,” which tells us:
The other instrument [used in translating the Book of Mormon], which Joseph Smith discovered in the ground years before he retrieved the gold plates, was a small oval stone, or “seer stone.” As a young man during the 1820s, Joseph Smith, like others in his day, used a seer stone to look for lost objects and buried treasure. As Joseph grew to understand his prophetic calling, he learned that he could use this stone for the higher purpose of translating scripture. Apparently for convenience, Joseph often translated with the single seer stone rather than the two stones bound together to form the interpreters.
In the Conclusion, Stapley identifies a couple of themes that emerge from the book. One is a “cosmological priesthood … that rose and fell in the history of Mormon belief” (p. 125). Another theme, somewhat related, is the displacement of “gender-inclusive priesthood language” that typified that cosmological priesthood system in the Nauvoo era and after by “the exclusively male ecclesiastical priesthood language” that came later (p. 125). I wish he’d spent about ten more pages in the Conclusion drawing out some of the larger themes and consequences to the earlier material.
If you have read this far, here is your surprise: Jonathan has agreed to do a Q&A piece on the book, which should appear here at W&T in a week or two. I have a few questions in mind, of course, but if any reader wants to throw out a question in the comments to this post, I will try to work it into the exchange. Thanks to the author for a fine book and thanks in advance for responding to a few questions next week.