Jonathan A. Stapley is an award-winning historian and scientist. An active participant in the field of Mormon Studies, he is also the Chief Technology Officer for a bio-renewables company. He is a longtime contributor at the blog By Common Consent. He is the author of the recently published book The Power of Godliness: Mormon Liturgy and Cosmology (Oxford University Press, 2018), which I reviewed here at Wheat and Tares. Jonathan has graciously agreed to respond to a few questions about the book.
Q1 – Much of the detailed discussion in the book covers the history and development of Mormon ritual and liturgy, focusing on what Mormons call “ordinances.” But two key concepts that you employ throughout the book are the “ecclesiastical priesthood” (what Mormons now think of as “the priesthood”) and the “cosmological priesthood,” a term you coined to describe “an expanded cosmology in which kingship, priesthood, government, and heaven all became synonymous” (p. 17). Tell us a little more about why the ecclesiastical priesthood wasn’t enough and what work that the cosmological priesthood did for 19th-century Latter-day Saints.
Jonathan – First, I’ll concede that the term “cosmological priesthood” is somewhat idiosyncratic. I think, however, that most people will find its presentation in The Power of Godliness quite useful. Believers and scholars have struggled to understand how the priesthood language that saturated the Nauvoo temple liturgy and associated cosmology related to generally presentist conceptions of priesthood as experienced in church in the latter half of the twentieth century and the beginning of the twenty-first. Whether it is the relationship between gender and priesthood or the liturgical roles of women in the church, I think that the cosmological priesthood has significant explanatory power. So, for example, participants in the temple referred to themselves as the priesthood, the priesthood order, the quorum, etc. What did that mean? I’m proposing a framework that starts there, and then expands outward to topics as varied as the temple/priesthood restriction and creation narratives.
Q2 – In Chapter 1, Priesthood Ordination, you related how during the 19th century the cosmological priesthood declined as an organizing category for ordering church leadership and theology. Ecclesiastical priesthood, defined as the power of God, began to fill that role after the death of Brigham Young. Modern LDS discourse has reified the priesthood into a thing or force separate from God, which you referred to as “the power used in creation” (p. 23). Theologically, is that the right way to think about the ecclesiastical priesthood? And what have we Mormons lost as a result of this narrower category for assigning authority and legitimizing the exercise of divine authority within the Church?
Jonathan – I’m not sure that I am in a position to judge whether it is a “right way” or not. I do think that it poses really interesting challenges to incorporating both the lived religion and authorized teachings of past church members and leaders into coherent narratives. I think that I am also somewhat resistant to framing developments such as these in terms of loss. I think that this priesthood cosmology, while contributing to the concentration of liturgical and ecclesiastical authorities within the priesthood bureaucracy of the church during the twentieth century, also contributed to the shifts in thinking typified by now-President Oaks’ 2014 General Conference sermon characterizing women in the church as wielding priesthood authority and priesthood power.
Q3 – While reading the book, I coined my own term: “Priesthood Creep.” Over time, the organizational claims and reach of the priesthood expand, displacing prior practices and justifications. Your discussion of grave dedication in Chapter 4 is the perfect example: originally it was just a graveside prayer, later LDS leaders recommended that a priesthood holder say the prayer, then finally a directive was made that the prayer/dedication invoked priesthood power and therefore can be offered only by a man who holds the Melchizedek Priesthood.
Jonathan: Great minds, I guess! Back when Kristine Wright and I were collaborating on the Mormon healing liturgy (a project that resulted in three publications), we sometimes used that term in similar ways. It was a long time ago, but I think it was Kris that came up with it. I don’t know that it ever landed in any of the publications, but I have seen people use the term off and on over the last couple of years on the blogs. That being said, the relationship between the priesthood ecclesiology and all other aspects of our tradition is a very rich vein to mine. I only go over a few of the related issues in the book. There is a lot of work to do here.
Q4 – Chapter 5, Cunning-Folk Traditions and Mormon Authority, covers ground that is somewhat familiar to readers of D. Michael Quinn’s Early Mormonism and the Magic World View (Signature Books, rev. ed., 1998). You highlight how healing was one of the functions associated with folk practitioners of these popular but officially disfavored religious practices, including within early Mormonism. Does this explain the current popularity of alternative healing and medicine with present-day Mormonism?
Jonathan – Mormon healing practice has always been open to alternatives to liturgical healing. In the first years church leaders clearly tried to encourage miraculous healing, but they also clearly recognized that medical treatments were necessary and wise. Like other populist Christian groups in the early nineteenth century, the first generation of Mormons adopted botanic (Thompsonian) medicine as the standard therapeutic regime. By the last quarter of that century, clinical medical is ascendant. But this openness to alternative therapies allows for more than standard medical therapies. And people across political and religious demographics similarly have searched out alternative healing when faced with the failure of traditional therapeutic routes. I think what we find in Mormonism are the interesting ways in which believers have taken alternative healing techniques, whether derivative of cunning folk tradition, modern multilevel marketing, or alternative movements such as energy healing, and infused them with particularly Mormon lexical bracing.
Q5 – Here’s a more general question, thinking about LDS history more broadly. The field has certainly expanded and professionalized since the birth of the New Mormon History in the 1950s. Strangely, at the same time, the average Latter-day Saint has become less and less interested in reading or learning about LDS history. Apart from knowledge for knowledge’s sake, what are these ahistorical Mormons missing out on? In general, why does LDS history matter that much for Mormons? More narrowly, applying that question to your book, what should the average Mormon reading your book learn or understand to improve or enlighten their Mormon life and belief?
Jonathan – I honestly don’t know what the level of interest in the past is among Mormons. We still buy history books at a greater rate than most traditions. Regardless, Mormons still have a deep connection to the past. We have strong commitments to the founding miracles within our tradition, and, through temple worship, a strong connection to our progenitors. The risk of a completely acontextual past is a tenuous connection. If our hearts are turned to our religious and biological kindred dead, then we must have empathy. My sense is that empathy is born of knowledge. If ignorance prevails, the intergenerational binding is merely between successive waves of presentist fiction.