Dr. Jonathan Stapley has written a new book called the Power of Godliness, which talks about LDS priesthood. Jonathan introduces a new term into LDS lexicon: cosmological priesthood. What does that mean?
Jonathan: I called that in the book, the “cosmological priesthood.” Now that I’ve done several book events, I’m tired of that, and I find it annoying and it is a little idiosyncratic and silly. I’m not saying that there was the Aaronic Priesthood, the Melchizedek Priesthood, and the Cosmological Priesthood. It’s a heuristic device that we can use to understand the dynamics and what was the work that these rituals were doing in the community that performed them. And so, we have an ecclesiastical priesthood and what I’m framing is the cosmological priesthood, the Nauvoo temple liturgy. And there’s how Mormons viewed them and how they interacted with these concepts, a shift and change with successive waves of converts and generations of Mormons.
We’ll also talk about the trite phrase about priesthood and motherhood.
Jonathan: When I talk to people about this, Mormons have created a dichotomy oftentimes between priesthood and motherhood, which I talk about in the book and I think isn’t particularly a historical. It is historical in the sense that it’s been around for a while, but it doesn’t make a tremendous amount of sense within our tradition. But I will often ask, what is “the motherhood?” And that’s a phraseology that doesn’t really sound familiar to us. It doesn’t have an obvious meaning, because what motherhood is, is being a mother. That’s what it means. So, if you were to say, “the motherhood,” you could conceive of it as perhaps a group of mothers. That would be “the motherhood” perhaps.
But priesthood is a similar construction. So, early on, the earliest revelations and the earliest documents we have, construct a priesthood that it is essentially the capacity of a priest, just as motherhood is the capacity of a mother. So, you would ordain somebody to be a priest or an elder and that would be priesthood. And quickly, Joseph Smith has subsequent revelations that create larger cosmological valances to what priesthood is. But what I tried to do is create a framework in the book that makes all the shifts in bicycle dynamics within Mormon discussions of priesthood, sensible and, and the way I do that is by framing one area of priesthood as an ecclesiastical priesthood.
In part 2 of my conversation with Jonathan, he cites plenty of evidence in the 19th and early 20th century of Mormon women healers. These women used to lay hands on the sick. By what power did they do this?
GT: I remember as a priest growing up and having the lesson over and over: priesthood is the power to act in the name of God.
Jonathan: That is a common definition.
GT: A common definition. So, what I heard you say was that women in the 1800s especially, but even into the 20th century, healed both men and women, probably more women than men, but it happened with both genders. They healed by the power of God. But it’s a mistake to call that priesthood. Is that correct?
Jonathan: Yeah. So, using today’s definitions to describe historical practice doesn’t work.
Jonathan: It just doesn’t work.
GT: So, it’s hard to talk about then.
Jonathan: So it’s consequently challenging. Right? So, well then how do we talk about it?
Honestly, this was a fun and challenging conversation. Stapley says that the term “priesthood” used today, while a definition is “the power of God”, priesthood also implies ecclesiastical authority. Women can freely utilize “the power of God,” but since they don’t have ecclesiastical authority, it is a mistake to call the healing blessings they did “priesthood.” For me, the terms “power of God” and “priesthood” were so synonymous, that I didn’t understand the distinction Stapley was making. Check out how Jonathan clears up my misunderstanding.
He also gives us more information on baptisms for health, and temple healers. I was not familiar with temple healers. It turns out that women often fulfilled this (now defunct) practice healer, and many people were baptized for health in the temple.
Jonathan: There are examples of people being baptized in the Kirtland era and being healed upon their baptism, but an actual healing ritual, a designated ritual, baptism for health occurs in Nauvoo. It’s designed to be, I think it envisioned as part of the temple. So, the temple is a place for healing, specifically Joseph Smith envisions it as a place where the sick would come and not only receive an endowment of power and create heaven, but also be physically healed. Baptism for health was an integral piece of that healing liturgy, but it is immediately and ubiquitously performed outside of the temple.
So in the rivers and wherever the Latter-day Saints go from that point forward, baptisms for health are common. As soon as the temples are built, there are regular days for baptisms for health. So, if you’re feeling unwell, you could make a pilgrimage to the temple. One of the temple healers could baptize you for your health.
GT: In the temple?
Jonathan: In the temple, and they kept records. In fact, the single most common temple ritual for many years in the 1880s was baptism for health. So there was more baptisms for health for the living. I should qualify that. The most common ritual for the living in the temples was baptism for health.
Don’t forget to check out our conversation on priesthood with Greg Prince! What are your thoughts concerning women laying hands on the sick and anointing with oil as used to be done? Would you welcome a return to this practice? What are your thoughts concerning “cosmological priesthood”? Do you understand Stapley’s use of the term liturgy?