The Power of Godliness: Mormon Liturgy and Cosmology

BCC’s very own J. Stapley has published a remarkable book. So we are going to remark upon it. At length.

We’ll kick off our roundtable discussion with a post from Hannah Jung, a graduate student in history at Brandeis University and expert in Mormon women’s history.
Jonathan Stapley takes ritual seriously. His book The Power of Godliness looks at what rituals do for the people that perform them. “By tracing the development of the rituals and attempting to ascertain the work they have accomplished,” Stapley tells us, “the Mormon universe, with its complex priesthoods, authorities, and powers, becomes comprehensible.” (2) Or, more simply, his book asks what Mormons have meant when they have invoked the term “priesthood” and how they imagined themselves in relation to it. This process has changed over time: “instead of viewing priesthood as channeling the power of God, church leaders began to describe the priesthood as the power of God.” (12) Stapley frames his analysis by discussing two different notions of priesthood: ecclesiastical and cosmological. Ecclesiastical priesthood refers to the ordination of Mormon men to different offices in the Church hierarchy. Cosmological priesthood is an idea developed gradually by Joseph Smith and reflected in the temple liturgy in the temple. Although the ritual practices inside the temple have not fundamentally changed, Stapley asserts that the cosmological priesthood that undergirded the temple liturgy is no longer recognizable to contemporary Latter-day Saints. The Power of Godliness is, therefore, a project of historical recovery. He is successful: Stapley has laid a foundation for new conversations and questions about priesthood and religious power for years to come.

This book could have easily been a history of the workings of Mormon thinkers and top leaders such as Joseph Smith, Parley and Orson Pratt, Brigham Young, Wilford Woodruff, etc. Though we do hear from these men on occasion, Stapley is not interested in a religious life created by those at the top. Instead, he shows us the multidirectional ways in which religious people construct, perform, and change ritual. This is a book in which the religious practices of prophet Wilford Woodruff are considered in conjunction with those of the seer Sophia Romeril Russell, a British convert living in Southern Utah. In The Power of Godliness we see the beginnings of a liturgical ecosystem that accounts for the practice, experience, and theology involved in religious life.

Stapley’s book is short. While the conciseness of the book makes it more accessible (and therefore easy to assign in undergraduate courses), it is also frustrating for those craving more explanations, context, and examples. I wish we could have this book in both its current 128-page condensed form but also as a more robust 256-page book. The (de)merits of the length aside, it is nevertheless impressive how much Stapley packs into his prose; there is something for everyone in The Power of Godliness.

What most fascinated me, though not a central part of the book, was Stapley’s explanation of how different periods in Mormon history created distinct channels for religious adherents to learn and communicate about ritual. During Mormonism’s earliest years, people learned about rituals orally and through witnessing as others performed them. This continued into the Utah period, but those in the periphery often depended on communications with Church leaders and information from Church periodicals to guide their ritual practice. In the twentieth century, Church leaders communicated information to the membership through official First Presidency circulars and handbooks, which acted to formalize and narrow ritual practice. Stapley also points us towards a new type of communication in the modern age: the Church website and blogosphere. Though there is nothing particularly revolutionary about this information, Stapley’s narrative reminds us that the medium is the message.

All of these channels, Stapley shows us, affect the ways that religious adherents access and understand ritual. But they also affect the ways that people participate in ritual. For example, Chapter Four references a story told by former Church President Thomas S. Monson in which he learned the procedure of the healing blessing by referencing the Missionary’s Hand Book. Stapley then astutely remarks, “women had no similar written resources to maintain their ritual [healing] performance.” (103) The medium through which religious adherents accessed information constrained or broadened the possibilities for ritual performance. In a section on praying at church, Stapley refers to a 2011 post by Cynthia Lee Bailey (done on this very blog!) that may have provided impetus for women to offer prayers during General Conference. Stapley’s book thus leads us to ask new questions about our current ritual practice and cosmology. If the age of handbooks and First Presidency communications to priesthood leaders defined twentieth century ritual cosmology, how has the blogosphere changed how Mormons understand ritual and their place in it? What effects will this process of democratization have in the future?


  1. Hoping this book ends up on religious studies reading lists. Great class fodder.

  2. Thanks for organizing this roundtable, Kristine. I loved the book, and I look forward to hearing what smart people have to say about it.

    Hannah’s right that a 256-page “extended remix” would have been great. Your point about the variety of channels is a good way of thinking about Stapley’s contribution. Thank you!

  3. Half way through the book, it’s very well done. Accords with most of the things that I feel I have learned for myself concerning Priesthood, a little more distinction between the “ecclesiastical” and “cosmological” priesthoods than I think is reality (at their core, both are governmental orders), but overall the best understanding of what the Priesthood actually is than I have seen anywhere else to date. And for that reason I think this work is very significant and important in moving that conversation forward. I believe the day will come church-wide we will understand what the terms meant as they were written in the D&C, and in understanding be able to grasp more fully what has really been given to us which will enable us to move to greater heights (as the book also seems to allude to at times).

  4. Stapley describes how people used to talk about what he calls the cosmological priesthood, with men and women in the network of sealings referring to themselves as the priesthood. I would like to have seen multiple examples of this by different people. Interestingly, President Oaks said in the last conference that men ordained to the priesthood should not refer to themselves as the priesthood, which highlights the need to further explore this crucial semantic shift.

  5. Stapley devotes only one somewhat startling paragraph to the semantic shift in the relationship between priesthood and the miracle of creation, but I think the implications are understated.

    When saying that the world was created by the power of the priesthood, is reference being made to a sealed and celestialized network of men and women applying their knowledge of chemistry? Or is reference being made to something like the force as applied by Luke Skywalker, but reserved for men only? Both readings are true from their respective sides of the semantic shift, if I understand Stapley correctly.

  6. DavidC, I would have loved more direct quotes too rather than just notes, at least on the most critical points. I think it would have forced more honesty to varying possible meanings to the referenced quotes if they are right in front of the reader (for example, the assertion that the sealing ordinances are one and the same with the sealing the power of Elijah and/or de facto salvation), as well as give strength to the assertions if the quotes did plainly say what the author said they did. That to me is the weakest part of an overall excellent book.

    What members of this “cosmological priesthood” called themselves is a great example – how/when in context they called themselves “the Priesthood” would have helped the reader to draw their own conclusions. Also I feel it would have been very illuminating to the reader to have it pointed out that they also called themselves the ‘Quorum of the Annointed’ or the ‘Holy Order’ and given better insight into how they might have viewed themselves in whole, and what they meant in calling themselves “the priesthood” (or if this was mentioned in passing, I missed it). I understand Bro. Stapley sought to emphasize the material network of heaven aspect of this body that has not received as much attention in other sources, so I get creating a new term “cosmological” to emphasize that, I feel that end was achieved, I just think that added context would have been helpful to readers that may not be familiar with Nauvoo Era history.

  7. I agree that Stapley should have included more Nauvoo source quotes. Note that “Quorum of the Anointed” is not a Nauvoo-era term.

  8. Thanks, yes sorry, the “Anointed Quorum” rather

  9. “Anointed Quorum” is also a post-Nauvoo era term.

  10. Interesting, I remember reading otherwise, either Quinn or Givens, can’t remember off the top of my head. Doesn’t matter though, it looks like you are right, it looks like it was simply “the quorum” rather, and I stand corrected. I appreciate you pointing that out

  11. Most of those church members with whom I am or have been in daily or weekly contact appear to be totally unaware of historical semantic shifts in LDS use of the word “priesthood” or historical changes in LDS ritual and understanding of ritual. I don’t know whether such members are included in Stapely’s or OUP’s target readership, but the brevity of the book may slightly increase the minimal chance that any of them would read it. I would also like to have had Hannah’s hypothesized 256-page “extended remix” but for a different target readership than I have hypothesized might have been included.

    The subtitle of the book “Mormon Liturgy and Cosmology” is far more descriptive of its content than is the title “The Power of Godliness.” [I was briefly frustrated and amused that the index includes no entry for “godliness” or “power of godliness,” but does include one for “power of God.” Initially, this reminded me of Lesson 25 of the D&C and Church History GD Teacher’s Manual. That lesson is titled “The Power of Godliness” and does not use the phrase “power of godliness” even once.] Of course, Stapely’s book does far better than that, but I would like to have seen even more on the semantic shift from JS’ early adoption of and use of the KJV language “power of godliness” to whatever it is that Mormons or Mormonism or D&C 84:21 meant or now mean by “godliness” and its “power”. The brief note on pp. 126-127 leaves me uncertain what is meant by “the power of godliness became the lived experience of Mormons as they participated in all of the venerable priesthood ordinances of the church,” Stapely, p. 127, and whether that summary comment is meant to describe a change from JS’ early use or from one or more NT KJV usages (Paul is mentioned; Peter is not). It is also not clear to me whether Stapely meant that shift occurred at the time of Section 84, and, if not, what 84:21 meant to JS and church members at its time. I will re-read, but would also be interested in any other comments on the nature and timing of that semantic shift.

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