Roundtable on The Power of Godliness, Part II

The next installment of our discussion on Stapley’s book comes from Taylor Petrey. Taylor is Associate Professor in the Religion Department at Kalamazoo College, with research interests in the body, gender, and sexuality in antiquity and the formation of Jewish and Christian identity in the ancient world.
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Stapley’s The Power of Godliness has cracked the code on Mormon discourse about priesthood. This book brings so much clarity to a complex topic that has confounded outsiders and insiders to the Mormon tradition alike. The key that unlocks the mystery is Stapley’s historical analysis revealing two different ways Mormons have used the term “priesthood” and two different conceptual universes behind them. Sometimes overlapping and sometimes diverging, these two different meanings of priesthood are based in notions of church order that date to different periods in Joseph Smith, Jr.’s prophetic ministry. Rather than harmonizing Mormon history or Mormon thought under a single rubric or organizing principle, Stapley points to a foundational tension in Mormonism that holds immense explanatory value.

First and foremost, the value of this approach can be measured in how it illuminates Mormonism and Mormon history. The competition and conflation of these two ideas explains the past and present debates over priesthood. The first is what Stapley calls the “ecclesiastical” priesthood, which arises in the Kirtland period and is concerned with church governance—offices, duties, and hierarchy. This priesthood is gendered as male. The second is what he calls the “cosmological” priesthood, which arises in the Nauvoo period and is concerned with creating kinship networks through sealing. This priesthood is available to men and women and is not connected to ecclesiastical offices. Those who are endowed in the temple are members of this priesthood body and the privileges of this admittance are universal. These two conceptions of the priesthood rise and decline and various historical moments.

In addition to these two types of priesthood, Stapley also lays out what he call liturgical authority, a set of acts related to ritual performances including blessings, healing, public prayer, and sacrament preparation. He demonstrates how some of these vacillate in their relationship to the two concepts of priesthood, but that they are eventually subsumed into the ecclesiastical priesthood over the course of the twentieth century. The conflation and disambiguation of these layers of teachings about the priesthood then marks the subsequent history up until the present. The benefit of Stapley’s careful analysis here cannot be overstated.

There is so much that I learned here. For instance, I was not aware of the centrality of healing in the LDS temple rites and the presence of healers as officials in temples. Stapley’s book also provides an invaluable service of bringing together a history of the various reforms these priesthoods undergo. I learned about the history of the systemization of the Aaronic and Melchizedek functions and the extension of the Aaronic priesthood to young men in the late nineteenth century.

This book is primarily about Mormon history. It does seek to situate some, but not all, LDS practices and developments to priesthood teachings within a broader Christian history or to trace some contemporaneous influences. The chapters on healing and “cunning” (formerly called magic) are especially strong in this regard. For the most part, however, these are not the focus and the argument rests on a conversation within Mormonism. Nor does the book engage in debates over the functional, symbolic, or performative theories of ritual (one detects some of all of these at work in the analysis). Instead, the main purpose of the book is to historicize LDS liturgical practice and cosmological teachings, primarily through tracing the changes over time.

One of best the strengths of the book is that it ventures past an institutional history into the lives of many ordinary members. Here, the reader gets a sense of the lived religion of Mormon liturgical practices. At the same time, I view the books primarily as an intellectual history, a history of the “cosmos” that Mormons inhabit and how they think about it. The anecdotes of ordinary folks illustrate the tensions in Mormon thought itself. In this, Stapley depicts a tradition that increasingly centralizes authority and often works against popular practice. He is offering here a social analysis of the way that priesthood works—in seeing priesthood as connected to cosmology, Stapley also sees it as structuring and codifying. To borrow a description from J.Z. Smith, priesthood is locative in that it imposes an order that it sees reflected in an ordered cosmos.

While not the topic of the book, Stapley also adds to the present debate over the question of women’s ordination to the priesthood. He extends this history back much further than the 1960s and 1970s with the rise of second-wave feminism to show that this question was a lively one in the nineteenth century, albeit in a different form. One of his primary theses is that the cosmological priesthood is gender inclusive and the ecclesiastical priesthood is gender segregated. Consequently, there is a struggle over which liturgical acts are subsumed under which type of priesthood. Telling the story of the founding of the Relief Society in 1842 or the Salt Lake High Council meeting in 1885 that debated this topic, or various LDS leaders’ discussions about about what kind of priesthood might authorize female healing, reveals that the question of women and the priesthood has a much richer history than is typically assumed.

The Power of Godliness makes an invaluable contribution to Mormon Studies both for its documentary sources as well as its analytical payoff. Stapley’s careful work here deserves celebration.

Comments

  1. Kevin Barney says:

    Thank you, Taylor. I haven’t read it yet but it’s in my book bag and this commentary on the blog makes me want to get to is asap.

  2. Thank you for this report and the series. Like Kevin, the book is in my bag (i.e., my suitcase as I travel today). With Taylor’s comments I am persuaded to have no further conversation related to priesthood until I have read the book.

  3. Added to my must read list.

  4. I’m glad you had him on here as I anticipated Taylor being a big fan as J’s views on theosis/adoption and spirit origins are definitely a step “Toward a Post-Heterosexual. Mormon Theology.”

    Christian, In addition I’d highly recommend Roger Terry’s recent Dialogue article, Greg Prince’s book on priesthood (free ebook from Signature), and interestingly WVS’s recent polygamy book has great insights on the development of high priest-hood.