Roundtable on The Power of Godliness, Part III

Jonathan Stapley’s new book is only 129 pages of text, but it feels much longer. This is not, thankfully, because the prose slogs. Rather it is one of those books that makes every word count. There is no fluff here, only finely sanded insight after insight, with all coarse surface and redundancy polished away. Stapley’s strengths are twofold. First, his archival work is unparalleled. For every assertion he has an anecdote. He meticulously marks fine nuances in opinion among his subjects, and those subjects are as frequently obscure figures like Steven Markham, John Steele, or Margaret Anderton as they are more familiar Mormons like Joseph F. Smith or Zina D.H. Young. His attention to such figures is essential to his second strength: the deep pattern of his argument. The process of producing the Mormon liturgy in all its parts and rituals, he argues, was and often remains the collision between the planned and the inadvertent.

Mormon leaders—be they Joseph Smith or Joseph F. Smith or Eliza Snow—conceived or introduced new rites, like a ceremony to seal a couple together. Mormons balked, or reinterpreted them. Mormons began dedicating their graves or their homes; Mormon leaders scrambled to catch up and codify a ceremony already happening. Through this messiness, Stapley argues, not only have Mormons generated a liturgy, but—because, as he rightly notes, liturgy is a powerful route by which worshipers conceive of the cosmos—they have gradually altered the ways they conceive of what it means to be a Mormon in the universe.

This story is not universal across all parts of Stapley’s book, but it is close. It’s also convincing, though not without space for some interrogation. Essentially, Stapley argues, Mormons initially conceived of the universe as a “materialized heaven” (17-19) in which human relationships were sacralized and solidified through ritual. These networks of ritualized relationships were referred to as “the priesthood” and they were generated in the temple rites introduced in Nauvoo. Stapley calls this the “cosmological priesthood.”

Over time, however, Stapley believes that the vision of “priesthood” as a sacred world both here and hereafter faded, and gradually, “priesthood” came to be understood as divine power channeled through offices—though Stapley does not specify it, it’s clear this is somewhat parallel to other arguments about Mormonism’s integration into the United States, particularly Jan Shipps’s notion that the religion gave up a degree of communitarianism and fixed instead upon individual behavior after polygamy crumbled. This process, he says, can be seen in a multiplicity of Mormon rites: the notion of “sealing” drifted away from its early attachment to the notions that it could overcome sin to ensure salvation and that it made possible celestial adoption—both ideas connected to Stapley’s materialized heaven. At the same time, lay members of the church, restive about sealing’s logical ends (the unsealed will remain eternally unbound; the worry about the ways that plural marriage remains lurking, a zombie pounding on the ritual’s closet doors) have driven church leaders to offer clarification after clarification, assuring the Saints that, frankly, the ritual might not be so absolute as much church rhetoric implies.

I could recapitulate Stapley’s unspooling of this story in more rites—from baby blessings, which once seem to have been emphasized because they united a child with the Church (a very Protestant way of thinking about initiation rites) and today serve to emphasize male headship in church and family, to astrology, the popularity of which once implied to Mormons the power of God was not limited to their faith alone but which was quite quickly made verboten. (I would like more on baptism, a subject Stapley treats only glancingly—of course he has published articles on the topic, but it would be nice to seem some of that material here.) However, rather than simply summarize Stapley’s fine work, I want to conclude by bringing up a few questions the book made me ask.

First, it’s quite clear that Stapley conceives of Mormon liturgy, both rite and to some extent meaning, as product of a dynamic process of exchange between leaders and laity. At times he shows precisely how contested some of these meanings were—witness, for instance, a dispute among several Mormons, among them Eliza R. Snow, about what precise relationship women and men bore to healing rituals on pages 86-88. And yet, at the same time, he also seems quite confident that some of the concepts he discussed are essentially univocal. For instance, the “material heaven” in which a cosmological priesthood meant the ritualized membership in the body of the church was, Stapley believes, firmly established in the production of the Nauvoo temple rites. Then, he argues, “After [Brigham] Young’s death in 1877, the cosmological priesthood as a means to comprehend the temple liturgy and the organizational fabric of heaven rapidly diminished.” (22)

Such a thing may have happened, but it remains unclear why. Stapley argues for a shift, and his case feels intuitively correct, given the evidence he marshals. Perhaps, as the myriad disputes which Stapley amply documents elsewhere mean that the “cosmological priesthood” was never so firm a notion as he argues; perhaps it is as much a creation (insofar as it is a coherent and mappable concept) of historians as of the nineteenth century Mormons he ascribes it to. Put another way, would Brigham Young recognize the cosmological priesthood as Stapley describes it?

Actually, I suspect he would, or at least something like it. But I also suspect he would not balk at saying that the priesthood was the power of God, or referring to it as something to be “held” as well as joined; indeed, he can be documented as saying such. It’s hard to imagine him hammering out as precise a notion of priesthood as historians and theologians would have liked him to.

This is not to say that Stapley is incorrect; it is to say that he’s done the work of any historian, which is to try to bring some sort of conceptual order to the chaos of the past. Indeed, the book reflects his awareness of this. One of its great strengths is his awareness of diffusion and confusion, of the bumptious nature of a religious tradition figuring itself out. If the map he proposes is perhaps far sharper than the territory it documents, it nonetheless goes a long way to illuminating what was previously undiscovered country.


  1. I thought it was a well-earned feat for the book to effectively communicate that the “cosmological priesthood” works best as a present inference that renders available evidence coherent today, rather than a recreation of how a contemporary would have described it.

  2. Rosalynde Welch says:

    As to your question about why the cosmological understanding of priesthood declined, my understanding of Stapley’s argument is that it was deeply associated with plural marriage among the first generation of Mormon converts, for whom proxy sealings for the dead were not available and the millennarian fervor was strong. Couples needed to be networked immediately, thus polygynous sealing and ritual adoption. When Woodruff ended polgamy, phased out non-biological adoption, and opened proxy ordinance for the dead, he set the stage for the ascendance of the ecclesiastical priesthood.

  3. Rosalynde: yes, I think that’s right. I wonder, though, couldn’t proxy work sustain cosmology as well as polygamy?

  4. In response to your hypothetical about BY – in my own reading (not a professional or even lay historian) I agree with Stapley that Priesthood = Power of God (I don’t think it’s even clear today in the church what we mean by this), was not how the early church conceived of it, and I think it would be a foreign thought to BY. I think he’d actually condemn it as wrong. Rather in BY’s conception from everything I’ve read Priesthood = Government of God, through which gov’t the power of God can be channeled and accessed. At least that’s my understanding.

    Additionally, I think that’s closer to the way Joseph Smith saw and described the Priesthood compared to the “cosmological priesthood” put forth by Stapley (although I think he’s getting much closer than a lot of our modern conceptions*). In Aug 1843, Joseph Smith is recorded as saying in describing the Fullness of the Melchizedek Priesthood, “that priesthood is a perfect law of theocracy, and stands as God to give laws to the people, administering endless lives to the sons and daughters of Adam.”

    *Just to clarify I believe and have a testimony that the Priesthood is alive an functioning today, just that I also believe there are aspects to it we are not conceptualizing entirely accurately, I think this book sheds light on that

  5. I think Matt is right that thru cosmological/ecclesiastical dichotomy is an explanation, not a description of historical beliefs and practices, and that in reality the two are very much intertwined.

    And they still are intertwined. The cosmological priesthood has declined, but in some ways it hasn’t stormy gone away so much as been relegated to the temple, which we don’t talk much about.

    I get the sense sometimes that the modern church still retains some aspects of the cosmological priesthood, but conceives of those those aspects as entirely dependent on the ecclesiastical priesthood, and therefore only a part of it, whereas the early church saw the cosmological priesthood as something that transcended the ecclesiastical priesthood.

  6. *hasn’t totally gone away

  7. Haven’t had time to read his book yet (been sick) but I wonder about the distinction between power of god and government of god. It seems the two notions are logically so wrapped up together. After all one of the key features of government is a kind of monopoly of formal force and power. To be part of the government and authorized is to be able to draw on that power.

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