Addendum: Defining your terms-cosmology and materiality

In a recent conversation where I wondered if something I wrote was grammatically correct (and comprehensible), the discussion turned to how sometimes defining your terms and usages goes a long way. Subsequently a friend suggested that I take a few moments to define my use of “cosmology/cosmological” and “material” in Power of Godliness, something I realize I should have done better in the book. As it happens I touched on the ideas a little bit at MHA where LaJean and I spoke about what most people call Adam-God [n1]. Anyway, it was a party. You should have been there. I opened up with a little discussion of cosmology:

In our modern era, we are accustomed to thinking of cosmology as the science of the origin and development of the universe, with an army of physicists both theoretical and empirical probing space for black holes, neutron stars, and dark matter. But the cosmos is far more ancient and expansive. The cosmos that God so loved in the New Testament is not merely the sphere on which we stand and its population, but the order of existence, encompassing the physical world, yes, but also the spiritual world with its divine hierarchies, and the astral heavens. It comprised “the social, political, and religious structures of authority and power.” It is “a vision of the whole of things.” [n2]

Thus, in association with the expanded temple liturgy (though with important antecedents), Smith revealed new ideas that restructured heaven, earth, and their populations. He recast the histories of God and humanity. He revealed a new cosmology.

In Power of Godliness I talk a lot about “the cosmological priesthood.” This is, of course, an artificial framework—Joseph Smith didn’t use the term—but priesthood is a term with wildly shifting meaning over time within our tradition. My little framework is consequently quite useful to understand what is going on in the temple and church across history. In Nauvoo Joseph Smith revealed a new cosmology in association with the temple liturgy. Salvation, kinship, government, and priesthood swirled together. Participants in the liturgy wore priesthood vestements, they called themselves and the network they created through sealings “the priesthood.” They ultimately became priests and priestesses. Now this wasn’t an ecclesiastical priesthood. You didn’t get a church office by being sealed to someone. It was instead a cosmological priesthood in the sense that it was a priesthood that ultimately constructed heaven, and ordered the cosmos, including earth.

What the temple liturgy did was to construct heaven. A lot of people believe that heaven is a destination for the elect or the faithful. JS created heaven on the temple altars. In the same way that a Catholic priest materializes the body of Christ in the eucharist (it is literally present), Mormons materialized heaven. Where those relationships (and people that make them up) don’t exist, heaven doesn’t exist. There were antecedents: “inheritances” (that is plots of land) in the city of Zion were to endure “while the Earth shall stand” and “again in eternity no more to pass away.” [n3] This material heaven—this network of relationality—was priesthood, the cosmological priesthood. And it was no more material than the it would be in the resurrection.

So for fun, let’s try an application. This is an excerpt from Zina DHY’s 1850 patriarchal blessing that she received from the prophet’s uncle. What priesthood is it referring to?

the priesthood in fullness is & shall be conferred upon you[.] you shalt Increase in wisdom & Knowledge & Intelligence be able to do miracles in the name of Jesus to heal the sick to drive the destroyer from thy habitations & shall be blest with Every comfort which you Desire to make you happy in Time & in Eternity


  1. I really don’t like the term because of its generally sexist analysis. It ignores the most important aspects of what is going and half of the people participating. I used “Brigham Young’s Garden Cosmology,” and my reasoning for doing so and analyses were smart. You should have been there.
  2. Hart, The New Testament, 559.
  3. JS, Revelation, JSPP, 2 January 1831 [D&C; 38]


  1. Good stuff, J.

  2. Michael H. says:

    Thank you so much for this! It really helps. Especially since when I read “The Power of Godliness” I was coming off works like Stephen Webb’s “Mormon Christianity,” which dedicates a lot of time to how Mormon theology deconstructs the spirit/matter dichotomy and thereby renders *everything* “material,” this different definition of “material” certainly helps.

  3. J. Stapley says:

    Thanks, gents. That makes sense. I’d have to think about it a little bit more to be certain, but I think that the Nauvoo Temple Liturgy materialized heaven in an analogous way to the way that the City of Zion materialized the Heavenly City.

  4. Kevin Barney says:

    I can confirm the MHA presentation was indeed a party.

    (Suggested edit: if i’m reading it correctly, I would change “people that make them up” to “people that comprise them,” because the former could be misread as some sort of a fabrication.)

  5. J. Stapley says:

    God catch, Kev! I’ll fix it as soon as I can.

  6. I think this is basically the right view, although I would argue that what you are calling the cosmological priesthood, or the order belong to the Fulness of the Melchizedek Priesthood, is/was still very much ecclesiastical as well, or at the very least governmental. Kings and Queens are offices or positions in a structured and organized Kingdom that is the Kingdom of God, whether on earth or in heaven, and as you point out are essentially and intentionally one and the same.

  7. charlene says:

    I’ll bite on your application question. In my unscholarly opinion, I think that this blessing implies that to Joseph there is only one priesthood. It is not limited by gender nor only applicable to church or even just this earth. It’s much more an adoption construct for heaven than our current nuclear family idea.

  8. J. Stapley says:

    Steve, the complicated bit is that “Fullness of the Melchizedek Priesthood” as discussed in the literature of the 1980s and 90s is essentially a twentieth century idea.

    Charlene, I’m a big fan of adoption theologies. While this one is a bit later, I do think that earlier similar usages do help us understand JS world.

  9. With 24 hours to think about it, I want to ask for more about how you use “material” and “materialize.”

    Somewhat random questions (with apologies, not having referred back to Power of Godliness for obvious answers):
    >A threshold question whether this is 19c terminology you are explaining, or 21c terminology to make sense of the past?
    >Too quick connection to transubstantiation, which is controversial (cue up the entire Reformation), and usually considered a mystery not tied to physics or even metaphysics, whereas “material” used in the 21c work inescapably implies physics until/unless explicitly negated.
    >Distinguish between instantiate (an actual example of an abstract concept), a paranormal spirit-taking-on-body event, a new principle of physics (e.g., beyond or outside supersymmetry), a redefinition of the abstract, like a relational model of heaven in place of streets paved in gold (. . . and what more am I not thinking of right now?)

    To be clear, I understand the OP to be addressing cosmology and cosmological priesthood. I’m just the heckler asking for more, for the next piece already.

  10. J. Stapley says:

    Always a pleasure to have your thoughts, Christian. First, does it make sense of the past? That is perhaps the single biggest question. It seems to me that it does. I haven’t read a critique that offered any alternatives, but that doesn’t mean there won’t be better frameworks in the future. I hope there is.

    Your point about enlightenment and Protestant reflexes is fair. It is the sort of thing that Orsi has been militating against. Latter-day Saints also believed in a earth being renewed, so in that sense there is also a material heaven, but in Nauvoo JS is redefining heaven and hell away from that. Hell is being alone, not about having golden road to live on. In a very important sense the temple made things that were real–they existed.

    But I appreciate the pushes. Honestly this gets into area where I feel others have more talent and fluency with the literature than I do, and it is a bit lazy of me to just want them to do the heavy lifting.

  11. J., I’m not the one to do it—I’d have to go read a whole lot of old texts first—but I suspect or hypothesize what was going on is more like defining heaven and hell in terms of relationships rather than places or paved streets. [Sidebar: Taking up brain space in the same place where I think about process theology (for example) where we situate God in time rather than Platonically eternal, immutable and impassible.] Then it’s that sort of redefined heaven that can be instantiated on earth, including at the altars of the temples.

    I could be way off, which is why I pose it as a question rather than a statement in the first instance. But if I’m getting close, then I can make sense of and support your use of “materialized”. At the same time, I think “material” and “materialize” mean something different to a typical 21c reader on first encounter. Therefore, I encourage you to play it out more fully.

  12. J. Stapley says:

    I think that is right. Similar to cosmology. The materiality of the priesthood in Nauvoo doesn’t track well into modern physics.

  13. I always assumed you meant materiality more akin to how say Marx was a version of Hegel that was material. It had material “this worldly” concerns as opposed to a more platonic realm of many interpretations.

  14. J. Stapley says:

    Clark, I think that works as well.

  15. Nice. Wish I had been at MHA.

  16. As an aside, anyone who doesn’t understand Adam/Eve Heavenly Parents hasn’t really thought things through.

    There’s nothing to be offended about, upset, etc. The reality of exaltation in D&C 132 is the husband and wife will become Gods (the Hebrew old testament would probably use the word elohim to describe such a plural God), who have eternal increase.

    What would an eternal God be to their spirit children? What would their exalted children be? Will those who receive exaltation and have eternal increase that also receives exaltation really split hairs to their future spirit/mortal progeny and claim that they have not actually received a fullness and are lessor, and therefore every future descendant is progressively lesser down the line?

    Is that how it works when the oath and covenant of the priesthood promises all the Father has to the receiver? No. The father’s and mother’s glory and dominion increases as the sons and daughters in turn receive the same glory and so on for their eternal increase.

    Pres. BY taught more than this for sure, but Latter-day saints are too quick to run away from the reality that many creations before now had an Adam and Eve. Did they not also have a Son? Would you tell me that the the next 1000 subsequent earths will be talking about Jesus of Nazareth in the milky way and the previous 1000 earths were also waiting for the same Jesus? Clearly not, because they couldn’t have been resurrected and exalted on the basis of the Son being born on an earth 5 billion years later.

    No, the BY cosmology, for all the maligning and innuendo it receives by those who haven’t given it a moment’s thought or prayer is actually the only one that makes sense in the eternities. Especially when you understand the plural nature of elohim. It’s foundation didn’t start with Brigham but with Joseph. I don’t believe BY for a second went rogue with the temple and this teaching.

    That being said, Joseph disavowed plural marriage, while still believing in it privately. We’re not focused on teaching about the past and future of Adam and Eve at all, and even throw BY under the bus to avoid discussing things people will just argue about anyway.

  17. lehcarjt says:

    “Would you tell me that the the next 1000 subsequent earths will be talking about Jesus of Nazareth in the milky way and the previous 1000 earths were also waiting for the same Jesus?”

    Weirdly enough, this was exactly what I was taught as a youth in the 80s. We were told both how blessed we were to get to live on the same planet/family as jesus and how much more dangerous our planet was because Satan spent more time here too. Whole thing freaked me out.

  18. J. Stapley says:

    wc, look this post wasn’t really about BY’s teachings about Adam and Eve. My MHA paper dealt in depth with what BY was doing when he veered so far away from Joseph Smith’s Nauvoo teachings (God never had the power to create the spirits of humans; God found himself in the midst of the spirits and wanted them to progress; The Father was once a human like Jesus was a human. etc). There are some pretty clear patterns in BY’s teaching that help us make sense of what he is doing, and if you want to believe his teachings, that is fine. You don’t have to throw BY under the bus to disagree with what he was doing. Heck the church has disavowed more than one of his teachings, and he is still recognized as an important church president and prophet.

  19. Mark Ashurst-McGee says:

    I, for one, hope that “cosmological priesthood” does not become a commonplace term in Mormon historiography. I say this, J. Stapley, with much respect for your contribution to this historiography.

  20. J. Stapley says:

    Mark, it is sort of annoying. I get that. I flirted with temple priesthood, but that is such a constraining term that isn’t evocative of all the expanded meanings of what was going on. After hanging out with Hart’s NT translation I was reconverted to “cosmological.”

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