The Power of Godliness

Mormon Liturgy and Cosmology

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Jonathan Stapley
  • Oxford, England: 
    Oxford University Press
    , March
     2018.
     200 pages.
     $29.95.
     Hardcover.
    ISBN
    9780190844431.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

Last month, as LDS Church leaders prepared for a historic joint press conference with leaders of the NAACP, a phony website of the conference proceedings began circulating online. The site, a near-perfect counterfeit to the official Mormon News Room page, featured an alleged apology from its recently-ordained prophet, Russell M. Nelson. In the fake apology, Nelson diligently dismantles historical racism in the form of LDS liturgical policy, speaking of “false notions of white supremacy” and “false and hurtful ideas about curses, skin color, and spiritual worthiness” before humbly asking for forgiveness.

As the site went viral, a host of Mormons began shouting for joy in online venues. For many Mormons of color, the apology shifted the very ground under their feet. It touched them personally and deeply. Then, upon confirming it was a strategically planned farce, their elation turned to sadness, then to anger. Setting aside the privilege of the white man behind the phony site—who naively hoped to provoke a “thoughtful discussion” of race within the church—the prank reveals how deeply Mormons of all stripes yearn to reconcile the prickly parts of LDS liturgical history.

In The Power of Godliness: Mormon Liturgy and Cosmology, Jonathan Stapley sets out to elucidate the historical development of Mormon liturgy. In doing so, he sheds exciting new light on some of the juiciest issues in religious studies—power, gender, race, and media—even if the manuscript fails to speak directly to those outside of Mormon studies. 

The book’s strength is its succinct synthesis of a huge range of topics spanning the entire history of Mormonism, all tied to a central theme: the rise and fall of the “cosmological priesthood.” Stapley’s notion of the cosmological priesthood is a promising hermeneutic for untangling the often-overlooked nuances in the religion’s ongoing bureaucratization and globalization. This book is not a simple Weberian rerun. 

Stapley argues that analyses of Mormon priesthood—understood by Mormons today as the power and authority of God—suffer dangerously from a presentism that has, even in Mormon feminist work, “distorted the past as much as clarified it” (28). Stapley convincingly contends that understanding Mormon authority requires us to completely rethink what is called “the priesthood.”

Drawing on a deep well of primary documents, some of which will be new even to veteran scholars of the faith, Stapley reconfigures how we understand Mormon authority by distinguishing its cosmological and ecclesiastical strains, tracing the fascinating tension between the two over time and space. The cosmological priesthood, Stapley argues, sought to order heaven and earth through a lineal, material network, with both men and women equally vital to its construction. Far from ecclesiastical in nature, “it constituted the very structure of the cosmos” (12). The cosmological priesthood was not an earthly institution, but an eternally enduring sociality built around lineal relationships; in other words, the embodiment (quite literally) of Joseph Smith’s grandest visions of the afterlife—the metaphysical infrastructure of eternity. Gradually, the (infrastructural) cosmological priesthood was swallowed up by a (structural) ecclesiastical priesthood, grounded in increasingly strict and gendered institutional policies. 

Stapley does not offer a new interpretation of Smith’s visionary goals; instead, he provides a fresh framework for analyzing how religious authority, cultural practices, and technologies transform each other. It is not the story of the angel and the beehive, per se, but the story of the temple, the home, and the handbook--in other words, it is a media story. The Power of Godliness traces an uneasy evolution from loosely defined esoteric temple rituals to tightly controlled institutional manuals, with a rich mix of quirky local histories recounting female healers and seers, British astrologists, and entrepreneurial essential oil enthusiasts that does the label “a peculiar people” (in all its valences) adequate justice. 

The careful concision of The Power of Godliness is refreshing and impressive. But it does come with costs. The book assumes a reader well acquainted with the study of Mormonism, and with what is at stake in its liturgical history. The monograph’s greatest blessing might also be its biggest curse. Stapley spends a paragraph of most chapters situating Mormonism in a broader (mostly American) Christian context, and occasionally clarifies emic terminology. But there simply is not enough space to explicitly demonstrate what, exactly, Mormon liturgy offers the broader field of religious studies, and why its enchanting history matters for scholars not intimately acquainted with the faith. In other words, Stapley seems caught between in-house theology and a case study in American religious cultural history. 

For its intended niche, The Power of Godliness opens doors for rethinking the previously obscured origins of normative practices surrounding some of the religion’s most enduring rituals. It offers, for instance, a needed genealogy of Mormon baby blessings, home and grave dedications, and temple sealings—all crucial parts of global Mormon lived religion. The chapter on cunning-folk traditions brims with fascinating and fun vignettes. The book makes its most valuable contributions to the study of gender and 20th-century Mormonism in particular, enriching our understanding of ubiquitous female participation in LDS healing liturgy prior to later correlation movements that replaced local variation with hierarchically centralized directives. 

The Power of Godliness would pair well with related Mormon Studies texts such as Sam Brown’s In Heaven as it is on Earth (Oxford University Press, 2012); Laurel Thatcher Ulrich’s A House Full of Females (Knopf, 2017); W. Paul Reeves’s Religion of a Different Color (Oxford University Press, 2015); and Terryl Givens’s work on Mormon theology (Wrestling the Angel, Oxford University Press, 2014; and Feeding the Flock, Oxford University Press, 2017)Stapley, a biochemist, now joins a group of independent scholars who manage to write influential books on Mormonism as a side gig—and make it look easy. 

Beyond Mormonism, Stapley reminds us that religious authority and ritual are always fraught with tensions between top-down and bottom-up forces, articulated through ever-shifting cultural constructions of gender, race, and time and space (in the here and hereafter).

About the Reviewer(s): 

Gavin Feller is Assistant Professor of Media Studies at Southern Utah University.

Date of Review: 
June 26, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Jonathan Stapley is an award-winning historian and scientist. An active participant in the field of Mormon Studies, he is also the Chief Technology Officer for a bio-renewables company.

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