The particular danger of a roundtable in a digital format is in the overlapping repetition, forgive us for that. (Check out Tona and Joey‘s prior posts.) Though I had an opportunity a few weeks ago to respond to Jonathan Stapley’s The Power of Godliness in person, today I want to focus on the eminent accessibility of the nuanced liturgical history that Stapley crafted. Though I want the initial chapter on the cosmological priesthood to be more specific as he lays out the foundation of his argument, it is fulfilled over time in consecutive chapters. I appreciate that in each chapter Stapley outlines a dense history with complex transitions over time in a nuanced, compact, and entirely relatable manner. This would not be possible without the body of Stapley’s earlier work. (There will be rejoicing amongst my future students when they realize that there might be a more concise version of Stapley and Kris Wright’s spectacular but to them seemingly interminable 88-page JMH article on female ritual healing.) This accessibility matters both historically and devotionally.
To consider this I want to start with the end, please forgive me if this is a spoiler. Though I understand Stapley’s placement choice, I wanted to think about the manner in which he accomplishes this throughout the book. Employing related analogies from David Holland and Joseph Ratzinger (you’ll have to go to the book for those), these are Stapley’s last words: “I make an effort to understand the brushstrokes of church leaders and members through time as they have contributed to the living system of Mormonism, it is my intention to complicate the facile or presentist reading, the proof-test, and the analytically lazy, whether academic or parochial. This book is not concerned with what Mormons should believe or teach. It is concerned with what Mormons have believed and taught as they have ordered their universe.”
Beyond an aid to better understand this expansive notion of priesthood and the relationship between cosmological priesthood, ecclesiastical priesthood, and liturgical power, Stapley beautifully draws lines from Joseph Smith to the present day. His expansive definition of theology requires the spectrum of evidence from authoritative declarations, to personal advice from leaders, to a deep trove of personal writings illuminating religiosity. He carefully documents the unfinished and unraveled edges of practice as it changes over time. He carefully chooses those pivots essential to demonstrate how we got to where we are today. The chapter on baby blessings elegantly examines the development of an important ritual most would quickly dismiss for a lack of theological significance, and the fruits of the careful inspection are plentiful. Some will see this book as primary evidence to advocate for a return to the Edenic aspects of nineteenth-century Mormon women’s involvement in the cosmological priesthood as well as liturgy, but Stapley impedes cherry-picking of the historical evidence. On the other edge of the spectrum, he decisively repudiates those who argue the way something exists in the contemporary church is just how it has always been and must be in the future.
In 2010 Relief Society General President Julie Beck argued, that for Mormon women history is essential as she began a new emphasis on the history of the Relief Society. She repeated the sentiment often, “We study our history to learn who we are.” The Church History Department sponsored First Fifty Years of Relief Society as well as At the Pulpit have done important work to enable contemporary Mormon women to better understand the beginnings of the Relief Society, its purpose, women’s voices, and women’s participation over time, but at times I suspect that it is jarring to try and understand how we began in one location and now inhabit a very distinct space. However, for Stapley this is never just a tale of erosion and depletion. We see the tensions consistently at work pulling down from the top as well as pushing up from the groundswell. While many other histories do one or the other well, Stapley importantly integrates the narrative through his liturgical and cosmological examination. He beautifully draws those lines from the genesis of liturgical practice with essential points of juncture that help I think both to offer a modicum of charity for leaders and the important work of understanding how individuals ordered their lives through religion. Theology is never just the provenance of male church leaders. Theology is worked out in the daily lives of believers as they “[order] their universe.”