Jonathan Stapley’s The Power of Godliness is a landmark for Mormon Studies. There are precious few academic, peer-reviewed publications that succinctly and accessibly explain the development of Mormonism’s definitions of priesthood and liturgical practices. While there are certain rough edges that could be smoothed out, it’s altogether remarkable that Stapley produced this book. It’s even more astounding that he wrote the book while working in the private sector, without summers for research or other designated “work” times that many academic need to produce scholarship.
I’d like to focus on two aspects of Stapley’s work that I think are worth emulating in future work in Mormon Studies. First, I consider how Stapley’s work “does” theology in an academically viable way. Second, I reflect on Stapley’s use of religious studies methodologies throughout his manuscript.
I recently spoke to a senior scholar whose book on Mormon history is coming out in the next 15 months. She received a reader’s report that chastised her for “doing theology” in her work, rather than looking at Mormons’ actions only within a political or gendered context. She fumed about the impossibility of doing religious history without doing some type of theology. “What else are you supposed to call the logic that religious people created and relied upon in their devotional lives?” I shared her frustration. Theology is not the stuff of Thomas Aquinas alone—or Eliza Snow, Orson Pratt, etc.—but is rather the internal logic of religious lives. Sure, that type of theology has its value and place, but to pretend that religious peoples don’t act according to what makes sense to them is patently absurd. Give me the stories of Mary Brown and Thomas Job and I’ll show you how religion operated on a local level much more effectively than only considering the perspectives of Brigham Young. We need more stories from more people from more places across the globe and from outside of the Nauvoo period. We will always have Joseph Smith’s history with us. Let’s turn our attention to other peoples, experiences, and theologies.
Stapley does a commendable job of thinking about the religious logics, or “lived theologies” as Charles Marsh might call them, that ordered the lives of Mormons from Joseph Smith to the newest convert. “Doing theology” is the best way to recover the in-group thinking that created (and creates) Mormonism from April 6, 1830 until now. Historians will benefit from Stapley’s patient unpacking of the theology behind the Temple and Priesthood Restriction, the routinizing of priesthood ordination, the public disavowal of women’s blessings and healings, and many other topics. What else is there to call their thought but theology? Religious historians should not be ashamed to consider the religious logic of the people they study. Didn’t Orsi, McDannell, Marsh, and a dozen others settle this score in the 1990s? I applaud Stapley for unashamedly thinking about the way that average Mormons considered their religious lives and their relationship to ritual. I’d like to see more of this approach, to say nothing of “lived religion,” in Mormon Studies writ large. The best intellectual historians engage a wide range of thinkers and thinking, not only those thunk by intellectuals.
Of course, this last point leads me to my second area of analysis. Stapley uses religious studies theory to help explain Mormon history. This may seem wholly unremarkable to many of JI’s readers, who are academics outside of Mormon history. But, as someone who takes religious studies and Mormon seriously, it made me happy to see the influence of Taves, Orsi, McDannell, and others sprinkled throughout the book (even if not cited).[x] Stapley’s work highlights the value of methodological frameworks when organizing a study as broad as Power of Godliness’s—or as narrow as an explanatory paragraph. As Mormonism becomes an increasingly academically viable topic it’s important that scholars don’t forget to speak the language of the academy as they’re addressing the concerns of Mormon historiography. Stapley has shown that someone without academic training in history or religious studies can do it. Academics engaged in the study of Mormonism must be sure to do it, too. [y]
[x] I would have liked to have seen some work with Catherine Bell and other ritual theorists. I’d like to see someone study a particular Mormon ritual and do research on what it means/meant to Mormons now (#freethesisideas).
[y]I know that there are scholars of Mormonism that use theory, especially religious studies theory. I love the work of Jan Shipps, Spencer Fluhman, Kathleen Flake, Max Mueller, Kris Wright and others. I am simply calling for more of the kind of work that they produce!