Book Review: The Power of Godliness: Mormon Liturgy and Cosmology (Oxford, 2018)

By March 19, 2018

As Joan Scott said, ?Those who would codify the meaning of words fight a losing battle, for words, like the ideas and things they are meant to signify, have a history.? [1] Jonathan Stapley?s important new book, Power of Godliness: Mormon Liturgy and Cosmology explores the history of priesthood, one of Mormonism?s most fractious and fertile ideas, a word that contains worlds of complex meaning and diversity of lived practice about sacred authority and divine power. His work does so primarily by cleaving elements of Mormon priesthood into two general categories, which have too often become conflated in contemporary Mormon discourse and history: cosmology and ecclesiology [2]. Both deserve closer examination if we are to understand just what makes this book so significant and refreshing.

In Stapley?s framing, cosmology (i.e. concept of the nature of the universe) is evident in the way a people mirror their perceived divine order of heaven in temporal institutions and through sacred ritual. Mormon cosmological priesthood, as gradually established by Joseph Smith, was based on a heavenly patriarchal order binding all souls together through loving kinship ties, enacted in temple rites. Connections made and recorded here literally constituted the census and character of heaven; connections ratified in heaven were given tangible form here through the sacred portal of temple ceremonies. Both men and women were integral to a complete cosmological priesthood.

In contrast, ecclesiology is chiefly concerned with everyday church administration ? policies, procedures, succession, membership, codes, boundary definition and maintenance, and so on. Mormon priesthood ecclesiology represents the male-centered hierarchical ordering of Mormon life, from cradle to grave, independent of the cosmological unity of all believers.

Stapley argues that the cosmological priesthood, the earlier of the two–the Ur-priesthood, so to speak–was eclipsed or collapsed into the later, ecclesiological priesthood. Central to his argument, then, is identifying when and how this happened. Stapley describes an important top-down cultural and theological shift around 1900, a periodization which echoes the work of Flake, Bowman, and others:

?In the twentieth century, with the cosmological priesthood beyond memory, church leaders came to explicitly define priesthood in terms of God?s power. With the concentration of church liturgy within the priesthood ecclesiastical structures and the rise of Priesthood Correlation reforms, which emphasized priesthood keys as an organizational principle, the power of God became inseparable from the church ecclesiology? [And] as the priesthood ecclesiology was intrinsically male, the expansion of that priesthood required the exclusion of women to maintain coherence. Church leaders constantly wrestled for the next hundred years trying to integrate women into that revised conception of priesthood.? (24-25)

Power of Godliness is most interested in how Mormon liturgy develops and changes over time ? dispensing with the lingering misconception that Mormonism is a religion largely devoid of liturgy. Far from it: Mormon rituals and ordinances, including those which must be memorized or correctly spoken to be operative, constitute a rich and dynamic liturgical tradition. In successive chapters, Stapley explores priesthood ordination, temple sealings, baby blessings, sacrament administration, healings, and (intriguingly) magic or cunning-folk practices at the Mormon margins.

Each of these liturgies follows a different trajectory from early Mormonism to the present. It is fascinating to learn, for example, that all missionaries were ordained as Seventies at one point, or that some adults used to be ?sealed? as adoptive children to non-relatives, or that both men and women could serve as official witnesses for baptisms, or that children were blessed before large congregations in ways quite different from contemporary baby name blessings, or that many Mormon women ? as Stapley and Wright have extensively documented in previous work [3] ? routinely and unproblematically performed healing and blessing rituals both inside and outside temple contexts for decades. Despite being constructed (by the rhetorical narrative of divine, preplanned restoration) as normative and static, in fact these liturgies all were (and remain) highly mutable. Simply documenting these changes over time, including patterns formerly thought efficacious that now seem aberrant or transgressive, reminds us that Mormonism, like all living religions, is a fluid system. And fluid systems not only fill the containers built for them, but also spill out of them in surprising and often unpredictable ways.

Stapley tracks liturgical transformation and limns the underlying (sometimes open, sometime repressed) cultural conflict over Mormon liturgy and authority by tracing changes in how liturgy was codified in handbooks, memos, and other forms of official instruction. As Mormonism grew, integrated vast numbers of international converts, and extended geographically and culturally far beyond the intermountain West region, it generated a vast bureaucratic structure capable of governing millions with correlated efficiency. While experientially Mormonism operates on the face-to-face scale of families and small congregations, its interpersonal modes of learning and religious apprenticeship are always in tension with corporate modes of instruction like manuals, official Church publications and more recently, digital handbooks and online content delivery through mobile app libraries. Much of the story of Mormon liturgical development, then, involves the systemization of religious practice and reigning in some of the liturgical exuberance generated by a highly democratic, open-canon, and rapidly missionizing new religious movement. Gender, in particular, has long been a field upon which this lived tension plays out in LDS culture. Stapley enters this fraught arena with clear eyes and unhysterical prose. Through his work we see an authentic and more diverse Mormon past when it comes to gendered practices, which potentially restores a useful past from which those seeking greater gender equity in contemporary Mormonism might borrow.

My review kicks off a week of roundtable discussion of Stapley?s remarkable contributions and the larger implications of his work, and there?s lots more for others to say, so let me just propose this: Power of Godliness restores to the Restoration some more of its original, lost weirdness that characterizes the best of recent Mormon studies ? its contingency, the range of options it once contained, its experimentation while not knowing how things would turn out [4]. Though it?s not intended as work of apologetics, as I read it I couldn’t help but wonder if it might be performing a witness to the ongoing nature of Mormonism?s restoration. Sometimes restoring lost fragments of a people?s own past to themselves, paradoxically, can help them move forward. Regardless of any future ecclesiological adjustments such an awareness of the past might portend within Mormonism, the wider scholarly world is enriched by Power of Godliness. The book offers much to consider for those interested in institutional continuity and change, creation and negotiation of religious identity, and how ritual enlivens belief and vice versa. We will be talking about and learning from this work for a long time to come.

Review of: Jonathan A. Stapley, The Power of Godliness: Mormon Liturgy and Cosmology (New York: Oxford University Press, 2018).

[1] Joan W. Scott, ?Gender: A Useful Category of Historical Analysis,? American Historical Review 91:5 (Dec 1986), 1053-1075.

[2] Also recently explored in Givens’s Feeding the Flock, see Ryan T’s JI review of March 12, 2018.

[3] e.g. Jonathan A. Stapley and Kristine Wright, ?Female Ritual Healing in Mormonism,? Journal of Mormon History 37, no. 1 (Winter 2011): 1-85. See also here and here, and here.

[4] Laurel Thatcher Ulrich, in House Full of Females (Knopf, 2017), defending her decision not to use late-in-life memoirs as a source: ?This is not to say that diaries are more truthful than memoirs, just better at conveying the instability of events as they unfolded. Diarists did not know how things would turn out? (xx). Really, the same might be said of all prior editions of church handbooks and administrative instructional manuals.

Article filed under Book and Journal Reviews Categories of Periodization: Accommodation Categories of Periodization: Modern Mormonism Categories of Periodization: Origins Cultural History Gender Intellectual History JIers in Print Ritual Theology Women's History


  1. Looking forward to reading the rest of the roundtable! And the book, of course.

    Comment by Saskia — March 19, 2018 @ 10:42 am

  2. Really enjoyed this, Tona.

    Comment by Ben P — March 19, 2018 @ 12:47 pm

  3. Was Jonathan the first to coin the term “cosmological priesthood”?

    Comment by Gary Bergera — March 19, 2018 @ 2:02 pm

  4. Enjoyed this Tona. Looking forward to the upcoming posts.

    Comment by wvs — March 19, 2018 @ 2:36 pm

  5. Gary, in an upcoming interview with Jonathan he seems to indicate he coined the term.

    In his interview (coming March 27), he explains:

    “I use the term “cosmological priesthood” as a sort of short-hand to refer to this expanded notion, where kinship, priesthood, and salvation collapsed into a material heaven on earth. I recognize that it is rather idiosyncratic, but I think readers of my book will find it an extremely useful concept to understand a lot of the most difficult-to-process aspects of church history.”

    Comment by Kurt Manwaring — March 19, 2018 @ 6:02 pm

  6. Thanks, Kurt. Looking forward to the interview. Jonathan’s book is one of the most thought-provoking works I’ve read recently. It deserves a wide audience.

    Comment by Gary Bergera — March 20, 2018 @ 7:57 am

  7. […] Liturgy and Cosmology (Oxford University Press). You should make sure to read Tona’s post here, and Joey’s post here. Building on their excellent reviews, I’d like to focus my […]

    Pingback by Juvenile Instructor » Roundtable on Stapley, Power of Godliness: The Cultural Context(s) for Mormonism’s Priesthood — March 21, 2018 @ 5:32 am

  8. […] 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 […]

    Pingback by Juvenile Instructor » Roundtable: Johnson – Accessibility and Nuance in Stapley’s *The Power of Godliness* — March 21, 2018 @ 6:00 am

  9. Excellent, Tona.

    Comment by Ryan Tobler — March 21, 2018 @ 8:36 am


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