Roundtable: Stuart on *The Power of Godliness*

By March 20, 2018

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.

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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.

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Book Review: Terryl Givens, Feeding the Flock: The Foundations of Mormon Thought: Church and Praxis (Oxford, 2017)

By March 12, 2018

With Feeding the Flock: The Foundations of Mormon Thought: Church and Praxis, published with Oxford last year, Terryl Givens has brought us the second installment in his magisterial and systematic treatment of Mormon theology. It follows on the heels of Wrestling the Angel, issued from the same press in 2014. That book explored what Givens designated as the global themes of Mormon thought—history, theology, and “restoration”—as well as core elements of its Christian theology—its cosmology, its theology proper (that is, its conceptions of the divine), and its theological anthropology. This second volume (which, like the previous one, weighs in at over four hundred pages) has a different and narrower scope: it is devoted almost entirely, as Givens acknowledges, to ecclesiology—to Mormon teachings about the church, its activities, and the theological structures which undergird them. Suffice it to say, as an opening, that Feeding the Flock offers the ambitious, expansive, visionary style that we’ve come to expect from Givens. It is a well-wrought, elegantly gathered work. As he did in Wrestling the Angel, Givens once again sets an entirely new standard for the study of Mormonism’s theological foundations. And he sets the bar high.

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A Brief History of Mormon Prayers at the Republican National Convention

By July 26, 2016

Screen Shot 2016-07-22 at 12.20.41 PMLast week, Nathan Johnson, an African-American convert to Mormonism who currently serves as second counselor in the Kirtland Ohio Stake Presidency, offered the invocation on the third day of the Republican National Convention in Cleveland, Ohio. Johnson’s prayer attracted a fair amount of attention, both because of Mormons’ widespread distaste for Donald Trump and his campaign and because of the prayer’s content. But Johnson was not the first Latter-day Saint to pray at the Republican National Convention. In fact, four out of the last five have featured invocations by Mormons: Steve Young (2000), Sheri Dew (2004), Ken Hutchins (2012), and Nathan Johnson (2016). Only the 2008 convention lacked a Latter-day Saint prayer.[1] 

I thought it would be an interesting exercise to compare their respective prayers, to note any commonalities between them (beyond use of thee, thou, and thine), and to consider the contexts in which they were given. What follows below is a transcription of each invocation, followed by my preliminary attempt to briefly historicize each.

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An MHA 2016 Primer; or, Reprising Practice Month at the JI

By June 8, 2016

On the cusp of the annual Mormon History Association conference, which is centered on the theme of “practice” this year and begins later this week at Snowbird, UT, it seems like a good time to highlight some of the resources and the work done here at the JI on the theme of “practice” during March 2014. During that month (which hardly seems like two plus years ago), we carried the theme of practice through a series of posts from guests and regular contributors. See, for instance, guest Megan Sanborn Jones’s analysis of Mormon pageants and religious performance, J. Stapley’s discussion of his favorite books on liturgy/ritual, or Kris Wright’s thoughts on “Vernacular Architecture and Religious Practice.” We also had a (somewhat delayed) multiple part “Scholarly Inquiry” interview with Dan Belnap on his edited volume By Our Rites of Worship: Latter-day Saint Views on Ritual in History, Scripture, and Practice. And we put some effort toward assembling a (theoretically) comprehensive bibliography dealing with matters of practice in Mormon history. If you’re looking to grease the skids for a memorable and productive conference this weekend, you could do worse than to start here!

20 Questions to Ask a Seer Stone and its Pouch

By August 5, 2015

The release of the photos of Joseph Smith’s seer stone as well as the pouch made by Emma Smith that protected it, illustrates the sheer viscerality of material religion. It demonstrates the power that objects can have in the lives of religious believers and is a great example of how religion is not just something that is believed or felt abstractly or read through a text. Objects and bodies mediate religious experience.

seer stones

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Reflections on Matthew Bowman’s “Toward a Catholic History of Mormonism,” JMH50 Roundtable

By March 26, 2015

JMH50In 1991, the iconoclastic historian Jon Butler brought forth one of the greatest of his many “historiographical heresies.” Well known for being an ardent revisionist, Butler had called the previous year in his important book Awash in a Sea of Faith: Christianizing the American People (1990) for narratives that paid more attention to the enduring and even escalating power of religious institutions in nineteenth-century America. Institutional power, he suggested, had been unduly marginalized in the pursuit of other interests. In 1991, however, Butler took this logic all the way and proposed an entirely new model for American religious history, one that was sure to astound many of his colleagues. In the heyday of the new scholarship on American evangelicalism and during the very apotheosis of Nathan Hatch’s Democratization of American Christianity, Butler insisted that—of all groups—Roman Catholics could serve as a productive baseline for American religious history. Catholicism in America, he argued, more than the hurly burly of American evangelicalism, could help historians account for hidden aspects of the religious past. [1]

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Mormons, Supplementary Worship, and Ash Wednesday

By February 19, 2015

Mormons have a long history of supplementing their LDS worship with attendance at or participation in the services of other Christian denominations. In the 19th century, some Latter-day Saints in the American South would, in the sometimes lengthy periods between visits from traveling missionaries, attend Sunday services at the local Baptist or Methodist church. In the 21st century, Mormons are counted among mega-preacher Joel Osteen’s many listeners and viewers, tuning into his broadcasts on Sunday mornings while getting ready to attend their own meetings; others, acting as spiritual tourists, occasionally take in a Catholic or Anglican service while traveling.

Perhaps the most notable (and timely) example of Mormons supplementing their worship outside the confines of the Mormon chapel or temple, though, is the increasing number of Latter-day Saints who take part in some aspect of the traditional Christian liturgical calendar. Some attend midnight mass on Christmas Eve, others finding personal meaning and significance in Ash Wednesday. In perhaps the most striking example, a ward in Medford, Oregon collectively observed Palm Sunday last year, complete with palm fronds made by the primary children. Last year, I decided to observe the Lenten fast, giving up dessert/candy/sweets for the 40-day period between Ash Wednesday and Easter Sunday. I did so quietly, taking as my guide the excellent devotional readings by the good folks at By Common Consent as part of their ongoing Mormon Lectionary Project. It ended up being a wholly worthwhile experience, and this year I was eager to participate again. Yesterday at noon, I attended the Ash Wednesday service at the Williamsburg United Methodist Church, accompanied by another Mormon grad student. 

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Scholarly Inquiry: Dan Belnap on Ritual, Pt. 2

By July 10, 2014

The stirring conclusion of our conversation with Dan Belnap on ritual in Mormon Studies. For those new to the conversation, refer to Part 1.

One of the challenges faced by theorists of practice and ritual is defining precisely what these categories are and what they encompass. Do you have any opinions on the scope of Mormon ritual studies or, for that matter, on the boundaries of Mormon liturgy?

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Scholarly Inquiry: Dan Belnap on Ritual, Pt. 1

By July 3, 2014

This post belongs to our occasional “Scholarly Inquiry” series which facilitates conversations with important scholars in Mormon history and studies. Today we reprise our focus on religious practice and ritual from a few months ago and hear from Dan Belnap, professor in the Department of Ancient Scripture at BYU. Belnap, who has a particular interest in ritual in both ancient and contemporary contexts, is the editor of a book entitled By Our Rites of Worship: Latter-day Saint Views on Ritual in History, Scripture, and Practice, and published by the Religious Studies Center at BYU and Deseret Book last year. (And it features, one must add, a stellar chapter from our very own J. Stapley on the development of Mormon ritual!) We appreciate Professor Belnap’s responses and invite your thoughtful engagement. Also, stay tuned for Part 2.

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Building a Bibliography: The History of Mormon Practice

By March 7, 2014

Today’s the day here at JI when, in keeping with our theme this month, we compile a listing of scholarship on the history of Mormon practice. This is intended to be a collaboration, so we hope you’ll jump in and contribute. The list below ought to get us going, but many studies have surely been overlooked, and the categories are arbitrary, so additions and reconfigurations are more than welcome. What works and categories are we missing? What glaring lacunae do you see in the field? What piques your interest? What trends can you identify? How much praise can we heap upon the superstars here? Share your thoughts and insights as we build a comprehensive bibliography.

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“Undone:” The Contours of a Folk Tale

By March 4, 2014

There’s a new Mormon urban legend making the rounds.

You may have heard it before – even from me.

The story goes like this: an infant has been brought to be blessed and given a name in a Mormon sacrament meeting, a public rite of passage initiating the newborn into the community of the congregation, and by extension, into the Church as a whole. The father for whatever reason is unavailable to perform the ceremony, so an elderly relative, generally a grandfather, steps in. The child is brought before the congregation, the old man lays his hands upon it, and promptly ordains the child to priestly office. The blessing ritual has been bungled.

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Sewing Machine as Religious Technology?

By January 29, 2014

Recently, while listening to a podcast of the CBC’s Spark, a radio program that explores the intersection of technology and popular culture I was introduced to the work of Jeremy Stolow.  Stolow is a media historian in the Communication Studies Department at Concordia University.  His principal interest is in religion and media and his research investigates the “sometimes counter-intuitive and often paradoxical ways (ancient, modern, and contemporary) religions relate to processes, practices and technologies of mediated communication.” 

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Arapeen, the Ute Prophet

By November 26, 2013

Filed away in the Brigham Young Papers at the Church History Library, there is a document that records the vision of a nineteenth-century prophet. That visionary, however, was not Brigham Young. Rather, it was Arapeen, a leading Ute chief during the Mormons’ first two decades in the Great Basin. That the Saints believed that Arapeen had received a legitimate revelation is revealed in the language they used to categorize the document. John Lowry, Jr., the Manti resident who interpreted for Arapeen, and George Peacock, who acted as scribe, entitled the document “Vision of Arapine on the night of the 4th of Feb 1855.” Later, after it had been sent to Young’s office in Salt Lake City, an unidentified clerk scrawled “The Lord to Arrowpin” in the margins.[1] Arapeen’s vision provides a fascinating window into the Utes’ hybrid religious culture that was in the process of formation in the years following the Mormons’ arrival in 1847.

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Guest Post: Justin Bray on Mormon Sacrament and Material Culture

By September 12, 2013

Justin Bray is an oral historian at the Church History Department in Salt Lake City, Utah. He is also an MA student at the University of Utah, where he studies American religious history. He has presented and published several papers on the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper among the Latter-day Saints.

I’ve always found objects meaningful tools to reconstruct the past.

When my great-grandfather passed away many years ago, my dad inherited an old baseball bat—probably because my brothers and I couldn’t stop watching The Sandlot, and throughout our childhood we collected an unhealthy number of baseball cards. I really didn’t know anything about my great-grandfather (at the time), let alone that he was a baseball player. But the more attention I paid to the bat, the more the bat became a kind of lens into my great-grandfather’s world.

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Touchdown Jesus, Catholic Blessings, and Supporting Mormon Religion

By January 9, 2013

Not even a Catholic blessing could save Manti Te’o and the dying pop-culture Mormon moment he represents. (source: Wall Street Journal)

[cross-posted at Religion in American History]

On Monday afternoon, just hours before the Alabama Crimson Tide blew out the Notre Dame Fighting Irish in the BCS National Championship football game, Peggy Fletcher Stack posted a short note at the Salt Lake Tribune‘s Following Faith blog on the Catholic pregame rituals of ND.

Specifically, Stack drew readers’ attention to the Mormon story embedded within a fuller exploration of that subject at the Wall Street Journal: Star linebacker, Heisman Trophy runner-up, and devout Mormon Manti Te’o joins his teammates in “attend[ing] a Catholic Mass, receiv[ing] ‘a priest-blessed medal devoted to a Catholic saint,’ and ‘kiss[ing] a shrine containing two slivers Notre Dame believes came from Jesus’ cross.'” He was even photographed receiving a blessing from Notre Dame president emeritus Father Theodore Hesburgh (a blessing Te’o reportedly sought out). Football team chaplain Father Paul Doyle explained that Te’o has privately told him that “he feels supported here [at Notre Dame] in his Mormon religion.”

All of this immediately brought to mind some of my previous thoughts on Mormon supplemental worship, in which Latter-day Saints supplement their Mormon activity by attending other Christian church’s services (a habit that dates back to at least the late nineteenth century). While the example provided by Te’o is clearly part of that larger historical tradition, it also strikes me as unique for a couple of reasons:

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Lecture Report: Janet Bennion and Laurel Thatcher Ulrich on “The Faces of Eve: Varieties of Mormon Feminism”

By November 3, 2012

On Thursday, October 25, Janet Bennion, Professor of Anthropology at Lyndon State College in Vermont, delivered a lecture, “The Faces of Eve: Varieties of Mormon Feminism,” at the Hadassah-Brandeis Institute at Brandeis University. Professor Bennion is an expert on the contemporary practice of polygamy among Mormon fundamentalists, and the author of several books on the subject. Bennion’s lecture focused on her most recent book, Polygamy in Primetime: Media, Gender, and Politics in Mormon Fundamentalism, which she presented as a synthesis of her more than twenty years of research among polygamous groups in North America. Her goal, she said, was to produce a readable work that would educate the general public about these groups, as well as better preparing law enforcement officials to deal with them—and thus to avoid another event like the ill-managed 2008 raid on the FLDS Yearning for Zion ranch in Texas.

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Responding to Christopher Smith on adoption

By April 24, 2012

[The following is Jonathan Stapley’s response to Christopher Smith’s post.]

First, I want to thank Christopher Smith for his critical reading of both my ritual adoption article and my article on last rites. His call for increased clarity and finer argumentation in my work is welcome and surely needed. As an example, the bulk of Smith’s comments relate to what I observed to be a declension in Brigham Young’s rhetoric surrounding adoption ritual performance in Utah, and the possible relationship between this declension and the transformative vision of Joseph Smith that Brigham Young received relating to adoption early in 1847. I’m grateful to respond to these comments as well as some particular questions which Smith raised.

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Responses: Christopher Smith and Jonathan Stapley on Brigham Young’s Vision of Adoption

By April 24, 2012

[This continues our new series “Responses,” which offers a venue to respond to and discuss recent Mormon scholarship, especially journal articles. We are pleased to have Christopher Smith here respond to two articles authored by Jonathan Stapley last year (found here and here), along with Stapley’s own response (posted tomorrow). Christopher Smith is a PhD candidate in Religions in North America at Claremont Graduate University. He is currently living in Provo while he works on his dissertation on Mormon and American Indian relations during the life of Joseph Smith. At least, that’s what he’s supposed to be working on…]

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Brigham Young, Natural Seers, and Seer Stones

By March 3, 2011

J. Stapley needs no introduction. He’s been kind enough to join in on the seer stone/”magic” fe[a]st we’ve had here at JI this week.

Stan’s recent post on the use of seer stones by young women, reminded me of some sources relating to Brigham Young. Young is on record as saying that he was not a “natural seer” (see discussion in this post). I’m currently of the position that Brigham Young believed that he did not have the ability to use seer stones. As illustrated in comments while discussing some of his more controversial beliefs with the Salt Lake School of the Prophets, Young “said there were many revelations given to him that he did not receive from the Prophet Joseph. He did not receive them through the Urim and Thummim as Joseph did but when he did received them he knew of their truth as much as it was possible for them him to do of any truth.” [1]

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