[This is the fourth in our week-long roundtable on Jonathan Stapley’s The Power of Godliness: Mormon Liturgy and Cosmology (Oxford University Press). You should make sure to read Tona’s post here, Joey’s post here and Janiece’s here. Building on their excellent reviews, I’d like to focus my remarks on a couple questions Stapley’s book raised.]
Modern Mormon discourse often revolves around the priesthood. Does the LDS Church’s conception of the priesthood lead to too much of a hierarchical organization? Does it inevitably result in abuses of power? Does it make gender equality impossible?
Jonathan Stapley’s new book does not seek to answer these questions. He makes it clear in the introduction that he wishes to steer clear of the political implications of Mormonism’s priesthood tradition. But what he does is destabilize the very conception of the “priesthood” itself. For the church’s first century, early Mormons believed in what Stapley calls a “cosmological priesthood,” a heavenly network that bound individuals together in order to form a communal salvific unit. Mormons were, quite explicitly, creating the celestial kingdom, and the priesthood served as ligaments holding everything together. But starting during the progressive era, members of the faith shifted toward an ecclesiastical framework for understanding the priesthood, a paradigm that focused entirely on ecclesiastical offices held by men. That shift eventually led to the Mormonism of today.
Like any good historian, Stapley is able to whittle down the major elements of this transition into digestible comparisons: Mormons evolved from creating heaven in this life to merely preparing for the next, from seeing priesthood as a channel for divine power to the power of God itself, and from an inter-gendered society to a male-only ministerial hierarchy. He also highlights one particular point of convergence where these two separate worlds momentarily collide: the temple. Due to “the acontextual status of both the temple liturgy and structures of authority in modern Mormon belief,” Stapley explains, contemporary believers have difficulty making sense of sacred rituals that were born in the cosmological framework while living in a church that is much more ecclesiastical. The frequent—and often awkward—attempts to blend the two represent the distance between these two worldviews.
The Power of Godliness is at its best—and it is often at its best—when teasing out the intricate evolutions of Mormon priesthood rhetoric over two centuries. It draws from scriptural texts, official proclamations, private letters, council minutes, and contemporary handbooks. The sheer amount of archival research and close readings are incredible. Stapley’s work will be foundational for generations of scholars to come.
But I’d like to muse, at least for a little bit, on a theme that is directly related to Stapley’s work but outside of his particular focus: cultural context. Or, to be more direct, two particular cultural contexts, one from the nineteenth century and the other from the twenty-first.
Given my current research project, I was naturally drawn to the Nauvoo section of Stapley’s book. (Or sections, given his thematic chapters meant he covered the period in several different sections.) While he expertly details the mechanics of salvation that priesthood rituals provided Nauvoo’s residents, I couldn’t help but wish that Stapley connected these answers to the questions antebellum America was asking. Why were thousands of believers seeking refuge in a cosmological priesthood that assured stability and certainty? And decades later, when Mormons were living in Utah, why were they willing to give up this cosmological obsession? Stapley hints at the answer to the latter question when he briefly connects the shift to Romantic notions of divine benevolence and universalism that were prevalent in the progressive era, but I think more focus on the environments in which these ideas were born and developed would have provided a stronger argument for their relevance. (And at 128 pages of text, pre-footnotes, I was certainly left wanting more!)
I admit my second “context” is not so much a critique of the book as a question concerning its origins. I’m a firm believer that a historian’s contemporary context shapes their historical questions. Objectivity is impossible. Of course, there is always a real threat of presentism, as it is indeed scholarly malpractice to allow your own world to fully shape your understanding of the past. But our surroundings often prompt the type of inquiries we bring to our historical topics. In the case of The Power of Godliness, what is it about the twenty-first century that is driving a reassessment of Mormonism’s priesthood tradition? Issues concerning gender immediately come to mind, but I also think our contemporary fascination with power and authority in general makes it inevitable that we constantly revisit the issue.
Of course, Stapley is nearly surgical in avoiding this question. His authorial voice in much of his scholarship is more reflective of Spock than of previous historians who have tugged at the thread of Mormon priesthood. Which is well and good—it makes his scholarship all the more impeccable. But I do hope his work stands as a foundation for a new cultural engagement with Mormon priesthood and authority, especially now that cultural pressures seem to constantly rain upon the LDS community.
Recognizing the malleability of the tradition’s past may eventually lead to a questioning of its present.