My two current favorite books on ritual/liturgy/practice

By March 10, 2014

A couple of years ago, I was reading David Hall?s edited volume Lived Religion, and ruminated a bit on my reading along with a request for suggested volumes. For practice month here at the JI (deep in my heart it is really ritual/liturgy month), I wanted to similarly open up with a discussion of two books that have influenced my current study of Mormon liturgy, and then ask for your advice.

Owen Davies, Popular Magic: Cunning-folk in English History (London: Continuum, 2007).
This (and the various rabbit holes that it reveals in which to delve) has done more than anything else to contextualize Mormon folk practice for me. I appreciate what folklorists have done in the last one hundred years to document practices, but it is just data, and often profoundly acontextual. With Davies, all of the sudden the various flowers of Mormon (and American) folk practice have a garden and potential taxonomy. I?ve started to call the various ?magic? practices of early Americans and emigrants ?the attenuated cunning folk tradition? and the ways in which Mormons resonate or diverge from the tradition is illuminating. Strong companion volumes are Jonathan Roper’s English Verbal Charms and Charms, Charmers and Charming. Imagine a hemostatic charm appearing in the diary of late-nineteenth-century American-born Relief Society president with the most recent recorded variant from early eighteenth-century Britain. Rad.

Alcuin Reid, The Organic Development of the Liturgy, 2nd ed. (San Fransisco: Ignatius Press, 2005).
Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger?s forward alone is worth the price. Here is the deal: I think that Mormons should be looking to Catholics and Catholic Historians instead of Evangelicals for inspiration and rapprochement. I think this because Mormons (and their church) are recapitulating 1,500 years of intellectual engagement with their faith and historiography, albeit in an almost negative log timescale. The best antecedent to the last 30 years of Mormon History: the Catholic modernist crisis of the late 19th and early 20th century. It?s uncanny. The development of Mormon Liturgy? See Liturgical History, Catholic. The Organic Development should be read as performative for believing Mormon thought-leaders. Mormon Liturgy (among other topics like theology) currently lacks any real critical engagement within the institution, though recent essays, both at the and ?Gospel Topics? website suggest that may be changing. This volume provides a fruitful template with which Mormons can engage Mormon History while maintaining the most rigorous evidentiary and historiographical standards, all while strengthening their faith tradition. Also isn?t there a conference on this somewhere? I know Bowman hits on it a bit.

My work on Mormon Liturgy primarily involves lots (and lots) of reading in Mormon and antebellum Christian source material. Along with this I get into a fair amount of Catholic liturgical history (and similar work from Anglicans, etc.). Also Atlantic religious history generally and stuff like Davies and Roper above specifically. While I’ve found some Ritual Studies material like Driver to be useful, I’m going to let folks like Taysom and Flake do the heavy theoretical lifting and respond to Bell, et al. I don?t know whether I lack the patience or constitution, but it is something. Consequently dear readers, what reading outside of Mormon History do you suggest to contextualize, or expand what researchers like me are doing?

Article filed under Miscellaneous


  1. You might like The Christian West and Its Singers: The First Thousand Years, by Christopher Page.

    Comment by Bill — March 11, 2014 @ 12:05 am

  2. Sorry for the tangent (I can’t answer your underlying question), but can you explain this comment a bit?

    “Mormon Liturgy (among other topics like theology) currently lacks any real critical engagement within the institution, though recent essays, both at the and ?Gospel Topics? website suggest that may be changing.”


    Comment by Hunter — March 11, 2014 @ 7:13 am

  3. Thanks, J. These both look great.

    Isn’t Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI? I wonder how having him write the forward has impacted the reception of Reid’s book.

    Comment by Christopher — March 11, 2014 @ 9:02 am

  4. Davies also wrote the interesting Grimoires: A History of Magic Books, which treats Quinn’s Early Mormonism and the Magic World View in some detail.

    Comment by Gary Bergera — March 11, 2014 @ 9:27 am

  5. I look forward to more of your research, J. Davies’s work has been important for my dissertation and I talk about the development of the temple rituals during JS’s life but had not used broader liturgical studies (though I do argue that Catholicism likely played a role). Anyway, the post I’m doing at the end of this month combines some of this stuff. I’ll be looking forward to any comments from you.

    Comment by Steve Fleming — March 11, 2014 @ 10:08 am

  6. Thanks all. Christopher, it is, and consequently the book was very helpful to me in grasping how exactly Benedict was “conservative” (as portrayed in the media, and a really facile simplification). I don’t really have much contact with Catholic thinkers, so I don’t know how this book has been received more broadly, but it is definitely argumentative. I imagine that there are many who might disagree with the main thesis. I think that a Mormon audience can learn more from how this argumentation is developed, and from certain specific analytic categories (like “tradition”) than any particular position. This is probably a complete tangent, but I haven’t been particularly impressed with some Mormon attempts to piggy-back on certain Catholic philosophical/political positions. The details between the faith are divergent, but there is a lot to learn in how we deal with those details, I think.

    Hunter, are you asking how the level of critical engagement within the institution might be changing? If so, take the “Revelations in Context” section of, and the new essays in “Gospel Topics”. These represent a very important shift towards critical approaches to scripture and teachings. At least, I think they do.

    Gary, that one is in my short queue. I can’t wait to get to it!

    Steve, I’m really looking forward to that series (and the diss).

    Comment by J. Stapley — March 11, 2014 @ 10:30 am

  7. That’s interesting, that Mormons should be looking towards Catholics rather than evangelicals. I hadn’t thought about it much, but I think I can see what you mean. I’ll have to peruse the Ratzinger preface.

    Comment by Saskia — March 11, 2014 @ 10:55 am

  8. Thanks for the recommendations, J.

    Comment by J Stuart — March 11, 2014 @ 2:25 pm

  9. This might be the conference you were referring too:

    Bowman’s paper comparing correlation and Vatican II was fantastic.

    Comment by Bradley — March 11, 2014 @ 3:01 pm

  10. This is great, J. Wholeheartedly agree that Catholicism can often be a more helpful model for thinking about Mormonism–and certainly about Mormon ritual–than Protestantism. My post late next week, in fact, will look at Mormon ordinances through the lens of sacramental theology.

    Comment by Ryan T. — March 11, 2014 @ 4:30 pm

  11. That is it Bradley. Wish I could have attended.

    And I’ll look forward to that Ryan.

    Comment by J. Stapley — March 11, 2014 @ 5:40 pm

  12. Wholeheartedly agree that Catholicism can often be a more helpful model for thinking about Mormonism?and certainly about Mormon ritual?than Protestantism.

    Ryan, or J., say more about this–I don’t know enough for this to seem self-evident to me.

    Comment by Kristine — March 11, 2014 @ 9:07 pm

  13. Er, please say more about this 🙂

    Comment by Kristine — March 11, 2014 @ 9:08 pm

  14. Just to be contrarian, most recently, I have found Tanya Luhrmann’s When God talks back: understanding the American evangelical relationship with God. to be quite useful when thinking about Mormons and lived religion.

    Comment by Kris — March 11, 2014 @ 9:21 pm

  15. Kristine, I’m sure that Ryan will add his own perspective, but I think that there are fundamental structural and developmental similarities between them, that allow for some productive analyses. Particularly the priesthood ecclesiology that wields authority beyond the limits of sola scriptura, and the existence of a venerable “tradition” create analogous tensions and periodic reformations in matters theological and liturgical (correlation really is a brilliant example of this, see pp. 25-28, and that isn’t even touching the work Bowman has done). Another example is a similar shift (and again I reiterate the deeply compressed comparative time scale) from oral to written records, that leads to a scenario where there is not always clear documentation for particular accretions. I do really think that the modernist crisis with the devotional historiography breaking on the shore of critical scholarship, which in turn yielded the modern catholic approach to the Bible, its history, its liturgy and more really is (or can be) performative for Mormons. Everyone calls Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI a conservative, but he is a book nerd of the highest order–one who has done a tremendous amount of lifting–and one hundred twenty years ago, would be nothing short of a radical (and one potentially excommunicated), I think.

    Kris (and I love me some contrarianism, perhaps secretly hoping for a certain emeritus professor to come and illustrate my lack of reading by highlighting several articles from Dialogue), I’m not at all familiar with that volume. What about it was useful?

    Comment by J. Stapley — March 11, 2014 @ 10:33 pm

  16. I’m with you guys on the Catholic thing, even though Protestantism was crucial context for early Mormonism and we have this weird 20th-c. thing where we sounded way more Protestant than our actual roots as anti-Protestant protest with a long reach back into pre-modern patterns of thinking (I know that people argue about that term but still find it close enough to useful.) I love Davies; he’s great fun. The cunning book is a little better than the grimoires book, but the latter is still good fun. I’m with you on eyes glazing over with Bell and the anthropologists, even though there’s some good material in there. JZS has some good stuff on ritual that I personally favor when I’m wanting something theoretical. For early Catholicism, I could read Peter Brown all day. I’ll take a look at the book you’re talking about.

    Comment by smb — March 11, 2014 @ 11:17 pm

  17. I think Catholic frameworks are useful in addressing the sacramentalism of Mormonism however there are certain Protestant strains that might require other framings. Luhrmann’s evangelicals have a personal relationship with God and expect him to answer them in individual ways. I think she offers some thought provoking ideas on how people experience their faith. However, she is an anthropologist which might strain your patience.

    Comment by Kris — March 12, 2014 @ 10:14 am

  18. Interesting Kris. And I should also be quick to agree with you and Sam, there really is no way to get away from the Protestant context of the Restoration. Christopher’s work with the Methodists for example is crucial.

    Comment by J. Stapley — March 12, 2014 @ 11:29 am

  19. Luhrmann’s book is full of insight about evangelical piety, but it’s more broadly applicable. She argues that through actions which resemble a child’s imaginary play, God becomes real to evangelicals. They talk to God and expect God to talk back. Thus, they sense God’s presence more often and receive more messages from God. [This is a gross over-simplification). It might have something to do with why so many early Latter-day Saints either saw or heard God, Jesus, angels, etc. They expected such experiences. They brought their questions to God, and they expected the Lord to answer those questions.

    Comment by John T. — March 12, 2014 @ 3:10 pm

  20. Nice write-up. Totally agree on the need to look Catholic scholarship. Mormons embrace exorcism with a passion missing from 19th-century Evangelical culture.

    Comment by SC Taysom — March 12, 2014 @ 5:32 pm


Recent Comments

Smb on Reassessing the Classics: Armand: “Armand is a wise and lovely man who deserves these kind words. I absolutely agree that his books were key entries in the scholar’s library…”

J Stuart on Reassessing the Classics: Armand: “Armand, your response made me unexpectedly emotional. Your work has shaped me as a scholar in many important ways, but your legendary willingness to engage…”

Ardis E. Parshall on Reassessing the Classics: Armand: “I've enjoyed these three discussions -- crowned by this response by Armand Mauss himself. It is so representative of his ability and willingness to interact…”

Blair Hodges on Reassessing the Classics: Armand: “Thank you for your lasting contributions to Mormon Studies, Armand.”

Mirror on Reassessing the Classics: Armand: “These have been interesting posts about a major work in Mormon Studies. If I may boil down my understanding of Mauss' thesis to a…”

Armand Mauss on Reassessing the Classics: Armand: “I am pleasantly surprised and deeply grateful for the three assessments offered in this space this week by Gary Shepherd, Jana Riess, and Matt Bowman.…”