Roundtable: Liturgy and Practice in Stapley’s *Power of Godliness*

By March 23, 2018

In reflections earlier in the week, J Johnson and J Stuart offered thoughts on how Jonathan Stapley’s excellent new book, The Power of Godliness: Mormon Liturgy and Cosmology, models the kind of attentiveness to “lived theology” that some scholars have called for, and which has been characterized as part of the analytical school of “lived religion.” This is not the theology of the elites, but rather, as Robert Orsi put it, the “theology of the streets”: vernacular meaning-making and “cultural bricolage” performed by ordinary people [1]. It is colored by the vicissitudes of ordinary life and, while informed by the pronouncements of religious authority figures, it is not bounded by them. This is experiential theology, and it matches with the premium valued place by the “lived religion” approach upon experience. Johnson and Stuart are quite right; Stapley has, in his deployment of “cosmology,” certainly succeeded in his aspiration to “[open] new possibilities for understanding the lived experiences of women and men in the Mormon past and Mormon present” (pg. 2).  In this reflection, however, I offer a few thoughts not (or at least not directly) on “cosmology” or theology, but on the other major category of Stapley?s book, “liturgy,” and on how The Power of Godliness relates to the study of religious practice in Mormon history and in American religious history more generally.

As Stapley notes, “liturgy” is a “ritualized system of worship,” or, in other words, a theologically-informed and regulated body of practices. “Liturgy” and “worship” are terms more often used in confessional than academic discourse, but the overlapping category of “practice” has become an important element in the study of American religion, and “practice,” too, is close to the heart of “lived religion.” This emphasis entered the field with the anthropological turn that affected many American historians, and which penetrated the study of American religion in the late 1980s and 1990s with the works of Robert Orsi, David Hall, and others. Hall’s edited volume Lived Religion: Toward a History of Practice (Princeton, 1999) marks one early landmark in the effort to come to terms with the embodied aspects of religion, which it stressed were as integral to religion as religious belief. In his introduction to that book, Hall called for an effort to establish a “comprehensive map of practices” which would meaningfully connect and situate religious activity across the spectrum of American religion. [2] In the years since, scholars of American religion have responded with increasingly attentive analyses. In 2006, a consortium of leading scholars produced Practicing Protestants: Histories of Christian Life in America, 1630-1965, an explicit response to Hall and an effort to further overturn lingering Protestant assumptions about the nature of religion that had colored historical study. In the study of American religion, to sum up, “practice ” seen gradual ascendancy over several decades until today it occupies a position of relative strength. Scholars today cannot speak of “belief” without reference to “practice.” Americans–even low-church Protestants–are rightly understood to be as much practitioners as believers.

Like historians of American religion, scholars of Mormonism have also gradually taken more interest in the practical dimensions of religion over the past several decades. We saw evidence of this in 2014 when Juvenile Instructor declared March of that year “Practice Month” and hosted a series of reflections and analyses from that interpretive angle. We also built a bibliography of historical work on practice in Mormonism. As that exercise showed, the rituals, customs, and other practices of Mormonism have received proliferating attention, but (with a few exceptions) this attention has been piecemeal and often without recourse to larger frameworks of reference (liturgy, practice, ritual, sacramental theology, etc.) which could help to to interpret and understand them. The efforts were discrete and disconnected enough that in 2014 it seemed a service merely to round them up and attempt some kind of categorization.

During just the past nine months, things have changed dramatically. Within that short time we have seen two major, systematizing interventions bring different kinds of order to an area of study that has long operated helter-skelter. As part of his larger project on the foundations of Mormon thought, Terryl Givens’s Feeding the Flock, which I reviewed just last week, now has approached Mormon practice in terms of theological system, giving careful attention to the large-scale intellectual structures, such as covenant theology, which encompass and help to imbue these practices with their significance. He has also brought to bear the logic of sacramental theology. In The Power of Godliness, Stapley employs the category of liturgy as part of a radically different historical approach, one which carefully attends to tensions, evolution, and experience. I address this approach and much else in Stapley’s rich, textured, and innovative study in a forthcoming review in the Journal of Mormon History. Here I simply want to highlight (and, indeed, to celebrate) the fact that the Power of Godliness, in concert with Feeding the Flock, has achieved a cartographic coup for historians of Mormonism. Stapley’s work offers us, at last, an integrated and illuminating picture of Mormon practice. This is not only a major achievement in itself, but like all great scholarship, it will help orient and inspire scholars of Mormonism to do better and more enlightened work in the future. And in the broader effort to explore and define the practical dimension of American religion, moreover, the Power of Godliness has put Mormonism on the map. Scholars well beyond the boundaries of Mormon history will be better oriented as a result.


[1] Robert A Orsi, The Madonna of 115th Street: Faith and Community in Italian Harlem, 3rd ed. (1985; New Haven: Yale University Press, 2010), 219-231. See also Orsi, “Everyday Miracles: The Study of Lived Religion,” in Lived Religion in America: Toward a History of Practice (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1997), 3-21.

[2] David D. Hall, ed., Lived Religion in America: Toward a History of Practice (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1997), xi.

Article filed under Book and Journal Reviews Historiography JIers in Print Methodology, Academic Issues Ritual Theology


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