A Review of Jonathan Stapley’s The Power of Godliness: Mormon Liturgy and Cosmology

Stapley, Jonathan A. The Power of Godliness: Mormon Liturgy and Cosmology. New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2018. 188 pp. ISBN 9780190844431.

Best Mormon History Book of 2018

Cover of Stapley's The Power of Godliness

Jonathan A. Stapley’s The Power of Godliness: Mormon Liturgy and Cosmology reveals Mormon ritual in all its glorious messiness. Deemed “best book” of 2018 by the Mormon History Association, The Power of Godliness is a must-read for researchers interested in the evolution of Mormon priesthood, religious exclusion of blacks and women, and persistence of charismatic and magical practice in Mormonism through the end of the nineteenth century. Rich and readable, Stapley’s narrative condenses a wealth of information and insight into just 128 pages.

A Borderless History of the Folk

A committed social historian, Stapley writes with equal facility about both top Church leaders and laypeople in the pews. He seems, in fact, far more interested in folk Mormon rituals than formal Mormon liturgies. Although he examines in detail the bureaucratic management, theological underpinnings, and evolving interpretation of Mormonism’s temple rituals, he speaks little about the rituals themselves except to discuss how lay Mormons adapted them for use outside the temple.

For instance, lay Mormons baptized each other for the purpose of healing and drank consecrated oil from the Kirtland temple to cure digestive issues (82). “In addition, the expanded initiation rituals of the Nauvoo Temple liturgy—washing, anointing, and sealing, as well as the prayer circle, a form of group prayer limited to temple initiates—were also adapted for healing purposes. Thus, almost every aspect of the temple ceremonies had a healing analogue” (82-83). Wilford Woodruff once even used a temple prop to heal John D. Lee (121).

Stapley devotes an entire chapter to baby blessing, the only ritual that gets its own extended discussion. It proves a fruitful topic, offering insight into key theological ideas about ensoulment, inheritance, and record-keeping. Of particular interest is Stapley’s discussion of priesthood inheritance—an early Mormon doctrine that claimed that children “born in the covenant” (i.e. born to sealed Mormon parents) inherit the priesthood and receive a guaranteed place in heaven (65). Only by committing the unforgivable sin of murder could such children lose their salvation. Indeed, one thing that comes through clearly in Stapley’s narrative is that Joseph Smith was fascinated by the prospect of “assurance of salvation,” and many of his ritual and theological innovations were designed to provide it to his followers (37-39). Unconditional salvation, however, proved uncomfortable for Smith’s successors and was disavowed by Church leaders of the mid-twentieth century (51-52).

I knew that the LDS system of “sealing” families for eternity in the temple could get messy when applied to real-world relationships, but I had no idea how messy until I read Stapley’s Chapter 2. He starts the chapter with the story of a recently married young woman whose husband died in a car accident. She soon remarried. But because living women can be sealed to only one man, she had to dissolve her sealing to her first husband in order to marry the second in the temple. Through no fault of his own, the deceased first husband was left without an eternal spouse (35-36).

The most extraordinary example of sealing theology’s messiness may be Brigham Young’s instruction for descendants of unmarried women to incorporate those ancestors into the kinship network of heaven by posthumously marrying them as wives. According to Wilford Woodruff, Young “‘told me to have the single women of my father’s and mother’s households sealed to me. I asked him “how many?” He said if there was not over nine hundred and ninety-nine to take them.’ Woodruff estimated that he had had approximately three hundred such women sealed to him as wives” (42).

As the messiness of human relationships has raised more and more sticky theological questions, Church leaders have increasingly declined to answer them, explaining instead that God will work out the details in heaven. This represents a weakening of Joseph Smith’s original concept of the earthly sealing power as binding in heaven and of his ambition to create an earthly map of how heaven will look. Increasingly, God is the one who determines the structure of heaven, not us, and the goal of achieving certainty about eternal relationships through rituals and record-keeping has receded from view (36, 53-56).

A transatlantic history, The Power of Godliness shows that the current trend toward transatlantic and border-crossing religious histories is no empty fad. According to Stapley, in the mid-1840s there were more Mormons in England than the US, and 94% of those came from the British northwest, known for crypto-Catholicism and religious enthusiasm. British converts emigrating to the United States brought their folk traditions with them, transforming Utah Mormon culture. Whereas American folk practitioners learned mostly from oral tradition, British cunning folk drew more commonly from formal texts (109). Stapley’s numerous rich examples make Chapter 5 on “Cunning Folk Traditions” worth the price of the book.

For instance, John Sanderson and Thomas Job, converts from the British Isles, brought their astrological libraries with them to Utah Territory and taught courses on the subject in Parowan and Salt Lake City (110). Their students used astrology in conjunction with botanic medicine and priesthood ordinances to heal the sick. Brigham Young approved astrology in principle, but considered it spiritually perilous. In 1868 Church leaders officially denounced astrology as evil. The Church’s view today is more in line with Orson Pratt and James Talmage, who considered astrology an absurd superstition, more silly than dangerous (111-13).

Stapley offers many examples of use of seer stones by late-nineteenth century Mormons, many of them women. For instance, Mary Jane Thompson used a seer stone to keep tabs on her cousin Joseph F. Smith while he was away on a mission to Hawaii in 1854 (114). In 1858, either Lucinda or Lovina Dame was “thought to be almost infallible by the people of Fillmore” and delivered revelations similar to patriarchal blessings (114-15). The same year, an unnamed Mormon woman showed Heber C. Kimball her seer stone, which she claimed had once “belonged to Moses” (116). So far as I am aware, no scholar has so extensively documented the persistence of magical practice in late-nineteenth century Mormonism as Stapley does here.

Ecclesiastical and Cosmological Priesthoods

Tying together much of Stapley’s narrative is a distinction he makes between ecclesiastical and cosmological priesthoods. Whereas ecclesiastical priesthood is the set of priesthood orders and offices that Joseph Smith laid out in his early revelations, cosmological priesthood is the expansive concept of priesthood that Smith revealed through his later temple rituals. In the temple, “kinship, priesthood, government, and heaven all became synonymous,” with priesthood as the eternal law governing the entire cosmos and holding it all together. Whereas ecclesiastical priesthood was limited to males, the all-encompassing cosmological priesthood included both male and female participants as “kings and priests” and “queens and priestesses.” The history of the priesthood after Joseph Smith’s death is the history of how his successors confused the two priesthoods and ultimately subsumed the cosmological priesthood into the ecclesiastical, excluding women from much of Mormon ritual (12, 17, 22-23, 26).

Here I think it’s important to add a caveat to Stapley’s framing. While Stapley convincingly demonstrates that Joseph Smith laid out a “cosmological” concept of priesthood, he provides no evidence to support his assertion that Smith conceived of this cosmological priesthood as separate from the ecclesiastical priesthood of the Church (12). In fact, in the Book of Abraham Smith laid out a “system of astronomy” that paralleled the ecclesiastical priesthood hierarchy, implying an equivalence between cosmology and Church. While Stapley’s distinction between “ecclesiastical” and “cosmological” models of priesthood certainly works as a shorthand for referring to contradictory impulses or unresolved tensions in Smith’s thought, I’m unconvinced that Smith would have recognized a distinction between the two. Stapley has perhaps fallen into the trap of imposing a greater consistency upon Smith’s thought than it possessed.

Stapley’s separation of ecclesiastical and cosmological priesthoods leads him, among other things, to opine that Joseph Smith’s promise to “turn the key” to the female Relief Society was not intended as a promise of female ordination. This opinion may get him in trouble with some feminist historians.

Stapley similarly smooths over the rough edges of Smith’s thought in his discussion of polygamy. Repeating the arguments of Mormon defenders, Stapley justifies Smith’s habit of marrying other men’s wives: “In accepting a heteronormative cosmology and recognizing that child-to-parent sealings were strictly reserved to the completed temple, the only way for Smith to be directly connected to other married Mormons was through polyandrous sealing” (20). Ignored is the fact that when Smith married another man’s wife, her original marriage was understood to be dissolved, leaving the original husband outside the cosmological priesthood network and unconnected to Smith.

Likewise, Stapley rationalizes Smith’s promise of guaranteed salvation for Sarah Ann Whitney’s parents if she married Smith. The promised salvation was “a natural consequence of the Whitneys’ resulting sealed position in the burgeoning network of heaven” (19). This claim does not appear to hold up under close scrutiny, especially since Sarah’s parents had not yet been sealed to her. The cosmological model of priesthood provides no justification that I can see for the idea that marriage to Joseph Smith offered salvation to the bride’s parents, let alone surer salvation than marriage to any other faithful priest. Stapley leaves unexamined the possibility that Smith was motivated by sex.

Routinization of Charisma

The above limitations notwithstanding, Stapley hits the nail on the head with his analysis of how the Church resolved the tensions between cosmological and ecclesiastical priesthood models in favor of the ecclesiastical, and thus excluded women. Although he never uses the phrase, Stapley’s entire book could be construed as a case study in what German sociologist Max Weber called the “routinization of charisma.”

According to Weber, all institutional authority stems from charisma. Charisma is the personal relationship that an institution’s leader/founder has with followers. Charismatic authority, the authority that stems from that relationship, is inherently unstable because it doesn’t survive the leader’s death and because it opens the institution to disruptive takeover attempts by charismatic challengers. So in order for the institution to survive, authority must be codified through a set of rules. This is routinization.

Whereas charismatic authority often disrupts traditional social hierarchies and opens opportunities for charismatic women and minorities to exercise authority, routinization tends to reassert patriarchy and to re-exclude traditional outgroups. A common type of routinization is “office charisma,” wherein authority is made to stem from ordination and office rather than from any personal quality of the officeholder. As narrated by Stapley, Mormon history perfectly fits these patterns.

During his lifetime, Joseph Smith explicitly gave women the authority to perform healings and exorcisms (14). Smith told the Nauvoo Relief Society in 1842, “Signs such as healing the sick, casting out devils should follow all that believe whether male or female.” In patriarchal blessings bestowed by Joseph Smith Sr., he “bestowed the gift of healing on both men and women and specifically authorized women to perform healing rituals” (82). In fact, Joseph Smith Jr. explicitly refuted men who wanted to deny women the right to heal (83-84). He also told the sisters that “the keys of the kingdom are about to be given to them” and that “the Sisters would come in possession of the priviliges & blesings & gifts of the priesthood” (84-85). Whether or not Smith intended to formally ordain women at some point in the future, he clearly didn’t think women needed to hold priesthood office to exercise the power to heal.

These statements may be contrasted with the 2010 Handbook of Instruction, which allows only male Melchizedek priesthood holders to administer to the sick (79). So what happened in the interim? For one thing, Church leaders shifted from “viewing priesthood as channeling the power of God” to “priesthood instead as the power of God . . . [and] coterminous with the ecclesiastical priesthood of the church” (12). The new paradigm allowed little room for women to access God’s power.

In fact, ever since this conceptual shift occurred in the late nineteenth century, Church leaders have struggled to explain why women are allowed to exercise any authority at all. The most popular explanations are that they do so “by delegation” or “in connection with their husbands” (27-29, 86). In any case, women were excluded from the “healing ordinance” by the end of the 1960s (91-92). Men apparently are unwilling to delegate the healing authority anymore.

Women also found themselves excluded from use of seer stones. Brigham Young “clearly believed in seer stones as revelatory objects,” though he didn’t use them himself. When a girl in his household found a stone in which she could see people and find lost objects, Young ordered that the stone be taken away from her so it would not become “the means of her own destruction” (114-15). When another woman showed Heber C. Kimball her seer stone, Kimball told her that “those were sacred things to be used only by the [male] priesthood.” In 1885, the Deseret News declared glass-looking to be a Melchizedek Priesthood ordinance, off limits to everyone else (116).

Hardest to understand may be the exclusion of women from baby blessings. In early Mormonism, the mother held her child while the father administered the blessing (62-63). But after the Saints relocated to the Salt Lake Valley, it became common for bishops to perform the blessing rather than for parents to do it at home. Home blessings were effectively banned by 1940, and by the 1950s mothers and non-ordained fathers were completely excluded from the ritual (74-75).


A Review of Jonathan Stapley’s The Power of Godliness: Mormon Liturgy and Cosmology — 4 Comments

  1. This is a wonderful and detailed review! It looks like an exceptional book. Thank you for bringing it to our attention.

  2. This is one of the most enjoyable reviews I’ve read for this book — enthusiastic appreciation of its contents, a little bit of pushback where you see the need, and absolutely no sense of “Well, if *I* had written the book, I would have done this and that differently.” Thank you!