Book Review: The Power of Godliness: Mormon Liturgy and Cosmology, by Jonathan Stapley
Over the last few decades, we’ve seen members and non-members with
LDS priesthood issues: blacks and priesthood, women and priesthood, gays
and marriage are some of the most recent issues. Often, we couch our
reasonings (from all sides of the discussion) from our current
understanding of LDS doctrine and priesthood teachings.
One thing we learn from some of the discussion is that our
understanding of priesthood and power are not static. In Joseph Smith’s
time, priesthood developed from being authority to baptize given by John
the Baptist, to establishing high priests, apostles, patriarch,
seventies, and separating the priesthood into Aaronic and Melchizedek.
Stapley takes it beyond our basic understanding of priesthood
development and gives us the foundation and much of the development of
priesthood and its various powers since God and Christ appeared to a
young boy in 1820.
The Power of Godliness is divided into a generous
introduction and the following chapter concepts: Priesthood Ordinations,
Sealings, Baby Blessings, Healings (Authority and Ordinances), and Folk
Lore Tradition/Magic versus LDS Priesthood Authority.
We’re often taught in Sunday School classes a pat history of the
Restoration and Priesthood Authority. Much of that pat history was
developed in the twentieth century by the Church Historian Joseph F.
Smith as an attempt to make the early Church years not seem to strange. A
Urim and Thummim to translate the Book of Mormon seemed more acceptable
to 20th century scientific minds than seer stones, so Elder
Smith insisted that Joseph did not use seer stones in translating the
gold plates. To remove the chaos out of the Restoration, Church history
kept the skeletons in the closet.
With the advent of the Internet, suddenly all of the skeletons
emerged, and the Church has realized the need to display those historic
events in a better light. In the past few decades, some very positive
scholarship has come forth on the early Church. Using the Joseph Smith
Papers Project and other resources, Stapley helps to advance our
As noted, in the early Church, priesthood was a developing concept.
Stapley explains that there are three key components to LDS priesthood:
cosmological/temple, liturgical, and ecclesiastical. For Joseph Smith,
priesthood was mostly about the cosmological/temple, bringing women and
men into a heaven here on earth. Joseph sought to build Zion and
temples, so the Saints could enjoy heaven now. With his death, however,
and the move west, the liturgical and ecclesiastical arms of priesthood
began to hold more sway. Stapley explains that a heaven now, was
replaced with a vision of a future of heaven. This required
re-envisioning priesthood and its use. In Joseph Smith’s day, priesthood
was A power, along with faith. Over the next century and a half,
priesthood would become THE power to do all things that would later fall
under the priesthood umbrella.
Under this context, Stapley is able to explain healings women
performed in the first century of the Church, noting that Zina D. H.
Young, General Relief Society President, was performing healings in
1895. Back then, healings were done in Jesus’ name, not by the power of
the priesthood. This was not liturgical or ecclesiastical priesthood
power Zina was using, but the cosmological power given to the endowed in
the temple. In fact, we learn that anointing with oil began with the
Kirtland Temple’s ordinances of washing and anointing. Endowed sisters
were called to serve in the early temples to heal the sick and afflicted
with consecrated oil. Interestingly, some ailing members would drink
consecrated oil as a medical remedy.
However, over time, healings were moved from the area of faith
healings and temple priesthood power, to general priesthood authority.
With such changes, the authority required to perform healings also
changed. In our modern discussion of giving women priesthood, suddenly
the demand for priesthood because early LDS women were “ordained” and
did healings becomes a different discussion altogether.
Other issues, such as grave dedications and baby blessings also
evolved into priesthood ordinances, as well. While not mentioned in the
book (probably due to the time required to get a book published), the
recent change in temple baptisms being performed now by priests, fits
nicely into the discussion of baptism and the temple ordinances in the
Sealings are explained in context of Joseph Smith developing a royal
dynasty, but also from the concern that ancestors may not be faithful
and could break the divine lineage back to Adam. Only with Wilford
Woodruff’s revelation on temple sealings in 1894, which Stapley suggests
was more important to us than the 1890 Manifesto, were adoption
sealings ended and family sealings (and genealogical research)
instituted in the Church.
Stapley’s last chapter is the use of “cunning-folk traditions” or the
use of magic, astrology, folk medicines, and seer stones among the
general LDS population. He shows how at times some of these things were
embraced or at least tolerated, but later fell out of favor as the
Church entered into the 20th century, and away from the folk lore and magic powers commonly used by some traditional Christians in that era.
The Power of Godliness is one of the better books I’ve read
over the last several years regarding the development of the gospel in
the LDS Church. It is very respectful of Church authority (he does not
mention Joseph Fielding Smith’s efforts as Church Historian to hide what
the 20th century would view as embarrassing folk lore), but
does not shy away from the facts. Seeing the evolution of priesthood
authority from the beginning to our day today, gives a new and profound
sense of what priesthood really is. I know I will read General
Conference talks on priesthood in this new light.
The Power of Godliness: Mormon Liturgy and Cosmology, by Jonathan Stapley
Oxford University Press
Available on Amazon