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 understanding.
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 book.
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