Book Review: The Power of Godliness: Mormon Liturgy and Cosmology, by Jonathan Stapley

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

Through a Glass Darkly

This is a guest post by Brother I. W. Brown.


Recently I had a conversation with a family member who is struggling to understand whether prophets are permitted to make mistakes. And if they are, well then how can we ever fully place our trust in them? How can we be certain they’re not making a mistake on any particular issue? These are reasonable questions. These questions and the answers to them are becoming increasingly important as LDS Church history is scrutinized. That got me thinking…

Naturally Joseph Smith is the primary focus of that scrutiny, and it only makes sense. After all, he made the biggest impact and certainly had the most to say about the formation of the church. So he had more opportunity than anyone to make mistakes – he had the most “at bats,” so to speak, so it’s possible that he had the most strike-outs! Incidentally, some of his critics remind me of someone who never played baseball bragging about having fewer strikeouts than A-Rod!

Unlike the prophets of our day, Joseph did not have a mentor. He had no organization or policy to perpetuate, he had to create them (or as we believe restore them) from scratch. I don’t think we can ever appreciate the enormity of that task. Think about it. Imagine the task of building a house from nothing, for example, having never seen another house or having floorpans. Now build the house – engineering, excavation, foundation, concrete, framing, plumbing electrical, flooring, framing, finish carpentry, paint, roofing, windows, etc. No doubt a critic would come inspect your home after the fact and cite you for not knowing the right size of pipe for venting a toilet!

So let’s turn to Joseph. Let’s see what we can learn about any standard he may have set for a prophet. What qualifies and disqualifies a man to be a prophet? Maybe we can use his own standard against him!

Joseph Smith makes his debut as a self-proclaimed prophet in 1830 with the publication of his opus, The Book of Mormon. It turns out that we learn quite a bit about his version of prophets in the first 5 chapters of the book, 1 Nephi chapters 1-5. Here we meet Lehi and his son Nephi who are the prophet of the story and his next-in-charge respectively.

Lehi has a vision instructing him to take his family and leave Jerusalem immediately. While Nephi is happy to comply, older brothers Laman and Lemuel are less thrilled with the idea of leaving the only home they had ever known. We might imagine that they have had experiences with their father that exposed him as less than perfect. They are put out to have to leave their lives, including all the wealth they had hoped to inherit one day. But still they reluctantly obey and follow dad into the wilderness – act of obedience number 1.

They travel for three days. Let’s say that amounts to 40 miles. Apparently, Lehi’s plans were only half-baked. Once 40 miles out of town, he’s inspired, or at least realizes that he needs the Brass Plates in Laban’s possession way back in Jerusalem. Naturally, Laman and Lemuel are irritated. Why didn’t dad think of that before we left? His oversight cost them 80 miles of grueling travel. Meanwhile Nephi is quick to comply. After expressing their frustration the brothers return with Nephi and another one of Nephi’s brothers, Sam – obedience #2.

After retracing their journey they “cast lots” and decide that Laman would be the lucky one to go meet with Laban to collect the Plates. Nephi is effectively the leader/prophet/priesthood on the ground. Laman again defers to his leader and is nearly killed for his troubles – obedience #3. Laban’s henchmen chase him out of town, back to where the brothers are hiding.

Undeterred, Nephi remembers the riches the family had left at their home. He suggests that they can trade for the Plates. This time he’s certain the plan will work. It has to because they’re on the Lord’s errand so the Lord will provide a way (1 Nephi 3:7). Finally the brothers all agree to try again – obedience #4. But again Laban doesn’t cooperate. He steals their riches and tries to have the brothers killed.

With this context in mind, it’s hard not to empathize a little with Laman and Lemuel. I’ve often thought that, at this stage of their adventure at least, they get a bad wrap. Who wouldn’t be aggravated with all they had experienced. Now I’ve never beaten my little brothers with a rod, but I’ve never been threatened and tested like Laman and Lemuel were during their trip back to Jerusalem.

So after pummeling their brothers, the two are rebuked by an angel. Tempers soon cool and Nephi decides to have a go at Laban alone, not knowing exactly what to do. But still he ventures forth.
He gets a little bloody in the process, but Nephi is finally successful. He not only collects the Brass Plates, but also adds a helping hand to the travel party, Zoram.

Next we read about the joyous reunion of the four brothers with their family. They made it back to Lehi’s camp. We can imagine the relief they felt having accomplished a difficult and dangerous series of tasks. Finally they can rest. Now imagine their reaction when maybe just days or even hours later their father, the prophet Lehi, has more news to share. There’s yet another wrinkle in his prophetic plan. Likely after clearing his throat, Lehi explains that, “it was not meet for [him, Lehi,] that he should take his family into the wilderness alone.”

‘Guess what boys, it’s time to turn around and make yet another 80-mile round trip to convince Ishmael and his family to join us in the wilderness. You boys need wives.’

But Lehi was supposed to be a prophet! Nephi too, in Lehi’s absence on the road, spoke for the prophet. Why couldn’t these men of God see the end from the beginning? Why didn’t Lehi get his act together and get all the facts before formulating a plan and demanding action?

Well, if we accept that Lehi was indeed a prophet, it appears that a prophet may operate through trial and error on occasion. He may only be given “line upon line” and even have to act without “knowing beforehand the things which [he] should do” (1 Nephi 4:6). We learn about the nature of prophets in the very first pages of the Book of Mormon. We see that prophets may stumble and fail at times even while doing prophety things. We learn that, as human being and without all the information he would like, a prophet must make mistakes. We learn that the path of a prophet will zig and zag and will end up nothing like a straight line. As we ponder this and the perfectly human nature of every prophet, we may even feel foolish for ever thinking that a prophet should always have a clear and perfect vision of his mission – start to finish. We may feel foolish for thinking that obvious missteps prove that a prophet is not a prophet.

Somehow we have developed an image of a prophet that is far removed from what the Book of Mormon and other scriptures clearly present. Lehi and Nephi are two of many prophets we read about who together display the full range of human frailties. Maybe it’s the result of too much exposure to characters in Marvel and DC comics or lessons from overly-enthusiastic Sunday School teachers, but we seem to have endowed prophets with superhuman virtues. Either way we end up forgetting their humanity.

Of course, the point of all this is that it applies to Joseph Smith. Joseph’s life and errors are so relatively recent and so well documented that it’s tempting to apply a whole new standard to him.
But such a judgment says far more about us than it does about him. And heaven forbid if his successors were to ever misstep, backtrack, or change policy or direction. The humanity of the prophets likely hasn’t changes over the millennia. Unfortunately, with respect to failing to recognize a prophet in our time, neither has ours.

At least that’s what I think.

Bio: I’m second generation LDS. My father worked for the CES with a PhD in ancient Christianity. I left the church for 6-7 years after consuming thousands of pages of criticism of the church in general and Joseph Smith in particular. I was an atheist for that period. Long story short, about 15 years ago I began my return to the faith. Ironically, some of the issues that used to trouble the most are now what I call pillars of my renewed faith in the Gospel.

Ablative Saints and Grant Palmer

In the past I have talked about those who fall away from the Church, referring to them as akin to the layer (called ablative) of the space shuttle that is designed to wear away when the going gets rough. Not that anyone is pre-destined a prior to lose their belief, but that when we put ourselves in a dangerous place, breaking away is a higher risk.

This past week I’ve had the change to visit with relatives and we had time to talk at length. My uncle is well-known to various individuals of note. He went to high school with Carol Lynn Pearson and played basketball with her now-deceased husband, Gerald. He was counselor to Richard Bushman when Bushman was an Elder’s Quorum president. When he wished to bring his Chinese wife into America and needed a sponsor for her, he reached out to Mitt Romney.

As discussion drifted to my interest in early LDS history, I became aware that this uncle harbors deep antipathy to Joseph Smith and polygamy, largely based on his belief in Grant Palmer book, An Insider’s View of Mormon Origins, published in 2002 by Signature Books. As my uncle expounded on his views, I realized he had bought into a fun-house mirror view of the history I know so well. Curious, I purchased Palmer’s book, then found both an online history of Palmer’s eventual decision to leave the Mormon Church (circa 2010) and a detailed FairMormon analysis of Palmer’s claims.

Palmer’s book is a bit like “Letter to a CES Director,” only clothed in a more refined veneer of plausibility.

For those who have been affected by this book, I recommend you read the FairMormon analysis of Grant’s claims.

Grant wanted to believe that he was not creating a challenge to members of the Church, that because he continued to profess belief in Jesus Christ he should be allowed to remain in full fellowship with the Saints. And it may be true that the publicity associated with the Church discipline he faced exposed Palmer’s heterodox views to many more people (free publicity Signature Books was pleased to exploit).

If the God Mormons believe in and the associated afterlife is what really occurs, I imagine Grant Palmer is having a chance to re-evaluate the choices of his final decades. And as those particularly damaged by Palmer’s work join him in that afterlife, interesting conversations will transpire.

In the meantime, it is fascinating to see how people will use the power of their past associations with the Church to argue for their current belief that it is wrong. As for me, I’ve studied enough that I am not swayed. If you are facing similar challenges from loved ones, I wish I could help strengthen you. In the mean time, lean of Christ and those who have taken the time to study the weaknesses in the arguments flung at our heads.

As Elisha said to his frightened servant, “Fear not: for they that be with us are more than they that be with them.” (2 Kings 6:16)

Oliver Cowdery and the New and Everlasting Covenant

Olivercowdery-smOliver Cowdery was at Joseph Smith’s side for nearly a decade at the beginning of the restoration.

They started their association working together on the Book of Mormon starting in May 1829. Within days they reportedly received the Aaronic Priesthood from John the Baptist so they would have the proper authority to baptize one another.

Oliver Cowdery was also involved in the restoration of the Melchizedek Priesthood. 1

Oliver Cowdery would marry in 1832, becoming husband to Elizabeth Ann Whitmer. This made Oliver brother-in-law to all the witnesses of the Book of Mormon other than Joseph Smith’s relatives and Martin Harris. 2

Oliver Cowdery was at Joseph’s side on April 3, 1836, when the two reported receiving a glorious vision of Jesus Christ, Moses, Elias, and Elijah.

Elijah’s return had been foretold for millennia. The prophet Malachi had prophesied Elijah would return before the great and dreadful day of the Lord, to turn the hearts of the children to the fathers and the hearts of the fathers to the children. Jewish Passover seders continue to set a place for Elijah, sending a child to the door to see if Elijah is come.

The visit of Malachi is described in D&C 110:

“Behold, the time has fully come, which was spoken of by the mouth of Malachi—testifying that he [Elijah] should be sent, before the great and dreadful day of the Lord come—

“To turn the hearts of the fathers to the children, and the children to the fathers, lest the whole earth be smitten with a curse—

“Therefore, the keys of this dispensation are committed into your hands; and by this ye may know that the great and dreadful day of the Lord is near, even at the doors.”

It was apparently in the spring of 1836 that Joseph Smith covenanted with Fanny Alger. 3 If this occurred, the obvious officiant would have been Oliver Cowdery. Continue reading


  1. Restoration of the Melchizedek Priesthood was originally associated with a June 3, 1831, conference of the Church. Later it was asserted that the Melchizedek Priesthood must have been restored in association with a vision of Peter, James, and John near the Susquehanna in 1829. Whether near the Susquehanna in 1829 or in Kirtland in June 1831, Oliver Cowdery was present.
  2. Elizabeth’s brothers were David, one of the three witnesses, and Christian, Jacob, Peter Jr., and John, all of whom were among the eight witnesses. Hiram Page was Elizabeth’s brother-in-law through marriage to her sister, Catherine.
  3. See Bradley, Don, “Weighing the Case of Fanny Alger,” The Persistence of Polygamy, Volume I, pp. 14-58.