The development of LDS liturgy and cosmology, with Jonathan Stapley [MIPodcast #78]
Latter-day Saint historians have long demonstrated that The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints was not established all at once, but that it has unfolded—line upon line, precept upon precept, to borrow a biblical phrase. Ideas about priesthood in Mormonism, for example, have developed in fascinating ways. In a new book from Oxford University Press, called The Power of Godliness: Mormon Liturgy and Ritual, Jonathan Stapley writes about LDS priesthood and ritual—everything from baby blessing and baptism, to temple sealings, and everything else in between.
Jonathan Stapley is an award-winning historian and scientist. An active participant in the field of Mormon studies, he is also the Chief Technology Officer for a bio-renewables company. His new book is called The Power of Godliness: Mormon Liturgy and Ritual (Oxford University Press).
BLAIR HODGES: It’s the Maxwell Institute Podcast. I’m Blair Hodges. Latter-day Saint historians have long demonstrated that The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints was not established all at once, but that it has unfolded, line upon line, precept upon precept, to borrow a biblical phrase. Ideas about priesthood in Mormonism, for example, have developed over time in fascinating ways. A new book from Oxford University Press, called The Power of Godliness, gives us one historian’s take on the development of priesthood. Jonathan Stapley is the author, and he joins us here to talk about LDS priesthood and ritual, everything from baby blessings and baptism, to temple sealings, and everything else in between.
Before we get to it I want to thank Colin Stuart, one of our new interns at the Maxwell Institute. He helped with some of the audio editing on this episode. It’s the first time anyone other than me has played around with the recording before it reaches your ears. So thanks, Colin. Also, Camille Hauglid Messick has taken up the duties of transcription for the show. She’s transcribing these latest episodes, and she’s also going through the back catalog to make sure that people will be able to read every single episode. You can read full transcriptions at mi.byu.edu/mipodcast/transcript.
Our review of the month comes from Fred Axelgard. Here’s what he said about the show:
“I have been listening to these podcasts for well over a year, and I find them the best thing out there in LDS listening for those with an academic interest in Mormonism and related topics. Blair is a superb interviewer, always prepared. The guests are excellent, and he lets them shine… Hats off to the Maxwell Institute.”
Thanks, Fred. I appreciate the kind words. I hope people will follow your example and leave a review on iTunes. People can also email questions and comments about this and other episodes to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Now, on with the show. We’re speaking with Jonathan Stapley about his new book, The Power of Godliness: Mormon Liturgy and Cosmology.
BLAIR HODGES: Jonathan Stapley joins us here on the Maxwell Institute Podcast to talk about his new book, The Power of Godliness: Mormon Liturgy and Cosmology. Jonathan, thanks for being on the Maxwell Institute Podcast today.
JONATHAN STAPLEY: Thank you very much, Blair. It’s a pleasure to be here.
HODGES: I wanted to talk about how your book opens up. It opens up with this really dramatic scene. It’s Brigham Young, he’s in bed, he’s very sick, you say he’s tottering in and out of consciousness and he’s camped out at the Mormon refugee camp in 1847. The Mormons have just left Nauvoo; they’re headed west. They’re in dire straits and Brigham Young is sick and has this vision. Talk a little bit about that.
STAPLEY: Great. Actually this is a really important moment in the development of the LDS church. Some of the listeners may be familiar with the vision because it actually does appear in modern discourse. In this vision Joseph Smith appears, Brigham Young recognizes him, and it culminates with Joseph exhorting Brigham to lead by and follow the spirit of God, which is a dramatically reassuring message for Brigham at this time. It’s a moment of peril for the church as they are essentially refugees crossing the continent. The larger issues at play however are Brigham Young has an extended family that’s growing, they’ve left the temple, they’re on the trail west, and he has this vision at a moment of crisis.
The first thing he does after recognizing Joseph and exulting in his presence is to say, “Look, I’m not sure that I completely understand everything that we did in the temple in Nauvoo. So can you help a guy out here?” Joseph’s response is to open up a grand panoramic vision of the pre-mortal world. Really Brigham Young explains his take on that vision, that the world was organized before humans were in relationships and that they had to be made perfect in this life in the temple, these relationships reforged, and that network of relationships was called the priesthood.
HODGES: It’s an interesting way to talk about what the priesthood is. The priesthood in the modern LDS church is typically thought of as the power and authority of God that men receive and that women work under the direction of, as we’ll talk about that a little later on, but your book starts off with how the story of how this panoramic vision of humanity, of God’s children, how that cashes out in everyday life through the concept of priesthood, and through liturgy, the word liturgy. Talk to people a little about what liturgy is. What do you mean by that?
STAPLEY: Right. So that’s a term that’s familiar to other Christian traditions and non-Christian traditions and is a little bit foreign to us in the Latter-day Saint church. What it is is the system of practices, rituals, ritualized actions that believers participate in to celebrate, to worship, and to mark major life events. So when I talk about liturgy it’s a category but I will also talk about specific things, for example the temple liturgy or the healing liturgy. It comprises the ritualized acts.
Perhaps to make it more concrete, there is a baptism ritual, but there is also a baptismal liturgy. We could recognize it. We wear certain things, there are certain steps in that perhaps a bishop might welcome, there are certain talks perhaps on the baptism and the gift of the Holy Ghost, and then we’re all familiar with those ritualized acts comprise the modern baptismal liturgy.
HODGES: So liturgy is something that applies not just to baptism but other things like temple ordinances, and things like blessings, and baby blessings and grave dedications. We will talk about it as we go through the interview, but I wanted people to kind of understand what we mean by liturgy up front because at the beginning of your book you write that, “A fundamental force in the development of Mormonism’s liturgy has been conceptions of priesthood.”
Now some listeners right off the bat are going to hear the word “priesthood” and their eyes are going to glaze over. If you’re driving your car right now you might want to pull over, I don’t know. We don’t want anyone to be in danger. So before we dig in more I’d actually like to hear you talk about why this topic excites you enough to write a whole book on it because I think what you’re doing in this book really brings some excitement to the topic.
STAPLEY: Thank you. This is an exciting topic for me, but I think maybe not as boring as you sell it to be.
HODGES: You don’t have to sell me on it. I’m saying like people out there. “Oh we’re having another lesson on priesthood, okay.”
STAPLEY: If we’re talking about how Mormonism is organized, the authority, the work that people do within the church, it all hinges on conceptions of priesthood. Throughout the history of the church these conceptions of priesthood have been fairly dynamic and there are sometimes conflicting worldviews between the present and the past or within various presents. So as a person that’s a trained scientist I come to the topic really interested in kind of the rules that govern systems. So what are the rules that govern how a system works? Then creating models to understand these rules. That’s kind of my natural inclination as I approach any topic, but especially one that is as important to me as faith.
HODGES: I hope that people noticed you talked about their conceptions of priesthood. Your book talks about how ideas about what priesthood is, and even what the term referred to have changed over time for the LDS church. So what you do in this book is you trace these changes. You’re using journals and records and examples from everyday Mormons in mundane settings, both women and men.
You’re also giving a history of landmark developments in Mormon ritual as well. So you’re showing how rituals and ordinances play out in Mormon life. Then you show these moments where big changes occur as well. That’s kind of how we’ll go through this discussion, to talk about those moments in addition to some of the stories. So let’s talk about founder Joseph Smith’s observation about liturgies and practices of other faiths. Some of the things that he said early on in his own ministry about liturgy, so I’m thinking specifically about remarks about Methodism, for example.
STAPLEY: Right. So a famous comment by Joseph Smith is that, you know, Methodists were correct insofar as they went, but they didn’t go quite as far as he would have hoped, and that Mormonism takes you the rest of the way. That’s in an interview with Peter Cartwright, a Methodist minister that wrote after the fact of his experience with Joseph Smith. So Joseph Smith is very familiar with Methodism, we share a vocabulary with Methodism. Things like General Conferences and certain offices in the church are shared with and perhaps drawn from Methodism. Yet there’s this sermon early in the Kirtland area where Joseph Smith stands up and he calls out the Methodist Discipline. So the Methodist Discipline is essentially the general handbook of Methodism.
HODGES: Yes, their handbook of instructions.
STAPLEY: Right, yeah, and it gives all sorts of instructions about church governance and other aspects of the faith, but it also includes detailed textual patterns for liturgical activities.
HODGES: So how baptisms would work, how—
STAPLEY: That’s right. So what you should say when you baptize, what you should say when you—
HODGES: Set apart a minister or whatever, yeah.
STAPLEY: Exactly. He gets up and he calls out the Methodist Discipline. He says it’s the “black deformity of the Methodist discipline.” He has very—
HODGES: Not a fan.
STAPLEY: Not a fan at all. I mean it’s kind of the worst thing he says about anything in that early period.
HODGES: The question is why.
STAPLEY: Why, right? Because we have a general handbook, so we’re like what’s the big deal, right?
HODGES: And his revelations begin to codify things. The Articles and Covenants of the church and this sort of thing as well, right?
STAPLEY: That’s right. Just a year later the Doctrine and Covenants is first printed. This is after the Book of Commandments. So the question then becomes what’s different between them. What’s the difference between the Doctrine and Covenants and the Methodist Discipline? My hypothesis and my argument is that while the Doctrine and Covenants is quite heavy on exhortation, it’s really light on law and polity. Whereas the Doctrine and Covenants has a baptismal prayer, a couple dozen words. Well the—
HODGES: Sacrament prayers.
STAPLEY: Yeah, just short little bits. But how to do that, like what should you wear? When should you baptize? What do you do with your hands? Do you have to hold your hands a certain way when you baptize? There’s all these details that are essentially worked out on the ground level as the church develops.
Well the Methodist Discipline’s baptismal liturgy shares a similarly short prayer, it’s actually shorter, and actually the Methodist baptismal prayer is entirely incorporated in the Mormon baptismal prayer.
HODGES: So it’s got the same words, and a little bit more—
STAPLEY: Exactly. It’s got the same words, the Mormon baptismal prayer has an authority clause. But it’s got almost a thousand additional words that surround the ritual of baptism. Their liturgy is complex. How you present the child to be baptized, or adult to be baptized, and the words that you say in a sermon before or after, kind of interpreting the event.
I argue that this represents a sort of stricture against the revelation. Joseph Smith did not want to be constrained. He wanted to reveal. It’s rooted as well in one of the anticredalism of certain evangelicals of this period. Joseph Smith wasn’t the only one that said if it’s not in the Bible these other works, creeds, and handbooks—
HODGES: Creeds are abominations, so on so forth.
STAPLEY: Right. He wasn’t the only one doing that.
HODGES: So during this first five years as he’s developing Mormon ritual and having revelations about things like baptism and so on and so forth, you trace about nine main rituals that come into the church in this early phase. Talk about those really quick.
STAPLEY: Okay. So the Articles and Covenants of the church is essentially the first main foray into liturgical development.
HODGES: This is the section that’s still in the Doctrine and Covenants now, or what’s in the Doctrine and Covenants is based on that, right?
STAPLEY: Absolutely. So it’s been edited a little bit over time. The antecedent was Oliver Cowdery’s Articles of the Church of Christ.
HODGES: Which he drew out of the Book of Mormon largely, right?
STAPLEY: Right. So in the Book of Mormon you have baptism, laying on of hands for the Holy Ghost, and ordination. So that’s what figures in Oliver Cowdery’s articles. Joseph Smith takes that and reveals more. He adds a baby blessing, which is actually quite remarkable. They’re the only church in America at the time that I can find that is doing something like that. Others have done a dry christening before that, but it appears that at the time Mormons are the only ones, even though other churches now will do similar rituals at this time. That’s the bedrock of Mormon liturgies, is these short verses in the Articles and Covenants.
HODGES: Okay, so we have baptism, baby blessings, what are the other rituals from this first phase?
STAPLEY: So in the Articles and Covenants we have baptism, confirmation, the Lord’s Supper, ordination, and baby blessings, so five. Then within the first couple of years you see the development of healing blessings, patriarchal blessings, sealing blessings, so oftentimes we think of sealings in terms of the current Mormon temple liturgy but when the first high priests were ordained, or the high priesthood was bestowed in June of 1831, kind of their special mandate was to seal people up into congregations up into eternal life, a great blessing for the period.
HODGES: And it would happen in the context of a prayer or something, right? Or a blessing, like, “I bless you and seal you up to eternal life.” That kind of thing.
STAPLEY: Yeah and oftentimes they would walk into a congregation and seal the whole congregation up into eternal life.
Then lastly foot washing. That’s perhaps one of the most complex rituals to talk about because it’s integrated into various liturgies and adapted over and over and over.
HODGES: Like it’ll pop up in different phases of how Mormon ritual was working.
STAPLEY: That’s right.
HODGES: That’s a really fascinating part of it. So we have this sort of base of rituals and then there’s gonna be this expansion that you trace in the book, more ritual development happens for example at the end of 1835 with the Kirtland temple. So what are some of the additions that we see happening around that time?
STAPLEY: Alright. So the Kirtland temple is a pretty interesting expansion because we have the introduction of consecrated oil. It’s hard for modern people to understand the significance of washings and anointings. I probably took a half hour shower this morning. It was awesome. I loved it.
HODGES: Warm water I presume?
STAPLEY: It was great. But in this period really the winter bath hadn’t been invented yet, so imagine it’s been months before anyone has bathed. To go and prepare yourself to enter the Kirtland house of the Lord they go and wash themselves with often soap and water, the rinse with clear water. They perfume themselves with scented whiskey and then they anointed themselves. This is all kind of a recapitulation of a Hebrew temple experience.
HODGES: He’s pulling it out of the Hebrew Scriptures, right?
STAPLEY: That’s right.
HODGES: So getting inspiration from there.
STAPLEY: That’s right.
HODGES: Were other Christians using things like an anointed oil at the time?
STAPLEY: So the short answer is there are some antecedents but they’re quite rare. So the German Baptists, of which there were some in Ohio, did use anointing for healing blessings, but it’s really really rare in America. There are strains of it that follow through. Maybe Joseph Smith was influenced by that, but there’s really no evidence to connect various traditions.
So you have this preparation in the temple. Foot washing is recast in the school of the prophets and again in the Kirtland house of the Lord where the people who were prepared through this washing and anointing, perfuming, participated in a solemn assembly in Kirtland, and then experienced this endowment of power where there was this great Pentecostal gifts. Joseph Smith’s scribe who kept Joseph Smith’s journal wrote, “This is a great endowment forever to be remembered.”
HODGES: Joseph had been promising that. The revelation had been talking about, I think “endument” it says—
STAPLEY: Yeah, odd spelling. An endowment of power from on high. We’re familiar with that term. It’s—
HODGES: He wanted to ritualize this. It seems so much more in the New Testament when you read about the day of Pentecost they’re sort of preaching and then these flaming tongues of fire come down and it seems very spontaneous. Here Joseph Smith is trying to codify that or harness that into a sacred space that’s been set apart for that purpose to sort of bring that endowment of power down, like you’re participating in the creation of it, not just waiting for God to send it whenever he wants to.
STAPLEY: That’s exactly right. An important premise of the book is that, at least of the first chapter, is that Joseph Smith was tremendously interested in bringing the power of God into the lives of believers. He created ecclesiastical and liturgical structures to mediate that power. This is one phase in that development. So after this Pentecost of the Lord they have the foot washing, and they repeat that process annually, yearly. So Wilford Woodruff, who most Mormons are familiar with, wasn’t in town. The next year he goes through the same pattern.
Once they are endowed with power all the priesthood that has been ordained participate, are endowed with power from on high, then they go out and preach the gospel. I think many Mormons may be unaware that the precedent is taken directly from the Bible, that Jesus as the resurrected Lord’s command to tarry in Jerusalem until they are endowed with power, and then they can go preach the gospel.
HODGES: Preach the nations, yeah.
STAPLEY: That’s what happens in Kirtland.
HODGES: As far as we can tell Joseph thought that was probably it then, too, right? We don’t get the indication that more would be coming after that.
STAPLEY: That’s right. I guess one important bit, and I think something that’s tremendously important in liturgical history is that as soon as there’s consecrated oil in the temple it’s taken out of the temple and used for healing. So that’s where our current healing liturgy comes from.
HODGES: Where men in the LDS church today have consecrated oil. They’ll often carry it around on a keychain or in some way. They will anoint the head with just a little bit, just a drop, put their hands on the head and say a blessing—
STAPLEY: And seal it.
HODGES: Seal that. They actually seal it. The language of sealing is used.
STAPLEY: That’s right. The reason we do that is because that’s how the Kirtland temple liturgy was.
HODGES: That was their sealings. We talked about getting sealed—
STAPLEY: So you take the Kirtland temple liturgy, it’s adapted to healing, and we’ve done that ever since. That’s a pattern that happens again later as well, which I imagine we’ll talk about.
HODGES: How does that tie into women giving blessings? Because today in the LDS church men are ordained to the priesthood, a specific priesthood, and that then gives them the authorization then to give these blessings by the laying on of hands. In church history we know that women participated in healing blessings. Were they using consecrated oil? How were they going about that?
STAPLEY: That’s right. So I think it’s first important to note that there were many ways in which healing is ritualized in the LDS tradition. The authority to perform these various rituals was not tied to a specific priesthood office until rather late in the tradition. So for example when Joseph Smith Sr. is first ordained patriarch and starts giving patriarchal blessings he clearly tells women, “Yeah, you should be healing people, you should be blessing them.” It appears that from the earliest moments the healing liturgy, much as public prayer is today, was something that all church members were authorized to do.
HODGES: So like you could give an open or closing prayer at a Mormon meeting, men and women could also bless.
STAPLEY: So specifically your question is about consecrated oil. So yeah consecrated oil was one of the healing rituals that was in the Latter-day Saint healing liturgy and women and men both employed the ritual forms to bless the sick.
HODGES: It’s really interesting during this Kirtland temple period as you see some of these words begin to enter the Mormon lexicon. “Sealing” and “priesthood” were being understood in different ways. So leading up to the Kirtland temple what did the word “priesthood” usually refer to? Because it wasn’t quite what Mormons today think of when they hear the word “priesthood.”
STAPLEY: Right. We project our current understandings on historical sources, which is really easy to do, and really common. So it’s normative today to talk about a Melchizedek and Aaronic priesthood as kind of a classification under which the priesthood offices are organized.
HODGES: There’s a lesser priesthood and a greater priesthood. So one of them is preparatory and the other is kind of the full priesthood.
STAPLEY: Right. I think I’ll point to Bill Smith’s article on the development of Mormon priesthood because it is key to this argument. But early on when the church was organized there was no Melchizedek priesthood and there was no Aaronic priesthood. Joseph Smith revealed the four offices of the church, deacon, teacher, priest, and elder. There were no presidents, there were no quorums. You were ordained to an office in the church and then you did your job.
So if a decision had to be made you would hold a council, or conference was the actual term, and those who attended the conference would make a decision and then the rule of the conference would be the rule of the church. Over time things get more organized and Joseph Smith reveals structures, like the presidencies, like the councils, like the quorums. By 1835—
HODGES: He’s reworking older revelations to fit those newer—
STAPLEY: Yeah, he’s giving newer revelations and older revelations that haven’t been published are kind of repurposed and reformatted—
HODGES: Joseph Smith Papers Projects shows how they’ve been edited and updated.
STAPLEY: That’s right. Perhaps the most dramatic phase of this is with the revelation of the Aaronic and Melchizedek priesthood because that all of the sudden creates this organizational structure. There have been scriptures that talk about a lesser priesthood and higher priesthood but those revelations were talking about the office of priest and the office of high priest. So it’s kind of weird to think about. So if you go back and read “The Olive Leaf” for example and it talks about a lesser priesthood and a higher priesthood when it was—
HODGES: Is this section 88?
STAPLEY: Four? Six? Whatever. It’s actually talking about these ecclesiastical offices and not what we think of today as the Melchizedek priesthood and Aaronic priesthood. Yet it is easily read that way.
HODGES: We do. Mormons do.
STAPLEY: And it works very well for that purpose.
HODGES: What’s interesting is after the Kirtland period there’s this Nauvoo period that sees a greater expansion of the church’s liturgy in the 1840s and this is where you bring up the idea of the cosmological priesthood. This is a way that early Mormons understood priesthood that has largely faded today that’s kind of a key to your whole puzzle in the book. So talk a little bit about what you mean by the cosmological priesthood and how that took shape in Nauvoo.
STAPLEY: Right. I’ll confess right up front that the term “cosmological priesthood” is slightly idiosyncratic. So what you see at the time is Joseph Smith reveals the Nauvoo temple liturgy, it requires an expanded set of rituals, but also an expanded cosmology wherein salvation, government, priesthood, and kinship all get wrapped into the same thing. What happens is the people that participate in these rituals—
HODGES: Men and women, as opposed to in Kirtland when it was just men.
STAPLEY: Right. It’s incorporating both. Not because he wants to be inclusive, but because it’s essential to the cosmology, it simply cannot work without both men and women. As the participants talk about their experiences at the time they would talk about the priesthood, the priesthood quorum, the priesthood order. They would say, “I went to the priesthood this afternoon and prayed.”
HODGES: And that sentence would make no sense to modern Mormons.
STAPLEY: Right. What they meant was, “I went to this group who participates in the temple liturgy and we prayed together.” So they referred to this group of people that are experiencing the Nauvoo liturgy—
HODGES: Men and women.
STAPLEY: Men and women, as the priesthood. So this is posed as a challenge to scholars and believers alike. So people have said Joseph Smith gave women the priesthood.
HODGES: And it’s like, according to your book, yes and no.
STAPLEY: Yes. So not in today’s terms but this idea that the temple liturgy creates heaven, it literally—
HODGES: This is the cosmology. This is the literal creation of linkages that make up heaven.
STAPLEY: Right. Literally make up heaven I guess. We’re not using “literally” figuratively. This is literally heaven that is being constructed on the temple altars.
HODGES: And it’s sealing people in relationships to each other.
STAPLEY: To each other. And it’s within that context that Joseph Smith’s statements make sense about being alone and single and how that is essentially Hell. That is what it means to be outside of heaven. There are all these different relationships that get revealed in that—
HODGES: Talk about polygamy for a second. What does this new look at priesthood add to conversations about early Mormon polygamy?
STAPLEY: There’s lots of ways of looking at polygamy, I’m not saying that the cosmological priesthood is the only way, but it is an important way to view it. That’s to say Joseph Smith is in Nauvoo, there’s many believers there, they have children, and Joseph Smith has this mandate to construct heaven. So how do you create this structure of heaven on earth? How do we link each other to each other? One way that this is done is by sealing men and women together in ways that is transgressive of proto-Victorian norms—
HODGES: Monogamist Victorian marriage.
STAPLEY: Right. And biology. So when Brigham Young comes on and the temple is ready and they start sealing parents to children the rule for virtually the entire nineteenth century is you cannot be sealed to someone that is not a church member. So if your parents have died they never had a change to accept the gospel and you cannot be sealed to them, period.
HODGES: And you couldn’t do ordinances for them yet, either, correct?
STAPLEY: You could be baptized for them.
HODGES: I mean endowment stuff.
STAPLEY: Right. That’s later.
HODGES: In other words, you couldn’t be sealed to them because they couldn’t receive all the temple blessings at that time?
STAPLEY: Actually it’s not even that. You can’t be sealed to them because you can’t be sure that they would accept the gospel.
HODGES: Okay, so it’s actually about the uncertainty of it.
STAPLEY: Right, because the sealing network is literally heaven and we’re actually building it and so it is a sure thing.
HODGES: Right. Yeah. Okay.
STAPLEY: It’s a sure thing. So we have Joseph Smith marrying multiple women but also women that are married to other people, because if you’re going to make connections to the community, they’re going to be more complicated than what we might assume today is standard marriage.
HODGES: Right. So this early polygamy was sort of tied into these kinship ideas of not just getting Joseph Smith more wives but also linking people to Joseph Smith through these marriages as well and this building out of heaven.
STAPLEY: Exactly. So there’s this 1842 revelation that’s never canonized. It’s delivered to Newel K. Whitney in anticipation that Joseph Smith would be sealed to Newel’s daughter. It frames the entire relationship in terms of the cosmological priesthood. It essentially references priesthood and that this linkage would allow the priesthood to be established and then passed from generation to generation throughout all time through Newel’s family.
HODGES: We’ll talk a little more about sealing practices and polygamy and monogamy a little later on, but there’s another implication here about Brigham Young’s priesthood restrictions. Your book helps make the restrictions a little bit more coherent to modern readers in terms of how it fit Brigham Young’s theology, but also in some ways it makes it even more tragic.
STAPLEY: Yeah. So I think there is a common misconception that we don’t know why the priesthood restriction happened, the priesthood and temple restriction.
HODGES: Black members of African descent could not receive temple endowments or be sealed, and black men could not be ordained to the priesthood.
STAPLEY: Right. So what we see is that early on, before the restriction is made public and sort of formalized in Utah, there is a meeting with the Quorum of the Twelve. Lorenzo Snow says, “Isn’t there a way we can do something to extend salvation and the gospel to those of the African race?” Now by this time there have been several men that have been African-Americans that have been ordained to the ecclesiastical priesthood of the church. There has been some controversy over inter-racial marriage as well. Brigham Young at this meeting in response to Lorenzo Snow reveals for the first recorded time his rationale that governed the priesthood restriction, which he repeated throughout his life. It was this, he said Cain and Abel were supposed to be nodes within the cosmological priesthood.
HODGES: Links in the chain.
STAPLEY: Yeah. They were supposed to have a place and be connected to lots of people, primarily their descendants, being kind of prototypical individuals. When Cain killed Abel it wasn’t just fratricide.
HODGES: He didn’t just kill his brother.
STAPLEY: Yeah, it wasn’t like, “Oh, I killed a guy.” He actually fractured the cosmos. He cut off Abel and his posterities from being integrated into heaven.
HODGES: Because Abel should have lived, had these children, and then been sort of locked into these eternal relationships in heaven kind of a thing. Because he was killed he didn’t get a chance.
STAPLEY: And kind of as repugnant as it is to us as modern observers, it’s at least coherent, right?
HODGES: Yeah, there’s a logic to it. It’s not just “I don’t like black people.” It’s assigning black people this terrible role. There’s definitely racism involved as far as I can personally see, but I think as you say, here’s this logic. That’s what I mean by it being even more tragic and painful because it was well thought out in a way.
STAPLEY: Right. It essentially cut off people of black African descent from the family of God.
HODGES: Right. That’s their just desserts for this supposed sin that their supposed ancestor committed or something.
STAPLEY: Right. And Brigham Young was clear that once Abel’s posterity was somehow miraculously restored that then Cain could have his posterity restored as well.
HODGES: So that’s this idea that like people would say Mormon leaders always said blacks would eventually receive the priesthood or something, but it was in the context of this story that is really uncomfortable and that Latter-day Saints don’t teach anymore.
STAPLEY: That’s right. It’s entirely foreign in a way. So while it’s important to note that this narrative that Brigham Young crafts it is essentially a restriction within the cosmological priesthood, but I think the ecclesiastical restriction is kind of secondary. It happens as a consequence to this temple restriction, if you will. Over time, throughout Joseph Smith’s life and well into the twentieth century church leaders reference this as the basis for the restriction—
HODGES: Joseph Smith referenced it or do you mean Brigham Young?
STAPLEY: Brigham Young and subsequent leaders.
HODGES: Oh, you said Joseph Smith and I was like no he didn’t—
STAPLEY: Oh, no, no, no. I was thinking of subsequent Joseph Smiths.
HODGES: Oh, Joseph F. Smith, Joseph Fielding Smith. Okay. Just so we’re clear.
STAPLEY: So this was a referent as people talked about it, but after the declension of cosmological priesthood—
HODGES: —It needed new explanations for why.
STAPLEY: Right. So we have these kind of weird things like “fence sitters” or “less valiant” in the preexistence, which gained traction.
HODGES: But you don’t see that happen until… You can see those stories start to fill in theological gaps when the cosmological priesthood idea had diminished.
STAPLEY: Right, because the killing of Abel just doesn’t make sense anymore.
HODGES: Okay. Interesting. People can read more about that in the book. We’re talking with Jonathan Stapley. He’s the author of The Power of Godliness: Mormon Liturgy and Cosmology, and as you can tell dear listeners we are coming at you with a fire hose in this episode. There is so much to talk about. This book is under one hundred and fifty pages but is packed with fascinating information, way more than we cover but we’re going to do our best to give you an idea of some of the fascinating things that are in this book.
The next thing we’ll talk about is another big shift that occurred in 1877 with the dedication of the St. George, Utah temple. There was a sweeping change that transformed the very fabric of the cosmological priesthood, Jonathan, that’s how you put it. So this is the rise of what you call ecclesiastical priesthood. Another shift in Mormon liturgy happens in 1877 with the dedication of the St. George Utah temple. What change happened at this moment?
STAPLEY: Right. So this expulsion from Nauvoo to St. George in 1877 there is no temple.
HODGES: Right. The Salt Lake temple is not done.
HODGES: This is like the first temple that’s done after Nauvoo.
STAPLEY: Right. So they have various temporary locations where they administer aspects of the temple liturgy.
HODGES: Sometimes even in nature they’ll do some the temple stuff on the plains or—
STAPLEY: Right. They’ll have temple prayers along the plains; they’ll do sealings in people’s offices. We have that one example of Addison Pratt being endowed on Ensign Peak, it’s fantastic.
HODGES: But there’s some stuff that they would not do unless they had a temple.
STAPLEY: There’s one thing they wouldn’t do.
HODGES: One thing in particular, yeah.
STAPLEY: That’s child to parent sealings. Brigham Young called it the highest ordinance of the church in fact. These child to parent sealings and also adoptions, which is child to parent sealings between people that aren’t biologically related.
HODGES: Like people might remember John D. Lee—a participant in the Mountain Meadows Massacre—was adopted to Brigham Young.
STAPLEY: Yes. In Nauvoo those types of things were ways to connect the community together, because you couldn’t be sealed to people that weren’t members.
HODGES: And John D. Lee’s parents presumably weren’t members of the church and so this is them locking into the cosmological priesthood through this adoption ritual.
STAPLEY: Exactly. So it’s been a long time. People don’t understand the rules at all because they haven’t lived them. In fact there’s last than a hundred people that have been sealed as child to parent up to this point.
HODGES: Because it happened so briefly in Nauvoo.
STAPLEY: And we get to St. George so we often think about this is when Wilford Woodruff revealed the entire proxy liturgy.
HODGES: And when he met all the founding fathers.
STAPLEY: When he met all the founding fathers. It’s awesome. There’s less about this aspect, this sealing between children and parents returning. So there’s this return and there are some subtle changes that are made to the liturgy but the pioneer temple building continues until we get to Salt Lake. The Latter-day Saints are participating in these actions, these rituals, but it’s somewhat challenging because they can’t be sealed to their parents if their parents weren’t church members, or they can’t seal their parents to their grandparents if their grandparents weren’t members.
HODGES: This is how Mormons today do it, but back then they did not.
STAPLEY: Right. Back then they could not. So it presented challenges. Adoption didn’t feel—
HODGES: Quite the same.
STAPLEY: Yeah. It just felt challenging to them. So there’s this revelation in 1894 in the Salt Lake Temple. Wilford Woodruff stands up and says, “You know what, we’ve essentially been doing it wrong.” He announces this revelation.
HODGES: “We’ve been doing the temple wrong.”
STAPLEY: Yeah. What we’re going to do now is we’re going to go back and seal everyone as far back as we can go.
HODGES: In your own families.
STAPLEY: In your own families. How does this work? How can this possibly work? His response is, this is a direct quote, “There will be few, if any, who do not accept the gospel.”
HODGES: So they were worried about like, “Well if I’m sealed to my great-grandparents what if they’re not interested in it?” Because agency is a big principle for Mormons. So people would always have the ability to say yes or no to this.
STAPLEY: And then I’ll be isolated from the grand network of heaven.
STAPLEY: But his response is, “You know what? Mormon universalism is the answer.”
HODGES: Yeah. Most people, almost everybody, is going to jump on the wagon at some point.
STAPLEY: That’s right. It solves the problem. Now that universalistic explanation maybe isn’t the most prominent way those changes are understood over the subsequent century, but it is Wilford Woodruff’s stated reasoning behind the revelation.
HODGES: Okay. How did this change the position of women in Mormonism? This was a pretty seismic shift.
STAPLEY: So this is post-Manifesto—
HODGES: So, sorry, “the Manifesto” is how Wilford Woodruff declared the cessation of plural marriage. The church ended plural marriage, at least for mortals; men would still be sealed to multiple women in certain cases. But President Woodruff declared the end of polygamy. It took several decades to finally wind down. Okay, go on.
STAPLEY: Okay, so if we’re looking at well what’s not satisfying with how we do things, what are the problems in the liturgy, what are the problems in the cosmology, and this chasm between us and our ancestors in the sealing chain was on of them and it was rectified. So Wilford Woodruff brought this revelation to the Quorum of the Twelve and the First Presidency before he announced it in publicly. He brought it to them and I mean everybody was unanimous, “This is awesome. This is the way it should be.” And then George Q. Cannon says—
HODGES: He’s a General Authority.
STAPLEY: Yes. He’s in the First Presidency. He says, “This is great. This is awesome. But we’ve still got some challenges ahead of us.” In a post-manifesto world what about all the single sisters? Or the people who died without children and then can’t be… it’s kind of a worldview that makes us a little uncomfortable because it’s a little sexist, but if a woman is sealed to a husband, the husband dies early before they can have children, who would want to marry her?
HODGES: Because she’s already connected to this other person.
STAPLEY: Right. She’s already sealed to another man. Who will raise up seed—
HODGES: Who’s going to have kids with her?
STAPLEY: Right. They have this kind of fascinating debate. It’s kind of shocking because he says, “Well what if we do some sort of concubinage—”
HODGES: Right, an arrangement where you can have children without being married to—
STAPLEY: Without marriage, right. And he writes in his diary, “I brought this up to kind of further the conversation along. I didn’t want to be shocking. I’m sure some of my fellow brethren might have been shocked about it, but I want to figure this out.”
HODGES: Yeah, let’s talk about whatever options we can come up with here.
STAPLEY: Yeah. I think he was even willing to consider that; it’s still kind of foreign, to any sort of Mormon worldview, is to show the amount of stress the cosmology was under. Well within a few years it’s resolved. It’s resolved with Lorenzo Snow. He says, “Look, God is fair.” He points to his sister, famous Eliza R. Snow who was unable to have children, and he says, “God is fair. And Because of that anyone who is faithful will receive all promised blessings in the next life and we don’t have to worry about that.”
So that’s how the sealing liturgy changes. That’s how we reframed all the temple blessings and all the blessings we have. We kind of hold them out as expectations for the faithful, but at the same time there is a dramatic reformulation of ecclesiastical priesthood. It’s this reformulation that essentially sets up the church for the twentieth century. Just as much as polygamy might have ordered the Mormon universe in Utah in the nineteenth century, this new priesthood ecclesiology ordered Mormon life in the twentieth century with its focus on monogamy and church office.
So essentially what happens is church leaders are reading the 1835 Doctrine and Covenants texts in new ways. So they read the old revelations that ay there is a higher and lesser priesthood, that’s the Aaronic and Melchizedek priesthood, and we start thinking perhaps we should be conferring this priesthood onto people before we ordain them to an office.
HODGES: To separate this general idea of “the priesthood” to there’s “the priesthood” and then there’s these things inside the priesthood.
STAPLEY: Right. The ordination texts in the Book of Mormon and Doctrine and Covenants, it’s essentially an ordination: “In the name of Jesus Christ I ordain you to be a priest, preach the gospel of repentance.”
HODGES: And that includes the priesthood. Like, you’ve got the priesthood.
STAPLEY: Right. “In the name of Jesus Christ, amen.” This is a priesthood office. These new readings suggested that we confer the priesthood generally and there’s resistance. John Taylor says it’s improper and wrong, an invasion counter to scripture.
HODGES: We’re decades after Joseph Smith at this point.
STAPLEY: Right. But Joseph F. Smith becomes one of the proponent leaders of this new reading. He writes about it in church articles and then—
HODGES: And he wants people to come and say first ordain them to the priesthood—
STAPLEY: Confer the priesthood.
HODGES: Confer the priesthood upon them, then ordain them to an office inside the priesthood, or set them apart to a particular office. That’s new.
STAPLEY: Yeah, that’s new. We do that today.
HODGES: We do.
STAPLEY: But it was wildly controversial. When he dies they have to make kind of a statement that says different ways of ordaining are essentially comparable—
HODGES: Just go ahead and do it the way that you think is working.
STAPLEY: But the old ways are kind of better, wink wink. But with correlation—
HODGES: In the 1960s.
STAPLEY: In the 1960s there’s this move to essentially make Joseph F. Smith’s reading normative. But what’s important is—
HODGES: This is church leaders like Bruce R. McConkie and so on that believe there is a better way to do it.
STAPLEY: And Joseph Fielding Smith, so the relatives of Joseph F. right?
HODGES: Yep. So they’re going back to their relative and saying, “We think he had it right. Let’s have the church do it this way.”
STAPLEY: That’s right. But what’s important to understand is that whereas the cosmological priesthood of the Nauvoo temple required women to be coherent—
HODGES: Because they were all being sealed together.
STAPLEY: Right. The kind of expanded ecclesiastical cosmology of the twentieth century, where priesthood exists outside and is conferred upon and then you’re ordained to an office, requires the exclusion of women to maintain coherence. So for the rest of the twentieth century there’s this struggle to figure out how do women fit. That’s a question that’s still being resolved, even in the most recent history of the church.
HODGES: What’s the most recent development on that? President Dallin H. Oaks has spoken on that recently for example.
STAPLEY: In the early 2010s women’s roles in the church was prominent and they discussed in the media, there were protests about it at Temple Square and other locations, and President Oaks, at the time Elder Oaks, and other church leaders struggled to communicate the involvement of women in the church in terms of the priesthood. In 2014 he had this kind of seminal General Conference talk in which he expansively redefined priesthood authority as something that can be used by women by delegation from those with priesthood keys.
HODGES: So a bishop who assigns a woman to be a Relief Society president. He’s basically authorizing her to use the power of the priesthood. She’s not ordained, she doesn’t receive the priesthood, but she’s working with the—
STAPLEY: YeS, and not merely the power of the priesthood, but the authority of the priesthood. So she is using priesthood authority in her calling, which is a pretty large expansion of priesthood and priesthood cosmology and it is integrated into the curriculum rapidly. It is now the normative discursive mode.
HODGES: I think as we’re nearing the end of the discussion here, I want to say again that the book The Power of Godliness has a lot more information that people will want to check out. One thing that I’ll say is there are a lot of changes in here that you note, for example, women could be witnesses at baptisms—things like this—up until 1976, or young women assisting with preparing the sacrament. You cover some of these things that have changed over the course of time.
What do you say to modern Mormons today that encounter those things and wonder why the change happened or wonder if they’ll change back?
STAPLEY: I think there has been a tendency to view these items, women participating in the healing liturgy, the participation of women in various liturgical spaces that they no longer are, as essentially a declension narrative, as a narrative decline. I don’t think that’s correct. I think that what happens—and it’s extremely complicated—with the rise of the priesthood ecclesiology, is a concentration of liturgical and ecclesiastical authority within the priesthood bureaucracy within the church.
For example, boys passing the sacrament. The priesthood reform movement at the early twentieth century was a move by early church leaders to strengthen church activity of young men by extending priesthood office in a systematic fashion. The question was what did they do? They settled on deacons passing the sacrament. There was immediate pushback. People said “the Doctrine and Covenants says only priests can administer the sacrament.” The General Authority response was, “Look, that’s not administering the sacrament. Women pass the sacrament every Sunday down the pew.” So these priesthood officers, these deacons, are just taking that duty. Now, today I think it has become essentially a priesthood function. I don’t think from the modern perspective there’s any way of viewing the passing of the sacrament by the deacons as anything other than a priesthood duty.
HODGES: Would you say that it wouldn’t necessarily have to be that way?
STAPLEY: Well, no. Within the Latter-day Saint tradition there are many activities with precedent that are no longer active in the church today. Changes happen all the time. For example, women praying in church. We take that as something that, of course, happens. Women pray every Sunday. But women were restricted from praying in church for the bulk of the twentieth century.
HODGES: Particularly in sacrament meetings.
STAPLEY: Right. Now it’s normative. So all these questions are questions that church leaders must grapple with. It’s their job to determine how a liturgical authority is dispensed in the church and who are the officiators of the various ritualized acts that are performed today.
HODGES: Jonathan, you mentioned sort of what their stewardship is—they, LDS church leaders, are the ones who sort of make these policy decisions, and you as a scholar, you’re also a practicing Mormon. How do you see your work compared to their work?
STAPLEY: That’s really interesting. So I’m interested in describing Mormon worlds, right? So as a scientist if I find something, some data or some evidence that runs counter to my understanding of a system or a problem I’m working on, it’s actually a wonderful opportunity because it means that my understanding of the system isn’t quite complete. Of course, I wouldn’t say if I learned something about chemistry that countered what I had learned so far, I wouldn’t say, “Aw, chemistry is wrong. I’ve been lied to by my adviser, it’s just not true anymore.”
What instead, when I came to most of the data in this book, I received it with a similar joy and exultation that I might have taken as a scientist, that “Oh my gosh, there is a huge opportunity here to describe and create models that incorporate the lived religions of the people that I love.” So it’s an act of, hopefully, it’s an act of empathy as a believer, but it’s also an act of scholarship as a student, to be able to understand how and why Mormons have acted and framed the universe as they have.
HODGES: Can you think of any downsides? You’ve given a good case for why Mormon scholars of Mormonism can really contribute to the conversation through empathy, through deep understanding, speaking from inside the tradition. But looking at it, sort of putting yourself outside the tradition to look at it. Are there downsides to being a practicing Mormon and doing research on a Mormon subject?
STAPLEY: Not that I can find. I mean, I’m obviously biased. What I think is important is that Latter-day Saints go outside of the tradition to learn, so liturgical history, you know Orthodox Christians and Roman Catholics, they’re the pros at this. They’ve had thousands of years to figure out how to do this and they’ve gone through the growing pains, whether it’s the modernist crisis or Vatican too, of grappling with their history, but the fruit is somebody like Cardinal Ratzinger, named Benedict—
HODGES: The Pope, yes, the previous Pope.
STAPLEY: The Pope. He was essentially an expert at all of this stuff. It only enriches the tradition. My sense is that as we mature and are able to find these tools that others have used so well that we’ll be able to find a similar maturity in our past.
HODGES: That’s Jonathan Stapley. He’s the author of the book The Power of Godliness: Mormon Liturgy and Cosmology. It’s a brand new book from Oxford University Press. He’s also a chief technology officer for a bio-renewables company that deals with sugar, so we don’t have time to talk about sweets on the show, but I will say I have a sweet tooth and it’s a problem. But I want to thank you, Jonathan, for taking time to do this.
I just have one more question. This book is kind of your side hustle. You’ve got a full time job. How are you integrating your personal life, your work life, with this as kind of a professional hobby really?
STAPLEY: I think it’s a labor of love, first of all. You have to make choices. I don’t watch a ton of TV or play a ton of video games or things like that. So this is what I do for fun. Work is stressful. I’m essentially in a company that was developed, created to industrialize my graduate work. I’m in charge of engineering and research development and it’s extremely complicated but it’s nice to fall back into nineteenth century diaries to ease my soul and mind.
HODGES: Good. Well thanks, Jonathan. I had a good time. This was a good discussion.
STAPLEY: Thank you very much, Blair.
HODGES: I recommend, again, that people check out the book. It’s called The Power of Godliness: Mormon Liturgy and Cosmology. Thanks for listening to the Maxwell Institute Podcast.
The views expressed here and in Maxwell Institute publications are those of the individual authors and do not necessarily represent the views of the Maxwell Institute, Brigham Young University, or The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
“Seek ye diligently and teach one another words of wisdom; yea, seek ye out of the best books words of wisdom; seek learning, even by study and also by faith.” (D&C 88:118)