Just one day before Jonathan Stapley was awarded the best book award for The Power of Godliness by the Mormon History Association, I visited with him about the history and development of core ideas essential to current Mormon identities such as priesthood, authority, and ordinances.
We also discussed how priesthood power relates to temple practice and what Jonathan refers to as the ordering of heaven.
His volume is an academic history of Mormonism, and as such its intent is to understand and analyze the past and contextualize and historicize the present.
On this episode, Jonathan Stapley shares his perspective on Latter-day Saint liturgy in theory and practice.
About Our Guest:
Jonathan A. 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.
Jonathan received his Ph.D. from Purdue University and has been active in the field of Mormon History for over a decade. You can read some of his publications here. He also writes for the academic history Juvenile Instructor blog, and at By Common Consent, a Mormon blog.
Latter-day Saint Perspectives Podcast
Episode 109: The Power of Godliness
Released July 10, 2019
This is not a verbatim transcript.
Some wording has been modified for clarity.
Laura Hales: Hello, this is Laura Harris Hales, and I’m here today with Jonathan Stately to talk about his book, The Power of Godliness, which was published by Oxford press in January of 2018. Jonathan, can you tell us just a little bit about your educational background?
Jonathan Stapley: I’m a trained chemist. I have a PhD in carbohydrate chemistry from Purdue University. I did my undergraduate studies at BYU in food science. I deal with what’s called electro-chemistry. That’s using electricity instead of chemicals to change sugars into other useful products.
Laura Hales: And you write in Mormon Studies. How did that happen?
Jonathan Stapley: Well, after I finished my dissertation in 2004, I created a company that industrialized my graduate work, and I was focusing more on managing individuals and ideas as opposed to actual research. Just at that time, institutions, including the church, began digitizing their collections, and blogs were just coming online. I was part of a group of people that were starting to access these materials and do research, kind of a new generation in the 2000s. Being a scientist and interested in systems, I applied my interest and love of our church to that same study.
Laura Hales: What is Mormon liturgy?
Jonathan Stapley: We are accustomed to talking about ordinances and priesthood in our church, but those words have a particular meaning within our faith that is peculiar. It’s different than the way those words are used outside of our tradition. There is a technical and scholarly approach to ideas of worship and ritual that exists. I’m using those frameworks and bringing them into The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Liturgy is the system of ritual and ritualized acts that believers participate in to mark occasions and celebrate and worship. On Sundays, for example, we go to sacrament meeting and participate in the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper and that is the liturgy of the Lord’s Supper. Now, if you are Roman Catholic or Orthodox or Jewish, you will be familiar with those terms because they’re part of the regular worship. They talk about the liturgy, but for us, it’s a little disorienting, I think, because we’re not exposed to that vocabulary.
Laura Hales: Sometimes we talk about “high church” and “low church.” Even though we’re technically “low church,” we have liturgy like the Catholics, who would do it maybe with more ceremony.
Jonathan Stapley: Yeah, for sure. And, of course, our tradition is complicated by the fact that we have the temple and the temple liturgy. If you were to talk about the baptismal liturgy or baby blessings or the healing liturgy of the church, those are all systems of worship and ritualized acts that are every bit as liturgical as the Roman Catholic Mass.
Laura Hales: What got you interested in church rituals and liturgy?
Jonathan Stapley: I’m a scientist by training and have always had a scientific approach to the world. Chemistry is very much a part of the way I look at the world. When I look at a tree, I think of the biochemistry that’s happening in the tree as much as I look at the beauty of the foliage. As much as we don’t use terms like liturgy or a sacrament, Latter-day Saints believe that they’re doing something. You know, when we baptize somebody, we’re doing something. It’s changing the world; it’s changing the universe really. And I’m deeply fundamentally interested in the systems and the worlds that people create generally. As a believer, if you cut me, I bleed it. This church is part of who I am. I’m interested deeply and fundamentally in how what we do changes the world and why it matters.
Laura Hales: I think a lot of members of the church can identify with bleeding Mormonism or the Latter-day Saint-ism. It’s hard to think how you would live if you remove that component from your intellectual being. How about the term cosmology in a religious studies connotation?
Jonathan Stapley: Cosmology is the study of the origin and development of the universe. You’ve got physicists that are experimentally and theoretically probing the universe for black holes and dark matter, but cosmology is something far more ancient and expansive than the modern science. The idea that God so loved the world that he sent his only son is part of the water we swim in and the air we breathe, but the word world is cosmos. And so, God so loved the cosmos. And this cosmos was not just the sphere on which we stand or its population. It encompasses the physical reality and the spiritual planes with these hierarchies of angels and demons. It incorporates spiritual and physical realities, systems of authority, kingdoms, and principalities. It is a vision of the whole of things. That’s the cosmos and cosmology is the study of or the science of this reality.
Jonathan Stapley: I think every Mormon probably is aware of the plan of salvation diagrams. Now you’ve seen the pictures of the spheres where you start in a spirit world, you’d have a mortal existence, and then the arrows point to spirit prison. And there’s three heavens. That’s essentially a cosmology scheme. And what I’m doing, and hopefully in an empathetic way, is to approach the cosmology of Latter-day Saints because not only does the church change from between the time my children attend two-hour church to when my grandparents did, but also the way we view things changes somewhat as well. That dynamism is the living aspect of the church, but it also poses interesting challenges because as cosmology shifts, it becomes more and more difficult to understand the past.
Laura Hales: When I read your book, I had several “Aha moments” that were really, really helpful to me. And I want to start this podcast by saying, “Thank you for helping to clear up some of this confusion for me.”
Jonathan Stapley: That’s extremely gracious. Thank you.
Laura Hales: Let’s start with a brief historical overview. During the Joseph Smith period, how set was Latter-day Saint liturgy?
Jonathan Stapley: It wasn’t set at all. What we have is the revelation of a few rituals. In fact, the very first revelation of the organized church is called the Articles and Covenants, which is now section 20 of the Doctrine and Covenants. It’s basically the first general handbook of instruction. It was called the Mormon Creed by observers because it has creedal elements to it. It lists baptism, confirmation or the laying on of hands to receive the Holy Ghost, ordination, rituals, baby blessings, and the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper. It draws largely from the Book of Mormon about how to perform them. There’s a prayer for ordination, baptism, and the Lord’s Supper, and that’s it, right? We have a baptismal prayer, but as anybody who has experienced a baptismal service today knows there are things we do that are not necessarily in the prayer.
Jonathan Stapley: For example, we have white clothing, we have witnesses, and we have a talk on the Holy Ghost and on baptism. We have a fairly set way of doing this. But during Joseph Smith’s lifetime, baptism was pretty chaotic. There were many ways of doing baptism, and you could be baptized multiple times. You could be baptized as a healing ritual—baptized for your health as well as for the dead. How we heal, how we ordain, all of these things, have developed over time and by doing it. You learned how to bless the sick by doing it with people that were also learning at the same time. The meaning was also fairly dynamic. This is in contrast to some of the established churches at the time, which had very formal liturgies. For example, the baptismal liturgy of the Methodist Church is outlined in the Methodist Discipline, which was their handbook of instructions. We share essentially the very same baptismal prayer, but they have hundreds of words before and after explaining what you have to read and setting it up and giving meaning to this moment. For a hundred years, Methodist baptism was fairly static, but for Latter-day Saints, that is definitely not the case.
Laura Hales: When I was reading about the early history of setting up these ordinances and how they performed them, it sounded a lot like inspired pragmatism. With that first writing down of the Mormon creeds, as you called them, they’re just taking what they have at their hand, the Book of Mormon. Then you mentioned that by 1835, they’re looking at publishing Joseph’s first revelations in a book, and they actually change some of these first few things that they wrote down about the cosmology. Do you want to speak to that?
Jonathan Stapley: Sure. I think the idea that Joseph Smith’s revelations were edited and changed should largely be uncontroversial because of the work of the Joseph Smith Papers Project. Joseph Smith dictates revelations. In a few cases as new revelations are received, some revelations are essentially revised to comport to the new understanding. You see this with the first attempt to publish revelations in 1833 with the Book of Commandments. In Independence, in Zion, they want to publish a book of revelations. The presses are destroyed, and there’s only a handful of copies salvaged. By the way, if you have one, they’re worth over $1 million, so don’t throw it away. Joseph Smith keeps having revelations, so the idea, for example, that there is a Melchizedek priesthood and an Aaronic priesthood, which is again in the water we swim in and the air we breathe today, was revealed in 1835—five years after the church was formed. Joseph Smith reveals the idea of an Aaronic priesthood and a Melchizedek priesthood. The revelations on priesthood that we’re given in 1831–32 are harmonized with these new revelations and then published in the Doctrine and Covenants. The 1835 Doctrine and Covenants is the first edition of the Doctrine and Covenants, and it essentially crystallizes Joseph Smith’s revelations. They are no longer edited once that’s published largely because it’s published widely, and it becomes sort of an anchor for those texts.
Laura Hales: We have these different periods in the church that we talk about, which are somewhat artificial, but we have the Palmyra period, we had the translation, and we have the Kirtland period where we have all this revelation pouring forth. We have the Missouri period where the church is just trying to not dissolve and Joseph is trying to keep his skin. And then we have the Nauvoo period where Joseph didn’t really record a lot of revelations that we have in the Doctrine and Covenants. Most of his doctrine was delivered either one-on-one secretly like with polygamy or in speeches that he gave and in addresses and talks in conference. The most famous probably is in a funeral speech that he gave. During the Nauvoo period, right before he died, Joseph was still revising his cosmology. How well were Joseph Smith’s views on cosmology articulated to the members of the church by his death?
Jonathan Stapley: Yeah, that’s an excellent question. And as you say, written revelations are rare in Nauvoo, but clearly Joseph Smith’s revelation is not rare in Nauvoo. He is remarkably consistent in his explanation of what I call the Nauvoo cosmology— these new ideas that are revealed in conjunction with the Nauvoo temple liturgy. I think you were alluding to the famous King Follett discourse or the King Follett sermon, which was memorialized to King Follett who was a man in Nauvoo who died when a stone fell on his head while he was digging a well, but it was actually a general conference sermon.
It was April 7, 1844, and it is Joseph Smith’s best documented sermon. If you have a copy of the Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith, which from today’s modern perspective probably isn’t the best source for Joseph Smith’s teachings because it’s been filtered through several layers of editorial handiwork, you can look it up. Typically, you have three to five different sets of notes, scholars called them audits. In these notes that people were taking in situ or in the moment, they independently witness Joseph Smith’s specific teachings throughout the sermon. It’s important to note that this sermon was somewhat controversial because you had folks like previous first presidency member William Law who left the church and views it as wildly scandalous. But Joseph Smith had been teaching the key teachings of the King Follett sermon publicly since 1839—since the first year that they are in Illinois. Joseph Smith is teaching the concepts that end up in the King Follett sermon. One of the most notorious teachings has been what folks referred to often as the Lorenzo Snow couplet: “As man is God once was, as God is a man may become.” Actually, Lorenzo Snow probably isn’t the first person to come up with that little couplet; Brigham Young attested to teaching it very, very early.
Jonathan Stapley: People have often projected that couplet onto the King Follett sermon as probably the best source for that idea, but I would argue that it doesn’t find a home in Joseph Smith’s cosmology. Joseph Smith’s cosmology is more complicated than that simple little couplet. So, what does Joseph Smith actually teach in Nauvoo? Perhaps the best documented teaching is that spirits were never created or made. This is a direct quote: “God never had the power to create the spirit of man at all.” So, we have uncreated spirits. The next idea to go along with that is that God found himself in the midst of the spirits and wanting them to progress, interacted with them and revealed the plan to them to help them increase from there. We then go to the idea of what is the history of God?
Jonathan Stapley: Now, Joseph Smith dramatizes this. If you were to pull back the veil from heaven, you would see God sitting on a throne in the very form and image and person of a man. I’m paraphrasing, but these are close paraphrases that people might recognize if they’ve read the sermon. He did not stop there. He did not say God was a man. He said that it was in the very form and image of man and that he lived on a planet once as Jesus lived on a planet. Smith extended this to say, “What did Jesus do? He did what he saw the Father do as Jesus laid down his life and picked it back up again. So did the Father.” This is a teaching, again, that goes back to the early years of Nauvoo. And lastly, and this is perhaps somewhat controversial because Joseph Smith was not explicit in his teachings publicly.
Jonathan Stapley: He publicly claimed that human exaltation was to become kings and priests to God—to become gods, if you will, but to become gods by becoming a king and priest of God. Several weeks after the King Follett Sermon, he gave what some scholars have called the Sermon in the Grove, where he revisits this idea of a plurality of gods because it’s so controversial. He says, “Look, I’ve always said there was God and Jesus, right? There are two at least. Jesus by his own blood hath made us kings and priests to the Most High God. He’s revealed that that’s clearly an allusion to the work of the temple. In the temple, the purpose is to make people into kings and priests. What he doesn’t state publicly is the female corollary to that, that women are to be made queens and priestesses, and by extension, God the Father reigns in heaven with a mother God.
Jonathan Stapley: Those ideas about a feminine deity and the feminine corollary to exaltation is not stated publicly, but Smith’s closest associates rapidly talk about it publicly after he dies. He also clearly talks about the temple liturgy in terms of priesthood. He tells the Relief Society in 1842 that he intends to make them a kingdom of priests—the evidence is there for this. This final idea is what most people have latched on to—church leaders, church members, and observers, perhaps because they are so powerful. We want this idea of human exaltation so we don’t spend as much time thinking about the other aspects of Joseph Smith’s cosmology—the uncreated spirits and the idea that God was a man. Yes, but a man like Jesus was a man. It’s more complicated and rather ignored.
Laura Hales: I want to go back to something you just said. You were talking about how some of the members who listened to the teachings found them blasphemous. I think to understand that we need to put his teachings into context against existing Judeo-Christian traditions because to us it just seems normal. Of course, we grow up learning that our Heavenly Father organized the spirits, but that’s a huge departure from God creating man.
Jonathan Stapley: It’s complicated because what we generally assume today or are taught today is not necessarily exactly what Joseph Smith is describing in Nauvoo, and it’s clearly not what, as you say, Orthodox Christianity is at the time. Standard Christian thought is that God transcends everything and that he has existed forever, which I think Joseph Smith would have agreed with, but that God created everything, including all physical matter, including human spirits. Joseph Smith is militating against one of the fundamental premises of Christianity, and this is where Orthodox Christians generally are. Creedal Christians generally point to this doctrine to demonstrate that we are not part of their team. If Calvinists were to argue why Mormons are not Christian, they would point here because if God did not create all things out of nothing, then it’s not the same type of being.
Laura Hales: Does it appears that he is less divine?
Jonathan Stapley: I do not think Joseph Smith is making that argument.
Laura Hales: But would the Calvinists?
Jonathan Stapley: Yeah, for sure. The Calvinists would definitely argue that. A traditional Orthodox Protestant would definitely make that argument. Joseph Smith’s relationship with creation is interesting compared with Orthodox Christianity. He rejects fundamentally certain premises that have governed Christianity for hundreds of years, if not thousands. That being said, a lot of scholars have pointed to early Christian beliefs that match up well with Joseph Smith’s. I’m not an expert in that area, but clearly in the Antebellum American context, Joseph Smith is ruining things.
Laura Hales: Oh, that’s really clever. So, Joseph Smith sets out this cosmology. What do subsequent leaders at the church do with these teachings?
Jonathan Stapley: For the most part, they ignore them. The one area that they discuss is the one area where we don’t have a lot of public or no public documentation of, and that’s the idea of this gendered and eternal dyad of male and female in exaltation and in divinity. This idea of a mother God, or a mother in heaven, has legs, the idea of a divine mother, God, and female exaltation is interpreted differently among different church leaders but is still a foundational piece of their cosmology. The ideas about uncreated spirits and God the Father being a man like Jesus was a man is essentially ignored. There is some Orson Pratt and Brigham Young conflict over Joseph Smith’s legacy in this area; they disagreed emphatically with each other. Brigham Young is somewhat controversial in his interpretation, innovation, and how he sees the cycle of exaltation, but it becomes the engine for Utah teachings or belief in a large measure.
Laura Hales: Personally, it doesn’t bother me so much that subsequent leaders didn’t opine on it because it was Joseph Smith’s revelation, and it was written down secondhand. He didn’t review it, and we see later when we’re going to talk about the Utah period where they’re just trying to fit it all together. That was just one cog in the wheel that they just said, “We’re not going to touch that one because we just don’t know.”
Jonathan Stapley: Whereas the 1835 Doctrine and Covenants is a textual anchor, and you see for hundreds of years, church leaders going back to those texts and reading them and working out what they mean, you did not have that same accessible corpus of Joseph Smith’s teachings available to work through. They simply weren’t available, so oftentimes they were going for memory. It’s only been in the 20th century and really in the last 10 years that we’ve had the critical apparatus to deal with them in an appreciable way.
Laura Hales: Let’s review how the temple ceremony was revealed. In 1842 Joseph Smith reveals the temple ceremony in the red brick building to a few of the apostles and some select priesthood leaders, but it isn’t revealed fully to the church until after his death. Joseph Smith is killed at Carthage, the temple is completed, and the leaders of the church are anxious to get temple work done before they have to leave. Now, though, because of persecution, there is a lot of pressure on Brigham Young, and he is wanting to get this temple ceremony right, as he basically says, because it’s given to him orally. Nothing’s written down. How did this temple ceremony change? Do we know how it changed from when it was given in the red brick building to during Brigham Young’s presidency?
Jonathan Stapley: I guess we can talk about the temple liturgy and aspects of the temple liturgy. So what we have during Joseph Smith’s life are these oral instructions, but we also have the 1842 sealing text. So this is a revelation that Joseph Smith gives to the Whitney family introducing the concept of eternal sealings. It includes a sealing ceremony that is divergent from later texts that are the basis for what we experienced today in the temple. We have in Joseph Smith revealing in 1842 the endowment ceremony. So a year and a half later he brings in women. By doing that, he includes different administrators. We now have women performing temple rituals and bringing the ideas together in a cohesive, what they called a quorum—a group of people that met together as men and women.
Jonathan Stapley: They prayed, they performed the temple liturgy for new initiates, and it had a president. Joseph Smith was the president of the temple quorum.
Laura Hales: And Emma was over the women.
Jonathan Stapley: Yes. She’s the first woman to be initiated into the quorum and to experience the liturgy. So you have this diffuse liturgy that’s oral that incorporates, again, sealings—and people were generally sealed before they experienced the endowment at that period—an initiation, washing and anointing, and an endowment or a dramatic presentation. There are associated rituals and prayer as well. So from Joseph Smith’s revelation of this kind of diffuse liturgy, we go to the temple. It’s finished. Brigham Young and the Quorum of the 12 introduce it to the body of the Saints. We now have thousands of people participating in the temple. Also, it is clear from documents that new characters are added to the dramatic liturgy.
Jonathan Stapley: In the presentation where they describe the plan of salvation, new characters are added. The actual texts for things like sealing are adapted at this time as well. One important piece of what’s happening is what work the temple is doing. So what does the temple do? Well, Joseph Smith was creating heaven on earth. So sealings were literally constructing heaven. Heaven wasn’t a place in Nauvoo that you went to if you were righteous. It wasn’t a gift to the elect. Joseph Smith set it up. He said, “It’s not what the Calvinists or Methodist’s are doing.” Heaven is something that we build. When he performed sealings, he was, again, I’m not using literally figuratively here. He was literally creating heaven. He was making it. It was a material thing.
Laura Hales: I’ve been studying Nauvoo polygamy for five years now, and you’re talking about Joseph Smith making heaven on earth now. It’s not something in the future. For me, that was a big, “Oh, that’s why these women and men are agreeing to this whole concept of polygamy.” We scratch our heads at why they would even go there, but they’re not seeing, “Oh, in heaven, I can get sealed to someone. They are saying, “No, I need to be sealed into the chain.” Am I characterizing this correctly?
Jonathan Stapley: Correct. Yeah, absolutely. It’s hard for us to imagine from today’s perspective, but for the entire 19th century, essentially, you basically didn’t perform sealings for people who weren’t church members. Now, there are interesting exceptions and some gender dynamics that complicate that a bit. But the idea was that sealings, because they materialized heaven, persevered, and that’s a theological term. That means they were real; they endured in spite earth and hell. If you were to go to your ward and say, “We’re going to build heaven, and we need to be connected to each other,” there’s not a lot of ways of doing that that don’t transgress our Victorian norms. You have interesting connections between people that look very strange from an observer’s perspective and from a believing observer’s perspective. We should look at this and think this is odd.
Laura Hales: You mentioned that Joseph was making heaven on earth, but it changed. How did it change?
Jonathan Stapley: We still have Doctrine and Covenants 132 in our canon, which is a very complicated document but clearly teaches the idea of perseverance or this idea that once you’re sealed, it cannot be broken unless you sin against the Holy Ghost. When you have a small group, a small community, where everybody trusts each other, these ideas of perseverance, this idea that we are going to literally build heaven, are somewhat easier to manage.
Brigham Young opens the temple and thousands are endowed and sealed. They go to Utah, and they perform sealings along the trail west. They perform sealings in Salt Lake, in offices and homes, before the Council House is built. First, in the Council House, then in the Endowment House, and then in the pioneer temples. The challenge is that just because you go to the temple and experienced the liturgy and are sealed, it does not mean that you exit the temple as a celestial being.
Jonathan Stapley: Despite having just constructed heaven on the temple’s altars, you immediately exit the temple and begin to tear heaven apart. We all do. And so Brigham Young, for example, was sealed as a father to John D. Lee, who was a prominent missionary and secretary in Nauvoo, but also a perpetrator of the Mountain Meadows Massacre. Brigham Young was like, “Whoa, these people are claiming relation to me in heaven, and they’re clearly not doing the right thing. So you know what? They’re responsible for themselves.” This idea of perseverance works well in the abstract, but not in the particulars of our messy lives. Not all of us are perpetrators of mass murderer, thankfully, but all of us do have complicated lives and members of our families, if not ourselves, have experienced singlehood and divorce or sin and abuse and many innumerable things that complicate our views of heaven.
Laura Hales: Here’s a quote from your book: “Ultimately micromanaging the construction of heaven proved not only confusing for church leaders, but spiritually unsatisfying.”
Jonathan Stapley: From Nauvoo until the end of the 19th century, essentially, you can’t be sealed to your parents or grandparents. You could do their temple work, they could be baptized for the dead, and once St. George was in place, you could do a proxy endowment for them, but you could not be connected to them as a child. Adoption was the solution. In 1894 after dealing with, thinking about, and discussing it in depth with other church leaders, Wilford Woodruff stood in general conference and delivered a revelation. He stood up and addressed the temple presidents, some of whom were the members of the Quorum of the 12 and said, “Look, we are doing the temple wrong,” which is a pretty dramatic statement. I mean, can you imagine a church president standing up in general conference and saying that today: “We’re doing it wrong.”
Jonathan Stapley: He said we need to go and seal our parents to their parents and our grandparents to their parents and go on as far as we can go. The question arises, “Well, how is this possible if the links in the chain are what’s important and if we couldn’t be sealed to our parents because we didn’t know if they would accept the gospel in the next life because the seals need to persevere. How can we rely on our ancestors to perform that function?” He, in a stroke of perhaps great mercy, declared, “We can do it because there will be few if any who do not accept the gospel.” He essentially proclaimed a Mormon universalism. What that did was to say instead of focusing on creating heaven and micromanaging how it’s going to look between believers today, we’re going to do massive amounts of sealings, some temple work for the dead, and essentially we’re going to let God figure it out.
Laura Hales: What a blessing because there was some crazy innovations when they’re trying to solve the problem themselves: “Okay, that doesn’t make sense. Let’s try this. Let’s try this.” I think in the book you call this revelation one of the most significant in the foundation of the restored church.
Jonathan Stapley: Yeah. I think it’s more foundational to our modern experience than the manifesto is frankly.
Laura Hales: Oh, I do because it made way for these nuclear families are forever doctrine that we have now, which dominates our theology.
Jonathan Stapley: What it allows is a shift in the 20th century, and I don’t think that Wilford Woodruff necessarily would’ve framed it this way, but you have a shift from Joseph Smith’s creation constructing heaven now to a situation in a 20th century where heaven is a lot more similar to what Protestants believe in. It’s something that you can get if you are faithful. Right? And then God will figure out everything, all the weird details. And there has been a process of essentially liberalization in that cosmology every decade of the 20th century or even to the present with how we do proxy work, who can be sealed to whom. If your ancestor had more than one husband, who do we seal her to?” Questions like that are resolved with more and more openness and with more liberality throughout the 20th century.
Laura Hales: At this point in our discussion about Latter-day Saint cosmology, we’re going to take a little side road and talk about the priesthood, because it’s so important to understanding cosmology. How did the meaning of priesthood change in the early 20th century?
Jonathan Stapley: To answer that, I’m going to go back a little bit. So I mentioned earlier that Joseph Smith revealed in 1835, five years after church was formed, the Melchizedek and Aaronic priesthoods. So it’s clear that conceptions of priesthood are dynamic. The temple liturgy in Nauvoo, as well, was referred to as the priesthood. We have kings and queens, priests and priestesses. True, but the quorum itself referred to themselves as the priesthood, and I argue that these are different. You have an ecclesiastical priesthood and a temple priesthood that I call the cosmological priesthood. It doesn’t really matter. They are viewed as ways of channeling the power of God. Part of Joseph Smith’s cosmology from the earliest moments, and this goes back to the question of how he complicated Antebellum Christianity or Orthodox Christianity, was to say that God still works in history. Miracles still exist. The ecclesiastical priesthood channeled that power in the lives of the saints and the temple is an endowment of power. It was to channel the power.
Laura Hales: Let’s just unpack that a little bit because you’ve used some good terminology there. You mentioned two kinds of priesthoods. One is a cosmological priesthood that we use in the temple. There’s a lack of terminology differentiating the kinds of priesthoods we use in the church and that has led to a lot of confusion about what goes on in the modern temple ceremony versus what goes on in church on Sunday. There’s a conflation of terms. You also talked about an ecclesiastical priesthood. What is that?
Jonathan Stapley: Ecclesia is Greek for church. It means other things in Greek, but it becomes a term for church. Ecclesiastical means a church organization. So when you have an ecclesiastical office, you have a position in the church. And so the priesthood early on is ecclesiastical in nature. The church is comprised of ecclesiastical officers, and these priesthood officers are deacons, teachers, priests, and elders. And they have jobs in the church. It’s hard because Joseph Smith uses priesthood language and priesthood terminology around the temple, but it’s clearly not serving an ecclesiastical purpose. He’s not making priestesses of female initiates as an ecclesiastical office. This is a position in heaven. And so that’s why I’m making the distinction. Without understanding that context, you can go back and read these Nauvoo era documents, these journals, these sermons, and you will see references to priesthood, and people have come to it from a presentism perspective and said, “Well, clearly this means that Joseph Smith was, for example, giving women the priesthood by having them participate in the temple.” And by saying that, they are meaning he is giving them an ecclesiastical priesthood or the Melchizedek priesthood as we would say today. But that is, I would argue, clearly not the case. We have these different uses of priesthood language in church history. The trouble for us is we’re coming from a modern perspective where we have very formal and well established definitions that don’t map well onto the past,
Laura Hales: I would argue they don’t even really map well currently.
Jonathan Stapley: No, no, that’s true. Five years ago they don’t.
Laura Hales: So we talked about how the meaning of priesthood has changed in the early 20th century.
Jonathan Stapley: Okay. So let’s go to that. For some technical reasons that I don’t think are important, priesthood cosmology shifts, and it becomes the nexus for organizing the church. Whereas polygamy kind of organized people’s lives in the 19th century, Utah priesthood becomes the primary organizational factor in the 20th century for the church. And it gets a new definition. In the 19th century, you might experience power in the priesthood as a way to channel the power of God. In the 20th century, you start talking about the power of the priesthood. In fact, if you were to crack open a general handbook of instruction today or the doctrinal core mastery document for seminary, or the True to the Faith booklet or Preach My Gospel, it would have a definition of priesthood.
Jonathan Stapley: And it would say priesthood is the power of God. It is the power of God that he used to create the world. That is the catechism definition for the church today. That is a 20th century definition. For most of the 20th century, priesthood is exclusively and cosmologically male. So, for example, in 1965 you have Elder Critchlow get up in general conference and say, “Priesthood is the power of God presently and purposely denied to women for reasons, which he has not revealed. Don’t ever, sisters, make a pretense to priesthood power.” And that was a non-controversial statement to make in 1965.
Laura Hales: You alluded to the dynamism of our current lived experience. The rhetoric dramatically changed five years ago. This is usually associated with a talk given by Elder Oaks. How did it change?
Jonathan Stapley: It’s clear that Elder Oaks and Elder Ballard and the presidencies of the Relief Society, Young Women, and Primary are all wrestling with the role and experience of women in relation to the priesthood. And frankly, this has been something that people have been wrestling with for the entirety of the 20th century. But it reached a climax in 2014. There are some interesting antecedents in local and regional discussions.
In 2014, Elder Oaks stands in general conference and delivers this earthquake not dissimilar from when Wilford Woodruff stands up and proclaims this new revelation. Elder Oaks changes everything by saying any authority or power that women experience in church is priesthood. Therefore, if a woman is set apart to be a missionary, she is wielding priesthood authority. The Relief Society president has priesthood authority to execute her duties.
Immediately the rhetoric of the church shifts. The lesson a few months later that was supposed to be taught to young women on the duties and powers of the priesthood shifts to be about how young women can participate in the work of the priesthood. Friend articles are written about how children can wield priesthood authority, male or female. And frankly, I don’t think we’re finished. I think we’re still experiencing the ramifications from this change, and we’re seeing new ways that it is being understood and implemented on the practical level.
Laura Hales: It’s interesting because I went to the temple for the first time 31 years ago to get my endowments. Of course, I’d gone to do baptisms for the dead before that. One of the temple recommend questions is, “Do you attend your priesthood meetings?” I always responded that I didn’t have the priesthood, but now that question is actually valid in the way that it’s being interpreted in the church because when I perform my duties in Relief Society, that’s attending my priesthood meetings. Would you say that’s right?
Jonathan Stapley: It does appear. I am not a church leader, and I don’t get to explicate normative theology for the church, but that’s what it appears to me as an observer as well as a believer. It appears that we are experiencing priesthood meetings. And what’s interesting is that with President Nelson’s reformatting and reconceptualization of quorums and the two hour block, he essentially reorganized priesthood quorums to follow the Relief Society pattern. And so not only is Relief Society becoming more like priesthood, priesthood is becoming more like Relief Society. I think to the benefit of the saints.
Laura Hales: More recently, the meaning of priesthood has changed, which brings into question how priesthood functions and the difference between priesthood authority and priesthood power. What are those differences?
Jonathan Stapley: I am going to answer that question, and it’s going to be my observation of the way it’s currently framed by church leaders, which may not be how it was framed five years ago and may not be how it is tomorrow. I believe church leaders are saying it’s much like a car. You might have a car that has the power to go 120 miles an hour, but you might not have the authority to go 120 miles an hour on the freeway. Before 2014, male and female church leaders were kind of debating whether or not women could have priesthood authority or priesthood power. But after 2014, they’re saying it’s both.
Jonathan Stapley: You are authorized to perform a duty and you have this capacity or power to enable you to actually do it. Now, historically, before 2014, it’s somewhat more complicated. During the 20th century, we had this normative priesthood definition that excluded women. And so there were questions especially about how women perform temple ordinances if they don’t have priesthood authority or power. How did women in the church perform healing blessings, something that was common from the earliest moments of the restoration until the late 20th century? Under what authority did they do those things? They are questions that are not easy to answer in light of an intense focus on a male priesthood cosmology that incorporates all of God’s power and authority into priesthood office and excludes everybody else.
Laura Hales: You’re saying that as the priesthood is being practiced right now, it takes care of some of these problems that existed.
Jonathan Stapley: I think it’s a framework for understanding and explaining historical practice in a way that is coherent. There are lots of reasons that church leaders do things, but I wouldn’t be surprised if that were one of the reasons that they made the changes they did.
Laura Hales: Sometimes there’s not existing vocabulary to discuss these concepts. Jonathan has taken the last ten years or more to research this and put it in a nice little book for us. Personally, I read it twice in preparation for this interview. You’ve laid the framework for further discussion on the topic, but you got into studying rituals and the priesthood and this type of subject matter with female ritual healing, which some of our listeners may not be familiar with, but I think it’s an important discussion to add in here at the end because it was so much a part of our past and sometimes people wonder what kind of authority was exercised with female ritual healing and why it was stopped.
Jonathan Stapley: Okay, that’s a wonderful question. Kristine Wright and I spent five or six years working on the healing liturgy together. It culminated in a paper on female ritual healing. It is one of the most useful ways of probing conceptions of priesthood and authority and cosmology because it differs so much with the way we do things today. In short, female ritual healing is the idea and the practice that women performed healing rituals, the same rituals that men performed from the earliest portions of Kirtland until the late 20th century. Now, there isn’t a final cutoff date because there was no formal end to the practice. It was a complicated declension throughout the 20th century. But it’s safe to say that for a large portion of our history, it was very common and normal for women to bless and anoint the sick and to bless and anoint the afflicted.
Jonathan Stapley: Women used the same rituals that the men used in the church. If you were to look at the general handbook of instructions today, it would say the only men who hold the Melchizedek priesthood office can perform a healing ritual. So again, if we’re taking that as the basis for our interpretation of history, then someone might say, “Well, therefore, women must have had the Melchizedek priesthood or something similar to it to be able to do this work.
Laura Hales: They were trying to go backwards.
Jonathan Stapley: Right. You just can’t do that. So by what authority did they do it if they didn’t have priesthood office? I think it’s really important to approach historical moments and experiences from a contextual approach. So how were they understood at the time? I make an argument about different types of authority. From today’s perspective in the church, we are making an argument that all authority is God’s authority and all authority is priesthood authority. But I think everybody can also agree that that’s only been in the last five years that we’ve been able to make that argument. So what happened before then? I would argue and do argue and there’s oodles of evidence demonstrating that women were authorized or had authority to participate in the healing liturgy. That authority was not a priesthood office, it was essentially liturgical authority.
Jonathan Stapley: So today, a great example would be for most of the 20th century women were not allowed to pray in sacrament meeting for much of that. It’s only been relatively recent, in the 1970s, that women were authorized to pray in sacrament meeting. Now, if you went back to 1965 and asked what authority is needed to pray in sacrament meeting, someone might say that you need a priesthood office to do that. And if you were to ask that same question today, “Laura, what authority do you need to pray in sacrament meeting?”
Laura Hales: I just need to be baptized.
Jonathan Stapley: Okay, you have some authority that you didn’t have 40 years ago. You have that authority today. I say that’s a liturgical authority. Now that’s a term we don’t use. It’s an outside terminology, but it’s a descriptive terminology. Women had liturgical authority to perform these rituals, these liturgies, in the church.
Jonathan Stapley: In the 20th century with the rise of this priesthood cosmology that we talked about that was centered on male priesthood office, the majority of church liturgy was concentrated in priesthood office. There are a lot of reasons for that shift and if you really are interested in the details, there are hundreds of pages for you to read through. There is a point in which it is so rare that it becomes forgotten by the majority of the church. And to be frank, the 20th century is also the time of our greatest growth. By the end of the 20th century, the majority of church members are converts or the children of converts and don’t have this tie to historical practice. But there are still some interesting bits and pieces. When President Kimball was going in for brain surgery, he asked for a blessing and Elder McConkie came to the hospital to do it. He asked President Kimball’s wife, Camilla, to lay hands on him.
Laura Hales: The title of your book is the Power of Godliness. Jonathan, at the conclusion of this interview, what is the power of godliness?
Jonathan Stapley: So again, I am a historian and so I take a historical and contextual approach to that term. The power of godliness is a term that Christians have used for a long time. It goes back to Paul when he’s talking about having the form of godliness but denying the power thereof or lacking the power thereof. For Paul, the power of godliness wasn’t the power of God. The power of godliness is the power of being godly or being faithful or righteous. Essentially there is a power that comes with living a godly life. Now as Joseph Smith was wont to do, he takes bits and pieces of the King James Version and endows them with expansive meaning or uses them in ways that allows subsequent Latter-day Saints to interpret them in useful and interesting ways.
One of the early revelations on priesthood cosmology says it’s through the ordinances of the high priesthood that the power of godliness is manifest. And that’s an interesting little bit of linguistic experimentation or revelation. You could interpret that many ways, but I think church leaders and members have, at least for the last hundred years, looked at that and said this is talking about the power of God. It is through the ordinances of the priesthood that the power of God is manifest. I like a more complicated and nuanced reading, but I think we have to be aware of and empathetic towards those standard readings that we encounter at church every week.
Laura Hales: Jonathan, why did you write this book?
Jonathan Stapley: Because it’s meaningful to me. That’s the short answer on a fundamental level. I mentioned earlier that if you were to cut me, I would bleed Mormonism. It’s part of who I am, but also I am captured and enthralled by our spiritual progenitors and the lives and experiences they had and led. And so for me, my experience, my lived experience, is enriched by an understanding of our past and our systems of authority and cosmology that accounts for their experiences. As church members, we take a lot of effort to imagine ourselves and experience ourselves in Micah’s hearts of the children and fathers being turned towards each other. Now Joseph Smith had some unique translations of that, which are interesting and fascinating. At the same time, there is a real and important demand upon us to do the work of the temple, to go and spend time on a computer and find ancestors and submit names, and to do proxy rituals for them. But if it’s to mean anything, we have to understand each other.
Laura Hales: And even if that is understanding the first generations of the church and how they saw and did things.
Jonathan Stapley: And it’s okay to be different. My experience is different than my grandparents, and my experience will certainly be different than my grandchild’s.
Laura Hales: Thank you so much, Jonathan.
Jonathan Stapley: It’s a pleasure. Thank you.
Disclaimer: Latter-day Saint Perspectives Podcast is not affiliated with The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. The opinions expressed on this episode represent the views of the guests and the podcaster alone, and Latter-day Saint Perspectives Podcast and its parent organization may or may not agree with them. While the ideas presented may vary from traditional understandings or teachings, they in no way reflect criticism of Latter-day Saint Church leaders, policies, or practices.