Review Essay: “The Power of Godliness: Mormon Liturgy and Cosmology”: Materiality and Performance

Like a paring knife to a grapefruit, Jonathan Stapley’s new book on the history of Mormon cosmology is slim, sharp, and swift to carve through pith, serving up elegant wedges of history. The Power of Godliness: Mormon Liturgy and Cosmology (Oxford, 2018) traces the evolution of ritual practice in Mormonism, including priesthood ordination, sealing rites, healing practices, baby blessings, and folk divination. The author’s reticence to extract neat diagrams from his findings is a virtue of the book, and any summary should be offered advisedly. Taken together, however, the chapters show a gradual migration from civic- to kinship- to church-centered forms of ritual soteriology, occurring alongside processes of codification and consolidation that, by the late 20th century, concentrate Mormon liturgical discourse and practice within the male ecclesiastical priesthood.

I am no historian, and I leave it to the experts to adjudicate Stapley’s stimulating historical claims. Several points struck my picture of Mormon history–incomplete and idiosyncratic as it is–with particular explanatory power. As I understand them:

  • Early notions of sealing and its connection to the doctrine of perseverance evolved rapidly. Initially, the Saints were “sealed up” in the soteriological sense that their salvation was permanently assured; it would “persevere” all future threats and sweep safely them to heaven. Later in the Kirtland and especially Nauvoo periods, the Saints were “sealed to” one another in a relational bond that was the vehicle of salvation, and the perseverance implied was that of the relationships themselves.  
  • Mormonism developed two distinct modes of communal or relational salvation: the civic or territorial mode, in which salvation was obtained through an inheritance in the (literal or figurative) city of Zion; and the kinship model, in which salvation was instantiated in the sealings and adoptions that constitute a social network of connected families. The latter arose when the former foundered in Missouri, yet both persist and circulate.
  • Polygamy and nonbiological adult adoption worked to ritually link the first generation of Mormon converts, whose monogamous units would, it was felt, remain irremediably discrete until subsequent generations might intermarry. With millenarian fervor in the air, and with sealings for biological ancestors not (yet) available, it was urgently believed that inter-familial saving links must originate within and radiate from the first generation of converts, and polygamous sealings offered to accomplish this networking function.
  • Wilford Woodruff’s phasing out of ritual adoption and his opening of proxy ordinance for dead ancestors were equal in importance to his cessation of polygamy in the ascendance of the modern biological, monogamous, nuclear family in Mormon cosmology.  
  • Zina D.H. Young is perhaps the most prominent, most prolific and best-documented healer in the history of Mormonism. A shared liturgical origin links healing practices and temple rites. Early versions of the Mormon temple rite included female healers, and baptisms for health were practiced within temples. The association persists to the present, inasmuch as discrete-but-related practices of anointing and sealing occur in both temple and healing rites. As Stapley observes, ”Today, the only ‘sealing’ rituals performed outside of Mormon temples are the sealings of anointings for the sick” (83)

While the book is constructed as a work of history, it raises theological questions about the meaning of Mormonism’s distinctive metaphysics. The centerpiece of the book is its recovery of an early understanding of Mormon priesthood, which Stapley calls the “cosmological priesthood,” though this designation is the author’s own invention and not an historical term.  This early concept, arising during the Nauvoo period alongside polygamous sealing rites and persisting, in decline, through the Deseret period, deploys the term “priesthood” in a social and material sense uncommon in modern LDS discourse. To enter the priesthood, a rite available to both women and men in the Nauvoo sealing ceremony, was to join the assembly of initiates linked in the salvific kinship forms, marital and filial, inaugurated by the liturgy. In this sense, the Mormon use of the word “priesthood” resembled the Catholic use, as the collective body of the ministerial orders.

But this early Mormon notion of priesthood entailed more than a sacralized social collective. Stapley draws out an intriguing metaphysical dimension, the basis of the “cosmological” moniker he favors. In solemnizing kinship bonds between husband and wife or parent and child, Stapley argues, early Mormons understood themselves to be knitting the material fabric of heaven. He writes:

The expanded temple liturgy and cosmology Smith revealed in the early 1840s entailed the creation of a material heaven, comprising eternal sealed relationships between believers, both male and female. Those who participated in these relationships called the material heaven the priesthood. This expanded priesthood was not ecclesiastical in nature; instead, it constituted the very structure of the cosmos. (17)

As Stapley explains it, this heaven was taken to be “material” in the sense that it was literal and immediately present, not merely figurative or promissory. This kingdom of heaven, with its secure family bonds, was not a future reward for the initiate; rather, the initiates were themselves, in their relatedness, the kingdom of heaven.

[T]he Mormon priest materialized heaven at his altar, sealing wife to husband and child to parent. Where these linkages did not exist, there was simply no heaven; where they did exist, so did heaven. And this heaven persevered. (17)

This is a provocative theological claim with urgent implications for Mormon metaphysics. If I have any complaint with the book, it is that the author included relatively few primary source materials for the reader to test his rather subtle argument. My inexpert assessment of the sources he did provide suggests to me that Stapley has indeed captured something real in early Mormon discourse, but that, as he acknowledges, the idea was unevenly received and likely always circulated in competition with traditional notions of the ideal Christian heaven.

 

Theology grounds itself, in the end, beyond history’s horizon. Regardless of the accuracy with which Stapley reconstructs early Mormon priesthood discourse–and I have no reason to doubt it–his work is a runway for theological reflection. In particular, it raises two related questions about the ultimate nature of being. The first is the question of time and its relation to salvation. Is the kingdom of heaven only to be inaugurated on earth at some future (if impending) time by a dramatic and universal imposition of divine transcendence? Or is the kingdom of heaven present even now, within us, among us, somehow accessible through the conditioned, compromised, and confined parameters of this world, these lives?  Is the kingdom of God imminent, or immanent? Is heaven another world, or another way of being in this world?

My hunch for the latter is no doubt clear, and Stapley’s work suggests that, for what it’s worth, that perspective has historically been available to Latter-day Saints. Any time that the Saints stand together at the altar, incarnating priesthood as they knit their always-dying bodies into an ever-fractalizing fabric, that is the Kingdom come. Brigham Young gets at the radically immanent metaphysics of Mormon millenarianism. The “real essence and effect of the Millennium,” he says, lies waiting within us already:

Let the people be holy, and the earth under their feet will be holy. Let the people be holy, and filled with the Spirit of God, and every animal and creeping thing will be filled with peace; the soil of the earth will bring forth in its strength, and the fruits thereof will be meat for man. The more purity that exits, the less is the strife: the more kind we are to our animals, the more will peace increase, and the savage nature of the brute creation vanish away. If the people will not serve the devil another moment whilst they live, if this congregation is possessed of that spirit and resolution, here in this house is the Millennium. Let the inhabitants of this city be possessed of that spirit, let the people of the territory be possessed of that spirit, and here is the Millennium. Let the whole people of the United States be possessed of that spirit, and here is the Millennium, and so will it spread over all the world. ( Brigham Young, Journal of Discourses, 1:203, 6 Apr. 1852)

To shatter and scatter the sacred telos of time such that its abundance is seeded throughout and within chronological time, not cloistered at its end, is, arguably, a central gesture of early Mormonism. Yet its implications have been scarcely understood. What can law, obedience, accountability, or divine judgement mean aside from the carrot or stick–or perhaps better, for Mormons, the big carrot of celestial glory and the baby carrot of lesser glory–waiting for us at the end of time? How are we to make sense of a “plan of salvation” without the inexorable draw of the glorious (or less-glorious) culmination pulling us (or goading us) through life’s blind curves? Closer to the concerns of the book, how are we to understand the promise of eternally sealed relationships if not as a bridge from the chaos of this death- and sin-strewn life to a truer home of order and infinity where all is as it should be?   

My sense is that early Mormon theologians did not really begin the work of answering these questions. Yet if Stapley is right, if the cosmological priesthood indeed materializes a thousand-faceted heaven at every time and place of its exercise, a corresponding reconception of our soteriology is in order. Contemporary Mormon theology is on the job.

 

Second, the book’s central claim raises questions about the nature of materiality itself. There’s a story that might be spun from the book’s language of materiality, though Stapley does not spin it himself: Joseph Smith, traumatized by the deaths of family members and stung by the betrayals of friends, was obsessed with the impermanence of human relationships. The Nauvoo temple liturgy grew from his desire to cement the fragile filaments of emotion, making them stable, steadfast, and solid enough to endure death and an everlasting eternity. On this account, Stapley’s claim that that the cosmological priesthood “materializes” heaven might take “material” to mean robust, positive, secure. The Mormon gesture is to cast the ineffable yearnings of human love in bronze, like so many grand sculptures at Temple Square.

I think this potential reading is mistaken. Materiality is not mere physicality. Unlike the saints’ earlier (unrealized) project to materialize Zion in a city of stone and brick, this new approach to communal salvation would produce no monument, no tangible structure. Yes, temples would eventually rise, but the sealing rite itself was independent of those structures and frequently brought heaven into being outside those walls. It required, and yielded, nothing more substantial than human souls, which rise and fall into dust as fleetly as grass. Whatever “material” means in this context, it’s not solid, massive, or permanent.

A clue to the book’s underlying theory of materiality may be found in its associated notion of performance. An unexplored tension in Stapley’s argument is the interplay between materiality and performativity. The rites that materialized heaven, he argues, were verbal and gestural performances, transitory instantiations of power.  “Ritual acts are inherently ephemeral, only rarely and imperfectly captured in the memories and media close at hand” (125). When the rites were eventually recorded and standardized, the transcripts had no power to materialize heaven. Only in performance is heavenly matter called into being.

In view of a Mormon theology of performance, matter–and materiality broadly, including, for Mormons, spirit–is not assumed to be straightforwardly in existence. Matter is a process, a performance in time, a confluence of conditions and agencies intra-acting moment by moment to produce and re-produce the concrete world in which we find ourselves. Matter is a possibility actively to be sought and realized. If Mormonism fractures Christianity’s cosmic ending and seeds its messianic arrival throughout time, it likewise fractures the cosmic beginning–creation–and seeds its fecundity through time.

Mormonism’s material heaven, then, is not a bunker reinforced against time’s onslaught. It’s a tent to be raised with every sunrise, staked with every sunset. A material heaven, like the manna it gives, arrives with the dew and passes with the day. Heaven is the performance of a moment, and another, and another, drawn into being from the interstices of time, the potentiality of the real.

Metaphors aside, what’s really at stake in a performative Mormon theology? I’ve touched on soteriology and metaphysics above. In general, performance calls into question the priority of essence and ideal, and instead sets relation and particularity as fundamental categories of being. Performance is immanent, insourcing notions of sin, salvation, creation, truth, grace, hope, faith, and charity. Performance is active, in that it prioritizes relational agency and constructive realism (but it is not a species of discursive constructivism). Performance is open, in that it models a world ajar to emergence and change, to the sacred within the secular, to a substrate of thrumming potentiality in what is given.

 

This is strong broth, and perhaps oddly served up in this brief book-review-cum-theological-treatise. I blame it on the conceptual richness of Jonathan Stapley’s analysis, from which I’ve strayed far afield, though I hasten to assure the reader that one need not accept anything like a performative theology to enjoy and learn from The Power of Godliness. Nevertheless, I take it as proof of the book’s depth and brilliance that its themes open so richly onto reflection.

9 comments for “Review Essay: “The Power of Godliness: Mormon Liturgy and Cosmology”: Materiality and Performance

  1. James Olsen
    May 8, 2018 at 4:17 pm

    Rosalynde this is a rich review and a delight to read. Throughout, as you juxtapose different interpretations of Mormon theology you seem to strike a binary tone. Heaven is EITHER imminent or immanent. I can’t think of any reason to accept this beyond ones idiosyncratic preference for the one and distaste (or inability to swallow) the other. My own preference is to hold tightly to both, which strikes me as precisely the message of D&C 130:2–heaven just IS the “materiality” of those social relationships we now enjoy; but there is also an eternal glory not presently in our possession.

  2. Rosalynde Welch
    May 8, 2018 at 4:22 pm

    James, excellent point. I tried to leave room for both options to remain live in my syntactic formulations, but in my effort to distinguish the two I probably gave short shrift to a both/and perspective. Thanks for articulating it here.

  3. May 8, 2018 at 8:43 pm

    I really liked the book, and agree it provided a setting to reflect on some interesting and I very meaningful theology worth consideration. I felt the view of Priesthood and the theology of a material heaven now lined up very closely to things I feel I have learned for myself. Amidst the current pressures and crises that seem to be common place in this juncture of our history, I believe a true understanding of what was being taught in Nauvoo and the passages in the D&C that led up to those teachings, will be the foundational which pushes us as a people and church to the next level truly on our way toward a literal Zion and the gathering and proliferation of goodness and righteousness. I think this book is a very positive step in that direction.

  4. Christian Cardall
    May 8, 2018 at 10:29 pm

    A thrilling read, Rosalynde, thank you.

    “Or is the kingdom of heaven present even now, within us, among us, somehow accessible through the conditioned, compromised, and confined parameters of this world, these lives?” I think many ordinary Saints could and would intuitively answer “Obviously, yes,” even without being versed in either contemporary Mormon theology or early Mormon esoterica—based simply on the familiar understanding that we are ‘building the kingdom of God on the Earth,’ and the recognition that their entire lives and most important relationships are oriented by and organized in and through the gospel as they experience it in the Church (perhaps in contrast to many contemporary churchgoers, whose worship may tend to be more just another activity or facet of their life, rather than being the totalizing orientation in the universe one experiences in Mormonism).

    As to the relation between the ephemeral nature of ritual and the ongoing materiality of heaven here and now via performance… I think the key thing to note is that every key ordinance of salvation involves the making of a covenant; and that the terms of these covenants involve precisely those behaviors that fit an individual, here and now, for heavenly-styled relationships in families that in turn compose Zion communities. And of course, while one’s own baptism and endowment are ephemeral events, the ongoing ritual opportunities to take the sacrament and do vicarious work in the temple renew the memory of and motivate the ongoing keeping of those covenants.

  5. Jerry Schmidt
    May 9, 2018 at 7:19 am

    “Mormonism’s material heaven, then, is not a bunker reinforced against time’s onslaught. It’s a tent to be raised with every sunrise, staked with every sunset. A material heaven, like the manna it gives, arrives with the dew and passes with the day. Heaven is the performance of a moment, and another, and another, drawn into being from the interstices of time, the potentiality of the real.”

    Perhaps the use of the term “stake” as an LDS organizational unit isn’t an arbitrary use of the English language but intended to help communicate to the members of the LDS church that the church exists wherever its members exist, “where two or more of you are gathered in my name…” Which aligns with the concept “Lift where you stand.”

    This concept of a church as super-organism that becomes more than the sum of its parts with sufficient participation and perhaps at a certain scale maybe becomes the metaphorical “bride” just needing the “bridegroom” to appear.

    So the millennium is just as much (or more) about humans reshaping ourselves individually then socially then regionally then nationally then internationally according to the teachings of Jesus the Christ, as the Messiah coming to earth in Constantinian fashion in armor with a sword to conquer the earth.

    Maybe I’m just spitballing here…

  6. Clark Goble
    May 9, 2018 at 1:13 pm

    What’s so interesting considering the influence of Jonathan’s scholarship is to compare his model (a dualism of cosmic priesthood vs. a more traditional ecclesiastical conception of priesthood) with what was the view in the 90’s in influential papers like Andy Ehat’s thesis or others. Likewise his work on how this relates to women is significantly different from say what one found in Women and Authority from the same era. The strength of Jonathan’s argument has really left most of the 90’s models in the dust. While I think it safe to say not everyone will agree with everything Jonathan writes here, his influence on Mormon history and theology has been huge.

    All that said, I think it’s interesting to look at the places where Jonathan’s model hasn’t been as widely accepted – although since the book just came out that will likely take a few years to discern. I’m also curious as to what, if any, influence it has on the formal Church pedagogy on priesthood. Clearly this has been an issue of interest and concern for Pres. Nelson and Elder Oaks – the later of whom has given several talks on issues touching some of the issues. (The thorny issue of how priesthood and women are related – particularly given the temple) It’ll be interesting looking back in a decade to see what influence, if any, this book has had on the broader church as opposed to those among us interested in history and theology.

  7. Crystal
    May 10, 2018 at 12:28 am

    Because you have closed your comments for your “This Way Up” temple/priesthood prep outline, I hope you don’t mind me posting here instead.

    I am a counsellor in our ward primary here in New Zealand and was assigned to plan our temple/priesthood prep night. I had no idea what to do, but then found your outline and it was such a godsend. Thank you for the detailed comments about the various stations. I was able to use them to give assignments out to the participants from the YW & YM presidencies and the Bishopric and they provided plenty of direction for them. We had our meeting last night and it was a great night. One of the kids even said that they are not so afraid to go to the temple now because now they know what to expect.

    The use of a carabiner to teach the concept of linking up to anchors like the temple and the priesthood to help us make it back to our Heavenly Father went over really well.

    Thank you so much for sharing your talents.

  8. June 3, 2018 at 7:31 pm

    Your review sounded like one of the summaries of N.T. Wright’s new book, which argues that Christ created heaven on earth, rather than in a millenarian future.

  9. Clark Goble
    June 4, 2018 at 5:51 pm

    I’m not sure it’s either/or. To me the interesting thing about Mormonism is that we are supposed to build Zion here and now (heaven on earth) but also look forward to a millennial future. So you see both emphasized in Joseph’s writings. (Haven’t read Wright’s new book so can’t comment on that)

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