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.

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