In March 2018, I had the privilege to interview Jonathan Stapley.
Stapley is the author of “The Power of Godliness: Mormon Liturgy and Cosmology” (Oxford University Press).
Kurt Manwaring: Your bio often states you are an award-winning historian and scientist. What is your background in history and science?
Jonathan Stapley: I did my graduate research looking at interactions between sugars and electricity to develop new methods for renewable chemistries.
After I finished my dissertation, my university patented this research and I started a business to industrialize several aspects of it.
I have been deeply involved in the research of this business, but after leaving university life, I found myself drawn to the research done by scholars of religion, and of Mormonism specifically. At that time academic archives with large Mormon-related collections were just beginning to digitize their materials, allowing for remote research. At the same time on-line communities that supported the scholarly approaches to Mormonism were active and encouraging new comers to the field.
Early on I met Kristine Wright, a brilliant scholar of religion, and we collaborated on several articles culminating in a study of female ritual healing in Mormonism.
Since this time I have been active in the study of Mormon History, with specific interest in liturgy, ritual, and authority.
Kurt Manwaring: What is an independent historian? To what extent was the historical community accepting of you when you first started out?
Jonathan Stapley: An historian who is not formally affiliated with an academic institution is technically “independent.”
There are variations in this status based on academic training.
The field of Mormon Studies is far more rich than one might suspect due to the interest and funding of committed Latter-day Saints. For example, The Papers of Joseph Smith are frequently purchased and read by non-academics, something that one rarely finds in similar non-Mormon publishing projects.
Consequently, along with scholars with PhDs in History and Religious Studies, you find Mormon history contributions from all sorts of individuals, some even with degrees in chemistry. This makes for a tremendously rewarding, and sometimes complicated relationship between various audiences.
There is some training that is simply impossible to replicate outside of formal academy. However scholars of Mormonism are tremendously gracious, and with groups such as the Mormon History Association, the dedicated amateur can find the tools to at least become conversant in the major trends of interest.
Kurt Manwaring: Writers often experience writer’s block. Did you every encounter a kind of “research block” in which everything you read seemed impossible to internalize for a time? If so, how did you handle those times?
Jonathan Stapley: Absolutely. This book, The Power of Godliness, represents a decade of trying to figure things out.
When I first started researching and writing on Mormonism, there were plenty of things that I didn’t understand — things that didn’t fit with my lived experience as a Latter-day Saint.
For example, up through the early twentieth century, Mormon women regularly anointed and blessed other church members for health or comfort. And despite it being a ubiquitous phenomenon, I had no idea how that fit into Mormonsim.
My dissertation in chemistry was the result of finding something that didn’t fit expectations.
Scientists are trained to see such data as an opportunity.
For example, if a physicist were to find evidence that gravity behaved differently than currently understood, she would not conclude that physics was a lie. She would likely recognize that she had a chance at a Nobel prize.
I think I generally react analogously to the data of Mormon history. It was and still is thrilling to find information that expands my understanding.
Kurt Manwaring: What role did the Joseph Smith Papers Project play in your research?
Jonathan Stapley: First, the Joseph Smith Papers Project (JSPP) is the gold-standard for textual criticism in Mormon History. Their spectacularly detailed investigation into texts and their context has opened up important windows into the immediate experiences of early Mormons.
Moreover the techniques and approaches of the JSPP are exemplary for every student of Mormonism. I think I’ve read every volume produced, and regularly used them in my work.
Mormons are notoriously focused on “historicity” of the Book of Mormon and other works of scripture, but have tended to be fairly lazy when approaching their own history.
The JSPP and the tools they employ give Mormons the ability to take their own history seriously.
Kurt Manwaring: In what sense might your book be considered controversial? Could you expound on a statement in your book in which you write, “This book is not concerned with what Mormons should believe or teach. It is concerned with what Mormons have believed and taught as they have ordered their universe”?
Jonathan Stapley: What topics are controversial is entirely a function of audience.
I also analyze how women have variously been included and excluded from these concepts, especially in relation to the liturgy of the church.
For example, in Nauvoo, men and women who participated in the Temple liturgy while Joseph Smith was alive, referred to themselves as “the priesthood.” Both believers and scholars have struggled to understand what that meant. Moreover many have used historical practice or theology to make arguments about the current ecclesiastical or liturgical structures of the church.
My volume is an academic history of Mormonism, and as such it’s intent is simply to understand and analyze the past and contextualize and historicize the present.
Kurt Manwaring: Mormons today are familiar with terms such as “priesthood,” “Aaronic priesthood,” and “Melchizedek priesthood.” What is the “cosmological priesthood”?
Jonathan Stapley: A fundamental argument of my book relates to Joseph Smith’s Nauvoo era revelations.
In Nauvoo concepts of adoption, priesthood, salvation, and government all swirled together in the liturgy of the Temple.
Before JS died, he initiated many men and women into the temple liturgy, a key aspect of which was the sealing of individuals together in ways that could not be broken. This was the construction of heaven.
Priesthood language saturated the ways in which men and women talked and wrote about their experiences with the temple, and even referred to themselves as “the priesthood.”
I use the term “cosmological priesthood” as a sort of short-hand to refer to this expanded notion, where kinship, priesthood, and salvation collapsed into a material heaven on earth.
I recognize that it is rather idiosyncratic, but I think readers of my book will find it an extremely useful concept to understand a lot of the most difficult-to-process aspects of church history.
Kurt Manwaring: Mormonism does not have a formal system of theology, and yet its liturgies have evolved with time. What opportunities and challenges are associated with having liturgy informed by both revelation and research?
Jonathan Stapley: One of Mormonism’s greatest strengths is its commitment to history. Mormons generally feel a deep and abiding connection to the past—to their ancestors, but also to the founding miracles of our Church, and of Christianity.
This commitment to the past can also be challenging as well, as the Church, like all living things, changes. Between every passing generation a chasm grows, and it takes real work to understand and empathize across time.
As I have been able to better understand the actions and activities of my biological and spiritual progenitors, my personal experiences are enriched. This has particularly been the case as I have reflected on their experiences with the structures and liturgies of the church.
Kurt Manwaring: What is the relationship between faith and history? Should religious believers be afraid of history if it occasionally reveals truths that deviate from long-held beliefs? Has your faith ever been tried by your historical research?
Jonathan Stapley: I am an historian and a believer, but the trials of my faith generally haven’t been related to history. They are mostly related to my own present. And I do generally believe that history can inform and enrich faith, but it shouldn’t ever be prescriptive for faith.
The short answer is that no one should necessarily be afraid of the past.
However, people that are interested in the past should be prepared to do the hard work to contextualize and understand it. It takes time and work. It also takes some humility to confess that one doesn’t necessarily know everything about a given topic, despite what good people have told us.
And sometimes learning historical (or scientific, or other) information can lead us to evaluate our beliefs and sometimes result in shifting patterns. I view this as only positive. However, we also, and this one is difficult for me, need to have empathy for folks who do find challenges their world views painful rather than exhilarating.
I find it a lot easier to empathize with a historical figure who has made a difficult or agonizing sacrifice, than someone struggling with the past in the present.
I’d like to do better there.
Kurt Manwaring: How does the way you viewed Joseph Smith 25 years ago compare to the way you perceive him today? How do you think your thoughts may continue to evolve over the next 25 years?
Jonathan Stapley: To be honest, I’m much more comfortable thinking about History and Religious Studies than Biography (not that they can’t overlap).
The idea of knowing someone so well that I could write a biography seems completely out of reach for me.
Now, to be honest, I don’t think I had any real view of Joseph Smith 25 years ago. I was a teenager and didn’t know much about him other than that he had a vision, translated the plates into the Book of Mormon, and had some revelations.
I currently feel like I have a good handle on the work he was doing when he was alive, even though I don’t feel like I know him very well as a person. And every day it seems that there is more to learn about the context and content of early Mormonism.
I certainly believe that we will find it easier to relate to this past with the more work that is done in the area.
Kurt Manwaring: If you could go back in time, what unanswered question in Mormon history would you most want to investigate — and answer?
Jonathan Stapley: I’d love to have better documentation of the work of women in the Church, especially before the Utah era. There is just so much that went unrecorded and we are the poorer for it.
Also, Joseph Smith’s sermon records are generally pretty spotty, and especially late in his life, are the source of so much of his revelation.
There are some exceptions — the “King Follett Sermon” is pretty well documented — but generally we have poor sources to work with.
By the Utah era we had regular short hand transcription (though even that has its own problems). Reliable audits of JS’s sermons would be a gold mine.