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Annual Meeting: Mormon History Association 2014

June 6, 2014 - San Antonio TX

Annual Meeting: Mormon History Association 2014

June 6, 2014 – San Antonio TX

Prof. Flake will serve as Chair and Respondent for the session “The Forms and the Power: Exploring Mormon Ritual.” Three papers will be presented: Ryan G. Tobler’s “The Only Way to Be Saved: Early Mormonism and the Sacrament of Baptism,” Jonathan A. Stapley’s “Early Baby Blessings in Mormon Liturgy, Belief and Cosmology,” and Justin Bray’s “Mormon Women, Bread and Wine, and the Politics of Food.”

6/6/14 MHA Panel: “The Forms and the Power: Exploring Mormon Ritual.”

Paper Comments
Kathleen Flake

Thanks to these presenters for taking up their several subjects . . . .

Each of these papers invite us to think about how people create religious meaning and the variety of, as well as the evolution of, the meanings of those activities as they are repeatedly performed over time and in changing contexts. Two approaches are taken in these three papers:

  • One seeks to understand religion or religious experience through an analysis of human interaction with objects.
  • The other seeks to understand the embodiment of meaning through a set of human actions ritual.

I will share a few thoughts I had while reading these papers and hope that doing so gives you a few minutes to collect your thoughts about them.  We will have _____ minutes for a conversation.

Justin Bray does a service by reminding us of the role women played in preparing the elements and instruments of the Lord’s supper until the mid-twentieth century.  Baking bread, washing the shared cup, setting the sacrament table – He says “served as a meaningful dimension in the devotional lives of Latter-day Saint sisters and strengthened their ties to the divine and to their religious communities.”  He explicitly limits his analysis to discovering in “These unremarkable, sometimes-mundane duties of the home, in the context of the Lord’s Supper” that he wishes to discover.

Of course, as he admits, their impulses were not pure. For example, the performative pressure implicit in putting one’s baking before other bakers and under such formal circumstances.  Intentions are notoriously hard to distinguish and Justin is wise to note such.  And the paper would benefit from a little more attention to this problem.  The women are portrayed as relatively uncomplicated characters here: selflessly baking multiple loaves on fast day;  perfectionistic in baking the bread “just right” and piously praying it would be so; hand drying the sacrament cups to ensure they had no water spots; in their obituaries no less, lauded for never being known to complain or feel such additional baking and (washing and laundering) demands to be a burden.  Finally, all its religious significance to them, they welcome the loss of it as professional bakers and young men took over these tasks.

The paper hints that “all was not well” or could be well in this female Zion.  Disposable cups meant “the chance to inscribe a spiritual message onto the dishes as a community mantra vanished.”  Political significance, too, is hinted at: “There is no evidence to suggest church leaders in Salt Lake City consciously implemented these new sacrament sets to reduce the role of Mormon women in sacrament services; it seemed to be more about lifting the financial burden on the local congregations, ensuring the use of sanitary sacramental cups, as well as a part of the larger “correlation” effort to standardize and regulate the faith’s policies and practices.”

These hints and denials beg for development in the paper to give it balance and to illuminate the significance of this women’s work.   Finally, Women’s History always invites us to be vigilant about the question of analytic, as opposed to descriptive significance.  This issue arises in Justin’s paper.  Extension to gender studies would provide an opportunity to consider questions that naturally arise in this paper.  I’m sure these questions crossed X’s mind too and I invite him to pursue them.

Jonathan Stapley has given us what we have come to expect of him: big ideas based in careful archival research.  This paper provides the promise of some very important work to come.  It is with that conviction that I raise two issues, the consideration of which will, I hope, be useful.  One relates to the function of these child-related rituals and the second has to the do with the set point for beginning to analyze them.  I choose that awkwardly neutral phrase – child-related rituals – because to call them “blessings” is to already define them in a project that wishes to problematize that very definition. As Jonathan shows here these rituals do a number of things as they evolve: such as blessing, naming and confirming the sealing of the child.

Indeed, my first comment may only be a matter of suggesting that this paper be organized more neutrally in terms of ritual function, rather than specific denominational types.  For example, I stumbled over the generalization that “The blessing of children . . . with the exception of the Separate Baptists, [was] fairly unique on the landscape of Antebellum American religious practice.”  I can only think this is true under the most narrow definition of what it is “to bless.”  As referenced in the paper itself with respect to Jews, some ritual action with respect to children is common in biblical traditions, if only because of the biblical models for such.  “Christening,” for example, is treated here as a theological category equivalent to baptism.  There are, however, several functional dimensions to christening.  Of course, its salvific dimension relates nicely to where this essay eventually goes and for that alone it would be useful to include a ritual analysis of it here.  In sum, the purposes of child-related rituals were various and variously denominated.  To type them too quickly in the paper makes it difficult to understand the larger ritual context in which Mormonism was developing and ultimately the Mormon rituals themselves.

In addition, I recommend that further clarity would be obtained by considering the distinction between Catholicism and Protestant Reform that produced the concept of “ordinances.” I emphasize this because the paper begins with the stated intention of showing the communal significance, but ends having shown the sacramental significance– or as Jonathan properly puts it here: their salvific significance – of the LDS blessing rite.  Regardless of the worth of this recommendation, making it allows me to conclude with one of the reasons I really like this project .  Jonathan  quotes for WW’s 1845 blessing of his first child “born under the covenant.”  This gem, a Jonathan knows, shows the extent to which the blessings of patriarchal priesthood formed the core the rite.  And, no less, the actions of ritual actions reflected significance of patriarchal priesthood as a domestic, not chapel priesthood fully informed by temple ordinance: held by the mother, anointed by the father and pronounced their heir in the right to access the powers of heaven.  Thanks to  Jonathan showing us that temple rite was not always so closely isolated with the walls of the temple.

Ryan Tobler’s paper shows a very laudable and careful attention to categories and definitions that permit engagement of the broader themes of American religious history. As a consequence, it reveals something very essential to Mormonism.  In other words, Ryan re-presents to us a subject often underestimated and in a manner that enables us to better understand it and its significance to the larger Mormon religious system.  He tells us and then proceeds to show convincingly that baptism served “as a liturgical anchor at a time when many new doctrines and rituals were being revealed and unfolded, and conventional ones revised and reconfigured.” Moreover, he argues, — successfully, I believe – that baptism not only anchored doctrinal development; it also “established the quality, the essential character, of Mormon rituals in general.”

Mormon historians have, for some time, recognized that the First Vision was a latecomer to the Mormon message. One of Ryan’s contributions is to tell us what served in its place. Through fine source work he evidences that “More than Joseph Smith, or the Book of Mormon, the “first principles,” particularly the need for authorized baptism was the preeminent missionary message that early Mormon elders took to the world.”  This is a big claim, but through excellent argument and source-work, he convincingly proves that by “Bucking a centuries-long trend against sacramentalism” Mormonism assumed “a relatively unusual and highly provocative position .“

Speaking of “sacramentalism,” another contribution of this paper is to show the analytic virtues of grounding of Mormon ideology and practice in its religious environment.  By his sophisticated distinctions between sacrament and ordinance he is able to demonstrate not only the distinctive theological content of Mormon baptism, but also its larger significance to Mormonism

In ways that went well beyond Protestantism, baptism became inextricably connected with questions of salvation, and with the authenticating power of priesthood authority. Technically speaking, the doctrine of baptism that Latter-day Saints came to embrace was actually not an “ordinance,” at least not in the way that Protestants use that term

Here too we see excellent source work and fine analysis.  In that regard, let me conclude by noting, while we all wish for a more civil discourse, one can’t help but enjoy Lorenzo Snow’s characterization of revivalism’s conversion methods as “getting them round a bench and bawling over them.”

I thank all three of scholars for the pleasure of engaging their thoughts and now invite you to do the same