Mormons sometimes like to say that they don’t have liturgy or ritual. Not so, counters historian Jonathan Stapley in The Power of Godliness: Mormon Liturgy and Cosmology. Mormon belief and practice are in fact saturated with rituals, and those rituals show us what we value.
I hope you’ll read the whole book, because it’s groundbreaking (a brag moment: I was his editor), but for my interview with Jonathan I wanted to focus on one chapter in particular. I was struck by the way he traces the evolution of the baby blessing, which is one of those rituals that exists as almost a backdrop to Mormon life. It’s so much a part of the scenery that we forget it has an origin story. — JKR
RNS: As early as 1832, Mormons were performing “eighth-day blessings” on the eighth day of a child’s life. Where did that practice come from?
Jonathan Stapley: The eighth day is significant in scripture from the Hebrew traditions of circumcision, and there is in Joseph Smith’s Bible revision manuscript some talk about circumcision as evincing the fact that children are without sin. That they’re not accountable. So there are these early inferences.
But eighth-day blessings were something that people did and no one said exactly why, and in many ways that’s emblematic of all of Mormon liturgy. We have these commands to baptize or administer the Lord’s Supper, for example, but exactly how is left to the individuals who are administering to figure out.
RNS: Why were Mormons even doing baby blessings, since babies were not old enough to be baptized? What does the blessing accomplish?
Stapley: When Joseph Smith revealed the Articles and Covenants [now D&C 20] that included the exhortation to have babies blessed, there weren’t really other Christian churches doing this. Other Christians baptized their children.
So I think there is this natural impulse to bring our children into the communion of the church even before baptism—and have them take the sacrament and be recorded on the rolls of the church. It’s an important demarcation that they are part of the body of Christ.
RNS: One thing that surprised me about early Mormon history is these “mass blessings” of babies and children. Baby blessings are so highly individualized now that it’s hard to imagine babies being blessed as a large group.
Stapley: Mormons today are very used to highly regimented worship schedules, but for early Mormons that wasn’t the case. You don’t see the same amount of scheduling of rituals.
But I will say that you do see something similar today in lived Mormonism. When someone gets baptized today where I live in Seattle, it’s very much a family affair, and it’s often up to the family to decide the service. But if you go to Utah, you’ll often have a ward or stake baptismal service, and there might be dozens of children being baptized.
So you’ll see a little bit of that same impulse with 19th-century baby blessings. At a conference of the church, people who hadn’t had the chance to have their children blessed would all bring them to the conference, and you might have a hundred babies blessed. During the trail west, there wasn’t a lot of time or ability to have regular liturgical practices, so in Utah, especially during the Reformation [1856–57], there was a desire to return to traditional practice, so you have many children being blessed.
RNS: You point out in the chapter that there’s a move over time for this ritual to be performed by fathers rather than bishops or other church leaders. How does this happen, and when?
Stapley: To begin with, church hierarchs like Brigham Young, John Taylor, Wilford Woodruff, and others did often bless their own children and grandchildren. But the majority of Latter-day Saints in the 19th century had their children blessed by their bishops or other church leaders.
After Brigham Young dies, John Taylor [Young’s successor] is a Joseph Smith fundamentalist: he wants to cull Brigham Young’s more extravagant policies and teachings, and focus on the Articles and Covenants. That says to bring the children to the church and have them blessed by the elders. If you also want to bless your baby on the eighth day, that’s fine, but you still have to bring them to church.
So for a while you get this dual blessing, into the 20th century. Some leaders, like Joseph F. Smith [LDS president from 1901–1918], are focusing on a new conception of priesthood for the 20th century that elevates Mormon fatherhood and manhood. He wants the father to do the blessing. And being older, he remembers that the eighth day is traditional. But younger leaders don’t understand that, and they focus on bringing the baby to church. So ultimately the compromise, the resolution, is to bring the baby to church, but to have the father do the blessing.
Then for the rest of the 20th century, you see this huge emphasis on it being a duty of Mormon manhood for fathers to claim their children as their own through this ritual. The baby blessing is so much associated with fatherhood that church leaders begin to allow even non-member fathers or priesthood holders to join in the circle, because it’s such a performative duty of Mormon maleness.
RNS: When did that change? When did they begin preventing men who didn’t hold the priesthood from being in the blessing circle?
Stapley: Not until 1989. It was a slow declension, but it was in 1989 that they formally stopped it.
RNS: Where do women fit in? Is there historical precedent for women to hold their babies during a blessing?
Stapley: Like many aspects of regular worship, we don’t have a tremendous amount of documentation of precise details. It’s rare to find that babies were blessed, let alone how or when or who participated. But we do have examples of women holding their babies, like with Wilford and Phoebe Woodruff during the Nauvoo era, where Phoebe is holding the child and Wilford is doing the blessing. I think it’s safe to assume that it happened, but it was not an exclusive practice. Men would also do blessings without the mothers holding the babies.
Recently, there have been many women who are interested in holding their babies during blessings in our contemporary practice. I highlight several examples of people in the book who went to their bishops and stake presidents for formal permission. In some cases, moms have been allowed to hold their babies, and in other cases they’ve been explicitly denied access to the blessing circle.
RNS: Are there other historical examples of ways that women used to participate in the liturgy but they are excluded from doing so today?
Stapley: Yes, there’s actually a lot. Perhaps the largest area of practice—which is perhaps somewhat foreign to many Mormons today—is female participation in the healing liturgy. Women regularly participated in healing and blessing the sick into the 20th century.
You also see women as witnesses for baptisms and even sealings in the temple. It wasn’t until 1976 that only priesthood officers could be witnesses for baptisms. We don’t have a firm date for when that changed on temple sealings, but it’s recent. In 1959, the First Presidency formally approved women to be witnesses for sealings in the temple. It’s less clear when that stopped after 1959.
RNS: Overall, what would you say have been the biggest changes in baby blessings?
Stapley: Early on you see this focus on the eighth-day blessing, especially during the Zion period of the early 1830s. There’s this impulse to record the blessing in what they called the Book of Remembrance, which was a kind of cosmic record that tracked inheritance in the city of Zion. It’s a durable testament to the child’s belonging in Zion.
After Zion collapses and the focus moves to the temple, you see the focus of baby blessings shift to the promises of the eternal and durable network of relationships through sealings. We have some actual blessing texts that enunciate the child’s position in this sealed network of heaven.
And then in the 20th century, you see this emphasis on what a Mormon man has to do. This is the job of a dad. This is his thing. You see church leaders really focusing on how it’s the dad’s job to bless and ultimately, to baptize, confirm, and give father’s blessings. There’s a whole host of activities that start to center around the priesthood duties of a father.