reviews – Power from on High

Power from on HighOgden Standard-Examiner, Becky Oleson
It was 1977 when Gregory Prince decided he wanted to learn more about early Mormon priesthood development. Eighteen years and 10,000 pages of research later, he thinks he may have a better handle on it.

Back then, as his ward’s newly appointed Elders’ Quorum president, Prince said he gradually realized he didn’t know as much as he’d like to about the origins of the office he held.

The LDS author said his first book, Power From On High: The Development of Early Priesthood, helped him chronologically organize early developments as they were written, not as they reportedly occurred.

It was no easy task.

Prince said he scanned more than a half million pages of research over the course of about eight years, adding all relevant information to his personal library and computer. “Writing it was the easy part,” the Maryland-based author said in a phone interview.

The 231-page book, published by Signature Books, addresses how church founder Joseph Smith received the priesthood.

Other issues discussed in the book that could be considered controversial by some members include sections on the relationship between women and the priesthood.

While he is aware several former LDS authors have been excommunicated for their writings on such sensitive issues, Prince said he has not received a response from church leaders over his book.

But Prince, whose background is in medicine an pathology, said he didn’t seek a response, either.

“I made sure the local leaders were brought along in a timely fashion on what I was doing,” he said. “I never felt like I wanted to put the church in a position of judging my book. I feel the book should either stand on its own merits or fall, not on the church’s merits.”

The book, which is carried by the LDS Church-owned Deseret Book, has not received an endorsement from the church, church spokesman Don Le Fevre said,

LeFevre said the church doesn’t address individual books or publications.

Prince said chronologically tracing the historical development of priesthood in the LDS Church was a difficult task, not only because of the time it required, but because later terms often were used to describe earlier events.

“The term that wound up causing the most confusion was the Melchizedek Priesthood,” Prince said.

“That’s a term that doesn’t exist within Mormonism until 1835. But in referring to earlier events, people who wrote after 1835 tended to use that term retroactively.”

Prince said issues like that may initially seem nit-picky to readers, “but to address those things, you have to establish when those things happened. Once you get the chronology right, the terminology goes away.”

Prince said although he approached the book as a scientist, his findings only increased his personal belief as to the truthfulness of the church.

“It allows you to see this as an ongoing process that has input from many directions at the same time,” he said.

There isn’t a lot of interpretation by Prince in the book, however.

That was disappointing to Dan Vogel, a free-lance researcher and writer who lives in Columbus, Ohio, and is currently working on a biography of Joseph Smith’s early life.

“Prince does a good job tracing the chronological development of authority and priesthood developments occurring during Joseph Smith’s lifetime,” Vogel said, “but I think his analysis is weak when interpreting his data.”

“He offers the reader no comprehensive theory that would give meaning to the facts he has so carefully gathered.”

But Prince said it was never his intention interpreting his findings or voicing an opinion, adding he preferred to let the facts speak for themselves.

“It think it will be more of a reference book than a light read,” Prince said. “I would have liked to have made the book a little more analytical, but you can’t do the analysis until you have a foundation established.”

Scott Faulring, a researcher with the Foundation for Ancient Research and Mormon Studies, said the sheer volume of sources Prince pulled together for his book is impressive.

“Prince is a person who has mastered his sources,” he said. “he is pretty moderate in his interpretations, and he’s not trying to reinvent history or become a revisionist.”

It’s still too early to tell how well the book, which has been on the shelves for about a month, is selling, said Ron Priddis, Signature Books publicist.

“But there is a lot of anticipation for it, because he has given some presentations leading up to the book at the Mormon History Association and the Sunstone Theological Symposium,” Priddis said. “it’s seen as an important book among historians.”

Journal of American History, Thomas G. Alexander
Members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints believe in continuing revelation, the principle that God can change doctrine and practices through direct communication with prophets. At the same time, most Mormons resist the view that doctrines and practices, once inaugurated, have changed over time. Most prefer to ground their faith on the proposition that once God has revealed a doctrine or practice it has remained generally unchanged.

In large part the difficulty Mormons have in accepting change over time has resulted from the failure to recognize the difference between history and narrative tradition. Indeed, many within the Mormon community equate the questioning of traditional stories with attack on the faith.

In view of the recent controversies over the attempts to write national history standards and the Enola Gay episode, this should not surprise most historians. After all—like most people—most Mormons know little and care less about historical or critical theory. In fact, if most historians understood more about the deep attachment people have to receive stories, they would have less difficulty predicting public responses to revisionism.

Like many religious peoples, Mormons legitimate their past by learning stories that embody the community traditions. A major difference is that, like most events in the American past but unlike events undergirding communities based on oral or mythic traditions, the founding events of Mormonism took place in recent history and are generally quite well documented. Indeed, participants in the events generally wrote down the common stories a few years after they happened. For Mormons this is extremely important since memory—stories understood as history—rather than theology confirms practices and doctrines.

For instance, Mormons talk about the restoration of the priesthood—the authority to act for God on earth. Most members would say that John the Baptist restored the Aaronic or lesser priesthood to Joseph Smith and Oliver Cowdery in an epiphany in May 1829 and that Peter, James and John restored the Melchizedek or higher priesthood a month later.

In this book, Gregory A. Prince has returned to the historical record in an attempt to understand the texts remaining from the founders and to reconstruct the events covered in the popular stories. In many cases he has found that the traditional narrative either glosses over much of the complexity of the historical past or that the events did not take place in the way generally believed. Beginning with a discussion of the restoration of authority, Prince considers the unfolding of other ordinances and practices in Mormonism. In the case of the restoration of the priesthood, for instance, Prince shows that although Smith and Cowdery reported the receipt of the priesthood through revelation, they did not link the events to epiphanies until 1835.

Most refreshingly, readers should not expect to find in Power From On High a book written to debunk or attack Mormonism. Rather, it is written by a believer who understands the Mormon community. Nevertheless, though Prince finds that epiphanies and revelations occurred, he also finds that many of the traditional stories are quite inaccurate.

I recommend Power From On High most emphatically for any reader interested in the history of American religion in general and Mormonism in particular.