Tabernacles of Clay offers a comprehensive look at sexuality and gender during the period of post-World War II “Modern Mormonism” and amidst a “religious revival” (Petrey 6). While I was surprised, maybe even initially disappointed that “plural marriage” syntax from the 19th century was not included, it is not needed. More than enough sexual, gender, and racial baggage developed within this post-war era, rendering this book one of the most fascinating works of academia I have ever read.
Beginning with the analysis of the priesthood/eugenics rhetoric that exists in the church still today, Petrey weaves the social-sexual history of the Church into a text that I found hard to put down. While learning about the origins and influence of the cultural indoctrination regarding sex and gender, I felt I was reading my personal history as a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
The second chapter progresses to the Church’s history of teachings on homosexuality and sexual identity, examining policies meant to explain psychologically, and possibly biologically (e.g. “accidents of nature” (99)), explain, prosecute, and “cure” “sexual deviants” (56). Deconstructing Church policy, it details doctrine in reflection of beliefs typical within conservative American society. Following, the third chapter focuses on anti-feminist and anti-homosexual teachings which surfaced in the 1970’s and early 1980’s, and manifested in specific gender roles. It introduces the concept of equality between men and women as preferable to the kind of equality emphasised in the ERA movement, while noting the Church as a political force in that period (112-114).
The fourth chapter comprises “The Family: A Proclamation to the World.” This document has been a source of comfort and conflict since presented, making it nearly as controversial a topic in Church history as polygamy. Petrey examines the political move from a strictly patriarchal Church structure to a heteronormative governance—at least within the ideal Mormon family (e.g. still only men hold a “priesthood umbrella”), and how that allowed for a tiny degree of sexual freedom within heterosexual marriage. The final chapter explores the fluidity of Church teachings from moral-political absolutes to a belief that allowed the Church and its leaders to develop new ideologies, including the admission that the Church does not have all the answers yet.
Meticulously researched and well-balanced in structure and argument, Petrey’s book provides new insights into the church’s relationship with gender and sexuality policies. With church rhetoric in regard to men and women being equal through gendered roles, it becomes easy to dismiss with , “Well, it’s the Lord’s plan, so, it’s okay if we can’t comprehend it in this life.” Instead, not only does this book allow for modern doctrinal explanation (if not comprehension), it explores the basis of this dichotomy.
Additionally, though I am normally disappointed in books on Mormonism that focus only on America and Americana, this book is different. Tabernacles of Clay opens academic floodgates regarding research on gender within the international church and is a necessary text for those who want to learn about and study “Modern Mormonism.” Accessible and addictive in content, this book comes highly recommended by me.