Book Review: Tabernacles of Clay: Sexuality and Gender in Modern Mormonism by Taylor G. Petrey. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2020.

Taylor Petrey’s Tabernacles of Clay makes the argument that “in modern Mormonism, gender is a fluid concept that must be secured and produced” and that the concepts of sexual fluidity and malleability “are best expressed by queer theorists” (15). This book is Petrey’s attempt to put queer theory in conversation with the theology of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Unfortunately, he fails at the second task, and the first assertion is not entirely correct, either.

If it was believed that “one’s gender and sexuality [can] be manipulated and reformed” (54), that nature “[can] be corrupted and contravened” and “[is] highly vulnerable to change” (71), then that would shape how one acted in religious, educational, and political spheres, particularly if one felt there were a “correct” view of gender and sexuality. It would presumably lead one to attempt to shore up that correct view, whatever it was. Petrey argues that leaders of the Church held such positions through portions of the 20th century up to the present.

To make his argument, Petrey gives a thorough review of Latter-day Saint thought on gender and sexuality in the post-World War II era. There are some passing references to Latter-day Saint thought and history prior to WWII, but the vast bulk of his book deals with statements, both official and unofficial, by leaders of the Church since WWII. This narrower focus is one of the book’s strengths, because Petrey is better able to show how Church leaders were interacting with broader trends in American culture.

The organization of the book is topical, but the choice of topics also lends itself to a mostly chronological framework. Petrey begins with a discussion of race and gender, moves to a conversation around the psychology of gender and treatments surrounding gender issues, then discusses the political dimensions of Latter-day Saint attempts to encode their views of “proper” gender roles in legal arenas before concluding with a discussion of official views of the Church concerning gender and sexuality in the past few decades, most notably the impetus for and uses of “The Family: A Proclamation to the World.” While the individual chapters overlap chronologically, there is a general trend from the years post-WWII up to the present, and this allows Petrey to show the slow evolution of Latter-day Saint teachings in conversation with broader American (and mostly conservative) culture.

Petrey makes his argument that the vast majority of the Church of Jesus Christ’s teachings, the Church’s condoning of psychological treatments for what was seen as sexual deviance, and the Church’s political involvement on these issues all stem from the belief that gender and sexuality are mutable and therefore forces must be marshalled to preserve “correct” gender roles. If gender and sexuality are mutable, then Church leaders wished to make sure “proper” gender roles were being taught in Latter-day Saint homes through the Family Home Evening program, (38-9), one of many church programs used to teach such roles. If gender and sexuality are mutable, failure to follow proper gender roles would lead to an increase in homosexuality (83), which itself was a “particularly insidious form of gender failure” (63). If gender and sexuality are mutable, one could choose to become, or be environmentally influenced to become, a homosexual (and there has been little concession among the Church’s leadership until recent decades that there was anything “in-born” about homosexuality). If gender and sexuality are mutable then, conversely, one could choose to become heterosexual (69-72), and religious interventions (79) and psychological therapies (84) should be utilized to this end. If gender and sexuality are mutable, proper gender roles needed to be protected politically, by opposition to the ERA (104) and to same-sex marriages (147, 161-68), both of which would lead to ensconcing views of gender in the law that would go against the Church’s teachings and proper gender roles. If gender and sexuality are mutable, then even the labels we use to describe people should be monitored, since using a label that indicates permanence would hinder someone choosing or performing their proper gender roles—hence the ongoing vocabulary choice to speak of “experiencing same-gender attraction” instead of “being homosexual” and to use such terms as adjectives, rather than as nouns (89, 177, 191). If gender and sexuality are mutable, in short, many of the choices, teachings, recommended therapies, political actions, and emphases from leaders of the Church of Jesus Christ on these issues, according to Petrey, derive from that belief.

But Petrey also shows how this dogged focus on policing proper gender roles has led to interactions that also went the other way, creating space for the Church to refine its teachings because of these ongoing discussions. The focus on heterosexual marriage, for example, gave space for a conversation about what kinds of heterosexual marriages were proper, or perhaps what constitutes a proper heterosexual marriage. Patriarchal marriage is, after all, heterosexual. But complementary marriage is also heterosexual. And companionate and egalitarian marriages can be. Within the discussion of heterosexual marriages there was movement from a hierarchal view of the man “presiding” over the wife and children (35) to a more egalitarian view, though vestiges of the hierarchical view remain (142). Church views on subjects such as birth control and women working outside the home were also part of the ongoing discussion, slowly changing over time. As an example of a deep historical dive on a single denomination on a single issue, this book is a good one.

Though this book has its strengths, it is not without some major weaknesses. There are three I wish to address. The first is that, while Petrey states that queer theorists are best positioned to articulate the ideas around gender fluidity, he rarely relies on them to do so. There are a few pages towards the beginning (10-15) that detail the very broad strokes of gender fluidity according to queer theorists Gerber, Butler, Erzen, Foucault, Laquer, Sedgwick, and Summerville, but after those pages, these figures only show up in a handful of references. The vast majority of the book is simply a history of modern Latter-day Saint views on gender, and if one is looking for a more robust dialogue between queer theorists on gender fluidity and Latter-day Saint teachings on gender fluidity, one will be disappointed. If he hopes his book “might contribute to a fuller history of sexual difference and history of sexuality” (222) it would have been well-served to include more interaction with queer theory. The book fails, in this way, to live up to its own stated objectives. As a conversation between the Church’s historical teachings and queer theory, it is lacking—but there may be good reason Petrey is unable to build a bridge, as we shall see in a moment.

The second weakness stems from Petrey’s myopic focus on the historical views that gender and sexuality are mutable to the exclusion of the Church’s consistent teachings on the immutability of sex [1] and especially the more recent acknowledgement by church leaders that there are many of our LGBTQ+ brothers and sisters for whom sexuality appears to not be mutable (at least in mortality, as I understand their teaching). [2] To be fair, the latter is a more recent development and its implications for the Church are still being worked out. It does seem to me that those implications would not be kind to Petrey’s thesis moving forward.

Another recent development that Petrey seems not to have been able to address is the recent clarification by the Church that “gender” in the Family Proclamation means “biological sex at birth,” which is not mentioned in the book. (The clarification was made in late 2019, and the book released in early 2020.) Nonetheless, this clarification should not have surprised anyone given the Church’s consistent teaching that sex is immutable eternally, while gender is not, and the more recent acknowledgement that sexuality can be immutable in this life. The church has always allowed a wide variety of gender expressions but does not condone actually presenting as a different sex. The space for variability in gender expression is quite robust. In Tonga, men wear what might be considered skirts in the West. That doesn’t make them any less male, and it does not prohibit them from holding the priesthood. As an example of this failure to not address sex and gender together in Church settings and teachings, Petrey misdiagnoses Laurie Lee Hall’s excommunication (199-200) by failing to understand the idea that some gender expressions run completely counter to biological sex. Wearing Tongan skirts is acceptable for a biological male in the Church. Saying “I am a woman” is not. So when Petrey says “some church meetings and rituals and priesthood ordination are strictly separated along gender lines” (199; emphasis mine) this is simply incorrect. The Church has, since its inception, divided these aspects of Church life along divisions of sex. Elsewhere, when he says “the analysis in this chapter proceeds from the idea that both race and gender/sexuality are contingent and culturally produced categories, not naturally givens” (20), Petrey doesn’t allow for conversation between those that might think that sex is more immutable than gender and sexuality. Since this is a relatively consistent through-line in Church teaching, his discussion on this topic is hampered by his openly stated assumptions. Though it appears he did not have time to address the 2019 clarification before his book went to press, much of Petrey’s discussion ignores the distinctions in Church teachings between sex, gender, and sexuality, focusing almost exclusively on the latter two, and assuming that everybody agrees with his definitions.

A related criticism to this point—that Petrey ignores major recent trends in the Church—would be to wonder what will happen as the Church continues to become more international. Will American-centric or American-culturally-based questions on sex, gender, and sexuality be as dominant moving forward? Likely not. However, we can forgive him for not covering events that have not yet occurred (or occurred after the book went to press), even if a few comments from him on these more recent trends would have been welcome.

The third major concern I have with the book is its general failure to take the uniqueness of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints into account. Petrey seems to assume that his audience is familiar with the basics of the Church’s teachings, because he almost never explains differences between Latter-day Saint and general Christian thought. As a quick example, the title of Chapter 2, “Sodom and Cumorah,” is never explained. If a reader is unfamiliar with the Book of Mormon narrative and the hill in upstate New York, this pun is completely obtuse.

If one is unfamiliar with the uniqueness of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, then the impression one takes away from this book is that its leaders are garden-variety conservative American Protestants easily blown about by every wind of culture. While Petrey acknowledges that the Church is unique in many ways, Petrey explicitly does so only in the introduction (2) and in the conclusion (218). Most of the rest of the book does not mention particular Latter-day Saint variables that would, of course, shape the views of Church leaders. In one example, he accuses Church leaders of being more concerned with heterosexual violations of church standards than homosexual ones, juxtaposing the excommunication of apostle Richard Lyman for a heterosexual affair with the milder exile of patriarch Joseph F. Smith for a homosexual one (62-3). What Petrey simply does not discuss is that Lyman’s offense was not merely a heterosexual affair, but that Lyman and his partner, Anna Jacobsen Hegsted, perceived their relationship as a valid polygamous marriage. This is not a minor detail, given the Latter-day Saint history of polygamy and its excision from the Church after the 1890 and 1904 manifestos, but Petrey utterly fails to discuss that dimension of the situation at all.

While he does spend a fair amount of time on a few uniquely LDS themes, such as the doctrine of the pre-mortal existence and the priesthood ban, there is much that is absent from Petrey’s discussion. Doctrines such as Mother in Heaven, pre-lapsarian (i.e., pre-Fall) infertility, and eternal marriage as an exalting ordinance are only mentioned in blink-and-you’ll-miss-them sentences (and he finally ties together eternal heterosexual marriage modeled on our Heavenly Parents as a requirement to get into the highest degree of heaven only five pages from the end of the book). The doctrine of God as an embodied male who is literally our Heavenly Father is not mentioned at all. Without the greater context of the Latter-day Saint view of embodiment, resurrection, eternal marriage and families, pre- and post-lapsarian mortal conditions, the purpose of life, and Heavenly Parents, the discussion felt very incomplete to me. (Not to mention there should at least be a primer on what constitutes “doctrine” for the Church, a can of worms that we need not dive into for the purposes of this review, but that should be at least mentioned briefly in a book that assumes so much about its audience’s understanding of the Church of Jesus Christ.)

The best of Latter-day Saint history demonstrates the back and forth between the Church and the surrounding culture, perhaps best articulated by Terryl Givens’ term “dialogic revelation.” [3] Petrey acknowledges that the Church’s views on gender and sexuality are derived “in part from its own tradition and in part from its cultural context” (17). The former shows up much less often than I would have hoped in this book, to its detriment.

Petrey’s emphasis on what has changed has in some ways blinded him to what has remained the same. He acknowledges that some Latter-day Saint scholars view gender essentialism as a genuine through-line in Latter-day Saint theology (7-8), but then immediately dismisses that view without giving any reasons for doing so or substantively engaging in any dialogue with those scholars. While he acknowledges that Latter-day Saint theology can change with continuing revelation, he is also cognizant that, at least according to Matthew Holland, changes that run counter to all previous teachings would be resisted (213). That polygamy, patriarchal marriage, complementarian marriage, and egalitarian marriage were all articulated by Church leaders as variations of heterosexual marriage seems lost on Petrey. And while the Church is currently agnostic as to whether one can be born with certain sexualities, and though there has been some motion on this issue in recent decades as we have discussed, the topic is moot because there is only one lawful form of sexual relations—between a husband and wife within the bonds of marriage. On that point, there has never been any motion whatsoever. Petrey has focused on what has changed or been clarified to the exclusion of what has remained durably consistent. And since he does not robustly discuss the unique and stable doctrines of the Church that would inform a theology of sex, gender, and sexuality, he makes it appear that central teachings of the Church have radically changed, and thus he subtly postulates that central teachings may radically change in the future.

I suspect that there are three reasons for Petrey’s choices. The first is that one cannot cover everything in a book, of course, and he should not be faulted for not following every tributary of Latter-day Saint thought on gender and sexuality all the way through. If Petrey wishes to focus on what The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has in common with the Religious Right, that is his prerogative, though I strongly feel the book’s quality is diminished for not having a more robust discussion of the unique doctrines in Latter-day Saint theology that inform views of sex, gender, and sexuality.

The second reason is that Petrey has a long-standing agenda to “help” the church move beyond its heteronormative theology. Though he has made his overall project more explicit elsewhere, [4] this book should be read in light of his other work, and moves towards a non-heteronormative theology are what he here subtly postulates might come in the future.

However, the final reason Petrey can find wiggle room for his doctrinal wedge is that we have, as a faith community, handed it to him on a silver platter. Perhaps it is the case that we Latter-day Saints have simply not been as proactive in using our own unique theological resources to articulate our views of sex, gender, and sexuality. It will be instructive to quote him at length here. He notes:

Mormon opposition to same-sex marriage has often been framed as motivated by a theology that places mixed-sex marriage at the center of salvation. [5] This may be true, but it overlooks the stated reasons that Mormons have offered for their political motivations and the psycho-developmental theories that underpinned these teachings. These reasons have been less about providing saving rites to opposite-sex couples and more about preserving a fragile psychological and social boundary between male and female—creating an “optimal environment” in society for Latter-day Saint belief. (173-4)

Petrey’s observation is worth discussing in the context of the past, but he fails to realize that he has inadvertently stumbled onto the reason the Church has settled on for teaching the definition of marriage as a heterosexual institution. It is true that Church leaders have, in general, followed the trends of conservative American Protestants on many of the issues he discusses (217-8). As a consequence, perhaps we Latter-day Saints have not been as good about articulating our own uniquely Latter-day Saint reasons for following those trends. While Petrey has omitted much discussion of uniquely Latter-day Saint doctrines that underpin the theories of sex, gender, and sexuality, we would also do well, in the future, to give scholars like him more to work with so that he can more clearly see that his agenda has no future in the Church. The Church sees much more clearly now that its stance is in fact about providing exalting rites to those who keep God’s law of marriage, and this is a consequence of the ongoing cultural dialogue that Petrey has so meticulously detailed. In short, perhaps it is time for Latter-day Saints to be more active in using our own unique theological resources to articulate our views of gender, sexuality, and family. In this sense, then, Petrey’s book can be a call for Latter-day Saints to be more Latter-day Saint, and not therefore as easily mistaken for being merely garden-variety conservative American Protestants easily blown about by every wind of culture.

There are three basic groups to whom this book will be of interest. For historians, the book does yeoman service in compiling in one volume a chronology of statements by Church leaders on these subjects. For those interested in gender studies, they will find those portions short and the discussion lacking. For members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, I cannot recommend the book. Petrey simply ignores too much uniquely Latter-day Saint doctrine, even if such doctrine was historically more backgrounded than it should have been. His work will not be as useful for those who think the Church’s consistent teachings on these issues might be, at most, further refined and clarified, but who would be opposed to the substantial revisions Petrey clearly desires.


[1] Petrey points out the theories of Joseph Fielding Smith that those resurrected to lower kingdoms would be “some other sex, a neuter being that is neither man nor woman” (44), but I am quite comfortable saying that the Church leaders as a whole have not settled on that now nearly-forgotten speculation. [Back to manuscript].

[2] The concept that homosexuality may persist through this life yet not rise in the resurrection is made in, “Interview With Elder Dallin H. Oaks and Elder Lance B. Wickman: ‘Same-Gender Attraction.’” Petrey addresses the interview (185-7), but I find his argument that sexual fluidity in the resurrection is the same as postulating sexual fluidity in mortality disingenuous. [Back to manuscript].

[3] Terryl L. Givens, “The Book of Mormon and Dialogic Revelation,” Journal of Book of Mormon Studies 10, no. 2, (2001), 16-27, 69-70. In more academic circles the term would properly be “historical theology.” [Back to manuscript].

[4] See, in particular, his article “Towards a Post-Heterosexual Mormon Theology,” Dialogue 44, no. 4 (2011), 106-141. [Back to manuscript].

[5] This is also not quite correct. Marriage sealing is an ordinance of exaltation, which is different than salvation in the Latter-Day Saint cosmology, even acknowledging that “salvation” is difficult to define in a multi-tiered afterlife. [Back to manuscript].

Full Citation for this Article: Cranney, Carl J. (2021) "Book Review: Tabernacles of Clay: Sexuality and Gender in Modern Mormonism by Taylor G. Petrey," SquareTwo, Vol. 14 No. 3 (Fall 2021),, accessed <give access date>.

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