on July 14, 1999
Shipps book is not so much a history of the Mormon church as a case study for how new religions comes into being. Theoretically, this is an extremely helpful book for anyone attempting to understand the nuts and bolts of how a religion comes to explain itself to both outsiders and its own members. Shipps argues that new religions must be studied from both the inside and outside as the people on either side of the new "truth" have different paradigms and thus diferent realities. New religions are built on "foundational tripods" of a prophet, a new scripture, and a shared history. They have to form a new history to justify and explain their existence and they usually do this through a process of Reiteration, Reinterpretation, Recapitulation, and Ritual Re-Creation of the older tradition they are springing from (Christianity did this as it separated from Judaism just as Mormonism did it as it separated from Protestantism). Shipps shows how a group's history must be guarded and defended for it is what grounds and justifies the group. She concludes by presenting a remarkably clear section on how groups' identities depend on their ability to set themselves apart as special and different from the outside world. When this can't be done corporately (through a widely recognized variance with mainstream society, like polygamy), then it must be done personally (such as through a distinctive diet, dress, or ceremonial tradition). All in all, a thoroughly enjoyable and informative book. A must-read for all students of American religion.
Jan Shipps has been the modern equivalent of Thomas L. Kane, a sympathetic outsider who helps explain Mormonism to the world beyond the borders of Deseret. "Mormonism: The Story of a New Religious Tradition" is her master statement. I read this book when it first came out more than twenty years ago; on rereading it, I recognize even more clearly than previously how it was a benchmark in the historiography of the LDS religion. Shipps's thesis is encapsulated in this book's subtitle, that the Latter-day Saint religion is completely separate from the Protestant tradition that spawned it in the early nineteenth century--perhaps as distinct from it as Christianity is from Judaism. She writes, "Of the cultic movements whose members accepted radically revised or fundamentally altered versions of the faith stories regnant in their cultures, only Christianity and Mormonism are now full-scale religious traditions" (p. 50). It is a powerful thesis, and Shipps argues on behalf of it with eloquence and alacrity. It is also a thesis that is at its base attractive to members of the Latter-day Saint church, since they view themselves as a "peculiar people," and therefore it has been embraced as an explanation for the exceptionalism of the religion.
Using the literature of both cultural anthropology and sociology to buttress her thesis, Shipps makes explicit comparisons between the Mormon/Protestant and the Christian/Jewish traditions. She unabashedly draws parallels and makes insightful comparisons. More to the point, she also questions many of Mormonism's cherished principles about a restoration of ancient Christianity. At the same time, she gives full measure to the religious innovations, such as esoteric temple rituals, plural marriage, and a host of other oddities. I am especially taken with her discussion of the role of historical investigation in her analysis. Shipps believes that the depiction of events in the Mormon past is more significant to the health of the religion than for most other faiths. Accordingly, an overtly mythic history has emerged and there is exceptionally little wiggle room for reinterpretation of the agreed upon "master narrative." Since I am personally enthralled with the power of myth in the making of image and memory I find these observations fascinating.
There is much to praise in this important book, and little to criticize. Some have questioned Shipps's thesis in the context of the twentieth century, for Mormonism appears to many observers more American than America and not all that distinctive, certainly not a religious tradition comparable to early Christianity's relationship to Judaism. For those immersed in Mormon studies, however, her thesis holds up quite well for the more recent past just as it does for earlier eras.
on November 10, 2011
In Jan Shipps' "Mormonism: The Story of a New Religious Tradition," the author makes the case that the Mormon religion is just that: "a new religious tradition." Shipps states that Mormonism, like many other religions, such as Christianity, Judaism, Buddhism, and Islam, arose out of a "cultural chaos." She describes the situation that surrounded the Smith family in the years that Joseph Smith was starting the religion. Shipps, using the designations of church, denomination, sect, and cult, compares the early years of Mormonism with the early years of Christianity by tracing how each group went through its own transition. However, this is not Shipps' main thesis. She wants to show how Mormonism marked the beginning of something new and even though it had similarities in origin to other religions, Mormonism took a different path in the later decades of its existence. In this way, Shipps is quite different from Moore, Hatch, and Butler. Shipps does not see Mormonism as part of a greater trend in American society, democracy, or "outsider," but rather she sees it as something "new." In fact, Shipps declares that Mormonism does not share the same European background of the rest of American Christianity.
Shipps argues that it is not Mormonism's origins that make it a "new religious tradition," rather it is the period after the Mormons arrived in Utah until they renounced the practice of polygamy that separates them from other religions. Shipps accomplishes this by comparing the Mormon church of 1880 with today's Mormon church. She suggests that the Mormon of today would not even recognize nor have much in common with the Mormon church of 1880. Shipps then explains the major points of difference between the Mormonism of the pioneer era and that of the modern age. Shipps believes that it is simply impossible to make sense of Latter-Day Saint pioneer history without taking the external pressure, especially political pressure from the government, into account.
When Mormons arrived in the Great Basin of Utah, they took steps to separate themselves politically, economically, socially, and psychically as much as possible from humanity. This was Mormonism's golden age, when they did invent a "new religious tradition." Their nation-state was reasonably independent economically and socially and it had its own diplomatic department. It continued until external pressure forced Mormon President Wilford Woodruff to announce that the church would no longer perform plural marriages. This was the dividing point between the Mormon past and its present. The practice of polygamy was celebrated among Mormons whether they practiced it or not and it had made them unique. At stake was the survival of the church and the status of God's chosen people. They were faced with a serious internal problem created by external pressure. The following transitional period lasted, according to Shipps, until 1945.
When the Mormons denounced polygamy, it marked the first time the church had retreated on a religious issue. It entered a secular time. The Mormon church became just like any other religious group living in a pluralistic world. They struggled to maintain the symbols, myths, and traditions that separated them. Therefore, the question remains for Shipps to answer: is today's Mormonism still considered unique? Shipps argues that Mormons are still part of a new religious tradition because they adapted to the post-polygamy period.
Shipps focus is on the "new religious tradition" created by the Mormons. She does mention other religions but the trials and tribulations of the Mormons dominate her text. This does a disservice to her readers. What are other groups saying about the Mormons? What do they think of them? There are no individual voices in this book. Shipps' book, in some ways, is similar to Marsden's book on Jonathan Edwards, there is not enough dissenting opinion. Shipps understands and explains Mormon history well, but does she challenge their history or just try to explain it? She also does not seem to solve any of the puzzles involving Mormons. Shipps presents the Mormon story in an intriguing fashion, but one feels they are not getting the whole story.
Jo Ann Barnett "Jan" Shipps (born 1929) is an American historian specializing in Mormon History, who is generally regarded as the foremost non-Mormon scholar of the Latter Day Saint movement. She has also served as both President and Vice-President of the Mormon History Association.
She writes in the Preface to this 1985 book, "This book tells the story of yet another assembly of saints whose history, I believe, is in many respects analogous to the history of those early Christians who thought at first that they had found the only proper way to be Jews... Mormonism started to grow away from traditional Christianity almost immediately upon coming into existence... these nineteenth-century Latter-day Saints ... embarked on a path that led to developments that now distinguish their tradition from the Christian tradition as surely as early Christianity was distinguished from its Hebraic context... This book reflects both my own research into specific aspects of the Mormon past and countless extended conversations with Mormons about Mormonism that have taken place across the last two decades."
Here are some other quotations from the book:
"(D)espite a great deal of somewhat naive speculation, the importance of the (golden) plates to the process of translation (of the Book of Mormon) has never been established. The ancient seers and/or Joseph's seerstone seem, rather, to have been the key to the procedure by which the Book of Mormon came into existence." (Pg. 13-14)
"(A)s far as history is concerned, the question of whether (Joseph) Smith was prophet or fraud is not particularly important." (Pg. 39)
"That many very early LDS theological positions and worship practices differe little, if at all, from those of the popular Protestantism and forms of primitive Christianity of Joseph Smith's day is one of the most significant recent emphases in Mormon studies." (Pg. 80)
"(T)he editors at the press all anticipated that this work (The Story of the Latter-Day Saints would attain quasi-official status as informally sanctioned history that could serve as a text in classes on Mormon history taught in the Church Seminaries... and at Brigham Young University. Perhaps because the work was written by professional historians whose Mormon orthodoxy did not prevent their interpretation from assigning more weight to the impact on Mormonism of the social, economic, political and cultural context... the work was not approved for use in LDS (institutions)..." (Pg. 90)
"Financial support for the History Division was diminished... (Leonard) Arrington's assignment was more or less silently changed from Church Historian to Director of the History Division... Official sponsorship of the sixteen-volume history of the church was withdrawn... By these actions ... the church has moved, not necessarily to disapprove of Mormon history written in the 'coolness' of the modern professional mode, but to distance itself from history which fails openly and deliberately to place God at the center of the action." (Pg. 107)
"In many local Mormon meetings, moreover, movement in the chapel provides a contrapuntal accompaniment to the proceedings on the stand... Yet it is plain to see that their place in the religious lives of the Saints is not the same as the place of conference sessions ... (in) the tabernacle, where silent stillness reigns as the precisely planned program is executed with painstaking care." (Pg. 133)
on December 17, 1999
The book focuses on the development of the Mormon church from its small beginnings to the 10.5 million members it has today. Her arugement is that Mormonism is a new religious tradition in the sense that it grew outside of the mainstream Protestantism of America in the 1830's. She argues that although it has aspects of Old Testament Judaism and New Testament Christianity the Mormon church should be considered another Religious tradition that is developing into a world religion. Overall the book is persuasive, but I found some of the logic or proofs strained and hard to follow. It is favorable towards the church and does tend to gloss over the controversial parts of the LDS faith.
on July 18, 2012
Jan Shipps offers a very good overview of Mormonism for the general reader and for the nonspecialist. Shipps, though not a Mormon herself, is regarded both within and without the LDS Church as one of the foremost experts on Mormonism. This work presents a sympathetic outsider's perspective on the Church, while also attempting to "locate" Mormonism on the spectrum of American religiosity. Shipps's conclusion is that while the question of whether Mormonism is Christian is a convoluted one, it is possible to see in the Church an institution that is both an outgrowth of Christianity and different enough from traditional Christianity to be seen as a "new religion."
on December 18, 2012
I have been impressed so far by this honest and detailed history from a Non-Mormon. I believe that Jan Shipps has taken time to research from not only a historical perspective but also social and period background. Her observations are unique and interesting.
on October 7, 2005
Jan Shipps, this remarkable LDS-ologist, was the one who wrote the beautiful essay about Joseph Smith, "The prophet puzzle". She is the type of scholar that has never been ready to "give up" and accept one isolated single perspective on LDS history, not then, not now. She is the one of eternal limit cross-over and the "multi-scholar", which likes to wove together the different views on history, religion and philosophy and illuminate the LDS from several aspects, which brings dialogue and respect, not hatred and contempt.
She is the one with the thesis, antithesis and synthesis, which is a common feature of this book. In the seven chapters, she philosophises about the origins of LDS, its development, its changes, its historiographical tradition, its view of the sacred and profane, and its relation to Amerian culture and Christian religion.
One of the reviews below, remarks on the non-polemical asepct of the book. I agree to 10 percent, cause the book is diplomatically polemical. Every issue it brings up, is clarified. The two-side-story of Joseph is mentioned by her, the redaction of Joseph's mother, Lucy's autobiography is tackled in one chapter. Of course, the reader won't find any tannerisms (anti-LDS expressions) in the book. It is not to create hatred, to denounce, but to lift up and inform the reader about this rich tradition who has changed the life of millions of people in both ways - more godly, or more atheistic, but changed!
The book shows that it is inherent in every religious body to forget inconveniences in the past, to create a whole present and marvelous future. It happened to Christianity, and it happened to LDS. The only difference is that LDS had more paperwork left from its origins than Christianity.
She handles the time issue, the pioneer period and modern period in a healthy thought-evoking way. She shows why LDS lived in another way and why they changed - mainly of the pressure from federal government and the Manifesto endig plural marriage in this life. Both forced the church of pioneer era to accomodate to the world and to make spirituality more esoteric (ie inner-focused), thru temple rituals and Word of wisdom (dietary codes).
Implicitly, I believe, that she wants to say: it doesn't matter how many contradictions one can find in Joseph's theology, what matters is what and why the church chose to believe a specific version.
Thank you for a wonderful insight about LDS!
on February 7, 2015
Well written book, but seems too partisan and lacking in necessary skepticism.
Questions posed to the author:
I am reading your book Mormonism: The Story of a New Religious Tradition
It is a most fascinating account of this strange people.
Before I get to the meat of my letter, I want to emphasize that I admire many aspects of Mormon culture. I think the people are reverent and idealistic. I admire their health consciousness.
That being said, I am disturbed by a number of Mormon teachings. The idea that God is corporeal is repulsive to me. I don't think even the most ancient pagan religions believed such a thing.
Also on page 154 of your timeline you write that on April 6, 1829 "intense work on the Book of Mormon commenced." Then, two entries later, in Summer 1829, you write "The Book of Mormon was ready for the press."
I don't understand how such a long manuscript, written in an unknown language, could have been translated and readied for publication in a matter of a few months. Martin Luther spent over a year of intense work translating the bible into idiomatic German. Luther knew the languages of Hebrew, Latin, Greek and German; yet it still was a herculean effort for him.
How do you explain that J. Smith was able to translate the Book of Mormon in so short a period from a language that was indecipherable? This claim strikes me as very similar to the way Moslems try to validate their religion, claiming that because Mohammed was illiterate he never could have concocted the Qur'anic revelations on his own. Do you see the similarities with the BOM?
This seems very suspicious to me.
Another thing that bothers me about the BOM is that the characters in the book have decidedly non-Hebraic names. There are long lists of Jewish names in the Old Testament. The names in the BOM do not correlate to them at all. What kind of Hebrew names are Nephi? Lemuel? Sam?
Do you see my point?
If you can provide some answers, or refer me to a Mormon scholar, I would be most grateful.
Shalom baShem Yeshua - Peace in the Name of Jesus!
on May 24, 2014
Jan Shipp's effort offers an objectively persuasive review on evolution of the Joseph Smith religion during his lifetime and changes that occurred after his people wandered in the wildnerness.