One of my goals for 2012 is to develop a basic knowledge of Mormon history, faith, and culture. One reason is to be able to participate more intelligently in current political discourse since prominent figures in public life are Mormon, including Mitt Romney, Jon Huntsman, and Harry Reid. A second reason is to provide a religious focus to a journey by bicycle through the desert southwest, a part of the country where Mormons long ago learned how to flourish.
My previous knowledge of this rapidly growing religious movement has been marginal at best. During family travels long ago, we toured sites in downtown Salt Lake City and in later years my wife and I have visited Nauvoo in western Illinois and St. George in southern Utah. The only academic interpretation of Mormon history that I received was one lecture in graduate school in which the professor stated that Joseph Smith stole the manuscript of the Book of Mormon from a print shop where it was being prepared for publication and made up the story of the golden plates.
My guide as I begin my personal study of Mormon history is Jan Shipps, an emeritus professor of history and religious studies at Indiana University—Purdue University Indianapolis. Although a life-long and active United Methodist, Shipps has specialized in studies of Mormonism and has received high honors from Mormon scholars and from her colleagues in the academic disciplines of American history and religious studies.
Although I met Professor Shipps years ago, when I was teaching at Christian Theological Seminary, also in Indianapolis, I have only recently begun reading her books and essays. My starting point is Sojourner in the Promised Land: Forty Years among the Mormons, which is a collection of her essays and addresses on Mormonism. Shipps has written brief autobiographical introductions to each section of the book. Thus the volume serves as a chronicle of her academic career and a report of how her understanding of religion and life have developed over time.
Each of the seventeen essays in the book includes extended notes, which provide a guide to a broader range of literature and opinion. I’m using this volume to help me select other articles and books to read so that I can be confident that the information is reliable and the interpretations are reasonable and defensible.
Perhaps the most important realization that has come from my initial exploration on this topic is that there are approximately 10 million Mormons worldwide, and the number is growing rapidly. Shipps freely talks about Mormonism as a new faith tradition that is related to Christianity in a way that is similar to how the early Christian movement was related to the Judaism from which it came.
Shipps demonstrates that the essential character of this new faith was well established during the early years when Joseph Smith was the controlling figure. Shipps delineates three distinct layers of theology and doctrine that have developed during Mormon history, and she describes this theology as complex and comprehensive.
During the first century of Mormon history, there was a strong emphasis upon the formation of a tightly knit community in which all aspects of life were integrated according to Mormon ideas. During this period, most Mormons lived “beyond the mountain curtain” where they “turned the desert into a suitable place of habitation.” It is this aspect of Mormon history that will be especially interesting to me as a bicyclist through sunny, arid parts of the Southwest later in the year.
Shipps frequently suggests that Mormons developed an ethic identity, a deeply ingrained culture for life that persists even among people who no longer are observant with respect to Mormon religious practice. She shows how in more recent generations Mormons have learned how to create dispersed versions of their intense communitarian way of life so that it can flourish in little communities around the world, thus permitting Mormonism to become a world faith.
This aspect of Mormon life has been so impressive to Shipps that it has affected her own religious practice as a United Methodist. “Yet the idea of a calling proved to be catching, and I soon found myself thinking of the responsibility I was asked to assume at the First United Methodist Church in Bloomington, Indiana, as a calling—even though my assignment was chairing the ‘Conversation and Coffee’ program committee, a pretty un-Mormon assignment” (p. 279).
I don’t know where this study of Mormon life and lore will take me. The next two books, however, will be Jan Shipps’ Mormonism: The Story of a New Religious Tradition and Fawn McKay Brodie’s controversial No Man Knows My History: The Life of Joseph Smith, the Mormon Prophet.
Note: A 28-page, fully annotated review essay of “Sojourner in the Promised Land,” was written by KLAUS J. HANSEN, a member of the history department of Queen’s University, Kingston, Ontario, Canada, where he has taught the history of American thought and culture since 1968.