The Multnomah County Library’s central depository in downtown Portland contains an entire section of shelving devoted to books on Mormonism. With so many books on the subject, Richard L. Bushman’s statement about Mormonism: The Story of a New Religious Tradition is all the more impressive: “This may be the most brilliant book ever written on Mormonism.” Although other important books on Mormonism have been published in the two decades since this book appeared, it still remains as a highly useful introduction to Mormon studies.
The significance of Bushman’s evaluation is heightened by the fact that he is a highly regarded academic historian and a lifelong practicing Mormon while Jan Shipps, the author of the book, is an equally faithful lifelong non-Mormon Methodist. In 1985, when her book was first published, Shipps had already devoted twenty-five years to a careful study of Mormonism, working as professional historian and scholar in the field of religious studies (on the faculty of Indiana University-Purdue University in Indianapolis).
It is clear that she has an encyclopedic knowledge of primary and secondary literature dealing with the history, theology, and social structure of Mormonism. Furthermore, she is well versed in a wide range of scholarly literature that interprets religious practice and religious institutions. All of this makes it possible for Shipps to combine description and interpretation in a way that makes her book unique.
She presents Mormonism as “a new religious tradition,” related to classical Christianity in much the same way that early Christianity was related to classical Judaism. Thus, she frequently compares moments or processes in Mormon history to corresponding points in the emergence of Christianity as described in the New Testament and then continued into the second century. In this way, she helps readers, many of them broadly familiar with Christian beginnings, to understand what was happening in Mormonism’s first century of life. It may also allow these readers to develop a somewhat more positive view of the process, both of Christian beginnings and of Mormon beginnings.
One of Shipps’s purposes is to tell the story of Mormon beginnings as it was perceived by Mormons from the inside, which sometimes gives her book, she acknowledges, an apologetic tone. Her purpose, however, is not to defend or advocate, but to describe and interpret. She “closely reads” the documents in order to “tease out” the insights therein contained.
The first three chapters describe “Mormonism’s foundational tripod, a metaphorical support unit composed of prophetic figure, scripture, and experience—Joseph Smith, the Book of Mormon, and the corporate life of the early Saints.” Chapters four and five describe the consolidation of the earlier elements in which it became clear that the movement was more than a reformation of Protestant Christianity but instead was a radical restoration or reconstruction of the Jewish and Christian systems of ancient times. Here Shipps also explains the process by which the LDS church canonized and controlled its history.
The last two chapters of the book may be the most interesting to many readers because Shipps describes the process around the turn of the twentieth century when Mormonism made significant changes that allowed it to retain central elements of its historic character, move into the American mainstream, and become a religious tradition with world-wide appeal.
These chapters include a brief summary of Mormon theology (quoted verbatim from a 1916 speech by the president of the church), a description of the hierarchical, all-male governing structure of the church, and an account of weekly gatherings of the faithful and the relation of these to the annual and semi-annual gatherings of the saints in the tabernacle in Salt Lake City.
For many readers, the most interesting part of this slender book will be her last three paragraphs in which she gives her answer to “the now oft-asked question of whether Mormonism is or is not Christian.” At this point, I am not giving away her answer except to point to the sub-title of the book: “The Story of a New Religious Tradition.” I hope to return to Shipp’s book in other postings, highlighting features of this story that I find especially interesting.
Note: The quotation from Richard L. Bushman appears on the back cover of the Illini Book edition of the Shipps book. The Bushman quotation includes a second sentence referring to the book: “It is insightful, inspiring, and original and sure to become a landmark on the subject.” Martin E. Marty, church historian long on the faculty of the Divinity School of the University of Chicago, also is quoted on the back cover: “Shipps’s research is thorough, her logic compelling, her literary expression quietly forceful, and her reflections illuminating.”