This is a book that has been available for more than three decades, yet it is still a useful discussion. 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 thirty 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.