Mormons’ History, Sacred and Profane

By January 18, 2010

One of the fresh insights provided by Jan Shipps? Mormonism: The Story of a New Religious Tradition when published in 1985 was its argument that Mormon history was ?not ordinary history.? Shipps explored the tensions surrounding interlocked, opposing construals of Mormonism. She also demonstrated how accounts of Mormon history and origins were the animating force behind the formation of Mormonism, which she characterized as a new, independent religious tradition. A self-supporting worldview, this tradition carried its own ways of understanding place, time, and human purpose.

Much of Shipps? genius in Mormonism lay in her steady application of the insights of theorists, which she freely acknowledged. The work of Mircea Eliade, in particular, helped facilitate her treatment of Mormonism from the inside out. His meditations on the social psychology of religion informed her empathetic efforts to understand how the story of Mormonism could be so compelling.

In particular, Eliade?s insights into different appreciations of time in his crucial work The Sacred and The Profane gave Shipps clues about how Mormon history functioned. Eliade argued that with respect to religious belief, time did not function in the ?homogenous, empty? way that it typically does in modern thought. Instead, he contended that religious belief could induce a sense of time in which temporal extensions into the past and present collapsed, and certain sacred events were brought into close association with one another. Sometimes this sense was so strong that believers could actually be ?present? at these events. ?Sacred? time was a concentrated variety, which retained everything ?sacred? and eliminated everything ?profane.? With this model, Shipps was able to look at world history through Mormonism and to see what was privileged, what was occluded, and ultimately what was said about the origins, the means, and the ends of human experience. In Eliade?s language, she was able to sense how Mormonism delineated between seasons of the world, both ?sacred? and ?profane.?

Here Shipps wedded Eliade?s insights to the emerging work of Hayden White on the textuality of history. If Eliade showed her how to access the Mormon mind through its collective psychology, White demonstrated how she could engage it through its historical record. Newly conscious that history was very much a construct, Shipps followed the implications of Eliadean theory into the particulars of Mormon history, regarding it as a flexible ?text? that could bear analysis. She examined, for instance ? in a way that has become commonplace ? how the location for Joseph Smith?s First Vision shifted as Mormonism tinkered with its self-explanation. She acknowledged the forces at work behind this, but also pointed out that such a change could be misleading, that for instance it could obscure the ?dynamism of the developmental process by which Mormonism?s theological system evolved.?[1] The adjustment tended to collapse time, she noticed, illuminating sacred moments, but leaving little account of interim periods where Mormonism developed, evolved, and unfolded.

Shipps would also identify this phenomenon in larger tracts of the Mormon story. She observed that authorized accounts of Mormon history contrasted periods of murky apostasy with others of blazing light. The result, she said, trying to characterize Mormon history broadly, was that Mormonism had ?no recent past at all.? Such an account ?left the Saints with an enormous 1,400 to 1,800-year lacuna in their religious history.?[2] In line with her Eliadean approach to history, this period seemed left out because it was ?profane.?

In general, popular understandings among Mormons of unenlightened periods in world history seem to bear out Shipps observations. Most common historical narratives leap ahead dramatically after the ministry of the biblical Apostles. A few pause briefly to engage some the ?preparatory? developments along the way, but many come to land only in 1830 in upstate New York, blocking out much time and much of the world. It is worth noting that this trajectory coincides with a roughly similar one that historians had long embraced about decline and ?darkness? in the middle ages ? a view that is only now being reconsidered. In any case, for Mormons, emphasis on the special events of certain periods leads to a remembering of those and a forgetting of others.

Perhaps it is worth asking, though ? as Shipps did ? what the implications of this version of history are. What are the consequences of cordoning off a period of time ? along with its inhabitants ? as ?profane? or secondary? What injury does this do, if any, to the story? To their story? What richer ones might be told? In a theological sense, what might this practice imply about the worth of souls? The nature of God? Presently, how might this conception influence relations with adherents to other faiths ? those with radically different economies of the sacred and profane? How might we be, as Elder Dallin H. Oaks has suggested in this context, ?wiser if we could restore the knowledge of some important things that have been distorted, ignored, or forgotten??[3]

[1] Jan Shipps, Mormonism: The Story of A New Religious Tradition, (Urbana: University of Illionis Press, 1985), 33.

[2] Ibid., 51.

[3] Dallin H. Oaks, ?Apostasy and Restoration,? Ensign (May 1995), 84.

Article filed under Miscellaneous


  1. The Renaissance humanists with their desire to go back to classical times declared the middle ages profane and the Protestants in their polemic against Catholics largely adopted this worldview. I’m noticing more and more that the middle ages are lost not just to Mormons but to Americans generally; the middle ages are viewed through that Renaissance/Reformation lens. This tendency is unfortunate and I hope to argue that the middle ages is quite important to understanding American culture and religion, especially Mormonism. Not to romanticize the middle ages–a lot of “dark” things went on–but a lot of really interesting things occurred also.

    Comment by Steve Fleming — January 17, 2010 @ 10:29 pm

  2. Most interesting. I noticed this same lacuna in Timothy Dwight’s epic poem, The Conquest of Canäan (Hartford, 1785) which proposes a vision of ancient and modern history along the lines of that given to Nephi in the Book of Mormon (culminating with America, the millennium and the stupendous sacred order of the cosmos). In Dwight’s sweeping narrative, Joshua’s vision continues through the crucifixion, resurrection, and labors of the apostles and Christian ministers who will follow them. But the greater medieval period is not even mentioned. It is as if more than a thousand years of history go undetailed. The narrative resumes with Columbus inspired to go discover the heaven-prepared land for the flourishing of the gospel.

    Comment by Rick Grunder — January 17, 2010 @ 11:45 pm

  3. What are the consequences of cordoning off a period of time ? along with its inhabitants ? as ?profane? or secondary?

    Put simply, we’ll misunderstand the context of the later period. The people who lived in the 1830s didn’t just appear once the biblical Apostles leave the earth 1800 years earlier. The people of the 1800s had 1800 years of history and culture built inside them that affects how they act and what they believe.

    Presently, how might this conception influence relations with adherents to other faiths ? those with radically different economies of the sacred and profane? How might we be, as Elder Dallin H. Oaks has suggested in this context, ?wiser if we could restore the knowledge of some important things that have been distorted, ignored, or forgotten??

    Well much of Mormon culture is defined by who we are not. As being an exclusive religion (we’re the only true church remember?), that exclusivity tends to immediately discount the efforts, thoughts, and contributions of any other as subordinate, or maybe not even worth our time. This of course is not good, as it limits the greater understanding we can have about the world around us, and about God’s love for his children. How can we preach that we are God’s “only” true church on the earth, and then desire to learn from other churches that have spent hundreds and some thousands of years building up their knowledge and understanding of Christ when we consider them not up to par? The question is a tough one because, say we open up to learn what Lutheran theologians have learned, and suddenly we’re more interested in what they have learned about Christ than what Mormon theologians say of Christ. Much of the barrier we set up to ward off other religions’ influence is out of fear of losing our own to the influence of the other religion.

    Comment by Dan — January 18, 2010 @ 8:30 am

  4. Ryan,

    You ask a question I have been pondering ever since I was a missionary trying to teach about the Apostasy in Peru. I think an overly-simplistic narrative regarding the Apostasy often undermines the idea of personal revelation and the Divine Heritage of all humanity. Although the idea of proxy ordinances offers some help in mitigating the supposed Divine silences of the Dark Ages,I think the church needs to flesh out its narrative of the Apostasy simply to show the universal nature of a God who is love. Such silences might have been useful for cordoning off the restoration as a pivotal moment in human history and to help emphasize the importance of authority and priesthood, but they really create large gaps of logic in the Mormon view of sacred time and history.

    Comment by Joel — January 18, 2010 @ 9:32 am

  5. Great post, Ryan and compelling questions. I think the previous comments make good points, and I wonder what it would look like to have increased attention to and respect for not only the “dark ages” but for the beliefs and theological foundations of other faiths. If we can’t even get more than a one or two page lesson on Jesus Christ in priesthood quorum, where does this restoration of knowledge fit?

    Like so many other themes, I don’t think the restoration of that knowledge will come from the pulpit so much as (or: until) it is brought to the pulpit by those more opened to the possibilities of a world that is more “sacred” than “profane”, and a perspective that is less exceptionalist, less exclusionist, and more inclusive, sensitive, and respectful.

    Comment by Jared T — January 19, 2010 @ 2:58 am

  6. Ryan, this is a fine post (although I would say that academic resistance to a one-sided view of the “Dark Ages” is only a recent development if you consider the nineteenth century recent–which more than a few medievalists do, of course.)

    I’m not convinced, though, that a paler or less forceful version of the Mormon construction of history is a path towards the creation of richer stories about the past. I’d like to see a more charitable and nuanced account of the Middle Ages, and more thought about what we mean precisely by ‘apostasy’ and other elements of Mormon construction of history, but I suspect the simple structure of Apostasy – Restoration is essential for a compelling devotional account of history. My own preferred prescription would be for the vigorous and unapologetic telling of our own story, combined with a willingness to listen to others’ stories similarly told.

    Comment by Jonathan Green — January 19, 2010 @ 9:39 am

  7. I have a set of “The Great Books of the Western World” (sadly bought at an estate sale for $50). I consider it my secular Bible. I like the theme/flow of “The Great Coversation” of Western History. I tried (and tried to teach my son), to learn what was being said and by whom in each book, by just learning the covers of the 100 color coded books. For me, the exercise gave us a sense of the large picture of Western mentation.

    Comment by Bob — January 19, 2010 @ 10:11 am

  8. Thanks for a number of great responses and observations. They enrich my initial thoughts.

    I think you are right, Jared, about a general unconsciousness among Church members of other faiths and other faith traditions that has its drawbacks. An aphorism coined by Max Muller comes to mind that “to know one is to know none.” There is much truth in this concept, which lies at the heart of comparativism.

    Tangentially, I’m ambivalent toward the idea that themes like this ought to be “taken to the pulpit,” per se. It’s the dilemma of faithful intellectuals, I guess, to introduce this kind of understanding in a way that doesn’t marginalize the fundamentals or use the pulpit as platform. I think your recent experience with teaching Gospel Doctrine was a good example of finding this balance.

    I really appreciate your observations, Jonathan. I suppose you’re right about rehabilitation of the ‘dark ages’ extending back into the Romantic interest of the 19th century. I guess I meant that historians now are finally getting around to renovating their narratives; the ‘dark ages’ conception still predominates, I think, among most lay people.

    Your other point about what the narrative ought to be is engaging also. I tend to think you are right in the way that you characterize it, as “vigorous and unapologetic telling of our own story, combined with a willingness to listen to others? stories similarly told.” It’s easy to see how that is unpalatable to the Academy, though, which has (often rightfully) sought to see that untold stories receive emphasis. For the purposes of the faith, I agree that the apostasy/restoration narrative serves its purposes. How to encourage a “willingness to listen” though? And as the Church grows, isn’t “our” story expanding too?

    Comment by Ryan T — January 19, 2010 @ 10:28 am

  9. Bob, you’ll probably find a lot of folks in the Academy critical of the old historical narratives and the old literary canons. They do, as you suggest, give a coherent sense of developments over time. The objection is that that explanation necessarily privileges certain things and obscures others. In its recreation of the ‘conversation’ of the Western world, certain beliefs have been prescribed and some voices have been left out.

    Comment by Ryan T — January 19, 2010 @ 10:35 am

  10. Ryan, I agree, and I actually meant “taken to the pulpit” in an even more benign sense than my SS lesson and not just intellectuals. I’m thinking more in terms of a slow generational shift. Just as changed views about race in our general society in the last 30 years would make a lesson like mine possible in SS, as a younger generation generally becomes more aware of the world around them and the richness of other cultures/belief systems, that will leaven our gospel conversations at a fundamental level. At least, that’s what I hope.

    Comment by Jared T. — January 19, 2010 @ 11:20 am

  11. I’d argue that, as yet, our story isn’t very clear. What’s clear is there was an apostasy and a restoration but we pretty much just borrow the Protestant narrative for everything in between. That sort of works, but that’s someone else’s story and only works to a point. Truth be told, we need to take a closer look at our scriptures and at history in order to flesh things out better. So I’d say we’re still figuring out what our story is.

    Comment by Steve Fleming — January 19, 2010 @ 12:16 pm

  12. Agreed, Jared.

    You also raise a good point, Steve. I had taken the standard narrative as set, but perhaps we ought to see it in motion.

    Comment by Ryan T — January 19, 2010 @ 1:37 pm

  13. I’ll parenthetically insert that while an undergraduate, the only World Civilization course that fit my schedule one year was with Richard Holzapfel, and I remember clearly that as he opened discussion about the “Dark Ages” that he made a point to tell us that the nomer was fairly misleading and that a lot of interesting things were happening, that this was the time of the origins of modern universities, etc. That stuck out to me at the time.

    Steve, you make a good point, I’m excited for advancements along the lines you mention.

    Comment by Jared T — January 19, 2010 @ 2:17 pm

  14. Dark Ages: “Petrarch was the first to co-opt the metaphor and give it secular meaning by reversing its application. Classical Antiquity, so long considered the “dark” age for its lack of Christianity, was now seen by Petrarch as the age of “light” because of its cultural achievements”. (Wikipedia)

    Comment by Bob — January 19, 2010 @ 7:11 pm

  15. As usual I am way late to the party, but I wanted to say thanks for the post, much to think about. I recently read a somewhat polemical response to the new atheists by an Eastern orthodox theologian who took on the Dark Ages myth and cast a little light on the period we typically consign to nothin-but-apostasy. David Bentley Hart’s Atheist Delusions. That book helps this post and Steve Fleming’s comments resonate more fully in me.

    Comment by BHodges — March 30, 2010 @ 11:52 am

  16. Ryan,

    Your reference to Mircea Eliade caught my attention in your post. Although it has been a number of years since I studied Dr. Eliade’s works, your comments about sacred and profane struck a chord.

    Although he provided a construct for Dr. Shipps in which to view Mormonism (or history through Mormonism), Eliade suggested that sacred time was necessary: “the experience of sacred time will make it possible for religious man periodically to experience the cosmos as it was in principio, that is, at the mythical moment of creation” ((Mircea Eliade on Sacred Time).

    Quite a statement considering that Joseph Smith said it was not enough “reading the experience of others” as contained in the scriptures.

    Comment by Greg — August 13, 2010 @ 12:18 am


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