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.” 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.” 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”?
 Jan Shipps, Mormonism: The Story of A New Religious Tradition, (Urbana: University of Illionis Press, 1985), 33.
 Ibid., 51.
 Dallin H. Oaks, “Apostasy and Restoration,” Ensign (May 1995), 84.