The Next Jan Shipps?

By August 13, 2010

I recently came across a comment—made in passing and surely intended as nothing more than a kind compliment—that a young graduate student, not a Latter Day Saint (in any of its denominational manifestations) whose research focuses in part on Mormonism, was “the next Jan Shipps.” Such high praise got me thinking exactly what such a statement might mean, and (while it was indeed a compliment to this graduate student) whether Mormon Studies needs or wants another Jan Shipps. Let me explain.

While not knowing exactly what the one paying the compliment had in mind, a reasonable inference can be made. Jan Shipps, of course, is “generally regarded as the foremost non-Mormon scholar of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints.” She has been actively involved in researching and writing about Latter Day Saints and their history for decades now, and is held in high esteem by both believing Mormons and by many in the larger academy. Richard Bushman thus praised her first book, Mormonism: The Story of a New Religious Tradition, as possibly being “the most brilliant book ever written” on the subject, in part because it “offer[s] a perspective that both Mormons and others can accept” (blurb on back cover). Mormons are so comfortable with her, in fact, that she has addressed not only Mormon historical societies like MHA and JWHA, but also fireside-like gatherings at LDS Stakes and Wards, speaking to Latter-day Saints not well versed in history and historiography alongside those who are. She has been the go-to person for media types writing on various aspects of Mormonism, being regularly featured in documentaries and quoted in newspaper articles.

Shipps, of course, is not alone. In recent years, others have stepped in alongside her, including Sarah Barringer Gordon and Laurie Maffly-Kipp. Still younger scholars and students of Mormonism who come from outside the Mormon faith have begun taking an active role in Mormon studies as it has expanded and matured. Which makes me wonder whether those of us with an active interest in the success of Mormon studies as a legitimate academic subfield want someone else to emerge as “the next Jan Shipps.” Shipps’s success is no doubt a result of her training and abilities as a scholar of religions. But her notoriety among Mormons, as I see it, is also a result of not only “offering a perspective that both Mormons and other can accept” but also her once unique status of being one of very, very few individuals from outside the faith tradition who offered such a perspective.

It seems to me that as Mormon studies continues to mature, one measure of its success will be in attracting a significantly larger number of researchers and commentators from outside of the Latter Day Saint tradition. The result, as I see it, would be an environment where such individuals are not anomalies. As noted, this is already becoming the case. But in order for Mormon Studies to reach its potential in this regard, it seems that two things need to happen. First, believing Latter-day Saint scholars need not feel so personally attacked when a scholar from outside the tradition offers an interpretation of Mormonism which does not implicitly reaffirm testimony and may even appear to challenge certain truth claims Mormons hold close. I would hope, for example, that John Brooke’s The Refiner’s Fire would be met with a more nuanced reception if it were published today. Don’t misunderstand—there are plenty of legitimate critiques of Brooke’s work from a scholarly perspective, many of which I share. But it seems to me also that some of the negative reaction the book received from Mormon historians was because its provocative thesis was too radical for believing Latter-day Saints and challenged the standard story of Latter-day Saint beginnings. It’s my own opinion that whatever the reasons for the negative reaction, it has resulted in historians of Mormonism missing out on and/or ignoring many interpretive insights Brooke suggested. Secondly, and this point is related, I think: historians of Mormonism—both those from within and without the faith tradition—need to continue working towards Mormon Studies being a field defined as something more than “gigantic and sometimes polemical” (see the conversation, especially the comments, linked there for discussion on how to go about doing so).

Article filed under Methodology, Academic Issues State of the Discipline


  1. Thanks, Chris. I think you raise some important points about the role of “outsiders” in the development of Mormon studies. I especially like your point about the current perceptions among of Mormon studies as a subfield that is polemical and not very inviting. I don’t know if Brooke would have continued writing on Mormon history had his book not been greeted with such hostility among Mormons (even Bushman slammed Refiner’s Fire in his JER review). A few years ago, when applying for grad school, I had a phone interview with Brooke, and he said something about how he wasn’t really a Mormon historian and that he knew that Mormons (he mentioned Bushman by name) really didn’t like his ideas. More recently, I chatted with Alan Taylor when he gave a presentation here in Fort Worth. He told me that although he had done some Mormon history several years ago (he did a Tanner lecture on treasure digging), that he had chosen not to pursue his research further because the field was so polemical. And I’ve spoken with others who were involved in Mormon studies during the ’90s, and they’ve indicated that they didn’t pursue things further because they were just sick of things.

    I think things have changed now, which the participants at this blog illustrate, and that more young scholars are committed to talking about Mormonism in a more scholarly and less apologetic way. But there’s definitely a residual impression from the ’80s and ’90s that Mormon studies is not a favorable field for divergent interpretations.

    Comment by David G. — August 13, 2010 @ 12:07 pm

  2. Excellent write-up, Chris. I think you are right that Shipps should be seen as more blazing the trails for many to follow.

    Comment by Ben Park — August 13, 2010 @ 12:55 pm

  3. Thanks for the feedback guys.

    I remember Bushman’s critical review of Brooke in JER, David, and his criticisms of the book are among those I share. That’s why I was careful to note that “there are plenty of legitimate critiques of Brooke?s work from a scholarly perspective.” It is a flawed book in some important respects, and I don’t want to give the impression that I think Mormons were only critical because it challenged some version of faithful history.

    Those are tellings anecdotes from Brooke and Taylor, as well. I hope you’re right that things have changed, though I worry whether it may take a sustained effort and some time before outside scholars recognize that.

    Comment by Christopher — August 13, 2010 @ 3:18 pm

  4. I should add that I think a roundtable on The Refiner’s Fire would make for a fascinating read; something that included scholars of Mormonism/American religion across generations. Maybe Steve Fleming could head that up.

    Comment by Christopher — August 13, 2010 @ 3:21 pm

  5. Whenever I. Think of Brooke, I always (unfortunately) think of that overly cankerous FARMS review where they condemned Brooke, Cambridge University Press, and even the those whoe gave the endorsements on the back cover. Not to rag on FARMS, but I think Midgely’s review essay on Shipps represents the hesitant outlook you mention in the post, Chris.

    After rubbing shoulders with a lot of the upcoming historians in the last few years, though, I’m certain the future is much more bright.

    Comment by Ben Park — August 13, 2010 @ 3:30 pm

  6. Yeah, I didn’t think you were saying that, Chris, just emphasizing the point that it wasn’t just FARMS that responded disfavorably to the book in Mormon circles. How much Bushman’s Mormonness shaped that review is of course only speculation.

    Agreed on the roundtable.

    Comment by David G. — August 13, 2010 @ 3:33 pm

  7. Strongly agree that it wasn’t just FARMS–it was practically every mormon reviewer. The FARMS one was just the one that sticks out to me.

    And I third the roundtable idea.

    Comment by Ben Park — August 13, 2010 @ 3:51 pm

  8. John-Charles Duffy’s review of Clyde Forsberg’s Equal Rites that came out in Dialogue a few years back is relavent here. Duffy asked how in the world a shoddy book like Equal Rites was printed in a top university press and concluded that the larger field didn’t trust Mormon scholars to give legitimate reviews and thought that the polemical treatment of Refiner’s Fire was one of the reasons.

    Would the ideal be not only lots of interested non-Mormons but the larger field eventually no longer feeling that it needs a go-between like Shipps to find out about the Mormons?

    I’m still feeling unready to give a thorough critique of Brooke at this point. The big issue I’m trying to unpack is what the heck is hermeticism in the way Brooke uses it. There’s a lot of sort out. However, as I’ve said before, Brooke, for all his flaws, was definitely on to something. I’m trying to figure out how to describe what that was.

    Comment by Steve Fleming — August 13, 2010 @ 4:38 pm

  9. I wonder if the distrust that some academics have towards the works of believing Latter-Day Saints writing about Mormon history is related to the missionary program. When I talk to other academics about my research, the conversation usually turns to their experiences with missionaries that they have encountered while in Europe or elsewhere. People also occasionally bring up the ex-missionaries they have in their classrooms. The idea seems to be people’s missionary experiences generally color the way that they approach the history of Latin America, Russia, etc., and that there is generally still a sniff of colonialism and naiveté about their work.

    I think that people associate the work of Mormon history done by members of the LDS Church with missionary work. The FARMS review of John Brooks’ work doesn’t help matters. I have been told to keep the reaction that people had to Brooks’ work in the back of my mind and to be prepared and to expect that something similar will eventually happen to me no matter how conscientious I am. Brooks is a respected historian, and a lot of non-Mormon academics saw the reaction to his work as unwarranted.

    I’m not sure non-Mormon historians will ever feel completely comfortable with believing scholarship about Mormonism unless Mormon Studies can somehow be disassociated from missionary work and in some ways, from FARMS and FAIR. I’m not sure how to do that. The prominence of people like Richard Bushman and Laurel Thatcher Ulrich should help, especially as they move towards Mormon Studies. I think the reception of Richard’s study of the gold plates will be telling as will the reception of Laurel’s book on the material culture of nineteenth-century Utah. As long as the first thing that the people think of when it comes to Mormons is its missionaries, I think the distrust will probably continue.

    Comment by Amanda HK — August 13, 2010 @ 6:35 pm

  10. I’d forgotten about the FARMS review. Sigh.

    And thanks for reminder me of JCD’s review of Equal Rites, Steve. I’ll be sure and read that again soon. I imagine JCD is right, though.

    However, as I?ve said before, Brooke, for all his flaws, was definitely on to something. I?m trying to figure out how to describe what that was.

    Perhaps a roundtable would help all of us work towards identifying what that something (or things) were.

    Thanks for the comment, Amanda. I was hoping you would chime in here, as I see you as one of the younger scholars invested in Mormon studies. Your anecdotes are telling, and I appreciate you sharing them here. Is the problem you describe unique to Mormons and Mormonism, though? Surely professors deal with students of other faiths who come to class with preconceived (colonialist) notions of certain other religious/ethnic/racial/international groups, no?

    Comment by Christopher — August 13, 2010 @ 7:59 pm

  11. 🙂

    Comment by Bored in Vernal — August 13, 2010 @ 8:29 pm

  12. Hmmm… honestly, the naivete of other Christian groups and returned missionaries doesn’t come up as often. Part of that reason may have to do with frequency that people encounter them. When I was writing the above post, I was thinking in particular of our center for Russian and Eurasian studies. I have heard some of the PhD students in the department who are affiliated with the center bemoan the number of returned Mormon missionaries who have enrolled in the program. I have never heard them complain about any returned Christian missionaries enrolled in the program.

    I think part of the reason may have to do with the church’s domestic rather than foreign mission program. No one I know has ever had a Methodist missionary show up on their doorstep and try to convert them (mainly because long-term Methodist missionaries tend to be placed overseas). Almost everyone I know has had Mormon ones show up at their door. As a result, people tend to be much more conscious of the Mormon Church’s missionary efforts both at home and abroad and to associate the church with those missionary efforts. People get frustrated with the persistence and presence of Mormon missionaries and sometimes I think they let their own frustration with the missionaries who show up at their door in the U.S. color their experiences with them abroad and in the classroom.

    I wouldn’t say that the problem is unique to Mormons by any means but I do think that it’s telling that we have three returned Christian missionaries in my department who focus on Africa and that no one has ever said anything about them or their possible biases but that I have heard a lot about the returned Mormon missionaries that focus on Russia and Eurasia – none of whom are even in our department.

    Comment by Amanda HK — August 13, 2010 @ 9:32 pm

  13. Oh, and to answer your question, I wouldn’t say that the issues surrounding Mormonism are unique but they do seem to be more intense. People certainly seem more uncomfortable with Mormons as academics than they are with evangelicals (see Mark Noll, Joel Carpenter, George Marsden, etc.) and certainly with Catholics. The comments my colleagues made about Mormon missionaries are one example of how concerns that could be applied to many Christian groups that send missionaries seem to be amplified for people when applied to Mormons.

    Comment by Amanda HK — August 13, 2010 @ 9:41 pm

  14. Amanda, it seems to me that what you are describing is a problem that some academics have with Mormons, and that the burden really should be on them (as the ones with the pre-conceived notions) to resolve it. “Naivete” and “colonialism” are functioning as narratives to dismiss the experience of advanced students and not, I submit, as objective descriptions of reality. There are, I know, clueless missionaries and clueless Ph.D. students. But in terms of international experience for undergraduates who are talented enough to later pursue graduate study, a mission is far superior to study-abroad programs in the breadth of culture experienced and the degree of fluency that can be acquired. I’ve sent a lot of students to study-abroad programs and can’t speak highly enough about the experience, and I wish more RMs would also pursue study abroad or international internships, but if I had to choose one or the other for a student solely on the basis of the academic benefits, I’d have to choose the mission.

    Besides, the mission experience is so central to Mormon life and belief that trying to separate perceptions of the field from missionary work is like asking to separate Mormon Studies from Mormonism.

    On the other hand, I’ve frequently found FARMS reviews that are not just negative, but also petty and spiteful. Some generosity and sympathy would have resulted not only in better PR for the field, but also in more useful reviews, I think.

    Comment by Jonathan Green — August 14, 2010 @ 2:04 pm

  15. I sincerely hope Mormonism will become a more prevalent topic of study among non-Mormon scholars.

    One pivotal thing I think needs to happen is for Mormons who are scholars to stop using insider language and quasi-religious comments in their presentations, even when speaking to an audience consisting mostly of other Mormon scholars. Coming from an overwhelmingly non-Mormon area and secular university culture, the need for “objective” parlance and phrasing in the study of religion has been hammered into my mind. Presenting on Mormonism at conferences unrelated to Mormonism per se has reinforced the need for such an approach. I believe it is the only way to scholarly credibility and attracting greater interest.

    In this respect one sometimes unfortunately has to cringe when hearing fellow LDS scholars present at LDS-dominated conferences and must simply wonder whether such talk isn’t part of what turns non-Mormon scholars off. At MHA this year I was simply flabbergasted in a few instances at what passed for scholarly discussion by a Mormon university professor in a Q&A regarding JS’s first vision. It is no wonder some non-Mormon scholars have no interest in joining such gatherings.

    Comment by Northerner — August 14, 2010 @ 3:09 pm

  16. Interesting points Christopher,

    Part of the disdain with Mormon scholars by many non-Mormon and some Mormon scholars is the somewhat fetish addiction by some to Utah Mormonism, with all of retelling of pioneer stories which invariably improve by the year and often become more spectacular if not only to ‘beat’ others local tales. When the scholarly field is broadened (or Wasatch tales are limited) and include global Mormon studies which integrate with traditional academic, for example the work by EMSA, which involves both LDS and non LDS scholars which generally steers clear of devotional or well rehearsed narratives, the field gains more credibility among established scholars. For what it’s worth if we are talking about non-Mormon scholars who I would have considered as preeminent it would be Douglas J. Davies, who from the early 70s has written on Mormon matters from differing academic discplines such as anthropology, sociology, history and theology. Unlike some who profess to write, he is professionally trained in each field. As an Anglican Priest he is able to say things that perhaps faith orientated criticism might not be able to. As my PhD examiner he sat with an atheist who was dismissive or at least very cautious with any of my Utah references or citations, and agreed to co-examine from purely a position of historical critical theory.

    Comment by David M Morris — August 14, 2010 @ 3:41 pm

  17. I like Brooke. Though the book was imperfect it measured up well vis-a-vis internalist history books. On the broader question, I don’t think we’ll need mediators in the future. There’s all sorts of good scholarship from non-Mormons and Mormons coming out now.

    Comment by smb — August 14, 2010 @ 3:55 pm

  18. A couple of anecdotes. Northerner, I too have often cringed at the all the in-house talk at MHA (both believing and skeptical) but I don’t see that changing anytime soon, so I try not to let it trouble me. That reminds me about David’s point about EMSA. I remember the first conference where Davies kept reminding everyone of how to speak at an academic conference. The best was when he joked about how he couldn’t go to the highest kingdom after he died, we all laughed, and then he told us that we shouldn’t have laughed at that because it was an inappropriate joke for an academic conference!

    Davies does do great work, but Jan gets all the attention in the states.

    Comment by Steve Fleming — August 14, 2010 @ 4:13 pm

  19. MHA is not an academic organization and its conference is not an academic conference. It aspires to be scholarly — not academic — but makes room for the academic as well as the devotional and amateur and anecdotal and other varieties of historical commentary.

    It’s great that you academics are thinking so intently about the direction of your own brand of work, but please don’t sniff so disdainfully at other types of Mormon studies for not rising to your narrow professional requirements, especially when those other types of studies deliberately have goals and purposes other than the academic.

    That is all.

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — August 14, 2010 @ 4:30 pm

  20. Sorry Ardis 🙁

    Comment by Steve Fleming — August 14, 2010 @ 4:47 pm

  21. Me too Ardis…..hangs evocative head in shame

    Comment by David M. Morris — August 14, 2010 @ 4:48 pm

  22. I would hope, for example, that John Brooke?s The Refiner?s Fire would be met with a more nuanced reception if it were published today. Don?t misunderstand?there are plenty of legitimate critiques of Brooke?s work from a scholarly perspective, many of which I share. But it seems to me also that some of the negative reaction the book received from Mormon historians was because its provocative thesis was too radical for believing Latter-day Saints and challenged the standard story of Latter-day Saint beginnings.

    Hmm. I wonder about this. I think some of the blowback was because of the level of hyperbole in the book. I think the main contentions of the book vis a vis hermeticism were already largely shared by the most vocal critics. Remember Brooke came out in 1994. Orson Scott Card’s magic retelling of the Joseph Smith story came out in 1987 – 7 years earlier. And Card was read by a lot of people. So I think seeing Brooke as shocking can’t really explain things well. I think there just was an attempt in the early 90’s to push the esoteric angle within Mormonism but it was just done amazingly poorly.

    I remember being on Morm-Ant during those days (I used to have a full archive until a hard drive crash a few years back) and the real contention were the quality of argumetns being raised.

    Comment by Clark — August 14, 2010 @ 5:45 pm

  23. To add, I don’t want to suggest there weren’t people put off by Brooke’s thesis. Just that among the main critics I don’t think that was the case.

    Comment by Clark — August 14, 2010 @ 5:51 pm

  24. One last point. I think a solid telling of Mormon history in light of hermeticism is long, long overdue. As I recall a lot of people in the Morm-Ant discussions (including many writing those FARMS reviews you are critical of) agreed. The problem is that any such investigation has to deal with the fact many parallels have multiple explanations including rather standard explanation in terms of economics, straightforward scriptures, or mainstream Protestant heritage. I had hoped Quinn’s second edition of Magic World View would do this. But while the parallels were played up and he had a chapter explicitly responding to that Morm-Ant debate he never really engaged in an analysis of the parallels nor alternative explanations.

    And there really is a lot there that needs to be analyzed. It’s just that no one has yet done it.

    Comment by Clark — August 14, 2010 @ 6:23 pm

  25. Jared Hickman and I are planning a book for 2013 or so that will incorporate a significant amount of metaphysical/hermetic imagery within the Smithian corpus.

    And I agree with Ardis that MHA is not the place for everyone to mumble repurposed psychoanalytic terms with stern faces to an audience of nodders and shakers. (Some of that is fine, but I wouldn’t hold it up as the norm for MHA.)

    Comment by smb — August 15, 2010 @ 7:47 am

  26. I remember sitting in the faculty lounge a few years ago discussing possible hires. One senior professor said something to the effect, “I like her work, but, she’s not a Jew. Trying to do Jewish studies, she isn’t likely to have much of a career…” and then went on to explain why in his opinion she would have to change her focus…

    I took it with a grain of salt, knowing that what he was talking about was his own career’s past as her careers future…

    But he was right…after two books and tenure she moved onto topics where her work didn’t have to face such high hurdles to be accepted.

    Comment by Harold Curts — August 15, 2010 @ 8:18 am

  27. My apologies as well ..

    Comment by Northerner — August 15, 2010 @ 10:32 am

  28. Jonathan,

    I would agree with almost everything in your post. My point in making my comments was to point to the possible reasons why scholarship by Mormon students no matter how brilliant isn’t always taken seriously by non-Mormon historians (and part of that is prejudice), not to suggest that Mormon students are any more colonialist or naive than anyone else.

    I would clarify, though, what I mean when I suggest that Mormon scholarship needs to be decoupled from missionary work. I didn’t mean that people shouldn’t study the areas where they had went on missions and should have been more clear about that. What I meant is non-Mormon scholars often see work done by Mormons about Mormonism as ultimately being about their faith and worry that their ability to make critical judgments about their own faith.

    Is it unfair? Yes.

    But, I think that the blurring between scholarly and devotional language that people have pointed to (and since have apologize for doing so) is part of what leads to that. Mormon studies is still trying to find its niche. Even if we exempt the MHA as an organization that tries to be a space where believing Mormons can learn about their faith and as an organization that tries to foster scholarly conversation and thus, occupies an interesting place within conversations about Mormonism, there have been plenty of other equally embarrassing gaffes. The one that comes immediately to mind was the Library of Congress symposium of Brigham Young. I was still an undergraduate when it happened and yet, horror stories still circulate about people storming from the room in a huff because they felt like they were being preached to and about the awkward Q & A sessions at some of the panels. Such gaffes lead to the impression that Mormon scholarship is about promoting the faith rather than critically analyzing it. When people hear such gaffes, they tend to think of the missionaries who show up at their door.

    The point isn’t to delegitimize or scoff at other types of work but to point out that Mormon studies hasn’t quite found itself out yet. There are times when at academic conferences devotional language creeps in and times when people inappropriately criticize work that never sought to participate in an academic conversation in the first place.

    Comment by Amanda HK — August 15, 2010 @ 3:52 pm

  29. Smb I eagerly await your book. Maybe one of these days Nick Literski will finish his book on Masonry as well.

    Comment by Clark — August 15, 2010 @ 10:18 pm

  30. Clark, last I heard, Nick is no longer working on that book.

    Comment by Christopher — August 16, 2010 @ 7:32 am

  31. Word is that Nick had passed off the book to a friend committed to finishing it (though Nick can comment for himself). I also hear that Mike Homer is nearing completion of a treatment of Mormon Masonry.

    The book treating metaphysics isn’t even in prospectus yet, though Jared and I have had some productive discussions about it. I do treat Masonry in my chapter 7 of the death culture book, which should be out fall 2011.

    Comment by smb — August 16, 2010 @ 9:55 am

  32. That’s too bad, although perhaps understandable given Nick’s situation.

    When you say treating metaphysics what do you mean? Speaking as a person with a background in philosophy who cringes every time he walks into Borders and sees the “metaphysics” section. I keep wanting to go grab some hard core analytic philosophy books and put next to the magic books.

    Comment by Clark — August 16, 2010 @ 12:54 pm

  33. Read Cathy Albanese’s book Republic of Mind and Spirit. Using it in that sense. I don’t mean Aristotle’s book meta physikon (or whatever it was called).

    Comment by smb — August 16, 2010 @ 9:48 pm

  34. Her introduction for Republican of Mind and Spirit is available on Google Books. Quite good. I’m glad she defined her terms so well – quite at odds with how Quinn did it. I think that had he reigned in his topic like this he’d have had a much better book.

    Comment by Clark — August 17, 2010 @ 2:56 pm


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