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).