Guest Post: Hearing Sister Shipps

by Stephen Marsh

Jan Shipps recently spoke at the Legacy Chapel in Plano, Texas to a capacity crowd — chapel and overflow filled. She had a lot to say, much about her own history and why she is comfortable as a Methodist and what she sees as her calling to explain the LDS to the outside world and how that came about. She also confessed that the LDS entry in Encyclopedia Americana was written as a way to explain the Church to reporters and other outsiders and save herself the 30 minute introduction she had been forced to generally give them.

She also had some interesting perspectives that gave me pause.

For example, the LDS Church as a religious tradition flowing from what was, somewhat, also an ethnic and cultural group.

Polygamy as the driving force behind creating an ethnic group (for a time — long enough to prevent assimilation and to create a foundation) out of the “Mountain Saints.” Correlation, changes in funding local congregations, correlation and standardized buildings as tools that prevented the Church from fracturing and that instead provided a home for LDS anywhere they can be found.

Or seeing the Church as originally presenting in four layers:

Restored Church
The Blood of Israel
The Restoration of All Things

With the restoration having faded away into the Temple, the Blood of Israel having been subsumed into the Church as the Restored Church of Christ and the two layers that now face the world being the restored priesthood and the restored Church of Christ, which leaves the LDS Church as having one real layer at this time: The Restored Church of Jesus Christ.

She obviously had a lot more to say. But she was very positive about correlation and about standardized architecture. She had a completely different view of plural marriage and its place (she saw it as creating an ethnic group out of a people in a time span of scores of years instead of hundreds of years). She saw non-fragmentation as an important success (and I wonder what she would have said about the fragmenting power of same sex marriage as it tears other churches apart, sundering American branches from the rest of the world).

Most importantly was the completely different perspective she had on many things. I’ve mentioned plural marriage above, or standardized architecture as not only saving money but creating a sense of home anywhere a member goes and muting the dividing line between wealthy and poor congregations — as she saw it, a thing of grace and beauty. I dare say few discuss it in those terms.

It makes me wonder what other insights one gets from having an outsider’s eyes and values looking in at the Church, with its dual layers of being a separate culture and speaking a separate language. How many members appreciate the Church as much as she seems to have, or find it as fascinating?

Hearing her made me wonder what I needed to hear from myself and to wonder what others heard from themselves once they had heard her.

Stephen Marsh is a 49-year-old litigator living in the Dallas-Fort Worth Area. He and his wife Win are the parents of five girls, two of whom are still living. He blogs at and is otherwise on-line at He currently serves as the co-chair of the activity committee in his ward.

17 thoughts on “Guest Post: Hearing Sister Shipps

  1. Interesting. Particularly to think of the upside of polygamy, correlation, and other things the dark sides of which get alot of air time in the bloggernacle.

    The beauty of bland but simple, sound, and uniform architecture did occur to me on my mission (northeastern Brazil).

    The church’s ubiquitous buidlings were a sort of missionary tool–people I contacted or taught often needed no directions (“I know, I know, you guys go to that beautiful church on the Rua das Nefas (or whatever)” they would often say when we tried to give them directions). In one of my areas (Ala Alecrim, Natal), we had great success in the neighborhood immediately surrounding that city’s stake center–beside convenience, the stake center’s neighbors had years of good impressions of the building and the people coming and going from it.

    It was also interesting to teach an investigator who was also a builder who had worked on church projects. He had great admiration for the church before ever learning any doctrine due to the quality of construction that (according to him) was extremely rare in that part of Brazil. It occurred to me that the solidity (if you concentrate, perhaps you will hear the hymn in the back of your mind right now “how firm a foundation …”) of the standard church building was a good symbol for the church itself.

  2. In many countries the Church’s ward buildings are a sign of the Church’s great wealth, prosperity and success. They have a crisp modern and clean appearance which stands out as a obvious LDS symbol — sometimes even in stark contrast to the neighborhoods where the building stands. In Guatemala where I served my mission, the Catholic church was known for having large spacious buildings but the evangelicals often met in a variety of different settings. The LDS buildings definitely are identifiable in comparison.

    The idea that a polygamous group becomes a distinct ethnic group in a shorter period of time than a monagymous group is a very interesting idea to consider.

    This was a great post. Thanks to Stephen M. for sharing the thoughts and perspectives he took away from Shipps’s presentation.

  3. How firm a foundation, indeed. Nice report, Stephen.

    I think the comment about the relative sameness of Church buildings bridging the gap between rich and poor in the church is very insightful. In recent years the brethren have counseled affluent wards to stay within allotted budgets for youth activities even when parents want to chip in to pay for much more extravagant plans. In Zion we should not have rich and poor among us but should have all things in common.

    I believe the positive effects of polygamy must have outweighed the negative or the Lord would not have instituted it. My parents are converts but my children have some of the blood of that Mormon ethnic group Shipps talks of. And I’m pretty sure the missionaries that tracted my parents out have it too.

  4. Jan Shipps is widely regarded as the best historian of Mormonism (whether Mormon or not). Her book Mormonism: A New Religious Tradition, published in the early 80s was truly groundbreaking. In 1988 I took a Religious Studies class at the University of Texas and this was the main text for the course (we also used books by Hansen, Bushman, and others). Her main thesis is that Mormonism is to historical Christianity what NEw Testament Christianity was to Judaism. Just as the early Christians were Jews and yet somehow something apart from Judaism, so Mormons were (are) Christians but at the same time something else as well. The parallels are actually quite striking and, when you think about it, help tie Mormonism to ealry Christianity in a way not often contemplated, even by Latter-day Saints. Although Shipps does not get everything right, she comes very close and is able to provide insights that both critics and apologists often do not see.

  5. I’m curious about this “ethnic group production” thesis. Can you take a group of white people mostly from one region of the US (and later Western Europe) and make them into an ethnic group via teaching them different doctrines, economic practice and an increased reproduction level? My hunch is that there’s more to ethnicity (which is often constructed as it is based in actual differences) than different ideas and economic practice (the latter of which has pretty much lost its place).

  6. Chris, what is interesting is that in the 19th century both Mormons and many non-Mormons actually spoke of Mormons as a race. Now part of that is caught up in the racism and frankly the xenophobia of that period. (Especially given that most of the American elite considered America a protestant nation – Mormonism was a threat to that) So I think that there are even textual reasons to think Shipps is right here.

    Also note that while today we think of whites as a more or less homogenous whole, in the 19th century there were huge divides between groups. Those from southern Europe were distrusted and looked down upon both because of their appearance and their religion. (The term “swarthy” as a put-down was common in this era, as was distrust of “Papists.”) Northern Europeans also had their own problems. Several of my Swedish relatives were frequently beaten by teachers with racist comments made quite frequently – mainly because they were first generation immigrants and couldn’t speak the language well and were socially different due to culture. One could go on.

    Today we think of racism in terms of Asians as a homogenous group or “Blacks” as a homogenous group. But in 19th century America, the complaints about those group’s treatment was probably applicable to most non-British Europeans. Non-caucasian peoples were simply treated as sub-human, as we can see in 19th century slavery as well as the frequent de facto slavery of Chinese.

    The notion of being blood Israel or adopted into blood Israel really was a very interesting view. I think Shipps downplays its disappearance though. I think many people take the lineage part of their Patriarchal Blessing quite seriously. Likewise I think we take the lineage of native Americans as blood Israel quite seriously as well. (Although the DNA attacks on this are quite silly, as the 19th century doctrine of adoption pretty well invalidates the entire premise behind their attacks)

  7. One more brief comment, I’ve long thought that polygamy did for early Mormons what the Law of Moses and circumcision did for Jews. (And, to much less an extent, what the Word of Wisdom does today) It really did form us as a people. So did our exile. Indeed, in many ways the typology of the early Mormons followed the Exodus. And Utah was considered our Israel. (Note how many early geographical names follow the geography of Israel) I don’t think that association can be downplayed. (I’d note that at the upcoming Mormon History Association conference there is actually a talk that will touch upon these points, I believe)

    Even scholars looking at the practice of Joseph Smith’s practice of polygamy argue for it being primarily for dynastic purposes. (i.e. Todd Compton) In other words even the way the leading brethren had people sealed to them – both as spouses or as children) was to create a kind of tribal whole to the Mormon community. Everyone became related not just via religious commitment, but through blood ties.

    So there really is a lot supporting her thesis.

  8. Clark, thanks for the explanation. I would certainly agree with the idea of classifying the LDS as a unique “people.” I think much of our history and our own doctrine justifies this. Putting in terms of 19th century ideas about ethnicity works, though I’m generally skeptical about modern claims to ethnicity (though I’d be hard pressed to say why; I think it has to do with my conservative upbringing).

  9. Orson Scott Card is fond of saying that the Mormons are the only ethnic group that you can choose to become a part of (paraphrasing). It rings true to me.

  10. The same might be said for those who choose to convert to Judaism (at least I think so …)

  11. Ethnic groups such as Gypsies, Southern Italians, Polish, etc., are a solid part of the American landmark, and one of the original targets of Planned Parenthood (which planned to purge the nation of all of them by birth control and abortion and eugenics). Much of what creates those groups is not racial markers (in the old sense of “race” such as it is used in Ivanhoe, for example) but a combination of interrelationships. I’m half Greek. Blond and fair skinned, but then a significant group of Greeks are, just like a similar group of Northern Italians. But I’m Greek.

    I’m also LDS. Easily a culture, a tradition and to many people still an ethnic group. Study Utah Mormons for a while. The Church never became completely an ethnic group (though many outsiders think so), but an ethnic group interrelationship is one of the markers it bore that brought it intact through the early 1900s.

    What many people miss is just how close the Church came to extinction. Look at what are often called the “dark years” when few scriptures were used in lesson manuals, when the Church was headed to where the RLDS (the “plains” states) have gone — a group that has some folklore that is of less importance to them than Welsley is to the United Methodists …. Consider where President Benson found the Church in terms of reading the Book of Mormon.

    The ethnic group aspect is part of what enabled the Church to survive and that still unites significant parts of the Church and its leaders.

    I also agree that Polygamy had a significant impact in setting the LDS as a people apart, a role that the Word of Wisdom took over for a while (especially back in the days that young adults put the WoW #1 as the most important commandment, chastity at #14).

    It is interesting the way Shipps sees the Church as a new tradition, much like the Protestant movement was/is.

    And interesting just how many threads come together to weave the identity of what makes up the Church.

    I’m not saying she has them all, just that she helps us see threads we miss.

  12. Wait. This “ethnic group” thing only goes so far. A convert to the church, because he/she has no previous cultural or familial ties to Mormonism, if he/she goes inactive or leaves the church will cease to be “Mormon.” In that sense, not all Mormons are “ethnic Mormons.”

  13. Guess I need to answer Ronan and others in that Shipps does not think that the LDS are currently an ethnic group. Just that at one time, they had all the elements of one, before the growth that overtook the Church following 1960.

    Looking at that, I reflected on how the ethnic group elements helped the Church get from 1880 to 1940 while remaining the Church.

    Hope that clarifies things. But Ronan is right. Marry an Italian and you can become part of the ethnic group. Divorce them and you’ve divorced the ethnic group (though your children can well remain a part of it).

  14. I think that’s a good point Stephen. The last 40 years have significantly changed the church. At the same time the identify we have is because of what went on the earlier 100 years.

  15. I’m very gratified at the comments and response to this guest post. I submitted two, and this was the one I really was afraid no one would have any interest in, but the one I thought had some points of broad interest.

    I’m still thinking over some thoughts I had in 1997 as they carry through to today and reprise thoughts of mine in 1980 or so about women, the Church and leadership.

    I know that as of 1997 (last time I talked to anyone who had talked directly with our prophet) the leaders of the Church were very concerned about having more leadership from the women in it.

    I also know that from the 1940s on the Church has been very, very aware of the problems you get from mixing men and women in small groups in leadership positions (or why Relief Society Presidents meet with Bishops as a part of correlation meeting and not one-on-one). Over and over and over again the history of the Church has disasters that overtook people, wards, stakes and communities, not to mention precious families and the children, from leaders who bonded too tightly when in small groups.

    No one seems to engage on that point when they discuss ordaining female leaders and mixing things, but it is why men can not serve in Primary presidencies. Every test run has come to a bad end. Especially with Bishops now no longer subject to the 5 years and release rule, I can see many issues.

    Anyway, I’m still wondering about how the Church will meet the need for more leadership and especially the additional leadership that the brethren seem to long for from the women in the Church, within the very real limits that at least fifty years of experience have shown us.

    And, I’m still hoping to find Richard Otenyo, Marcella and others from my past who I always expected to see ushering in important things.

    I know, a post script to a successful essay should have conclusions, not a confession that I don’t have answers on an important part of the debate. I’m just an observer and have been for a very long time.

  16. Interesting comments by Jan Shipps…who seems to understand us very well from an objective and outside observer standpoint.

    Some of the comments remind me of what I heard from a BYU student who was at the Jerusalem program a few years ago (just before they closed it; I hope it will be able to reopen soon.) He said they had a professor come from a Hebrew University and talk to them about the dietary laws of Moses. In the question and answer period, one BYU student made the comment that the Lord gave the dietary laws to the Hebrews because in a place where there was no refrigeration, it provided important health benefits.

    The professor almost exploded. “What is it with you BYU students? You always make the same comment! There may have been a health aspect to it, but the principal reason the Lord gave them the dietary laws was to set the Lord’s people apart from the people amongst whom they would be living.”

    Perhaps that was one of the principal reasons for polygamy, and the Word of Wisdom, too.

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