The Indispensable Source
by Philip Barlow
Lawrence Wright’s 17-page New Yorker article on The Church of Jesus
Christ of Latter-day Saints may have set a record among the dozens of
journalists covering the "Mormon angle" of the 2002 Winter
Olympics. Not until the last line of the first column of the last page did
it mention Jan Shipps, the emeritus Indiana University-Purdue University
professor whose judgment has grown beyond prominence to dominance as a
source for reporters writing about Mormonism. (See companion article, The Mormons Score a 9.6)
More typical was Newsweek’s September 10 cover story on the
church. Although religion editor Kenneth Woodward spent weeks interviewing
Mormons and scholarly scrutinizers of Mormonism, the one expert he cited was
Shipps—and her repeatedly.
In 15 "Mormons and the Olympics" articles from such papers as
the New York Times, Salt Lake Tribune, Arizona Republic,
USA Today, Denver Post, Boston Globe, Christian
Science Monitor, and Los Angeles Times, Shipps was cited two
dozen times. This was more than four times the frequency of any other
figure, be it another scholar, an official Church spokesman, Salt Lake
Olympic Committee President Mitt Romney (Mormon), or Salt Lake City mayor
Rocky Anderson (non-Mormon).
Indeed, these proportions do not change much inside the groves of
academe. Shipps is the most frequently cited living authority on Mormonism
among American religious historians who specialize in Mormon studies,
including the specialists who gather annually as the Mormon History
And even with the highest governing authorities of the LDS Church, Shipps
enjoys a special esteem. Apostle Dallin H. Oaks, for example, has publicly
designated her as "that celebrated Mormon watcher."
How has Shipps become Mormonism’s indispensable expert?
She is not a Mormon, a fact that promotes trust when she speaks of the
movement to the non-Mormon world. While she is not the only distinguished
outsider to have studied the religion, she has focused on it at such length
(for over 40 years) and with such thoroughness that there are few—inside
or outside the church—who cannot learn from her.
She is also possessed of a genius for discovering and forging conceptual
categories and metaphors that make the elusive apparent. These she
communicates with brevity, authority, and flair.
Indeed, she is fluent in all the necessary vernaculars: academese,
mediaspeak, and what might be called Mormonish. Faithful Mormons, and the
scholars and reporters who study and cover them, all tend to find in Shipps
a gregarious, balanced, competent, and above all comprehensible mediator.
So what is the vision of Mormonism that Shipps mediates?
Its core is that this is a legitimate religious expression; that its
devotion to Jesus Christ is earnest; and yet that the church’s nature is
sufficiently distinct that it cannot rightly be classed as one more slightly
idiosyncratic form of Christianity.
The movement’s sacred stories, singular history, open canon of sacred
texts, exclusive priesthood, unique rituals, theological goals, and
Hebrew-Christian consciousness combine to render Mormonism not merely
"different" but "other." Mormon Christianity is to
traditional Christianity what Christianity once was to Judaism: a new
The Shipps take on Mormon-ism is not only shrewd and plausible, it has
proved palatable to outsiders and insiders—a significant accomplishment.
But it is valid only up to a point.
Mormonism’s rich, enigmatic, and multi-faceted legacy has been explored
since the mid-20th century through a virtual explosion of scholarship by
many different experts, at a depth and breadth that has come to rival the
study of America’s Puritans. Mormonism today is as layered as baklava and
as global as McDonald’s.
To view so complex a reality through a single lens is rather like
thinking one can comprehend American Protestantism by speaking with Martin
Marty. Jan Shipps’ vision may be a necessary condition for understanding
Mormonism. It is not a sufficient one.