The Story of a New Religious Tradition


The clue to what Jan Shipps’s book is about is contained in her subtitle, The Story of a New Religious Tradition. What Shipps has written is not a history of Mormonism in any conventional sense but rather an imaginative book-length essay, particularly of the early history of the movement, wherein she advances the following thesis: Mormonism ought not to be dismissed as “little more than an elaborate idiosyncratic strain of the nineteenth century search for primitive Christianity” (68) nor should it be perceived as a peculiar Protestant denomination; rather, Mormonism ought to be compared to early Christianity in that it is to traditional Christianity what primitive Christianity was to the Judaism of the era, that is, a movement that started as an effort to restore an old faith and ended up becoming a new religious tradition. To substantiate this view, Shipps employs her own version of what could best be called a comparative “history of religions” approach and evidences the kind of insight that can be gained when a subject is studied, if not on its own terms, then in relatively nonreductionistic terms. In this case, that means studying Mormonism as what it obviously is, a religion.

In the first part of the book, in the chapter entitled “Prologue,” the author presents a rather straightforward account of the beginnings of the Mormon tradition in the early part of the nineteenth century with a focus on the indispensable role played by the Prophet Joseph Smith. This is followed by a chapter on the Book of Mormon entitled “In the Beginning. . . .” Here Shipps introduces the technical interpretive categories of myth and sacred time. Those who early on accepted the Book of Mormon as a Hebraic record and also a second witness for Jesus Christ participated, according to Shipps, in the formation of a new myth. The coming forth of this book, its confirmation of Joseph Smith’s prophetic calling, and the collective experiences of the early members of the Church combined to form a new mythos and a new sense of time: the “new dispensation of the fulness of times” (52, 59). It is unfortunate that the author did not pay more attention in this chapter to the literary and ritual motifs found in the narrative of the Book of Mormon, since these would seem to support further her main thesis.

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