Book Review: “Jan Shipps: A Social and Intellectual Portrait”

Jan Shipps: A Social and Intellectual Portrait: How a Methodist Girl from Hueytown, Alabama, Became an Acclaimed Mormon Studies Scholar
By Gordon Shepherd and Gary Shepherd, Published by Kofford Books
Year Published: 2019
Number of Pages:  240
Binding: Available in Cloth and Paperback
ISBN: 978-1-58958-768-7 (hardcover); 978-1-58958-767-0 (paperback)
Price: Hardcover 34.95; Paper 24.95; E-Book 22.99

“I’m tired of sex, and I want to get back to history!”

( Jan Shipps: A Social and Intellectual Portrait p. 57)

Now that I have your attention, I want to tell you about “Jan Shipps, A Social and Intellectual Portrait: How a Methodist Girl from Hueytown, Alabama, Became an Acclaimed Mormon Studies Scholar” (apparently the authors were competing with Parley P Pratt for the “Longest Mormon Book Title” award[1]) a most excellent little book written by brothers Gordon and Gary Shepherd and published by Kofford Books.

“Jan Shipps, A Social and Intellectual Portrait” is a unique, two-part, book on the life and contributions of Jan Shipps.  Part one is a 112 page long biographical sketch of the life of Shipps and constitutes the first fives chapters of the book.  Part two is about the same length as part one and is divided into three chapters, an epilogue, and an appendix.  Chapter Six discusses “Major Intellectual Influences and Turning Point Events”. Chapter Seven is very unique and extremely interesting and is titled, “Career Comparisons with Fawn Brodie and Juanita Brooks”. Chapter Eight covers “Personal Views on Religion and Feminism,” the epilogue reflects on Shipps’ legacy, and the appendix is Shipps’ voluminous Curriculum Vita as of 2001 (it is fourteen pages long and filled with tiny print! Shipps published a lot!) 

“Jan Shipps, A Social and Intellectual Portrait: How a Methodist Girl from Hueytown, Alabama, Became an Acclaimed Mormon Studies Scholar” is exactly what the title says that it is: a brief “portrait” that shows how a Methodist girl born in a small, unincorporated community in segregated Alabama, three weeks before the Great Depression started, became a premier scholar, historian, and writer who changed the world of Mormon Studies forever.  Now, when my copy arrived my first reaction was, “why do we need a one-hundredish page ‘portrait’ of Shipps life when she already has a four hundred-page long autobiography?”[2] But I quickly realized that the Shepherd’s had written the perfect book and format to introduce Shipps and her accomplishments to a new generation. 

Image result for jan shipps at mormon history association
Jan Shipps presenting at a Conference

As I write this review in early 2020, “Mormon Studies” is made up of a fairly large and diverse crowd. This mixed body of trained professional scholars includes women and men who work for LDS Church, the Community of Christ, as well as various educational institutions.  There are also many independent Mormon Studies scholars, both professional and amateur, who are members of these previously mentioned bodies and many of the other branches of the Joseph Smith Restoration movement.  There are even many scholars involved in Mormon Studies who have never been “Mormons” at all.  While these various groups of scholars have different approaches and ideas, they have over the last several decades frequently worked and published together and shared documents and findings. 

This modern state of Mormon Studies that we are used to in the twenty-first century is quite different from when Shipps entered Mormon Studies in the 1960’s.  At that time, those involved in Mormon Studies were a small, fractured bunch.  Most of the them were men, they were mostly employed by the LDS or RLDS Churches, these two groups got along only slightly better than the Capulets and the Montagues, and any publication that was not seen by these institutions as “faithful” was labeled as “Anti-Mormon.” For people who are too young or too newly involved to remember the “old days”, “Jan Shipps, A Social and Intellectual Portrait” provides an introduction to what Mormon Studies in the Mid Twentieth Century was like as it takes it readers on a journey to learn how Jan Shipps became one of the major catalysts that gave us the current world of Mormon Studies.

Continuing on this idea, I think that the most important contribution of the Shepherd’s “Portrait” of Shipps is that it can function as a primer for how to do Mormon Studies right.  In the first chapter, the Shepherds establish that early in life, Shipps saw her parents working with African Americans and demonstrate that was taught to look past her biases and be willing to work with others who were different than she was.  Then they show that how as an adult, Shipps was able to use what she had learned to find a balanced approach to her writing and bridge the various communities of Mormon scholars.  On top of the problems of the previously mentioned community divisions, Shipps entered academia when writing was often critical and she entered Mormon Studies when Non-Mormons didn’t take it seriously unless it was critical. On entering this divisive state, Shipps was able to write as a “serious scholar who was not a critic or debunker” (p. 69), she “was interested in the impact of religious ideas and beliefs on individual behavior and social action” and “understood the underlying human element of religious beliefs and would not discount the importance of understanding the impact of religion in peoples’ everyday lives” (p. 79).  In addition to her unique perspective, her ability to approach her subject without (or at least with minimal) bias, and her excellent writing and research skills, Shipps “was able to able to obtain more nuanced insights about Mormonism from a variety of scholars, while also becoming an important go-between person in the overlapping networks among LDS and RLDS historians of that period” (p. 77).   The Shepherds then give the full story of Shipps writing, scholarship, contributions, and bridging efforts in Mormons Studies. 

Obviously, Shipps was only one part of a movement in a time of change that involved many other scholars including Leonard Arrington, that led to “The New Mormon History” and the modern state of Mormon Studies, but the Shepperd’s not only make a *great case* for Shipps bring one of the major, vital, important cogs that allowed the “New Mormons History” to happen and for Mormon Studies to exist as it does now, they also, even if unintentionally “wrote the book” that explains how young, up and coming Mormon scholars can emulate Shipps and continue to shape the world of Mormon Studies that is to come. 

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Juanita Brooks

This review is already too long and there is still so much to tell you about! Just do yourself a favor and get a copy of this book and read it, okay? It is excellent.  If you do not get a copy for what I have already described, THEN get it for part two, especially for Chapter Seven, “Career Comparisons with Fawn Brodie and Juanita Brooks.” Each of these three women on their own are absolutely fascinating. They have contributed three of the most vital and important books in Mormon Studies history.[3] BUT until now, no one has compared their lives and stories, their work, and experiences.  My only complaint here is that this chapter is only about 40 pages long, I could have rad a whole book that was about these three amazing women and their contributions!

“Jan Shipps, A Social and Intellectual Portrait” ends with a brief discussion on Shipps legacy, but though the books’ epilogue on Shipps legacy is short, the Shepherd’s clearly demonstrate in this book that Shipp’s legacy and contributions will last for a long, long time.  So, of you want to have a greater understanding of Modern Mormon studies, read this book!

OH, by they way, SORRY, but if you want to know more about the Sex Stuff, you will just have to buy the book and read it!

Q&A with Gordon and Gary Shepherd for Jan Shipps: A Social and Intellectual Portrait

[1]Parley Pratt LOVED to give his books LONG titles, for example, “Mormonism Unveiled: Zion’s Watchman unmasked, and its editor, Mr. L. R. Sunderland, exposed: truth vindicated: the devil mad, and priestcraft in danger!” (YES, the Exclamation point was part of the title!) For more on this fun subject see “Adventures of a Mormon Bookseller: Title Fights!” by Curt Bench,

[2] Sojourner in the Promised Land: Forty Years among the Mormons, University of Illinois Press; December 19, 2000

[3] Brodie wrote “No Man Knows My History: The Life of Joseph Smith”, published in 1945 by Knopf, Brooks wrote “The Mountain Meadows Massacre” published in 1950 by The University of Oklahoma Press, and Shipps wrote, “Mormonism: The Story of a New Religious Tradition” published in 1985 by The University of Illinois Press.

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