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RELIGION | BOOK REVIEW

Mormons' Long, Strange Trip to the Mainstream

SOJOURNER IN THE PROMISED LAND Forty Years Among the Mormons; By Jan Shipps; University of Illinois Press; $34.95, 424 pages

March 17, 2001|RALPH FRAMMOLINO | TIMES STAFF WRITER

There's just something about the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints--the Mormons--that provides an endlessly fascinating study of faith in motion.

It is strange and familiar, traditional and dynamic, ambiguous and certain. Long relegated to the fruits and nuts aisle of the world's religions, this peculiarly American church has transformed itself over the last 170 years from theological oddity to institutional powerhouse. And its ability to redefine itself, as well as its exponential growth, has provided material for academics eager to explore its success and philosophical contradictions.

One of the more prominent is Jan Shipps, whose name is on the Rolodexes of religion reporters around the country. A professor emeritus of history and religious studies at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis, Shipps is a recognized expert on what makes Mormons tick.

Her interest in church culture was piqued in 1960, when she moved to Logan, Utah, with her family for nine months. She experienced firsthand the dichotomy of life among Mormons, where the world is divided between "Saints" (church members who believe they are spiritually adopted Israelites) and "Gentiles" (everyone else). As an outsider looking in, Shipps, a lifelong Methodist, spent the next 40 years studying the church and public opinions about it.

"Sojourner in the Promised Land" is a compilation of her essays, ranging from an evaluation of Mormonism's founding figures to explaining facets of its Byzantine theology. Her working thesis is that the church survived since its founding in 1830 because it is more than a belief system; it is a tribe, an ethnicity, a separate culture of "peculiar people" created through revelation, persecution and shared hardships. This "otherness" was sealed upon the early Mormons by their great trek to Utah, where they established their Mountain kingdom. Isolated, the Saints dedicated themselves to preserving their identity and the in-gathering of converts.

But a funny thing happened on the way to building Zion, and this is where Shipps' analysis is sharpest. Just as conquest changed Rome, spiritual growth changed Mormonism. In 1890, it was forced to drop its most cherished and reviled belief--polygamy--in return for political legitimacy and statehood. Later, during the post-World War II boom, the church's geographic distinction was blurred when many of the faithful were scattered to other areas of the country. And finally, Shipps argues, the church's closely guarded culture was, in a sense, undermined by its own relentless missionary push, which has resulted in more people joining via conversion than from births in established Mormon households.

Meanwhile, there was a shift in public perception of the church. Once considered polygamous oddballs, Mormons emerged from the tumultuous 1960s as the media darlings of Middle America--"neat, modest, virtuous, family-loving, conservative and patriotic people."

The convergence of these forces has had a big effect on Salt Lake City. Church authorities, while clinging to their spiritual heritage, are now de-emphasizing differences. In response to evangelicals who claim the church is an un-Christian cult, they've dropped the use of "Mormon" or "LDS," an abbreviation for Latter-day Saints, as references to members in official communications. Mormons are increasingly calling themselves Christians, while their leaders have emphasized more Christian themes in the presentation of the church, Shipps writes. The church has also redesigned its logo to emphasize the words "Jesus Christ" in the name.

Shipps says these changes show that, after more than 125 years of holding to its separateness, the ever-expanding Mormon church now has enough self-confidence and sense of identity to stand shoulder to shoulder with other traditional Protestant denominations, whose congregations are dwindling. In short, the Mormons have become mainstream.

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