February 23, 2009

Sharing a cab with Jan Shipps

It was 4:30 AM and I was sitting in the front room of the Irving House Bed and Breakfast waiting for Jan Shipps. We'd be sharing a cab to the Logan International Airport in Boston, the flight to depart shortly after 6. The "Faith and Knowledge" conference at Harvard was over; just five hours earlier Jan sat in that same front room telling stories with a handful of conference participants. She fielded questions about decades worth of  work in Mormon studies, but what struck me as much as her memory and candor was her kindness. It wasn't indulgent, airy kindness-- more leathery and solid than sugary, but it infused every word. I realized this must be one reason she has so successfully played the role of an outside-insider, religiously a Methodist, but a wonderful academic Mormon.

She appeared at the bottom of the stairs with her suitcases and greeted Richard Bushman (he'd been reading the New York Times online in the front room). He helped her to the cab with her luggage, said goodbye, and I became her captive audience for the thirty-minute drive. Not that she was looking for an audience; if anything she was ready to go back to sleep since we'd kept her up past midnight. She asked if I could sleep well on airplanes and I wondered how many miles she'd spent in the air between conferences, lectures, and archival research.

I asked her a little about the book she's been working on for the last ten years and she noted how she hopes to have it done pretty soon, especially considering the declining health of her husband. The topic traces the changes in Mormonism since World War II. She was headed from Boston to Logan, Utah where she'd be giving a lecture and doing some archival research for the next two weeks.

I wanted to share something with Jan, somehow let her know that I appreciate her work and that I've thought about the strange position she fills in Mormon studies. Having recently finished reading the collected letters of C.S. Lewis I thought about the parallel between he and Jan. Lewis is still claimed by many Christians inter-denominationally, though he remained a devout Anglican after his conversion to Christianity. Every so often he'd receive a letter asking why he wasn't Catholic or Presbyterian or something along those lines. I described some of the letters to Jan and she smiled when I asked her if she'd encountered the same thing.

"Oh yes, oh yes," she responded, "They say 'you know so much but you could have so much more!'" Looking straight forward with her hands folded on her lap she just smiled.  

We talked about a lot of other things but this exchange stuck with me especially because it helps along my general impression that God is working with many wonderful people in many different ways to bring about his "strange act" (Isaiah 28:21).

Since the 60s when Jan began Mormon history has matured impressively. She pointed out the ebb and flow of interest, access and quality she's noticed throughout her career and spoke of her excitement for recent projects in LDS historiography. During the conference after Richard Turley announced the death of Larry H. Miller (who has provided much of the financial backing for the Joseph Smith Papers project) he took his seat again next to Jan and I heard her ask if the project would be alright. The concern in her voice was alleviated when he assured her things would go forward. I'm glad she's around to see the recent developments in Mormon studies, and who knows but that Jan Shipps has come to the kingdom for such a time as this?

(Image adapted from Wikipedia)


J. Stapley said...

Lovely anecdote. I met Jan a couple of years ago and agree that she is so very kind and sincere.

BHodges said...

Thanks, JS

rick said...

Thank you, Ben, for covering this conference. I look forward to more of your posts regarding it.

BHodges said...

Technically my name is Blair. ;)

And you are welcome.

rameumptom said...

I met Jan Shipps a year or two ago at an LDS seminar at IUPUI (Indiana U/Perdue U in Indianapolis), where she chairs the religious studies dept. What a remarkable woman.

Among other things, She shared how LDS immigrants struggled with the reality of living in Utah. One woman who was in the Ogden area (IIRC), would go out her door every morning and curse the mountains before her. When she was asked why she didn't just leave. She said that it was her home.

BHodges said...

Oh, and she mentioned that her biographer is Phillip Barlow, which was news to me!

Sione said...

Just thought you'd forget that I was riding in the same cab. Sheesh

BHodges said...

Sure, Sione, but you weren't a part of the anecdotes I shared though. ;)

Sione said...

Hey, do you know David Larsen's blog address?

BHodges said...


Kevin Barney said...

Thanks for sharing that. I gave Jan a ride once at Nauvoo during JWHA, but it was just from the temple to the CoC building, so no great insights to report there. But I certainly agree with your characterization. And it's interesting that Barlow is working on a biography. That makes sense with him now at USU.

BHodges said...

Yeah, Jan was heading up to Logan for the next two weeks to do some archival research. I believe she spoke at some function of the Religious Studies Program last night as well.


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