A Visit with the “Den Mother of Mormon History”

On our way home from the Restoration Studies Symposium, Mike and I stayed overnight Sunday at “Balmy Gilead Farm” — the home of Jan and Tony Shipps, nestled in the woods just east of Bloomington, Indiana.  The visit was a mixture of southern country hospitality and reminiscences of the golden age of Mormon studies, alongside discussions of current research and events in the field.  Jan has hardly let her eighty-two years slow her down, as the list she shared with us of her upcoming lecture trips, projects, and books proved.

Right: Tony, Jan, and myself (holding Mr. Darcy) yesterday at Balmy Gilead Farm.

Jan and Tony’s home is in an idyllic setting. Every day Tony feeds the deer and in the summertime Jan feeds dozens and dozens of hummingbirds (it’s not quite the season yet, but the many hummingbird feeders were set out on the kitchen counter in anticipation).  This trip, much of the wildest activity and attention centered around the newest member of the Shipps household: Mr. Darcy, a young dog Tony acquired while recovering from illness a few years ago.

The road to Balmy Gilead Farm.

The home of Jan and Tony Shipps.

Where the bucks literally stop.

Tony playing harmonica while Mr. Darcy sings.  (In the foreground, the Shipps’ granddaughter’s dog wags his tail appreciatively.)

Jan has been a close friend and mentor for many years. Jan was president-elect of the John Whitmer Historical Association back at the first conference I attended in 2003.  When she invited me to serve on her program committee for the 2004 conference, it marked my first real foray into Mormon studies.  (Although I was relatively well-read in the field, all my previous work had been in my actual area of specialty, Medieval European history.)  Since I now hold the position Jan had held at JWHA, we both saw this visit as something special, completing a circle.  There was, I think, some justifiable (mutual) pride, when Jan observed, “you and I have accomplished some great things together.”

Jan is a southern lady and her home, her hospitality, and her cooking all embody that.  After a drink or two in the living room, we moved our visit to the kitchen, where we helped prepare a delicious southern meal:  country-fried steak on rice with gravy and creamed corn cut fresh off the cob.  The cooking part of the visit could almost have been a story from “A Prairie Home Companion” with southern Methodists taking the place of Minnesota Lutherans.  The croissants that were served with dinner — and the next morning at breakfast with home-made cherry jam — were from the Methodist ladies’ auxiliary.  Each spring the Methodist ladies’ auxiliary sells croissants as a fund-raiser and because you just can’t find rolls quite so good any other time in Indiana, Jan buys three whole bags which she keeps in the freezer for use all year round.

Helping (and visiting with) Jan in the kitchen.

Southern goodness: country-fried steak, rice and gravy, creamed corn cut fresh off the cob, broccoli, and a croissant from the Methodist ladies’ auxiliary.

Coupled with this wholesome, homely goodness was talk about current events and projects.  Jan’s current book — as yet untitled, but focusing on Mormonism since WW2 — included unprecedented access by an outsider to LDS leaders.  She spent months in Salt Lake, conducting interviews with the apostles and presidency that were conducted 1×1 with just her and her recorder.  She shared a number of insights (which I won’t repeat), but which will surely will make her already much-anticipated work even more anticipated.

In turn, I shared recent and upcoming releases from John Whitmer Books and JWHA and related some of what had been presented at the recent conference.  In particular, I told her about a conference “after-party” that Mike and I had with the other BCC folks in their hotel, which I thought was reminiscent of Jan’s famous “Smokers” — as Stan Kimball dubbed the parties Jan traditionally held in her hotel room at conferences of the Mormon History Association.  Then and now, half the insights (and more than half the fun) of scholarly conferences are had through these informal visits.

Much has changed in Mormon Studies since the early days of MHA, but I’m glad you can still catch a glimpse of that golden age when you visit Balmy Gilead Farm.


  1. John,
    Thanks for the post. Could you summarize the the most notable changes you’ve seen since you began your foray into Mormon Studies to now?

  2. Forget the Mormon Studies! I want some country fried steak and a croissant from the Methodist Ladies Auxiliary!

  3. Thanks for the post. Back in the early days of my foray into Mormon History, Jan was kind enough to have me at her home and serve me pie. I was grateful then that she would be so open to a new scholar and I have appreciated it since.

  4. Loved the photos, John, as well as the article. What a wonderful, quiet corner the Shipps seem to have found for themselves in their twilight years. And what I wouldn’t give to be able to go back to some of the meals and treats we were served during our years in Mississippi and Arkansas! White Southern cooking doesn’t have the same reputation as Black Southern cooking, but it’s nothing to sneeze at.

  5. What a treat. Thank you so much for sharing and for pictures!

  6. Mmiles (#1): In my relatively short years of involvement (2003-present), there have been a number of important developments. We’re still in an era when the first generation of pioneers like Jan are with us, although their role is more emeritus than it was in 2003. At that time, there was still much hand-wringing at MHA that the association was entirely grayed — I’m sure there’s still hand-wringing, but the situation was much more worrisome then than now. There’s been a very significant influx of young scholars into the field and there has been a great deal of baton-passing (examples include Kristine’s editorship of the flagship institution, Dialogue, and my own presidency at JWHA). Also, although it must be acknowledged that the current work is done on the shoulders of the pioneering giants, I believe that much of what is being done now is far out beyond what had been done.

    The additional institution of the Mormon Studies chairs at Utah State and Claremont — which Jan was so instrumental in creating — along with the graduate students they have attracted will no doubt change the field forever, even if the question of day-jobs for Mormon Studies scholars is totally unresolved.

    From JWHA’s perspective, although we haven’t addressed the graying issue as well as MHA, we nevertheless have turned around what had been a declining institution (as recently as the late 1990s) and expanded it to its all-time heights. (This year we will have two conferences, while publishing four journals full of original articles, and perhaps half a dozen more original books.)

    Still ahead for both institutions (MHA & JWHA) is addressing the decline of print. This has effected the most journalism-like publication (Sunstone) first, and Dialogue has already been wary of the horizon. For the Journal of Mormon History and the JWHA Journal (along with Mormon Historic Studies, Restoration Studies, BYU Studies, etc.), the situation is less caught up with the decline in print journalism and will be part of the future of academic publishing — can we have scholarly associations without print journals? — but, in the here and now, everything is on relatively even kilter, and is at a real height in breadth and depth.

  7. Kevin Barney says:

    Outstanding, John! Thanks for sharing. (Jan’s hotel room was right across the hall from mine at my very first MHA in Kirtland.)

  8. This was great, John; thanks for giving access to what seems like a fun outing.

    And I, for one, share your optimism for the Mormon studies future—even if a lot of the particulars (jobs, print, etc.) remain unresolved—as well as a deep appreciation for what the pioneering generation of Mormon history did for the field.

    I’m happy to try and keep up with a movement that includes Jan Shipps and John Hamer.

  9. it still seems like interest in this stuff is at an all time high due to the internet. there used to be too much of a barrier to entry to get into mormon history. now its as easy as w-w-w-

  10. John, Thanks for your response.

  11. me (#9): I agree — and certainly the bloggernacle has been helpful in funneling fresh young faces into MHA and in massively increasing interest in Mormon history. However, the internet giveth and taketh away. There is value to institutions like MHA and JWHA whose membership dues are intimately tied up with the publication of a print journal. Going forward, we have to square the reality that all content distribution in the future will surely be through the internet (and likely will be free) with the need to fund institutions like MHA and JWHA that have encouraged that content to be created and semi-professionalized.

  12. Vickie Speek says:

    Thank you, for the report, John. Jan is one of my very favorite persons, gracious and helpful, and I want to be just like her when I grow up.

  13. reed russell says:

    Thanks for the fun report, John. And many thanks for a great symposium.

  14. Mommie Dearest says:

    Great post that makes my procrastination of other things worthwhile. Now I am anticipating her next book too.

  15. Great report John. But did you have to include the food pictures? Sheesh.

  16. How fun! Thanks for sharing John.

  17. Susan W H says:

    Without the Internet we wouldn’t have this wonderful glimpse into the lives of the folks formerly thought to reside in Ivory Towers. Thanks so much John. One detail I notice is the array of prescription bottles and medicines next to the stove. That’s where my husband keeps all his pills too.

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