Signifying Sainthood

Every religious, ethnic, or cultural group or sub-group adopts certain markers by which the group’s members can signify or announce their identity, both internally and externally.  The well-respected historian and observer of Mormonism Jan Shipps, in a published lecture called Signifying Sainthood (2002), reflects on “how Saints tell the world and each other who they are” (8).  She explains that “the primary purpose of signifiers, which is the maintaining of boundaries that make possible the continuing existence of a community of peculiar people” (24).

“At their most evident, cultural signifiers center on the following:

  • Ritual actions that have a public dimension
  • What persons put in – and what they do not put into – their bodies (dietary restrictions)
  • What person do with (and to) their bodies
  • How persons clothe and groom themselves
  • Familial structures” (16)

When it comes to public ritual actions, Latter-day Saints identify themselves in such ways as the celebration of Pioneer Day, church attendance, their fairly unique posture of prayer, with head bowed and arms folded across the chest, and with the ritual phrase by which prayer is universally closed: “In the name of Jesus Christ, Amen.”  This category might include the practice of hanging photos of LDS temples or of the current LDS prophet in one’s home.

With respect to dietary restrictions, the most prominent boundary marker is the Word of Wisdom – the LDS teaching that prohibits use of tobacco and alcohol, among other things.  Shipps observes:

“Not only was the Word of Wisdom a means by which Saints identified themselves to outsiders; it was also a very effective means of communication where one stood inside the Mormon community” (9).

Signifiers related to dress and grooming can include the tradition of wearing a white shirt and tie for sacrament meeting, or the practice of displaying a CTR ring.  Facial hair or long hair “can cause concern on the part of the local church leaders about the strength of a Mormon man’s testimony” (23).  While “the intent of wearing a temple garment is not to send a signal of membership to anyone” (22), the garment does function in that manner, since “all sorts of giveaways reveal whether someone is (or is not) wearing a garment” (10).  Other signifiers in this category might include wearing BYU gear or LDS-themed T-shirts.

The large size of LDS families is another marker.

“Family size works as a signifier inside the LDS community because Saints always seem to be looking to see how many children per family there are.  Morever – and this is a dead giveaway of cultural signifiers – large families are a staple of intra-cultural Mormon humor” (18).

In the end, Shipps argues that some of the traditional signifiers will probably lose significance in coming years.  For example, as Americans become more health conscious, fewer people smoke – making Latter-day Saints less distinctive in this regard.  The size of LDS families is decreasing.  She concludes:

“Besides the Book of Mormon as an additional scripture, the other true Latter-day Saint distinctive…is the temple and the rituals that are performed therein.  Consequently I am persuaded that Sainthood increasingly will be signified by things connected with the Latter-day Saint temples” (26).

“Once the most compelling agents of division were whether people in the LDS cultural universe were birthright Saints as opposed to converts and, within the choice world of birthright Saints, whether individuals could establish connections to the pioneer generation.  The eradication of those dividing lines will be long in coming, and they may never disappear completely.”

“Yet the emergence of the crucial salience of the temple within Mormonism means that, as time goes on, the possession of a temple recommend will very likely become the primary means of separating the sheep from the goats inside the Mormon fold.”  (27)

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