Wise Man vs. Shepherd Mormons

by: hawkgrrrl

January 17, 2012

There have been many analogies to illustrate the different types of Mormons:  Iron Rod vs. Liahona Mormons, Adam types vs. Eve types, TBMs vs. Liberal or Cafeteria Mormons.  All of these analogies are trying to illustrate that there are very vocal, orthodox, unquestioning members, and there are also members who are unorthodox in how they view things, ask more questions, may be anti-authoritarian, and march to the beat of a different drum.  The point of these analogies is that both types have precedent in church history and scripture and both should be accepted, despite the natural misunderstandings between the two groups due to their very different perspectives.

Recently a friend proposed another metaphor in light of the post-Christmas season:  Wise Men Types vs. Shepherd Types. As I’ve given this metaphor more thought, I like what it has to say about human nature in general and Mormonism in particular.

First of all, despite whatever is going on in your store-bought Nativity scene, in scripture, the wise men and shepherds never meet.  They are from competing narratives (timing is also completely different).  The wise men only appear in the gospel of Matthew (chapter 2, verses 1-16) which was written primarily for a Jewish audience, to bolster Jesus’ authority.  The shepherds only appear in the gospel of Luke (chapter 2, verses 8-20) which was written for all people, to show the universality of Jesus’ message and mission.  Both of these aims are pretty important, but they are also designed to talk past one another.  In fact, they are competing approaches to scripture that occur throughout the Pauline epistles, too.  Early missionaries had to strike a balance between appealing to converts (including the rich and powerful which would really open a door) and appeasing the existing members who naturally gravitate to the message.  In fact, a lot of writings of the early church (e.g. Origen) are defending against the charge from outsiders that Christianity was merely a religion for poor people and women. 

In essence, the wise men narrative bolstered the authority of Jesus through a few means:  1) they were outsiders who worshipped Him, 2) they brought expensive gifts that held symbolic meaning, 3) wise men were intellectually and socially superior – they advised kings – so their word held more weight, and 4) they unwittingly tipped off Herod who went on a genocidal rampage – oopsie!  By contrast, the shepherds symbolized the universal appeal of the message:  1) shepherds were common in all places, very much locals, 2) they didn’t have any special gifts of discernment but received a bigger than life vision that was so straightforward it didn’t require any interpretation, 3) they were viewed as humble, and 4) they proselyted about their experiences to everyone who would listen (although by contrast, Mary kept these things and pondered them in her heart).

Matthew 2: 1 – 16 (Wise Men Type).  From the scriptural account, let’s see if there are some personal characteristics we can apply to modern members:

1 Now when Jesus was aborn in Bethlehem of Judæa in the days of Herod the king, behold, there came wise men from the east to Jerusalem,  They are viewed as outsiders from the east.

2 Saying, aWhere is he that is born bKing of the Jews? for we have seen his cstar in the east, and are come to dworship him.  They had spiritual gifts to discern signs.  They understood symbols.  They also wanted to worship and come to Christ.

3 When Herod the king had heard these things, he was troubled, and all Jerusalem with him.  They had confidence to go straight to the earthly king.

4 And when he had gathered all the chief priests and scribes of the people together, he ademanded of them bwhere Christ should be born.  They weren’t intimidated by earthly authority.

5 And they said unto him, In Bethlehem of Judæa: for thus it is written by the prophet,  They were literate and knew the scriptures.

6 And thou aBethlehem, in the land of bJuda, art not the least among the princes of Juda: for out of thee shall come a cGovernor, that shall drule my people Israel.  They could quote scriptures and understood the significance and context.

7 Then Herod, when he had privily called the wise men, enquired of them diligently what time the star appeared.  Kings listened to their interpretation of symbols, advice and counsel. They were trusted by successful, wealthy people.

8 And he sent them to Bethlehem, and said, Go and search diligently for the young child; and when ye have found him, bring me word again, that I may come and worship him also.  Herod attempted to manipulate them (unsuccessfully).

9 When they had heard the king, they departed; and, lo, the star, which they saw in the east, went before them, till it came and stood over where the young child was.  They took action based on their own study.

10 When they saw the star, they rejoiced with exceeding great joy.  They felt joy when they achieved their spiritual quest.

11 ¶And when they were come into the house, they saw the young child with Mary his mother, and fell down, and worshipped him: and when they had opened their treasures, they presented unto him gifts; gold, and afrankincense, and myrrh.  They brought expensive gifts with spiritual significance.  (I used a steam room that was frankincense scented once – it smelled like corn chips dipped in VapoRub).

12 And being warned of God in a adream that they should not return to Herod, they departed into their own country another way.  They were capable of receiving and understanding subtle revelation.  They weren’t fooled by Herod’s power.

13 And when they were departed, behold, the angel of the Lord appeareth to Joseph in a dream, saying, Arise, and take the young child and his mother, and flee into Egypt, and be thou there until I bring thee word: for Herod will seek the young child to destroy him. 14 When he arose, he took the young child and his mother by night, and departed into Egypt: 15 And was there until the death of Herod: that it might be fulfilled which was spoken of the Lord by the prophet, saying, Out of aEgypt have I called my son.  16 ¶Then Herod, when he saw that he was amocked of the wise men, bwas exceeding wroth, and sent forth, and cslew all the children that were in Bethlehem, and in all the dcoasts thereof, from two years old and under, according to the time which he had diligently enquired of the wise men.  There was unintentional significant blowback from their willingness to talk to Herod who used that information to try to snuff out Christianity before it was potty-trained.

Luke 2: 8-20 (Shepherds)

8 And there were in the same country shepherds abiding in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night.

 9 And, lo, the angel of the Lord came upon them, and the aglory of the Lord shone round about them: and they were sore afraid.  They were intimidated and overwhelmed by significant spiritual experiences.

 10 And the angel said unto them, Fear not: for, behold, I bring you agood tidings of great bjoy, which shall be to all people.  They needed assurance from God to be made to feel safe.

 11 For unto you is aborn this day in the city of David a bSaviour, which is Christ the cLordThey had to be told the significance of scripture.

 12 And this shall be a asign unto you; Ye shall find the babe wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger.  They needed specific instruction to understand signs and symbols.

 13 And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God, and saying,  14 aGlory to God in the highest, and on earth bpeace, good will toward men.  15 And it came to pass, as the angels were gone away from them into heaven, the shepherds said one to another, Let us now go even unto Bethlehem, and see this thing which is come to pass, which the Lord hath made known unto us.  They were compelled to action by their spiritual experiences.

 16 And they came with ahaste, and found Mary, and Joseph, and the babe lying in a manger.  They were excited to seek Christ.

 17 And when they had seen it, they made known abroad the saying which was told them concerning this child.  They were quick to proselyte.

 18 And all they that heard it awondered at those things which were told them by the shepherds. 19 But Mary kept all these things, and apondered them in her heart.  They behaved differently than Mary and the people who heard what they said. They were enthusiastic and emphatic, but the rest of the people wondered and pondered.

 20 And the shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all the things that they had heard and seen, as it was told unto them.  They were blabbing non-stop about their experiences.

Both types have quite a bit in common:  spiritual experiences, they seek Christ, they recognize His divinity and worship him when they find him.  But there are also some key differences:

Wise Man type:

  • Seekers.  They will study and travel to find wisdom they seek, regardless the danger or personal cost.
  • Intellectual and scholarly.  They are well read and have discernment and understanding.
  • Worldly, exposed to many different cultures and belief systems.  They are comfortable and confident explaining things to people from other cultures and backgrounds and they listen to add to their wisdom.
  • Connected to the mythological and symbolic meanings in scripture.  They may get bored with practical application or repetition for its own sake.  They want to progress in their quest for wisdom.
  • May be more reserved in sharing their views (they’ve been burned before).  They may like sharing information in Gospel Doctrine, but might be more reluctant to speak up in testimony meeting.  There is more going on under the surface that is unstated and complex in this story.

Shepherd type:

  • Protective.  They are very concerned about protecting the flock from scary outside predators.
  • Practical, pragmatic.  They live in the real world, live off the land, and aren’t afraid to get their hands dirty and do what needs to be done.
  • Provincial, isolated in views about faith.  They are the humble locals who aren’t necessarily going anywhere.
  • Responding well to literal instructions, not necessarily to symbolic or obscure meanings.  They may really like the idea of “likening scriptures to ourselves” and personal application.  They may view scriptures as 100% literal and have a tendency to aggrandize personal spiritual experiences.
  • May be willing to share their views with everyone, regardless the response received.  They probably like to talk a lot in testimony meeting, without a lot of nuance.

Do you believe these two types explain a lot of the differences between members in wards?  Which type are you?  Or are you elements of both?  Which type makes the best bishop?  Do we have leaders in the church of both types?  Discuss.

Tags: , , ,

19 Responses to Wise Man vs. Shepherd Mormons

  1. Stephen Marsh on January 17, 2012 at 6:13 AM

    That was interesting Hawk.

    Like this comment? Thumb up 4

  2. anita on January 17, 2012 at 8:33 AM

    Interesting analysis! Another way to look at this is the view that Matthew was writing to show Jesus’ Davidic authority, so the characters he incorporated into the infancy narrative were associated with kings: Joseph (rightful heir to Judah), Herod, wise men. Luke, on the other hand, was demonstrating Jesus as the high priest, and showed temple connections (Zecharias, Anna, Simeon, shepherds who were the witness to the firstborn lamb for temple sacrifices).

    Like this comment? Thumb up 0

  3. Paul on January 17, 2012 at 8:38 AM

    “They were viewed as outsiders from the East.” As soon as I read this line, I knew where you were headed… (I, like you, I think, am a convert from the East…)

    Very interesting thoughts. I am a little uncomfortable about some of the generalities you draw from the specifics (for instance: the warning in a dream is “subtle” revelation to the wise men, but angels’ appearing is a significant spiritual experience; the shepherds were afraid at the angel’s appearance but that’s generalized to all significant experiences; the suggestion that they received comfort and help with signs suggested that they needed those things seems a bit of a stretch), but the arc of your analysis is quite compelling.

    “have a tendency to aggrandize personal spiritual experiences” — not sure where that came from for the shepherds. After all, the whole thing was (in your words) a significant experience. How did they aggrandize it?

    Like this comment? Thumb up 2

  4. Course Correction on January 17, 2012 at 8:58 AM

    Interesting analogy, but I doubt it will catch on like “iron rod Mormons” and “Liahona Mormons.”
    Calling oneself a “Wise Man Mormon” smacks of hubris.

    Like this comment? Thumb up 2

  5. NewlyHousewife on January 17, 2012 at 9:06 AM

    The idea is there but the scriptural readings is a far stretch.

    Wise Men were wealthy, educated, and knew how to read and write. Shepherds were poor, educated in their occupational field and likely did not know how to read and write.

    It would make sense that if someone was not directly familiar with scripture passages they would need everything to be verbally explained. Much like a person getting baptized.

    Like this comment? Thumb up 1

  6. Nope on January 17, 2012 at 9:52 AM

    Let me guess … you consider yourself a Wise Man Mormon, right? As if there were any question …

    The way you’ve described these two proposed types is loaded with praise for one and disdain for the other: one is intelligent, independent, self-actuated, successful; the other is stupid, sheeplike, compelled to action from outside, and poor. Oh, and babbles.

    It isn’t a fair analogy at all, when you heap all the positive adjectives on one side of the scale and dump all the negative ones on the other.

    Like this comment? Thumb up 3

  7. L-dG on January 17, 2012 at 11:16 AM

    C’mon, ‘nope’ (#6), that’s hardly a fair characterization of the post. Reading the final summaries of their differences, one could argue that the Wise Men types are airy-fairy and afraid to bear testimony, while the Shepherds are doing the real heavy lifting of gospel living by turning theological abstractions into concrete reality.

    Personally, I would say the above is also unfair, and that the actual post is rather more nuanced.

    Like this comment? Thumb up 4

  8. Ryan on January 17, 2012 at 11:22 AM


    If this is meant as satire of that “intellectually and socially superior” mentality commonly espoused by liberal Mormons, then bravo. It is very amusing.

    If it is not intended as satire (and I’m guessing it’s not) then it is still very amusing, not as satire of liberal arrogance, but rather as an example. What makes it funny is that you don’t appear to be aware of this. You seem to actually believe conservative Mormons would be only too happy to put themselves in the Sheep Mormon category (OK, you said Shepherd, but clearly meant Sheep) on account of our lack of fantsy learnins like all y’all Wise Man Mormons.

    Like this comment? Thumb up 1

  9. dpc on January 17, 2012 at 1:57 PM

    Maybe the categories should be changed to “Zoroastrian Mormons” and “Pastoral Nomad Mormons” to dispel the negative connotations associated with Wise Man and Shepherd…?

    Fan Favorite! Do you like this comment as well? Thumb up 4

  10. GBSmith on January 17, 2012 at 3:08 PM

    Ryan on January 17, 2012 at 11:22 AM

    If this is meant as satire of that “intellectually and socially superior” mentality commonly espoused by liberal Mormons, then bravo. It is very amusing.

    If it is not intended as satire (and I’m guessing it’s not) then it is still very amusing, not as satire of liberal arrogance, but rather as an example. What makes it funny is that you don’t appear to be aware of this. You seem to actually believe conservative Mormons would be only too happy to put themselves in the Sheep Mormon category (OK, you said Shepherd, but clearly meant Sheep) on account of our lack of fantsy learnins like all y’all Wise Man Mormons

    Now, now, don’t get so defensive. When I read the piece my sense of the shepherd category was they defend, care for and nurture. I’ve never had a bishop that didn’t exemplify that and at the same time none that I recall checked their brains at the door. They were all thinkers but I suspect saw themselves as shepherds of a flock as any good pastor would.

    Shepherds aren’t necessarily conservative and wise men aren’t all liberal. We are what we are.

    Like this comment? Thumb up 3

  11. hawkgrrrl on January 17, 2012 at 4:06 PM

    Interesting reactions. Clearly, in the ‘nacle, tying anything to TBMs adds the same old stereotypes to it. What I like better about this version (not that it is my preferred analogy – I was just drawing it out) is that it’s quite clear that the church can’t survive without the Shepherd types. The wise man types are ever on the fringes, despite their spiritual gifts (reading signs), so they are basically not essential for daily running of things.

    Personally, I think I have elements of both. I’m definitely one of the reliable ones who shows up regularly, does my callings, makes sure the building is clean, etc. But I’m not keen to talk openly about spiritual experiences and I tend to downplay them and be skeptical. I’m sure there are many people who are a mix of both.

    As to the shepherds blabbing and aggrandizing their experience, I was torn. Scripture stories are evidence of what? What happened (implying they needed to be clubbed over the head) or what people claim happened (implying they needed to aggrandize their experience)? We can never say for sure.

    Like this comment? Thumb up 1

  12. Ryan on January 17, 2012 at 4:09 PM


    >>We are what we are.<<

    Well, I certainly can't argue with that.

    Now, if you'll excuse me, I've been intimidated and overwhelmed by the spiritual experience of reading a Wise Man Mormon's post and I need specific instruction to understand these most interesting signs and symbols. I will be careful not to aggrandize my personal spiritual experiences, but, lucky for me, I get to blab non-stop about them! Here's to being a Blind Sheep Mormon!

    Like this comment? Thumb up 1

  13. hawkgrrrl on January 17, 2012 at 6:34 PM

    Both dpc and Course Correction make a great point – the term “Wise” (and the implication of “sheep”) makes this analogy seem more inflammatory than it is.

    The other thing to reiterate is that these two “types” of people didn’t co-exist. Each was used in the Bible to illustrate a specific quality of Christianity to potential followers; the description of each plays up those elements that will be attractive to that specific audience. The Jews, who rejected Christianity as heretical, would be more impressed by educated outsiders bolstering Jesus’ authority. People in general would be more impressed by the idea that no matter how humble one’s circumstances, spiritual experiences would be available to them directly and they could be on equal footing. People probably still aspire to these two types of ideals – either to an accredited scholarly outside perspective (desiring 3rd party confirmation of our beliefs) or to the everyman ideal. The entire history of Christianity plays up these two ideals.

    Like this comment? Thumb up 2

  14. jmb275 on January 17, 2012 at 8:34 PM

    I guess I don’t see what’s so bad about being a shepherd style Mormon, even if it has all the BS being imputed to it that Ryan is claiming? Seriously, aren’t most Mormons followers? Don’t we sing “Follow the Prophet”? Don’t we defer to his wisdom? Why is it so bad to admit it? No one is accusing anyone of being a mindless sheep. But clearly some of us carve out our own path, some of us prefer to follow in the wise footsteps of others. Some want to broaden the tent, others want to protect the group. So what?

    I thought it was a new and interesting way to look at it Hawk. I can sort of see what Ryan is saying because frankly, it’s hard to draw any analogy to the masses that doesn’t appear to juxtapose them with a more “enlightened” but smaller group. OTOH, 50% of the personality types in the world are SJs (guardians and followers) so why would we not expect that?

    Like this comment? Thumb up 1

  15. Jake on January 18, 2012 at 11:01 AM

    I am totally a shepherd Mormon. I don’t see what the angst is about being one. I love the idea of looking after sheep, and telling them what to do and where to eat grass and the such.

    Wise men are simply lame. I mean who wants to live in a tent as an outsider? I’ve read the Book of Mormon and I know how non-fun that is.

    Like this comment? Thumb up 1

  16. el oso on January 18, 2012 at 6:41 PM

    I think that the church has swung much of the focus towards a “wise man” type in my lifetime. Years ago the “miraculous events” of one or a few were regularly preached and testified. This has been been replaced with a “study the Book of Mormon and other scriptures for yourself” approach. The church is still full of “shepherd” types who have miracles in their life that they want to share in testimony meeting. There seems to be a small bias against calling the pure shepherd types to leadership callings.

    Like this comment? Thumb up 1

  17. Glenn Thigpen on January 18, 2012 at 8:02 PM

    Much ado about nothing. There is only on road to get to where we all want to go. It is pretty straight and narrow, as far as what it allowed spiritually. It does not matter whether one is though of as a “Chapel Mormon” or a dissenter, or whatever. The only thing that really matters is the type of lives the “Chapel Mormon” and the dissenter Mormon are living. The Church is wide enough to accommodate many different types of personalities and schools of thought. It would be a dull place if everyone liked the same things, talked the same way, etc.
    There is no “Chapel Mormon” versus the dissenter Mormon in the church, unless one wants to make it an issue. It is all of us striving to be the best person that we can be and lending a helping hand to those we can.


    Like this comment? Thumb up 1

  18. M.Taylor on January 19, 2012 at 9:27 PM

    Nice post, Hawkgrrl. I like your breakdown and analysis of the scriptures in association with the two types. Definitely adds another dimension to the Correlated/Uncorrelated discussion. And I agree that the “Wise” and “Sheep” semantics make this a bit more inflammatory than actually intended, but overall a very interesting read!

    Like this comment? Thumb up 0

  19. M.Taylor on January 19, 2012 at 9:39 PM

    el oso – Very interesting thought, that the church could swing back and forth between “wise man” mode and “shepherd” mode. I think you’re right that in some ways there is a shift towards “wise man” mode in the study of the scriptures, the opening of the Joseph Smith Papers project, the warming up towards the MHA (Mormon History Association)… many of the things that Armand Mauss referred to recently as the “rolling back of retrenchment.” Will be interesting to see where things go in the future.

    Like this comment? Thumb up 0


%d bloggers like this: