May 1st, 2007

The Mormons, Part One

Last night was part one of PBS’ mini-series titled “The Mormons“. The documentary’s producer, Helen Whitney, previously claimed that her work would “shatter stereotypes”.

Having watched the first of two segments last night, I firmly believe that it will only serve to strengthen and solidify previously held stereotypes. Sure, the uninformed viewer might have learned a fact or two for their “gee whiz” file, but the information presented and the manner in which it was discussed was far from what is required to break stereotypes and shatter illusions.

Last night’s two hours were dedicated to the history of the church—or, as much as can survive the editing room and be considered good material. What Whitney apparently deems good material was heavily based around the Mountain Meadows Massacre and plural marriage. An even-handed history of the Church in two hours would require much more emphasis on other subjects left untouched by last night’s segment, and much less emphasis on and rehashing of the very stereotypes Whitney was claiming to “shatter”.

As the Deseret News article points out:

The Mountain Meadows Massacre segment runs 19:34, which seems somewhat excessive in light of the documentary’s length.
And Whitney undercuts her own stated goal of dispelling stereotypes by spending seven minutes on modern-day polygamists. The documentary makes it clear they’re not members of the LDS Church, so why confuse the issue?

Testimonies and opinions were gathered from both sides of the issues, presumably in an effort to be “fair and balanced”. Elders Holland and Oaks had brief statements to share, LDS Church Historian Elder Marlin K. Jensen had a little to say, and LDS author Terryl Givens shared quite a bit, while disbelieving historians, current polygamists, and axe-grinding former Mormons were given equal air time to share their two cents.

Would I encourage non-members to watch “The Mormons”? Probably not. Perhaps tonight’s concluding episode, focusing more on the efforts of the modern Church and its beautiful fruits, will balance out a negatively-portrayed Church history mired in controversy. Such a focus on history, while important, is not without its own complications:

What we do about history matters. The often repeated saying that those who forget the lessons of history are doomed to repeat them has a lot of truth in it. But what are ‘the lessons of history’? The very attempt at definition furnishes ground for new conflicts. History is not a recipe book; past events are never replicated in the present in quite the same way. Historical events are infinitely variable and their interpretations are a constantly shifting process. There are no certainties to be found in the past. (Gerda Lerner, via Quoty)

The history of our Church should certainly be explored, defended, and explained. We are an organization of imperfect people, with faults of our own, despite any heavenly mandate we may receive. Peter cut off a soldier’s ear and denied Christ thrice; Jonah initially abandoned Nineveh to its own deserving fate; Christ drove out moneychangers with a whip; Moses slayed an Egyptian. Controversy has surrounded men of God from the beginning of time, and our day certainly is no different.

While some may grasp onto the imperfections of others (as is facilitated by last night’s segment), Christ taught us to judge by fruit. Certainly a tree will produce a bad apple now and then, but the bushel should not be judged by the exception or rarity. Christ’s kingdom rolls onward with full force in our day, despite any seeming “controversies” that may have complicated its past.

If anything, “The Mormons” will hopefully encourage people—non-members and members alike—to more fully investigate the history and claims of the LDS Church. There are far better sources, however, than Ms. Whitney’s paltry portrayal of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

As one viewer has concluded,

While I had hopes that the program would be a fair-minded treatment of the Mormons, I learn instead that it is an ‘exposé’ of the ‘wrongs’ in Mormon history. It is a smooth but bigoted and unprincipled assault on the Church.

Here’s to hoping that tonight’s concluding segment is not as mean-spirited and negatively biased.

18 Responses to “The Mormons, Part One”

  1. Chris
    May 1, 2007 at 7:55 am #

    Agreed. I felt the same way.

    Many people in the church think we’re getting a fair shake in the media. Its just not true. This film proves it. Much of what is posted on LDS News Watch proves it as well.

  2. John
    May 1, 2007 at 9:04 am #

    The thing that annoyed me the most was people making assertions off of nothing.

    One dude compared Joseph Smith to a shaman and made a bunch of baseless claims on how he *thought* the prophet was faking it. Thanks for your thoughts, bro. How about telling us *why* you think that way?

    Another guy asserted that Brigham Young ordered the Mountain Meadows Massacre, but then admitted that the only thing we really know about the event was that it was purposely covered up. So you *think* he did then, what makes you think that?


    The most laughable part for me was when a female author talked about her grandmother’s trek across the west as a pioneer. Then she told us that she just couldn’t practice Mormonism because she didn’t have that faith. She had a faith… that was “based in uncertainty.”

    What the crap does that mean?!

    The thing I liked about the piece was that it drags out most of the controversial pieces of history the Church has grappled with. Anything that prompts the Church to continue to communicate and teach about these issues is great for me – because frankly I don’t understand some of them myself.

  3. Connor
    May 1, 2007 at 9:07 am #

    She had a faith… that was “based in uncertainty.” What the crap does that mean?!

    Glad to see I’m not the only one that found this statement completely absurd. 🙂

  4. Lee
    May 1, 2007 at 10:04 am #

    Beyond what has already been mentioned, my biggest complaint is that the “experts” were not identified with their institution–except in the instances of the Brethren. If non-members were watching, and I am not sure why any of them would, I don’t believe they would grasp which were official (or at least offered by believers) and which were offered by those who had no other connection than that their ancestor had sacrificed everything for their belief and was now watching on in horror at the pontification taking place. And what is with Terryl Givens getting so much air time? On a positive note, they did cover the First Vision. Often the focus is on Moroni’s visit and the visit by Heavenly Father and Jesus is completely bypassed. Perhaps the best non-member comment was given by the gentleman who said that the supernatural was part of Judaism, Islam, and Christianity, and if you denied that then you might as well forget the whole thing (okay, not his exact words, but something like that). And the lamest comment was from I believe the minister who said he did not believe Joseph saw Heavenly Father and Jesus but he did not believe Joseph made it up either. Come on now, it has to be one or the other!

  5. John
    May 1, 2007 at 10:40 am #

    One more thing: The pippi-longstocking painting of Moroni was freaky. I’ve never seen that painting before, and hope not to see it again.

    Where in the world did they get that thing?

    — John

  6. Connor
    May 1, 2007 at 10:47 am #


    Perhaps the best non-member comment was given by the gentleman who said that the supernatural was part of Judaism, Islam, and Christianity, and if you denied that then you might as well forget the whole thing…

    I enjoyed that comment as well. Some complain about Mormonism’s “wild claims”, but any religion is rife with supernatural elements and bold claims of revelation and divine intervention.


    The pippi-longstocking painting of Moroni was freaky. I’ve never seen that painting before, and hope not to see it again.

    And accompanied by the weird piano music, it certainly didn’t help in convey the message Moroni intended to bring. Instead, it made it seem like Joseph was having a drug-induced hallucination of some sort. With all the various pieces of art portraying Moroni’s visit to Joseph, one wonders why the “pippi-longstock” one was chosen…

  7. Chris Merris
    May 1, 2007 at 12:01 pm #

    I thought they got a lot of things wrong, and I would have told the story differently. I don’t think Helen Whitney set out to sabotage the Church’s reputation, though. She is giving her honest perception of us – and it seems to me to be one of the fairest media treatments our Church has received so far. Could be better, I don’t deny that.

    I believe in the grand scheme of things, this will lead to good for the Church.

    The Church’s history is controversial, very controversial. I don’t think we can ever get past that – but I believe that God knew it would be so when He chose to work with imperfect people. I also think this fits into His plan, and is part of the test. Part of the test is getting past all of the negative and giving the message of the Gospel an honest chance. Those who can’t (or refuse to) get past the controversy and actually pray to God with a sincere heart have failed the test (at least for now). I believe that this is part of the test for many, even those who discover things such as Mountain Meadows or Fanny Alger after they have been part of the Church for awhile. I have found my faith and testimony strengthened by going through the process – while some have lost their way because of it.

    I’m not saying we should go out and read anti-mormon literature, or explore what people have to say against the Church because we want to test our own faith. I do believe, however, that when God allows these facts/controversies/etc to come before our eyes, it is better to keep our eyes open and embrace the test, rather than close our eyes and try to ignore them. Honesty means embracing all truth – and not all truth reflects positively on the early history of the Church.

  8. Steve M
    May 1, 2007 at 12:43 pm #

    I thought they got a lot of things wrong

    What, specifically? I know that there were some factual errors, but I don’t think there were “a lot” of them, nor do I think that they were particularly glaring. Some people made some assertions that were clearly their own opinions (like the guy who said that Joseph Smith was a charlatan, or the guy who believed Brigham Young ordered the MMM), but these weren’t presented as fact and were pretty much always balanced with more moderate views.

    Overall, I think that Part 1 of the documentary was reasonably well-done. Some things bothered me (like how you didn’t always know whether or not the persons interviewed were Mormons), but on the whole, I was pleased.

    What I don’t particularly understand is Connor’s criticism that, Testimonies and opinions were gathered from both sides of the issues, presumably in an effort to be “fair and balanced”. How else would you suggest that the film maker be fair and balanced? Or would you rather that she not be fair or balanced? Certainly there are (at least) two sides to every issue, and just because you may not agree with non-LDS scholars or ex-Mormons does not mean that they should not have a word. I thought the documentary was pretty even-handed, for the most part.

  9. Steve M
    May 1, 2007 at 12:44 pm #

    BTW, I really liked your comments, Chris. I just had that one question. But I really agree with what you said.

  10. Drew
    May 1, 2007 at 12:53 pm #

    Hey Connor. Great comments. I don’t think I felt a mean-spiritedness from it, but you are dead on about “shattering stereotypes”… particularly when it comes to Mountain Meadows and polygamy. At the same time, however, it was a reminder that I am not as well informed on either of those issues as I should be. I have a friend in the Army who has always been interested in “my” church and I was hoping this would make for a good DVD to pass on to him… I’m dissapointed that because it reinforces the classic stereotypes this won’t be it.

  11. Allthoseinfavormaydosoby...
    May 1, 2007 at 1:16 pm #

    I think many are in the same boat as me including Connor:

    Some of the things I heard last night did upset me. The weird picture of Moroni and there was weird background music. I do believe it was done somewhat subjectively – just like all the other ones that are done every 5 years or so. There was too much time spent on the MMM and polygamy – but these things do spark an interest. Would you rather spend 15 minutes on how the bretheren came up with the word of wisdom? 🙂

    I think it was done pretty good for coming from an outside source. No one will ever be able to present the Church and what it means to you on a personal level. It is also difficult to swallow the ‘shadows’ of a religion some people think is perfect. The gospel is perfect, but alas the members who try to live it are not – and so it is hard sometimes to look at Church history and say ‘I am proud of that.’ Oaks comments on the MMM were sincere and very heart felt.

  12. Lee
    May 1, 2007 at 1:52 pm #

    A final thought from me (until after tonight’s segment at least). I too was freaked by the Moroni image; nothing Joseph reported about Moroni’s personage was captured by that artist–it was dark and foreboding, not “lighter than noonday.”

    If members rely on sources such as this documentary to get up to speed on our history, then we are indeed in a sad state as a Church. Each of us have a responsibility to learn our history and the doctrines and then be prepared to testify of the truth whenever an opportunity arises (when prompted by the Spirit).

  13. Steve M.
    May 1, 2007 at 3:06 pm #

    It seems like the Moroni painting bothered more than a few people.

    Just so everyone knows, it was done by J. Kirk Richards, an LDS artist. I noticed a couple of his paintings at the BYU art museum a couple months ago, and I’ve been really impressed with his work. When I saw the painting in the documentary, I suspected it might be his.

    The painting that appeared in “The Mormons” isn’t specifically of Moroni; rather, it’s called Idea.

    Check out Richards’ website. He seems to be a genuinely talented artist with a very distinctive style.

  14. Chris Merris
    May 1, 2007 at 9:05 pm #

    Steve M,

    Thanks for your comments – I really feel positively about the program – especially after tonight’s episode – which was very favorable toward the Church.

    I’d have to watch the program again and write down anything they got wrong in order to back up my statement that they got a lot of things wrong. Whether or not there were a lot of things – there were at least a few that were just a mark of bad reporting (i.e. they would not have occurred, had the reporters gotten the facts straight). The one that comes to mind – that really stuck out to me – was when they claimed that Christ came to the Americas during the three days that He was in the tomb – which is completely wrong.

    I feel positive about the program as a whole – and feel inclined to give them some slack with errors such as this – as they seem to me to result more from carelessness than a deliberate effort to defame the Church.

    Really – I believe this documentary was one person’s honest look into the Church – and it was very fair toward the Church.

  15. Steve M.
    May 1, 2007 at 10:25 pm #

    Christ Merris,

    I noticed that error too (the one about Christ’s visit to the Americas). I noticed a few more tonight.

    It would have been nice if they’d gotten some of these details right, especially since they’re common knowledge to most active Mormons. But I think they got most of the details right. I believe the majority of their errors were somewhat trivial.

    I really agree with your thoughts about the program. I thought Whitney did a really great job, when all is said and done.

  16. Shaun Knapp
    May 2, 2007 at 1:14 am #

    One more thing: The pippi-longstocking painting of Moroni was freaky. I’ve never seen that painting before, and hope not to see it again.

    Where in the world did they get that thing?

    – John

    Amen John. You make me laugh. I was annoyed that they took art, as unflattering as any I’ve ever seen to depict people and the religion, when there is such richness in painting, sculpture, music, illustration at their disposal that does so much better tell the story, our story.

    I guess this begs the question then of where are the Mormon Film Makers to do and make a documentary that will tell our story, not this BS trash that went out of it’s way to paint Joseph Smith in about as bad a light as they could get away with without total cries of unfairness. Anyone who is honest and objective (as many of these people were not were their agenda’s disclosed) acknowledge Joseph Smith to have revealed scripture that astounds even the honest disbeliever. He’s a thousand more times significant and wonderous, not of himself, but because he was the prophet raised up by Jehovah to restore the Prior Church that was being awaited by many, inculding Thomas Jefferson. Jefferson of course is censored too, and defamed by vicious truth haters, for he said this:

    “If the freedom of religion … can … prevail, the genuine doctrines of Jesus … will again be restored to their original purity, This reformation will advance with the other improvements of the human mind, but too late for me to witness it.” (A letter to Jaret Sparks, Bergh, The Writings of Thomas Jefferson, op. cit., 15:288; quoted in The Real Thomas Jefferson, by Andrew Allison, Washington, D.C.: The National Center for Constitutional Studies, 1983, p. 366.) (Quoted also in The Majesty of Gods Law, W. Cleon Skousen.p. 20.)

    On another occasion Jefferson wrote that he was “Happy in the prospect of a restoration of primitive Christianity.” (Letter to Dr. Benjamin Waterhouse, Bergh, The Writings of Thomas Jefferson, op. cit., 15:391.) Also quoted in The Majesty of God’s Law, W. Cleon Skousen, p. 20.)

    Yes, Joseph was remarkable, and even Leo Tolstoy recognized it:

    “Dr. White,” said Count Tolstoy, “I wish you would tell me about your American religion.”

    “We have no state church in America,” replied Dr. White.

    “I know that, but what about your American religion?”

    Patiently then Dr. White explained to the Count that in America there are many religions, and that each person is free to belong to the particular church in which he is interested. To this Tolstoy impatiently replied:

    “I know all of this, but I want to know about the American religion. Catholicism originated in Rome; the Episcopal Church originated in England; the Lutheran Church in Germany, but the Church to which I refer originated in America, and is commonly known as the Mormon Church. What can you tell me of the teachings of the Mormons?”

    “Well,” said Dr. White, “I know very little concerning them. They have an unsavory reputation, they practice polygamy, and are very superstitious.”

    Then Count Leo Tolstoy, in his honest and stern, but lovable, manner, rebuked the ambassador.

    “Dr. White, I am greatly surprised and disappointed that a man of your great learning and position should be so ignorant on this important subject. The Mormon people teach the American religion; their principles teach the people not only of Heaven and its attendant glories, but how to live so that their social and economic relations with each other are placed on a sound basis. If the people follow the teachings of this Church, nothing can stop their progress — it will be limitless. There have been great movements started in the past but they have died or been modified before they reached maturity. If Mormonism is able to endure, unmodified, until it reaches the third and fourth generation, it is destined to become the greatest power the world has ever known.”

    (From The Improvement Era, February 1939 [vol. 42], p. 94.)

    Because of his discussion with Count Tolstoy, upon his return to the United States Dr. White secured a set of the Church works and placed them in the Cornell University Library.
    (LeGrand Richards, A Marvelous Work and a Wonder, pp. 412-414)

    Where is that film and documentary to tell our story? Obviously PBS can’t and didn’t do the job.

    Spencer W. Kimball had this as part of his magnificent vision, and oh that we would see it accomplished:

    What is the future for BYU? It has long had a strong music department, but we have hardly begun the great work that could be done here. I envision that day when the BYU symphony will surpass in popularity and performance the Philadelphia Orchestra or the New York Philharmonic or the Cleveland Symphony.
    One great artist was asked which of all his productions was the greatest. His prompt answer was, “The next.”
    If we strive for perfection, the best and greatest, and are never satisfied with mediocrity, we can excel. In the field of both composition and performance, why cannot the students from here write a greater oratorio than Handel’s Messiah? The best has not yet been composed or produced. They can use the coming of Christ to the Nephites as the material for a greater masterpiece. Our BYU artists tomorrow may write and sing of Christ’s spectacular return to the American earth in power and great glory and of his establishment of the kingdom of God on the earth in our own dispensation. No Handel or other composer of the past or present or future could ever do justice to this great event. How could one ever portray in words and music the glories of the coming of the Father and the Son and the restoration of the doctrines and the priesthood and the keys unless he were an inspired Latter-day Saint, schooled in the history and doctrines and revelations and with rich musical ability and background and training? Why cannot the BYU bring forth this producer?
    George Bernard Shaw, the Irish dramatist and critic, summed up an approach to life: “Other peoples,” he said, “see things and say, ‘Why?’ But I dream things that never were–and I say, ‘Why not?'” We need people here who can dream of things that never were, and ask, “Why not?”

    For years I have been waiting for someone to do justice in recording in song and story and painting and sculpture the story of the Restoration, the reestablishment of the kingdom of God on earth; the struggles and frustrations; the apostasies and inner revolutions and counterrevolutions of those first decades; of the exodus; of the counterreactions; of the transitions; of the persecution days; of plural marriage and the underground; of the miracle man Joseph Smith, of whom we sing, “Oh, what rapture filled his bosom, for he saw the living God!” and of the giant colonizer and builder Brigham Young, by whom this university was organized and for whom it was named.
    The story of Mormonism has never yet been written nor painted nor sculptured nor spoken. It remains for inspired hearts and talented fingers yet to reveal themselves. They must be faithful, inspired, active Church members to give life and feeling and true perspective to a subject so worthy. Such masterpieces should run for months in every movie theater, cover every part of the globe in the tongue of the people, written by great artists, purified by the best critics.
    Our writers, our motion picture specialists, with the inspiration of heaven, should tomorrow be able to produce a masterpiece which would live forever. Our own talent, obsessed with dynamism from a cause, could put into such a story life, heartbeats, emotions, love, pathos, drama, suffering, fear, and courage. In such literature, the great leader–the mighty modern Moses who led a people farther than from Egypt to Jericho, who knew miracles as great as the stream from the rock at Horeb, manna in the desert, giant grapes, rain when needed, battles won against great odds–the great miracle prophet, the founder of this university, would never die.
    Take a Nicodemus and put Joseph Smith’s spirit in him, and what do you have? Take a da Vinci or a Michelangelo or a Shakespeare and give him a total knowledge of the plan of salvation of God and personal revelation and cleanse him, and then take a look at the statues he will carve and the murals he will paint and the masterpieces he will produce. Take a Handel with his purposeful effort, his superb talent, his earnest desire to properly depict the story, and give him inward vision of the whole true story and revelation, and what a master you have!

  17. Ben There
    May 2, 2007 at 2:12 pm #

    I can understand and appreciate that many people think too much time was spent on MMM and plural marriage. But if you consider the big picture, I don’t think that is really so.

    Polygamy, like it or not, is a HUGE aspect of Mormonism. If it weren’t for the Prophet Joseph Smith’s revelation on polygamy (section 132, it’s still in our D&C you know), we’d not have the concept of eternal families, the endowment, sealings, and so on. Polygamy was a central tenet of the church for nearly 50 years, and remained practiced with varying levels of official sanction for at least two decades after the Manifesto was given. The Church had a ward in Short Creek until the 40’s, for pity’s sake! Most of the fundamentalists of the 20’s through 40’s were members of the LDS church. My family has ancestors that were sent by their church leaders, by APOSTLES AND PROPHETS,–POST-MANIFESTO–to practice polygamy outside the United States, as does a very prominent current Mormon presidential candidate. Polygamy is part of what got the Mormons driven out of Missouri and Illinois. It is part of why President Buchanan declared war on Utah! Like it or don’t, but polygamy is VERY important in our history.

    I was impressed that they chose a very normal polygamous family to portray from the Modern Mormon Fundamentalist community. It is nice that they chose a family that is like all of the fundies I know, rather than the usual worn-out stories about the FLDS and Warren Jeffs. Warren was shown for a couple seconds, dismissed by the narrator as an extremist, and then the story moved on to modern “real-life” polygamists who are every bit as normal as you or I, and who are every bit as faithful to the restoration of the gospel as they understand it, at least as much so as you or I or any church member, albeit to a different “branch”. Besides, by featuring a very normal polygamist family, the church should be happy that if they are going to be confused with polygamists, it ought to be with nice people like the ones pictures in the film, rather than with Warren Jeffs!

    Given that most Mormon fundies have NEVER been members of the LDS church, you cannot hold their religion against them any more than you can hold the religion of RLDS members against them. Religious movements branch out, all the time. The program was entitled “The Mormons”, not “The 21st Century Salt Lake LDS Church”, so it was entirely appropriate to mention “the other Mormons”, whether that offends overly-sensitive, sheltered LDS members or not!

    As for MMM, the “set-up” took up most of that segment, and the set-up was actually instrumental in explaining a lot of why and how the saints continued to be persecuted even in Utah. The part about how combustible the atmosphere was due to the murder of Parley Pratt, and that Buchanan had sent 20% of the US Army marching for Utah, and the declaration of war on Utah, has bearing on much of our history, not just MMM. So while MMM was the goal of this set-up, I saw the set-up in its larger historical context rather than merely providing the foundation for MMM.

    As for the art, I enjoyed the art and was glad that Whitney decided to go beyond the Primary Art Kit pictures that we have all seen a thousand times and have posted on all of our walls at home and at church. Props to the producers for digging up some very interesting art, especially several portraits of the prophet Joseph Smith that I really found inspirational.

    This series touched me. Both 2-hour segments touched me. Mutliple times I felt the Spirit while watching, and even had a tear in my eye a time or two. As a member of the church, I thought it was very fair and very balanced.

    PBS did not set out to produce an LDS PR piece. And anyone who expected 4 hours of LDS PR material was not being realistic in their expectations. “Fair and balanced” by its very definition means portraying opposing views and allowing the viewer to decide the merits of each view point.

    I am sorry for those church members who expected this to be another “Softball with Larry King!” program, but given the goals the producers set out to reach, and given the very fair and accurate portrayal I saw, I would not hesitate to recommend this to a non-member friend or family member.

    If you go to PBS.ORG and read the posts on their feedback blog, you have half the people saying that PBS is a shill of the LDS church and half the people saying PBS is anti-Mormon. I’d say that’s a pretty good indicattion that this film was somewhere very near the middle of the road!


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