Reviewed by Bill McKeever
Amidst a lot of anticipation from Mormons and non-Mormons alike, Helen Whitney’s two-part, four-hour documentary on the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints aired on April 30 and May 1, 2007. As expected, it was met with mixed reaction by a larger than normal audience.
For the sake of clarity, quotations from “The Mormons” will be in bold italicized type, whereas quotations from outside sources are simply italicized. The program can be viewed online in its entirety.
The Salt Lake Tribune reported:
“According to Nielsen Media Research, Monday’s episode on the history of the LDS Church drew a 17.9 rating and Tuesday’s segment earned a 17.7. Normally, KUED’s weekly nighttime ratings are between 1.8 and 2. Ratings refer to the percentage of Utah’s 839,000 television households that are watching a particular program. Nationally, the series was also was a relative hit. At a 3 rating, the documentary captured nearly double the viewers of a normal PBS weeknight, said KBYU spokesman Jim Bell.”
Part one was divided into six “Acts:” “Revelation,” “The Saints,” “Persecution,” “Exodus,” “Mountain Meadows Massacre” and “Polygamy,” and began with a statement by Ken Verdoia (a non-Mormon, but nonetheless a prominent figure in Salt Lake City public broadcasting). “In the 19th century to call someone a Mormon was akin to calling someone a Muslim terrorist.” A bit of hyperbole? Perhaps. While it is true that many came to vilify Joseph Smith and his followers, history does show that there were also others who were very kind to the LDS people. Sadly, some of the kindness tended to wane as the Mormons started to wear out their welcome.
The narrator, David Ogden Stiers of M.A.S.H. television fame (Dr. Winchester), started off with this telling comment. “Mormon history begins with Joseph Smith. He is the alpha and omega of the Latter-day Saints.” Mormons might wince at this comment for its bluntness, but it does contain an element of truth. For many Mormons, there is no salvation without Joseph Smith. Without Smith there is no Mormonism.
I imagine it was difficult for average listeners to know the “players.” For the most part, interviewees were labeled as merely “historian,” or “author.” Rarely were those interviewed labeled so as to know their immediate bias. Some LDS bloggers complained about this lack of identification. Knowing who the “apostates” are is important to Mormons because it makes it much easier for “TBM’s (true believing Mormons) to brush aside statements deemed critical. Without this distinction decision making becomes more complex. Judging from some Mormon blogs, it appears that honest comments from interviewed members that came across as less than flattering were erroneously thought to be “anti-Mormon rhetoric.”
Joseph Smith, The First Vision
The first episode dealt primarily with the early history of Mormonism and the personality of Joseph Smith. Said Edwin Firmage, Jr., “I think behind every great religious figure there’s probably not a little charlatan, there’s definitely a lot of shadow, and that’s what makes him interesting.” Firmage noted that “Joseph was a prophet,” equal to that of “Muhammad, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Hosea, Moses.” I found this comparison interesting since Christians do not at all consider Muhammad any more a true prophet than Smith. Was Firmage implying that the four Old Testament prophets in his list were also little charlatans? I have no reason to believe he meant that, but I thought the comparison was a bit awkward.
Any good retelling of the Mormon story would be remiss without looking into Smith’s First Vision. Though a detailed list of Smith’s different versions of this important event (or non event depending on your perspective) was not given, listeners were told, “In the beginning Joseph would tell only his family what happened in the grove. Over the years he would record several versions of what he saw.”
Mormon author Greg Prince correctly noted, “Subsequently, over the next twelve years there were other versions that emerged from Joseph Smith where the story got more detailed more colorful and one of the later versions became the official version.”
Ken Clark, identified as a former LDS educator, spoke of Smith’s evolving First Vision:
“Finally in 1838 we have God the Father and the Son visiting him telling him to join none of the other churches. And it begs the questions, was Joseph building a story as he went because the story certainly evolved and the story certainly took on more miraculous and remarkable characteristics. And he certainly became a greater character with greater status in God’s eyes in each of these stories with a greater work to do in each of these stories.”
Some Mormons are crowing over the inclusion of Dr. Richard Mouw, president of Fuller Seminary. Mouw is a Christian apologist in the literal sense in that he loves to apologize on behalf of Christians who he feels misrepresents Mormonism. It is easy to see why Mormons love him. “I really don’t believe that [Smith] was simply making up a story that he knew to be false in order to manipulate people and to gain power over a religious movement. And so I live with the mystery,” Mouw said. How do Mormons interpret this? Since Mouw makes it clear that he does not believe Smith’s story, are Mormons going to conclude that Smith, though perhaps not an outright liar, was really deluded into thinking he had a vision and was merely expounding what he “imagined” to be true?
Folk Magic, Seer Stones, and the Book of Mormon
Smith’s involvement in folk magic and his use of a seer stone was included in the piece. According to Stiers’ voiceover, “Joseph looked into magic stones and had visions of barrels of buried treasure and was hired to lead others in search of gold.” Ken Clark elaborated when he stated, “Joseph’s preferred method of finding buried treasure was to place a peep stone in a hat and draw the hat over his face to exclude the light, and then look into the stone and the location of the treasure would be identified.”
BYU professor and Mormon apologist Dr. Daniel Peterson, identified in the documentary merely for his involvement in Islamic Studies, confirmed Smith’s use of a seer stone during Smith’s “translating” of the Book of Mormon.
“We know that Joseph didn’t translate the way that a scholar would translate. He didn’t know Egyptian. There were a couple of means that were prepared for this. One was he used an instrument that was found with the plates that was called the Urim and Thummim. This is a kind of a divinatory device that goes back into Old Testament times. Actually most of the translation was done using something called a seer stone. He would put the stone in the bottom of a hat, presumably to exclude surrounding light. And then he would put his face into the hat. It’s a kind of a strange image for us.”
Such a comment will probably come as a shock to many Latter-day Saints since church-approved art work consistently shows Smith translating the plates while looking at them in a prayerful manner. Wrote one blogger:
“What’s ironic in a sort of sad yet funny way is that people who for some reason still remain uninformed about Joseph Smith’s seer stone may think, after watching last night’s documentary, that Daniel C. Peterson, the “Islamic Studies Professor”, is some sort of anti-mormon because his BYU affiliation was not mentioned. I find that sadly funny, for some reason…”
Smith’s visitation in 1823 from an angel he called Moroni is addressed, but no mention of the fact that Smith taught in 1838 that it was an angel named Nephi, not Moroni, who Smith said came to him and told him of the gold plates.
Dr. Michael Coe, professor emeritus of anthropology and an expert in Central American studies, wrote in 1973:
“Mormon archaeologists over the years have almost unanimously accepted the Book of Mormon as an accurate, historical account of the New World peoples between about 2000 B.C. and A.D. 421. They believe that Smith could translate hieroglyphs, whether ‘Reformed Egyptian’ or ancient American…. Let me now state uncategorically that as far as I know there is not one professionally trained archaeologist, who is not a Mormon, who sees any scientific justification for believing the foregoing to be true, and I would like to state that there are quite a few Mormon archaeologists who join this group…. The bare facts of the matter are that nothing, absolutely nothing, has ever shown up in any New World excavation which would suggest to a dispassionate observer that the Book of Mormon, as claimed by Joseph Smith, is a historical document relating to the history of the early migrants to our hemisphere” (Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought, Summer 1973, “Mormons and Archaeology: An Outside View,” pp. 41, 42, 46).
Twenty years later (1993) I asked Dr. Coe if he continued to hold to those views. He replied,
“I haven’t changed my views about the Book of Mormon since my 1973 article. I have seen no archaeological evidence before or since that date which would convince me that it is anything but a fanciful creation by an unusually gifted individual living in upstate New York in the early 19th century.”
Dr. Coe’s interview in Whitney’s documentary showed that he continues to doubt Smith’s veracity:
“I really think that Joseph Smith, like Shamans everywhere, started out faking it. I have to believe this, that he didn’t believe this at all. That he was out to impress. But he got caught up in the mythology that he created. This is what happens to shamans, they begin to believe that they can do these things and then it becomes a revelation, they’re speaking to God. Joseph Smith had a sense of destiny, and most fakers don’t have this, and this is how he transformed something that I think was clearly made up into something that was absolutely convincing.”
God and Revelations
In 1997 Mormon President Gordon Hinckley hedged when asked if the God of Mormonism was once a human. Time magazine reporter David Van Biema wrote,
“On whether his church still holds that God the Father was once a man, he sounded uncertain. ‘I don’t know that we teach it. I don’t know that we emphasize it…I understand the philosophical background behind it, but I don’t know a lot about it, and I don’t think others know a lot about it’” (Time, August 4, 1997, p.56).
However, in the PBS documentary Mormon author Terryl Givens seemed to have no problem understanding this unique LDS teaching when he elaborated on how Smith taught “that God himself was once as we are, that he is embodied.”
Latter-day revelation is a characteristic of Mormonism that many members feel is a major element separating the LDS Church from the rest of “apostate Christendom.” Mormon Historian Kathleen Flake explained that
“Joseph Smith was the Henry Ford of revelation. He wanted every home to have one and the revelation he had in mind was the revelation he thought he’d had, which was, seeing God. And so for Joseph Smith seeing God was what it was to being religious. And so he sets about duplicating that original experience for everybody else. Revelation is everything to this church. It is revelation or nothing for these people.”
Unfortunately, Smith himself was not immune to false revelation. For example, when he received “a revelation through the stone” to sell the copyright of the Book of Mormon in Canada, his emissaries came back empty-handed. Smith conceded that, “Some revelations are of God; some revelations are of man; and some revelations are of the devil.” (Comprehensive History of the Church, 1:162-66).
Still, Mormons are told that “Revelations from the prophets of God are not like offerings at the cafeteria, some to be selected and others disregarded” (James E. Faust, “Lord, I Believe; Help Thou Mine Unbelief,” Ensign (Conference Edition), November 2003, p.22). If Smith fell victim to a false revelation, how can members be assured modern leaders can’t be deceived? Mormons are encouraged to have revelation, but it must be in harmony with the leadership. If it is not, open dissent is not an option.
Repeated a number of times in the film was Mormon Apostle Dallin Oaks’ stern warning, “It’s wrong to criticize leaders of the church, even if the criticism is true.” Do Latter-day Saints really see such a statement resonating with non-Mormon viewers, or will it confirm the notion that the LDS Church is an organization that is, at its core, authoritarian and anti-intellectual?
Persecution and Retaliation
The persecution of the Mormons in Missouri and Illinois was covered in the film, as it should have been; however, I felt that far too much was left out of the discussion, thus placing viewers at a contextual disadvantage. Not surprisingly, the Mormons were portrayed pretty much as innocent victims; yet Mormon historians James B. Allen and Glen M. Leonard have written a side of the story not found in the film:
“The Saints themselves may not have been totally without blame in the matter. The feelings of the Missourians, even though misplaced, were undoubtedly intensified by the rhetoric of the gathering itself. They were quick to listen to the boasting of a few overzealous Saints who too-loudly declared a divine right to the land. As enthusiastic millennialists, they proclaimed that the time of the gentiles was short, and they were perhaps too quick to quote the revelation that said that ‘the Lord willeth that the disciples and the children of men should open their hearts, even to purchase this whole region of country, as soon as time will permit’” (The Story of the Latter-day Saints, p. 83).
Historian Will Bagley correctly noted in his interview that locals got along fine with the Mormons “until Joseph Smith came along.” The film mentioned Governor Boggs’ “extermination order,” but failed to mention Sidney Rigdon’s 1838 “Fourth of July Oration” that threatened the state of Missouri with what Rigdon called a “war of extermination between the Mormons and the non-Mormon citizens.” Smith certainly didn’t ease tensions when he reprinted Rigdon’s speech into a pamphlet.
Making it clear that Mormons were not at all pacifists, the voiceover stated, “The Mormons retaliated. They drove Missourians off their land and burned their homes.”
When speaking of Mormon persecution, the tragedy at Haun’s Mill is rarely overlooked. The film spoke of a Mormon who was “hacked to death by a corn-cutter.” The brevity of this episode in the film fails to mention that the atrocities at Haun’s Mill stemmed in part from an incident a week earlier at what has come to be called “the Battle of Crooked River.” Former Mormon historian D. Michael Quinn explained on page 100 of his book, A Mormon Hierarchy: Origins of Power:
“A generally unacknowledged dimension of both the extermination order and the Haun’s Mill massacre, however, is that they resulted from Mormon actions in the Battle of Crooked River. Knowingly or not, Mormons had attacked state troops, and this had a cascade effect… upon receiving news of the injuries and death of state troops at Crooked River, Governor Boggs immediately drafted his extermination order on 27 October 1838 because the Mormons ‘have made war upon the people of this state.’ Worse, the killing of one Missourian and mutilation of another while he was defenseless at Crooked River led to the mad-dog revenge by Missourians in the slaughter at Haun’s Mill” (Origins of Power, p.100)
The mutilated Missourian was Samuel Tarwater who was left for dead by the fleeing state militia. Quinn noted how enraged Mormons mutilated the unconscious Tarwater “with their swords, striking him lengthwise in the mouth, cutting off his under teeth, and breaking his lower jaw; cutting off his cheeks…and leaving him [for] dead” (p.99). Tarwater survived to press charges.
When dissidents of Smith’s church publish The Nauvoo Expositor, a newspaper exposing his abuse of power and his secret practice of polygamy, “He reacts in a rage. He orders its destruction.” True enough. However, when things got too hot for Smith he decided to escape the consequences. Ken Verdoia acknowledges this but says, “for one reason or another he turns the horse and goes back to face arrest.” “One reason or another”? LDS Seventy Milton R. Hunter offered a more complete explanation in a 1948 conference message:
“When he, Hyrum and others were making plans to flee to the Rocky Mountains for safety, Emma sent word for Joseph to return because the Saints were accusing him of being a coward. Knowing full well that they would be killed if they should return, he turned to his brother Hyrum and said: “If my life is of no value to my friends it is of none to myself,” (D.H.C. 6:549) and so they returned to Nauvoo” (Conference Report, April 1948, p.31).
The story of Smith’s death is dramatically told, but no mention is made how he fought back with a smuggled six-shooter.
The Mountain Meadows Massacre
Several Latter-day Saints complained that “The Mormons” spent too much time on the Mountain Meadows Massacre. On September 11, 1857 a group of Mormons joined with local Indians to murder 120 men, women, and children heading to California from Arkansas during a time in Mormon history known as the Reformation. Will Bagley explains that during this time the Mormons had run out every non-Mormon government appointed official in the territory, and that “religious leaders were engaged in an orgy of fanatical rhetoric.” Bagley knows his Mountain Meadows history. He is the author of Blood of the Prophets: Brigham Young and the Massacre at the Mountain Meadows Massacre. In his interview he states that, “for any historian it is a horrific, troubling event.” He poignantly asks, “How did these decent, religious men who had sacrificed so much for what they believed in, how did they become mass murderers?”
Ken Verdoia spoke of three ingredients that led to a horrible conclusion in the Utah territory in 1857.
- Political tension between the Mormons and Washington, D.C. caused President James Buchanan to send a large portion of the United States Army to quell what he feels is a Mormon rebellion.
- In Arkansas, Mormonism’s “beloved” Mormon Apostle Parley P. Pratt “is murdered in Arkansas while on his mission.”
- A wagon train happened to be coming through Utah from Arkansas about the time the Mormons learn of the death of Pratt.
While I agree that these three elements coming together at the same time led to the tragedy at Mountain Meadows, Verdoia’s description of Parley Pratt’s role is incredibly simplistic. The fact is Pratt was killed by an enraged, albeit abusive, husband named Hector McLean. In his book Bagley writes, “Without benefit of divorce, Brigham Young sealed Eleanor McLean to Pratt for time and eternity on November 14, 1855, in Salt Lake City’s Endowment House as the Apostle’s twelfth wife” (Blood of the Prophets, p.9).
To be sure, the Fancher/Baker wagon train was in the wrong place at the time. Circumstances were such that the Mormon militia in Southern Utah were placed on high alert. The voiceover stated how Brigham Young had
“promised the Federal Government that he would protect emigrants passing through Utah, but he had also told local Native American leaders that they now had his permission to steal cattle from these wagon trains.”
LDS historian Leonard states,
“There’s a new policy, we’ll allow the Indians to take the cattle which will teach the government a lesson that they can’t control the Indians. So the Cedar City leaders decided to take some cattle, using the Indians, and by the way, if some of those bad guys are killed, we won’t be sorry.”
Bagley spoke of a council meeting held by the Mormons where it was “decided that every that every adult who could testify or bear witness would have to die.” Only 17 small children were spared.
Judith Freeman attributed Mormon participation to
“this Mormon principle of perfect obedience. These men were ordered to appear at Mountain Meadows so in a way they were victims of their own devotion and obedience and if you can get people to believe that they are doing God’s will you can get them to do anything.”
Bagley is convinced that Brigham Young ordered the attack on the emigrants.
“After having studied this for a decade and having looked at it in great detail, I’m convinced that this was done explicitly at Brigham Young’s orders. Nothing happened in Utah territory that Brigham Young didn’t know about…it was a political act to demonstrate the Mormons’ control of the overland road and it was ordered from the very top.”
Mormon historian Glen Leonard disagreed and insisted that Brigham “didn’t order it done, and he didn’t condone it.” Many believe the hard evidence has long-been destroyed, but few deny that Brigham Young was a major influence in the cover-up that eventually ended with the execution of John D. Lee in 1877. Lee was the scapegoat among many LDS participants.
Elder Dallin Oaks offered an emotional recap of the events on that day and admitted Mormons were involved in the killings, however, while he admits it was a “terrible thing to contemplate,” and an “extreme atrocity” by members of his faith, he stopped short of offering an apology on behalf of the Church. To this date the LDS Church has failed to offer the families of the victims such a condolence.
The Rise and Fall of Plural Marriage
The sixth and final act of part one of “The Mormons” dealt with polygamy. Ken Verdoia bemoaned the fact that the LDS Church in Utah is still thought by many to continue practicing plural marriage. The narration stated that, “Overall 20-30 percent of the Saints were polygamists, most of them from the leadership who could afford it.” This number conforms somewhat closely to the Encyclopedia of Mormonism (3:1095):
“Although it was known by some people, it was not publicly announced or proclaimed until 1852 (3:1094). We read that the exact percentage of participation is unknown but that ‘a maximum of from 20% to 25% of Latter-day Saint adults were members of polygamous households’ (3:1095). Adults? Or married adults? Or should it, as I think, be stated so as to include all family members? Since the degree of participation varied from year to year and from place to place, we are still far from having a precise reading. The article under ‘History of the Church’ states more carefully that ‘in some communities as much as twenty to twenty-five percent of the Latter-day Saint population eventually lived in polygamous households, with most men who practiced polygamy having one to four plural wives’ (2:617).”
It is difficult for most people to put a happy face on the practice of polygamy. Judith Freeman describes her great-grandmother’s devastation when her great-grandfather announced that he was told by the bishop that he was to take a 16-year-old as his plural wife. She recounts how they tried to make it work, “because again, the idea of perfect obedience.” As Freeman explained, “You simply can’t say, I won’t do this. You can’t say that and still be a good Mormon.”
Though the film correctly states that polygamy became public in 1852, Ken Clark noted that Smith was talking about polygamy in scriptural terms “as early as 1831 and 1832. He had an affair or, if you want to call it a marriage, during the Kirtland period to a 19-year-old who served as a maid in the Smith home.” The film did not mention any details, but Mormon historian Richard S. Van Wagoner, in his book, Mormon Polygamy, writes, “If Smith did take a plural wife in Kirtland during the early 1830s under such a system, the woman was likely Fanny Alger. [William] McLellin’s 1872 letter described Alger’s relationship with Smith. ‘Again I told [your mother],’ the former apostle wrote, that ‘I heard that one night she missed Joseph and Fanny Alger. She went to the barn and saw him and Fanny in the barn together alone. She looked through a crack and saw the transaction!!!’” (p.5.) Van Wagoner notes that Alger did not begin working in the Smith house until 1835. Smith was ten years her senior.
Mormon historian Richard Bushman, author of Joseph Smith: Rough Stone Rolling, admitted that Smith later began
“seriously to take more wives in rapid order. Maybe 30 wives in total. Ten of them married to other men. There was pressure put on these women. They were told that this was the lord’s will and he was the Lord’s prophet. And that if they were to please God they had to comply.”
Bushman also conceded that these relationships led to an alienation of his own wife, Emma. I am curious as to how many Mormons will digest this; especially in light of Mormon Apostle M. Russell Ballard’s conference message where he stated that,
“False prophets and false teachers are also those who attempt to change the God-given and scripturally based doctrines that protect the sanctity of marriage, the divine nature of the family, and the essential doctrine of personal morality. They advocate a redefinition of morality to justify fornication, adultery, and homosexual relationships” (M. Russell Ballard, “Beware of false prophets and teachers,” Ensign (Conference Edition), November 1999, p.64).
Does the devotion to Smith play such a high role among LDS members that they feel that only he is exempt from this description?
Kathleen Flake asked,
“The question arises did Smith lie to his wife? Probably so…We do know that he had marriages that she didn’t know about and that they were with women who lived under her roof, and they were with her friends, and that of course is a nightmare for anyone.”
Ken Clark added,
“But for me as I studied the issue, I came to the conclusion that his sexual desire drove the practice.”
The film recounted the pressure put upon the LDS Church by the Federal Government over plural marriage and Wilford Woodruff’s Manifesto that he “only years later described as a revelation.” Viewers were told,
“If you read that statement it is little more than a piece of advice. It is not a commandment. There is no ‘thus saith the lord’ in the document. It is not described as a revelation. And I think that Wilford Woodruff, and some of those authorities working with him, simply looked upon the Manifesto as a device to somehow get the government to back off and they hoped that the Manifesto would save them.”
Part one concludes with a look at modern polygamy among the fundamentalist groups. Valerie Nielson explained, “Joseph Smith told us that if we wanted to become Gods we had to do as God had done and God lived polygamy.” Brigham Young made a similar charge in 1866 when he declared, “The only men who become Gods, even the Sons of God, are those who enter into polygamy” (Journal of Discourses 11:269).
I tend to agree with some Mormons that the segment on fundamentalist Mormonism was a distraction from the title of the documentary. Perhaps Whitney could have avoided this criticism by simply mentioning how the legacy of Presidents Smith, Young, and Taylor lives on in these groups. She did give the Mormons ample opportunity to make it clear that polygamy was not a part of their current practice. However, perhaps listeners should have been told that its role in a Mormon’s afterlife is not so concrete. While many modern Mormons wish to separate themselves from plural marriage and those awful “fundamentalists,” the official LDS Church website never comes out and clearly says polygamy is gone forever. “Question: Is polygamy gone forever from the Church? We only know what the Lord has revealed through His prophets, that plural marriage has been stopped in the Church. Anything else is speculative and unwarranted.”(Scroll to the bottom of the page.)
If plural marriage is really a dead issue, is the LDS Church ready to renounce the following? “Obviously the holy practice will commence again after the Second Coming of the Son of Man and the ushering in of the millennium” (Bruce R. McConkie, Mormon Doctrine, p.578).
I beg to differ with any Latter-day Saint who thinks part one of “The Mormons” was a slam-dunk piece that will forever remove suspicions or recruit a lot of new members. Many Latter-day Saints might try to pretend it was a positive piece, but I think honest Mormons will admit that it contained some very embarrassing content. That being the case, I am sure non-members will also walk away quite surprised as they learn more about the history of Mormonism that even the Mormon Church itself refuses to “shout from the housetops.”
The Mormon Church’s response to this film overall was interesting. It noted that, “Aspects of the faith covered in the programs were broad and diverse, and the broadcasts are resulting in an equally diverse range of opinions and responses from viewers.” Having personally read numerous comments from Mormon blog sites and editorials, it is clear that much of this diversity is among Mormons themselves. Perhaps this is why the LDS leadership has taken a more cautious approach regarding how it responds.
Personally, the only Mormons I see genuinely getting excited over part one are the more intellectual-type LDS members who see this as a bit of fresh air. Some LDS members actually want to see some of the more hidden aspects of LDS history brought out into the light. A common complaint on Mormon blog sites of a more intellectual bent is the lack of forthrightness when it comes to Mormonism’s past. Many are calling for what is called an “inoculation” of true history. However, such openness will come with a very high price.
Let me also say that I think part one contained some solid responses to many of Mormonism’s sanitized historical myths. However, I find it interesting that while the LDS Church gave a blanket denunciation of the Jesus Christ/Joseph Smith DVD distributed in March of 2007, it didn’t dare condemn Whitney’s work even though both films covered some of the same historical ground. I guess it is difficult to call the work “anti-Mormon” when you have faithful members admitting on camera to troublesome issues. I find it ironic that when Christians point out that Smith used a hat and rock to bring forth the Book of Mormon, they are labeled anti-Mormon; when a BYU professor does it, that’s scholarship. When Christians insist that Joseph Smith’s had marriage relationships with married women, that’s mean-spirited bigotry; when a Mormon historian concedes this is true, that’s thought provoking. Go figure.
My biggest disappointment is that “The Mormons” contained very little in the way of a theological response to Smith’s doctrinal claims. If the Mormon Church wants to be known as Christian, shouldn’t viewers understand the theological reasons why Christians have been reluctant to grant it this title? Still, I can only hope that enough was included that will cause thoughtful people to see that Mormonism still has a side to it that should cause many to question its claims.
Reviewed by Sharon Lindbloom
For the sake of clarity, quotations from “The Mormons” will be in bold italicized type, whereas quotations from outside sources are simply italicized.
Part two of Helen Whitney’s four-hour documentary on The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints originally aired on 1 May 2007. While part one covered the history of the founding of Mormonism, part two brought the viewer ahead into more modern times, taking a look at how this religion on the fringe in its early days, has become accepted and respected across America.
Part two was divided into five “Acts”: “The Great Accommodation,” “The Mission,” “Dissenters and Exiles,” “The Family,” and “The Temple.”
In the introduction to part two, non-Mormon broadcaster Ken Verdoia said,
“Where at one time they [the Mormons] were vilified, they were considered disloyal, in fact they were considered a knife at the back of the American experience, now they are in fact considered in some ways the very embodiment of what it means to be American. How was that brought about?”
The answer was encapsulated in the title of the first act: “The Great Accommodation.”
The Great Accommodation
Act one of “The Mormons” discussed how the LDS Church was able to move into America’s mainstream via abandonment of some of its distinctives. Beginning with the Reed Smoot senate confirmation hearings in 1903, Mormonism was on trial and displayed before the greater American population. Mormon Historian Kathleen Flake noted that by the end of the hearings in 1907,
“Smoot himself became the poster boy of Mormonism, and Mormonism’s identity radically changed as a result of this set of hearings. In part because the nation stated the terms by which it would accept Mormonism, and Mormonism began to conform to those terms.”
One of the “terms” for America’s acceptance of Mormonism was the abandonment of polygamy, which had ostensibly happened in 1890. “The Mormons” did not include the information that the topic of polygamy was prominent in the Smoot hearings, but it was. In fact, several LDS authorities testified to the continuing practice of “polygamous cohabitation” while on the witness stand. For example, in March 1904 sixth LDS President Joseph F. Smith testified:
“The Chairman. Do you obey the law in having five wives at this time, and having them bear to you eleven children since the manifesto of 1890?
“Mr. Smith. Mr. Chairman, I have not claimed that in that case I have obeyed the law of the land.” (Tanner, Mormonism: Shadow or Reality, 235)
The following April, at the General Conference of the LDS Church, President Smith presented a “Second Manifesto” to the Mormon people which called for the excommunication of any Latter-day Saints engaging in polygamy (Richard S. Van Wagoner, Mormon Polygamy: A History, 168).
Another area of accommodation brought out in the documentary was patriotism. As clearly presented in part one, the Mormons hated and distrusted the United States government, beginning their exodus to Utah territory in 1846 in an effort to leave America and set up their own theocracy. In part two, historian Sarah Barringer Gordon noted that in the early twentieth century Mormons became active in the military and “recalibrated their patriotism to be loyal to the government in Washington.”
These things, along with the greater financial success and stability brought about by the “sacred taxation” of the almost mandatory 10% tithe, made the LDS Church more acceptable to the American people. But later in the twentieth century there still remained one huge roadblock — one huge accommodation necessary to place Mormonism into the “mainstream.” The LDS Church needed to end its ban against Blacks holding the priesthood.
“The Mormons” included a compelling clip of author Darius Gray talking about the early official LDS view of Blacks. He alluded to this 1881 statement by third LDS President John Taylor:
“And after the flood we are told that the curse that had been pronounced upon Cain [marked by black skin] was continued through Ham’s wife, as he had married a wife of that seed. And why did it pass through the flood? Because it was necessary that the devil should have a representation upon the earth as well as God.” (Journal of Discourses 22:304)
In the documentary, Darius Gray asked, “How do you damn people more than to say that their existence upon the earth is to represent Satan?”
As non-Mormon author Richard Ostling pointed out, according to Mormonism,
“If you do not hold the priesthood, you can never hold any office of Church authority. It also would effect your eternal state, and so what you had, really, was a very serious disability visited upon Mormons of African descent.”
Indeed, before the 1978 revelation allowing Blacks to hold the LDS priesthood, the only LDS missionaries sent to Africa served in “white South Africa” and did not bring the message of the LDS Restored gospel to the Black population. Though people in Ghana were pleading with Church leaders in Salt Lake City for Mormon missionaries to be sent to their country, Black LDS convert Sam Bainson noted,
“The Church couldn’t send missionaries to Ghana, to baptize them, because of the ban on the priesthood for Blacks.”
But in 1978, amidst great social pressure, Church leaders gathered in the Salt Lake Temple to seek direction from God. Spencer W. Kimball was the President of the LDS Church at that time. His son, Edward, was interviewed for Ms. Whitney’s documentary. Edward Kimball recounted that those who had been present when the revelation lifting the ban against Blacks was received said it was as though there were “tongues of flame as are talked about in Acts. Another said it was like a rushing of wind…” But when LDS President Gordon B. Hinckley was asked about the experience he replied,
“I was there. There was something of a Pentecostal spirit, but on the other hand, it was peaceful, quiet, not a cataclysmic thing in any sense. It was just a feeling that came over all of us and we knew that it was the right thing at the right time and that we should proceed.”
With these contradictory accounts, PBS Viewers were left wondering: Was it a “pentecostal experience” or a “peaceful, quiet…feeling”?
Whatever actually happened in the Mormon Temple on 1 June 1978, Richard Ostling summed it up well:
“What happened in 1978 was that this burden was lifted from Black Mormons. More importantly, a huge burden was lifted from Mormonism because it was rid of theological racism.”
Finally, the last “term” for American acceptance that the LDS Church has accommodated, according to the documentary, was one of caring for the needs of others. Pointing out that the Church Welfare System had been designed to help only Mormons, in more recent years crisis relief by the Church has been extended to assist non-members as well. This is one of the LDS Church’s obvious strengths. According to LDS author Terryl Givens, the Church has responded to over 150 major crises around the world, explaining that even before Hurricane Katrina made landfall in 2005, LDS help was on its way.
Louisiana resident James Madison stated that in the aftermath of Katrina, “Nobody was there on the ground with us, except for the Mormons in their yellow tee-shirts who showed up to help us clean up.”
This is one place in which “The Mormons” really dropped the ball. The documentary did nothing to challenge Madison’s statement or set it in a greater context. Perhaps in Madison’s neighborhood he only saw Mormon relief efforts, but in truth, the Mormons were not the only ones on the ground to help hurricane victims clean up.
The Southern Baptist Convention also had relief on the way before Katrina made landfall. World Relief coordinated thousands of volunteers from churches across America. The Red Cross coordinated hundreds of thousands of “disaster relief workers from all 50 states, Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands [who] have responded to their neighbors in need.” Within a few days after the hurricane hit,
“Samaritan’s Purse staff and volunteers, supported by a tractor-trailer loaded with tools and supplies, are clearing debris and repairing roofs in low-income neighborhoods in the Mobile area, which was battered by high winds, torrential rains, and massive flooding. A second Disaster Relief Unit is helping hurricane victims in Biloxi, Mississippi, another area hit particularly hard by Katrina.” (“Rebuilding After The Storm,” September 4, 2005, http://www.samaritanspurse.org/MP_Article.asp?ArticleID=42)
The humanitarian efforts of the LDS Church are indeed praiseworthy, but the way its efforts were presented in “The Mormons” cam as a slap in the face to the thousands of other people and organizations that sacrificed much to come to the aid of those in need.
Act two of “The Mormons” discussed the LDS Church’s missionary efforts from the Church’s inception to the present. The program’s narrator, David Ogden Stiers, began with this interesting comment: “The Mormons have put the future of their church in the hands of 19 year-olds.” This is true today, but it has not always been so.
As noted in the documentary, early Mormonism found fertile ground in Great Britain when it sent male missionaries of all ages and circumstances of life. In the nineteenth century Mormonism gained 71,000 British converts, 17,000 of which emigrated to the United States to join the American Latter-day Saints. U.S. Senator Robert Bennett said part of the missionary message to the British was this: “
Ya gotta believe in the Book of Mormon, ya gotta believe in baptism, and ya gotta move to Utah. That’s a pretty tough missionary sell.”
A tough sell, yes; but it probably would have been much tougher had the British converts been given the complete facts about the American Mormon doctrine of plural marriage. “The Mormons” neglected to inform viewers that while Brigham Young was preaching in Utah about the necessity of men taking multiple wives, the doctrine was being denied in England. The Fifth European edition of the Doctrine and Covenants (printed in Liverpool in 1866) continued to deny the practice by calling it a “crime.”
“Inasmuch as this church of Christ has been reproached with the crime of fornication, and polygamy: we declare that we believe, that one man should have one wife; and one woman, but one husband, except in case of death, when either is at liberty to marry again.” (Doctrine and Covenants, 1835 ed., 101:4 ; 1866 Liverpool ed., Section 109:4; also cited in Documentary History of the Church 2:247)
In this segment, LDS author Richard Bushman explained that Joseph Smith believed training was not necessary for missionaries; they only needed to be commissioned. But today’s LDS Church does things a bit differently. The documentary narration pointed out that there are seventeen Missionary Training Centers around the world.
“It is a spiritual book camp where young men and women are trained to talk, sing, and pray in 30 languages…They learn lesson plans designed to take the potential convert to the goal of baptism.”
The documentary included some interesting footage of missionaries in training shot inside the Provo MTC as they watched themselves on video while their facial expressions and body language were critiqued. “The Mormons” also presented some clips of missionaries on the street trying to interest people in their message. Nobody cared to listen. LDS Convert and returned missionary Calvin Harper said that he had spent 60 to 70 hours on the street each week during his mission, yet he’d
“never had one conversion. You’d go weeks without teaching sometimes. People didn’t want to hear.”
Mormon missionaries were filmed explaining Joseph Smith’s First Vision to a pedestrian. The missionary said, “Joseph asked, ‘Which church should I join?’ The Lord told him that he should join none of those churches. But They had a great work for Joseph to do.” What is interesting about this exchange, something most people viewing the documentary probably missed, is that the Mormon missionary left out a very important part of the story. The LDS Scripture Pearl of Great Price says of Smith’s vision:
“I asked the Personages who stood above me in the light, which of all the sects was right…and which I should join. I was answered that I must join none of them, for they were all wrong; and the Personages who had addressed me said that all their creeds were an abomination in his sight; that those professors were all corrupt;…” (Joseph Smith–History 1:18-19)
This is the basis upon which the LDS Church was founded. Not just that Smith was to refrain from joining an existing church and begin a better one, but that all of the churches were “wrong” — apostate — and those professing creedal beliefs were “corrupt,” holding to doctrinal ideas that God called “abominations.” It’s too bad that “The Mormons” did not draw attention to that fact.
The documentary briefly explored member retention in the LDS Church, revealing the shocking fact that “Mormon conversions…have declined in recent decades and over 50% of new Church members will fall away from their faith.” Sociology professor Rick Phillips said conversion to the Mormon Church involves a “radical transformation of someone’s life.” He gave, as examples, the financial and time commitments demanded from typical LDS members. He said,
“Retaining a Latter-day Saint is a pretty serious enterprise; more serious than retaining the average Charismatic Christian or conservative Christian, this is a church that demands everything.”
But, as pointed out in “The Mormons,” sacrifice is not the only reason people leave the faith. Former Mormon Tal Bachman (son of Randy Bachman of the band Bachman-Turner Overdrive) told his story. After serving a highly successful mission for the Church in Argentina, Bachman left the Church after concluding that the revelations of Joseph Smith were not authentic. In a moving interview, Bachman said the LDS Church,
“for whatever else it might be, it wasn’t what it claimed to be…We risked our lives for the Church in Argentina… I don’t think that I, that I can delude myself into thinking, or to making it ok for my children to put their lives on the line for the thing if it’s not what it claims to be. It might be the best thing ever invented, but if it’s invented, it’s not worth dying for.”
LDS convert Betty Stevenson also told her story — one of the drugs and crime that marked her life before hearing the Mormon story “about this white boy, a dead angel, and some gold plates.” Stevenson said she responded to the Mormon message of hope, specifically that “families can be together forever.” For Stevenson, her hopeless life made her eager for hope, and this gift of hope has made a difference in her life. Yet, the ultimate apex of her hope is aimed at eternity: spiritual life rather than spiritual death. For the viewer, Tal Bachman’s recent words must have echoed through this story: “It might be the best thing ever invented, but if it’s invented, it’s not worth dying for.”
Dissenters and Exiles
Act three of “The Mormons” was the most powerful segment of the second part of the documentary. Not surprisingly, it was also the segment Mormons objected to most strenuously.
The narrator began,
“As the LDS Church has grown, control over the Mormon story has become all the more important. That has led to increasing conflict with some Mormon intellectuals who challenge the Church’s official history and the authority of its leaders.”
“The Mormons” took a look at otherwise faithful Latter-day Saints who got into trouble with their church for publicly disagreeing with LDS leaders. Some problems stemmed from non-sanitized reporting of Mormon history (Fawn Brodie, Juanita Brooks, Leonard J. Arrington, Grant Palmer), others for publicly disagreeing with the Church’s stand on doctrinal and social issues (Margaret Toscano, Sonia Johnson). Philosophy professor Jeffrey Nielsen explained,
“There is the thought that intellectuals ask questions, questions lead to doubts, doubts lead to a loss of testimony, loss of testimony leads to you falling away from the Church, and there’s a great fear in the Church that if you openly look at these things, that you will doubt, and if you doubt, well, there goes the whole purpose of life.”
LDS Apostle Dallin Oaks said that a church leader’s job is to be a watchman on the wall, to warn church members of danger.
“I think in any day the watchmen on the tower are going to say, ‘Intellectualism is a danger to the Church,’ and it is at extreme points, and if people leave their faith behind and follow strictly where science leads them, that can be a pretty crooked path.”
Oaks has really mischaracterized the Mormon “intellectual.” While there is currently a move within the Church concerned with scientific evidence against the Book of Mormon (also brought out in the documentary), the debate has not generally been about scientific questions. The issues have mostly been centered on what the latter-day prophets have taught, and what the latter-day prophets have done. It’s really about honesty in tension with “faith promoting” myths. LDS historian Marlin Jensen said the LDS Church is not afraid of intellectuals, or of learning, or of knowledge, but where people get into “difficulty” is when they begin to “attack” leaders or basic doctrine publicly.
The “difficulty” Jensen refers to is church discipline, which results in a loss of various church membership privileges, depending on the severity of the offense. The most extreme discipline is excommunication.
Excommunicated member Margaret Toscano told of her intimidating experience facing a Church Court. She was not allowed to bring anyone along with her so she faced a group of sixteen Mormon men alone. The charges against her were read (centering on her writings concerning women and the priesthood, and the concept of Heavenly Mother); she attempted to defend herself but was stopped mid-sentence. “We will not allow you to lecture us,” she was told. She was not allowed to speak in her own defense. The men deliberated her case for twenty minutes at which point they informed Toscano that, while the High Council was “very impressed” with her, they were nevertheless excommunicating her; they had found her to be “an apostate.” Toscano said,
“Everybody got up and they all wanted to shake my hand. They’re cutting me off from eternal salvation and telling me that I’m this apostate which really is considered very bad in Mormon culture, and yet I’m this nice woman that they’re going to shake my hand… The niceness covered over the violence of what was being done. Because in fact, excommunication is a violent action.”
Filmmaker Helen Whitney made an effort to balance Toscano’s story, or at least to give it some context. She included a statement by LDS author Terryl Givens who said it’s important to remember that the public only hears one side of any disciplinary proceedings, that of the one disciplined. “And I don’t think it’s ever possible to come to fair and just conclusions when we only have half the story,” he said.
But, as the pendulum swung the other way, Whitney provided a neutral (non-Mormon) perspective on it all which certainly didn’t win any friends for Mormonism. Richard Ostling said,
“Once in a while you’ll have a heresy trial in this group or that group. Mormonism is unique in the amount of activity that goes on, and also the extent to which the general membership is monitored. Apparently there are files in Salt Lake City on anybody who has raised embarrassing questions or might be a troublemaker. What you have is a church that seeks to control its message down into the membership to strengthen the Church and to make sure that its message is clear and consistent, and that dissent is limited to the greatest extent possible.”
This was a very powerful segment of the documentary. While Whitney attempted balance, this segment, overall, portrayed the LDS Church in an unflattering light.
Act four focused on the elevated place of family within the LDS Church. The narration suggested that the early persecutions Mormons endured “drove them inward. The family became their refuge and their source of strength.” This statement rang hollow coming on the heels of the previous segment in which Margaret Toscano spoke of the personal consequences of her excommunication. She said,
“The most painful part about the excommunication is the way in which, if you’re part of a large Mormon family it really does, it really does, hurt your relationship with your family.”
Toscano told of her sister’s recent death. Explaining that a ritual within Mormonism is the dressing of the deceased for burial in temple clothing, Toscano recounted that her brother-in-law would not allow her to help dress her sister’s body for burial. She said, “That cut me so deep, I haven’t gotten over it. I don’t know if I ever will.” Earlier in the documentary Toscano said of herself, “I am Mormon on a deep level.” She apparently has never turned her back on the LDS Church; she is only guilty of holding an opinion contrary to official Church doctrine on a couple of points. But this is enough to dissolve the high Mormon ideal of the family as a refuge and source of strength.
Act four of “The Mormons” provided background for the LDS focus on families. Richard Bushman stated that Joseph Smith was “deeply preoccupied” with the idea of “sealing” families together for eternity (an ordinance performed in Mormon temples) because it was a time in which many families were broken apart by the westward expansion in America. Holding the family together through sealing was “a solution to the problem of his time,” he said. It is noteworthy that Bushman did not attribute the sealing ordinance to revelation, though the program’s narrator did, tying it to Smith’s revelation on celestial marriage and polygamy.
Interestingly, Sarah Barringer Gordon explained that when polygamy was later abandoned, the question arose as to whether the family would still be “celestial” in the same way polygamous families were supposed to have been. The answer, she said, was yes. The family still carried with it the qualities that had gone into polygamous families. She said, “It’s through and in and by and with the family that Mormons are saved.”
The documentary included interviews with two types of people: those who can, and those who cannot, conform to the Mormon family concept. Speaking of the pressures put on Mormon women, Fiona Givens commented,
“Mormon women are plagued by this perfect woman figure. She bakes cookies and, um, she bakes bread and she always looks wonderful and she’s never overweight and she’s always smiling and…yes. Totally impossible woman.”
Ken Verdoia also commented on the pressures heaped upon Mormon women, noting that there is a higher use of anti-depressants in Utah than in other states. By this point in the program, the ideal Mormon family image was beginning to lose its glow.
Narrator David Ogden Stiers remarked, “While the family is the spiritual core of Mormon life, not everyone feels welcome at their table.” The following interviews discussed the ways in which committed Mormon families fail for those who do not conform to the Mormon ideal. Marlin Jensen said,
“What about people who marry and for whatever reason don’t have children? Or the young woman who grows old without marrying? Or the divorced person? I mean we, I think we can be quite hard in a sense, unwittingly, but nevertheless hard on those people in our culture because we have cultural expectations, cultural ideals, and, if you measure up to them, it’s a wonderful life. If you don’t, it can be very difficult.”
Again, in an effort to provide balance, Helen Whitney ended the segment with the emotional story of a Latter-day Saint family dealing with the terminal health condition of their oldest child. Their faith in family and the sealing ordinance of the Mormon temple gives them strength and hope to go on.
The final act of “The Mormons” explored the pinnacle of the LDS faith: temples. Much was revealed in this segment, but much that could have been said, perhaps should have been said, was lacking in the end.
After several sound bites of Mormons expressing how holy and sacred Mormons temples are, Marlin Jensen explained. “What really is almost a universal symbol throughout the history of mankind of worship, of God, the temple is something, now, that is almost lost except to this church.” One of the most priceless things restored by Joseph Smith, he said, was “the knowledge of what a temple was and what should occur in a temple.”
Since the narrator noted that non-Mormons are not allowed inside operating temples and the rituals performed within them are “secret,” the viewer may have wondered why this “priceless” bit of restored information is withheld from most of the world.
It would have been good if Helen Whitney had included a response to Jensen’s claim that temple worship is almost lost except to Mormons. Certainly Jensen must realize that Buddhists, Hindus, Baha’is and those of other religious faiths worship in temples. His remarks, therefore, were probably directed at Christian faiths. But there is a reason within Christianity for the abandonment of Old Testament temple worship: the New Covenant in Christ made temple worship obsolete.
The extreme secrecy regarding Mormon temple rituals, required of those who participate in them, was revealed by author Judith Freeman:
“And I remember that at that time there were certain things, part of the rituals in the temple, is that you made the sign of disemboweling yourself and then also slitting your throat. And you made this in conjunction with a promise that you made that you would never reveal what goes on in the temple. You would never reveal any temple rituals.”
The narrator clarified: “These symbolic oaths were dropped in 1990, but a secrecy vow remains for some of the rites.” In addition to this helpful update on the change in temple oaths, an understanding of Mormon temple rituals could have been enhanced for viewers had Ms. Whitney included information explaining that many elements of Mormon temple worship mirror Freemasonry. Bill McKeever supplies this information:
“Although Doctrine and Covenants 124:41 says that the LDS temple ordinances were ‘kept hid from before the foundations of the earth,’ they are suspiciously close to those used in Freemasonry. Signs, grips, oaths, and tokens used in Mormonism are so similar that one can’t escape the suspicion Smith ‘borrowed’ these Masonic practices, especially since he became a Mason on March 15, 1842.” (Documentary History of the Church 4:550-551)
The PBS documentary mentioned the necessity of hopeful Mormons procuring a Temple Recommend to enable them to enter Mormon temples. Terryl Givens suggested the reason: “You need to show that you’re committed enough that you’re paying your tithing, that you’re living the Word of Wisdom, that you’re faithful to your spouse, and those kinds of things.” Actually, the issue isn’t commitment, but worthiness, as is brought out in the following interview with James Clayton. He began, “There are serious consequences for failing to qualify for a temple recommend” and went on to list several things not available to those who fail, such as holding high positions in Church administration or working at Church-affiliated institutions. But then he mentioned what must have come as a blow to viewers who were paying attention:
“You cannot marry in the temple, you cannot go to the temple to see your own children married if you’re not worthy to have a temple recommend. So, it’s a process of excluding people in order to refine their religious devotion.”
Exclusion from the ceremony has led to a lot of contempt for the LDS Church by those who were not allowed to see their children’s marriage ceremony. Once again, Helen Whitney had treated her viewers to a true, unadorned look at non-conformist family within Mormonism.
“The Mormons” spent a fair amount of time exploring the LDS concept of salvation for the dead. LDS historian Marlin Jensen explained that according to Mormonism, those who don’t hear about Jesus in this life will hear about Him in the next. If the spirits of these deceased people choose to accept the gospel “there are still certain religious ceremonies to be performed for them. One of those is baptism.”
Something the documentary did not mention is that, in addition to baptism for the dead, Mormons are also washed, anointed, sealed, endowed and married in the temple for and on behalf of those who have died. Neglecting to impart this information left the viewers with the mistaken impression that Mormon temples are primarily for the living when, in fact, the majority of activity in Mormon temples is to benefit the dead.
The documentary touched on the ongoing dispute between the LDS Church and concerned Jews. Mormons are performing temple rituals on behalf of Jewish Holocaust victims, a service that is not appreciated within the Jewish culture. Roman Kent, a Holocaust survivor, spoke of his reaction when he first heard that Mormons were doing this:
“One word; it was ‘shocked.’ Second word: ‘How can they do it?’ Third was, ‘Why do they do it?’ Because it was, in a way, an unbelievable experience for me to find out that somebody can baptize another person after the person died. I am a Jew. I was born as a Jew. Six million of my brothers and my friends and my family were killed because they were Jews. So I wanted them to be Jews. I wanted them to remain Jews. And I didn’t want anybody a hundred, two hundred years from now, to tell me that my parents were not Jews because somewhere in the Archives of the Mormon Church there is my father’s name, my mother’s name, is listed as a Gentile; as a Mormon person. This was to me, painful.”
Unfortunately for the LDS Church, immediately following Kent’s heartfelt expression of concern was Marlin Jensen saying, “We haven’t wanted as a church to just, you know, assert our First Amendment right…” He said the Church did not want to insist on its right to do what it feels is appropriate in fulfilling its mission, so Mormon officials have tried to work with the Jews to address their concerns. Though Jensen’s comments were ultimately about the Church taking the Jewish objections seriously, the opposite message seemed to come across to viewers. It was almost a David and Goliath moment.
The program then discussed the Mormon emphasis on genealogy, stating that, to date, two billion names of the dead have been recorded and are stored in Mormon vaults outside of Salt Lake City, Utah. Of those, Mormons have “baptized well over 100 million deceased people.” Noting that the LDS Church has put the “complete records” online, making them available “to Mormons and non-Mormons alike,” “The Mormons” has again given viewers a false impression. The genealogical records are open and available online; however, the online LDS ordinance information is only available to temple recommend holding Mormons.
“The Mormons” finished up, these two hours (and overall four hours), with a touching story depicting the depth of faith some Mormons possess. The testimony of abiding hope, in spite of the intrusion of death, that families will be together again–because of convents and promises made in the temple–was deeply moving. This sort of testimony was a recurring theme throughout part two of the documentary. For people unfamiliar with the Mormon system of salvation, these testimonies must have left them feeling warm and fuzzy. For people who understand what is required, according to Mormonism, to gain those sought-after blessings, they were heartbreaking.
Helen Whitney did not delve very deeply into doctrine in her film. If she had, viewers would have come to realize the burden with which Mormons are weighed down. LDS scripture Doctrine and Covenants 130:23 says: “And when we obtain any blessing from God, it is by obedience to that law upon which it is predicated.” In order for Mormons to attain the blessing of eternal life with their families (in the Celestial kingdom), they are required to obey Celestial law. “For he who is not able to abide the law of a celestial kingdom cannot abide a celestial glory” (Doctrine and Covenants 88:22).
Celestial law, according to Mormon leaders, is complete and total obedience to all the commandments of God. If a Mormon does not live this life in total obedience, his hope of seeing his family again in the next life cannot — will not — be realized.
One of the complaints Latter-day Saints expressed regarding “The Mormons” was that there was little mention of Jesus Christ, making it seem as if Christ is not important to Mormons. In fact, He is more important than Latter-day Saints realize, for He is the way, the truth, and the life. Rather than trusting in temple covenants and promises that are dependent on the myth of man’s righteousness, Mormons need to know that Jesus is the proper source for any and all eternal hope.