Reviewed by Eric Johnson
A 20-minute DVD in a laminated cardboard case arrived in the mail along with my October 2004 Ensign, a monthly periodical of the Mormon Church. Titled The Restoration, the DVD portrays the First Vision account of how LDS founder Joseph Smith, Jr. —at the time a 14-year-old boy living in New York—supposedly saw a vision of God the Father and Jesus Christ. The jacket advertises the DVD as
“present(ing) the glorious beginning of the restoration of the gospel of Jesus Christ in our time through the Prophet Joseph Smith. It confirms that our Heavenly Father heard a humble prayer and through Smith restored the fulness of the gospel of Jesus Christ once again upon the earth.”
I first saw The Restoration in October 2003 when I took a group of my high school Bible students to the Mormon Battalion Center in San Diego, California. Every year at this time I take approximately 40 of my current students to the Old Town tourist attraction so that they can hear more about Mormonism from a Latter-day Saint perspective. I later saw the film again in June 2004 at the LDS Visitor’s Center in Salt Lake City. In all, I have now watched The Restoration ten times.
When I received the free DVD in October 2004 as a paid Ensign subscriber, I decided to play it one day for my classes. Two days after my students had seen the production, we took the scheduled trip to the center. Ten missionaries, some of whom were specially called to the center to help explain LDS doctrinal principles to us during our allotted two-hour visit, were in the center’s front lobby to greet my students.
As part of the visit, my group is normally shown several videos on Mormon history and doctrine. Before it was time for the missionaries to play their videos, I spoke privately to Elder Johnson, the president of the center, and explained how I had already shown The Restoration to my students. I asked if he wouldn’t mind showing us other church public relations videos, of which there are many. He verbally agreed. However, after two of the missionaries completed a presentation on the history of prophets, Elder Johnson came to the front of the theater and said, “I hope you don’t mind, but the First Vision account is so very important that I think your students wouldn’t mind seeing it a second time.” So, despite the availability of dozens of additional DVDs in the center’s library, we watched The Restoration once again.
What is it about this First Vision story that caused one of the sister missionaries to literally weep as she spoke to us afterward? In fact, the presentation so choked her up that she could hardly compose herself for several minutes. There is no doubt that she and millions of other Mormons around the world realize that the account as described in the LDS scripture known as the Pearl of Great Price is the greatest event in Mormon history. If the story is true, then all people—including a room full of Christian high school students—should be compelled to become Latter-day Saints, which was clearly the message of the 24-year-old sister missionary. However, as I explained to my students later, if these kind folks are wrong, then this event is among the biggest hoaxes in mankind’s history, and the religion of Mormonism ought to be avoided at all cost.
The Restoration truly is a professionally produced piece with the obvious intention of winning an audience through its emotional appeal. One example of how it tugs on the heart strings is defined in a two-minute scene depicting the young Joseph, who later became the LDS founder, as he makes his way to the Sacred Grove for his special encounter with God the Father and Jesus. The Mormon Tabernacle Choir sings a tender hymn about Smith while nature shots of wildlife such as deer and birds are in abundance. This clearly is a heart-tugging attempt to show how, as the narrator once put it, “the fullness of the gospel was restored again in beautiful simplicity.” The impression given is that the young, innocent Smith was merely an instrument in God’s hand, thanks in large part to his sincere seeking after God.
Meanwhile, the early 19th century Christian pastors of New York are portrayed as thoroughly corrupt. After all, Christianity had been completely lost on the face of the earth soon after the deaths of Jesus’ apostles. This idea is accurate according to the first chapter of Joseph Smith History, which is recorded in the LDS scripture Pearl of Great Price. Verse 19 describes God the Father as telling Smith that all of the churches were “wrong” and “all their creeds were an abomination in his sight; that those professors were all corrupt; that: ‘they draw near to me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me, they teach for doctrines the commandments of men, having a form of godliness, but they deny the power thereof.'”
The Restoration makes it very clear that these verses should be taken quite literally. One preacher admonishes his audience to discover “which denomination comes closer to the truth, and that is the denomination with which you should unite.” Smith’s conclusion is summed up in his question, “Shouldn’t there be one answer that is right for everyone?” Mormons everywhere would certainly nod in full agreement.
Another scene shows a different preacher approaching Smith in a stern manner. “You haven’t been coming to church, Joseph,” the minister says. When Smith tells him that he had been merely taking the preacher’s advice and attempting to figure out which denomination’s doctrines were true, the preacher tersely replies, “Well, beware of pride, boy! Your eternal salvation is at stake!”
At one point Smith makes a telling comment:
“Teachers of religion understood the same passage of scripture so differently as to destroy all confidence in settling the question by appeal to the Bible. At length I came to the conclusion that I must remain in darkness and confusion or else I must do as James directs, that is, ask of God.”
The verse mentioned is James 1:5, which is to Mormons what John 3:16 is for evangelical Christians. It is interpreted to mean that a person should pray about a religion, as Smith supposedly did in 1820. In addition, other biblical verses are liberally quoted throughout, including “knock and it shall be opened onto you” and “seek and ye shall find.” Yet these verses are completely snatched out of their context to support the idea that God needed an innocent farm boy to restore Christianity rather than rely on the day’s sinister professors of religion. Contempt for the Christian pastorate is epitomized in a scene following the First Vision when Smith tells a minister about his encounter with the Father and Jesus. The minister scoffs at such a thought, saying that such miracles no longer take place; he orders Smith to “not tell anyone.”
When I later asked my high school students if the video made them teary-eyed as it did the young female missionary at the center, there were no volunteers. In fact, a number of students felt the DVD backfired, especially if it is supposed to contain an emotional appeal for Christians to consider Mormonism. They felt that it did not take very much insight to see how exaggerated the pastors in the production are portrayed. Using bad camera angles and poorly lit backdrops, the film emphasizes the sneering glances and mean-spiritedness of the Christian ministers. As one student aptly pointed out, “The only thing they left out was horns on the preachers’ heads.”
Others correctly explained that the whole story hinges on the words of a common farm boy since there were no witnesses to Smith’s vision. With many unanswered questions about Smith’s past, including his ability to translate Reformed Egyptian, they felt that the Mormon people and all potential converts ought to ask more questions about Smith’s story rather than just accept his testimony at face value.
Those who understand history as it really took place should be able to clearly see through the Orwellian ways of the LDS Church. Besides making the Christian pastorate look contemptible, errors of history abound. For instance, the idea that there were contradictory accounts of the First Vision before the official 1838 version is never even hinted at.
Another problem is the depiction of Smith’s translation of the golden plates. In the DVD he is shown translating directly from the plates without the aid of the Urim and Thummim, a pair of “spectacles” that Smith said were buried with the plates for the purpose of translating them (Joseph Smith History 1:35).
Nor is he shown with his face buried in a hat looking at a “seer stone.” Several eye-witnesses said Smith used such a rock in the translation process.
There is no doubt that many potential converts could be convinced of the need for a restoration if Christian hypocrisy can be established, which is something this DVD attempts to do. After all, isn’t the foremost reason why people say they don’t become Christians is the hypocrisy they perceive in the Christian church? Yet the truth of the matter is that there was no complete apostasy of Christendom as depicted in Mormon teaching. And Smith was not an innocent 14-year-old boy merely looking for truth. For those in doubt, I suggest reading D. Michael Quinn’s 1998 book, Early Mormonism and the Magic World View; this book from a historical scholar shows the truth about this man’s sordid and occultic background. Truly the Mormon founder’s integrity is not lily white as described in Mormonism.
All in all, distorting the facts as The Restoration and other LDS productions have done is quite dangerous, especially since so many prospective converts do not know their history. We live in a media age where the factually blind are apt to believe whatever they see on television, the Internet, and, yes, a DVD produced by what most Americans probably consider to be a respectable church. For those outside of North America who are being converted to Mormonism, how would they ever be able to research the facts with little or no access to the proper tools?
Unfortunately, evangelical Christianity is up against a steamroller of a public relations organization that is willing to sanitize history in order to convince people that Smith was a true prophet and the Mormon Church is the only true church on the face of the earth. The Restoration is nothing more than spiritual cotton candy used to rally the faithful as well as attract new converts. It ought to be exposed for what it is. After all, no matter how much you dress up arsenic, those who ingest it will still succumb to its toxicity.