Well, everyone with an interest in Mormon Studies has an opinion about the PBS documentary The Mormons, part 1 of which aired last night nationwide and part 2 of which will air tonight (check your local listings for time and channel). So, I might as well join the fray and express my own opinion as a disaffected still-on-the-rolls member of the church who has studied Mormon history with varying degrees of intensity over the last 19 years or so.
Overall, I thought the documentary was well produced. The narrative seemed a bit rushed and disjointed at times, some details I thought were important were glossed over quickly while other things I thought not so important got more air time than I would have expected. For example, I thought there should have been a discussion about the restoration of the priesthood. They covered the idea of a restoration of the New Testament church but not the development of the idea of priesthood authority and the evolution of a hierarchical, authoritarian structure from the more communitarian/egalitarian beginnings. This is an important point that goes directly to the recurring theme of the documentary: that Mormon leaders demand and expect absolute obedience and loyalty. That theme is explored with respect to Mountain Meadows and polygamy, and I understand it will continue tonight as they discuss the church’s treatment of dissenters and scholars who don’t toe the party line. A discussion of the restoration of the priesthood and its evolution, I think, would help explain and anchor the later discussions of Mountain Meadows and the attitude toward dissent in the church.
A few other nits to pick: the one passing mention of priesthood was that it was made available to all males. I think a mention of the fact that black males were excluded until 1978 would have been appropriate (but maybe they will cover that in tonight’s installment). And while they mentioned that William Law started up the Nauvoo Expositor because of a falling out with Joseph Smith over polygamy, I thought they should have mentioned that the falling out occurred because Joseph Smith had propositioned William’s wife and she flat out refused him. Joseph then spread lies about her and William, so Law decided to fight back with the Expositor.
I felt like Joseph Smith was portrayed very sympathetically and while some controversies were touched upon (the speculation that led to the bank failure in Kirtland, the money digging, and his self-aggrandizement in Nauvoo), I think he got a free pass on polygamy. But in two hours, it is difficult to cover every topic or to give everything the precise treatment that I would give it.
Another oddity was the way they identified the
scholars they interviewed. They did not
identify their university affiliations and , in the case of authors, did not
identify what they had written. I found
this strange. I mean, I know that Daniel
Peterson is a BYU professor who is one of the church’s chief apologists. But most people (even church members) have
never heard of him. They identified him
simply as an Islamic Studies scholar. If
I didn’t know who he was, I’d wonder why they had an expert on Islam talking
about Joseph Smith translating the Book of Mormon using a peepstone in a
hat. They identified Terryl Givens as an
English professor but didn’t say that he
was at BYU and had written an
apologetic book on the Book of Mormon.
Another oddity from last night’s installment was a short segment about 3/4 of the way through where Terryl Givens waxes rhapsodic about how Mormons love to dance because Mormon theology teaches that God has a physical body. Not only have I never heard that, it seemed wildly out of place in the narrative, complete with video clips of BYU students taking ballroom-dancing classes. That was just weird. A point could be made about how Mormons in the nineteenth century differed from some Protestant groups that disfavored music, dancing, and recreational activities, but to equate Mormons’ love of dancing (of which I was not aware) with Mormon doctrine on God having a body was a stretch. But these are really minor criticisms. Overall, I think PBS has done an excellent job of covering the highlights of Mormon history in an interesting and informative manner. I didn’t catch any factual errors at all (though some are saying that the show incorrectly stated that Jesus visited the American continent during the three days between his death and resurrection rather than after his resurrection. I know they mentioned it briefly but I didn’t catch that error on first listen). All in all, I think it would be difficult for devout Mormons to argue that the program misrepresents Mormon history and beliefs (some have done just that, though—see my commentary on that below).
I surprised myself with my emotional reaction to the first hour. The descriptions of the First Vision and the founding of the church made me almost wistful. I was reminded for the first time in a long time just what it was that attracted me to the church in the first place—it was the founding story of an innocent boy seeking for truth, being answered by God Himself and Jesus Christ, and being the imperfect instrument in the hands of God to perform a great work. It really is a thrilling, compelling story, and I was moved by its telling, perhaps more so because it was not told in the strictly correlated fashion we are accustomed to in the church. I was also profoundly stirred by the artwork used in the first hour, especially two pictures of Joseph Smith that I had never seen before. I think at least one was by Trevor Southey but I have not been able to find it online. It was a portrait that used a lot of texture to make Joseph’s face sort of unclear. It vividly conveys the Prophet’s enigmatic nature. The other had three views of Joseph in different poses, conveying the complexity of his character. I was so glad not to see the same old stuff we get in the Gospel Art Kit.
If in the first hour I felt strangely affectionate toward Joseph Smith and the church from which I have become disaffected, in the second I was reminded powerfully of why I am on the brink of sending in my resignation letter. The depiction of the Mountain Meadows Massacre and the realization that Mormon doctrine and culture were largely responsible for making it possible (e.g., the persecution complex, the anti-government rhetoric, the doctrine of blood atonement—though not mentioned specifically—the culture of absolute obedience to church leaders, the notion that the church has the divine stamp of approval). Whether Brigham Young knew about it or ordered it before the fact, there is no question that he knew about it after the fact, scapegoated John D. Lee (who, as the narrative pointed out, was guilty for some things but not for all he was charged with), covered up the story and suppressed its telling right up to the present day. Dallin Oaks made some comments about how horrible it all was, but eschewed an opportunity to apologize on behalf of the church and to acknowledge the part that Mormon doctrine and culture played in creating the conditions that made the massacre possible. That the church continues to try to distance itself from this tragic episode is evident in the press release it issued in advance of the airing of tonight's installment. Here is what the first paragraph of the church’s official response to the documentary, published on the church’s web site:
Under the banner of American Experience, a popular documentary series, the two-hour program dealt mostly with historical aspects of the Church and some of its defining people and doctrines, including Joseph Smith, the visions which gave rise to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, the physical nature of God, Joseph Smith's martyrdom and the move of the Church to the West. Elements of Utah history, including the Mountain Meadows Massacre and the practice of polygamy, were treated at length.
Note how the church will not even admit that the Mountain Meadows Massacre and the practice of polygamy are part of church history—they are instead “elements of Utah history.” That the church continues to obfuscate and deny and spin and deflect questions and legitimate criticism of aspects of its history takes the massacre out of the realm of historical oddity and into the current conversation about the honesty of church leaders and the treatment of members who dare question them.
I look forward to watching part 2 this evening and am hopeful it will be as strong as the first half. Looking at various Mormon-themed Internet sites this morning as well as the comments on the PBS site, it appears that many devout members of the church are unhappy with the program for not portraying the church in a more favorable light. The most oft-repeated criticisms are that the program (1) focused too much on polygamy and Mountain Meadows, (2) misrepresented church doctrine and history, and (3) was not balanced in that church critics had more screen time than church supporters and apologists. Typical of the comments are the following, which I copied from the PBS site:
Watching this documentary as objectively as possible for the most part it was acceptable. However, some it the narration and commentary made me feel uncomfortable as it was inaccurate and was stated by former members of the LDS Church. No documentary from the outside looking in will ever be truthful. It is a privilege to be a member of this church and to know it's truth. The truth goes beyond any documentary.
Bob Lequia Provo, Utah
As an active member of the LDS church I watched the program with great anticipation. I read articles previous to my viewing of it that stated this program was to help people understand Mormons and our faith. What a huge disappointment. What misrepresentation. If the intent of the film maker was to help people understand what the Mormons are all about, this production failed miserably. I question what the true intent of the film maker was and is? Those not of our faith will be more puzzled and misled then ever. Mormons now have a new batch of misconceptions to overcome. This film claims to be a documentary of the history and beliefs of the Mormons. It misleads so much, and is so off the mark, it cannot be considered a documentary. It is merely opinions regarding the most extreme events of our history and what we believe. So as a Mormon I shake my head at the absurdity of the film and continue as I and other Mormons have always done. Try and help the world understand what we are really all about.
Lorraine C. Dobson
Oklahoma City, Oklahoma
I was at first excited to see that a credited informative program was doing an extensive look at the origins and development of our church. I knew that different views would be expressed: however overall I was disapointed that distorted opinions dominated over truth and our beliefs and history were once again twisted into a malformation of supposed intelectuals who have studied Mormonism in an objective way. How do you dispell ignorance of something when you present information that has been tainted by personal definition. Perhaps we will never be rid of those who want to default or detroy something that goes beyond mere intellect.
i am appalled to see PBS broadcast such a documentary that so misrepresents my religion. i can not believe i encouraged people to watch this program i will relay to them my sadness that this program represents the leaders of our church in such a horrible way. I will not be viewing PBS after this.
With all that has been said thus far, I must add that I feel quite misrepresented as a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints. I felt a darkness and sadness prompted by the cynicism displayed throughout the show. The truth about the church can only be discovered through an individual study of it. No one can gain a true understanding of what we are and what we believe by listening to others opinions; opinions represented as truth in a mask of intellectualism.
You had two hours and you did not get it right. I hope your next two hours repairs some of the damage. I did not expect a pro-mormon propaganda piece but giving 70% or more to pure anti-mormon topics is not balance. On the other hand I should be surprised you didn't just turn it over to the "former mormon scholars". (or did you?) The anti-mormons are dancing with joy tonight. You might notice the anti-mormons are the only happy ones on your blog. Persecution continues. But I have it really easycompared to my ancestors. That you did briefly portray.
This program literally made me sick to my stomach. It was such a biased view of what the church is like. They didn't discuss half of the hardships that the early members endured and spent most of the time discussing things that didn't really pertain to what the church is about. I hope that tomorrow night gives a better view of who we are and what we believe. But so far, with the anti-mormon spin that has been placed on this documentary, I doubt that will be the case.
I feel a little let down about the show The Mormons. I felt as though the information told during the show was inaccurate about the Mormon religion. Many of the people interviewed shared some truthful insights but they also shared some twisted truths. Also the narrator shared many things that are different than what the Mormons actually believe. This let me down.
Joel Robbins Ogden, UT
What I find most telling about the commenters who assert that the program contains inaccuracies and misrepresentations is that none of them points to a specific instance of misrepresentation or inaccuracy. Because the presentation does not jibe with what they have learned in Sunday School and from watching church-produced videos, the assumption is that the producers of the documentary must be misrepresenting things. The thought does not seem to have struck these commenters that maybe, just maybe, the producers of this program have gotten things about right and that, to the extent there are discrepancies between what the church teaches and what is in the program, the misrepresentations are to be found in the church correlated materials.
As for the criticism that the program features the Mountain Meadows Massacre too prominently, the only justification for the criticism appears to be that those subjects make devout Mormons uncomfortable and they would rather not have to hear about them or have the public at large become aware of them. Some commenters have questioned the relevance of Mountain Meadows to toady’s church (the “it’s just a little fleck of history” argument). Here is why I think the producers were correct to spend a half hour on Mountain Meadows.
First, it’s a fascinating subject from an historical perspective. The MMM was the largest single massacre ever on American soil until September 11, 2001. It’s an important part of American history, the history of the West, and of Mormon history, and more Americans (Mormon or not) ought to know about it.
Second, the massacre did not occur in a vacuum, a point ably made by the program. A confluence of factors and events came together to allow it to happen. And Mormon doctrine, history, and culture all were part of that mix. Examining the Mountain Meadows Massacre tells us much about the early Mormon church and mid-nineteenth-century America.
Finally, the event stands as a monument to the dangers of absolutist thinking in religion, the dangers inherent in authoritarian religious groups. It informs the debate that is going on in the church even today regarding appropriate levels of dissent doubt, about the extent of a Latter-day Saint’s allegiance to the church and its leaders, about potential conflicting loyalties members may have between church and state. One of the themes of last night’s installment was that one of Mormonism’s most salient characteristics is the zeal of its adherents. That zeal led to great accomplishments: the establishment of a new church that has grown to number in the millions; the building of temples and communities on the American frontier; the trek west against great odds and amid terrible hardships; making the desert blossom like a rose; and unity in the face of perceived persecution from neighbors, Indians, and the United States government.
But this zeal, imbued with a fanatical respect for the divine authority of Mormon leaders, contributed to the massacre at Mountain Meadows. And the same zeal continues unabated today in the fundamentalist Mormon communities and also, to some extent, in the mainstream church. It is this zeal and absolute respect for the authority of church leaders that fuels intolerance of gays, dissenters, and those who choose to leave the church. The church doctrine that its leaders are divinely appointed, that they are immune from criticism, and that to contradict a church authority is akin to contradicting God was part of the LDS church in 1857 and it is part of the LDS church in 2007. I think that is the point of showing the clip from Elder Oaks saying that “criticism of church leaders is never justified even if the criticism is true.” That this doctrine is enforced in the present church is evident from the excommunication of scholars who dare to tell the unvarnished truth about church leaders past and present. And that’s why Mountain Meadows is relevant to a documentary about the Mormons.
Concerning the charge that the show was not “balanced” enough, I must say I do not agree. Terryl Givens, an LDS English professor at the University of Richmond, was given the most air time, I believe. Other Mormons shown included apostles Dallin Oaks and Jeffrey Holland, Gordon Hinckley (in footage from General Conference), Daniel Peterson, Kathleen Flake, Richard Bushman, and Alex Baugh. There may have been others, but those are the ones I remember. They also included comments from non-Mormon scholars, poets, and theologians, some of whom had quite nice things to say about the church and Joseph Smith. One well known ex-Mormon appeared a couple of times briefly, and Will Bagley, who has written a book on Mountain Meadows was also featured prominently. I’d like to count up the minutes each person was given to see just how balanced it was. My impression from the devout members making this criticism is that they are accustomed to Sunday School discussions and would find any amount of time given to someone other than a church apostle or BYU professor to be too much time.
I eagerly await tonight’s installment.