That said, The Mormons, a four-hour documentary that aired in Spring 2007 on PBS, makes a decidedly good showing of even handedness and balance in portraying and assessing the colorful and controversial history of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (hereafter, the LDS).
A joint venture between the always superb American Experience series and the even more superb Frontline, this sprawling documentary is both historical and topical, delving deep into the strange origins and troubled early history of the Church with the hope of clearing away the myths and overheated misconceptions of Mormonism persisting in the world today (now more important than ever, with the first major Mormon presidential candidate set to make a strong run for the White House).
Drawing on interviews with Church leaders, Church members, ex-members, academics, skeptics, and true believers, The Mormons does its best to cover all the bases, striving to maintain an even keel at all times, though at the expense of asking tough questions, and digging deep into many of the more troubling aspects of the LDS. I’d never accuse Frontline of being timid, but there were a few times I got the distinct feeling they restraining themselves from going for the throat.
Indeed, there is something a bit intimidating about the missionary zeal and fervor of the LDS and its members, like they are taking it up a notch over other Christian religions (though of course, there’s the whole question of whether the LDS is really even Christian at all), turning the dial up to ‘11’. Part of this can be attributed to the relative newness of the religion itself; the LDS is only about a 170 years old, which, compared to other major world religions that measure their existence in millennia, makes the LDS barely an adolescent; prone to being overwhelmed by exuberance, prone to making colossal errors in judgment, and prone to extremist reactions to outside pressure. And, of course, there’s the massive amount of financial and political clout they wield, making them a formidable force to reckon with, an ever looming symbol of the pitched battles between Church and State that course across America.
Part One of the documentary is mostly concerned with the origins of the Church, its founding, its early struggles to survive, and its establishment in the American West. In the 1820s, Joseph Smith, the LDS’ controversial founder (a whole four hour doc could be made just about this most colorful and peculiar of Americans), claims to have had visions, first of God and Jesus, and then of the angel Moroni. They revealed to Smith the one true religion – which just happened to be the one he would found, oddly enough - and pointed him to a mountain in upstate New York, where he dug up a book of gold plates, buried in the earth hundreds of years ago, with bizarre hieroglyphic writing on them. With the help of his wife and a few other early converts, Smith translated the plates into English, and produced the Book of Mormon, which became one of the great publishing success stories of the 19th century (the plates were, of course, deposited back into the earth, per God’s order, lost again to history – rather convenient, no?).
The Book of Mormon offers a bizarre alternate history of Christianity, following the exploits of a tribe of Israelites that somehow found their way to America in 600 BC, quarreled, split apart, warred with one another back and forth across the continent, were visited by Jesus, and then disappeared. (Where were the Native Americans through all of this….hmmm?) The Book of Mormon is treated very much as a lost Biblical text, and yet also distinct from the Bible, unique enough to warrant establishing a whole new religion. But the book was the one thing that Smith had over all the other nascent religions popping up in early 19th century America. In a way, the stories contained within were irrelevant compared to the simple fact of the book’s existence - that it was tangible, a physical focal point. By passing from hand-to-hand, the Book of Mormon, rather than the sermons and teachings of Smith and other leaders, became the signal catalyst and motive force for the early LDS.
And yet, even this does not account, not really, for why Mormonism prospered where so many other nascent religions failed. The program is content to mostly follow a rather narrow narrative track of the LDS’ history, from the relentless persecution they endured, to the lynching (or martyrdom) of Smith, to the mass exodus out West, to the founding of their stronghold in Utah under Smith’s successor, Brigham Young. Yes, to have endured all this, to have traversed the continent, to have suffered sickness and death and living in the blasted out basin of the Great Salt Lake, there must’ve been something there, something more than what other religions were offering.
It surely couldn’t be these bizarre, quasi-mystical stories in the Book of Mormon, or even the promise of the coming apocalypse (hence the “Latter-day” in Latter-day Saints, since they believe they are living at the end of days) and attendant salvation by hewing to the Church. There just has to be something else there, right? The Mormons neatly skirts around this, content to let the historical record stand for itself. But perhaps this is the only way to come at it: the power of religion is that it, at once, gives you all the answers while, at the same time, maintaining an impregnable aura of unknowable mystery.
The remainder of the first part tackles various controversies and dark moments swirling around the first 80 years or so of the Church’s existence: its contentious relations with the rest of society wherever it set down roots, which often erupted into violence. And then, after relocating to Utah, its struggle with the United States government, which already then saw a looming threat in the LDS’ theocratic hold on the Utah territory, which was only allowed in as a state after a huge number of concessions from the LDS. A lamentable episode born out of this struggle was the Mountain Meadows Massacre in 1857, when a group of Mormon militiamen slaughtered 120 emigrants from Arkansas (which, until the Oklahoma City bombing, held the dubious distinction of the largest mass killing on American soil). To this day, the entire episode is an inflammatory hotbed of controversy, especially in assignations of responsibility and blame. Did Young directly order the massacre? Was there a looming religious war burbling in the American West (diverted, of course, by the outbreak of another kind of civil war)? And how could otherwise God-fearing folk engage in such ruthless slaughter?
The other big stain on Mormonism, which continues to dog the religion to this day, is, of course, polygamy. Smith claims to have had yet another vision in the 1840’s, in which he was told to have many wives, to practice this new “celestial” marriage. While it never became all-pervasive, it did take root in the upper levels of the Church leadership. Once Brigham Young gave in, the rest caved and it became de rigueur until the early 1900s, when, for the sake of political survival, the Church renounced polygamy. Still, Mormonism has had a tough time of it shaking this stigma, and many still believe that plural marriage goes on in secret, no matter how strenuously the Church denies it.
Part Two deals mostly with the LDS’ evolution in the 20th century from a fringe outsider religion to the embodiment of the American experience (or at least that’s a recurring contention). Indeed, this turns out to be one of the overarching themes of the entire documentary, which wants to posit the LDS as a microcosm of the American experience, as a sort of representative condensation of the history of the United States. We are made to believe that the historical trajectory of the Mormon Church embodies—in its 170 years of persecution, exile, violence, struggle, and ultimate ascendance—America’s own struggles and ascendance. Though a somewhat preposterous claim at first glance, it’s hard to deny the unique American-ness of the Mormon experience, the way it followed the Westward progress of the country during the first portion of its existence, followed by entrenchment and a more global view in its latter and current state.
As the LDS grew in power, it began, by necessity, to evolve. Accommodation and assimilation became the watch words, and adapting to mainstream America seems to take primacy over other concerns, especially in the latter half of the 20th century. There’s much more emphasis now on image, on trying to fit in, to look “normal” (best represented by Church leaders shaving their beards). Also, there’s more emphasis on the Christian aspect of the LDS, of positioning itself as a mainstream religion in the tradition of other mainstream Christian denominations, rather than as a totally distinct religion unto itself. Add the coupling of new political clout with the accumulation of a vast amount of wealth (mostly from tithing), and the LDS begins to loom larger and larger as a colossus of vast power.
But Mormonism has never rested contentedly with being merely an American religion; the LDS, much like Catholicism or Islam, is missionary-minded, with global dispersal and dominance very much at the forefront of its intentions. The LDS has at its disposal a vast army of young enthusiastic missionaries, youths just out of high school dispatched for two years to all far flung corners of the globe. These young Mormons, who have never left home before, are suddenly put on a plane to spread the word of the Book of Mormon in far off, third-world countries where the people might be better served by, say, basic economic and infrastructural improvements (sewage treatment centers, crop cultivation, education, health care and other such basic human needs). Alas, those needs are ignored, as the Mormon young are taught to ‘do good’ merely by the dispersal of the Word, and nothing more (although it should be noted that armies of Mormons, missionaries and regular members alike, came to New Orleans after Katrina to do a lot of grunt clean-up work.) Even if a mission is a total failure, and they make no converts (although they’re highly successful in places such as the Philippines), just their presence “out there” in the world is considered success enough for the Church. It keeps Mormonism in circulation, allows it to take hold even when it seems it isn’t.
And yet, for all its reaching outward, its apparent gregariousness, Mormonism is actually steeped in so much obscurity and willful secretiveness as to make even the Masons seem like models of divulgence. The LDS plays its cards close to its vest: financial records are kept private (even from most Church members), dissenters are squelched and excommunicated with great frequency and ruthlessness, rituals and ceremonies are performed in private, far away from the eyes of the world. The Mormon Temple is the great physical exponent of this aspect of Mormonism. Less a church than an exclusive country club for the soul, a Mormon Temple is only open to a chosen few among the faithful, those deemed most worthy, and is completely closed off from the public. Only Mormons know what goes on in Mormon temples, and they’re not telling. Communion with God? Pulling the strings? Plotting world domination? Preparing for the rapture? Who knows?
But one thing the Mormons are qutie open about (and this just completely blew my mind) is saving the world’s dead from eternal damnation. It’s true. Since it took so long for the one true religion to appear on the world stage, there are, of course, billions of lost souls who were never baptized in the Mormon faith, who, through no fault of their own, never had a chance at salvation. The LDS, in its great magnanimity, found a great loophole whereby current LDS members can assume the names of the dead and be baptized for them. In a vast underground archive are the names of two billion dead (don’t ask me how they got this number, or the names): so far they’ve “baptized” 100 million of these dead souls, at once saving them and retroactively inflating the numbers of the Church. Of course, this doesn’t quite sit well with some people. One Holocaust survivor interviewed, when getting word that his family members who died in the camps were being co-opted as Mormons, reacts with stunned confusion coupled with profound sadness. However well intentioned, in this instance, the Mormons come across as woefully callous, if not a little deranged.
And this, oddly, is the point on which The Mormons ends: staring into the beyond, into heaven and hell, contemplating the end of the world and trying to save all of humanity before it’s too late. I guess it’s appropriate, in that it’s utterly fascinating, not a small bit troubling, and willfully controversial - just like nearly every aspect of the history of the LDS.
There are no extras on the DVD release of The Mormons, but those seeking additional information would do well to go to PBS.org/Mormons. This well-organized goldmine of supplementary materials includes teaching guides, additional interviews, suggestions for further reading, and more thorough and in-depth coverage of various themes and controversies concerning the LDS. You can also watch the entire program, for free.