The American Experience: Season 19, Episode 13

The Mormons: Part I (30 Apr. 2007)

TV Episode  -   -  Documentary | History
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The following topics are covered: history of Joseph Smith based almost entirely on 2nd and 3rd person accounts... See full synopsis »

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Will Bagley
Alex Baugh ...
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Harold Bloom ...
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Phil Bolinger ...
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Richard Bushman
Jon Butler ...
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Alex Caldiero ...
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Ken Clark ...
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Ed. Firmage Jr. ...
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Kathleen Flake ...
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Robin Fox ...
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Judith Freeman ...
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Terryl Givens ...
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Sarah Barringer Gordon ...
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The following topics are covered: history of Joseph Smith based almost entirely on 2nd and 3rd person accounts... See full synopsis »

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30 April 2007 (USA)  »

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America's Most Enigmatic Religious Sect
9 May 2007 | by (Oakland, CA) – See all my reviews

Every religion faces an initial challenge at its inception. Namely that religions appear more legitimate, even by non-believers, when they are viewed as having ancient origins. Ancient religions portray mystical and often supernatural qualities, its founders are displaced by time to give them other-worldly legendary status.

Among the major religions being practiced today, one of the oldest is Hinduism, which may date back as far as 5500 BCE, although it espouses no single founder. One of the next oldest faiths is Judaism. Very little physical evidence, if any, has legitimized the stories of its Bible, called The Old Testament by Christians, but many, even non-Jews, regard its stories as true history. Buddhism is next, founded about 2400 years ago. There is some evidence that a man named Siddhartha did live around the time described. Jesus of Nazareth lived about 2000 years ago and was given the title of "Christ", "anointed one", by some of his first followers after his death, propagating that he was the Messiah as foretold in the Jewish Bible. Actual primary sources and physical evidence of Jesus' existence are scarce but barely adequate to legitimize general consensus that such a man did exist. Mohammed appeared about 600 years after Jesus and there is much more evidence of Mohammed's existence than Jesus'.

In the early 19th century, a very young American named Joseph Smith claimed he saw the vision of an angel of God who told him about some gold plates that contained bible-like stories about Jews who came to the Americas long before Columbus. Smith went on to transcribe the writing on the plates, or so the story has been told, which came to be known as the Book of Mormon. Smith founded a new religion based on these texts, the Mormons or Church of Latter-Day Saints (aka Church of Jesus Christ and Latter-Day Saints). There is no question of the existence of Joseph Smith and his first followers. Photographs, letters, newspaper articles, dairies, and genealogies support a very extensive biography. Whether or not Smith's revelatory vision is exactly as he describes is much more debatable. However, because of his proximity to modern times, Joseph Smith is not viewed in the same way as Moses, Buddha, Jesus and Mohammed by people outside of Mormon traditions. Smith lacks the legendary aura of other more ancient figures which is at the heart of the Mormon challenge to legitimize their religion in the eyes of others and other religious faiths. Ironically, Christians of the first century dealt with similar issues and were labeled as being superstitious by Roman authorities, such as Pliny the Younger.

Ironically, unlike the historians of Judaism and Christianity who must find evidence among archaeological sites thousands of years old, the Mormons' history is well-documented, and not quite 200 years old. This history is the center-piece of the first part of a new documentary by PBS which begins with the revelations by Joseph Smith in Pennsylvania, continues with the first fledgling congregations in rural upstate New York to their flights from persecution. Mormons left the state of NY and settled in Missouri only to be ousted again by other locals and forced to migrate to Utah. The documentary ends with the construction of the large temple in Salt Lake City and its quest to denounce certain practices of its forefathers, the most controversial being polygamy.

This first part of the documentary features commentary by both Mormons and non-Mormons. Discussion of the Mormon church's official accounting is tempered with accounting by historians who are not members of the faith. The picture painted by the documentary is one of great ambiguity. On one hand, the faith encourages family, fellowship and responsibility. On the other hand, the faith seems not only embarrassed by its own history, but resolved to rewrite historical fact. Very clear documentary evidence exists to substantiate that Joseph Smith, Brigham Young, and many of their earliest followers practiced polygamy. However, the church has tried to distance itself not only from the polygamist practices of its earliest members but attempted to write some of the episodes out of its history, as part of a public relations campaign. And yet they still propagate Joseph Smith as being a prophet.

The Mormons are secretive about certain aspects of their faith. Non-Mormons are not allowed inside their temples. Certain practices, ceremonies, disciplinary procedures, and transcripts are kept hidden from non-Mormon scrutiny. Church leaders are often immune from criticism and yet have the power to punish and even excommunicate members who vocalize dissent from decisions made by the leadership. Even the Catholic Church allows for greater dissent among its members than Mormons. This may be part of the ambivalent view that people of other faiths including other Christian sects, have of the Mormons. If the Church of Latter-Day Saints wishes to proclaim that their church is completely legitimate, then Mormons should not be afraid to reveal everything about their religion to outsiders, including historical documents, practices, and even judicial trials. Unless, of course, they have something to hide. No religion is free from indiscretions, and those that claim legitimacy must embrace their skeletons in the closet.


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