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"The Mormons: Part 1" is mostly a discussion of the history of the
Mormons. In particular, it discusses how the church began, its
persecution, its move to Utah and its own persecution of others were
all discussed. This was done mostly through lots of interviews (some
clearly by dedicated church members, some by critics), narration and
While I would agree that "The Mormons" is very well made, I found the films a bit frustrating as well. That's because it's hard to imagine but some VERY basic things about the Church of Latter Day Saints are never really explored in part 1 and part 2 only hits on a few points. What, exactly do church members believe? And, if some say that Mormons are NOT Christians....why? What makes the Mormon church different from mainstream Christian churches? You sure would think this would be in this four-hour film...but it isn't. How could a film discuss the Mormons without discussing their basic theology?! Allusions occur here and there--but that is all.
What also is oddly lacking is the process by which the church's founder, Joseph Smith, obtained his revelations. Any in-depth discussion of the golden tablets and how, with the help of a friend, he interpreted these tablets is entirely absent. Huh?! How could this not be addressed? As a result of the extreme incompleteness of the films, I give it a score of 6. It's well made but is frustrating to Mormons and non-Mormons as it's pretty shallow in regard to doctrine. Instead it focuses on polygamy and other issues that are not the fundamental precepts of the church.
Despite another comment here that the program was "unfair" in not
giving full credit where it was due to the many accomplishments of the
Mormom leadership and the positive side of the Mormon struggle, I found
the historical disclosures well balanced and presented both sides of
just about every important event covered. Still, as a religion, I found
it to be very ambiguous in its teachings--especially the basic concept
of what Joseph Smith supposedly saw in "the revelation" and how he
conducted his life thereafter. The whole program raised more questions
than it answered, leading one to feel that even further exploration of
this ambiguous religious sect will never reveal all of its secrets.
A couple of the historians seemed to shed much light and insight into the period that began in the 1820s with Joseph Smith in upstate New York, the revelation which led to "The Book of Mormons", the flight from persecution that had him leading followers to Illinois and then Missouri, his meeting with Brigham Young who would later assume leadership and the long trek to Utah after being ousted again by angry locals, with the documentary leading up to the settlement there to construct a temple.
Along the way, all the hardships of journeys are depicted as men, women and children crossed the country in covered wagons, seeing their mission as a sort of exodus into a new land where they could freely practice their faith. There is no flinching from the brutal murder of Joseph Smith, the massacres that claimed many lives and the sad history of the Mormons as they struggled to fight the outsiders who wanted to destroy them.
Both sides of the story are given with fine commentaries from historians who obviously know their facts and interpret them in a way that makes for a fascinating documentary, filled with paintings and old photographs that bring the whole story vividly to life.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
It was about as cherry picked of a history lesson as can be imagined.
For example it gave inordinate attention to a single portrayal of
Joseph Smith wielding a sword as if he thought he was Napoleon every
where he went, calling Smith our "Alpha" and "Omega", but this
portrayal was never substantiated other than a single artist's picture
by one of Josephs admirers and that came with very little comment.
Another example: talked about the short lived action-less Mormon
Militia organized for defense as if the early Mormons were militant,
but not the laudable and much larger Mormon Battalion where 500 Mormon
men volunteered to march 2000 miles on foot to fight for this country
during the Mexican war, immediately after the government allowed
Missouri to issue an extermination order allowing LDS people to be shot
on site. No mention of any of that.
Talked about the 1842 burning of a libelous and defamatory anti-Mormon publishing press, but no coverage on the fact that all Mormon-owned property was vandalized and over-run eventually before they went west.
No mention of the tremendous sacrifices made by 10,000's selling all they had to escape religious persecution. No mention of the multiple 1000's (1 out of every 10) who died on the trek westward, or the Martin and Willie Handcart company alone wherein 220 people died, including the many who died who went back to save them as soon as they learned of the conditions.
A third of the time was spent on early polygamy (incidentally the modern church fully admits it happened despite what other comments claimed), and spent even more time covering recent polygamy. Actually polygamy was outlawed by the LDS church in the 1800's and today is only practiced by less than 0.01% of those who claim to be Mormons (considered apostates by the dominant Mormon church). Funny how they failed to mention that amazingly essential fact.
They gave whatever dirt on Joseph Smith they could find, but none of the reports given by non-LDS of Joseph Smith's good character and his good nature, which were many. None of the early 1st hand accounts from non-Mormons of the time that admitted the Mormons were peace-loving and tried to be considerate as possible. A quickly dismissed account of the martyrdom of Joseph Smith and others who were there and the false charges he was held under, and the murders and raping of LDS people before the trek west, or the draining of the Nauvoo swamp and the 1000's that died there from malaria? No mention of the method of church succession (Brigham Young didn't just "take over" as it seemed to suggest), and no mention of the actual extermination from Kirtland and then Nauvoo and the massive burning of Nauvoo that followed. No mention of the massive splintering after the martyrdom.
No mention of what happened from for the bulk of the 20th century, and the amazing welfare system that abolished poverty among the Mormons during the depression that period was completely skipped (nearly half of Mormon history) supposedly because no scandals were to be found.
Lastly they never explored the important questions: Why did Joseph's church attract so many more dedicated followers than all the other upstarts in the "burned-over district" in upstate New York? Was it the Book of Mormon - or the unique concept of a priesthood restoration - or the 100% lay ministry - or the level of dedication that's expected - Joseph's mere magnetism - or the unique "plan of salvation" that he taught? This treatment is grossly missing.
Another substantial piece of time was spent drawing up an extremely contrived and innuendo-laden case to blame Brigham for Mountain Meadows massacre despite a complete lack of evidence that he ordered such a treacherous act. The Mountain Meadows massacre was a harrowing part of Mormon history where a secluded group of members disregarded everything they were taught in order to commit so great a crime, and today all Mormons are and will always be horrified and disturbed by it. The act was just as contrary to the LDS faith as it is to any other faith - a most important fact that this show neglected to mention. Even worse, one of the quoted non-mormon historians for unknown reasons then accused Mormons of not accepting the reality of Mountain Meadows and not having learned from it. Not sure where they get the balls to say that, as nowhere is evidence provided to substantiated that harrowing accusation.
I shudder to think that my non-member friends and neighbors saw that incredibly selective treatment of my heritage, and what they must think of me and my ancestors now. What's more, that they might now consider something so hurtful and baffling as myself having a part of Mountain Meadows massacre in me when it goes contrary to everything my church teaches. Way to fuel the flames of fear and hatred of some of the most peace-loving people in the country.
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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