American Experience (1988– )
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The Mormons: Part II 

Somewhat different than part 1, which was a selective treatment of Mormon history, part 2 explores the lives of many different kinds of Mormons, going for more breadth than depth. As such ... See full synopsis »


Helen Whitney


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Episode credited cast:
Tal Bachman Tal Bachman ... Himself
Robert Bennett Robert Bennett ... Himself
James Dalrymple James Dalrymple ... Himself
Timber Dick Timber Dick ... Himself
Fiona Givens Fiona Givens ... Herself
Terryl Givens Terryl Givens ... Himself
Calvin Harper Calvin Harper ... Himself
Bryan Horn Bryan Horn ... Himself
Gail Houston Gail Houston ... Herself
Marlin K. Jensen Marlin K. Jensen ... Himself
Leslie Karsten Leslie Karsten ... Herself
Emily Lodish Emily Lodish ... Himself
Colleen McDannell Colleen McDannell ... Herself
Richard Mouw Richard Mouw ... Himself
Melissa Mower Melissa Mower ... Herself


Somewhat different than part 1, which was a selective treatment of Mormon history, part 2 explores the lives of many different kinds of Mormons, going for more breadth than depth. As such only one family interviewed represented the bulk of actively participating Mormons, while the rest of those interviewed represented mostly fringe members, inactive members, ex-members.

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Release Date:

1 May 2007 (USA) See more »

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WGBH See more »
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User Reviews

The Light and Dark of America's Home-Grown Christian Sect
23 February 2008 | by classicalsteveSee all my reviews

All Christian religious denominations have their positive and their negative aspects, and the Mormon Church is no exception. Frontline/American Experience have done a tremendous job to reveal both sides of a very complex religious phenomenon that cannot be pigeon-holed into the convenient labels of "good" or "bad". In Part II of the documentary series "The Mormons", the producers show a religious denomination that legitimized itself to the United States Government, overcame prejudices against non-whites, and lent a helping hand to those in need, particularly those devastated in New Orleans by Hurricane Katrina in 2005. Simultaneously, the church goes to great lengths not only to silence dissenters but threaten those who question church authority with excommunication.

The beginning of Part II reveals a church struggling for legitimacy while simultaneously holding on to its distinctiveness in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, a challenge that all churches, both east and west, often face. Its first task was to forbid the practice of polygamy, which had stigmatized much of the reputation of the church during the 19th century. The prominent figure from the era is Reed Smoot, first senator elected from Utah and the first Mormon to hold a United States national office. The documentary briefly relates his four-year struggle to be seated in the US Congress against opposition. One hundred years later, the Mormon Tabernacle Choir performs at US Presidential inaugurations. The Mormons had arrived.

During most of its 150+ history, the church had prejudices against non-white followers until 1978 in which the Church allowed aspiring Mormons of any color or creed to join as full members. The documentary also praises the LDS Church's humanitarian aid, particularly in the face of Katrina. One New Orleans resident describes his shift in perception of Mormons post-Kratina, and that he will always welcome them into his house. And an interesting chapter on missionary work describes the commitment of young missioners, typically 19-year-olds, who dedicate two years of their life to propagate the Mormon message around the world.

Simultaneously, the LDS Church has a darker side. According to the documentary, the LDS Church is quite probably the wealthiest church in the United States, and yet it withholds much of its financial records from public scrutiny, which is not true of most other churches in the United States. Church Elders, who are older white males, and their decisions are immune from scrutiny by lesser-ranking members with the threat of excommunication hanging over them. In other words, decisions by church elders are not to be questioned by church members, in particular women, with the rationale that such questioning could lead to doubt and undermine the church's goals. And the Church may condemn and excommunicate those who question and/or reveal information contrary to the official doctrine, history, and teachings of the LDS Church.

One such woman, Margaret Toscano, who had written articles questioning the church's position that women could not hold higher offices in the church legislator, recounts her experience of being summoned in front of a church tribunal. Her story recalls the kinds of tribunals in centuries past where the accused sat alone, without representation or defense, in front of a panel of judges who would decide his or her fate. The judges in Mormon disciplinary tribunals apparently serve also as jury, determining the religious fate of the accused. Although Toscano has spoken publicly about her experience, Mormon trial transcripts are kept from public scrutiny. Terryl Givens, a Mormon scholar, felt that he could not give an opinion about Toscano's case. Why? Because only half of the Toscano story (Toscano's interview) was revealed without the transcripts and interviews of the judges. The other side of the story will probably never be disclosed. A rather strange irony...

The documentary than follows a typical Mormon family and shows how and why members tend to be loyal to their church despite its oligarchical governing structure. The Mormon message of family, love and acceptance appear to trump other considerations regarding unquestioned loyalty to the church. The church and its members will love and support you, so long as you obey its prescribed guidelines. But questioning church precepts is greatly discouraged as it could lead members astray according to church elders.

Overall, an excellent portrayal of a religious sect that continues to not only be redefined and re-characterized by historians but redefined by itself. Mormons who are content with their religion, follow the precepts as dictated by the elders, dedicate their lives to helping others, and propagate the faith of the LDS Church need have no fear from church authority. But those who cross lines set by church governance may have their religious lives revoked. The only thing I can say is that I judge a religious group not by how they treat those who behave within proscribed limits, but how they treat those they judge as apostates.

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