Meridian readers had strong feelings about Helen Whitney’s PBS documentary called The Mormons, and we share a sample of them here – their responses to Part 1 of the program, which aired Monday night, April 30. We will be running responses to Part 2 on Friday.
Now, you have another opportunity to share your thoughts on a different topic at the Internet blog called On Faith, sponsored by Newsweek and The Washington Post. Here questions concerning religion are posed every few days and a distinguished panel of writers and thinkers, representing a range of religious viewpoints, respond. Michael Otterson, the senior spokesman for the Church, is a regular writer for this conversation on religion.
This week is particularly important because the question concerns Mormonism. It is:
After 175 years of existence, is Mormonism entering the mainstream of American religious life or are people still suspicious of it?
You can read the comments of many writers here with vastly different viewpoints on the question. We invite you to respond with thoughtful comments by clicking here.
Here are your responses on Part 1 of The Mormons.
Out of Context
If Whitney intended to be fair in her presentation of the Church, why did PBS’s first night devote literally half of the time to Mountain Meadows and a mostly negative review of Mormon polygamy? Moreover, the inclusion of Jeffs at the very end of the two hours was a deliberate move to deceive and leave the viewer with a bad taste that belies any earlier neutrality effort.
The gratuitous and out-of-context sections on dancing and violence were intended only to titillate and had the effect of making the Church look not just a little weird.
Those church members who breathlessly praise Whitney are obviously relieved that she didn’t overtly attack the LDS Church on all grounds; even so, we should finally recognize that no outside group will benignly represent our church.
Gayle Vogt, Ph.D.
Not This Again!
Overall, I thought that part one of the PBS documentary on the Mormons was well done. However, there were times I said to myself, “Not this again!”
I’m not sure how something as vague as Joseph Smith’s “sense of destiny” was able to transform something made up (the Book of Mormon) into something “absolutely convincing.” If the foundation of the Church lies in that book, as was said, why are its origins the only means to verify its validity, and not an examination of its value as literature, or the religiosity of its text? Surely it says something more than a story of nations and wars to allow it to survive 177 years. It must be easier (or more exciting) to produce a four-hour documentary about the Church, than to read and review a 600-page book.
Another attack on character when nothing else is exciting – hearsay speculation that Joseph Smith’s passions motivated him to polygamy implying that polygamy is “wrong.” What should we speculate about the prophets of the Old Testament? Or Muslims? Is the western 21st century any more liberal minded than the 19th century?
Haun’s Mill was given much less exposure than the Mountain Meadows Massacre. After Haun’s Mill it was said in passing that no one was tried for the incident, then it was stressed that “only” John D. Lee was convicted for Mountain Meadows, as if that was worse. 120 were killed there, and only 18 at Haun’s Mill (if I remembered the numbers right), but how many Mormons were murdered in all, prior to Mountain Meadows? Mormons are just as human as anyone else, but I don’t think that came across. (The Mormons must take in all kinds!).
The suffering and death of so many pioneers made it seem as though we must have been crazy. It would have been nice to hear (unless I missed it) what percentage actually died of the approximately 70,000 that emigrated west. I have heard it was 10 percent. I hope Tuesday night will be fairer.
Vicki Lynn Rasmussen
How We React
How we approach and view this documentary and how we react after we see it will determine whether our friends, family and others in our circle of influence, that are not-yet-members, will ultimately “see” the Church.
If we object to the prejudicial viewpoints that are put forth, whether it is the length of time devoted to a sensitive issue, an anti-Mormon proponent, or a polygamist, who is not a Mormon at all, but who is perhaps included for the “thrill” factor or to raise the interest level in the documentary, and we do so in a negative, how-dare-you mode, we are only confirming what many people, who either don’t have a first-hand knowledge of the Gospel or who don’t know any solid, faithful members of the Church, may think we are – a self-righteous, clannish, secret society. We are not that. We believe in seeking knowledge and truth and sharing what we believe with others and we should not fear having our religion on prime time. Those who choose to think badly of us will do that with or without PBS.
I believe Ms. Whitney’s intentions are good. But it is almost impossible for someone to tell the story about anything – religious or otherwise – which he or she does not fully understand or has not experienced without getting some of it “wrong.” There will be misunderstandings, misinterpretations, inaccuracies, and some of what is presented will not portray us as we really are.
How do you capture what is in someone’s heart? How do you portray personal revelation or testimonies about blessings received without trivializing them or having not-yet-members think that these experiences or feelings are just plain weird? People relate best to that which they know or understand, even if their knowledge or understanding is at just a basic level, and the majority of humanity has not experienced what is an integral part of our belief system. But what an opportunity we will have as a result of this four-hour series to let those with whom we associate know through our attitude and our words just how Christian we are. Like the Amish families, to which President Faust referred in his talk at Conference, we need to be loving and caring and forgiving for whatever has offended us and, when it is appropriate, through words and acts of kindness tell anyone who wants to know what it really is like to be a part of “The Mormons.”
Just as we do not want to be the victims of someone’s prejudicial thinking about our religion because that someone does not know the truth, we must, in turn, be willing to defer any prejudice we might feel toward those who do not have it.
Would Christ want us to spend our time and energy being angry because of untruths that might be promulgated by this film, or would He want us to overcome the world and its viewpoint of us through simple words and acts that will do more to dispel any negative impressions made by the documentary than any amount of being offended and responding with harsh criticism of its maker or sponsors? If it is true that people are fascinated by and want to hear more about us, then let’s give them our best – love unfeigned.
Jan McBurney Bodine
Yuba City, California
Not Worthy of My Time
After reading that Ms. Whitney included the Warren Jeffs story in the PBS special, I don’t think I’ll watch her “documentary.” The man deserves not another minute of my consideration or time. It sounds like Whitney was at best flippant and at worst dishonest in stating that one of her goals for the show was to dispel stereotypes of Mormons. Perhaps she stated this in order to get faithful Mormons to talk openly with her – or perhaps that was an initial intention that she let fade into the background. Regardless of her intent it’s very disappointing and I conclude her production to not be worth my time.
Thanks for your wonderful, insightful magazine. I learn from it every time I read it.
Albuquerque, New Mexico
I watched Part 1 of the 2-part, 2-day piece on PBS “The Mormons” – and, well, what a BOMB that was! PBS sure misled the public and especially those of our faith with all the teasers, trailers and previews!!!
LDS Gems said: “Initial reviews describe the programs as thoughtful and probing and compliment Church leaders and members for how they addressed difficult topics.”
Well, the show certainly was VERY PROBING…but “thoughtful”? I’d say NOT. I am so disappointed!
Regarding the broadcast, before it aired, the Newsroom at www.lds.org posted: “While the Church distances itself from political discussions because of its policy of partisan neutrality, it welcomes serious and respectful attempts to explain its history, beliefs and practices.”
Well, NO ONE who watched this show in OUR family felt this piece was a “serious and respectful attempt” to explain our history, beliefs nor our practices!!
The show was horribly biased and laced with opinionism; and, there was very little truth nor fact as its base!!
I do not know where the producer, writers and everyone involved in this production dug up those story tellers – and that is exactly what they were – weaving tale after tale after tale with little or no factual information (so very sad) while touting themselves as authors, historians, and journalists. The show gave most of their time to these yarn spinners and allowed them to slander our people, our leaders and our history, with little time given to the practicing members of our faith nor our leaders today. What a horrid and tainted picture was painted on this broadcast tonight.
I will not waste another two hours of my time watching part 2 tomorrow night, that’s for sure.
I will certainly be more cautious before suggesting again to my non-member and member friends and family to watch anything produced outside of the Church about our faith again! I have also lost a great deal of respect for PBS broadcasting, which I held in high esteem until now.
I was disappointed in the documentary – in the way Helen Whitney chose to tell “our story” through what felt like a preponderance of non-members. Only very brief statements by President Hinckley, Elders Oaks and Holland, Marlin Jensen, and so on, were included, whereas the bulk of the time and most of the comments were given to individuals outside of our Church, including all of those fundamentalists!
I wouldn’t recommend this documentary to anyone I know as a way to understand our church.
I am not looking forward to tonight. I suspect their twist on the modern church will also not communicate what Mormons and the LDS Church are really like.
Have only seen first segment, and was disappointed. However, I didn’t really want to comment on that. I do wish to comment on your insightful, rational, and analytical article about the documentary. As always Meridian’s articles are intelligent and make sense. This article was no exception. It’s too bad everyone who sees this program, can’t also read this article. It would give them a greater perspective from which to judge the documentary. Thank you so much. Once again, I’m grateful to be a Meridian Magazine subscriber.
Glynn Ann Fry
Red Bluff, California
Will be Welcome in the End
I was pleased with the documentary The Mormons. I think it was well presented and it was nice to hear from those not of our faith and hear their ideas and opinions and to see our beliefs from their point of view. I think that it portrayed us fairly, warts and all.
The official sanitized view of the Church we are so often led to believe in is not always the one outsiders see and believe, and not the one many members believe in either. I know there will be those who are upset by the way an outsider portrayed the practices of polygamy and our early history as a Church, but it does make us take a closer look at how others see us and why they often feel about us the way they do.
I think that is just fine and healthy, as long as we don’t hide the facts that our church history is far from perfect. I think that we have a Church history we can be proud of and a history we don’t have to make excuses for or feel ashamed or embarrassed about. I think it is remarkable that an outsider is interested in the Church enough to take the time to focus on our religion and the publicity it will generate for the Church will be welcome in the end.
Would Not Have Recommended
I have to say that I was extremely disappointed in the “Mormon” program on PBS. I had my 23-year-old special needs son, who has a wonderful testimony of the Gospel and I felt bad that he had to hear the continual negative comments made about our Prophet, Joseph Smith, Brigham Young, and so on. Every point about our Church was commented on in a negative way by the “historians” and disgruntled ex-members. A few of the commentators were sincere church members, but all in all, I went away feeling like I was not seeing or hearing about the true church that I belong to.
I would certainly not have recommended this show to any investigators. Joseph Smith was called a liar and cheater on his wife, Brigham Young was portrayed as a non-feeling man who allowed the Mountain Meadows to occur and then coldly turned his back on the one man who went on trial for it. Who would ever believe that Joseph and Brigham would be prophets after listening to the commentary about them in this program.
It had no information about the wonderful programs and doctrines that we as Latter-day-Saints know of and seek to live on a daily basis. I am afraid that only the truly strong LDS should even attempt to watch this show.
I loved the documentary, The Mormons. Photography was great and it was fair and balanced except for the parts on Joseph Smith. That part was mostly negative and didn’t tell of the greatness of his leadership, his healings, giving blessings, his suffering – and also the difficulty he personally experienced in presenting polygamy to his wife and member followers. There is also much more to Joseph Smith that the documentary missed. Even so it was very well done, especially for a non-member.
Out of the Church
I have a friend who was, like me, a few years ago in the LDS Church and this show helped him see many historical truths that the bishop would not speak with him about. This great PBS show and articles from your site, LDS.org, Fair, and Farms have solidified his enlightenment and complete loss of faith in Mormonism.
Thank you for your assistance.
I am a former member of 30+ years and was attempting to show him many of the historical truths that I found disturbing and which eventually led me, my wife and six children out of the Mormon Church.
Articles like the one you published (http://meridianmagazine.com/arts/070430mormons.html) work well to demonstrate the denial and cognitive dissonance so prevalent in the membership, and helped my friend to realize the same about himself as well as helping his wife too.
Confusing the Issues
It’s always frustrating to watch a so-called “documentary” not just from one “outsider” but several. Having both critics and believers on one show does not clarify but confuses issues. The viewing makes the gospel seem much more cloudy, deep and mysterious than it is. Who, in their right mind, would want to take more time to find out the real truth? This exposure is like taking one step forward and two steps backward.
Helen Whitney belongs in the same category as Westerners who conduct a few years of research on indigenous peoples’ culture and then consider themselves an expert. The result is simply an inaccurate picture.
Disappointed in Hawaii
Waste of Time
Saw some of the first installment of “Mormons” on PBS last night – big waste of time. It’s the same old, same old, like when they were discussing “Mormon fundamentalists” and they showed a cut of President Hinckley explaining there is no such thing. Well, they obviously decided he didn’t know anything about the Church, and continued calling them “Mormon fundamentalists.” If I didn’t know anything about the Church, I would have been thinking “Mormons are crazy” after seeing this. No documentary done by any one other than a Church member will ever be anything but sensationalism.
Dwelt on Scandal
The first half of tonight’s episode was fairly balanced, though they got several things wrong, and it seemed to me, dwelt as much on scandal as they possibly could. Take for instance the destruction of the Nauvoo Expositor printing press – the footage they used was from a Church film showing the destruction of the press used to print the Book of Commandments. They didn’t mention that Mormon presses were being destroyed by mobs. They said that Joseph ordered the press shut down, but they didn’t mention that he was doing so as the civil authority trying to stop somebody from inciting to riot.
The full second hour of the program was spent on two things: the Mountain Meadows Massacre and polygamy. Yes, the massacre was horrible, but it is not representative of one-fourth of Mormon history, which is the weight it was given. It was presented as something that in their non-Mormon (or ex-Mormon) historians’ views was either maybe, or probably, or definitely ordered directly by Brigham Young, and is symptomatic of the total devotion Mormons give to their religious leaders. We are essentially a bunch of zealots who will murder women and children without question if we’re told to. Not one of them said anything to the effect that it was a one-time incident that happened 150 years ago, and nothing even remotely resembling it has ever happened before or since.
The polygamy section was just as bad. They started off with the poem: “Yesterday upon the stair, I met a man who wasn’t there. He wasn’t there again today, Oh how I wish he’d go away.” This implied that we wished that everybody would just forget this shameful business and leave us alone about it. They played the quote from President Hinckley’s Conference talk saying something along the lines of, “There’s no such thing as a Mormon Fundamentalist; it’s a contradiction in terms. We don’t practice polygamy. Those that do aren’t members of our church and most of them never were. If we find somebody doing it, we excommunicate them.”
Then, feeling that they had done their balancing by playing two full minutes of the Church’s point of view, they spent the next half-hour glorifying the current Mormon Fundamentalists as the ones who are truly keeping this inspired doctrine alive, while at the same time vilifying Joseph as a sex addict who was trying to make his affairs respectable. There was one moment I liked, where some lady talked about a Mormon’s response to the criticism in the 1800’s by comparing the cities of the east, with their prostitution and single mothers, and women who never got the chance to get married, with the attempted utopian society in Utah, where any woman who wanted to could at least find a faithful man willing to marry her and support her children.
I was left feeling disgusted by the whole thing, and I don’t know whether I want to watch tomorrow’s episode, which will have (from commercials I’ve seen) people talking about how boys are given no choice about whether to go on missions, historians showing the change of the Church going “from the extreme fringes of society to the embodiment of mainstream in two generations” as if it’s all been just a publicity campaign.
I really felt like this particular documentary is made purposely to discredit Mitt Romney as a political candidate. They mentioned Joseph Smith running for President, and what a horrible idea that was because it would have turned the whole nation into the theocracy he was trying to make in Kirtland and Illinois. They also spent a lot of time in the polygamy and Mountain Meadows section talking about the theocracy Brigham was running in Utah, and how “nobody did anything in the Utah Territory without Brigham’s knowing and approving it.” The message being that if we let one of these guys take over our nation, we’ll all be forced to be just like them, and wouldn’t that be horrible.
Los Angeles, California
Axe to Grind
I was disappointed in the first two hours of The Mormons. The overall feeling I received is the author of the film has an axe to grind against the Church with unbalanced reporting about the Mountain Meadows Massacre and polygamy, portraying Joseph Smith as a sex predator and early LDS members as poor brainless sheep falling over the cliff. Important facts regarding the early years of the Church were glossed over and you never heard anything about the witnesses of the plates and the many years of professional research done by FARMS and others regarding the Book of Mormon and the incredible evidence supporting its authenticity.
Many of the individuals being interviewed are outspoken critics of the Church and get a large percentage of air time with only a small number of pro historians and scholars who get small snippets of time (such as Truman Madsen). I hope tonight’s program does a better job of portraying the Church as it really is.
John W Ford
Waste of Time
My wife and I sat through both hours of part one of The Mormons last night. Neither of us said a word as we watched, which is very odd in and of itself. When it was over my wife turned to me and summed it up this way: “Gee, that was a waste of time.”
I have to agree. Much of it was dark, plodding, and in spots down right boring. With only a few exceptions, mostly it struck me as a number of people going on and on describing something they are clueless about. If one of Helen Whitney’s goals is to shatter stereotypes, then why did they devote so much airtime to them last night? This is not who we are or at all what we are about. I honestly don’t know if I care to watch tonight.
Would Not Have Watched It
After hearing that the Church in no way sponsored this documentary, I had some serious doubts of watching it. But, I was curious and these are some of my thoughts:
The very first part was pretty factual, but Joseph Smith was strongly vilified. They showed him as a sex-crazed, money grubbing charlatan and tended to minimize the truthfulness of the First Vision, as well as later revelations as products of his imagination for self-glorification.
In the second part of the documentary, a person said that the Book of Mormon was just a record of events happening in 19th century America written in a different time, and was in no way an ancient text. Also, that the DNA of the American Indian and Jews were in no way compatible was emphasized. There were many things which the enemies of the Church promote inserted in that documentary in an almost imperceptible way. Perhaps these things were said by ex-Mormons, but there was no distinguishing identity to differentiate them from the bone fide, non-partial historians.
When it came to the Mountain Meadows Massacre, too many disparaging shadows were cast upon the whole Church for something which, though horrible, is now a part of history and should not have been broadcast as making the LDS people of today responsible for it. What happened, happened, and nothing can change that. The Church has – not now or ever – had a policy of killing innocent people and what happened was a terrible mistake committed by a people who have known, in the not-too-distant past, what terror is. The documentary did make a reference to that, but so much time should not have been spent on that horrible deed.
I also did not like their presentation of polygamy, especially pictures of Warren Jeffs in a Mormon documentary? I don’t believe that modern polygamists were separated in a very distinct way from the LDS Church.
Though the second part had factual and spiritual presentations, the documentary made excommunication sound like a hopeless situation from which no one can return to the Church. After certain serious sins, excommunication is the first part of repentance, and that point was not presented.
The Church was described as harsh because it does not accept homosexual behavior or apostate beliefs. It also made LDS women look as though they were in servitude to men and had no wills or brains of their own. The very last part questioned the very existence of the Church in the future and then the documentary just left you hanging.
I think if I knew then what I know now about the documentary, I would not have watched it.
After watching the program and then reading your article, I have to say I thought you were very generous. I was extremely disappointed with the presentation given on the premise that it was to be a “thorough and fair” representation of the Church. It seemed to me that there were 4-5 dissenters with several shots to every one actual representative of the Church, and the few minutes given to those was often edited to show only those comments that might be raise questions in the minds of viewers. I have to say I really didn’t see the Church, as I know it represented.
Joseph Smith was pretty much always represented as an opportunist and a deceiver. So much time was spent on the Mountain Meadows Massacre and on polygamy – two aspects that have little or nothing to do with the Church today and doctrine overall. If I were a non-member I know I would have gone away thinking the Mormons were somehow still involved in polygamy and that we look like those shown in the fundamentalist shots. I feel there are so many more aspects of Church history that would have been more important to discuss – nothing was mentioned about the Mormon Battalion or the far-reaching effect of the early colonizing by Brigham Young.
Overall, contrary to the claim to present the Church fairly, I felt it was pretty much like most of the other programs produced by non-LDS. In fact in some ways it was more negative than some of the other programs I have seen.
Watch for a follow-up piece in Friday’s edition on Meridian Magazine.