The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is one of America’s fastest-growing religions and, relative to its size, one of the richest. Church membership, now at over 12 million and growing, sweeps the globe. But from the moment of its founding in 1830, the church has been controversial. Within a month, it had 40 converts and almost as many enemies. In the early years, Mormons were hated, ridiculed, persecuted and feared. Yet in the past several decades, the Mormon church has transformed itself from a fringe sect into a thriving religion that embraces mainstream American values; its members include prominent and powerful politicians, university presidents and corporate leaders.
Completed in 1893, the Salt Lake City Temple is the largest temple of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
Mormons have always had a peculiar hold on the American imagination, but few know who the Mormons actually are or who they claim to be, and their story is one of the great neglected American narratives.
AMERICAN EXPERIENCE and FRONTLINE, two of PBS’ most acclaimed series, join forces to present The Mormons, a new documentary series about the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. In two, two-hour episodes, filmmaker Helen Whitney explores both the history and the current reality of the Mormon faith. Whitney gained unusual access to Mormon archives and church leaders as well as dissident exiles, historians and scholars both within and outside the faith. “Through this film, I hope to take the viewer inside one of the most compelling and misunderstood religions of our time,” says Whitney.
Devout Mormons believe that in 1827 in the town of Palmyra, New York, 21-year-old Joseph Smith dug up a set of golden tablets that contained the seeds of a new religion. According to Smith, he was guided to that spot by an angel who appeared to him in a vision. “The kind of revelation that Joseph describes is the scandal of Mormonism, in the same way that the resurrection of Christ is the scandal of Christianity,” explains Terryl Givens, the author of several books on Mormon history. But Smith’s visions, which reportedly began when he was 14, are central to Mormons’ faith. “We declare without equivocation that God the father and his son, the Lord Jesus Christ, appeared in person to the boy, Joseph Smith,” says Gordon B. Hinckley, LDS president. “Our whole strength rests on the validity of that vision.”
The Mormons begins with the turbulent early history of the Mormon faith, from Joseph Smith’s astonishing visions and the creation of The Book of Mormon through the Mormons’ contentious and sometimes violent confrontations with their neighbors and the founding and ultimate abandonment of three major religious communities in Ohio, Missouri and Illinois. “The persecution of the Mormons was officially sanctioned by at least two different state governments,” says Dallin Oaks, elder of the Mormon Church. Adds Truman Madsen, author and historian, “House burning, rapings, abuse, taking over land and possessions — all that was part of it, but it was also denunciation from every other level, from state houses to pulpits.”
“Why would they be so hated?” asks Jon Butler, professor of religion at Yale. “It has to do with … fear of unknown personal practices, polygamy, fear of unknown beliefs, the fear of power and hierarchy. Did the Mormons really think for themselves or did Joseph Smith think for them?”
The cycle of violence climaxed in 1844 in Nauvoo, Ill., when Smith was killed by an angry mob. Following Smith’s death, Brigham Young led the faithful across the continent to the Great Salt Lake in what would become modern-day Utah, now the seat of the Mormon Church.
“Mormons have a very complex relationship with their own sense of persecution,” says historian Sarah Barringer Gordon. “It is unfair to say that they courted persecution. On the other hand, it is fair to say that it brought them exhilaration and conviction that what they were doing was the right thing, because God’s prophets have never been welcome in their own lands.”
Part II of The Mormons looks at the contemporary realities of the Mormon church. Whitney explores the massive missionary program, how the church has entered the mainstream of American culture, the intricacies of Mormon theology and ritual, and the excommunication of those who challenge church doctrine or who do not follow its teachings.
“Being gay in that culture is beyond hell … I wanted to be cured so badly,” says artist Trevor Southey. “The family is the center of Mormonism — it is the sacred, potent unit. … It is a great failure that family can only be the family almost by the Ozzie and Harriet definition, and anything outside that is not family at all.”
“The only marriage sanctioned by God is of a man to a woman,” says Marlin Jensen, official LDS historian. “In the case of a gay person, they really have no hope. … And to live life without hope on such a core issue I think is a very difficult thing.”
The Mormons’ protection of their view of family life also became political. “The Equal Rights Amendment was threatening because it changed the role of women … from a nurturing housewife staying at home, taking care of the children, to someone who could now make decisions for herself,” says James Clayton, professor of political science. Author and feminist Gloria Steinem says Mormon involvement in the ERA issue of the 1970s was pivotal: “If the Mormons had supported the amendment, it would have passed. They were enormously powerful in opposing it because there are certain key state legislatures which they control.”
“On the one hand [Mormons] have this long tradition of encouraging knowledge and education, and yet at the same time there is a real anti-intellectual strain,” says Margaret Toscano, whose questioning of the status of women was punished by excommunication. “To be a Mormon intellectual means that you are opening up yourself to being called into a church court.” But Elder Dallin Oaks sees the church’s position on these issues as the fulfillment of a sacred duty: “The scriptures speak of prophets as being watchmen on the tower with the responsibility to warn when an enemy approaches,” he says in the film. “The watchmen on the tower are going to say intellectualism is a danger to the church … and if people leave their faith behind and follow strictly where science leads them, that can be a pretty crooked path.”
The Mormons traces the Latter-day Saints’ transformation in recent decades from the status of outcasts to mainstream players in U.S. politics and culture, and into a global religion with as many as 240,000 converts annually, thanks to the efforts of Mormon missionaries. Each year, 50,000 Mormon teenagers join “God’s Army” and march across the planet from Latin America to Mongolia to Zimbabwe. “You go,” says Bryan Horn, a returned missionary. “Dad went. Grandpa went. And Grandpa, who’s a descendant of Wilfred Woodruff, who was taught by Joseph Smith, went on missions.”
The mission can be dangerous; missionaries have been kidnapped, tortured and killed. This crucible can provide a profound spiritual strength to the missionaries for the rest of their lives. “That was the moment really when my hope and my tender belief turned into something really solid, which has been the foundation for the rest of my life,” says Jensen. “So when people say, ‘How was your mission?’ I say, ‘It was everything.’ Because I’ve never been the same since.”