Part II of “The Mormons” on PBS – A Valiant Effort

I enjoyed Part II of “The Mormons” more than Part I, and felt that PBS made a valiant effort to reflect the diversity of views about the Mormons in modern life. Sure, from my perspective, there was far too much time given to dissidents (though I thought Tal Bachman was quite interesting and in good form). It seemed that over 50% of the time given to speakers was given to critics of the Church. I was also a little frustrated to find far too little on the intellectual and spiritual satisfaction the theology of the Church offers to its members in understanding the purpose of life and our role and destiny. Faithful Mormons can also be intellectuals.

While some members might be disturbed by some of the opinions and the spin given by some, this production was miles away from the “religious pornography” marketed by some of our critics. It struck me as a sincere and honest effort of outsiders to examine the Mormons and show us, warts and all, as we see ourselves and as we are seen by outsiders, including former members (especially former members, I would say). Overall, I applaud PBS for the painstaking work required to make this high-quality production.

How I enjoyed the comments of Betty Stevenson, the African-American convert who said that the missionaries “came in and told me the most preposterous story I have ever heard in my life. They told me about this white boy, a dead angel and some gold plates. And I thought, ‘Mmm. I wonder what they on?'” What a wonderful influence the Church has had on her life. She’s my kind of saint. I loved her testimony, and her singing, and would love to be in her ward. If you know Betty, tell her thank you from me!

Of course, there were plenty of other moments where I wanted to jump into the TV to offer viewers a clarifying comment, or to rebut what struck me as slur. And I suppose the critics of the Church felt the same way. I think that’s a good sign, as one commenter noted in my previous post on Part I.

The spin on the defunct ERA caught me by surprise. Was the Church really afraid that women would start thinking for themselves? Please. It would have been nice to have at least one voice remind viewers that a lot of very liberated and intelligent women view that amendment as a Pandora’s box that would devastate the family and harm women in many ways, especially at the hands of our activist judiciary.

Regarding the repeated assertions that there is no evidence for the Book of Mormon, I wish the producers would have allowed a few concise comments from Dan Peterson, John Sorenson, John Tvedtnes or others offering the other view. Yes, there are many potential evidences for Book of Mormon authenticity, and a robust defense is being offered by scholars in the Church.

I appreciated the views of a Jewish man expressing concerns about baptism of the dead. Though I think they are based on a serious misunderstanding, I think it is helpful for us to understand how others may feel about our practice. Just this week I had marvelous conversation with a Jewish man who told me of these same concerns, and it was helpful to hear it live from someone who has confronted the issue, not just as an abstract concern in print.

Kudos also to PBS for the many notable people they rounded up for this program. Harold Bloom, Michael Coe, Tal Bachman, etc. Nice! OK, they left out the vital LDS blogger community, and Donny and Marie, and, most tragically, the epitome of Mormon success: Ken Jennings of Jeopardy fame. Maybe they’ll fix all that in a future Part III?


Author: Jeff Lindsay

21 thoughts on “Part II of “The Mormons” on PBS – A Valiant Effort

  1. There is no solid evidence for the Book of Mormon, but you’re missing the point if you go after its historicity and the church does itself a disservice by doing so as well.

    A book need not be literally true to have value as a moral or religious text. If you find something moving in the Book of Mormon and can get through it’s horribly written pages what does it matter whether or not Nephi really lived?

  2. My wife and just watched both parts today. I will reserve my comments on part one, saying only that I felt fairly ill after it was done. I felt much better at the end of part two, but I agreed with Jeff’s point (and my wife and I said so repeatedly) that the work of FARMS was sorely missing when the archaeologist kept saying that fifty years has turned up “nothing” and there is “no evidence”. His caveat that there is no evidence for the Red Sea parting was somewhat of a save for his perspective as being a reasonable man, but generally his tone (and at least two statements) demonstrated he was far from objective in his point of view. All in all, the second part presented a lot of useful information to non-members, if perhaps in a not so favorable light. I take it for what it was: an outsider’s attempt to understand our faith, though I think she went a little too much towards the detractors in her search.

    Okay, one comment from part one: if it was truly a “balanced perspective” presentation then I think the Hans Mill Massacre would not have been so casually glossed over while they spent twenty minutes on the Mountain Meadows Massacre. Had they laid that out differently, people might well have come away thinking “I’m amazed they let them get as far into the territory as they did!” An example from my own life: when I went to Israel, I had an Arab guide (a rarity, usually guides are Jewish there). I got a lot of perspective on how Jews treat Arabs in Israel from an Arab. The other two buses with my group had Jewish guides and got a very different perspective. Thus when we were all brought together to hear an Arab Christian’s perspective on Israel, the people on my bus were generally sympathetic to his points while the other buses were deeply offended by this “attack on our Jewish friends.” How could they have presented the Mountain Meadows Massacre in that different light? Point out that 1) the Hans Mill Massacre occurred and the Mormons left Missouri, 2) they were driven out of Illinois after the prophet was assassinated, 3) an apostle was murdered in Arkansas, 4) the US Government had dispatched a large army to attack Utah, and 5) in comes a group of people from Arkansas with Missouri ties. Yes, all those things were presented, but they were minimized each time and then the Mountain Meadows Massacre was given maximum treatment – especially by critics – to show how horrible the Mormons were. Just one man’s take here.

    Thanks for hosting a blog on this program, Jeff.

  3. Criticisms of PBS’s new documentary, “The Mormons.”

    1. During the beginning when it says “..a column of light appeared in his room and then a person, a very glowing person…He says he’s the angel Moroni…” it shows one of the scariest renditions of the angel Moroni that I’ve ever seen. It looks almost demonic. There’s a red hue all around him. His hair looks like it forms evil horns on the sides of his head. There are a lot better pictures of the angel Moroni. This caters to the interpretation that the devil appeared to Joseph Smith as an angel of light.

    2. The beginning music is somewhat creepy, inducing a fearful feeling in the viewers. In the beginning it says “Mormon history begins with Joseph Smith. He is the alpha and omega of the Latter-day Saints.” That is clearly inaccurate. Joseph Smith is NOT the alpha and omega of the Latter-day Saints. The alpha and omega of the Latter-day Saints is Jesus Christ. In Doctrine and Covenants 19:1 this is very clear: “I am Alpha and Omega, Christ the Lord; yea, even I am he, the beginning and the end, the Redeemer of the world.” Also, the picture it shows when it says that Joseph Smith is the Alpha and Omega of the Latter-day Saints is dark, devilish-looking, red-hued painting of the Prophet Joseph Smith, where he is looking straight into the viewers eyes. It creeps me out. There are so many better pictures of the Prophet Joseph Smith.

    A. I have to admit, though, they do change to a picture of the statue of the Prophet Joseph Smith which is considerably less evil looking.

    3. Kathleen Flake gives her opinion, “Nobody is exempt from struggling with who he (Joseph Smith) is, whether you are an insider or an outsider. Thinking about Smith, causes you to struggle.” She states this as if it is a fact. I, however, do not struggle in the least with who Joseph Smith is. Thinking about him does not cause me to struggle in the least. I know that he is who he claimed to be, which is, a Prophet of God. (This example is typical of a whole host of people giving their opinions, which are relatively negative, as if they were bona fide facts.)

    4. Continually throughout the film people say that Joseph Smith founded a “new religion.” They rarely state that Joseph believed this to be the restoration of the original Church of God. In fact, in many ways they fail to connect Mormonism with early Christianity whatsoever. They don’t mention the restoration of the priesthood under the hands of John the Baptist and Peter, James, and John either.

    5. When it says “Joseph Smith’s story begins quietly enough on a rural, New England farm,” it shows a dark picture of three trees in a dark shadow. The sky is gray and murky. There seems to be dark clouds all around the frame of the picture. Creepy music is playing in the background. I thought I was watching the beginnings of a documentary on haunted houses. The picture of Joseph Smith’s house in Sharon, Vermont is equally freaky, dark, and mysterious looking. Then it proceeds to show landscapes that look like they have come out of one of those scary story books called “Scary stories to tell in the dark,” by Alvin Schwartz and illustrated by Stephen Gammell.

    6. “The first version of the vision (The First Vision) was in Joseph Smith’s own hand in 1832. It was personal, it merely dealt with his sinfulness and his going to the grove to ask God for forgiveness. End of story,” says the author, Greg Prince, in the film. Sorry, Greg, but that is not the end of the story of the first account of the vision as penned by the hand of the Prophet. Greg Prince clearly leaves out the fact that Joseph Smith said that he received a vision. In his own words in that first account in 1832 Joseph states (uncorrected from the original grammar and spelling): “…while in the attitude of calling upon the Lord in the 16th year of my age a piller of fire light above the brightness of the sun at noon day come down from above and rested upon me and I was filled with the spirit of God and the Lord opened the heavens upon me and I saw the Lord and he spake unto me saying Joseph my son thy Sins are forgiven thee. Go thy way walk in my statutes and keep commandments behold I am the Lord of glory I was crucifyed for the world that all those who believe on my name may have Eternal life behold the world lieth in sin and at this time and none doeth good no not one they have turned asside from the Gospel and keep not my commandments they draw near to me with their lips while their hearts are far from me and mine anger is kindling against the inhabitants of the earth to visit them according to this ungodliness and to bring to pass that which hath been spoken by the mouth of the prophets and Apostles behold and lo I come quickly as it is written of me in the cloud clothed in the glory of my Father and my soul was filled with love and for many days I could rejoice with great joy and the Lord was with me but could find none that would believe the hevenly vision….” (The 1831-32 history transliterated here contains the earliest known account of Joseph Smith’s First Vision, found in “The Early Accounts of Joseph Smith’s First Vision” BYU Studies copyright 1969.) This paper can be found at Farms.

    7. During the whole section concerning the Book of Mormon on Act 1 Revelation they failed to mention the 3 and 8 witnesses of the Book of Mormon. They failed to mention how Emma Smith felt concerning the translation of the plates. (Emma Smith mentioned how they would be translating for hours, stop, then go and do some other activity, come back, and that without even looking at the manuscript she was writing, Joseph would continue right from where he left off.) It almost appears that they left out anything that could even remotely be construed as positive evidence for the authenticity of the Book of Mormon. I guess they didn’t want to offend the anti-Mormons.

    8. When Terryll Givens says, “…that God himself was once as we are. That he is embodied,” it shows, again, that evil looking painting of the angel Moroni, for what reason I can only surmise as implying that that’s what Mormons believe God looks like, or that the doctrine of “God himself was once as we are” had its origin from Satan…whom the painting looks very much like according to the general perception of him. (Red, with a flowing red robe, hair that sticks out at the sides of his head like horns, etc.)

    9. Ken Verdoia, a journalist, talks about Joseph Smith’s reaction to the Nauvoo Expositor. “He reacts in a rage. He orders its destruction. The destruction of an American printing press in the eyes of the public at that time is a horrific act. It’s antithetical to the American experience.” What he fails to mention is that there was a legal basis for the actions of the Prophet Joseph Smith. Says Dallin Oaks, “Mormon historians—including Elder B. H. Roberts—had conceded that this action was illegal, but as a young law professor pursuing original research, I was pleased to find a legal basis for this action in the Illinois law of 1844. The amendment to the United States Constitution that extended the guarantee of freedom of the press to protect against the actions of city and state governments was not adopted until 1868, and it was not enforced as a matter of federal law until 1931. (See Dallin H. Oaks, “The Suppression of the Nauvoo Expositor,” Utah Law Review 9 [1965]: 862.) We should judge the actions of our predecessors on the basis of the laws and commandments and circumstances of their day, not ours.” (Article, “Joseph, the man and the prophet.”)

    10. Concerning the new home of Mormons in the Salt Lake Basin they leave out the account of the locusts and the seagulls, even though they show the statue of seagulls in Salt Lake City. Throughout the entire first part they leave out a numerous host of the miracles that were attested by the Latter-day Saints at that time. They leave out the miracle of Brigham Young’s vision of the promised land long before they arrived in the Great Basin. They also failed to mention that Joseph Smith prophesied of this exodus when he said: “I prophesied that the Saints would continue to suffer much affliction and would be driven to the Rocky Mountains, many would apostatize, others would be put to death by our persecutors or lose their lives in consequence of exposure or disease, and some of you will live to go and assist in making settlements and build cities and see the Saints become a mighty people in the midst of the Rocky Mountains. (History of the Church , Vol.5, Ch.4, p.85)”

    11. The documentary dwells for a very long time on the Mountain Meadows Massacre, a relatively long measure of time compared with the entire account of the persecutions of the Mormons, not to mention their blood bath at Haun’s Mill.

    12. In Act 6 Polygamy, people venture into the motivations for the Prophet proclaiming plural marriage as a divine revelation from the Lord. Contained therein is what I believe to be the most offensive remark made in the entire first part of the documentary. Ken Clark, a “former” LDS Church educator states: “In his own mind he [Joseph Smith] believed that Abraham and the other prophets in the Old Testament were directed by God to practice polygamy, and so I think he used that and I think in his own mind he became convinced that if God had allowed them to do it, God would allow Joseph Smith to do it. But for me, as I studied the issue, I came to the conclusion that his sexual desire drove the practice, and that he found a way to sanctify it, to make it respectable, and to couch it in scriptural terms with revelations of convenience.” Ken Clark says that Joseph Smith believed, in his own mind, that Abraham and the other prophets in the Old Testament were directed by God to practice plural marriage, but he fails to show that from the scriptural record it certainly looks that way. In no way did God forbid this practice. They skip over the fact that in the Bible it says that the Lord gave many wives to David. “And Nathan [the Prophet] said to David, Thou art the man. Thus saith the LORD God of Israel, I anointed thee king over Israel, and I delivered thee out of the hand of Saul; And I gave thee thy master’s house, and thy master’s wives into thy bosom, and gave thee the house of Israel and of Judah; and if that had been too little, I would moreover have given unto thee such and such things.” (2 Samuel 12:7-8, italics mine.) It’s obvious from the scriptures in Doctrine and Covenants that Joseph Smith (probably during his translation work on the Old Testament) inquired as to why the Lord justified his servants Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Moses, David, and Solomon in their practice of plural marriage. It was something of confusion of him. He received a revelation, obviously much earlier than when he wrote it down, concerning the practice, wherein God says: “Abraham received concubines, and they bore him children; and it was accounted unto him for righteousness, because they were given unto him, and he abode in my law; as Isaac also and Jacob did none other things than that which they were commanded…” (D&C 132:37.) The documentary could have at least quoted a bit from this scripture, instead of just allowing a former LDS Church educator present his conclusion that Joseph Smith practiced plural marriage purely for sexual reasons.

    There are a lot more criticisms I have with this first part of the documentary. This is just a portion of the beef I have with it. I will be adding more criticisms at some future time on my blog at I also plan to thoroughly review part 2.

  4. Help present the other side. Someone in the church needs to make some small clips and put them on the internet. Some thing that can be put together into a longer presentation for TV. Come on people if you don’t tell the story and leave it to others what do you think they will do with the truth?

  5. My comment is that I was unaware that there was going to be a second part to the special and I only recorded the 1st (I found out just in the nick of time about the second to record it, but havent had a chance to watch it.) If the 1st part was all that I had to go on, I do not think I would be too favorably impressed toward the Church. This special seemed to definitely lean toward anti.

  6. On the MMM and Haun’s Mill:

    Haun’s Mill was a battle. Both sides had guns. 19 Mormons were killed. It was part of a broader violent conflict, (which should never have happened, but was happening nonetheless) in which Mormon’s weren’t always the defenders. The death toll overall was low, usually the Mormon’s were just driven away. One child was visciously murdered. I grew up hearing about lots of killing and raping, but if Haun’s Mill is the main attraction, then it seems unlikely that 100’s were killed elsewhere. I’d like some references to actual deaths/rapes, if they’re available. (Wikipedia has a good entry on the Mormon War.)

    MMM was done under a flag of truce. Only the Mormon’s were armed. Women and children were murdered in large number. The previously wounded were also murdered. 120 people were killed.

    So if you’re going to spend 2 minutes on Haun’s Mill and 20 minutes on MMM, that seems like about the right ratio, no matter how uncomfortable that makes Mormons feel.

    Oaks did admit it was terrible, and that Mormons were involved. That’s a good step, but how do I know he wasn’t just speaking as a man? And much more importantly, what has the church learned from this? Well, based on Oak’s later comment that criticizing leaders is always wrong, apparently nothing. (Don’t criticize John D. Lee–he was the bishop at the time!)

    Arthur, some specific points to ponder:

    1&8. I completely agree–very freaky, and I noticed that they showed it to represent, I guess, what God looked like as a person. (Although, I don’t know that we teach that–more of a couplet thing.)

    9. Ken didn’t say it was illegal, and Oaks didn’t demonstrate that it was morally right. So I don’t see the conflict. It was clearly wrong, just as it was wrong for mobs to destroy Mormon presses. Or does Oaks think that that was okay, too?

    10. They leave those things out because a balanced inquiry reveals that they aren’t that miraculous. Seagulls did what they had been doing for centuries and have been continuing ever since. Joseph prophesied multiple destinations for the Saints. (The first hymnal even had a song about going to California.)

    Overall, balanced. It wasn’t a pro-propoganda piece, so it probably strikes most members as negative in comparison to their usual fare. But they did have a long segment on Helping Hands in LA/MO, as well as Betty’s great recovery. The whole piece on the T-D family was also VERY positive.

  7. Haun’s mill was a walk in the park compared to the brutality of the MMM. TBM’s love to wear that minor incident like a huge badge of persecution on their sleeves. I don’t see the descendents of the survivors of MMM dwelling about it.

  8. For the record, I kinda liked the “creepy” depictions of Joseph Smith and Moroni. It kind of makes the religion seems more legitimate, and socially accepted. Come on, look at any documentary on catholicism or judaism. They always come off as creepy. They’ll always show some weird evil-looking sculpture of one of the early popes, or something.

    The fact that mormons now have creepy looking ancient art of their own really adds to the authenticity of our religion.

  9. Overall this was not a total slam piece on mormonism ie. The God Makers, nor was it the church produced, Restoration of the Gospel. Part 1 seemed to have a bit of a negative slant, although part 2, i felt, leaned more toward the positive. So good job Helen!!

    Hey, if the anti-mormon crowd didnt like it, that means it must be alright.

  10. Typical for Mormons to complain about something as harmless as a painting. It’s great! It’s about time there is a depiction that is not glossy, well lit, 50’s era advertising illustration slick! I want a print of it!
    Also, if you don’t have concerns about Joseph Smith, you don’t know Joseph Smith. He married his teenage maid and kept it a secret from Emma before even mentioning word one about polygamy. That doesn’t concern you? He told a newspaper editor “we believe in obeying the laws of the land” while continuing to live in an illegal manner, what with the wives and all. How can that not concern you?!?

  11. I wish PBS worked like Youtube, where people can “reply to this video” with their own video. I’d probably give it a go myself. Hundreds of the amateur “voiceless” on both sides of the issue could continue the discussion in the same format, instead of cowering before the PBS cathedral: a mashup of spliced opinions, hard facts, and outright fallacy.

  12. I don’t understand the statements that the church still needs to come to grips and acknowledge the Mountain Meadows Massacre. In 1990 the church built and dedicated a monument to the victims.

    Though this massacre was an unthinkable atrocity, one question that should be have been asked and answered is how many tens of thousands of non-mormon wagon trains passed through Mormon territory unharmed? Why was this group murdered while others were unharmed and even given assistance when in need?

  13. Ujlapana said:

    10. … Joseph prophesied multiple destinations for the Saints. (The first hymnal even had a song about going to California.)

    Have you ever looked at a map of California from the early 1800’s? The Great Basin of Utah is included in California. For example, here’s a map from 1849: So the prophecies about California being the future destination of the Saints were 100% correct.

  14. I thought the show was much more fair than it could have been. I produce television for a living and to be honest it is very hard to keep agendas out. There is always bias.

    The Mountain Meadows Massacre is a part of the history of some early members of our church. Albeit not a happy part but some of the members, not the church. There is much more to this story than what was portrayed in the PBS show. I did find it odd that one main eye witness quoted was three years old at the time. I can’t imagine how a three year old could remember dynamic details as were portrayed in the comment. Perhaps…

    There could have been a bit more diversity in the selection of some of the interviews. I was not impressed with the one archaeologist interview. I think that with a little “digging” they could have come up with some contrast.

    My RM son told me that one of the interviews (show #1) was of a gentleman that is a professional Mormon expert that hires out to different churches to explain the evils of Mormonism. He apparently instructs preachers how to demonize our church to their congregations. Anything to that claim?

    This show has opened up dialog, diffused issues and aired the dirty laundry. Now should the anti-Mormon community wish to shock and awe they might need some new material.

  15. “Haun’s Mill was a battle. Both sides had guns. 19 Mormons were killed.”

    Darn those Mormons for defending themselves!

    If you want to draw a parallel to the MMM, the Mormon residents of Haun’s Mill were told by the mob of attackers to get in that one cabin for their safety and that they wouldn’t be hurt while the mobbers destroyed the other buildings.

    If anything, I’d say one of the MMM perpetrators may have learned the treacherous technique from the mobbers at Haun’s Mill.

    “It was part of a broader violent conflict, (which should never have happened, but was happening nonetheless) in which Mormon’s weren’t always the defenders.”

    The counter to that is that the times when some of the Missouri church members took the offensive, were when the state and local authorities had failed to act in investigating, arresting, and prosecuting those who had attacked
    the church members.

    “I grew up hearing about lots of killing and raping, but if Haun’s Mill is the main attraction, then it seems unlikely that 100’s were killed elsewhere.

    Not so. What makes Haun’s Mill a massacre was the mobbers didn’t just fight to drive them out, but forced the men to get in that cabin under threat, “Just wait there while we burn the other buildings and we won’t hurt you”. And then they intentionally opened fire on the assembled men in that cabin.

    “I’d like some references to actual deaths/rapes, if they’re available.

    Gads, how morbid. But if you must, try History of the Church, the 6 or 7 volume set.

  16. I think the producers genuinely tried to be fair. I was struck, though, by the proportion of interviews and comments that came from excommunicants and dissenters–I’d say about half. Would that have been the approach if the documentary had been made about some other religion? If you were doing a program about Buddhism, would you get half your information from people who had rejected Buddhism?

    There was some footage I couldn’t quite understand. During a segment about the temple, as I recall, there was footage that looked like three women walking along with something carried on their heads? Along a river, perhaps? I couldn’t tell exactly what it was, or what it had to do with the topic.

  17. Uj,

    If you believe that hacking up old Father McBride and klling small children constitutes little more than BATTLE, then I’m afraid you’re sorely mistaken. Yes, it might have started as a battle, but it ended as a massacre.

  18. I was also disappointed that the documentary seemed to indicate that you cannot be an intellectual and member of the church in good standing.

    Overall, I really enjoyed the documentary and think that it was well balanced. I hope that some of the topics discussed, such as the church members not being friendly to those who don’t fit the model of an ideal Mormon, will create some much-needed discussion amoung the members of the church.

  19. Take heart, Mormon faithful! Despite the ominous musical score and the less-than-flattering images of angels and church leaders, this program has piqued my interest in the church. As a result of watching this documentary, I am reading/have read The Book of Mormon, Palmer’s An Insider’s View of Mormon Origins, and Terryl Givens’ By the Hand of Mormon. I have accessed online resources like and The Ensign. I have repeatedly gone to the library to see what else I can read that might add to my knowledge of Mormon faith, culture, and history. I have taken an interest in family history–and found out that some relatives were in companies that arrived in Utah in 1850 and 1851. I’ve sought conversations with LDS members at work. I’ve re-connected with LDS family members. And you know what? I’m an “intellectual,” a Democrat, and an ex-Mormon. If that show has gotten a person like me to begin investigating again, maybe the exposure provided by PBS wasn’t so bad.

  20. Frankly, I was actually sympathetic to the film’s goals. Even though Whitney did not produce the filim as an orthodox Mormon intellectual would (yes, MANY exist–they just don’t make for juicy news material), I applaud Whitney for making the attempt, a feat which so few in the mainstream media are willing to do.

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