Response to “The Mormons” on PBS

A healthy but often painful documentary, the first part of “The Mormons” that aired tonight, April 30, on PBS focused on what outsiders are likely to consider the hottest historical issues, polygamy and the Mountain Meadows Massacre. (No, they didn’t get to blacks and the priesthood or the challenge of homosexuality – we’ll probably get lengthy segments on those topics tomorrow.) The very lengthy section on polygamy was almost tedious, as if this modern world religion is largely defined by a practice that the Church abandoned over a century ago.

For Latter-day Saints, it will be easy to view the program as biased and even somewhat hostile. It certainly isn’t the kind of thing that is going to make people want to run out and start investigating the Church, but I hope it will lead to a lot of healthy discussions and increased awareness, though perhaps not of the “right things.”

I thought Professor Terryl Givens was outstanding, and enjoyed the way he spoke of our religion. And I really enjoyed listening to Ken Ken Verdoia of KUED. Ditto for many of the other speakers, though a couple had an axe to grind at times and stated opinions and speculations as conclusions.

I objected to the dark, eerie piano music in the background during the discussion of the origins of Mormonism and some of the distorted, almost frightening paintings they found somewhere (what’s wrong with the numerous paintings of the Angel Moroni that don’t look like a drug-induced nightmare?). Keep the same narration in that portion but change a couple of the paintings to more cheerful works, replace the dark music with Mozart, and bingo, we’d have something almost suitable for seminary.

I think the program will be most helpful to Latter-day Saints, reminding us about the pain of polygamy, the trauma of Mountain Meadows, and the difficulty of resolving poorly documented events of LDS history when much remains unclear and subject to wildly different interpretations. My two younger sons watched it with my wife and me, and I’m glad they saw it. Inoculation, perhaps? It gave us a chance to talk about some troubling aspects of our past, including a lesson from the Massacre: even wonderful bishops and other leaders are fallible mortals, and there are times when we may need to challenge what they ask us to do.

Overall, in spite of what I see as an almost sensationalistic emphasis on some painful aspects of our past, I believe the producers did strive to be fair (at least fair in appearance). I look forward to learning about more of our flaws tomorrow, and perhaps some more of what our faith is really about.

I do wish they had allowed at least portions of the First Vision to be told in Joseph’s words and more of our story as we know it to be shared. So much of the essence of Mormonism was left out, while the microscope zoomed in on Mountain Meadows.

Part II may prove to be fair in substance (not just appearance). How can you tell? Simple: if we get at least 20 minutes of fawning coverage about LDS member Ken Jennings, the intergalactic Jeopardy champion, then we’ve probably got an unbiased production. And of course, any truly fair documentary couldn’t possibly leave out some of your favorite LDS blogs and bloggers, right? Well, we’ll see. (I actually think it will be better than Part 1.)


Author: Jeff Lindsay

32 thoughts on “Response to “The Mormons” on PBS

  1. I really enjoyed the first part of “The Mormons.” Though all of the issues brought up were ones I have already heard of, there’s nothing like a refreshing of information! There’s only one problem I had, and I think you mentioned it Jeff; some people finalizing their opinions as facts or such. I look foreward to tomorrows segment, and ultimately purchasing the DVD.

  2. Hey, it made me think of the movie “The Sixth Sense”– we baptize dead people!

    Overall, I didn’t like it. However, I did enjoy the story about Brigham Youngs’s dream of Joseph Smith telling him to listen to the still small voice. I actually had never heard that story before.

    My favorite quote was from Kathleen Flake: “It is revelation or nothing for these people.” What set Joseph Smith appart was that he wanted everyone to have the same experiences and relatioship with God that he did.

    I also liked the quote about

  3. I don’t think the documentary explors or resolved its contradiction. First off it says that what sets Mormonism apart is that Joseph Smith wanted every member to seek their own revelation and relationship with God. But then it goes on about MMM and talks all about blind, unquestioning obedience.

  4. Not too bad really, and almost nothing as controversial as some of the fears. My wife even got a little bored. It makes the Boston Globe’s piece (especially considering other reviews even by the NYT) look like pure political and religious posturing. To be honest, coming from a Mormon “orthodox conservative” as myself, I actually wish there were more controversial Church History issues brought up as the editor did a rather good job of allowing both (or more) sides to speak. Considering how little a “Mormon” point of view is presented in some critical treatments, it would have been nice to see more discussions. The major problems I found are the ones that have already been brought up; too much on Mountain Meadows and too little identification of talking heads.

    Then again, the secong half is “Frontline” that has a more in-your-face liberal stance on issues. I will wait and see.

  5. I am very concerned about this show. Tens of thousands of people who were potentially going to join the church in the coming years now will not make the choice to be baptized. This propaganda can do nothing but damage the church’s reputation. Tuesday’s episode will probably make things even worse. Why do people hate us? All we want to do is give them the truth!

  6. Since the LDS church has been getting much press with “The Mormons,” I was wondering if anyone read the excerpt last Friday on MSN’s Slate Magazine of Christopher Hitchen’s book “God is not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything”? You want to talk about somebody who has a chip on their shoulder (I mean really, poisons everything?) Regarding the LDS faith, all you need to know is the title of the excerpt was “Mormonism: A racket becomes a religion” As expected, the piece was scathing of Joseph Smith, the origins of the Bood of Mormon, etc. As a practicing LDS member, I encounter skeptics often and to be honest, I respect their view. It challenges me, causes me to rethink positions, makes me aware of those aspects of my faith where I don’t have answers and things aren’t so “clear cut,” and overall helps me use some critical thinking skills when it comes to my beliefs of God. But this essay had a meanness and tone about it that was pretty remarkable. I”d be curious to hear others’ comments.

  7. I was disappointed in tonight’s broadcast. I observed what I feel to be a negative bias towards the Church’s history and early leaders. There were a bunch of errors throughout the segment as well as seemingly authoritative statements (such as Will Bagley’s blaming Brigham) asserting the Church’s controversial beginnings and corrupt leaders.

    The producer claimed that this documentary would “shatter stereotypes”, but I believe she failed with the first segment. If anything, it will embolden each side all the more in defending and believing what they previously held to be true.

  8. It was very interesting. My wife and I learned aspects of our religion that even we were un-aware of … that dancing is a religious experience and is an embodiment of God. Wow, that’s fantastic. With that as a requirement, my wife informed me that my membership is probably at risk. Hmm, experts? I guess it’s difficult to find non-biased experts on the church … I guess we will have to settle on non-experts, that like dancing.

  9. I got the sense that in the beginning we were watching a horror movie. The pictures of Palmyra and the Joseph Smith home were dark, murky, and quite frankly, scary. And the music was creepy! I think that the documentary on a whole has an anti-Mormon slant. On two different occasions it shows this demonic looking picture of the angel Moroni. His hair looks like it forms horns. Then in the part when one of the speakers says “God was once like all of us” it shows that picture again, implying that’s what God looks like. During the part about the Nauvoo Expositor there is no mention of the legality of its destruction. There simply is the assumption that it was entirely illegal for Joseph to do that. Dallin H. Oaks recovered some things that prove that it actually was legal for Joseph to perform this act. If you want the source for that I’ll have to check again, but you can e-mail me at It seems like they dwell forever on the mountain meadows massacre. And assumptions that Brigham Young ordered the extermination are stated as if they are facts. It moves from this controversial issue to the next controversial issue, polygamy…and pretty much dwells on that for the rest of the documentary. This seems like its describing purely the secular history. It makes no mention that BY saw the promised land in vision. It makes no mention that those who saw BY after his dream felt that they saw Joseph Smith in him… (it merely mentions that BY took on the mantle of Joseph Smith, or in other words, took on the duty of a Prophet of God.) I figured this would come up but I had no idea just how outraged it would make me when one of the speakers, I believe Ken Verdoia, who is a former Church historian, said that Joseph Smith made up polygamy to satisfy his sexual desires. I jumped up and grabbed my jewelry box and flung it against the wall with my mouth wide open in dismay. This documentary doesn’t dissolve misunderstandings, it only creates more of them.

  10. After I joined the church I was exposed to just about every disgusting anti-Mormon presentation that is out there and each time my spiritual testimony helped me through it. I hate to have anything negative ever presented about the restored gospel; but is it better to be exposed to the negative criticism before or after contact with the members and the church? Most good people are going to have thoughtful questions that you need to have direct measured answers for. I know the honest in heart will not be turned off by such specials. I have been watching and reading negative information and still had the Holy Ghost witness to me the truth. The first one I was exposed to was the differing stories of the first vision. As I read the criticism about each account I had the Spirit pour over me each time I read the part that the Father and the Son appeared to Joseph Smith. No matter what they say this did happen. This powerful experience has played its self out many times in my life when people have tried to lie to me about the restored gospel. Again people have always be critical of the Blacks and the priesthood. The day I was told the great news that all worthy male members could gain the priesthood I thought my spirit was going to leave my body. I could not stop repeating “It is true” “It is true.” I am sure there will be people touched by this special because when the important events of our history are told the spirit will touch the honest in heart. Such attempts will back fire on those that fight against the church. I just wish the church would contract to have positive specials made and movies made from the Book of Mormon and church history. I know this costs a great deal and in time we will fill the air waves with positive images of who we truly are.

  11. I agree that the polygamy portion was easily misunderstood. You have 20 minutes on Fundamentalists (who are part of JS’s Mormon legacy, of course, but not LDS), counterpointed by Hinckley saying that we don’t practice polygamy (although he should have clarified that–you can be sealed, but not legally married, to two living women). Hinckley carries weight to Mormons, but for non-Mormons he’s just another talking head. I started to wonder if the LDS church still practiced polygamy myself after such a long segment on that one family!

    I thought the comment on how polygamy was a bad way to sleep around was poorly thought out. I’ve heard it before, but if you think about it, the founder of polygamy (Joseph) didn’t actually live it in the many-wives-under-one-roof way. For him it was very much like getting women when he wanted them. Only those who followed him had to really live it. (Of course, Joseph did try to live with some of them, such as his foster daughter wives, but Emma usually kicked them out.)

    At least they left out the part about him being coronated King of the world. And about the masonic rituals in the Nauvoo temple. I think it was balanced–it clearly wasn’t What is Real, nor was it Godmakers.

    I’ve heard rumors that garments, on people, will appear in tonight’s segment. I sure hope not.

    And one final snarky observation.
    I’m confused about people’s concerns for the music. The documentary was telling the story of the restoration, right? So the Spirit should testify the truth into people’s hearts, right? Music causes feelings, but that’s not the Spirit, right? Or…is…it?

  12. Professor Givens certainly did a great job!

    I thought the documentary was very well made. I liked it. I even liked the polygamy stuff(sorry guys, if there’s a documentary about mormons, it’s going to feature polygamists. I’m pretty sure it’s a law), even if they spent a little too much time on it. Really, my only complaint is that Mountain Meadow Massacre stuff. Maybe I’m just an overreacting Mormon, but I felt like they were definitely trying to paint the picture that Brigham ordered it. (They may have briefly stated that nobody knows “for sure” but most of the quotes certainly weren’t very flattering.)

    Remember, it’s the spirit that converts people. Not PBS. There are some challenging things in this special, but they need to be addressed anyway. I’m looking forward to Part 2.

  13. Please note that all those “dark” and “creepy” pictures that you mention are from the now famous young LDS artist J. Kirk Richards that has been wholeheartedly embraced by Mormon culture and advertises his paintings on the LDS Today and Meridian Magazine websites. They were not from an “outside” artist. Also, if you noticed, the footage on the Independence, Nauvoo,and journey west came largely from church films. So the dark and creepy aspect you are feeling is coming from our own artists and films.

  14. I guess I shouldn’t have had any higher expectations, but I was disappointed as well. Some things weren’t mentioned at all that might have painted a better picture of the faith (the witnesses, the vision of Brigham Young when he succeeded JS, etc.), and there was some terrible editing as far the commentary which made what could have otherwise been a fair depiction of differing views skew to the anti-Mormon side.

    For example, the MMM segment had this great acknowledgement from one of the apostles about how terrible the event was and how wrong it was, but then right after that they close the segment with a woman saying that the LDS church needs to come to accept the truth of that event. That whole quote was rendered moot by what came right before it from the apostle… right there you had the church fully accepting it and acknowledging that a terrible mistake was made there… and yet when you follow up and close with that lady’s quote, to some it would seem that was the last word and yes, oh my, the church really still needs to acknowledge what happened there.

    And there were some other things, where the most critical of quotes had no counter to them, either before or after. In some respects, it was better than a lot of other similar documentaries, but in other respects it was unfortunate in the way the material was presented, IMO.

    But I agree with Jeff and others that it can be interesting and even valuable to reexamine some of these things for ourselves. I just don’t see this doing much service beyond that. There has to be enough measure of truth presented in something for that truth to be able to influence someone with the spirit, no? Then again, I’m sure this will spur some people to do more research into the church on their own, perhaps finding the church’s official site or sites like Jeff’s, so who knows.

  15. I converted 5 years ago and in that short time I have seen many mean spirited media attempts to try and portray what the Church is all about. The pointed hatred is something I simply don’t understand. However, I along with my wife (a life long member) were pleasanlty surprised by the PBS special. No media broadcast will ever be able to present what the Gospel means to you on a personal level or your own unique contribution to the body of the Church. However, it may be able to present our beliefs and history with an eye towards fairness. My opinion is that at a minimum level the special was even handed in telling both sides of the story. I dare say the Church came across in a positive light even though the focus was on historical events not often directly associated with the health of one’s current testimony.

    My oldest brother and my mother are not members of the Church but appreciate what I have become because of the Church. They felt it was at the very least objective in nature given the 2 hour time limit. Keep in mind, if the juicy past of the Church wasn’t part of the story, it wouldn’t get a great viewing audience. These types of shows aren’t usually made for the love of history, they need to make a little money also.

    Opinions will inevitably vary on whether this was fair, unfair, good or bad. Thankfully, it wasn’t a repackaged rant of the seemingly typical hatred towards who we are and what we want to be. The Church in modern times is on deck for tonight, this should strike a little closer to home.

  16. Jeff,
    Did you notice a large percentage of the links on the PBS FAQ about Mormons link to your FAQ pages?

  17. Jeff-I’m grateful to you for the forum you’ve created to share thoughts about the PBS documentary regarding “The Mormons”.

    Attempts to understand our religion from an intellectual position only, reinforces the sentiment to the uninitiated that we are truly a “peculiar” people (I view this as having a positive experience potential for those of and not of our faith). My only negative criticism of part one of “The Mormons”, is that we, and our religion, are often presented in the form of a split personality, as if our religious experience itself is a form of dichotomy and quandary, and that we choose to subjugate the “seedy” side of mormonism (if there is one)through blind obedience. It was evident from the beginning when the Prophet Joseph Smith was analyzed in passing, as one being an enigmatic and charasmatic individual (using syncopated beats and dischorded notes in the background as well as less than enlightend portraits of which I’ve never seen before), who sought fame and fortune by unexplainable means and for a purpose that was never explained by pundits. This shadowed view carried over to Brigham Young, and I was surprized that PBS allowed speculative opinion to be used with regards to Brigham Young’s supposed direct involvement wih the massacre. At that point of the documentary, I found circular rather than circumstantial reasoning to be the preferred choice of argument with some of the historians and authors.

    PBS should allow a religious point of view to explain aspects of our religion and religious culture, with repsect to questions about polygamy etc, rather than speculative opinions, the negatively held views were presented from baised sources, female historian and a “former” religion instructor who stated that the primary drive for polygamy is sexual male satisfaction. Statements like those could easily be linked to Islam and Judaism within the same context. I’ve concluded that a secular perspective of a religious topic presents a diluted point of view, although a brave endeavor by PBS,leaves much to the viewers imagination.

  18. Just because someone disagrees with me does not make them biased.
    That being said, This program was clearly presenting 90% dirty, juicy Mormon gore, and about 10% positive Church History. With all the negative speculation & opinion that is treated as though it is somehow proven historical fact, why is there no mention of amazingly acurate prophecies,
    miraculous healings, or Book of Mormon veracity?
    The fact that this juicy subject matter was flat out ignored makes me question the film makers bias. The ONLY thing that surprised me was the evangelical pastor, who in effect says that he is troubled, because he believes Joseph’s story of the first vision but cant accept it because it doesnt line up with his faith. I’m not going to hold my breath for part 2

  19. I was busy last night and caught only about one minute of the program. Those few seconds had some shaggy headed dude going on and on about the Book of Mormon being a wonderfully flawed piece of ‘literature’ representative of the rough frontier nature of Joseph Smith. My teenage son cast a jaundiced eye at the TV and in a less-than-flattering tone of voice asked, “Who is he supposed to be?” We then shut off the program and had our family home evening.

    When my father first came into contact the the LDS Church in Germany, he went to the American Library to study up on it. He found nothing but anti-Mormon diatribes. But the vitriolic slant of that material made him wonder what it was about this religion that led people professing to be Christians to be so obviously and nastily biased against it. So he approached it with an open heart.

    Skewed and inaccurate information will fool some, but not all.

  20. The goal of “breaking down stereotypes” was not accomplished by this piece. I thought the 1st hour (minus the gloomy choice of artwork) was pretty even handed. The 2nd hour spent an inordinate amount of time on 1 event that Dallin H. Oaks admitted was a terrible mistake by the members involved at the time. The picture of the people standing around with rifles and the comment that “they unquestionably follow the orders of the church leaders” seemed to give the impression that this was a top-to-bottom mindless execution carried out from the top. This is conjecture. There will never be clarity on this event. Davis Bitton once astutely commented, “I don’t have a testimony of the Mountain Meadows Massacre.”

    One day I hope someone will address some of the meaty historical and doctrinal evidences that are difficult to explain–1) How Joseph Smith knew so many details found in the Enochian texts before they had even been discovered, 2) Why the 11 Book of Mormon witnesses never flinched in their testimonies, even after some fell away, 3) How to explain the over 140 eyewitness accounts of the Brigham Young mantle experience, 4) How Joseph Smith knew so much about Arabian and Near East geography at a time that such details were unknown in the West, 5) How a book the size of the Book of Mormon was produced in such a short amount (~63 days)of time by an unlearned farm boy

  21. It is good for any religious group to start talking about faults.

    We are sinners. Put me among the top in this category.

  22. I also had an overall quite negative impression of part one. It was far below my expectations. It did make the appearance of trying to be “objective”, but its overall tone of bias against Mormonism showed through the veneer of objectivity. I’m afraid it will raise far more questions than it tried to answer, and will only increase the level of misunderstanding and bias against the church. I did appreciate a few of the positive quotes and stories, but these were overshadowed by the overall negative bias, both subtle and un-subtle, which permeated the remainder of the program.

  23. The hallmark of a great documentary is one that makes both sides talk and complain. The antis on PBS’ website are complaining that the documentary is too pro-LDS, and too many of us are complaining that it is too biased. As Latter-day Saints, we need to appreciate this film for its objectivity.
    remember that the Lord has said no weapon formed against thee shall prosper. I have seen the second night already because PBS sent me the DVDs, and it is way more inspirational.
    Let’s just be more open-minded about things because we can be too biased as well when we give people the sanitized version of everything.
    CONGRATS PBS!!!!!!!

  24. My fear, with this documentary, is that more people might think that this is a religion. As an atheist, I’m somewhat disturbed by all religious belief. But mormonism is so silly, it’s beyond my own understanding of how the world works.

    Let me get this straight…a kid goes into the woods and talks to god and jesus. Then, a few years later, he finds some gold tablets that nobody else saw. Then he put a rock in a hat and dictated a new account of jesus.

    Mormonism, for the most part, encourages good morals and teaches good things. Why is it necessary to believe that some kid could look into a stone and write a bible to be good people? Can’t we be good without silly stories like this?

  25. I thought the documentary turned out fairly well, which surprised me. I had been interviewed by telephone by Helen Whitney (the film’s writer/director/producer), and the first things out of her mouth were: “I love to speak with intelligent people, people of faith, people of strong belief — who can be so fascinating when they express their doubts. I just find it so enlightening to listen to that kind of thoughtful, engaging candor. So tell me — when it comes to the Mormon Church, what are your doubts?”

    That is known as a “leading question.” In fact, though Ms. Whitney seemed extremely gracious throughout the interview, that is probably the most comically over-the-top leading question that I had ever heard. I’m a lawyer, and in law you are allowed to ask leading questions only to someone who is an adversary, someone considered a “hostile witness.” So her question immediately made me very wary, though I doubt that was her intent.

    I told her I didn’t have any doubts about the Church, that one thing a testimony brings is a certainty that allows me to make personal sacrifices for the gospel, etc. “Oh, everyone has doubts!” she insisted. She then named a prominent writer who had expressed doubts to her, and she invited me again to be more “engaging” and “intelligent” by expressing mine. I told her a personal experience I had had with the Spirit as a young man, which forever erased any doubts about the truthfulness of the gospel, and I added that other experiences since had only reinforced my conviction that the Church is true, that the gospel Joseph Smith restored is in reality pristine Christianity.

    “Hm, you sound just like President Hinckley,” she said, with just a hint of disappointment. If she intended that last as a veiled insult, she REALLY missed the mark! I was smiling all day that someone would say that about me. It’s probably the nicest compliment I’ve ever received.

    Now, again, I want to stress that Ms. Whitney was extremely gracious in talking by phone with me, and I was left with the impression that I would like her personally. But she also spoke with disdain about FARMS (the Foundation for Ancient Research and Mormon Studies) at BYU, saying that though the professors themselves are kindly in person, she finds their work “mean.” (I could not disagree more about the work/research done by FARMS.) She also seemed positively shocked when, at the end of the interview, she attempted to find common ground with me by mentioning what an awful disappointment it was that Pres. Bush had been re-elected in 2004. “I voted for him,” I noted. She very clearly equated functioning human intelligence with “Democrat.”

    Anyway, she got in touch with me later, wanting to do more interviews, but I begged off. I did not at all have high hopes for the documentary, but all in all I thought it went all right. Parts of it were maddening, but other parts were deeply moving and favorable to the Church (i.e., accurate).

    Ken Kuykendall

  26. Stop complaining about the painting! It was done by an LDS artist! The majority of the art hanging in stake centers and ward houses all over the world is not!
    Harry Anderson: not LDS
    John Luke: not LDS
    the painting of Moroni burying the plates, the blue one: not LDS
    Ken Riley: not LDS
    Support Mormon artists!

  27. Oh brother! A negative opinion of Bush does not automatically qualify someone as anti-mormon. Ridiculous. I am an active mormon and a democrat! There are few in my ward who support the president! Outside of Utah county, Bush is vilified, even in the church.
    There is good reason not to include FARMS in something like this: they are mean and unprofessional. They call names and bully people into submission. They are a poor representation of church intellectuals. If you don’t believe me, call John Gee sometime.

  28. Tyler, I concede that my phrasing was poor, and as such I have removed my comment. My point was that her automatic exclusion of another viewpoint because she considers it “mean” while allowing someone to make a bold claim that the church has no supportive evidence and no attempts to find it have been successful… that is definitely a slanted view. My wife and I asked during the broadcast “why didn’t she let someone from FARMS respond to that?” Even if they are “mean” they should be allowed to respond if the program is giving a balanced view.

    My apologies for connecting two thoughts that were not truly meant to be.

  29. To Anon at 6:46, May 1:

    As an atheist, I’m somewhat disturbed by all religious belief. But mormonism is so silly, it’s beyond my own understanding of how the world works.

    Let me get this straight…a kid goes into the woods and talks to god and jesus. . . .

    How do you deal with someone who says this:

    As a believer, I’m somewhat disturbed by modern physicists. They seem nice and even charming, but what they teach is so silly, it’s beyond my own understanding of how the world works. They say that an object can be in many different wave states at once. They say that plain old empty space is alctually a brew of particles coming in and out of existence with a vast spectrum of activity, and that we plainly see as solid matter is really a tangle of strings or waves or higher dimensions wrapped up in weird forms with properties that have nothing to do with what we experience. They also talk about whole universes inflating out of nothing, and on and on with such rubbish and nonsense – even crazy stuff like “sterile neutrinos” and “Higgs bosons” and “magnetic monopoles” – that any idiot can see it’s all made up, all fantasy, just a way to get tax money and power over the “uneducated” common man with this B.S. They talk about mythical particles and states and dimensions and “theories of everything” that have nothing to do with the basic laws of physics that we experience. It takes more than blind faith to believe it – it takes utter insanity. I think they are all frauds and charlatans.

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