Open Discussion on Reactions to PBS’s “The Mormons: Episode 1”

Please post your thoughts and reactions to Helen Whitney’s “The Mormons: Episode 1” here.


  1. I thought that it was as fair as it could possibly be while staying true to the history, although a better title for the first episode could have been “Controversial Events in Mormon History: The Greatest Hits Vol. 1”. I know that they have only 2 hours, but it didn’t seem to provide a great overall picture of church history. Instead it seemed to mostly just hit the more controversial topics.

    I also was surprised at the relatively positive portrayal of fundamentalist polygamists. That’s definitely not something I was expecting.

    Anyway, overall I give it a thumbs up.

  2. Porter Rockwell

    3 points:

    1) Above all our Prophelt and an apostle were allowed to bear strong testimony of Joseph Smith on Nationwide TV. This is a monumental missionary moment, and is reaching a huge number of folks that would otherwise never have heard this. No matter what else is in the film that trumps all, and is glorious!

    2) The one unfair line in the film (only saw first half, so others may have seen others) was to allow that guy to say some in the Church are embarassed by the Gold Plates/Book of Mormon story. How utterly stupid is that commment. If you don’t belive in the story you, pretty much by definition, are not a Mormon.

    3) If any non-member asks my opinion I will say the following “I thought it was overly kind to our people” It may seem an odd response on the first glance, but consider it for a moment. The film revealed some of our warts as a people. With that response you are admitting we are not perfect as a people, and that we are OK with that, the Saints are human after all. That will put all the “warts” that were touched on in the film in a context that they do not need defending. In other words saying, in essense, I love my fellow Saints in spite of their imperfections, much like I love my teenager, in spite of his surlyness.

  3. I love it! FINALLY, a honest and transparent view of the Mormon Church. Outstanding job PBS!!

  4. It was a truly wonderful production. Kudos to the producers. It is so great to have an open presentation of church history.


    – Too much time spent on Mountain Meadows. Although the MM section was really good. Disproportionate time was spent on polygamy but I think that was neccessary given the audience.

    – Not enough time spent on important events in Missouri and Illinois such as the battle at crooked river, the salt sermon, the stand down at far west, imprisonment at independence, Bennet, Masonry.

  5. ebertx,

    what events do you think were left out that should have gone in? I, too, counted a bunch of things that could have been in, but they did only have two hours. You could do a four-hour doc on Joseph Smith alone and not cover everything. I thought they covered a whole lot of ground and did a nice job. It covered the First Vision (multiple accounts), Joseph’s moneydigging prowess, Moroni’s visit, the translation of the BOM, the move to Kirtland and the building of trhe temple there, along with the bank scandal and apostasy of 1837, the establishment of polygamy, the move to nauvoo, the consolidation of Joseph’s power, Haun’s Mill and the theology about Missouri being the place of the garden of eden and the centerplace of an American Zion, the destruction of the Expositor, the martyrdom, the succession crisis and Brigham Young’s rise to power, the trek west and founding of Salt Lake city, Mountain Meadows, and polygamy. Whew! All in two hours. Now, I think it would have been nice to have more details about the theology as it developed. And there was nothing about the Book of Abraham if I recall correctly. And nothing really about the controversy over the historicity of the BOM (Maybe they will cover that tonight). And nothing about the founding of the Relief Society (unless I missed it). And I don’t think they mentioned the Word of Wisdom. On Mountain Meadows, I thought they did a great job putting that in context, but thought they should have included something about the doctrine of blood atonement and tied that into the doctrine about following leaders absolutely, which they did discuss quite a bit. To fit that in, they could have cut out the silly scene where Terryl Givens talks about how Mormons like to dance because God has a body (huh?). Anyway, just interested to hear what you think should have been included but was left out. Thanks.

  6. According to the documentary’s trailer, Whitney’s goal is to reduce the public’s misunderstanding of Mormonism. At a time when a serious candidate for president is Mormon, a motion picture about Mountain Meadows is about to be screened, and polygamists appear on the FBI’s most wanted list, of course, one has to engage Mormon negatives. Otherwise it is impossible to reduce prejudice.

    The effective way to deal with negatives is to tell it yourself, tell it early, and tell it all.

    Mormon leaders have been spoiled because they have been able to control the content of the conversation among Mormons for decades. That won’t work in the age of the Internet, especially not when Romney is a contender for the nomination. There are too many ways and too many interests to emphasize the negatives.

    Mormon leaders are lucky that someone like Whitney is working so hard to talk about the negatives in a rational manner putting polygamy and MMM into their historical context.

    It turns out that the correlation and strengthening the members committees have created substantial vulnerabilities when they treated the members like children that could not handle the truth.

    My sympathy to the bishops who have to deal with the anxieties of members who watched the documentary. But lets face it, it’s going to get a lot worse during the presidential campaign. Whitney’s work is affording Mormons the softest possible landing.

  7. jesse farias

    I enjoyed the documentary and applaud the effort and approach PBS took while treating controversial topics. However, I do wonder how most LDS will react to the segment dealing with Joseph Smith’s murder as opposed to martyrdom. I thought PBS did a good job covering the details that led to his murder.

  8. TJ Brikowski

    From a distance, the story is reflective of humans and human experience. As such, it is worthy of approach without fear of ‘being converted’ or ‘apostacizing’ (whichever camp you come from.) :)

    The story less the mystery has many evocative elements that are worthy of consideration as well as acceptance as a result of another great historical experience and testimony of the influence of faith on humanity. Both presented and not presented in the video. (Example: the sincere familial aspects of polygamy) Now that this stuff is out of the closet, the door is more open to discussion. Perhaps we may reason together. ;)

    Confession to the world: “Homo sum, humani nihil a me alienum puto” [I am a man, nothing (of the) human do I regard as foreign to me.]

    Ps. It would appear Romney is as good for the church as the church has been for him. (Understand though that the production began more than three years ago and had no motive with respect to Mr. Romney.)

  9. Overall I thought it was a decent piece.

    However, if I heard correctly, it was stated that Christ visited the Americas during the 3 days after his death and before his resurrection.
    (I don’t have tivo so somebody please correct me if I am wrong on this.)

    The central point of the Book of Mormon is that the resurrected Christ visited the America’s and preached his gospel here. It is unfortunate that point was not made more clear.

  10. I just thought of something else that was not in last night’s show: the restoration of the priesthood. Odd, given the importance of priesthood authority and the running theme through the doc about Mormon obedience to the priesthood. It would help explain to people why Mormons are so obedient (assuming, arguendo, that they are) if they had talke a little about the idea that the apostolic authority and levitical authority were restored by angels (according to the official history).

    Jesse, I, too thought they did a fair job on Joseph’s murder. One nit to pick: they mentioned that William Law had become disenchanted with Joseph over polygamy. Might have been nice to have given a little more backstory there: that Joseph had tried to steal Law’s wife, then when she refused, spread nasty rumors about her and William. But perhaps that is too much to ask.

  11. Watching something about the church without the MoTab singing in the background was strange at first. : ) Also, some of the paintings (especially the one of Moroni) were creepy. I also did not agree at all with the bit about the red rocks in Utah reminding people of the fire of judgment or whatver.

    However, overall I thought Whitney has done a good job. I’ve heard that critics of the church don’t think it’s critical enough, and some in the church think it’s too critical–so I suppose that’s the mark of a good work. Bushman’s RSR had the same kind of response.

  12. I think many would count me as a critic of the church. I thought the program was balanced and objective and neither a PR puff piece nor an “anti” hatchet job. A variety of views were presented by scholars and theologians (it wasn’t just “official church view” versus “raging apostate view.) I thought all of the commenters they showed were thoughtful and insightful and interesting (though some were odd–the poet with the crazy eyes and the dancing thing from Givens). I think those who say it was unduly critical or unduly deferential either did not watch the program or are suffering from an inability to account for their own biases.

  13. “The effective way to deal with negatives is to tell it yourself, tell it early, and tell it all.”

    Hellmut, I agree completely. I am pretty sure many (but not enough) of today’s Church leaders agree with this, and one day it may become a more governing mantra of the Church’s institutional policies.

  14. ““Controversial Events in Mormon History: The Greatest Hits Vol. 1″.

    I like that! Actually, I don’t mind the polygamy segment; that was certainly necessary. But I realy don’t understand why the long Mountain Meadows segment. Do we get to learn tonight just what lasting impact that event had on … somebody? something?

  15. Stringer Bell

    I was looking at the companion website for the documentary(which is very good) and was amused at how many people(LDS) on the discussion area believed that Mormonism had been misrepresented. The doc mentioned that Mormons have historically had a persecution complex. It seems that that complex continues to this day. People are saying that too many ex and antis are being represented while too few apologists are. Personally, I think that one minute of Daniel C. Peterson is excessive, but hey, that’s just me. Really, though, I thought that it was a relatively balanced show. I think that those critical of the Church were restrained and dispassionate. If anything, I think that the Whitney was too generous to the Mormons. She could have included many more unflattering details about Mormonism’s history. Anyway, I thought it was a good show overall.

  16. was less than impressed with it, really. I wasn’t expecting such a strong secularizing bias. Comments like (paraphrasing, and maybe this is just how I heard it) “I think J.S.’s overworked sex drive was responsible for polygamy” being followed up with the clawback “it’ too simple to suggest that J.S.’s overworked sex drive was the only factor” — I think the take away point is about J.S.’s sex drive, and sure, that is a legitimate area to focus, but it felt heavy handed and unfair. Of all the possible explanations for Mormonism’s growth, none of them seemed to give much credence to the possibility that maybe — just maybe — Joseph Smith was actually what he said he was. I’ll watch it again and see if I feel the same way.

    But watching the pioneer treck sure helped me understand a lot more of the Momron mentality I grew up with in my pioneer-stock family — you sacrifice and commit so much to it, it had BETTER be true, and we’ll find ways to make sure it is true every chance we get.

  17. Overall, I liked it. I loved that it was Daniel Peterson who explained how the Golden Plates were translated. Most rank and file members have no idea who Peterson is, and since he did not give the correlated account, they probably figure he is among the anti-participants. But, he is among the foremost Mormon apologists. This is another instance in which chapel Mormons do not recognize the Mormonism of the apologists. I love it because Daniel claims on this site that only lazy Mormons don’t know the account he gave.

    Anyway, PBS set up a discussion board. Some of the TBM’s are claiming that the writers and producers got a lot of their facts wrong and then “correct” PBS by using the stories they were told at church about how the events happened. I told them that they need to check the original sources before they claim PBS got it wrong. If they do, they will find that much of the Church’s true history has been hid or misrepresented by LDS leaders.

  18. Those who think that too much time was spent on polygamy or Mountain Meadows need to reconsider the big picture. Polygamy, like it or not, is a HUGE aspect of Mormonism. If it weren’t for JS’s revelation on polygamy, we’d not have the concept of eternal families, the endowment, sealings, and so on. Polygamy was a central tenet of the church for nearly 50 years, and remained practiced with varying levels of official sanction for at least two decades after the Manifesto was given. The Church had a ward in Short Creek until the 40’s, for pity’s sake! Most of the fundamentalists of the 20’s through 40’s were members of the LDS church. Polygamy is part of what got the Mormons driven out of Missouri and Illinois. It is part of why President Buchanan declared war on Utah! Like it or don’t, but polygamy is VERY important in our history.

    I was impressed that they chose a very normal polygamous family to portray from the Modern Mormon Fundamentalist community. It is nice that they chose a family that is like all of te fundies I know, rather than the usual worn-out stories about the FLDS and Warren Jeffs. Warren was shown for a couple seconds, dismissed by the narrator as an extremist, and then the story moved on to modern “real-life” polygamists who are every bit as normal as you or I, and who are every bit as faithful to the restoration of the gospel as you or I or any church member.

    As for MMM, the “set-up” took up most of that segment, and the set-up was actually instrumental in explaining a lot of why and how the saints continued to be persecuted even in Utah. The part about how combustible the atmosphere was due to the murder of Parley Pratt, and that Buchanan had sent 20% of the US Army marching for Utah, and the declaration of war on Utah, has bearing on much of our history, not just MMM. So while MMM was the goal of this set-up, I saw the set-up in its larger historical context rather than merely providing the foundation for MMM.

  19. Hellmut said: “My sympathy to the bishops who have to deal with the anxieties of members who watched the documentary.”

    I do not really believe that this will cause the apoplexy among the general membership that some people seem to think it will. To the extent there is “new” information to the general membership, I don’t think the nature of the information is such that it should cause distress and dismay to most.

    The only thing in that documentary which I suspect might catch some members by surprise is the detailed information about MMM. That is because MMM does not really fit into doctrinal discussions at church, not because it has been “correlated out” of existence. Anyone who grew up in Utah, for example, would know about MMM because Utah students are required to take a Utah history course. Further, anyone who has studied Church History on any level would know about MMM.

    I think most members already know that Joseph Smith practiced polygamy. First, this information is taught in Religion Classes at BYU and in Institutes across the country. Second, the book In Sacred Loneliness is readily available at any Deseret Book store.

    I also think most members already know that Joseph Smith translated the Book of Mormon in large part using a stone, which he would place into a hat to block out light. This information has been available in the Ensign for years, and it was taught to me in Seminary a a young man as the method by which the Book of Mormon was translated. I must assume that it is also taught in Seminary classes across the country, assuming the students are actually awake enough to listen…

    I wonder if the modern polygamist family featured in the documentary will no be prosecuted for violation of the law. The authorities seem to generally leave polygamists alone, except when they go on national television proclaiming their lifestyle (see, e.g., Tom Green).

    Personally, I really enjoyed the documentary. I love the complexities of history, and I love how it adds to my faith that the Lord can use imperfect people to accomplish his works.

  20. So far, some have been disapointed that more time was not spent on events that we consider key to the early days of the Church. But this is not a documentary about the early days or Joseph Smith. I think that the overall purpose of the first half is to show “how” Mormonism became misunderstood, and vilified in the 19th and early 20th centuries and to do that, you have to spend considerable time on the Mountain Meadows incident and polygamy. The second half, which is tonight, will hopefully show how things have dramitically changed in just a few generations. How we can actually have a Mormon on the Left in congress, and someone on the right running for president.

  21. Jordan said: “I do not really believe that this will cause the apoplexy among the general membership that some people seem to think it will. To the extent there is “new” information to the general membership, I don’t think the nature of the information is such that it should cause distress and dismay to most.”

    Well, Jordan, ask the Bishop how Seminary went this morning…

    Jordan said: “I think most members already know that Joseph Smith practiced polygamy. First, this information is taught in Religion Classes at BYU and in Institutes across the country. Second, the book In Sacred Loneliness is readily available at any Deseret Book store.”

    Jordan, do you think most members have read ISL ot taken religion classes at BYU? I disagree with this statement. I think most members do not know JS practiced polygamy. They certainly don’t know that he lied to Emma and the public about it, that he married other men’s wives and girls as young as 14, and that he ordered the destruction of the Expositor to try to keep it all under wraps.

    Jordan said: “I also think most members already know that Joseph Smith translated the Book of Mormon in large part using a stone, which he would place into a hat to block out light. This information has been available in the Ensign for years, and it was taught to me in Seminary a a young man as the method by which the Book of Mormon was translated. I must assume that it is also taught in Seminary classes across the country, assuming the students are actually awake enough to listen…”

    Again, you should check out the situation in your own ward. A student I know well mentioned in class one day that Joseph used the seer stone in the hat to translate the BOM. The class went ballistic on him and accused him of spouting anti-Mormon lies. The teacher said he must be mistaken. I pointed out to the teacher some of the sources (the talk by Russell Nelson, Rough Stone Rolling, and an article from FARMS) that established the student was right. He was the only one in the class that knew about the stone in the hat. Needless to say, after last night’s program, he felt vindicated.

  22. Equality,

    Maybe my complaint was unjustified. I simply was expecting more of a narrative history of the Church and not so much a thematic history. Again, just my opinion.

  23. E:

    I guess all I can say is that my experiences have been different. As for the situation in my own ward, I can well imagine that certain things said in certain settings and in certain ways might upset certain people. Sometimes, discretion is indeed the better part of valor.

    What’s ironic in a sort of sad yet funny way is that people who for some reason still remain uninformed about Joseph Smith’s seer stone may think, after watching last night’s documentary, that Daniel C. Peterson, the “Islamic Studies Professor”, is some sort of anti-mormon because his BYU affiliation was not mentioned. I find that sadly funny, for some reason… :)

  24. Jordan,

    The families of Centennial Park (where I assume the family featured last night lives) are very open about their lifestyle and also open about the fact that they do not marry 13-year old girls, like Tom Green, or wed underage girls to old men, like the Warren Jeffs FLDS do. The CP folks have frequent dialog with the authorities, including a town hall meeting in St. George last week. They also had one of their families interviewed on ABC Primetime Live a few months ago. They are upstanding, good people, with nothing to hide, and I am very glad that they are making the effort to become the “public face of fundamentalist Mormonism” so that the media is not so distracted by nutjobs and looney tunes. The LDS church actually could stand to gain quite a lot in terms of public opinion if Centennial Park succeeds at replacing the FLDS in the spotlight, because if you must be associated in the public eye with polygamy, the CP folks are the ones you want to be confused with :)

  25. Mayan Elephant

    Normally, I give the benefit of the doubt to the subject rather than the journalist. In this case, the church, Old McMaxwells FARMS and DCP got exactly what they deserve.

    As long as the church tools DCP for their apologetics in the same fashion they tooled the late Nibley, they deserve confusion rather than clarification. More, DCP regularly whines about how he is independent and he is just as presented, Brother Islam, not Dr. A. Paul O-Gest, surely.

    Hilarious is right. Though, I have to also say that I thought the hat-trick was a HUGE distraction in the first half of the show. It is such a shame that finally, fiiiinally, the American Religion makes it to the big stage, and it gets upstaged by a previously covered-up fact – peepstones in a hat. It was a distraction but an obligation on the part of Whitney. I just wish she could have spent more time developing Smith for his charisma. That may have evolved into a better appreciation for those that followed Smith.

  26. I don’t know whether anyone has pointed this out or not, but is it possible that the time spent on the MMM in the documentary is a good thing seeing as the film will probably be a lot more sensational?

  27. I really enjoyed the documentary. I thought both sides were well represented. I could tell you were really trying to simply inform not attack.

    Oh and thank you PBS for explaining why you did not state if the people interviewed were Mormon or not. I was confused during the program but I can understand now why you chose to leave that out. Your whole program was very well thought out!

    Thank you for doing a great job.

  28. #31 Barunner: where did PBS explain why they did not state the interviewee’s Mormon/non-Mormon status? I am curious about that myself. Do you have a link? Thanks!

  29. Michael Denner

    Recently, I have met with the missionaries, and have told them that I saw the PBS documentary online.
    (I live in Germany and don’t get PBS.)
    At first, they were a bit afraid, not having seen it themselves, and cautiously asked if it was in favor of the church.
    I answered that parts were positive (e.g. family life), but parts were negative (e.g. mountain meadows massacre).

    Of course, Elder B. was quick to state that Brigham Young did not order the mass slaughter.

    The main point I want to make is that I think the invention of the internet has changed Mormonism at its core, because church officials and missionaries cannot continue their cover-ups like they did in the past.
    They cannot be silent about racism, polygamy, etc., because investigators will find out about it anyway, using google.

    So the documentary was only the mainstream aspect of what already has become the standard in the internet:
    The dirty facts of Mormon history have to be dealt with!

    I would be interested in statistics about converts/nonconverts, distinguishing people who have internet access and those who don’t.
    Ridiculously low conversion rates in Germany (Elder B. distributed about 2000 BoMs during his time here, and performed one baptism!) surely speak a clear language.


  30. Ben There, #32 The explanation about why they did not state religious affiliations is in the Washington Post live chat with Helen whitney. Here’s the quote:”
    Allentown, Pa.: Why didn’t you show the LDS affiliation (or non-LDS status) of those interviewed, which would have provided viewers with the “perspective” they were coming from. For example, most active Mormons do not know that Terryl Givens is LDS (and your documentary doesn’t make that clear until Part 2). I agree that it probably doesn’t matter to a non-LDS person, but it would matter to most LDS members watching it (who tend to discount the opinions of non-LDS academics and historians).

    Helen Whitney: I decided not to label the religious affiliation of those being interviewed for the very reason you mentioned in your note to me. I wanted people to listen carefully and respectfully to each person — and not automatically discount what people were saying because they were either LDS or not LDS. As you said, LDS folks “tend to discount the opinions on non LDS members and historians.” This is a reflexive habit that prevents them (or anyone) from broadening their horizons. ”

    Here’ s the link:

  31. I as an exlds enjoyed the program, I thought it gave a good coverage of the Mormon story. I would liked to have seen more of Bushmand and have Dan Vogel included, both recent biographers of Joseph Smith. Also more on the Book of Abraham and independent mag like Dialogue and Sunstone. Elbert Peck gets an appearence but I’d would have like to know how he gets to publish such a Journal as Sunstone and has not been disciplined.

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