Helen Whitney & Jane Barnes
ANNOUNCER: Tonight, a special presentation of AMERICAN EXPERIENCE and FRONTLINE.
It is one of the world's fastest-growing religions. Its members project pride in their faith and confidence in their future. They walk the corridors of power, leaders in Congress and even running for president. But for the Mormons, it was not always so.
KEN VERDOIA, Journalist: In the 19th century, to call someone a Mormon was akin to calling someone a Muslim terrorist.
ANNOUNCER: Tonight, FRONTLINE and AMERICAN EXPERIENCE join forces to tell the story of one of the most powerful, feared and misunderstood religions in American history.
RANDALL PAUL, Author: A column of light appeared in his room, and then a person came down, very glowing person.
ALEX CALDIERO, Poet: He say's he's the angel Moroni. And so he begins to tell Joseph about the Book of Mormon.
ANNOUNCER: This is the story of Joseph Smith and the revelations that gave birth to a new faith born in America.
RICHARD MOUW, Evangelical Theologian: What outraged the traditional Christians of the day was that this guy comes along, Joseph Smith, and he says, "I am the prophet for this new age."
ANNOUNCER: The story of religious conflict and persecution.
HISTORIAN: When that mob stormed Carthage jail and shot the prophet Joseph, they thought they were finishing off Mormonism as a movement.
ANNOUNCER: And the story of a people who crossed a continent to establish their own spiritual kingdom.
HISTORIAN: Brigham Young is telling the federal government to back off from the Utah territory. "We will take care of ourselves."
ANNOUNCER: And of a church that for decades defied society by embracing polygamy, and then abruptly abandoned it.
KEN VERDOIA: How do you go from being the ultimate outcast to the embodiment of the mainstream in two generations? It's a breathtaking transformation.
ANNOUNCER: This is the story of a modern religion still full of old missionary zeal.
BRYAN HORN, Student: It was for all intents and purposes mandatory for young men to go on missions. You go. You go. You go. Dad went. Grandpa went.
ANNOUNCER: A culture proud of its strong communities and close-knit families.
KIMBER TILLEMANN-DICK, Business Consultant: The church and my family are so intertwined. It just creates a kind of aura of love and peace.
ANNOUNCER: But a church that will exile those who defy its authority and its teachings.
TREVOR SOUTHEY, Artist: Being gay in that culture is beyond hell. I was committing a kind of spiritual suicide.
ANNOUNCER: And yet a faith that offers its followers powerful spiritual gifts.
TERRYL GIVENS, Author: The temple exists as a kind of vehicle through which we conquer mortality. Not a single atom or particle of our bodies will be lost, but everything will be reconstituted as fully as it was. It's almost a kind of celebration of the totality of triumph over death.
ANNOUNCER: Tonight, the epic story of this very American religion, the history, the controversies and the mysteries of The Mormons.
Act 1 Revelation
NARRATOR: At a certain point, every religion must explore its sacred past. What shards of history have survived? What is myth? What is symbol? Where does man end and God begin? And what is the shadow side? It took Christianity almost 2,000 years to look at its founding stories with modern eyes. The Mormon sacred stories are so new, they still smell of the earth.
SARAH BARRINGER GORDON, Historian: One of the things that many scholars have said about the claims of Mormonism is that when a faith is born in the 19th century, it's very hard to hide in the mists of time. There isn't that patina of centuries, so that from the moment of its birth, Mormons were under a klieg light. They were the center of attention in ways that early Christians just weren't.
NARRATOR: Mormon history begins with Joseph Smith. He is the alpha and omega of the Latter Day Saints. To the Mormons, Joseph Smith is their prophet, their American Mohammed who revealed new and eternal truths. To the world, he is one of the most complex figures in religious history, the enigma at the core of this religion.
KATHLEEN FLAKE, Historian: Superficially, one thinks of revealed religions as providing answers, and Smith provides as many questions as he does answers. Nobody is exempt from struggling with who he is. Whether you're an insider or an outsider, thinking about Smith causes you to struggle, and that struggle brings as much of you into the question as it does Smith himself. He's a bit of a religious Rorschach test.
JON BUTLER, Historian: Joseph Smith is one of the most fulsome figures in 19th century American history, a visionary, an organizer, a schemer, a mover of people, an inventor of a religion, a religion that brought polygamy to American society, someone who was assassinated. Smith's claims are, in fact, extravagant, extraordinary. He's way out there at the end of a diving board. He's claiming a miracle in America. He's claiming a miracle, having seen an angel. He's claiming the creation of a new biblical text that he is delivering through a revelation.
EDWIN FIRMAGE, Jr., Descendant, Brigham Young: I think behind every great religious figure, there's probably not a little charlatan. There's definitely a lot of shadow, and that's what makes them interesting. The people who are unendingly good and unendingly by the book hold no interest for history. They hold no interest for people. I mean, they're not the people that inspire other people to do crazy things, like trek across the plains and settle in the great basin.
Joseph inspired people to do that. He inspired women to love him. He inspired a lot of women to love him. He inspired men, men of the caliber of Brigham Young, to love him, to love him passionately, to devote their whole life to accomplishing his vision.
Joseph was a prophet. He is the equal of Mohammed, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Josiah, Moses as the founder of a real, bona fide new religion.
NARRATOR: Joseph Smith's story begins quietly enough on a rural New England farm. But this seemingly ordinary boy would go on to a life of such drama and tumult that, at the end, he would say despairingly to his friends, "You don't know me. No man knows my history. I cannot tell it. If I had not experienced what I had, I would not have believed it myself."
He was born on December 23rd, 1805, in Sharon, Vermont, the third son of a family of nine children. Both of his parents descended from proud religious non-conformity. They were downwardly mobile gentry who, through hard luck and bad judgment, always seemed to live on the edge. The family moved on to Palmyra, New York, where they bought a small farm on rocky land. It was a place and a time where seers and prophets roamed the countryside, each claiming to possess God's truth.
SARAH BARRINGER GORDON: If you want to think about the fertility of religion in the early 19th century, think of mushroom soil, the richest stuff you can imagine, that will grow almost anything. And there you have what it was like to be a believer in the early 19th century. Things were sprouting up all around you, and you could stick your own shovel in and it might grow roots. It was incredible, the outpouring of religious expression in a new environment of religious freedom, really. Lack of control is probably a better word. No one had ever seen a government that didn't put its stamp on religion before.
KEN VERDOIA, Journalist: It's important to remember, in the 1820s and 1830s, upstate New York is, in fact, the American frontier. It is on the edge of civilization. It's marching forward in farmland and development of the Eerie Canal, but still, it's the American frontier. And this particular area becomes known as the "burned over district" because it's fired with evangelical fervor almost on a annual basis.
WILLIAM MORAIN, Author: There was such religious fever. But it brought around divisions in American society, and those divisions were reflected in the Smith household. The father was a Universalist, the mother was more of a Presbyterian, and the kids didn't quite know which way they ought to be going, and they were struggling themselves.
NARRATOR: It was in this time of confusion that young Joseph, then just 14, had the first of his visions that would become the rock on which his church was founded. This is the story Smith told and what devout Mormons believe happened.
DANIEL PETERSON, Islamic Studies Professor: He is existentially gripped by the question of which church is right. And so with the insecurity that that created in him, and the uncertainty, he decides he needs to find out for himself. And he goes into this grove of trees, and he gets this thundering, spectacular theophany. He describes how intense the light was and how afraid he was that when it touched the trees, they would burst into flame. He was actually scared. And in that pillar of light appear two persons, the father and the son.
Elder JEFFREY R. HOLLAND LDS Quorum of the Twelve Apostles: When Joseph Smith saw them, he saw embodied beings. He saw men the way you and I would see men, with all the biblical features the way Moses said he saw them, with eyes and ears and hands and faces.
MARLIN K. JENSEN, LDS Church Historian: He was blessed, I think, to be visited by God the father and by his son, Jesus Christ. And in that moment, he still had the presence of mind to ask and to fulfill the purpose for which he came, which, interestingly, wasn't to ask "Is there a true church?" I've always been struck, honestly, with the question he posed. "Which of the churches is true?" And the answer was that none of them was, and that was an earth-shaking answer. I'm sure it came as a very big surprise to him.
TERRYL GIVENS, English Professor: He came from a tradition of visionaries. And his father had dreams, his grandfather had dreams, and so it was nothing new for him, as well, to feel that he had had some kind of heavenly communication.
And I think that's part of what prepared him but also prepared his family to accept him as a prophet because before he could test the waters of public opinion, he had to pass muster with his own family. And it isn't every child that would come before his parents and say, "God and Christ just visited me in a grove of trees" and be believed.
NARRATOR: In the beginning, Joseph would tell only his family about what happened in the grove. Over the years, he would record several versions of what he saw.
GREG PRINCE, Author: The first version of the vision was written 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. Subsequently, over the next 12 years, there were other versions that emerged from Joseph Smith, where the story got more detailed and more colorful. And one of the later versions became the official version.
KEN CLARK, Former LDS Church Educator: Finally, in 1838, we have God and the Son visiting him, telling him to join none of the other churches. And it begs the question, was Joseph building a story as he went, because the story certainly evolved and the story certainly took on more miraculous, more remarkable characteristics. And he certainly became a greater character with greater status in God's eyes in each of these stories, with a greater work to do in each of these stories.
RICHARD MOUW, Evangelical Theologian: My instinct is to attribute a sincerity to Joseph Smith. And yet at the same time, as an evangelical Christian, I do not believe that the members of the godhead really appeared to him and told him that he should start on a mission of, among other things, denouncing the kinds of things that I believe as a Presbyterian. I can't believe that. And yet at the same time, I really don't believe that he was simply making up a story that he knew to be false in order to manipulate people and to gain power over a religious movement. And so I live with the mystery.
NARRATOR: Joseph was born into a world where Christianity blended seamlessly with magic. Like other farmers in Palmyra, Joseph and his father dug their rocky soil in hopes of finding gold. Joseph looked into magic stones and had visions of barrels of buried treasure and was hired to lead others in search of gold.
KEN CLARK: Joseph's preferred method of finding buried treasure was to place a peep stone in a hat, draw the hat over his face to exclude the light, and then look into the stone and the location of the treasure would be identified.
SIMON WORRALL, Author: It has to be said that Joseph Smith wasn't the only person who was wandering around with a seer stone, looking for gold. But he was particularly good at it and well known to be particularly good at it. And it was technically illegal, and he was taken before the court for this.
KEN CLARK: He was arrested and tried for his activities. And ironically, those in court who believed in him, under oath, on the stand, swore that he had this ability to see treasure slipping away under the earth or to see where they were buried.
NARRATOR: When Joseph was 17, he would later say he worried that he had not lived purposefully and had lost his divine connection. Three years had passed since his last vision. But one night, all of that would change. And the story he told would become another anchor for the Mormon faith.
RANDALL PAUL, Author: He was in an upper bedroom in his small house one night. He says the following thing happened. A column of light appeared in his room, literally a column of light, and then a person came down, very glowing person. The person was dressed in white, in a white robe.
ALEX CALDIERO, Poet: He say's he's the angel Moroni. He's hovering over the ground. He's got no shoes. He's barefooted. And he says he knew that he had no clothes underneath his robe and you could see his chest. And so he begins to tell him, the Angel Moroni, to tell Joseph about the Book of Mormon, where it is, what it is and what his involvement in it would be. But he doesn't just tell him, he shows him, to the point where Joseph sees the locality and the very location of the golden plates.
DANIEL PETERSON: Joseph then goes to that spot on the hill - it's not far from where the Smith family farm was - and he locates the plates there on the hill. And the plates are under a rock, which he'd seen very clearly in the vision. He doesn't get to take the plates then. He has to come back every year for several years until he gets the plates late in the 1820s.
RANDALL PAUL: When he went to receive them, he was married. His wife and he went to the hill. He carried them down off the hill. He and his wife put them in the buckboard and took them home.
NARRATOR: According to Joseph, the golden plates were etched in ancient hieroglyphics, and he was instructed to translate them.
DANIEL PETERSON: We know that Joseph didn't translate in the way that a scholar would translate. He didn't know Egyptian. There were a couple of means that were prepared for this. One was he used an instrument that was found with the plates, that was called the Urim Thummim. This is a kind of divinatory device that goes back into Old Testament times. Actually, most of the translation was done using something called a seer stone. He would put the stone in the bottom of a hat, presumably to exclude surrounding light, and then he would put his face in the hat. It's a kind of strange image for us.
NARRATOR: Working with his wife and a small cadre of friends, Joseph said he translated the golden plates in a creative burst over a period of months, and then, as instructed, returned the plates to the angel Moroni. The final translation was over 600 pages and would become the Book of Mormon, one of the core documents of a new faith.
ALEX CALDIERO: I hear Joseph Smith's voice every time I read it. He was a farmer. He was young. He was unlettered, and he put this all together. And so you have this rough-hewn kind of text that is so beautiful in all its imperfections because it houses and it embodies the voice of a real human being who had encountered the miraculous.
MICHAEL COE, Archaeologist: I really think that Joseph Smith, like shamans everywhere, started out faking it. I have to believe this, that he didn't believe this at all, that he was out to impress. But he got caught up in the mythology that he created. And this is what happens to shamans. They begin to believe that they can do these things, and then it becomes a revelation: They're speaking to God. Joseph Smith had a sense of destiny, and most fakers don't have this, and this is how he transformed something that I think was clearly made up into something that was absolutely convincing.
NARRATOR: Every July in Palmyra, New York, Mormons celebrate their origins in an extravagant pageant on the Hill Cumorah. An enormous cast re-enacts Joseph's discovery of the plates that contained scriptures of an ancient history. Under a 40-foot golden statue of the angel Moroni, the pageant tells how the ancient prophet, Mormon, gave the plates to his son, Moroni, and how he buried them in 400 AD on the very site where the pageant itself is unfolding.
The tablets recall the story of Israelites who sailed from Jerusalem about 600 B.C. and were guided to a country that would be one day be known as America. Here these ancient Israelites split into two races, the Nephites and the Lamanites. For hundreds of years, they engaged in brutal warfare.
Here in America, during the three days after his crucifixion in Jerusalem, Christ came in his resurrected being to preach peace and righteousness to these warring people. Here in 1827, the young Joseph Smith would say he dug up the tablets recording this entire history that would become the Book of Mormon.
TERRYL GIVENS, English Professor: 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. And what I mean by that is that on the face of it, that's an affront to sophisticated notions of how the Universe works. God doesn't deliver gold plates to farm boys. It's a cause of embarrassment to many intellectuals in the church to continue to insist that Joseph had literal gold plates given to him by a real angel.
But I also mean that it's a scandal in the sense that it is inseparable from the heart and soul of Mormonism, that one could no sooner divorce the historical claims of the Book of Mormon from the church than one could divorce the story of Christ's resurrection from Christianity and survive with the religion intact.
NARRATOR: For nearly two centuries, Mormons have rooted their faith in the truth of the golden plates and of Joseph Smith's original vision in the grove. They are the foundation of this church, and for its leaders there is no middle ground. Their prophet is righteous, and he saw and talked to God.
Pres. GORDON B. HINCKLEY, LDS General Conference, 2002: We declare without equivocation that God the father and his son, the lord Jesus Christ, appeared in person to the boy, Joseph Smith.
When I was interviewed by Mike Wallace on the "60 Minute" program, he asked me if I actually believed that. I replied, "Yes, sir. That's the miracle of it." This is the way I feel about it. Our whole strength rests on the validity of that vision. It either occurred or it did not occur. If it did not, then this work is a fraud. If it did, then this is the most important and wonderful work under the heavens.
TERRYL GIVENS: Well, I think there's no question that the church rises or falls on the veracity of Joseph Smith's story. History as theology is perilous. If it turns out that the whole story of Christ's resurrection was a fabrication, then Christianity collapses. That's the price we pay for believing in a God who intervenes in human history, who has real interactions with real human beings in real space and time. That makes it historical, and that's a reality that we just can't flee away from.
HAROLD BLOOM, Humanities Professor: All religion, Western and Eastern, is founded upon miracle. It makes little sense to present arguments against Joseph Smith and early Mormonism that would extend equally well to what we are told about the origins of what will eventually be Judaism, the origins of Christianity, the origins of Islam. All religion depends upon revelation. All revelation is supernatural. If you wish to be a hard rock empiricist, then you should not entertain any religious doctrine whatsoever.
Act 2 The Saints
NARRATOR: In the early 1830s, the burned-over district in upstate New York was a strange and fervent place. Prophets roamed the countryside in bearskins. Annie Lee and the Shakers danced ecstatically and renounced all sex. Millennial visionaries saw the end of the world in every fiery sunset.
TERRYL GIVENS: The question is, how did Mormonism distinguish itself in such a crowded field. There were many people who claimed revelation from heavens, who claimed to be prophets, who claimed to speak with the same kind of oracular voice. I think the main difference in the case of Joseph Smith was that he had something concrete to show for it. It was the Book of Mormon. It always came back to the Book of Mormon.
NARRATOR: Its publication in 1830 was unprecedented. At a time when most religious manuscripts were two-page pamphlets selling for a few cents, Smith's book was leatherbound and costly. Initially, the Book of Mormon didn't sell well, but gradually, book by book, it was passed from his family and his friends to strangers.
ROBIN FOX, Anthropologist: Strange as the Book of Mormon might appear to us, it didn't particularly appear strange to its converts in the 19th century. It's curiously American in its own right. It's frontier literature. It's expansive. It deals with the roiling of peoples across great plains and the rise and fall of civilizations.
SIMON WORRAL, Author: It was religion made in the USA. For the first time, you had a homegrown religion, a homegrown prophet. It was the religion of the poor people. And Joseph Smith came to them and said, "You're at the center of the drama," if you like. He situated the United States within the biblical story.
TERRYL GIVENS: The most important function that the Book of Mormon served in the early church was not that it introduced new teachings, not that there was any particular message or content which revolutionized the world. It was the mere presence of the Book of Mormon itself as an object that was a visible, palpable object that served as concrete evidence that God had opened the heavens again.
NARRATOR: From the first hour of its founding in April 1830 at a farmhouse in New York, Joseph Smith's church was controversial. He proclaimed his was the one true church since the death of Christ's apostles. He had 40 converts by the end of May, and just as many enemies. Neighboring newspapers denounced the Book of Mormon as a fraud, as blasphemous, or just too bizarre to believe.
RICHARD MOUW, Evangelical Theologian: What outraged the traditional Christians of the day was that this guy comes along, Joseph Smith, and he says, "Push the delete button on all of the stuff you're arguing about because we have to go back to the very beginning and restore a true original, primitive Christianity that has been corrupted for 1800 years. And you're a part of the corruption. You are the corrupters of it in this present day, and that God has given me a newer testament, but not only a newer written record of what God wants for human beings, but that God has restored the office of prophet, and I am the prophet for this new age. And I am a prophet who is receiving new teachings from God."
TERRYL GIVENS: I think one of the hallmarks of Joseph Smith's thought was the collapse of sacred distance that generally is held to be an absolutely essential ingredient in our experience of the divine, that sense of worshipful distance that should obtain between man and his God. He did this by arguing that when revelations came to him, they came through vehicles as palpable and earthly as seer stones, or Urim and Thummim or gold plates, that God himself was once as we are, that he is embodied. That level of detail and specificity isn't suppose to obtain when we're talking about things that are supposed to be ineffable. It was an affront to traditional religious faith in ways that were troubling and threatening.
NARRATOR: As much as he aroused fury, Smith also aroused ardor. After he was chased out of town in 1831, 75 people followed him to Kirtland, Ohio. Here he joined the preacher Sidney Rigdon, who brought 100 members of his own congregation into Smith's church. And later, there was another convert, Brigham Young.
KEN VERDOIA, Journalist: This 30-year-old carpenter, his wife is ill, near death and will die. He is penniless. He is looking for direction. He's joined one church and left it, joined another church and left it. And suddenly, when he meets Joseph Smith, he says, "I will follow you. You have the answers I've been looking for." So Brigham Young becomes, in microcosm, what a number of people experienced when they listened to and talked to Joseph Smith- extremely charismatic, extremely confident, a man of the people. He didn't talk down to people, he spoke to them about issues that touched their very lives.
JUDITH FREEMAN, Author: What Joseph Smith offered everyone who followed him- every follower, he said, had the ability to speak directly to God. God will speak to you. He will give you inspiration. You can have a personal relationship with God.
[www.pbs.org: Why Mormonism took root]
NARRATOR: Others continued to join in great numbers. From 1831, Smith was sending out missionaries across America. By 1837, the small town of Kirtland had swollen to 3,000, the majority of them Mormon.
In Kirtland, Joseph Smith began calling all his followers Latter-day Saints because he believed they were living in the end times, with the sacred purity of Christ's first disciples. It was here that his theology evolved beyond conventional Christianity. Smith received revelations that reestablished the roles of the original 12 apostles, and he created the priesthood for all deserving male members. He astonished everyone by building not a Christian church, but a temple inspired by the Old Testament. It would be the place for new secret rituals of anointing and blessing meant to connect the Saints to God. Mormons today still talk about the miraculous three months when the temple was consecrated.
TERRYL GIVENS: We have literally hundreds of accounts of eyewitnesses who heard rushing of wind and heard angelic choirs. It was a day very much like the Pentecost of the New Testament.
WILL BAGLEY, Historian: People talked of seeing angels fly in through the windows. They talked of seeing God stand next to Joseph Smith. They had what appears to be at times mass hallucinations or mass visions. But whatever happened was absolutely remarkable.
KATHLEEN FLAKE, Historian: Joseph Smith was the Henry Ford of revelation. He wanted every home to have one, and the revelation he had in mind was the revelation he thought he'd had, which was seeing God. And so for Joseph Smith, seeing God was what it was to be religious. And so he sets about duplicating that original experience for everybody else. Revelation is everything to this church. It is revelation or nothing for these people.
WILL BAGLEY: Kirtland is both the best of times and the worst of times. In 1836, there's a huge national speculative bubble. Everybody's brother is investing in real estate. And it captures Kirtland. And in the frenzy of speculation that develops, Joseph Smith founds a bank, enters into all these business enterprises, and then the bubble bursts. The bank collapses. People lose money. It's faith-shattering in Mormon context. People are challenging his role as prophet, questioning prophecies that aren't happening. There are stories about sexual improprieties, and these will continue to grow. And even Brigham Young says, at one point in Kirtland, there were 10 people who believed in the prophet.
RICHARD BUSHMAN, Biographer of Joseph Smith: And by December of 1837, some of his closest followers wants to take over the Kirtland temple, pulls guns and knives to drive the other Mormons out. I think he is also worried about lawsuits against him. All these debts that he's incurred, could have hauled him into court and kept him there for years, so he has to, in a way, sneak away. So I think he left sort of in despair and regret that all had gone so wrong.
You would think he would have become discouraged, would have reconsidered his plans, but when he goes to Missouri, he has not compromised in the slightest his desire to do the same thing all over again, to build another city, to build another temple, and to continue gathering the Saints.
Act 3 Persecution
NARRATOR: A powerful sense of persecution has shaped Mormon history. Most Americans don't even know about the dark days that haunt Mormons still today.
Elder JEFFREY R. HOLLAND, LDS Quorum of the Twelve Apostles: Our people knew hate. Our people knew what it was like to be hated. They knew what it was like to have their children killed. They knew what it was like to have their prophet murdered in cold blood. Their blood had been spread across six states. We are a church that has had an extermination order issued against us. That is unprecedented in the history of this God-fearing nation.
TRUMAN MADSEN, Author: 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 statehouses to pulpits. "These people are not what they should be. They're invaders. Get rid of them! Get rid of them!"
JON BUTLER, Historian: The hatred of Mormonism is mysterious. It's fascinating. It's perplexing. Mormons were plain, old, white, largely English-descended American farmers who were God-fearing, who lived in agricultural settlements and wanted the best for their children, for their wives, for their families. Why would they be so hated?
It had to do with the fear of the unknown, fear of power and hierarchy - did the Mormons really think for themselves, or did Joseph Smith think for them - the fear of unknown personal practices, polygamy, the fear of unknown beliefs. All of these things made the Mormons feared. It made Americans worry about them. And yet underneath, there's still something else that's hard to get at. There's still something else about Mormons that seems so odd, so peculiar, and yet it's difficult to put a historian's finger on what that is.
NARRATOR: From the first day, there had been opposition to this church. In Missouri it would turn bloody. Joseph Smith had sent missionaries to Independence in 1831. Within five years, there were 5,000 Mormons in Missouri. They had come here in the wake of another of Smith's early revelations.
ALEX BAUGH, Historian: The reason the Mormons were in Missouri is because Joseph Smith revealed that Missouri was designated as the location of Zion, this future city of God. This is where we believe human existence began. More specifically, we believed that Jackson County was the place where Adam and Eve lived in the Garden of Eden. Probably more significant though, we believed that there will be a place, a community established, a city, that will be here to meet the savior. The savior will come here. So I think it's in every single Mormon's back of their mind, "Missouri is important."
WILL BAGLEY, Historian: When Smith announced that Independence was the site of the Garden of Eden and that this would be the site of the new Zion and that God would give this chosen land to his new followers, it didn't sit well with the old settlers in Jackson County. And many of them were very explicit about it. They said "We got along fine with the Mormons, we had no problem with them until Joseph Smith came along with these revelations and told us they were going to take all of our land."
NARRATOR: Tensions grew. There were skirmishes between the native Missourians and the Mormons. By the time Joseph Smith arrived from Kirtland in 1838, the Missourians had driven the Mormons in forced migration from one county to another. They lost homes and land. Many had been tarred and feathered. But they had also formed their own militia.
KEN VERDOIA: And Joseph Smith was adamant that the Latter Day Saints were not Quakers who would turn the other cheek and avoid violence. They would pick up arms. They would defend themselves.
NARRATOR: The Mormons retaliated. They drove Missourians off their land and burned their homes. It had become a war. The stage was set for an even greater violence in a Mormon village called Haun's Mill.
ROGER HAMMER, Sociologist: October 30, 1838, dawned as a beautiful day. It was clear. The wind was calm, and Indian Summer temperature. My third great grandfather, Austin Hammer, and a great Uncle, Jon Yorke, were there on guard duty to defend the mill.
TERRYL GIVENS, English Professor: A group of up to 200 or 300 horsemen rode into the village of Haun's Mill. The women grabbed the children and ran for the woods. The men made for the blacksmith shop. That's where the arms were stored. The mob quickly surrounded the blacksmith shop, and because the logs hadn't been chinked, they were able to stick their muskets through the gaps in the logs.
ROGER HAMMER: The mobbers were poking their guns through the opening between logs and just shooting anything that moves. It's like shooting fish in a barrel.
NARRATOR: As the raiding party rode off, they left 17 Mormons dead, 13 wounded. One old man had been hacked to death by a corn cutter, and a boy of 10 had been shot at point-blank range. None of the killers was ever arrested.
TERRYL GIVENS: It wasn't until I was a senior in college that I realized that I had ancestors who were actually there at Haun's Mill. And I went to the church historical department, did some digging around and actually found an account written by a great-great-great-aunt of mine who was a young girl at the time. And she described both the event and its aftermath in vivid detail many years after the fact.
When word came that the massacre had been accomplished and the mobbers had left, they came back into the village. And here it was many, many years later, she's remembering that day as a young girl of 9, being taken by her mother into the center of the village and seeing this scene of just carnage and devastation. But the one image that seemed to stand out in her mind decades and decades later was the sound of the bodies as they placed them on a door and slid them into a well. And I've often wondered of the horror that that sound must have held for that young girl, who apparently remembered it for the rest of her life.
NARRATOR: Governor Lilburn Boggs of Missouri took a dramatic stand to end the violence. For the first and only time in American history, a state government issued an extermination order. "The Mormons must be treated like enemies," it read, "and must be exterminated or driven from the state for the public peace." The Mormons were forced to surrender their land and possessions and to be out of Missouri by spring.
SARAH BARRINGER GORDON, Historian: Mormons have a very complex relationship with their own sense of persecution. 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. Persecution both identified them as special and seared into them the pain of what being a peculiar people means.
KEN VERDOIA, Journalist: The journey from Missouri to Illinois for another new beginning is one of the darkest days of Joseph Smith's existence. And at that time, he turns to Brigham Young, calls him to organize the people and make an orderly exodus. And this is a recurring theme for the Latter Day Saint people- persecution, exodus. And they believe they've reached the promised land when they land on the banks of the Mississippi River at Nauvoo, Illinois.
NARRATOR: When the Mormons arrived in Illinois in 1839, they had become a national story. People in Illinois were shocked by press accounts of the Haun's Mill atrocity and welcomed the refugees. Joseph Smith bought 18,000 acres that became the Saints' new gathering place, Nauvoo -- their own city, where they could create a perfect society in preparation for Christ's return. Missouri survivors, alongside new European converts, worked in a communal economy to build homes and factories. By 1844, Nauvoo's population had swollen to 12,000, rivaling the size of Chicago.
WILL BAGLEY: Nauvoo becomes the apex, the peak of Joseph Smith's career. He's eminently successful. He's achieved everything that he set out to do. He's created a dynamic, beautiful city. And to many, this is the happiest days of the early church. And he's engaged in the most remarkable and innovative stages of his prophetic career.
KEN VERDOIA: In Nauvoo, suddenly there's a rush of new revelations, two of the key ones- baptism for the dead. Joseph Smith reveals that it's been presented to him that Latter Day Saints can baptize dead members to bring them into their family to ensure life everlasting together in the great beyond, beyond the veil. The second principle revealed celestial marriage, that consistent with teachings in the Old Testament, that certain special individuals are called to practice plural marriage, what we call polygamy sometimes, much to his wife, Emma Smith's, great disappointment.
NARRATOR: And the disappointment and anger of many of his followers when they discover that Smith and other leaders had been secretly engaging in plural marriage. Joseph Smith had launched himself on a path of self-destruction, obsessed with building his military and political power. He had the Nauvoo city charter written so that he could assume even greater authority. He was elected mayor. He had himself appointed chief justice of the city court and lieutenant general of the Nauvoo Legion. Nauvoo had become a perfect theocracy, and their neighbors increasingly saw the Mormons' dominance as a threat.
SARAH BARRINGER GORDON: There are these fabulous pictures of Joseph Smith holding his sword out, and that's a very martial picture, so that you combine religion, military force, political power, and you've got something that looks like a country, a whole new identity within the United States' borders.
KEN VERDOIA: In the early 1840s, he decides, "I will run for president of the United States." This is appalling to many people, that here is a person coming from this unique, theological, unusual, anthropomorphically other group, and he is going to run for president of the United States? Add onto that the political dominance of Mormons in that area, the economic dominance of the Mormons in that area, the control of commerce of the Mormons in that area, and the violence starts to flair on the fringes. And Joseph Smith knows that it's coming to an absolute showdown. One more spark is all it will take to bring all the forces on earth against him. He knows this. The spark is found in The Nauvoo Expositor.
NARRATOR: The Nauvoo Expositor was a newspaper published by William Law, once a close associate of Joseph Smith who had broken with the prophet over plural marriage. The Expositor, in its first and only issue, exposed Smith's secret practice of polygamy, charging him with coercing young women and assuming dictatorial political power.
KEN VERDOIA: He would call some of them lies, but others of them were truths that he did not want to be trafficked in the public press. He reacts in a rage. He orders its destruction. The destruction of an American printing press, in the eye of the public at that time, is a horrific act. It's antithetical to the American experience.
NARRATOR: The people in the surrounding counties who had welcomed the Mormons now wanted to get rid of them. Prominent citizens called for Smith's death and would later become part of the mob that killed him.
KEN VERDOIA: He stands alone. He stands charged. He has an opportunity to flee. And it's one of the most interesting moments in the history of the Latter Day Saints. He has the moment to flee. He starts to. And by various interpretations, for one reason or another, he turns the horse and comes back to face arrest, which means being imprisoned in a Carthage jail, which means death at the hands of a mob within days.
NARRATOR: Smith was imprisoned on charges of treason. Although the governor of Illinois had promised his protection, just two days later, a mob of 200 non-Mormon men, their faces painted black, rushed the jail.
WILL BAGLEY: They storm up the stairs. Smith and his brother and friends put up a stout defense.
KEN VERDOIA: Joseph is hit repeatedly at the window. He fell through the window, calling to God, and was dead within moments of striking the ground.
NARRATOR: There were those who hoped that Joseph's death would be the end of Mormonism, but he was, in his own words, a rough stone rolling, and in death as in life, he would shatter expectations. The flawed Joseph, the man, left enduring controversies. He seemed to thrive in opposition, leaving the Mormons in conflict with their neighbors and in exile from the rest of America. But the prophet Joseph had given his people a new set of doctrines and rituals that became a powerful faith that at its heart claimed that all righteous men could become gods. For his followers, Mormonism was the American dream writ large. But he had set them on a path that would prove to be both exhilarating and dangerous.
Act 4 Exodus
KEN VERDOIA: Imagine if you've walking the streets of Nauvoo in the days after the murder of Joseph Smith. You have pure chaos- promises of different leadership, others starting to lay claim to the mantle of authority to lead this religious following. The mobs that are anti-Mormon are gathering on the outskirts of the city.
NARRATOR: The church was hanging by a thread. Its members were splitting up into contentious groups. Some dissenters wanted to return to a Mormonism without polygamy and the temple rites, and threatened to break away.
KEN VERDOIA: Brigham Young arrives, and in very short order commands the attention of the Mormons and also earns their confidence. Brigham Young brings order and a sense of purpose to the chaos of Nauvoo.
NARRATOR: But the pressure on the Mormons was building. The Illinois legislature had revoked the Nauvoo city charter, and a governor's commission told the Mormons to leave.
KEN VERDOIA: Brigham's sense is, "Illinois has abandoned us. The United States of America has abandoned us. We will leave the United States." He knows they're going westward. There is no other option. They dare not turn back to the east. There's no deliverance there.
NARRATOR: Young thought he had found the Mormons a new home outside of America in maps of the valley of the Great Salt Lake, which was then part of Mexico. But many refused to go, including Joseph Smith's widow, Emma. Her followers, led by her son, would ultimately become the Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints. But the remaining Saints, the majority of them, left with Young.
WILL BAGLEY: They set out in the middle of winter, and very shortly after they began the evacuation, the river freezes. They spend three months struggling through the mud and the sleet and the snow. They lose a lot of people. It's a time of immense suffering.
[www.pbs.org: Explore Mormon migrations]
NARRATOR: In 1846, Brigham Young led the first group of what would become over 3,000 Mormons westward out of Illinois. It was one of the largest mass migrations in the history of America. When they got to Nebraska, he organized Winter Quarters, a temporary waystation where each successive wave of immigrants would plant crops, rest and replenish themselves for the arduous journey ahead.
WILL BAGLEY: For all of Brigham Young's great organizational skills, he appears to be tormented at times by self-doubt. "How can I assume the mantle of Joseph? How can I become a prophet like Joseph Smith, because unlike Joseph, God doesn't speak to me."
In February of 1847, in the midst of very, very tough times, at Winter Quarters, he falls ill. And in the midst of this sickness, he has a dream that he finds himself in a room with Joseph Smith. And the light is streaming in through an open window, and Smith has his feet up on the table. And Brigham Young says to him, "How can I be a prophet?" And Joseph Smith says to him, "Listen to the still small voice. If you listen for God's inspiration, he will always direct you." And when Brigham Young wakes up, he is transformed. After that, this second-guessing and this hesitation is gone. From that moment in February 1847 at Winter Quarters, Brigham Young assumes the mantle of Joseph.
KEN VERDOIA: With every myth, there is a central truth, and the great myth of the Mormon exodus to the West is how heroic the effort was. They could not turn back. They could only go forward. And all they had was this sense of faith that, somehow, they would be delivered at the other end. They didn't have enough wagons. They didn't have enough horses. So at various times, they would use pull-carts. This is 1,000 miles of pulling a cart along a very rough, rutted trail, all on a sense of faith- fathers dropping dead, leaving their wives and young children to be scooped up by the succeeding wave of Mormons heading to the west. They start too late on certain journeys. They're trapped by Wyoming blizzards as they move across the plains. Death by the dozens is typical, death in the hundreds on occasion, all on this purpose of going to a deliverance.
SARAH BARRINGER GORDON: It was a pilgrimage of the most foundational and fundamental kind that forged a people. And today, people within the faith re-enact the trek and connect with this sacred history. They envision themselves as Saints walking to Zion, walking to their own salvation. It's an incredibly powerful story.
JANA RICHMAN, Author: When I realized that seven of my eight great-great-grandmothers walked all or part of that trail, I knew that that's where my journey had to start, too. What I was searching for out on the trail was the kind of faith that sent my great-great-grandmother, Hannah Middleton Hawkey, from England over the ocean, then by train to the edge of- what was then the edge of the United States, to the middle of the country, where she was dumped, expected to build her own handcart and then pull her belongings and walk with that handcart and her three children across the United States to the Salt Lake Valley.
When she was asked in later years, was she sorry for that? She had lost her son. She buried him along the way. Was she sorry she made that decision? Was there ever doubt? She said, no, there was never doubt anywhere along the way. She felt relieved when her son died. He died of starvation, exhaustion and cold. She was relieved when he died. She came through with her two young daughters. She didn't walk again for a year.
I could never arrive at that certainty, and that's the reason I choose not to practice Mormonism. But I still practice faith, but it's a different kind of faith. I think it's based in uncertainty.
TERRYL GIVENS: One observer visited the Saints on the prairie. He said it was one of those haunting, haunting experiences, to see the vast stretches of isolation and loneliness and bleakness. And then you'd hear the soft strains of classical music coming over the hills, and there would be the Saints gathered around, playing music and dancing.
The philosopher Nietzsche once wrote, "I should never believe in a God who would not know how to dance," and I feel the same way. There is, in the Mormon faith, a kind of celebration of the physical which I think is a little bit outside the Christian mainstream. When the Saints moved west to Utah, one observer in the 1850s noted that they had schools in most every block but that every night, the schools were converted into dancing schools. And he observed with some displeasure that Mormons taught their children that they should go to school but they must go to dancing school.
And I think that there's a connection between the place of dancing in Mormon history and the concept of an embodied God. Because we believe that God the Father, as well as Jesus Christ, are physical, embodied beings, that elevates the body to a heavenly status. And I think there's a kind of exuberance and celebration that is, in many ways, a result of that same collapse of sacred distance that was so central to Joseph Smith's thinking.
Instead of denigrating the things of the body in order to elevate the things of the spirit, Joseph always argued that it was the successful incorporation of both that culminated in a fullness of joy. And so dancing, I think, is in many ways, just an emblem or a symbol of a kind of righteous reveling in the physical tabernacle that we believe is a stage on our way to godliness itself.
NARRATOR: On July 24, 1847, more than a year after they left Nauvoo, and after years of persecution and forced migrations, when thousands had lost their lives and property, Brigham Young and the first contingent of Mormons finally reached the valley of the Great Salt Lake.
KEN VERDOIA: When the Latter Day Saints arrive in 1847, this is still technically Mexican territory. No one in their right mind would choose to settle in the Great Basin.
In Brigham's eyes, he looked and he saw a desert. "This is the right place. Drive on." It is one of those very rare moments where people literally are gathered around Brigham and saying, "Are you serious? I have been in that wagon for 60 days. I'd gladly do another 60 just to get to a better place than this. This can't be the place. Why here?" Because it was the land no one else wanted.
Brigham knew what he wanted. He wanted the turf for an isolated people to build up the kingdom of God on earth, and do it on their terms. The fact that it was off the beaten path- fine. The fact that it was going to be tough and rugged and hard to make a go- even better. "It will bring us closer together. We'll be more dependent upon each other."
SARAH BARRINGER GORDON: There's a good reason why historians refer to this as exodus, much like Moses leading the Jews out of Egypt, because this was in its own way a miraculous trip in which the Mormon faithful walked away from the rest of the country, and in many senses, walked out of secular time and into sacred time. With each step, they walked further and further away from the rest of the world and deeper and deeper into their faith, gathering in Zion, building up the kingdom of God and creating something that the rest of the world had never seen.
Act 5 Mountain Meadows Massacre
KEN VERDOIA: I will never forget spending a night in the Mountain Meadows, to be there, and for me, to walk what was a killing field, the last day on earth of men, women, and children. I was a young father at the time, and I realized that children that were the age of my own children died in that location. And nighttime is the cruelest time in Mountain Meadows. The wind blows across me, and it chills me. It touches you in a unique and profound way.
WILL BAGLEY: There is nothing else in Mormon history like Mountain Meadows massacre. It presents a huge challenge and enormous difficulties to believing Latter Day Saints. And for any historian, it's a horrific, troubling event. And for me, the key question is, how did these decent, religious men who had sacrificed so much for what they believed in- how did they become mass murderers?
KATHLEEN FLAKE, Historian: By any standards, what they did was horrific. It's white people killing white people's babies and white people killing unarmed white women. And then you have a religious people who are doing this. You expect religious people to act differently than you do soldiers. All of that goes into making Mountain Meadows the horror that it was and is to us.
WILL BAGLEY: To understand what set the stage for this almost incomprehensible act of violence, you have to take yourself to a different world, to a different time and different place, Utah Territory in the mid-1850s.
NARRATOR: For the Mormons, the first years in Utah were difficult. A terrible drought hit the entire West. People were pushed to the verge of starvation. But slowly, the situation improved.
KEN VERDOIA: Brigham's idea to colonize, to send people out and establish supporting communities, starts to come to life. Immigrants are arriving, repopulating the Salt Lake Valley and then being dispatched with great order and sense of purpose to far-flung areas to begin new agricultural projects.
And rather than view it as the good times, Brigham is deeply troubled. The ardor of the faith starts to ebb. The sense of commitment, in the eyes of Brigham Young, begins to disappoint. And in 1853, Brigham says, "That is enough." It's ultimately known as the Reformation.
WILL BAGLEY: People were called to reform and repent and to step up to the mark and practice the old-time religion of Mormonism. The religious leaders were engaged in an orgy of fanatical rhetoric.
KEN VERDOIA: And warning people of the price they would pay, up to the point of their very lives, should they not live righteously.
JUDITH FREEMAN: The Mormons in the 19th century really believed that the end was nigh. And you could believe that this was really a land that was ripe for that transformation, that you were already half there, to the resurrection. It was as though the earth was already on fire. You were living in fire, red, orange, yellow fiery land and rocks. Red, it's like blood red. And when the wind blows, it creates a kind of excess, a zealotry. I think the very land itself infused people with a sense almost of doom that the end was nigh.
NARRATOR: The Mormons had come west to escape America, but within a year of arriving, they found themselves suddenly part of the United States again. The settlement of the Mexican war had given the United States government sovereignty over Utah.
Although Brigham Young was appointed governor of the new territory, he was forced to accept outside federal officials in his administration, and he bristled at their challenge to his absolute rule over the Mormons.
WILL BAGLEY: They send a petition signed by thousands of people from Utah, saying that they will no longer obey any laws of Congress that they don't like. They run out virtually every non-Mormon federal official in the territory. And it appears that Brigham Young is deliberately trying to provoke a reaction from the national government.
KEN VERDOIA: This plays out against the backdrop of the American Union itself tearing apart. The South is making continual sounds towards secession, the issue of slavery and states' rights, and the person that's dealing with it is a president by the name of James Buchanan. Buchanan declared the Utah Territory in rebellion, and he marches 20 percent of the entire United States Army to the West to subdue the rebellion.
JUDITH FREEMAN: They really believed, the Mormons, that their lives were in peril. And this is a culture that had experienced persecution in Missouri, in Illinois. Their prophet had been murdered. They understood what it was to literally be at war. They believed they could be exterminated. Under such conditions- it doesn't excuse what happened, but it helps us understand the extremely heated, supercharged atmosphere.
NARRATOR: As the United States Army moved towards Utah in the summer of 1857, the Mormons learned that a wagon train from Arkansas was heading west on a trail through the southern part of the territory.
KEN VERDOIA: They're led by a man by the name of Fancher. At the same time as they are loading their wagons to head out, one of the most beloved members of the LDS church is murdered in Arkansas while on a mission. This is an extraordinary confluence of events- reformation, a beloved figure murdered in Arkansas, the army is marching, and here comes a wagon party from Arkansas on the trail. The Mormons are aware that the Army is marching. Brigham declares martial law. Trade with no one. And then word spreads that they are from Arkansas, even some with Missouri roots. And the Mormons say, "Missouri, the Massacre at Haun's Mill."
NARRATOR: As the Arkansas wagon train approached the town of Cedar City in southern Utah, local Mormon militia leaders, including Major John D. Lee, were on high alert. In Salt Lake City, Governor Brigham Young had promised the federal government he would protect immigrants passing through Utah. But he had also told local Native American leaders that they now had his permission to steal cattle from these wagon trains.
GLEN LEONARD, LDS Church Historian: It was a new policy- "We'll allow the Indians to take the cattle, which will teach the government a lesson that we can't control the Indians." And so the Cedar City leaders decided to take some cattle, using the Indians, "And by the way, if some of those bad guys are killed, we won't truly be sorry."
WILL BAGLEY: The Fancher party arrived at Cedar City, according to the Mormon journals, on the 4th of September. All our best evidence is that they make it to Mountain Meadows by Sunday evening, September 6. And they pull in to this beautiful alpine valley, and felt that they were safe. On Monday morning, September 7th, the wagon train is just starting to stir.
PHIL BOLINGER, Baker-Fancher Party Descendant: They started getting coffee and getting breakfast, and people starting to get around. Then all of a sudden, in the distance, you hear crack or boom. And it began. They are trying to circle those wagons and eventually get dug in.
KEN VERDOIA: At first, they think it's by Indians. And then there's some doubts.
WILL BAGLEY: It appeared that Mormon militiamen launched the attack with the support of some Paiutes. And it seems like they use the Paiutes as shock troops. Events settle down into a siege. Lee had to send to the settlements to get more and more men out, and the Arkansans are fighting back hard,.
GLEN LEONARD: But the turning point was, for John D. Lee, "They saw me there. They knew I was there. They knew Mormons were involved. And we can't let them tell that story."
WILL BAGLEY: We know that there was a council meeting in Cedar City at which the military commanders decided that every adult who could testify or bear witness would have to die.
KEN VERDOIA: After a couple of days, a white flag appears on the horizon, and a man walks out, and he's white. And he says, "I'm from one of the local communities, and we've talked with the Native American tribes. If you put down your weapons, leave your goods behind, we've negotiated that you can leave this field and your safe passage is guaranteed." The wounded are put into a wagon. The youngest children are put into a wagon. Then the older children walk. The women walk. The men walk. They get about a quarter mile outside of the encirclement. Someone believes they see a signal.
SARAH BAKER MITCHELL: "Each Mormon walking along with our men wheeled around suddenly and shot the man next to him, killing most of them on the spot. I was one of those children. At the time of the massacre, I wasn't quite 3 years old, but even when you are that young, you don't forget the horror of having your father gasp for breath and go limp when you have your arms around his neck, screaming with terror. You don't forget the screaming of other children and the agonized shrieks of women being hacked to death. And you wouldn't forget it, either, if you saw your own mother topple over in the wagon beside you with a big red splotch getting bigger and bigger on the front of her calico dress."
KEN VERDOIA: The wounded have been shot in the wagons, as well, the women, the children. The youngest children disappear and are secreted off and are taken in by Mormon households in nearby communities. The bodies are left in place.
NARRATOR: When the massacre was over, at least 120 men, women and children were murdered. The Mormons had spared 17 children because they believed the souls of those under the age of 8 were not fully formed and still innocent.
KEN VERDOIA: John D.Lee would write years later that from the day the Fancher party was slaughtered on the field, there was a vow of silence, and that the person who broke that vow would pay for it with their lives.
WILL BAGLEY: But the problem with trying to tell the story of Mountain Meadows- the sources are all fouled up. You've either got to rely on the testimony of the murderers or of the surviving children. And so what we know about the actual massacre is- could be challenged on almost any point. But what we do know is the cover-up. And the cover-up can be very clearly documented and it is not ambiguous. It is absolutely clear that this event was purposely distorted and misrepresented and hidden.
NARRATOR: Denials from the church began immediately. They sent letters to Mormon authorities outside Utah saying the Paiute Indians had done it and passed reports to Washington repeating this falsehood. The church's claims were countered within days. In 1858, a report on the front page of The New York Times identified John D. Lee as the instigator of the massacre.
RANDALL PAUL, Author: My great-great-grandfather was John D. Lee, who was the only one brought to trial and convicted for this, in which there was complicity of at least- at least five other leaders, I think, as you read the history, that should have been in that trial. Brigham Young, who was his adopted father, did not support him in the trial. He did not come in and say, "Let's find these other guys, it isn't only John D. Lee's fault here."
KEN VERDOIA: Ultimately, he's executed, ironically, in the Mountain Meadows. Lee goes to his death protesting not necessarily his innocence but "not the role that I am being set up for."
JUDITH FREEMAN: The people who participated in the massacre that day, the 75 or 100 men who were involved- I think I became more sympathetic to their plight because of this idea, this Mormon principle of perfect obedience. These men were ordered to appear at Mountain Meadows. So in a way, they were victims of their own devotion and obedience. And if you can get people to believe that they are doing God's will, you can get them to do anything.
NARRATOR: One of the most elusive and enduring questions is who gave the order. Was it local militia leaders, or had it come from the highest authority, from Brigham Young?
WILL BAGLEY: After having studied this for a decade and having looked at it in great detail, I'm convinced that this was done explicitly at Brigham Young's orders. Nothing happened in Utah Territory that Brigham Young didn't know about. It was an act of vengeance. It was a political act to demonstrate the Mormons controlled the overland road, and it was ordered from the very top.
GLEN LEONARD: As I explored the sources, I felt relieved at what I found. I felt comforted that Brigham Young did what he thought was best in his Utah war policy. But his own personality and his own flamboyant rhetoric caused him to go beyond where he should have gone. His mistake was to stir up some emotions which got out of control. But he didn't order it then, and he didn't condone it.
JUDITH FREEMAN: Shortly before the events took place on September 11, 1857, the day of the massacre, Brigham Young called a number of Indian tribal leaders to Salt Lake City. And in that meeting- Dimick Huntington was there actually taking notes, and in his diary we have an account of Brigham Young actually instructing the tribal leaders, telling them that they essentially may have all of the wagon trains on a certain route. The Mormons were preparing for war. In a way, it was Brigham Young saying, "Go ahead and have at it."
We have very little evidence of any involvement of Brigham Young in the Mountain Meadows Massacre but we do have this one indication in my great-great-grandfather's diary, saying that at least Brigham Young set the stage for certain events to take place.
KEN VERDOIA: Over 150 years later, people still argue over the ghosts of Mountain Meadows. Who pulled the trigger? Who gave the order? Will it ever be resolved?
DALLIN H. OAKS, LDS Quorum of the Twelve Apostles: I have no doubt, on the basis of what I have studied and learned, that Mormons, including local leaders of our church, were prime movers in that terrible episode and participated in the killing. And what a terrible thing to contemplate, that the barbarity of the frontier, and the conditions of the Utah war and whatever provocations were perceived to have been given, would have led to such an extreme episode, such an extreme atrocity perpetrated by members of my faith. I pray that the Lord will comfort those that are still bereaved by it, and I pray that he can find a way to forgive those who took such a terrible action against their fellow beings.
KATHLEEN FLAKE, Historian: Mountain Meadows may be that moment when you can look and say this is where Mormonism's own checks and balances failed them, and they lost control and they burned to the ground. This fire, this sense of being God's anointed, of speaking in the name of God, having a work to do, being above the law- Mountain Meadows may be the symbol of that. And until Mormonism itself comes to terms with Mountain Meadows and how that happened, it will remain alive for them, as well.
Act 6 Polygamy
IVAN NIELSON: My grandfather lived plural marriage, and he went to prison in the 1880s and served his time there for living plural marriage. My mother had told me that Grandpa was really a good man because of the things that they had suffered and the persecution they had to go through, all for the religion.
KEN VERDOIA: "As I was going up the stairs, I met a man who wasn't there. He wasn't there again today. I wish, I wish, he would go away." That symbolizes the church and plural marriage. People still rush to judgment, believing that Utah is synonymous with plural marriage and that somehow, that connection still extends to the contemporary Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints. Every 10 years, the United States rediscovers the polygamists, purporting to be Mormon fundamentalists, still believing in plural marriage. And then it goes away. And then 10 years later, it comes back again, and so they get featured on national television.
Every time it comes out, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints flinches, knowing that there's going to be housewife in Illinois or a banker in Atlanta or a clergyman in upstate New York who's going to look at that and say, "Aha, polygamy, Mormons, Utah, I knew it."
Pres. GORDON B. HINCKLEY, LDS General Conference, 1998: I wish to state categorically that this church has nothing whatever to do with those practicing polygamy. They are not members of this church. Most of them have never been members. They are in violation of the civil law. They know they are in violation of the law. They are subject to its penalties. The church, of course, has no jurisdiction whatever in this matter. If any of our members are found to be practicing plural marriage, they're excommunicated, the most serious penalty the Church can impose.
KEN VERDOIA: There is a disconnect, and it's a powerful disconnect. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints embraces the totality of its history because it speaks to the roots of the Mormon experience. That history is central to telling that story. But the bumps in the road, particularly plural marriage, are aspects of the story they are not comfortable dealing with. They wish that man would go away.
NARRATOR: The origins of polygamy are unclear. What we do know is that in Nauvoo in the summer of 1843, in his office above the general store, Joseph Smith dictated the revelation authorizing polygamy. In his revelation, Smith claimed that God had commanded his people to live in plural marriages, and by doing so, they would progress to the highest level of heaven as gods.
KEN CLARK: Though the revelation on polygamy was given during the Nauvoo period in the 1840s, we know that he was talking about the practice of polygamy in scriptural terms as early as 1831 and 1832. He had an affair, or if you want to call it, a marriage during the Kirtland period to a 19-year-old girl who served as a maid in the Smith home.
RICHARD BUSHMAN, Biographer of Joseph Smith: Joseph Smith begins seriously to take plural wives, in rapid order, maybe 30 wives in total, 10 of them married to other men. There was pressure put on these women. They were told that this was the Lord's will and he was the Lord's prophet, and that if they were to please God, they had to comply. Joseph tended to couch it in terms of the blessings that would come not only to them, but to their whole family, that they would all be blessed by being sealed together in this relationship with the prophet. It led to all sorts of problems for him. It tried the souls of even the faithful members. And of course, it led to grave alienation of his own wife, Emma.
KATHLEEN FLAKE, Historian: The question arises, did Smith lie to his wife? Probably so. But we don't have enough of the dialogue to know exactly what went on between Smith and his wife. We do know that he had marriages that she didn't know about, and that they were with women who lived under her roof and they were with her friends. And that, of course, is a nightmare for anyone.
KEN CLARK: In his own mind, he 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 permit 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.
MARGARET TOSCANO, Classics Professor: When I started finding out some of the things that Joseph Smith actually did and said, I think he was struggling with trying to bring together spirituality and sexuality. And quite frankly, Christianity has been really bad at this, and most major religions have been really bad at spirituality and sexuality. You're supposed to be spiritual on Sunday, sexual when you're in bed with your partner, your legal husband or wife, right, no one else, and yet you're supposed to deny your sexuality in all of these other contexts. Well, it doesn't make sense.
KATHLEEN FLAKE: Do I think Smith's revelations on polygamy can be reduced to his sex drive? No, I don't, any more than I think that the Book of Mormon can be reduced to treasure hunting. It's too simplistic. We all know this. There are so many easier ways to satisfy our sex drive than to have many marriages, at least at one time. Now, maybe serially, but having many marriages at one time seems to me to be the least rational way to satisfy one's sex drive.
KEN VERDOIA: Joseph Smith turns to Brigham Young, and says, "Brigham, you are being called to enter into this practice." And Brigham's initial reaction is, "No. No, I cannot. Ask me to do anything. Ask me to sacrifice my wealth, my fortune. Ask me to be away from my family. But don't ask me to do this." Joseph Smith continually reintroduces the subject month after month after month. And finally, Brigham Young is watching a funeral pass down Main Street in Nauvoo, and he finally acknowledges, "I will accept this principle, and it's the first time in my life that I desire the grave. I wish I were dead, rather than have to do this." But Brigham Young, once committed, all the way in. And soon, Brigham Young is noting in his diary, in his journal, "ME," married for eternity, page after page after page.
NARRATOR: Young would officially marry more than 50 women. Many of those were widows and elderly women whom he cared for economically. And not all the women lived with him as man and wife. Those who did would bear him 57 children.
KEN VERDOIA: When the Mormons were driven off of Nauvoo and started to head to the West, they packed polygamy in their wagons and they carried this principle into the frontier of the American West. They felt if they were free of the United States, they could practice this aspect of their religion as revealed by Joseph Smith.
NARRATOR: Plural marriage would never be widely practiced by the rank and file of the church. Overall, 20 to 30 percent of the Saints were polygamists, most of them from the leadership, who could afford it.
JUDITH FREEMAN: The perceived notion is that polygamy was a wonderful thing, that it was the divine principle and that the people who could live it were living at a higher order. The reality, I think, was that it was so full of heartbreak, just heart-wrenching moments in advance, when a husband came home and said to his wife, "Emma, the bishop has said that I have to take another wife, and I have my eye on Prudence. She is 16 years old. Prudence Karchner. And you know her. We've grown up with her in the community. And the bishop has said that I'm to take her for a wife."
And this is exactly what happened to my great-grandfather. And I have his wife's diary. She was devastated. She was - she was - just couldn't believe that - that this man with whom she had several children and had a wonderful life, that she was now going to have to share him with a 16-year-old girl. She was 30. That 16-year-old girl was my great-grandmother.
And it took a few days of going out for walks at night and talking, and then everybody adjusted to the idea. "Yes, we're going to have another wife." And it isn't, "I'm going to have another wife," but "We're going to have another wife." They really did try and make it work because they - again, the idea of perfect obedience. You simply can't say, "I won't do this." You can't say that and still be a good Mormon.
NARRATOR: In 1852, the Mormons ended the secrecy, publicly announced they were practicing plural marriage and began to preach it from the pulpit. In Victorian America, editorials raged against imagined harems and concubines in Utah. Protestant ministers denounced the practice, and the outrage spread through sensational popular novels.
SARAH BARRINGER GORDON: And the stories included women beaten within an inch of their lives, locked in cellars, escaping across the desert. It's the stuff of great drama.
TERRYL GIVENS: Many of them depicted Mormons as a kind of white slavers, who would raid caravans or wagon trains in order to secure brides for the harem of Brigham or other high-profile church leaders. In Senate testimony in the 19th century, it was alleged that Mormons were actually offering human sacrifice on the altars of the Salt Lake temple.
SARAH BARRINGER GORDON: Many anti-polygamists thought that Mormon polygamy was nothing more than a fraud. They thought these priests had delegated themselves with sexual opportunities that they denied to the rest of the men in their own society and that they had denied women their own natural inclination to monogamy. The Mormon defenders of polygamy met anti-polygamists on their own turf and fought it out. They said, "You bet marriage makes a difference. Take a look at your own societies and the prostitutes and the abandoned women that are there. And look at our society and see every woman have the opportunity to be married to a man who not only will marry her, but is an upstanding member of the faith."
NARRATOR: But the Mormons would pay a high price politically for their embrace of polygamy. For 47 years, Utah was denied admission as a state. The United States government insisted that the Mormon church must completely renounce polygamy.
[www.pbs.org: More about Utah statehood]
KEN VERDOIA: Polygamy was always the easiest whipping boy for federal officials, who really feared something else. And what they feared was theocracy in Utah, the union of church and state, where the people of Utah Territory would adhere more closely to religious leadership than elected leadership. The democratic process meant nothing to them.
NARRATOR: Brigham Young passionately defended plural marriage until his death in 1877. Fifty thousand people came from across the country to view his simple coffin wreathed in white wool and to pay their respects to the leader who they felt had saved the church and made Joseph Smith's vision a reality. His successors continued the struggle, and the U.S. government declared polygamy a felony and began to imprison hundreds of Mormons.
B. CARMON HARDY, Historian of Polygamy: And when the Utah territorial prison filled up and the Idaho territorial prison filled up and the Arizona territorial prison filled up, they began sending them east to Nebraska, and even to Detroit. They were being convicted by the hundreds. And so men had to often hide out.
SARAH BARRINGER GORDON: When we focus only on the suffering imposed on families whose husbands went to jail, without really taking a look at the big picture, to the extent that there was a simple story of innocent, separatist, Utopian existence, stomped on without provocation by the rest of the country, then I think we've missed the really interesting part of 19th century Mormonism, which is that they claimed a separate political life and the power to control those within their borders and the ability to keep the rest of the world out of that control.
KEN VERDOIA: Congress comes after the Mormon people in the Utah Territory with every weapon at their disposal. In 1887, they pass the Edmonds-Tucker Act. No longer is it aimed at the individual. "Now we will target the church itself. We will seek to prohibit immigration of people to the United States who are Mormon. We will disfranchise members of the Mormon Church. They will not be allowed to sit on juries. They will not have the right to hold office, they will not have the right to vote. And we will seize the property of the Mormon church."
NARRATOR: In 1890, under enormous pressure, the new leader, Prophet Wilford Woodruff, issued a manifesto that he would only years later describe as a revelation. In it, he announced that from this time forward, the LDS church renounced polygamy.
B. CARMON HARDY: But if you read that statement, it is little more than a piece of advice. It is not a commandment. There are - there's no "Thus saith the Lord" in the document. It is not described as a revelation. And I think that Wilford Woodruff and some of those authorities working with him simply looked upon the manifesto as a device to somehow get the government to back off, and they hoped that the manifesto would save them.
NARRATOR: The church's official renunciation of polygamy and other political concessions finally led to statehood for Utah in 1896. But some Mormons continued to practice plural marriage in secret, even when the church threatened them with excommunication.
KATHLEEN FLAKE: For Mormons to walk away from polygamy was related very directly to their understanding of how one was saved. Sometimes I think it's easy to think of if you went to another Christian and said, "The United States is going to legislate against baptism. You can't baptize anymore." Well, what would they do? They would dig a- they would start doing it in their swimming pools. They'd dig a hole in their basement. They would still baptize. So Mormons were still performing these celestial marriages.
B. CARMON HARDY: In my own view, the largest consequence of it fed into the development of fundamentalism, which arose in the early 20th century, where many who had been engaged in these very practices secretly, lying about them, believed that the church, now having decided to go clean on it and stop the practice, was yet being dishonest, and felt that they had as much license and permission to continue to do so themselves as church authorities had done in the past.
KEN VERDOIA: As the 20th century progresses, the leadership of the LDS church makes the decision to no longer just be passively opposed to polygamy, they decide to aggressively root out the practitioners of polygamy because they believe they're an enduring stain on the reputation of the church. And so the church develops an informant system. They develop a close working partnership with local law enforcement to identify church members, identify them for prosecution, to make a dramatic show of the formal breaking of the LDS church with any vestige of polygamy.
NARRATOR: But all that would backfire in 1953, when state troopers, with church support, raided the small polygamist community of Short Creek, Arizona.
KEN VERDOIA: It is a night of no moon, so it's perfect darkness, and the police roll into the town of Short Creek. And much to their disappointment, they're greeted by the men and women gathered in the town square, singing "God Bless America." The police take the men into custody. They drive them away to Kingman, Arizona, to face trial. The women and the children are also taken into state custody.
And what happens is these evidentiary photos start getting published in newspapers and national magazines, and rather than snowball towards conviction, it produces this great public sentiment, "Leave these people alone."
ALYNE T.: My parents were both involved in the Short Creek raid. They were both small children at the time. My father was taken from his parents and lived with an adopted- he was adopted out to a family and he lived with them for a time. And here are families and they're living their life, and all of a sudden, they're just ripped apart. If I had to go through that, I don't know what I would do.
NARRATOR: Many of the estimated 30,000 to 60,000 fundamentalist Mormons who still practice polygamy today claim that they are the real Mormons, that they practice the principle of plural marriage as revealed to Joseph Smith and will not obey the later renunciations by the Church.
VALERIE NIELSON: Joseph Smith told us that if we wanted to become gods, we had to do as God had done, and God lived polygamy. And in the Bible, Abraham lived polygamy, and he said that if we want those blessings and we want to attain godhood, that we had to do as they had done.
GORDON B. HINCKLEY: There is no such thing as a Mormon fundamentalist. It is a contradiction to use the two words together. More than a century ago, God clearly revealed unto his prophet, Wilford Woodruff, that the practice of plural marriage should be discontinued, which means that it is now against the law of God.
NARRATOR: Today the public face of polygamy is often that of its most extreme adherents, like Warren Jeffs, who was the absolute ruler of an isolated community of Mormon fundamentalists. He recently pled not guilty to charges that he was an accomplice to rape for arranging the marriage of a 14-year-old girl to an older man.
KEN VERDOIA: The fundamentalist groups that practice polygamy in the contemporary setting have been marginalized. They've been isolated. Where they are turned so far inward, that can make them much more likely to be subjected to the strong personality and determined beliefs of someone such as Warren Jeffs.
NARRATOR: But most fundamentalist Mormons live quiet, even ordinary lives, some in their own small communities, others in the larger society. They are wealthy and poor, urban and rural. While polygamy is still a crime, few are prosecuted.
ELLIE T.: We have 15 people in our family, 3 mothers and 11 children. Even as a little girl, I saw the beauty in plural marriage and always wanted to live it. We believe in present-day revelation, and the process by which I got married was through prayer and a lot of inner work. It's not through courtship. It's more like an arranged marriage. As far as my experiences of being a first wife and having other women come into my life and my husband's life, it's- you know, it's difficult.
ALYNE T.: Living the principle of plural marriage, it is a refiner's fire because it gives you the opportunity to see yourself in a light or in a way that you would not have the opportunity otherwise. You are put in circumstances to show yourself and other people and God what choice you're going to make, whether or not you are a loving, giving person, or if you're going to be selfish. It's pretty much a process of development that you get in no other way.
ELLIE T.: People are innately jealous, just depends on what you're jealous about. So you know, I've had to deal with that, as far as, you know, sharing my husband. And really, it's learning the context in which you can share the most intimate part of your life with these other women. It's not necessarily yours, it's ours.
DAVID T.: The purpose of religion in my life is- it's comprised of the principles that transform my character into the character similar of God. I mean, that's how I can become like God. The focus of plural marriage becomes the family and raising children who will want to become like God and who will please God. But we want society to respect our desire to live beyond, to live deeper, to live a life that takes us further than those around us.
KEN VERDOIA: When you see adults and families of conscience, of free will, enter into this union, it puts you in pause for a second, and you recognize that you can't broadly characterize polygamy as black or white. There is a huge swath of gray over this issue as it's practiced in the western United States.
ROBIN FOX, Anthropologist: Mainstream orthodox Mormons today, while officially they deplore polygamy, nevertheless, somewhere naggingly at the back of their minds is a great ambivalence because this was a revelation to Joseph Smith. What are they going to say, God didn't reveal it to him, you know? It was to them a very profound moment in their history and very, very important, and these people keep it alive.
NARRATOR: Like many of their beliefs, polygamy had put the Mormons in conflict with themselves and with their country. It was a struggle that was in so many ways emblematic of their entire journey.
KEN VERDOIA: In this microcosm of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, which is only at most 180 years old, you have a definition of the American experience itself, not just what it means to be unique, but what it means to deal with being unique, not just to say, "I'm going to hold fast to my principle," but what does it mean to back off from your principle and seek accommodation? How do you go from being the ultimate outcast to the embodiment of the mainstream in two generations? It's a breathtaking transformation.
PRODUCED AND DIRECTED BY
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ANNOUNCER: Tomorrow night, this special series goes inside the Mormon faith as it is lived today, to follow the Mormons' extraordinary commitment to convert the world.
MISSIONARY: I am a missionary from the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints.
BETTY STEVENSON: And they told me the most preposterous story about this white boy, a dead angel and some gold plates.
ANNOUNCER: To explore the beliefs that forge close-knit Mormon families-
KIMBER TILLEMANN-DICK, Business Consultant: The church and my family are so intertwined, it just creates a kind of aura of love. Makes your home a holy place.
ANNOUNCER: -and the pressures they can create-
FIONA GIVENS, Teacher: Mormon women are plagued with this perfect woman figure. She bakes cookies and she always looks wonderful and she's always smiling and- yes, totally impossible woman.
ANNOUNCER: -to investigate the struggle between Mormon scholars and the authority of church leaders-
DALLIN H. OAKS, LDS Quorum of the Twelve Apostles: It's wrong to criticize leaders of the church, even if the criticism is true.
MARGARET TOSCANO, Classics Professor: I was told that I was not allowed to speak, discuss, write about anything to do with church history or church doctrine.
ANNOUNCER: -and to examine the powerful and secret rituals of the Mormon temple.
TERRYL GIVENS, Author: The temple exists as a kind of vehicle through which we conquer mortality. Not a single atom or particle of our bodies will be lost, but everything will be reconstituted as fully as it was. It's almost a kind of celebration of the totality of triumph over death.
ANNOUNCER: Don't miss the revealing conclusion of The Mormons.
This report continues on our Web site, where you can watch it again in full on-line, get answers to frequently asked questions, explore a map of Mormon migration and profiles of key people and events. Explore extended interviews and major themes and join the discussion at PBS.org.
The Mormons is available on DVD. To order, call PBS Home Video at 1-800-PLAY-PBS. [$24.99 plus s&h]
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Additional funding for FRONTLINE is provided by the Park Foundation, committed to raising public awareness. Additional funding for The Mormons is provided by Edward D. Smith, Steven J. and Kalleen Lund, Mr. and Mrs. Blake M. Roney and others. A complete list is available from PBS.