Interview Ken Verdoia

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Verdoia is a Utah historian, documentarian and journalist who makes his home in Salt Lake City. Here, he discusses the history of Mormonism from its inception to the present day and shares his admiration for the faith of many of his neighbors. This is an edited transcript of two interviews conducted Feb. 23, 2006 and June 21, 2006.

How would Brigham Young have seen Joseph Smith? What would have drawn him to follow Joseph?

I look at Joseph Smith through the eyes of a young carpenter who is 30 years old living in upstate New York, a man by the name of Brigham Young, who arguably becomes the most famous Latter-day Saint of all time, perhaps even more famous than Joseph Smith himself. 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, extremely dissatisfied. His mortal existence is full of sorrow; his spiritual existence seems to be an empty bank account.

He gets introduced to the Book of Mormon by a neighbor. That moment captures a fire in this young man, and when he meets Joseph Smith about one year later, he recognizes something in Joseph Smith he had not known before. ... He sets everything aside. He says, "I will follow you; you have the answers that I've been looking for." So Brigham Young becomes a microcosm of what a number of people experienced when they listened to and experienced 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, that had meaning, that gave purpose to those lives. ...

Were Joseph's times imbued with a magical thinking that might have opened people to these stories, which seem so fabulous to us?

I'm not a theologian, but what the American experience represents in these first decades of the 1800s is a fertile field of religious thought. For the first time there is no establishment of religion. All bets are off; you are free to follow your heart, your mind, your soul, if you will, in a new direction. All that might hold forth a new vision are welcome to convey that vision to the masses. ... The fact that that dialogue could play out, is playing out, almost uniquely in this section of the United States for the first time at least in the context of at least European history. That makes it a fertile field.

Could you see also how this "fertile field" might have been scary -- not just to the general population, but to Joseph Smith himself? When he first prayed in the grove, he asked God to "tell me what is the right church." Do you think Joseph could have been confused by the dizzying richness and variety of religious expression around him?

“If you want to understand the American experience, look at the Mormon people. ... [T]he prejudice, the fear, the uncertainty, the hopeful optimism, the strength by pulling together, the dissonance of pulling apart, the chaos, the unity, they're all part of the story of this very American church.”

We go back to the roots of the Burned-Over District [in upstate New York, where Smith lived]; everything that had come through seemed so transitory. One reverend would arrive one summer, the fires would burn brightly, and then he would be gone. The next summer there would be a different take coming through, and right on the heels of that a new preacher bringing a new vision, a new sense, a new sentiment. So there was always this sense of being transitory, and Joseph Smith evolved out of that era, sinks roots that grow deep, although the church becomes a bit of a tumbleweed. ...

Can you give me a quick sweep of where they go?

Upstate New York was fertile ground for beginning, but to pursue [their] utopian vision they moved first to Kirtland, Ohio. That becomes a troubled existence; some financial skullduggery is involved. They need to move again. They are driven off; they go to Missouri. In Missouri the passions flame on both sides, and there are lives lost. They need to move again; they move from Missouri to Illinois. They think they found their refuge in a city they call Nauvoo.

What did the Mormons believe that was so startling and upsetting to people?

If you look at the way local newspapers that are not affiliated with Joseph Smith and the Mormons look at the Mormons, they are aghast at the perfect union of church and political leadership that exists in that community. Joseph Smith is absolute authority for all things religious and all things political and all things economic and all things social. Now, that is discordant with what a lot of these new Americans believe about the nation. ... That troubles the newspaper editors; it troubles the local mayors; it troubles state legislators; it troubles governors. It even troubles Washington, D.C.

How did Washington, D.C., proceed?

The official response of Washington, D.C., well into the 1840s, was to turn their back, ignore the Latter-day Saints, ignore their pleas for justice or deliverance from the mobs. ... It's not until we move well into 1840s that we start to see a president of the United States turn his attention toward the Latter-day Saints. ...

Besides the threat of theocracy, was there something in Mormon theology that was offensive? Was there something in their rhetoric about themselves that was provocative?

The two greatest outrages are, number one, this perfect union of church and state, ... but secondly, American citizens are deeply troubled by the role of immigration swelling the numbers of Latter-day Saints; that they are constantly benefiting by the arrival of new converts, largely from England, into these communities, and they feel there is an unending pipeline that is swelling the numbers artificially fast. ...

Why ... did the message of Joseph Smith catch on [in England]?

If you look at some of the areas of greatest success of the early Mormon missionary work, especially in an industrial city like Manchester, England, the message is most readily taken by people who are on the lowest strata of life's economy. ... Their existence is pretty bleak, very dark and devoid of much spiritual uplift. When the message is carried of this new American tradition, it carries the promise of a new start in a new land. It carries the promise of life everlasting, of a continuum of existence, of families being held together. It's uplifting; it's filled with potential. And most of these impoverished British Isle residents have not been offered anything like that in their lives. It's very attractive, and the early church missionary work in England is extraordinarily successful [at] bringing the poorest of the poor over and creating new opportunities for them in America.

Some of them were well-skilled as well, and really saved the church in dark days.

What you get in the immigrants are not only largely stable families, ... but you're getting lower-grade industry workers who understand tooling and dyework; you're getting masons who understand building construction; you're getting glaziers who understand glasswork. You're getting a whole range of craftsmen that are coming over and bringing those skills in to the Mormon communities. So they are able to work at a feverish rate to start building that community, no matter where they land. ... They would transform a community almost like a hive of bees.

If you look at the history of the Mormons, what were some of the worst persecutions they faced?

One of the bloodiest moments that is cited by church historians is the massacre at Haun's Mill in Missouri. This is usually portrayed as innocent people being surrounded by a mob and brutally slain -- men, women and children falling victim to this angry mob. It actually is the end result -- and it's a tragic end result -- of months of escalating discomfort and then violence that's taking place on both sides of the equation, where Mormons have picked up arms to defend themselves. Joseph Smith was adamant that the Latter-day Saints were not Quakers who would turn the cheek and avoid violence. They would pick up arms; they would defend themselves. He had taken significant strides to organize the Latter-day Saints to be capable of defending themselves with armed force. ...

What about Kirtland? ...

Kirtland, Ohio, is the point where Joseph Smith and Brigham Young truly become connected, and Joseph Smith sees in this young carpenter ... something special. Now, Brigham Young had a total of eight days of schooling, and he was fiercely embarrassed with his own bad grammar; thought he couldn't speak to two people, let alone 20 people. But Joseph Smith calls him to become a circuit-riding missionary, ... and Brigham Young carries it to Canada; then he carries it across the ocean to England. ...

He's sent out without a dime in his pocket. Brigham writes in his journal about literally having to sing church hymns for his supper; of speaking in barns to two or three or four people at a time, sharing with them the Book of Mormon. He sleeps in haystacks; he sleeps by the side of the road. And what this does is steels his faith. It's an important role of the mission, in the eyes of Joseph Smith, not just to carry the message, but also that the messenger is deeply affected by the experience as well. ...

Could you talk about Nauvoo? Nauvoo, as someone said, is both dream and nightmare.

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, if you will. And this is a recurring theme of the Latter-day Saint people: persecution, exodus. It happens again and again and again.

They believe they've reached the Promised Land when they land on the banks of the Mississippi River at Nauvoo, Ill. Far from the Promised Land, it's swampland. There's mosquitoes everywhere; malaria outbreaks plague the people; illness takes many in the first couple of months. But it begins to evolve, and at that time it was almost open opportunity that seemed to be once again the answer to their prayers: "We can gather."

It's only a short period of time when the surrounding non-Mormon communities become very, very uncomfortable with the Latter-day Saints. Joseph Smith is organizing the Nauvoo Legion, his own militia; Joseph Smith is becoming far more interested in national affairs. In the early 1840s he decides, "I will run for president of the United States." This is appalling to many people. ... Add on to that the political dominance of the Mormons in that area, the economic dominance of the Mormons in that area, the control of commerce of Mormons in that area, and the violence starts to flare 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. This spark is found in Nauvoo Expositor. To Joseph Smith, this is the most antithetical moment of all: that a printing press in his city ... start[s] printing stories exposing darker sides of Joseph Smith's character, of the Mormon experience. He would call some of them lies, but others of them were truths that he did not want trafficked in the public press. ...

The destruction of an American printing press, in the eyes of [the] public at that time, is a horrific act. It's antithetical to the American experience. We're only 60 years removed from the revolution, 60 years removed from the Constitution of the United States, 60 years removed from the Bill of Rights. And ... to see someone who is being portrayed as a tyrant, as an unhealthy blending of theological leader and political leader and military leader, to see him destroy the printing press brings the blood to a boil of the people of Illinois. ...

How do the Mormon faithful look at this?

I have seen many in the church struggle with this. Those in the church that are most comfortable defending the destruction of the Nauvoo Expositor say that it was a scandal sheet; it was a pack of lies; all it did was aim itself at the destruction of Joseph Smith. It was a public nuisance, and therefore all that Joseph did was eradicate a public nuisance. ... Many in the Church of Latter-day Saints do not even know that the destruction of the Nauvoo Expositor presages the martyrdom of Joseph Smith. ...

The interesting conversations I've had [are with] Mormon members who know that destroying the Nauvoo Expositor was the wrong thing to do, and they say here is a man under unbearable stress. ... It's a time of intense pressure on Joseph Smith, and the most sympathetic say in this time of pressure he snapped. He made a mistake, and he paid a very dear price. ...

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 the Carthage Jail, which means death at the hands of a mob within days. ...

I think what happened is that he had gone away, and that he'd gotten a letter from [his wife] Emma --

You see, there are like, three different stories. One is that he was confronted on his flight by someone coming to Nauvoo -- "How can you run away?" -- and out of guilt he turns around. The other is that it is a letter from Emma. The third story is that it's the conviction of his own conscience. This just points to how so many of the pivotal points of the Mormon history are subject to really different interpretation. ...

Is there a letter from Emma?

Not that I've seen.

Give me a flavor of the manic style of Joseph Smith in that moment. ...

In Nauvoo, suddenly there is a rush of new revelations. Two of the key ones: baptism of the dead. Joseph Smith reveals that ... Latter-day Saints can baptize dead members to bring them in to their family, to ensure life everlasting in the great beyond, in the great 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.

This is brought up under great and hazy circumstance. In one manifestation it's Joseph Smith emerging from a period of seclusion, bringing forth this long-considered and long-debated issue of celestial marriage because of divine revelation. There is the competing viewpoint that Joseph Smith was caught in the arms of another woman by his wife and that, on the spot, he announced, "This is the manifestation of celestial marriage; I am taking this other woman also as my wife," much to Emma Smith's great disappointment.

To give you an idea of the impact of celestial marriage -- or plural marriage, what we call polygamy sometimes -- Joseph Smith turns to Brigham Young and said, "Brigham, you are being called to enter into this practice," and Brigham's initial reaction is: "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 to Brigham Young month after month after month. And finally Brigham Young is watching a funeral entourage pass down the main street of 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, [is] all the way in, ... and soon Brigham Young is noting in his journal "M.E." -- "married for eternity" -- page after page after page. ...

… Brigham says, "If Joseph Smith acts like a devil, he has brought forth a doctor that will save us. He may get drunk every day of his life, sleep with his neighbor's wife every night, run horses and gamble, but the doctrine he has produced will save you and me and the whole world." What do you think about that quote?

Brigham Young always spoke metaphorically. He would always say: "Even if it seems so dark that you may not see the end of the journey right now, I know that this path is true." And so, even if all the evidence around you argues to the contrary, don't lose the faith in what brings us together. He said this was true for Joseph Smith and his teaching, even Joseph Smith's behavior. But to say that Joseph Smith was all these things to all those witnesses is not what I read as Brigham's statement. ...

Whether or not this is true, I found it a compelling quote. …

This is the challenge of Brigham Young: Because the man was florid in his speech, so dramatic, so over the top, that if you took him literally he would sound like a warmonger, a hatemonger, a violence-preaching zealot from the pulpit. And I think that his actions were countered by those most public statements. ...

When Joseph dies, ... he does go out shooting. He doesn't die a lamb going to the slaughter. ...

No, Joseph Smith is upstairs in what is now known as the Carthage Jail. It's basically a storefront with an upstairs that's used to incarcerate people. ... In those days it's very typical for mobs in the American frontier not to wait for the wheels of justice to spin. These are people that are dedicated to take justice, the law into their own hands. They storm the jail, and Joseph is armed -- he does have a small revolver -- and he fires through the door as the mob is coming through the door.

As people are trying to barricade the mob out, they are able to force the door open, start shooting through the door. Joseph is hit repeatedly at the window of the second story. He is reported in some accounts to have exclaimed Masonic passwords as he went out the window. What is certain is that the bullets that struck him were undoubtedly fatal. He fell through the window calling to God and was dead within moments of striking the ground. ...

Now, Brigham is hundreds of miles away when the murder occurs -- he recounts that he receives it standing on a train station in Boston, where he is campaigning for Joseph Smith for president -- and he is devastated. He really thinks in that moment this could be the end of everything: "I've got to get back; I've got to get back for my family." ...

So what does Brigham Young see when he returns to Nauvoo?

Absolute chaos. The mobs are now armed all around Nauvoo. The men of Nauvoo have taken up arms to defend themselves, but there is no certainty. The one thing that Joseph Smith had not addressed in all of his visions was a notion of, what will come after me? Is there an established line of succession? Who will be the next leader of this people? It's very, very much in doubt, and suddenly a whole host of pretenders to the throne start to present themselves: "I have received a revelation. I am ready to lead." ...

... This was a moment where the church broke in two.

Emma Smith believes that she has been assured by Joseph Smith that her sons are certain to lead the church when their father passes, and Emma Smith believes that Joseph's death is an opportunity for her sons to emerge as leaders of the church. She believes she has suffered mightily as an individual in service to the church. ...

Brigham Young arrives and in very short order commands the attention of the Mormons and also earns their confidence. There are stories of him addressing the congregation of the church in an open field, and several will write later in the diaries and journals that as Brigham spoke, ... he transformed himself into the image of Joseph Smith. ...

Brigham Young brings order and a sense of purpose to the chaos of Nauvoo, and that wins the hearts and minds of the members of the church. ... And that does not sit well with Emma. Emma Smith commits herself to leaving, taking her sons with her. ... And this is ultimately a fissure that develops within the church. ...

Give us a sense of this period of preparation, the decision to leave, the process of getting people organized. How did people know where Brigham Young was going?

You would never want to play poker with Brigham Young, and in 1844 Brigham Young's hand is a pair of deuces, and he's playing high-stakes poker not only with the surrounding mobs but also with the state of Illinois. ... He's negotiating them at arm's length as he starts making plans to move people across the river. His 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 is no deliverance there. Joseph Smith, for more than 10 years, had been talking about a utopian vision in the American West. Where? Nobody was certain, but he envisioned creating the kingdom of God on earth. ... So the final destination was far from etched in stone: We move first; we land second.

People talk about how self-conscious Brigham Young was about the biblical parallels, ... the reliving of the ancient Exodus.

This is perhaps the most fundamental lesson that Mormons learn of their own history: Much like the Israelites, they were driven off by a harsh, mean-spirited government, forced to wander in the wilderness, driven only by their sense of faith, holding just to each other, knowing they were the true servants of the Lord and that the Lord would deliver them.

You hear the parallels constantly drawn throughout not only 1844 and 1845 but also when they arrive in their Promised Land; when they look at the great Dead Sea and the first thing they name, the river that runs through that Dead Sea, as the Jordan River, they are imbued with this sense of the cyclical nature of the Lord's people: We are restored; this is more proof that we have survived the test. ...

Mormons are constantly evoking their pioneer relatives, the stories of crossing the plains and hardships they encountered. Was the trek really so difficult?

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. But in practical reality it was extraordinarily heroic. 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 pullcarts. 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 alone in the wilderness to be scooped up, if you will, by the succeeding wave of Mormons headed to the West. Starvation, illness, it visits them throughout. They start too late on certain journeys; they are trapped by Wyoming blizzards as they move across the plains. Death by the dozens is typical; death in the hundreds on occasion. ... So it is mythic, but it's also quite heroic. ...

Are there one or two revealing stories from the trek about Brigham Young?

Brigham Young did not handle doubt very well, and in the original trek westward there are times where people would voice sentiment: Where will we find our home? Where will be the final resting spot? A member of the Mormon Church by the name of Samuel Brannan comes from the West. Samuel Brannan has been to California; he says this is the land of milk and honey; this is the land of great, great agricultural potential. ...

[Brigham says,] "No, we seek not the wealth of nations." His instruction is the more isolated, the better. ... Every time he confronts a doubter he is absolute; he is certain: "No, this is the direction. Join us or be gone. You're either in or you're out." If you're in, he provides strong leadership; if you're out, you can't leave soon enough.

Doesn't he embrace discomfort to a certain point?

He will do this his entire life. For the 30-plus years where he leads the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Brigham Young will view test, challenge and adversity as the greatest unifying opportunities for the people. He remembers the driving off and he says, "Never were we more unified than when we were fleeing persecution." ...

... Brigham Young was a man who was loved and hated. Do you see him as a man of contradictions or of extremes? ...

... Brigham Young is the ultimate study in contradictions in the American West: a man of extraordinary colonizing vision, yet had difficulty understanding relationships on his own city block where he lived in Salt Lake City; ... a man of contradictions that could love his people yet put the fear of God in his people at the same time. One apostle wrote of Brigham Young: "Never could you know a greater friend; never could you fear a more desperate enemy."

Was there anyone well acquainted with Brigham Young who experienced both of these extremes?

You need to look no further than his own daughters, who wrote in diaries throughout their lives, ... where they would say our father was cold and aloof and distant in one moment, and then in the next moment extraordinarily warm and involved and connected. ...

He's an extraordinary figure, and he is the most confounding figure of history in the American West. Look at the great empires of the American West and its experience: Steven Austin in Texas; look at Leland Stanford in California. ... Those empires are only a thin shadow ... of what they were once built. But look at the empire that Brigham Young orchestrated; look well, because you can see his fingerprints on the buildings, on the people, to this very day. ...

Talk about the landscape that Brigham saw [at the Great Salt Lake] and why he felt it could be that platform beyond which the Mormons could spiritually transform themselves.

... This was literally the land no one wanted. No one in their right mind would choose to settle in the Great Basin. ... Desert? Absolutely. No timber for building. ... The soil? Iffy at best in most locations. What's the largest body of water? For goodness' sake, it's a dead sea; it's pure salt out there. Why here? Perfect isolation, because it was the land no one else wanted. ...

It's a biblical landscape. ... Could this be the battleground for the last days? Are they at hand, and if so, is this where we draw up our fortress? ... In Brigham's eyes, he looked and he saw desert, and his challenge was: ... "Now we make it bloom like a rose. Give me men to match these mountains. Give me women of special purpose to come to this land and make that exist which no one thinks possible. This is the right place. Drive on."

What do you think those pioneers who'd followed him were thinking as they looked around?

It is one of those very rare moments where people are gathered around Brigham and saying: "Are you serious? I have been in that wagon for 60 days. I would gladly do another 60 just to get to a better place than this. This can't be the place!" As they're nearing the end of this journey, about three or four days out, Brigham contracts a horrible fever, ... and he's, in fact, delirious a couple of times. The story goes around that when Brigham actually arrives in the Salt Lake Valley, ... is he expressing spiritual vision when he says, "This is the place," or is he expressing extreme travel fatigue?

How long does it take until the foundations of Salt Lake are laid down?

They are planting crops before Brigham actually arrives in the valley. Within a day of his arrival, he's walking around, ... and he's pointing out, "This is where we're going to build the temple." He's walking up to a nearby hill saying, "I can see the streets running in this direction; I can see them running in that direction." ... And he starts fanning people out with only days' worth of rest, and then he turns back East. And his direction is, "I've got to go back and bring the others." So it's this sense of purpose: We are here; let's get after it; you know what you have to do. ...

And how long does it take until things are comfortable in some way?

The subsequent spring is the cruelest of all times for the Mormon people in the Salt Lake Valley. They've planted their crops; they're starting to grow; they've survived a pretty rough winter. Just as the crops are starting to come up, a plague of locusts -- literally, millions of crickets -- descend on the valley and start devouring the crops. If we're talking biblical stories, this seems to be a plague of biblical proportions.

Enter another myth, and that's the myth of the arrival of the seagulls. Seagulls do arrive from the Great Salt Lake; they begin eating the crickets and eventually drive the crickets away from the crop. Of course, between 50 and 60 percent of the crop was destroyed, so it's not a perfect story to tell -- people would subsequently starve as a result of the failure of the crops -- but it shows how tenuous their hold was on the landscape. ...

Before trouble came again, … was there a period of peace?

Yes. If you look after that first, tentative foothold is established, the next five or six years are good ones for the Mormon people in what is emerging as the Utah Territory. Brigham's idea to send people out and establish supporting communities starts to come to life. Immigrants are arriving throughout the summer and fall months, repopulating the Salt Lake Valley, and then being dispatched with great order and sense of purpose. ...

It's five or six very progressive years. The population swells. And rather than view it as the good times, Brigham is deeply troubled. The sense of the people is, "We're home; the wolf is no longer at the door." The ardor of the faith starts to ebb. The sense of commitment, in the eyes of Brigham Young, begins to disappoint. And in 1853, 1854, 1855, Brigham says, "That is enough." ...

It's ultimately known as the Reformation, and Brigham throws down the gauntlet, and he sends his most trusted advisers out to every corner of the Utah Territory settlements. They call the sermons "raining pitchforks," and they are a call to account for every settlement in the Utah Territory: You will live your life according to the principles of this church; you will not back off your communitarian commitment to each other. ...

…The prophet was killed largely because of polygamy ... We arrive in Salt Lake; what's the status of polygamy?

For nearly 20 years, polygamy was the worst kept secret in American religious practice. Everyone who was in proximity to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints knew that many men had plural wives, but yet it had never been bandied about, and the church had never addressed it from the pulpit. Brigham Young changes that in the early 1850s. As the new federal authorities are arriving into Utah Territory, Brigham Young proudly, defiantly rises to the pulpit in the tabernacle and says: "This is one of the greatest principles ever given by God to the people. We live it; we are proud of it; it is part of who we are." ...

This announcement sets in motion the beginning of these anti-Mormon novels and pamphlets that had a great deal to do with shaping people's attitudes.

American journalism in the middle of the 19th century was pretty loose, and it didn't play by any certain rules of fact-gathering. Writers back East would get letters with bits and pieces or rumors about the social conventions that existed in Utah, ... and they would spin wild, fanciful stories about what the harems were like in this great Salt Lake City out in the Utah Territory. And these further inflamed public and political interest in Utah, outrage with Utah. ... Printing fed the politics, which fed the anti-polygamy fervor, and it all started to go up in a bonfire.

Set the scene for the Mountain Meadows Massacre.

Here we are in the mid-1850s. Brigham Young is raining pitchforks from the pulpit. ... At the same time, Brigham Young is telling the federal government to back off from the Utah Territory. ... This plays out against the backdrop of the American Union itself tearing apart: The South is making continual sounds toward secession. The issue of slavery and states' rights are playing out in dramatic fashion. There's a major financial panic back East.

And the person who's dealing with it is a president by the name of James Buchanan, a man who appears on the surface to have all of the qualifications necessary but none of the ability. And his Cabinet is telling him on a daily basis: "You have got to do something. Show some kind of leadership." ... Buchanan takes reports from the Utah Territory as the reason for him to act, to show that he is a tough president. He declares the Utah Territory in rebellion, and he marches 20 percent of the entire United States Army to the West to attack the Mormon empire, arrest its leaders and subdue the rebellion.

At the same time, the westward migration is full-throttle. ... One of the groups is from Missouri and Arkansas; they're led by a man by the name of [Capt. Alexander] 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 president in trouble, westward migration, a beloved figure murdered in Arkansas. And here comes a wagon party from Arkansas on the trail. The Mormons are aware the Army is marching. Brigham declares martial law: Trade with no one; save the food; we could be under siege.

The [Baker-]Fancher party comes into the Utah Territory, and like all of the traveling parties, they're road-weary. They're hungry, they need water, and the Mormons tell them, "Absolutely not." Word spreads that they're from Arkansas, even some with Missouri roots, [and] the Mormons say, Missouri? The massacre at Haun's Mill. Arkansas? The brutal murder of our missionary. ...

The [Baker-]Fancher party starts to take offense, and they promise the Mormons: "When we get to California, we're going to let everyone know what your people truly are like. No one should treat another human being like this." ... We have the Army marching from the East; the worst possible scenario would be for an Army to also march from the West and catch us in a classic flanking motion. ...

The word starts to spread that the [Baker-]Fancher party must be stopped. They make their way into southern Utah; they find an old track of the Spanish Trail that runs through a mountain meadow in southern Utah. It's a place where there's some water. They circle their wagons, and the worst tragedy of immigration in the American West plays out.

... Briefly, what happened?

... In the encirclement they're attacked. At first they think it's by Indians, and then there's some doubts, because there's a lot of gunfire coming into the camp; men become wounded and are going down from bullet wounds. There's a great sense that they're surrounded and that there's no way out of this encirclement.

After a couple of days a white flag appears on the horizon, and a man walks out, and he's white. And he said, "I'm from one of the local communities, and we've talked to the Native American tribes. You put down your weapons; leave your goods behind. We've negotiated that you can leave this field, and your safe passage is guaranteed."

They think long and hard. They accept the offer, because it seems like there is no other recourse for them. So 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 the encirclement. Someone believes they see a signal -- one of the younger children reports that a long time later they see a signal -- the gunshots start to ring out, and then the clubbing of the bodies. By the time all is said and done, every member of the Baker-Fancher party, except the youngest children, is dead. 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 the nearby communities. The bodies are left in place.

What do we know was happening in the minds of those people, and who were they?

Well, we know with absolute certainty that John D. Lee -- one of the most significant figures in southern Utah, a very close confidante of Brigham Young -- was tried 20 years after the Mountain Meadows Massacre and was executed. ... We know that with certainty; everything else we do not. And over 150 years later, people still argue over the ghosts of Mountain Meadows: Who pulled the trigger? Who gave the order? On one side you have those who say that nothing transpired in the Utah Territory that wasn't under the direct order of Brigham Young. On the other side you have those who point out that Brigham Young actually sent a note that said, "Let the wagon party go through unharmed." ...

Let's talk about the conspiracy of silence and the cover-up that started almost immediately.

John D. Lee would write years later that from the day the [Baker-]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. ... And this is, in fact, ordered from the highest levels: that the murders on the field are attributed to the Native Americans. That's what the Mormons tell the rest of the world.

At what point do you feel the church starts to indulge the Mormon presence in that event? ...

The conviction of John D. Lee was the proof positive that this was not the aberrant act of a wild Native American band. ... The church obviously distances itself from John D. Lee, and John D. Lee sends out several lengthy letters. He says: "The charges against me are as false as the hinges of hell. I have been set up in a cowardly and dastardly fashion. I am not alone." ...

Brigham Young, interestingly enough, pays a dear price for this. This is very late in Brigham's life, and people in southern Utah communities turn their backs on Brigham Young because they believe Brigham Young has set John D. Lee up as a scapegoat. As he's making his last tour of southern Utah prior to his death, in communities where he's been greeted warmly for years, the townsfolk noticeably turn their backs on his entourage as they pass through town. ...

What's the next stage of the church acknowledging this part of their history? ...

President Gordon Hinckley made probably the most comprehensive statement ever by a leader of the LDS Church at the dedication of the new memorial in Mountain Meadows. Some looked at it and said, with gratitude, "It's more than has ever been said." But still others look at it and say, "He did not say enough." Here you go with the dilemma of Mountain Meadows: Will it ever be resolved? ...

Have you ever walked through Mountain Meadows?

Oh, yes. ... Mountain Meadows in the 21st century is very different than it was in the 19th century. ... It's been pretty well grazed over, and it's been subdivided to a certain extent, ...[but] no homes are built where the massacre took place. There are some memorials nearby; some rock cairns have been constructed. But you acknowledge it as a killing field, and you recognize that it's the place where men, women and children died at the hands of others. It's troubling. And nighttime is the cruelest time in Mountain Meadows: The wind blows a little cooler; the echo of a nearby brook is more chilling. It touches you in a unique and profound way. You don't hear voices, but it's not a silent ground.

We're leaping ahead a bit in time, but the government is once again focusing on them. There is a mass of legislation that's taking away their powers, their voting rights. ... This religion almost seemed as if it was on the edge of extinction.

Every political observer in the United States expected the Mormon empire, as they described it, to collapse with Brigham Young's death in 1877. Doesn't happen. ... In the 1880s, Congress looks at the Utah Territory and says, in effect, "We are going to break the Mormon Church, [its] hold on the Utah Territory and the hold on the Utah people, and this affront," as they characterize it, "to the American experience."

They pass the Edmunds Act in 1882, and this is aimed specifically at men and women who are involved in plural marriage. ... They bring a tough new judge to the territory, Judge Charles Zane, and he cracks down, and he starts sending a steady stream of Mormon men to the territorial penitentiary. ... This in and of itself is not effective enough. The individuals go to prison; they come out as heroes to their fellow church members.

In 1887, they pass the Edmunds-Tucker Act. No longer is it aimed at the individual; now we will target the church itself. We will seek to prohibit the immigration of people to the United States who are Mormon. We will disenfranchise 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. This includes the temple; this includes church office buildings. ...

What kind of internal upheaval did this cause in polygamous families?

There was a simple recourse: Either the husband had to go on the road or his wives were dispersed. This could mean that one wife stayed in Salt Lake City while another wife was moved to an outlying settlement in the Utah Territory.

It was also at this time that the Mormon Church starts investigating expansion into Canada and Mexico as a means to evade the impact of federal prosecution. ... Mormons sent a delegation to Canadian Prime Minister John Macdonald. He says: "You will find no refuge here. Bring plural wives to Canada, and we will prosecute you under Canadian law." However, in Mexico, the dictator [Porfirio] Diaz accepts the Latter-day Saints in ... colonizing gatherings in Mexico and decides -- some say as the result of payments -- to leave them alone. And you have Mormon polygamist collectives springing up outside of the Utah Territory as a means of avoiding federal prosecution.

There are touching letters from wives to husbands, where they have to address the envelope in a very strict, formal sense to this person, but inside a woman grieves from the lack of contact with her husband. Children feel they're separated from their fathers for months, sometimes even years [on] end. And this extends all the way up to the highest reaches of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. John Taylor, who is president of the church, is forced to live on the underground, changing his location night by night to stay one step ahead of the federal posses that are riding after him. ...

In 1887, secreted in a small farmhouse in Centerville, [Utah,] John Taylor locks himself in for the night. His guards report that during the night there is a strange glow of light from underneath his door. And John Taylor, in the morning, comes out and reports that he had, during the evening, divine visitors and a revelation from God, and the instruction was clear: "Yield not 1 inch on the principle of plural marriage." ...

This becomes the subject of great controversy years down the road. There are many in the church who say it was never formally presented as a revelation. It's never been accepted by the church; it's never been painted as a revelation; therefore, it's not a revelation. But for others, they say the truth of what John Taylor said ... is what explains the existence of Mormon Fundamentalists still practicing plural marriage now in the 21st century. ...

That small letter that's still in existence, the Taylor letter, panders to the point that polygamy is begrudgingly, and with great difficulty, renounced.

Yeah. John Taylor dies on the underground late in the 1880s, never yielding an inch. In his place rises a very interesting figure, Wilford Woodruff. He's 80 years old; he's very late in his life. ... He is the one who brought Brigham Young into the Salt Lake Valley and was the only witness to Brigham Young saying, "This is the place." ...

In September of 1890, Wilford Woodruff says, "Inasmuch as laws of the land and the institutions are arrayed against us, I will instruct my people to refrain from plural marriage. Wilford Woodruff." This is the summit point, the continental divide in the Latter-day Saint experience. ... Faced with the end of their existence or accommodation, Wilford Woodruff says that he has been divinely inspired to move in a direction away from plural marriage. ...

So in 1890 the church basically says: "There it is. This is what you've been asking for. You have our word. It's over. Everything's fine, right?" Well, the federal government says: "Not so fast. We are going to keep a very, very close eye." This plays out most dramatically in the case of Reed Smoot, who is designated to serve as the United States senator from the state of Utah just after the turn of the century. The United States Senate looks at Reed Smoot and says, "We don't believe that you're worthy to be formally seated in our august body, because we have heard ongoing reports that plural marriage still exists in Utah."

So they use Reed Smoot's confirmation hearings as a means of dissecting Mormonism after the Manifesto. The church president is called to testify. Reed Smoot gives hours of testimony. They stretch on and on and on, and Reed Smoot is twisting in the wind. And finally the president of the church, Joseph F. Smith, in 1904 says, "Lest there be any doubt, we do not practice plural marriage, we will not practice plural marriage, and we will be part of a process that ends the practice of plural marriage." ...

And finally the forces relent. Reed Smoot is seated as a U.S. senator, and all seems to be well in the land. Not quite. Because as if it were a grape juice stain dropped on a perfect white pair of pants, the issue of plural marriage cannot be washed away, And it endures; it endures throughout the 1920s. Despite the pronouncements of the church, there's this lingering perception the Mormons can still not be trusted because there are plural marriage practitioners. It all changes with the arrival of one bright young attorney by the name of J. Reuben Clark.

And what does he do? ...

J. Reuben Clark is an Eastern-educated attorney who's a member of the Mormon Church and has great success in a young career going into the Justice Department, eventually moving into the State Department, serving as an ambassador to the nation of Mexico. He is a rising star who returns to Salt Lake City at the call of his church to serve in a high-ranking capacity within the leadership of the Mormon Church. J. Reuben Clark bristles that polygamy is still a stumbling block for Mormons being accepted as mainstream members of the American experience. He has polygamy in his own family's past, and he wants to wipe it clean. ...

And J. Reuben Clark turns the Mormon Church from being the practitioner of plural marriage to being idly indifferent toward plural marriage to suddenly being the chief prosecutor of plural marriage. This is a profound reorientation of the church in the 1930s. ...

To what extent were they working with the FBI?

They were working very closely with the FBI. The information they gained they would share with local law enforcement. In fact, there are memorandums of understanding that exist, ... published in the church's Deseret News, where church leadership rather proudly identifies, "These are the aggressive steps we have taken to work with local law enforcement and with the FBI to identify people who are violating the law of the land and the teachings and principles of the church."

Describe the Short Creek raid.

Well, for 30 years, Short Creek had been one of the worst kept secrets on the Utah-Arizona border. Everyone gathered in this small little crossroads community was a true believer in the practice of plural marriage. ... So the Arizona police and National Guard units come screaming into the little community 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." Chagrined, they deploy photographers to each one of the houses to document the evidence of this act of unlawful cohabitation. ...

Look closely at the photographs that were taken during the Short Creek raid, and you'll see number cards propped up in front of families. They're, in fact, evidence numbers. ... It becomes very controversial. People rebel against this, reducing these families -- oftentimes mother and many children, which look very loving and very scared in these photographs, being reduced to a number. It smacks of a presence of law enforcement that many Americans are uncomfortable with. ...

Short Creek has a chilling effect for at least 20 years, and every law enforcement officer or elected legal officer ... will tell you the images of dragging women and children away from their families, away from their homes, was such a powerful image that they would not go there. ... And they are all around this community -- they exist in the Salt Lake Valley; they exist in the Utah-Arizona border; they exist in Montana -- easily identified. Authorities said: "We'll leave them alone. It's too complicated. There's too much of a cost to try to care for the children and sort out the mess."

The church itself stepped back?

It did. Leaders of the LDS Church felt very certain that by the 1960s they had made abundantly clear that not only were they not involved with plural marriage, but they were at the cutting edge of prosecuting plural marriage. So they felt they had made their statement. ...

How would you describe their attitude toward such an important part of their history -- polygamy -- today? ...

A few years back I was able to interview the great-grandson of Mormon Church President John Taylor, ... and I asked him to summarize how the contemporary church reacts to Mormon polygamy in the church's past, and he recited a childhood nursery rhyme. He said: "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." And the perspective of the contemporary LDS Church is simply that we know that is in our past, but we do wish that would go away. It follows the contemporary church as if it was a shadow, and they resent that, and they do not want that to be the way they are viewed in the 21st century. ...

... When you talk to them, they don't even acknowledge that it was an important principle. ...

The most telling personal experience is when I produced a documentary for PBS back in 1989 about the existence of plural-marriage communities in the American West, and I wanted to talk about the factual history of plural marriage as practiced by the Mormon Church. The Mormon Church, up to the highest level, refused to participate in the project; they would not even grant an interview. They did not want to touch the subject, in the words of one public relations representative, "with a 10-foot pole."

[One Mormon told us,] ... "I don't want to practice polygamy, but at some level I'm deeply comforted that someone is out there doing it." Have you heard that before?

The admonition you'll receive officially from the church is the practice of plural marriage was practiced only by a very, very small percentage of Latter-day Saints back in the 19th century. The reality is that small percentage were all the leadership positions in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, all the way down to the level of bishop on the local level -- literally, the lay clergyman who is in charge of his flock on the neighborhood level. So it was practiced by a very influential minority of Latter-day Saints. ...

Plural marriage touches virtually every longtime Utah family to one extent or another. I've even met non-Mormons whose great-grandfather[s] were federal marshals and talk about how they came to the territory as a means of prosecuting plural marriage. ... There is a degree of fondness, although they don't talk about it frequently, when you find someone who will chuckle and say, "Great-great-Grandpa was in fact married to three women." And in their own sense, there's a certain degree of pride that somehow they were involved in an experience that is so unique to the Mormon Church in that period.

Is there a disconnect -- that yes, polygamy has been disallowed in this life, but not in the next one?

Oh, that's a deeper theological level, and I've never had a dialogue with the church on that subject. But I've had members of the church say that in the mortal plane it has been suspended, but it has not ended in the concept of eternity. And who knows? There may one day be a return, but certainly not in a contemporary setting. ...

There was one woman I spoke with a few years ago who talked with me about her fears of marriage for eternity, because when she was a young woman she was married to a man who was quite mean to her, very cruel, but divorce would never ever enter her vocabulary. She endured; she had a number of children; she loved her children very much. And then one day, at a relatively young age, her husband died. She had been married to that man in the temple, which means she was sealed for time and all eternity, that their union would endure far past mortal existence.

Two years after her husband's death, she met a charming widower who she loved dearly, who had a great sense of humor, treated her as if she were an angel, was very affectionate -- all the things that were absent in her first marriage. I remember asking her the question, "Well, surely this is the joy you've been looking for." And she broke into tears, and she said: "I am so fearful of what comes next. Who will I be joined to in the next life?" ...

... When you look at how Mormons were perceived [when they gave up polygamy in 1890], and then you look 100 years later, it's almost dizzying to me. ...

How was that brought about? First they ended the process of gathering uniquely in one spot, and the church in the early 20th century takes on this global view: We will reach out to the world, and people that we bring to the church need not leave their homelands; they don't have to gather in Zion, in Utah. ... That's a profound change, because that starts establishing the Mormon Church as being global in its interests rather than isolated and very and uniquely North American-oriented.

The second thing [is that] the church in the early 20th century embraces the American experience. ... In the 1860s, not a single member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints enlisted to serve on the battlefronts of the Civil War. There was no Union volunteer group or Confederate volunteer group that was formed in the Utah Territory that marched off to the battlefields of the Civil War. In World War II the Latter-day Saint enlistment rate was extraordinarily high.

There is a barometer of the embracing of the American experience and putting yourself so wholly engaged in it that you're willing to send your young men in defense of the very principles of the nation. It shows you just how dramatic that change is over a relatively short period of time, less than 80 years. That's a complete evolution. ...

It also became a significant economic and political power. ... Their reach became quite extraordinary. ...

The LDS Church, which had always used its financial ability internally to take care of itself in terms of welfare, actually has a very, very strong per capita financial base. It gives them a great pool of financial opportunity to invest, to be involved, and throughout the 20th century they become more and more involved in national economic affairs.

It's true, when Depression strikes, they suffer as all suffer in the nation; they're far from being immune, and they embrace Franklin Roosevelt and the New Deal. But when Depression is over, when the war is over, they begin to embrace, quite energetically, the ideals of the Republican Party. They become a very mainstream, very capital-centered economic interest that moved in a conservative direction. And the Republican Party in Utah has become so strong that it is viewed as the embodiment locally of LDS Church family values, morality issues, proper role of government in the involvements of the individual. ...

... From a pariah also to a people that even presidents would court from time to time. ...

Yeah. It's less neat, but what emerges is that in the 1950s, because of the involvement of Ezra Taft Benson in the Cabinet of President Eisenhower [as secretary of agriculture], suddenly national political figures start to make stops in Salt Lake City. ... Back in the days when Brigham Young was leader of the LDS Church, [when] presidents and vice presidents would visit Salt Lake City, they would deliberately avoid any contact with any member of the Mormon Church, and they would go exclusively talk with the non-Mormons. Seventy years later, you have a complete reversal of that. ...

And whose presence is felt on issues like the ERA [Equal Rights Amendment]. ...

As a young reporter I remember interviewing a young Mormon woman about the Equal Rights Amendment as it was being debated in Utah, and she was passionate. She said: "This state, with the pioneers, was on the cutting edge of women's suffrage in the 1870s. We were just behind Wyoming in giving the women the right to vote. And who took it away from us? The federal government took it away from us. But it was our church that was at the vanguard of giving women equality in the political process, and now my leaders are telling me that my faith is at odds with Equal Rights Amendment, my equality." ...

I talked with a number of Latter-day Saint women at the time who said, "This only opens the door to the dissolution of the family as we know it, as we need it;" that it will put women in harm's way in the military; that it will break apart the traditional family unit; that it will destroy traditional roles that are so fundamental to the family unit. When I interviewed those women they were just as passionate. ... So you saw the passion from both sides. ...

Do you think the church learned a lesson on that one, of getting too far into politics on that one? ...

The highest levels of the church will tell me, time and time again, that the only time the church has overtly voiced opinion on any issue in the political realm is when it is so closely aligned with the teachings and tenets of the faith that they need to make clear how this issue affects the people who are members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, and they say that is not an opportunity they seek out. ... Whether that is gay rights or Equal Rights Amendment or the MX missile system in the Western American desert, if they perceive the need and the importance, they will make a position known. ...

Do you think that's an expression of their confidence, that they did do it? ...

Well, this is part of an era, in the 1970s, where there's a lot of evolution taking place in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. The president of the church, Spencer W. Kimball, finds himself dealing with a number of very significant issues, not the least of which is the standing of people of color within the ranks of membership of the LDS Church. In the late 1970s President Spencer Kimball brings forth a revelation: After 100 years or more of second-class citizenship in the LDS Church, President Kimball says ... any restriction on people of color holding the priesthood or full membership in the church is at an end; welcome them as brothers.

So on one hand, Spencer W. Kimball is working significantly toward overcoming barriers to equal opportunities based on race. On the other hand, the church struggles mightily with the notion of equal opportunity as defined in an amendment to the Constitution based on gender. There's a balancing act at work in those decisions. I remember the day of the revelation on blacks in the priesthood, as it's known. ... There was something akin to dancing in the streets, such a great weight had been taken off the rank-and-file membership of the LDS Church. ...

There's still plenty of talk among liberal Mormons, as well as blacks, about wanting a bit more; in that everybody's relieved, but the folklore is still scattered through the books -- the folklore of [black souls] sitting out the war in heaven. ... It's surprising how that lingers still. ...

In the wake of the [1978] revelation ... I received more then a dozen phone calls from individuals who identified themselves as members of the church who said: "Not so fast. Don't celebrate. I still harbor great misgivings." ... To this day there are people who still say the church could do so much more for people of color; there's so much more opportunity that could be made available. And there are still some voices who are reticent about what the church has done to bring into the brotherhood people of color. ...

There is a dramatic turnaround between the utopian ideal in the 19th century and what the church has become today. Could you talk about that?

It's interesting, because of all the powerful changes that have affected the practice of the Mormon Church in the real world, none is more profound than their shift from this isolated Christian socialism of the United Order [of Enoch] -- where they would only deal with each other -- to this global view of financial management, of investment strategies, of wise financial planning, where the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is a significant investor in many national and international enterprises. It's a dramatic shift from what they were in the 19th century. ...

Lots of churches amass holdings and consider financial stability important, but the LDS Church has done it on a whole different level. Do you think those days of financial insecurity are part of that motivation, a sense that we must be secure, that we must have this foundation under us?

Let me give you an analogy: My father was a young man during the Great Depression, and to his dying day he squeezed a nickel to make the figure on it squeal in pain. He knew the value of a dollar because of his experience as a young boy when the times were very, very lean. I think the same is true of the LDS Church, who survived some extraordinarily dark days financially, where they were scraping to get by, where they couldn't even pay their own workers in money but they had to pay them in food stores from the bishop's warehouse. Those lessons inform and grace everything that came subsequently in terms of financial management. ...

I've been extremely interested about the welfare system that's been set up. ...

It was born of survival. It was born of the darkest days early in the territory, where drought or pestilence would visit the agricultural crops and they would have the bishop's storehouse for the poor. ... That evolves over time, and it reaches really a peak of sophistication during the 1930s, during the Depression.

Representatives of the federal government actually come to the LDS Church to study how the LDS Church goes about delivering food to the people that are hungry in its membership, delivering clothes. ... It's an issue that all societies struggle with, and we're still struggling with, but the LDS Church is organized from the top all the way down to the individual member -- on the neighborhood, on the city-block level -- and there is an ability to respond to need, whether it's hunger or food or meeting a mortgage payment, that is truly amazing for the member in good standing.

That welfare, which was for its own, now is kind of worldwide.

It's producing extraordinary benefits. Their ability to respond to international crises -- to an earthquake in Afghanistan, to flooding in Indonesia -- is remarkable, because literally within hours they're able to mobilize food, medicine, clothing, and have it waiting on the tarmac, ready to fly out.

They don't have to go through government channels.

They respond to need; they're not a bureaucratic entity. ... In the 1980s Salt Lake City was deluged by record-setting rainfall, and literally the streets were flooding with water pouring off the snowmelt of the mountains. We couldn't mobilize city workers or state workers fast enough. But the LDS Church, all the way down to the ward level, put out the call for volunteers, and people showed up. It was one of the most touching moments of my time in Utah, to watch men and women come to the sandbag sites and save their city. ...

In that journey from being perceived as licentious and archaic ... to really [being] part of this country, would you say that one of their best ambassadors was the Tabernacle Choir? ...

We can talk all we want about the embattled field of plural marriage or Christian socialism and closed economic orders, but if you want to know one of the most transcendent experiences of how the Latter-day Saints emerged as a new face of Americanism in the 20th century, it's Donny and Marie Osmond. They put a whole new face on Mormons for millions of Americans. ... They're clean-cut; they're well-scrubbed; they tell nice, family-sensitive jokes; they've always got a smile. They become the embodiment of the Latter-day Saints for millions of Americans. That breaks down more cultural walls than any Manifesto ever could. ...

Would you talk a little bit about that missionary effort and why it's as effective as it is? ...

If you look at the role of the missionary program in the 21st century, it serves two very important purposes. The first that they clearly point to is carrying the message of the new and restored Gospel throughout the world. ... But it also serves a very important role for young men coming of age in the church. ...

It bonds them to the church; it makes them brothers in the conflict. All missionaries share the stories. Just as if you've ever been around veterans of World War II, veterans of Vietnam, and they talk about going through boot camp, ... you can talk to missionaries, and they talk about going to the Missionary Training Center [MTC] ... and then getting the assignment and going overseas and becoming foxhole buddies, if you will, with their missionary partners, people they've formed lifelong friendships with.

And then they come home, and when they come home they're ready to take the next step in their life. Just as veterans return from war and they want to get married and start their families and begin a career, you talk to these young missionaries, they want to do the same thing. But invariably they come back with the spirit of their faith at the highest level it will ever be. ...

This included women going, too?

Some women do serve missions, but the expectation is very, very different. You talk with the mothers and fathers of children in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, the expectation is very high for their son to go, delightful acceptance if their daughter goes, but it's a different sense of marching orders. Young men fulfilling a mission fulfills a promise. ...

... Generally, how is dissent treated in this church? ...

People who are of the faith themselves believe when they engage in inquiry, research or writing that raises questions, they're not destroying the faith. They truly believe, as I've talked to these men and women, that they're asking questions [that] should be able to be discussed openly; they should be answered openly, and then we move on, and we're all happy.

But there have been significant figures in the church who believe that this type of questioning research that explores or seeks to unravel central truths that the church adheres to are viewed as destructive efforts; that they are not constructive; they're designed to bring something down. There are times where it's assigned to a sinister motive, and that's when people pay a very, very dear price. ...

What are the areas of church history [that are most controversial]?

Among the areas that people have pointed out to me as dangerous ground include the background of the prophet Joseph Smith: his human activities, his less-than-prophetic activities. This could involve activities in his past where he ran counter to the law, where he was involved in what they call treasure digging or using seer stones to look for treasure in his youth; activities that might seem to be an attempt to deceive individuals, that might be considered scams. ...

The church has been less than completely comfortable with people exposing aspects of the practice of plural marriage that runs counter to public church pronouncement. In 1890 the church issues a Manifesto that says we will refrain from the practice of plural marriage. When a researcher [Michael Quinn] documents a 14-year pattern of the church actually sustaining plural marriage after they've said they've stopped, the church feels very uncomfortable with that. ...

Were the excommunications of the September Six [six academics excommunicated or disfellowshipped in 1993] a big moment?...

No. ... Rather than a headline, it was more of a quiet conversation where the word of mouth was passed around. Some of the people that were involved were astonishing to the public. There was a professor of history at Brigham Young University who ultimately fell victim to the academic-freedom crusade. Here was a professor that was loved by his students, that was regarded ... as perhaps the brightest graduate student ever to go through Yale University in history. ...

The church is serious with its faculty at Brigham Young University: You can be a force for great good, or you can be a force for those things that we do not consider a great good. Where do you choose to put your professional career? ...

The root of this earlier on was survival and being besieged; today it's a confident church, [but it] still is quite exacting, and more than almost any other church. Why? ...

Well, that's interesting, because some people look at the Mormon Church and say they seem to police their members more than any other church. But as a longtime observer of this church, I look at this as an extraordinary era of openness. It would have been ridiculous 30 years ago to think of a president of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints sitting for major international live-television news interviews, or to sit with the chief interrogator of the nation's premier investigative television program, or to sit for an extended interview with representatives of a major news magazine. This is something that basically had not been done since Brigham Young sat down with Horace Greeley 150 years ago. ...

As it's been explained to me, they say: "We don't act first; it's the dissenting member ... that pushes this to an issue for action. We don't seek people out. They confront us, and when confronted, we act." ...

I've gotten very involved in the Leonard Arrington story. Talk about a loyal Mormon. ...

Leonard Arrington [was] perhaps the most prominent historian within the LDS Church, at least in the 20th century, a man who is highly regarded for writing works that are deep and rich in texture, [works that] provide nuanced detail on the history of Brigham Young and the economic development of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, but basically is not a controversial author. He doesn't burn his bridges. He is a man of great faith and is very comfortable in his faith and the church.

[He] becomes church historian and for a couple of years ... brings in this marvelous gathering of extremely bright history graduate students. ... This period of openness exists where Leonard Arrington encourages these young historians to come and explore and read the personal correspondence and the journals and look into each and every corner. And suddenly that is slammed shut, and Leonard Arrington is released from his position of church historian. But that great "summer of openness," as it it's known, informs the lives of some of the most gifted young historians -- not just in Utah but in the American West -- and they write about it for years to come. ...

It's an exciting story, and it's a sad story, too.

But the last time I saw Leonard Arrington there was no sadness about the man. He didn't doubt himself; he didn't fear he was hanging by a thread or facing a loss of those things that he held most dear. This was a man who was very simple and direct. You could ask the question, ... and it was good to get them asked and then listen to the answers, because we all would benefit. ...

As someone who's talked to so many women in the Mormon Church, ... [what do] most of the women you've spoken to feel about themselves as women in this church? And the ones that are dissenting, what are they dissenting about?

The vast majority of women that I've interviewed who are members of the Mormon Church take extraordinary comfort from the sense of order and direction that their membership in the church provides. ... Over time I've met women who have been uncomfortable, who believe that the defined role of a woman in the church is limited; that education may be encouraged, but to a point. ... But I'll come back to the vast majority that I talk to, that women in the LDS Church take extraordinary comfort and certainty and pleasure from this notion of order. ...

I believe you could be both. I have certainly met so many who want to be priests, as many Catholic women do also, so many women ... [who] feel themselves to be faithful Mormon women who at the same time feel a kind of tension. ...

The roster of religious faiths that failed to provide full opportunity for each aspect of religious service is not limited to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

The roster of churches that don't provide that space for women is legion.

Let me say this: At times you may be uncomfortable with what sounds like I'm defending the LDS Church; I am, in fact, defending the LDS Church. I am, in fact, a person who lives in very close proximity to men and women who embrace the LDS faith as one of their most fundamental acts of living. I understand and respect these people for that sense of devotion to their faith, as much as I respect the Muslim, the Catholic, the Jew, who by their own adherence to orthodox principles that may not be part of my daily existence -- the fact that they take joy and order and sense of purpose -- to me makes them great neighbors, to me makes them great friends, to me makes them people to respect and in some moments hold in wonder that they have found answers that work for them. ...

Every church is struggling with homosexuality. ... Do you feel it's harder to be a gay Mormon? ...

... In the early 1980s as a journalist, I spent a period of time investigating official church response to homosexual membership, and what I found was back then [was] ... they used rather extreme forms of aversion therapy to try and break people of the inclination to homosexuality. There was a very, very strong sense that these people should be cured. Over time that approach has changed substantially. ...

The LDS Church really has struggled at times in its relationship with gay men and women, and one of the primary reasons for that is that the central act of this church turns so much on the notion of the nuclear family unit: a mom and dad and boys and girls as children in this family which is for eternity. ... Sometimes that comes across as prejudice against those that are not in the family unit, but a lot of times it's just the church struggling to give voice to that role, to that sense of full participation. ...

In the 21st century the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has accepted a mantle of leadership to forcefully advocate for a constitutional amendment that identifies one man and one woman as the natural state of matrimony. They are at the forefront among religious denominations in urging members to contact their legislators, their congressmen, their senators to support this national legislation. The irony is that 120 years ago, the LDS Church practice of polygamy was identified as the greatest threat to the institution of marriage that existed in the United States. ...

The grip of this religion on both those types is more powerful than I've seen anything. ... They're getting something amazing out of it.

There's imagery of a clear sense of order from birth through death and beyond. And many times, in Catholicism, once you reach the age of maturity, be it your first communion -- or in the case of the Catholic Church, your confirmation -- after that it's kind of, "OK, kid, you're on your own." But in the LDS Church there is an order of the progression of the individual from infancy through childhood into adolescence into religious service -- as a missionary in young adulthood and then the full mainstream -- into the glories of the family relationship with spouses, with children, till death do us part -- and then death does not part, for we will continue forever. So this sense of order, for most other religions, can be in fact a little mind-boggling, but it gives the sense of purpose and order for everyone within the church. ...

One of my very best friends in Utah is a Latter-day Saint. We golf together; we jog together; we have fun together. I've known him for 25 years, and he looked at me one day, and he said: "I know you don't believe it, but I do. And Ken, I don't care if you don't believe it, but you've got to care that I do." ...

And I put the question to him abruptly: "Come on, when it's all said and done, don't you see the cracks? Don't you see the spaces in the image that aren't colored in?" And he says: "No, because you're looking at it with a microscope, and I'm looking in a much broader image. And what I see works perfectly well for me."

We established the demilitarized zone, and we moved on, and we've maintained a great friendship. But that's what he holds it up as: The people who take issue with the church view it in a microscope, and anything you view in a microscope may present something that will trouble you. But if you step back and you take it in its totality, you will find that it's very, very good. ...

In the 30 years you've been here and thought about Mormonism and about the stereotypes about Mormons, have they dissipated over those 30 years?

Oh, absolutely not. The stereotypes, much to the frustration of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, endure to this day. There are still editorial cartoonists who portray a Utah farmer with seven wives and say he is a typical Utah Mormon resident. That is frustrating, not only to the members of the church but also to we non-Mormons as well. ... Despite Donny and Marie, despite the Mormon Tabernacle Choir, despite the president of the church appearing on Larry King [Live] or 60 Minutes or in Newsweek, despite all that progress, the church is still struggling with vestiges of its past that are not understood and are not forgotten.

Why have they persisted to this day? ...

Because there's just enough truth. There are 30,000 men, women and children who currently live plural-marriage relationships in the inner Mountain West. ... Every 10 years, cyclically, American television rediscovers the polygamists, and so they get featured on national television, and then it goes away. And then 10 years later it comes back again, and then it goes away. ...

The stereotypes about Mormons were not exclusively about polygamists. I'm just stunned when I go back and look through the libraries of the cartoons. ... Aren't you sometimes taken aback by the persistence of the stereotypes? ...

Well, one of the great stereotypes that was born of the 19th century was the sense that Mormons were violent in their faith. The Mountain Meadows Massacre was a perfect example of that. Well, just when those had been retired, 100 years later, there's violence in the faith when people associated with plural-marriage cults start killing each other in the 1970s. ...

Certainly not on a broad basis, but there is an enduring image that we in Utah are not terribly sophisticated; we tend to be a little bit along the lines of rural relics, one step far behind advancing contemporary society. We tend to be old-fashioned; we tend to be old-thinking; we tend to be a little boring. ... What this state is most comfortable doing is living a quiet, financially secure life, not rocking the boat, respecting you as long as you don't cause too much trouble, and moving forward and having a nice day. ...

I am struck by how you use the word "we" when speaking about stereotypes. ...

Oh, absolutely.

Do you ever come close to converting?

No. ... I've experienced so much prejudice from people who have perceived me as a Mormon: that I am ergo dull-witted, incompetent, and aren't we delightfully surprised that Ken can speak a full sentence! ... I mean, I'm in this together, you know? I may be the second cousin twice removed who they're not crazy about living on the block, but they treat me pretty darn well as a result. I'm very, very grateful for the way the men and women who identify themselves as Saints have treated me. They've let me poke and probe; they've granted me access when they could have slammed doors; they've shared intimate stories of their personal lives, of their hopes, their dreams, their faith and their doubts. ...

Most people scoff when I say if you want to understand the American experience, look at the Mormon people. I think it's very, very true. The beauty of our American experience, the dark side of our American experience, the prejudice, the fear, the uncertainty, the hopeful optimism, the strength by pulling together, the dissonance of pulling apart, the chaos, the unity, they're all part of the story of this very American church. ...

The Mormon experience also tells us that this nation, which prides itself on supreme individual liberties, recognizes that those individual liberties are not supreme. ... Perhaps more than any other individual group apart from the civil rights movement of the American South, through the Mormons we see more rights, opportunities and expectations of American citizenry defined than any other subset of the American experience. ...