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.
Helen Whitney & Jane Barnes
ANNOUNCER: The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints is one of the world's fastest growing religions. Mormons walk the corridors of power, leaders in Congress and even running for president. But 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: The Mormon story is the epic saga of a new American faith fired by the startling revelations of Joseph Smith, of a people embroiled in decades of religious conflict, who crossed a continent to establish their own spiritual kingdom, and a church that defied society by embracing polygamy and then abruptly abandoned it.
KEN VERDOIA: From the ultimate outcast to the embodiment of the mainstream in two generations. It's a breathtaking transformation.
ANNOUNCER: Tonight, FRONTLINE and AMERICAN EXPERIENCE continue the story of this very American religion to go inside the Mormon faith as it is lived today-
GORDON B. HINCKLEY, LDS Church President: Prepare to consecrate two years of your lives to serve the Lord as a full-time missionary-
ANNOUNCER: -to follow the Mormons' extraordinary commitment to convert the world-
MORMON MISSIONARY: Hi. I'm 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. It makes your home a holy place.
NARRATOR: -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.
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: Tonight, the revealing conclusion of The Mormons.
Act 1 The Great Accommodation
NARRATOR: In July, 1897, 50 years after Brigham Young had brought them to Utah, Mormon pioneers gathered in Salt Lake City to celebrate their survival. In the early days of the church, they had been driven out of Ohio and Missouri. In Illinois, the Latter Day Saints founder and prophet, Joseph Smith, had been murdered and their temple burned.
The Mormons had turned their backs on America and made a perilous journey across the continent in search of their own country, only to then engage in a 50-year struggle with the U.S. government over their practice of polygamy and political control of the Utah Territory.
KEN VERDOIA, Journalist: In the 1880s, U.S. presidents at their inaugurations used their inaugural address to decry the Mormon experience, to identify it as domestic threat number one after the Civil War. Fast-forward 100 years, the Mormon Tabernacle Choir is singing at presidential inaugurations. So they become a very mainstream, very capital-centered economic interest that moves in a conservative direction, as the embodiment of family values, morality issues. Where at one time they were vilified, they were considered disloyal, in fact, they were considered a knife at the back of the American experience, now they are, in fact, considered, in some ways, the very embodiment of what it means to be American. How was that brought about?
NARRATOR: By the end of the 19th century, the LDS church had made an uneasy peace with the federal government. The church had officially renounced the practice of polygamy and Utah had finally been granted statehood.
KATHLEEN FLAKE, Historian: In 1903, a man arrives in Washington named Reed Smoot. He's been elected to the Senate, and he is a Mormon apostle, the equivalent of a very high cardinal. In fact, it's difficult for us to imagine what it meant for this apostle to arrive in the Senate and represent a state in the national legislature.
KEN VERDOIA: The United States Senate looks at Reed Smoot and says, "We don't believe 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 the Mormon church.
KATHLEEN FLAKE: It was a huge trial. It lasted over a span of four years. It was as big publicly as anything we've seen in our own day- as Watergate, Iran-contra. It captured the public's attention on a variety of very dramatic issues- church and state, sex, of course, religious power, Mormon temples, the secrecy of these temples, all kinds of things. You couldn't be in America during these years and not know about the Smoot hearings.
NARRATOR: The opposition was intense, but Smoot had powerful supporters, too, including President Roosevelt. And in 1907, the Senate finally voted to seat the Senator from Utah. Smoot would go on to a distinguished career in Washington and became a major power broker in the Republican party.
KATHLEEN FLAKE: Smoot himself became the poster boy of Mormonism, and Mormonism's identity radically changed as a result of this set of hearings, in part because the nation stated the terms by which it would accept Mormonism and Mormonism began to conform to those terms.
SARAH BARRINGER GORDON, Historian: Mormons entered into national party politics. They gave up the People's Party which was the official party of the faith, and became themselves active within especially the Republican Party but also the Democratic Party. They also did a good job of participating in the military life of the country. Mormons fought wars, volunteered at extraordinarily high rates, recalibrated their patriotism to be loyal to the government in Washington.
NARRATOR: The Mormons also recalibrated their relationship to the American economy. They abandoned Brigham Young's ideal of a closed communal economy in Utah and fully embraced the capitalism of Wall Street.
KEN VERDOIA: It's a profound shift from the pioneering days of isolated Christian socialism to the end of the 20th century. And what you see is the emergence of an extraordinarily sophisticated financial management organization, the LDS church ownerships in media, extraordinary land holdings, livestock and agricultural interests, great stock portfolios.
NARRATOR: The church's financial growth was fueled by "sacred taxation." To be of good standing, all Mormons must tithe 10 percent of their gross income to the church. Today church assets are estimated at $25 billion to $30 billion, and it has become the wealthiest church per capita in America.
RICHARD OSTLING, Co-Author, Mormon America: The Mormon church is not only wealthy, but it's unusually secretive about the extent of its wealth. Most American religious groups of any size give full financial accounting to the membership, but the facts of the Mormon financial empire are never revealed to the membership, much less the wide world. And as far as we can tell, there have been no major financial scandals. The leaders handle the business, and the members contentedly go on trusting in the leaders.
NARRATOR: Over the last 50 years, the Mormon hierarchy has tried to change public perceptions of its leadership.
GREG PRINCE, Author: Since the time that Brigham Young decided to grow a beard, the face of Mormon literally was bearded polygamist, bearded polygamist, bearded polygamist. We're clear up to the middle of the 20th century, and that face hasn't changed. Then all of a sudden, with a heartbeat, the face of Mormonism becomes a clean-shaven, non-polygamist white knight. President David O. McKay frequently wore a pure white double-breasted suit.
This was the new face of Mormonism, and it was unlike anything that had preceded it. It was scripted by central casting. He knew the importance of image before the era of professional image makers. He reinjected us into the national scene by blessing the request of Dwight Eisenhower to have one of the apostles, Ezra Taft Benson, be a member of the Eisenhower cabinet, and his presence in Washington gave the church a presence there they had not had previously
[www.pbs.org: Read the extended interview]
Sen. ROBERT BENNETT (R), Utah: One of the major P.R. tools of the church has been the Tabernacle Choir. When they got on radio, they became the nation's choir. The Tabernacle Choir has been an extraordinary ambassador for the church.
NARRATOR: As the choir tours the world, it still sings the old Mormon hymns, but there is new emphasis on Jesus and biblical themes. It is part of a long campaign to place the Mormon faith within the traditions of mainstream Christianity.
CARL MOSSER, Biblical Studies Professor: In the early 1980s, the LDS church produced a new version of the Book of Mormon and they subtitled it "another testament of Jesus Christ." A few years ago, the LDS church changed its logo and made the words Jesus Christ much larger than the rest of the words in the name of their church to emphasize to the world that they are a mainstream Christian faith.
RICHARD OSTLING: On the other hand, we've had conventional Christian bodies saying, "Well, you aren't fully Christian as we define the term." So we've had edicts from the Vatican and from the United Methodist church and the Presbyterian church and the Southern Baptists have made it clear, "We don't accept Mormonism as fully Christian, either." So there's a tension there. There's a religious tension which is very hard to overcome.
NARRATOR: But as the Mormons were trying to change their place in American life, the country itself was changing. The social and political upheavals of the 1960s put new pressures on the church, especially over its stance on race.
DARIUS GRAY, Author: I think the most damning statement came from one of the presidents of the church, the third president of the church, John Taylor. Basically, he said that the reason that blacks had been allowed to come through the flood, the flood of Noah, was so that Satan would have representation upon the earth, that black folks were here to represent Satan and to have a balance against white folks, who were here to represent Jesus Christ, the savior. How do you damn a people more than to say that their existence upon the earth is to represent Satan?
Sen. ROBERT BENNETT: The most controversial thing in the church was the church's position on giving priesthood authority to blacks and the church's refusal to do that. I say blacks rather than African-Americans because it applied throughout the world.
RICHARD OSTLING: Now, Mormon priesthood is really a universal office for male Mormons. It's their equivalent of bar mitzvah. It's something that everybody normally would undergo. If you do not hold the priesthood, you can never hold any office of church authority. It also would affect your eternal state. And so what you had, really, was a very serious disability visited upon Mormons of African descent.
[www.pbs.org: More on the Mormon priesthood]
NARRATOR: The Mormons had ambitions to be a worldwide church, but their only missionaries on the African continent were in white South Africa, none in black Africa. But then in the early 1960s, a copy of the Book of Mormon appeared in Ghana and Nigeria. A few people read it and were converted instantly. They founded their own version of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints.
BILLY JOHNSON, Co-Founder, LDS Church, Ghana: And I read the Book of Mormon. I was pulled by the power of the Holy Ghost to believe, that it was a sound and a true testimony. I started from street to street, from town to town, from house to house, spreading the message.
NARRATOR: They started to write the leaders in Salt Lake for instructions. Over the next frustrating 20 years, they would implore them to send missionaries so that they could be baptized.
SAM BAINSON, LDS Convert: And they kept writing to Salt Lake City. They want the missionaries to come and baptize this group of people they're getting. They want Salt Lake to come and show them how to form the church properly. But the church couldn't send missionaries to Ghana to baptize them because of the ban on the priesthood for blacks.
GREG PRINCE: Later into the 1970s, you now have a new president, Spencer Kimball, and you have new forces at work. Most of these are internal. There was also the injunction that had existed for decades, "Take the gospel to all the world." There wasn't an asterisk at the end of it saying, "Oh, by the way, you can exclude black Africa." This weighed on Spencer Kimball.
All of those things, I think, had a cumulative effect. The 1st of June, 1978, Spencer Kimball, his two counselors, the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, met in the temple. They engaged in group prayer, and it was described as a Pentecostal experience.
EDWARD KIMBALL, Son of Spencer W. Kimball: One described it as though there were the tongues of flame that are talked about in Acts. Another said it was like a rushing of wind for him.
GORDON B. HINCKLEY, LDS Church President: I was there. There was something of a Pentecostal spirit. But on the other hand, it was peaceful, quiet, not a cataclysmic thing in any sense. It was just a feeling that came over all of us, and we knew that it was the right thing at the right time and that we should proceed.
NARRATOR: President Kimball announced that God had heard their prayers and had revealed that "all male members of the church may be ordained to the priesthood without regard to race or color."
RICHARD OSTLING: What happened in 1978 was that this burden was lifted from black Mormons. More importantly, a huge burden was lifted from Mormonism because it was rid of theological racism. This enabled the church, of course, to reach out more effectively to blacks. It made the church fully acceptable after American society had undergone this tremendous Civil Rights revolution. It really was the moment for the modernization of the Mormon church.
NARRATOR: At the edge of Salt Lake City stands a pure white granary. It is an enduring symbol of the original fiery millennial visions at the Mormon core. Inside are 16 million pounds of wheat, continually replenished, to be used only in the tumult before Christ's final return. But it is also a reminder of how the Mormons have enlarged their extensive preparations for their own welfare to reach out to the wider world.
KEN VERDOIA: At one time, church welfare was just about the welfare of church members. 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.
TERRYL GIVENS, Author: And in recent years, especially, those relief efforts have been extended not just to members of the church but to over 150 major humanitarian crises around the world in locations as disparate as Kosovo, North Korea, Mozambique and Zimbabwe. The efficiency of the Mormon welfare apparatus is really legendary. It operates with all the efficiency of the German Wehrmacht. In Katrina of 2005, the Mormon relief trucks were on the way before the hurricane had even made landfall.
JAMES MADISON, Louisiana Resident: To live in this region now is to live with an overwhelming sense of sadness and to come home and see that you've lost a lot of history. It's devastating. How can you ever clean this up? There's not enough dumps in the world to hold all this.
We were hearing stories on the radio of troops coming in. Helicopters were flying over. We even heard the president was flying over in a big helicopter, looking at us. But nobody was there on the ground with us except for the Mormons in their yellow T-shirts who showed up to help us clean up. And they didn't just come in to hand us a piece of food, a piece of bread or something, and say, "Here's something to eat," you know, "while you're working." They actually got down and cleaned and worked.
LARRY HESS, Fire Chief: Two folks and myself went over to the bishop's warehouse, this huge building. It was all cataloged and categorized, and their warehousing procedures and policies- they just knew where everything was. They knew how much of each thing they had. They were able to get not only saws to us but canned goods, access to outside communications. They had satellite phones. It was almost as though a business that specialized in emergency or community disaster response had arrived.
JAMES MADISON: Before the storm, I had had Mormons knocking on my door, just like everybody else probably, and so the object was to try and get rid of them as fast as possible. You know, "Just go away. Not interested. Don't want to hear what you have to say." After the storm, a little bit different now. They're part of my family now, always will be. You know, they- they got into my heart, and they'll never stand on my doorstep again without being invited into my house.
NARRATOR: In the last hundred years, the Mormons have traveled a long and difficult road in transforming themselves from reviled outsiders into central figures in the American establishment. In the United States Senate, that a century ago tried to reject Reed Smoot, Senator Harry Reid, a Mormon convert from Nevada, now leads the new Democratic majority.
Former Governor Mitt Romney of Massachusetts is a contender for the Republican nomination for president. But amidst success, there are still signs of deep resistance. Several recent polls show that from one quarter to as many as 43 percent of voters say that they would not vote for a Mormon for president.
RICHARD OSTLING: Now, what is it about Mormonism that causes people to ask themselves, "Do I really want a Mormon in the White House?" I mean, in the American system, that's almost a question that should be asked, right? No religious test should be asked for an office holder. It's right in the American Constitution. And yet people are nervous about- you know, this is kind of an authoritarian church. Is Mitt Romney somehow subject to some church leader in Salt Lake City? Are Mormons Christians? Where did these Mormon scriptures come from? Who was this Joseph Smith? Where did polygamy come from? All of these things are swirling around the Romney candidacy.
NARRATOR: If the questions hovering around the Romney moment suggest that Mormons haven't quite yet arrived, there are also continuing signs of acceptance, like the recent gathering of scholars at the Library of Congress to commemorate the bicentennial of Joseph Smith's birth.
These conflicting signals all reflect the inherent tensions in the Mormon stance in American life.
DANIEL PETERSON, Islamic Studies Professor: I glory in the distinctives of 19th century Mormonism. I worry that we may have become too assimilated. We are- you know, we are different. We need to remember that, that we were in tension with the surrounding society. And there always ought to be some. We ought to be bothered if everybody thinks we're just peachy keen.
TERRYL GIVENS: Brigham Young once said that he feared the day when Mormons would no longer be the object of the pointing finger of scorn. It's one of these paradoxes that you want to have acceptability, you want to be mainstream enough that people will give your message a fair hearing, so you can fraternize with them as fellow Christians. But at the same time, you don't want to feel so comfortable that there's nothing to mark you as a people who are distinct, who have a special body of teachings with special responsibilities. And I think once the walls of isolation fell down, then how do you maintain that sense of a people distinct, a people apart? And I think that's a challenge that the church is really wrestling with today.
Act 2 The Mission
GORDON B. HINCKLEY, LDS Church President: I throw out a challenge to every young man within this vast congregation tonight. Prepare yourself now to be worthy to serve the Lord as a full-time missionary. Prepare to concentrate two years of your lives to this sacred service.
NARRATOR: The Mormons have put the future of their church in the hands of 19-year-olds. Each year, more than 50,000 young Mormon missionaries march the globe, from Utah to Mongolia, to win converts to their faith, as many as a quarter million each year. God's Army, as some Mormons call it, has always been the engine that has driven the church's success. Before the first pews were filled, Joseph Smith announced, "This church, brethren, will fill the whole earth."
RICHARD BUSHMAN, Biographer of Joseph Smith: From the very outset, Joseph Smith was persuaded that he had a message that was for the whole world. And he adopted this radical idea that he did not have to train people to do this, he could simply commission them. So from the start, he sent out first his family members, and everyone who joined his church became a missionary.
Sen. ROBERT BENNETT: In the late 1830s, what might have been one of the darkest hours of the church, when Joseph was beset with disloyalty and disillusion all around him, Joseph gathers those members of the Twelve that are closest to him, and says, "I'm sending you to Great Britain. I'm putting you on a boat and sending you across the Atlantic," a violation of every organizational rule, everything you'd learn at the Harvard Business School as to how to keep an organization together.
RICHARD BUSHMAN: And England is in the throes of industrialization, and all these village people have been moved into factories and are working under the most difficult conditions. It's a downtrodden population. And Brigham Young said that you didn't have to prove anything to them, you just preached the gospel to them and they would believe.
NARRATOR: During the first 25 years of the church, there were 71,000 converts in Great Britain alone, and approximately 17,000 of them emigrated to America, to the early Mormon settlements in Kirtland, Ohio, and Nauvoo, Illinois, and then to Utah.
Sen. ROBERT BENNETT: The pioneers who filled the valley and staffed the church came from Great Britain and Scandinavia and Germany. My grandfather, born in Birmingham, England- Mormon missionaries found his mother and her parents, and they joined the church. And part of the missionary lessons- you know, you've got to believe in the Book of Mormon, you've got to believe in Baptism and you've got to move to Utah. [laughs] That's a pretty tough missionary sell.
NARRATOR: At the end of the 19th century, the missionary work had to take a back seat to the survival of the church in Utah. The Depression and World War II further limited their efforts. God's army shrank to under 300 missionaries worldwide, and its ambitions would remain modest until the 1950s.
GREG PRINCE, Biographer of David O. McKay: David O. McKay brought this church into the 20th century, even though he got started halfway through that century. We were a church that still was insular. We brought people to Salt Lake. He said, "Let's reverse that. Stay where you are. Grow where you're planted. Make the church a vital force throughout the world." The number of missionaries multiplied several-fold. The number of convert baptisms multiplied even more so because he injected that new spirit into what they were doing.
NARRATOR: Since the 1950s, God's Army has been recruited largely from Mormon young people, and their two-year missions have become a rite of passage.
BRYAN HORN, Student: You go. You go. You go. You go. Dad went. Grandpa went. And Grandpa, who's a descendant of Wilfred Woodruff, who was taught by Joseph Smith, went on missions, you know? You go. You go. And you start earning at age 5, when you, you know, are old enough to count, and you earn all the way to 19.
CHILDREN: [singing] I want to be a missionary and serve and help the Lord while I am in my youth-
NARRATOR: The Missionary Training Center in Provo, Utah, is one of 17 around the world. It is a spiritual boot camp where young men and women are trained to talk, sing and pray in 30 languages.
TEACHER: So without me telling you, what's this next sentence here?
STUDENT: "I know that Joseph Smith was a prophet of God."
NARRATOR: During rigorous training that can last for three months of 16-hour days, they learn lesson plans designed to take the potential convert to the goal of baptism. Every aspect of their behavior and appearance is scrutinized.
TEACHER: What does your face look like right there?
NARRATOR: They are taught how to listen, to smile, to find common ground with a stranger on the street, how to answer the most difficult questions, and how to deal with hecklers.
TEACHER: What are you- OK, what are you thinking right there? Are you thinking that you're confused and-
STUDENT: That's what I think, I think in my head, I'm, like- smile, yeah, but I mean, like-
DAVID PACE, Author: I was prepared to go on a mission during a time when it was for all intents and purposes mandatory for young men to go on missions. I had to in order to exist in my world, as I knew it. When I returned, no one would want to marry me, that I knew, unless I was a returned missionary. My parents would lose all respect for me if I did not go on a mission.
NARRATOR: At the training center, parents and young missionaries say goodbye. They will not see each other for two years.
DANIEL PETERSON, Islamic Studies Professor: My father said, "Well, let's have a prayer." And he began to pray, and then he broke down and sobbed. And I remember for the first time, I thought to myself, "What on earth am I doing? I'm abandoning my parents for two years." He was obviously just broken up about it. I had never seen my father cry in my life. And to see him sobbing and having to gain control of himself, for just a little moment, I thought, "I must be nuts. What kind of a church would ask this kind of thing?"
There is that pain. The church does ask sacrifices. We don't have to cross the plains anymore with a handcart, but it does ask things of us that sometimes are tough.
D. MICHAEL QUINN, Historian: It's one thing to leave your family and go into a dormitory, to a university, or go into the military. But still, you have an independence. You can choose to do what you want. When you become an LDS missionary, you have a companion who is assigned to you 24 hours a day. You never leave the side of that companion except to go to the bathroom.
MELISSA MOWER, Student: You don't get your alone time on a mission. You're in a very small apartment together, and you just always need to know where the other one is and what they're doing. So that was very difficult with someone you get along with, and then you get a companion that you don't get along with, and you're doing a lot of praying and soul-searching because you have companionship inventory once a week.
MICHAEL QUINN: Your life is utterly controlled. If it isn't approved to listen to radio, you do not listen to radio. If it isn't approved to watch television, you do not watch television. If it isn't approved to read a newspaper, you will not read a newspaper. You follow the rules for this two-year period. There is nothing in contemporary experience of 20-year-olds in America and Canada to compare with this.
MISSIONARY: Hello. Very good, Hermano. Como esta?
NARRATOR: And on the street, nothing resembles what they experienced in the Training Center.
MISSIONARY: Joseph asked, "Which church should I join?" And the Lord told him that he should join none of those churches. But they had a great work for Joseph to do. They called him to be a prophet, just like God had done in times before.
WOMAN: What's this about?
WOMAN: Oh, all this old Jesus Christ bull.
MISSIONARY: Do you believe in Jesus Christ, ma'am?
WOMAN: Oh, I actually don't believe in God even.
MISSIONARY: No, that's fine. Well, I just wanted to share with you-
WOMAN: Oh, I have to go this way.
MISSIONARY: Hi. How are you doing?
MISSIONARY: Good! Hey, I'm a missionary of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, and we're out here talking to the people because we're sharing a great message about Jesus Christ during this time of Christmas.
MISSIONARY: She told me to leave her alone.
WOMAN: Oh, no!
MISSIONARY: How are you doing today, sir?
MAN: Kind of busy.
MISSIONARY: Oh, aren't we all! Where are you headed? We're missionaries.
MAN: Don't shadow me. Don't walk next to me. I said I'm busy. Please.
MISSIONARY: We're just sharing a Christmas message today.
MAN: I just want to walk here by myself. Thank you.
MISSIONARY: Yeah. Have a nice day, sir.
CALVIN HARPER, LDS Convert: Of all that time, 65, 70 hours a week knocking doors, talking to people in the street, I never had one conversion. You'd go weeks without teaching sometimes. It was just hard. People didn't want to hear. But if they found out I was an Indian, then they were interested. They wanted to talk about Indians. They didn't want to talk about religion.
TREVOR SOUTHEY, Artist: I was 24 when I went on my mission to Rhodesia. I was still very much full of the romance of my own conversion. I actually baptized a large number of people for my mission, the average, I think, was, like, two, and I baptized something like 25, largely because of one family of 12 that lived down the street from where, you know, my companion and I lived.
I had a wonderful time teaching people. It really made you feel that I was part of something much bigger than myself, that a single individual could be changed by my capacity to teach these people. The transformational quality was undeniably powerful, and so the very things that had happened to me I began to see happen to other people.
NARRATOR: Today the LDS church has grown to over 12 million members worldwide, more than half of them living outside the United States. Mormon conversions, however, have declined slightly in recent decades, and over 50 percent of new church members will fall away from their faith. In the developing world, the Mormons are increasingly challenged by the Pentecostals and other churches, whose conversions are rising faster in some countries.
RICK PHILLIPS, Sociology Professor: The church has a real problem keeping new members in the faith. Part of the reason for that is that the church does a marvelous job finding converts and bringing them into the church through baptism, but it spends less time and less effort helping new members of the church find their way in their new congregations.
Also, conversion to Mormonism involves a radical transformation of someone's life. If I convert to a typical Christian sect, I don't know that they're going to ask me for 10 percent of my income. I don't know if they're going to ask me for literally almost all of my discretionary time.
Because it is a church that is run solely by the membership, congregations can only sustain themselves when members contribute as least as much as they take. So retaining a Latter Day Saint is a pretty serious enterprise, more serious than retaining the average charismatic Christian or conservative Christian. This is a church that demands everything.
NARRATOR: The church also asks a great deal from its young missionaries, and it can test their commitment.
JAMES DALRYMPLE, Sr., Filmmaker: We had a son who was serving on a mission in Brazil. He had been there for about a year. He was serving out from the capital of Brasilia by quite some distance, and I couldn't reach him. And so the branch president wrote a note, put it on the door, and said, "Your mom has passed away. Call home." He's 5,000 miles away, and I'm crying and he's crying on the phone. And how do you put your arms around your son when he's that far away?
JAMES DALRYMPLE, Jr., Former LDS Missionary: And I mean, it just felt so awful to think that I was sitting here by myself and to think that I- that my- I didn't know what my family was going through. And it was just a very lonely moment, a very sad moment. It was just- it was- yeah, it was terrible.
JAMES DALRYMPLE, Sr.: He didn't come home from his mission. And I encouraged him not to come home from his mission. He knew he was there for a reason. He knew that he was doing what his mother wanted him to do. That was one of the most important things to her in her life, was that she raised her son to serve a mission.
NARRATOR: For the young Mormons working abroad, their missions can be dangerous. In those countries in turmoil or hostile to America, missionaries have been kidnapped, tortured and killed. The physical environment can also be threatening.
TAL BACHMAN, Musician: I hit Argentina with the force of a hurricane, being 19 and being absolutely convinced that you're on the Lord's errand, fueled with these fantasies and aspirations. I ended up with my companions baptizing entire congregations of aboriginal people in the mud. Living conditions were frequently harsh. You don't have fresh water to bathe in, so you're bathing in this rancid, algae-ridden, green, slimy water. You drink it. You're dying of thirst.
It's, like, a 110, 112, higher degrees. Poison-spitting toads getting into the apartment, crocodiles running all over the place. I mean, I was completely into it. I mean, I was so completely wound up that, I mean, if my mission president had asked me to blow myself up like a suicide bomber, I would have said, "Sure. Where should I go?"
NARRATOR: But the young faith that fuels the missionary does not always endure. Years later, Tal Bachman says he left the church after concluding the revelations of Joseph Smith were not authentic.
TAL BACHMAN: I left the church because I felt that I was forced to conclude that for whatever else it might be, it wasn't what it claimed to be. That point had special relevance for me, I think, because of my mission experiences and the decisions I had made after my mission. We risked our lives for the church in Argentina. I don't think that I can delude myself into thinking or to making it OK for my children to put their lives on the line for the thing, if it's not what it claims to be. It might be the best thing ever invented, but if it's invented, it's not worth dying for.
NARRATOR: But for others, the mission itself can be the catalyst for their own conversion.
MARLIN K. JENSEN, LDS Church Historian: Before my mission, I tried to do what is always suggested, to read the scriptures, to say my prayers, to be obedient to the commandments of the church, as we understand them, and hoped in that process, I would gain the spiritual conviction that is promised. And I didn't, at least not to the degree of certainty that I'd hoped for. So when I went on my mission, I was still somewhat tentative.
And I went to Germany. I'd had a high school German class and had never learned a thing, unfortunately. I didn't even know what "gesundheit" meant when I got there. I didn't even like the little German children because they could speak German and I couldn't.
So about six weeks into my mission, my companion and I had stirred up enough difficulty in this Lutheran neighborhood where we were working that the Lutheran minister called a special meeting to warn his parishioners about us and said to his parishioners, "Look, these young Mormons are working here. Be nice to them, but you don't really need them. You have Luther. You have the Bible. They have the book of Mormon and Joseph Smith, both of which are obviously fraudulent, so just be kind to them and they'll go away."
Then he made a strategic error. He said- or a tactical error, I guess. He said, "Is there anyone else here tonight that would like to say anything about these Mormons?" And of course, my 6-foot-seven companion raised his hand and said, "We would," and up to the front we went. And then he turned to me and said, "And now my companion would like to say how he feels." And I remember thinking, "Well, dandy. I can bless the food because that's the only intelligent thing I might have done in German."
But you know, it was interesting. And this is a tender moment for me because the conviction I'd been searching for came. And it came in this way. I remember sort of composing myself and trying to figure out what I might say in German, which is a very logical language if you know the rules. And I remember in that moment about every German word or phrase I had ever read or heard sort of coming together in a way that I was able to express myself. And I did tell those people that I knew that Joseph Smith was a prophet and that I knew that the Book of Mormon was the word of God and that I knew the church had been restored through Joseph Smith.
And it's interesting because, in that moment, I- I came to know, and that was the moment, really, when my hope and my tender belief turned into something really solid, which has been the foundation for the rest of my life. So when people say, "How was your mission?" I say, "It was everything."
NARRATOR: For the new convert, it can be a transformative experience, as well. Despite the challenges facing the missionaries, conversions continue, sometimes in the most unexpected way.
BETTY STEVENSON: When the missionaries came into the outskirts of hell, where I was at, struggling with my two little children- I had been hooked on drugs, in prison, on parole. And they knocked on my door, and I thought, "It's the police." And I kind of snuck on up to the door to peek because I had just gotten off of two years of probation, seven years of parole 11 days before the missionaries came and brought that Book of Mormon to me.
And they came in and told me the most preposterous story I have ever heard in my life. They told me about this white boy, a dead angel and some gold plates. And I thought, "I wonder what they on?" I had gotten the name of the church messed up. When I first heard it, I thought it was the LDS church, you know? And I thought, "Well, LSD." I got it backwards. I thought they was talking about LSD, and I thought, "Now, that's the church for me."
And it dawned on me as I sat there and opened that book up, and it said, "I, Nephi, being born of goodly parents"- and it breaks my heart even to this day because it seemed like at that moment, I realized that I wasn't a goodly parent and that I didn't have goodly parents to teach me in the language of my fathers.
I found something inside of me that was responding to this message of hope, of family that could be together forever, of raising my children and learning how to be a good parent, not drinking, not smoking, not cussing every word, using the Lord's name in vain. And I tell you, to come into the church because I wanted that, to me, it was like a pearl of great price.
Act 3 Dissenters & Exiles
JON BUTLER, Historian: All religious systems have to move beyond their own founding, and many religious systems have found that very difficult to do. Christianity did it. Islam did it. Judaism did it. The question is, can Mormonism do it? The past is thrusting itself up in front of the Mormons day after day, almost hour after hour, and it's difficult to deal with. And like much in the past, it's very messy.
NARRATOR: As the LDS church has grown, control over the Mormons' story has become all the more important. That has lead to increasing conflict with some Mormon intellectuals who challenge the church's official history and the authority of its leaders.
BOYD K. PACKER, LDS Quorum of the Twelve Apostles: The glory of God is intelligence. Light and truth forsake the evil one. Ye are commanded to bring up your children in light and truth.
JEFFREY NIELSEN, Philosophy Professor: Intellectuals, by their very nature, ask questions. They're curious. They see some statement made, and they want to know why.
DALLIN H. OAKS, LDS Quorum of the Twelve Apostles: The life of the mind can be seen to be in flat-out opposition to one's faith.
MARGARET TOSCANO, Classics Professor: To be a Mormon intellectual means that you're opening up yourself to being called into a church court.
LAVINA ANDERSON: I was excommunicated 13 years ago. My temple marriage to my husband is canceled. My sealing to my child is dissolved. And basically, my eternal salvation is wiped out.
MARGARET TOSCANO: One of the contradictions I see presently in Mormon culture is, on the one hand, we have this long tradition of encouraging knowledge and education, and yet at the same time, there's a real anti-intellectual strain that've been there for quite some time. If you're an active LDS person and you want to write about Mormonism, there are just certain things that you cannot talk about. Certainly, the temple is one of them, even if you're trying to do it in a faith-promoting way. And raising any kind of feminist question, that's something you cannot do, Questioning authority in any way- I think that this is probably one of the biggest taboos in Mormonism.
JEFFREY NIELSEN: There is the thought that intellectuals ask questions, questions lead to doubts, doubts leads to loss of testimony, loss of testimony leads to you falling away from the church. And there's a great fear in the church that if you openly look at these things, that you will doubt, and if you doubt, well, there goes the whole purpose of life.
DALLIN OAKS: The scriptures speak of prophets as being watchmen on the tower, with the responsibility to warn when an enemy approaches the enclosure of the faithful. I think all of the leaders of the church are conscious of their obligation to warn the people when there is a danger. I think in any day, the watchmen on the tower are going to say intellectualism is a danger to the church. And it is, at extreme points. And if people leave their faith behind and follow strictly where science leads them, that can be a pretty crooked path.
NARRATOR: Ironically, the Mormon religion itself was born as an act of radical dissent. Joseph Smith had directly challenged the tenets of mainstream Christianity. But almost from the beginning, he, too, was challenged by dissenters in his own church. He was quick to excommunicate but also quick to allow people to return. His successor, Brigham Young, was tougher.
KEN VERDOIA, Journalist: Brigham Young's principle was simple: "You are either with us or you're against us. If you are part of this people, fall into line. Let's move on, and let's build up the kingdom of God, and never forget that all we have is each other. We undermine each other's faith, we destroy ourselves. We've got to stick together. There is the highway or there's our way. Leave if you are not going to adhere to the rules."
[www.pbs.org: More about Joseph Smith]
NARRATOR: In the mid-20th century, the church began to forcefully discipline its intellectuals who challenged the orthodox view of Mormon history. The historian Fawn Brodie had emerged from a devout Mormon family in Utah. In 1945, she published a biography of Joseph Smith that was the first to question the divine origins of Smith's revelations and the Book of Mormon. Although she was a niece of church leader David O. McKay, he didn't protect her, and she was excommunicated.
In 1950, when Juanita Brooks published the first full account of Mormon complicity in the Mountain Meadows massacre, she and her husband were shunned by members of their church.
As official church historian, Leonard Arrington began opening church archives in 1972 and promoted a " New Mormon History" that was complex and objective. But after a decade of intellectual freedom, the church transferred Arrington's entire division from his control.
RICHARD OSTLING: The Mormon church has suffered dissent and excommunications from the very beginning. But I'd say, in the last generation, there seems to be more disciplining, more nervousness, more excommunications. The church seems to be drawing in and wanting to sharpen its message, and in some cases, this really takes on a very harsh and personal edge.
NARRATOR: Among current church leaders, Apostle Boyd Packer has emerged as the strongest voice of Mormon orthodoxy.
GAIL HOUSTON, Women's Studies Professor: When I was at BYU, Boyd K. Packer had given this speech, and I believe it was meant only for the insiders in the church office building, but it got out, as a lot of things do get leaked in Utah, especially in Salt Lake and Provo, where he basically said one of the greatest dangers to the church were gays, feminists and intellectuals. And there was a large group of us who fit many of those categories. It was like a slap in the face. It was like, "We don't want you."
BOYD K. PACKER, LDS Quorum of the Twelve Apostles: I suppose- I think I remember saying those things. [laughs] If it's in print, I said it. And- but that's part of the alert- alerting, and it's very simple. Down some of those paths, you have a right to go there, and within the church, you don't have a right to teach and take others there and without having some discipline, simply because down the road, there's unhappiness.
MARLIN K. JENSEN, LDS Church Historian: Within the church, we're not afraid of intellectuals or of learning or of knowledge. Where an intellectual, I think, can get into difficulty is when that intellectual person takes a position and begins either to attack the general leaders or local leaders of the church or begins to attack the basic doctrine of the church, and does that publicly.
NARRATOR: One of the most contentious issues that has divided intellectuals and church leaders involves scientific investigations of the Book of Mormon.
RICHARD OSTLING: Mormonism teaches that ancient Israelites came to the New World and created scriptures, which we have today as the Book of Mormon, thus Israelites are ancestors of Native Americans. There's a whole story, a very elaborate story of great cities being built. But non-Mormons - and I guess we'd say Mormon skeptics - who have studied these matters do not see evidence. They don't see the DNA that would support the Israelite theory. They don't see evidence of Hebrew language in the New World. They don't see the archeological sites that would show these grand cities that are described.
MICHAEL COE, Archaeologist: According to a lot of Mormon archeologists, their job is to find that this is a true story, that all these things actually existed in this place that is described in the Book of Mormon, which in this case, would have to be in Guatemala and the neighboring Mexican state of Chiapas. And this is what they've been after for 50 years. They've excavated all kinds of sites, and unfortunately, they've never found anything that would back it up.
But Mormonism is not the only religion that faces this problem of what's actually in the ground or in the documents. The exodus, of course, in the Old Testament of the Bible is the best example of this for which there's just absolutely no archeological justification whatsoever. There's never been found any hard evidence that the exodus took place.
NARRATOR: But when Mormon scholars challenge their church's official history, they risk serious sanctions.
GRANT PALMER, Author: My book challenges some of the core foundational claims of the church, the historicity of the Book of Mormon. Is it really an ancient record of an ancient people, like the story that Joseph told? When I look at the Book of Mormon, I really don't see an ancient text. We see a large chunk of the King James Bible, in this book that's reportedly to be ancient record of a people that lived 2,500 years ago in ancient America. We see an enormous amount of evangelical camp meeting fervor. The 11 main preachers in the Book of Mormon sound to me like Methodist stump speakers of that era.
What you find is all of the issues that were being discussed and debated among Joseph Smith's family and friends in his own day. It's a 19th century record, is what it is. It's not an ancient record.
NARRATOR: In 2004, two years after he published his book, Grant Palmer was dis-fellowshipped by the LDS church, a punishment just short of excommunication.
JON BUTLER, Historian: Mormonism is a movement that celebrates its history, and yet it seems to be quite afraid of its history, oftentimes afraid of real historical investigation. What did Joseph Smith think about the practice of magic? To what extent did Joseph Smith really practice money digging? To what extent did he forge documents? To what extent did he engage in illicit sexual behavior? All of those are questions that aren't particularly unusual in the formation of most any kind of religious system. They were imperfect human beings who engaged in imperfect behavior. Some Mormons have trouble accepting that. We want a kind of sanitized Mormon history.
MARLIN K. JENSEN: We do take history very seriously. I think we take it very literally. We don't deconstruct and feel that what we have is the figment of language or imagination at all, or that there's some middle ground. And I know that's very polarizing, in a sense. I think the hardest public relations sell we have to make is that this is the only true church.
NARRATOR: In a single month in 1993, the LDS church excommunicated six prominent Mormon scholars whose work the church believed had gone too far in their investigations of polygamy, in pressing for priesthood for women, and in challenging church authority.
MARGARET TOSCANO: I was one of the first to be threatened. I was threatened with excommunication in the summer of Ô93. I received a letter from my stake president. In this letter, I was told that I was not allowed to speak, discuss, publish, write about anything to do with church history or church doctrine, or they would hold a court on me. Those things that they had asked me not to speak about were women in the priesthood and the Mormon idea or the Mormon concept of a Heavenly Mother.
NARRATOR: The church had objected to a series of scholarly articles in which Toscano argued that Joseph Smith had intended that women be granted Mormon priesthood. It was a direct contradiction of the church's official doctrine that only men could hold that position.
MARGARET TOSCANO: I am Mormon on a deep level, and I do not believe that a community can be spiritually healthy when it silences people. And that was my reason for not obeying the stake president in the first place. I told him at the time, I said, "I cannot be silent because for me to be silent is to participate in an abusive authority and to damage the community that I care about."
You have to imagine when you go into a church disciplinary court that you go in by yourself. You are not allowed to bring anybody with you. So I'm in there. There are 16 men that I am facing. The stake president is presenting the case against me, and he did it in almost courtroom-like fashion. He had a set of notes, and he had his reasons why I should be excommunicated. He also had a stack of copies of everything that I had written, and it was kind of like there's a stack.
When the stake president was talking about all I had written about women in the priesthood was really wrong, and I tried to come in to defend myself doctrinally by quoting Joseph Smith and by using argument and reason, in the middle of a sentence, the stake president interrupted me and he said, "We will not allow you to lecture us. We will not allow you to use this kind of reasoning again. You are only allowed to speak as we give you permission."
And of course, I mean, I just kind of stopped mid-sentence. I couldn't go on. But you can imagine that this was- I mean, you don't really feel like you have much of a defense.
Then they asked me to go out, and they deliberated for about 20 minutes, and then brought me back in. And the first thing that the president said to me is, "I want you to know that the high counsel was very impressed with you. However, you are excommunicated. We have found you to be an apostate." [laughs]
And everybody got up, and they all wanted to shake my hand. They're cutting me off from eternal salvation and telling me that I am this apostate, which really is considered very bad in Mormon culture, and yet I'm this nice woman that they're going to shake my hand. And this- that niceness- there's something- there's something vicious about niceness that struck me in this, that the niceness covered over the violence of what was being done because, in fact, excommunication is a violent action.
[www.pbs.org: Read the extended interview]
TERRYL GIVENS: I think it is important to point out that the church never makes public the transcripts of church disciplinary proceedings. They never make press statements. And so, in every case where an intellectual has been excommunicated from the church, the public is exposed to only one half of the story. And I don't think it's ever possible to come to fair and just conclusions when we only have half the story.
GREG PRINCE: Excommunication is a word that does and should send a chill down the spine of Mormons because the entire structure of the family, which in our belief will transcend death, becomes threatened if one of the members of that family is suddenly jerked out of the fabric and told, "By the way, this is binding here and there." That's why it sends a chill down your spine.
MARGARET TOSCANO: The most painful part about the excommunication is the way in which, if you're part of a large Mormon family, it really does- it really does hurt your relationship with your family. My younger sister passed away a little over a year ago. She died of cancer. And one Mormon ritual is that when a person dies, you dress them in their temple clothing before you bury them. My brother-in-law, who's a very active Mormon, very patriarchal, if I can say that- he did not want my sister and myself to be part of that. He didn't want us to help dress her body, I mean, and that- I mean, that cut me so deep, I haven't gotten over it. I don't know if I ever will.
RICHARD OSTLING, Co-Author, Mormon America: All religious groups try to control their message. And once in a while, you'll have a heresy trial in this group or that group. Mormonism is unique in the amount of activity that goes on and also the extent to which the general membership is monitored. Apparently, there are files in Salt Lake City on anybody who has raised embarrassing questions or might be a troublemaker. What you have is a church that seeks to control its message down into the membership, to strengthen the church and to make sure that its message is clear and consistent and that dissent is limited to the greatest extent possible.
Act 4 The Family
NARRATOR: The West is full of towns that arose one morning when someone discovered gold, and disappeared almost as soon when the vein ran out, from when homesteaders came out alone totally unprepared for what lay ahead and then left without a trace.
But there are very few Mormon ghost towns. They didn't go out as isolated individuals to make a fortune. Brigham Young sent them out in groups, as tribes of families, to build communities that would last. While the years of persecution set the Mormons apart, it also drove them inward. The family became their refuge and their source of strength.
The Mormons' preoccupation with the family traces all the way back to the church's origins, to the theological passions of Joseph Smith.
RICHARD BUSHMAN, Biographer of Joseph Smith: One of Joseph Smith's most interesting ideas is sealing. He became deeply preoccupied with sealing families together, husbands to wives, parents to children, one generation to the previous generation. And you say, "Why was he so preoccupied with sealing?" You look at the world around him, and he lived in a time when families are being dispersed, when they're being broken, when children go off to the gold rush in the West and are never heard from or seen again. Every time a family moves west, they're saying a goodbye. This is a time of constant departure and farewell. And to try to hold that family together through sealing, in a way is a solution to the problem of his time.
NARRATOR: Smith's concept of families sealed together for eternity was part of his revelation on celestial marriage, which also endorsed polygamy.
SARAH BARRINGER GORDON, Historian: Once polygamy no longer became possible, the big question was, is the nuclear family still celestial in the ways that polygamist families had been? And the answer very quickly became yes, and the nuclear family inherited both that-super heated quality and that supportive quality that had gone into that investment in polygamy. It's through and in and by and with the family that Mormons are saved, and it's how they think primarily of their relationship both to the afterlife and to the church as a whole.
MARLIN K. JENSEN, LDS Church Historian: The marriage that takes place in the temple, where a man and a woman are joined together, or as we term it, sealed together, not just for time or until death does us part, but for time and all eternity, is to me the high point, really, in religious experience and in religious ceremony.
KIMBER TILLEMANN-DICK, Business Consultant: You don't get married by a justice of the peace or till death do you part. You get married for time and all eternity. I'm engaged, and it's something that I've been contemplating a lot lately. I love this guy. Am I really ready to spend eternity with him? He is going to be, like, attached to my hip, not until I die but forever. And that is a really important question. It makes you approach marriage in a different way. We look at the family as a really eternal unit and you're making eternal commitments, and so you better have eternal priorities.
TERRYL GIVENS, Author: There probably isn't a religion today that doesn't claim to be family-centered, and with good reason. Most religions are committed to the value of the family. And still, there's something different about the place of the family in Mormon culture. And I think it has to do with the way the family is understood in Mormonism, not as an entity of social organization but as an organization that has its roots in the pre-mortal world and will persist into the eternal World.
NARRATOR: Annette and Timber Tillemann-Dick of Denver, Colorado have 11 children. Like many Mormons, their life together as a family comes first. Annette has home schooled her children and sent some of them on to Ivy League schools. Along with Timber, a busy and successful businessman, she and the children reserve every Monday night, as do all active Mormons, for Family Home Evening.
KIMBER TILLEMANN-DICK: We have Family Home Evening in our family, rain or shine, like it or not. We bunker down together Monday nights and sing a few songs, and sometimes, we'll have some really profound lesson or really fun activity, and sometimes we'll just do Family Home Evening because we know we're supposed to do it. And either way, it's really good for us to spend time together, which is a rarity in today's world.
The church and my family are so intertwined, and I just can't begin to imagine trying to bifurcate those. And when you come into a home that has priesthood leadership and that has people living together focused on the same eternal goals, it just creates a kind of aura of love and peace. It makes your home a holy place.
JON BUTLER, Historian: It's the Mormon fixation on the family as a coherent unit that's so important. In many other religious systems, what is important is the belief of the individual, the belief of the child, the belief of the parent, the parent's belief transferred to the child, but the child still remains independent, an independent unit. Within Mormonism, there is an emphasis on the collective, the collective sense of the family, the collective sense of moral responsibility, the collective sense of an enterprise.
NARRATOR: For devout Mormons, family life is centered in the local congregation, or ward.
ELBERT PECK, Editor: Growing up Mormon was like growing up in a little ghetto village where everyone knew you and you knew everyone. Your entire life was woven into the lives of everyone else in your congregation. Your social activities- you have ward banquets and ward parties and ward camp-outs and ward dances. And all the adults were involved in that, too, because they were driving us as kids here and there and there. And so you got to know everyone and everyone knew you, and it was a great experience.
TREVOR SOUTHEY, Artist: When I first moved to Alpine, population of 2,000, virtually everybody in that town was Mormon. And we'd go down to the welfare farm. We'd all go down there - butcher, baker, candlestick maker - and we'd pick beans. We'd hoe beets. And they'd have canneries and people would can the beans that we were picking and the beets we were hoeing, and so on. A brilliantly inspired program, and you're doing it all together. The sense of community is absolutely amazing.
TERRYL GIVENS: One of the truly distinct features of the way Mormons organize themselves is that they organize themselves geographically. In no other faith community in the United States is it the case that where you live absolutely determines where you will worship. One would think that it would be a source of greater friction or discomfort because you're thrown in with people that you don't willingly choose to associate with, until one remembers, "Oh, but usually, we call that a family."
That's one of the explanations, I think, for this uniquely cohesive bond that characterizes Mormon wards. Since there's no professional clergy, nobody gets paid and the service that is rendered is all voluntary. You can find yourself working hours that are comparable to a second job.
NARRATOR: Mormon women work outside the home in about the same proportions as other American women, and the extensive commitment to the church and to family can put enormous pressures on the mothers.
FIONA GIVENS, Teacher: Mormon women are plagued with this perfect woman figure. She bakes cookies and she bakes bread, and she always looks wonderful and she's never overweight and she's always smiling and- yes, totally impossible woman.
MARGARET TOSCANO, Classics Professor: In Mormonism, you're told that your very eternal salvation and the eternal salvation of your children is the thing that if you somehow make a false move- you know, am I going to mess up my kid forever because I worked that job? Not just in this life, and you know, they may take drugs or something, but will they lose their eternal salvation? That is a horrible burden that you- that you face.
KEN VERDOIA, Journalist: It's incredible pressure on a woman. And yes, there is a strong use of antidepressants in Utah, higher levels than exist in other states. You cannot attribute it exclusively to one set of social circumstances, but there are great expectations on a woman.
NARRATOR: In the Mormon faith, gender roles are ordained by the church. Mormon fathers preside over their families and hold the priesthood, with authority to give blessings and healings. Mormon mothers are primarily responsible for the nurture of the children. Many Mormon women find their role fulfilling, but for others it is limiting.
MARGARET TOSCANO: There's a dichotomy that the church has. It means that women and the work that they do in the church is always subordinate to what the men are doing. I see that as damaging to women because they're put in the role of being under the power of the men. It's not an equal partnership.
ANNE OSBORNE POELMAN, M.D., Neuroradiologist: As a woman in the Mormon church, I feel very comfortable. I don't feel denied any opportunity to serve and to do good for people in the church and in the ward and in our neighborhood, and so on. In service, do I feel limited? The answer is no.
NARRATOR: In the 1970s, the Mormon view of family life gave rise to the church's vigorous opposition to the Equal Rights Amendment. It played a critical role in defeating the ERA, urging its members to vote against it and busing thousands of LDS women to rallies. And the church excommunicated one of the most outspoken Mormon feminists, Sonia Johnson.
SONIA JOHNSON: They're interested in stopping me and stopping this organization called Mormons for ERA. They want us to leave them alone out there and let them get the ERA killed, and we can't do that, you know.
JAMES CLAYTON, Political Science Professor: The Equal Rights Amendment was threatening because it changed the role of women from a nurturing helpmate to a man, from a nurturing housewife staying at home, taking care of the children, to someone who could now make those decisions for herself. If women now started to compete with men for professional positions, for becoming breadwinners, earning more perhaps than their spouses, this threatened men, as well as women. The ERA is not just about women. The ERA was about families, changing the role of men, women, and indeed, children.
[www.pbs.org: More on women and the church]
NARRATOR: While the family is the spiritual core of Mormon life, not everyone feels welcome at their table.
MARLIN K. JENSEN, LDS Church Historian: What about the people who marry, and for whatever reason, don't have children? Or the young woman who grows old without marrying? Or the divorced person? I mean, we- I think we can be quite hard, in a sense, unwittingly, but nevertheless hard on those people in our culture because we have cultural expectations, cultural ideals. And if you measure up to them, it's a wonderful life. If you don't, it can be very difficult.
TREVOR SOUTHEY, Artist: Being gay in that culture is beyond hell because the family is the center of Mormonism. It is the sacred, potent unit, and you don't even really want to make a family, if you choose to follow your instincts. That's why when I went to the counselor, I wanted to be cured so badly. I fasted and I prayed and I went through this whole thing. And I remember dating girls and then- and nothing worked. And I just decided, "This year, I'm going to do it," and that's how I ended up marrying within two-and-a-half months of meeting my poor, unfortunate wife.
We were determined to make it work. We bought this paradisical place in Alpine in Utah. I mean, I had everything I wanted- the stream running through this place, great big cottonwood trees, an old log cabin with a big cobblestone room attached to it. And we built and built and built and turned this little place into a paradise. And gradually, these children come on the scene, and it's heaven for them, an acre and a third to run wild on.
And gradually, gradually, I realized that I had paradise, but I was an arid desert in my heart. I'd wake up every day of my life thinking- and this phrase would just run through my head- "and shot himself through the head." It made no sense, but it made every sense. And there was no running away from it. I was committing a kind of spiritual suicide.
But the moment the infidelity occurred, that was it. The marriage was over, and the excommunication process started. And so there I was on- I'll never forget standing on the grass by the stream when she told me that she had gone to the bishop, that it was- you know, there was no future there, that everything I wanted just was sort of- I was standing on this stage, in effect, that I had created, that it wasn't an act, it wasn't a play that was built for me.
MARLIN K. JENSEN: There is a single standard of morality for all members of the church. The only marriage sanctioned by God is of a man to a woman. So there is really no allowance within our doctrine for a homosexual relationship of woman-to-woman or man-to-man. And obviously, that creates a lot of pain. And the thing that we have to ultimately say to someone like that is, "If you're going to live your life within the framework of the gospel and within the framework of our doctrine, then you've got to choose to marry someone of the opposite sex. And if you can't do that honestly, then your choice has to be to live a celibate life." And that is a very difficult choice for the parents, for the young man, the young woman, for whoever's making that choice. And my heart goes out to them.
TREVOR SOUTHEY: There's something terribly tragic that not only Mormonism but most religions have such a hard time with the odd ducks. But the bottom line is most of us are odd, to a greater or lesser extent, and embracing the odd duck, to me, is the measure of true religion. True religion says, "You're weird, but I love you nonetheless." That's what Jesus would have done. And so for me, it is a great failure that the family can only be the family almost by the Ozzie and Harriet definition, and anything outside of that is not a family at all.
I have no bitterness toward the church, which surprises me. I loved it dearly, and I still love it. I love Mormon people. I love the notions of Mormonism, of teaching that you are an eternal soul, you came from the heavenly father, and you're here because our family was meant for you. That kind of makes me terribly sad at times that I can't be in that place.
NARRATOR: For those Mormon families who do conform to the church's doctrines, its core belief that families are forever can forge a powerful bond. For the Tillemann-Dicks, this faith has sustained them through the serious health crisis of their 23-year-old daughter, Charity.
CHARITY TILLEMANN-DICK, Opera Singer: I found out about my condition in my final steps to going to mission. I went to the doctors and they did the EKG, and the nurse's eyes popped. They popped. I wasn't wearing my contacts and I could still tell they popped. And they came back and they told me that I had this condition, primary pulmonary hypertension. And I remember going home and looking it up on the Internet, and the first thing I found talked about a two to five-year mortality rate for people who had this condition, period, that, you know, you lived for two to five years with this condition and then you died. I remember I just started sobbing. I was crying and crying.
NARRATOR: Fearing the day they might never again hear the voice of their daughter, an emerging young opera star, Charity's family gathered for an emotional all-day recording session.
CHARITY TILLEMANN-DICK: I get melancholy sometimes. I get sad. I still have never been on a real date. I have never had a boyfriend. It's hard to think that I might never fall in love, that I might never get married in the temple, that I might never have children or adopt children. It's hard to think that I might never see my little sisters and my little brothers grow up.
I know that whether it's in 10 years or 10,000 years, that there isn't the hope, there's the knowledge that not only will I see God my father again, but I will see and be with my sisters again, and with my mother again and my father again. In the end, we will be together with our families. And to know that we would be together was such a comfort, was such a comfort, the knowledge that this really is going to happen, that this isn't just something that we've been taught in Sunday school, that this isn't just something that we've been told, that this is something real, that we will go home and I will see my mother and my father, and I will see Glorianna and Senneth and Mercina and Shiloh, that I'll see Liberty and Corbin and Kimber and Levi and Dulcia and Tomikah, that I will be home.
Act 5 The Temple
NARRATOR: Every religion has its rites and its mysteries. They can give life meaning. They can soften the ache of loneliness and the terror of death. In their temple, Mormons are taught the plan of salvation, and through secret rituals, how to subdue the powers of death.
RANDALL PAUL: The temple is the holiest place on earth for Mormons.
RICHARD BUSHMAN, Biographer of Joseph Smith: It is sacred space.
ALEX CALDIERO: The temple is the meeting place between the infinite and the finite.
TERRYL GIVENS, Author: The temple exists as a kind of microcosm of that heavenly world that we hope to inhabit.
MARLIN K. JENSEN, LDS Church Historian: What really is almost the universal symbol throughout the history of mankind, the worship of God in the temple, is something now that is almost lost, except to this church. And one of the- really, one of the priceless things that Joseph Smith restored or brought back to earth was a knowledge of what a temple was and what should occur in a temple.
NARRATOR: It was here in the Mormons' first temple, in Kirtland, Ohio, that Joseph Smith said he had an extraordinary vision of his brother, Alvin. As a young man, Alvin had died a painful death before he could be baptized in Joseph's church.
TERRYL GIVENS: His brother Alvin dies. Presumably, that prompted his reflections and his pondering on the question of what is the status of the dead who died unbaptized or without receiving the fullness of the gospel, and that precipitates a vision.
NARRATOR: Smith said that in a blaze of light, he saw his brother, along with Jesus and several Old Testament figures. Elijah appeared to Smith and gave the prophet the new and strange doctrine of the baptism for the dead. It would offer salvation to those in the afterlife who had not yet heard the Mormon gospel. This was the beginning of a series of revelations that would transform Mormonism. It became both a religion of the book and a religion of temple rites.
In the 19th century, the Mormons built temples in Ohio, Illinois and Utah. By the middle of the 20th century, temples crossed America from Los Angeles to New York. Today, well over a hundred dot the world, from Russia and Japan to Ghana and Chile.
Outsiders are not allowed in the Temple except during the few weeks before it is dedicated. And Mormons who enter are not allowed to speak of much of what happens here.
JUDITH FREEMAN, Author: And I remember that at that time, there were certain things- part of the rituals in the temple is that you made the sign of disemboweling yourself and then also slitting your throat. And you made this in conjunction with the promise that you made that you would never reveal what goes on in the temple. You would never reveal any temple rituals.
NARRATOR: These symbolic oaths were dropped in 1990, but a secrecy vow remains for some of the rites.
MARLIN K. JENSEN: It's, in a sense, secret because we don't talk about it outside of the temple. We do that only because it's a sacred thing to us, and you know, when millions of people have participated in it and kept it confidential to a large extent, it shows you, I think, the seriousness with which that whole experience is taken.
TERRYL GIVENS: Before any Latter Day Saint can enter into the temple, he or she must have what's called a "temple recommend." you need to show that you're committed enough that you're paying your tithing, that you're living the word of wisdom, that you're faithful to your spouse, and those kinds of things.
JAMES CLAYTON, Political Science Professor: There are serious consequences for failing to qualify for a temple recommend. Among them are the fact that you can't hold a higher position in church administration. You can't work for the church in, say, BYU or in other church-affiliated institutions. You cannot marry in the temple. You cannot go to the temple to see your own children married if you are not worthy to have a temple recommend. So it's a process of excluding people in order to refine their religious devotion.
NARRATOR: Mormons say they enter the temple and leave ordinary life behind. They change into white garments. It is a place of silence broken only by whispering. There is no central nave, as in a cathedral. There are no sermons or crosses. There is no religious worship in the usual sense.
Instead, there are a series of rooms where Mormons perform ceremonies for the living and the dead that they feel are essential for salvation, rooms where Mormons are married for eternity, others where they are sealed to their children for all time.
JUDITH FREEMAN, Author: The first time that I went to the temple, I think I was impressed by the beauty, the sheer beauty of those rooms and how they were painted, and trees and fruit and birds, how people dressed in all white- white shoes, socks, belts, shirts, dresses, everything all white. How ethereal that is, like being in a group of angels.
NARRATOR: In the endowment room, in a ceremony all temple Mormons undergo, they watch a filmed drama of the plan of salvation and are taught secret signs and phrases that after death will enable them to return to God.
MARGARET TOSCANO, Classics Professor: When I first went to the LDS temple and received my endowments, all I can do is describe it as I really had a mystical experience, where the temple ritual, which is set out as the journey of Adam and Eve, that there was a way in which I connected to it on a very deep spiritual level.
TREVOR SOUTHEY, Artist: It was shocking to me because it was so ritualistic. And I had heard missionaries mocking Catholics with all their incense and ritual, and all of a sudden, I was in the middle of this experience, not only watching it but doing it. And it was really shocking to me and- but at the same time, there was a kind of- there was a sweetness to it that grabbed me, up to a point.
NARRATOR: In every temple, there's an immense baptismal font where proxy baptisms for the dead are conducted day and night. Mormons are not just baptizing their own ancestors, but all those who died not knowing that they could be members of the Mormon church.
MARLIN K. JENSEN: If Jesus is the savior of mankind and if hearing his gospel is necessary for salvation, what about those who have never heard of Jesus? And the answer is, if they don't hear it in this life, they, we believe, go to a spirit world following this life, and it is in that realm that they are able to hear the gospel and they can decide whether they're going to accept it or whether they're going to reject it. And if they do accept it, then we believe that there is still a need for certain religious ceremonies to be performed for them. One of those is baptism.
ELBERT PECK, Editor: I remember doing this as a teenager myself. And we would go in there, and there's a man who holds the priesthood who is baptizing you. And your turn comes up, and you go down into the font and you're baptized for a bunch of names at a time, maybe 20 names. And this time, he had a little computer screen, where the name of the person you were being baptized for would appear. And he would hold you by the hand, raise his hand to the right and say, "Elbert Peck, for and on behalf of," you know, "Joseph Schwengen," or whoever, "I baptize you in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Ghost." And then he'd immerse you in the water, and you'd come out.
RICHARD MOUW, Evangelical Theologian: I've thought a lot about the baptism for the dead phenomenon. It may be theologically tenuous, but it speaks to a genuine human need to be linked to past generations and to, in some sense, take one- take responsibility for one's ancestors. And so even though I don't advocate baptism for the dead, I don't see it as a purely flaky kind of thing.
ROMAN KENT, Holocaust Survivor: When I found out that Mormons are baptizing the Jews, Holocaust survivors, one word, it was shocked. Second word, how can they do it? Third word, why do they do it? Because it was, in a way, an unbelievable experience for me to find out that somebody can baptize another person after the person died.
I am a Jew. I was born as a Jew. Six million my brothers and my friends and my family were killed because they were Jews. So I wanted them to be Jews. I wanted them to remain Jews, and I didn't want anybody later on - 100, 200 years from now, to tell me that my parents were not Jewish because somewhere in the archives in the Mormon church, there is my father's name, my mother's name is listed as a gentile, as a Mormon person. This was to me painful.
MARLIN K. JENSEN: We haven't wanted as a church to just, you know, assert our 1st Amendment right and say, "Well, this is what we believe. This is our doctrine," and the devil may care. That isn't our intent at all. That's why in 1995, we entered into an arrangement with them. At that time, we, in a sense, took out of our records those Holocaust survivors or Holocaust victims for whom we had performed temple work. And we have been actually very diligent since in not sending to our temples Jewish names, unless they were sent by Jewish members of our church who have sent in the names of their own relatives.
NARRATOR: Despite the controversy, the Mormon effort to baptize the world's dead continues, and they have mobilized an army of volunteers around the world to root out the names of people they believe might still be saved.
HAROLD BLOOM, Humanities Professor: There is literally a mountain of names in one extraordinary structure outside of Salt Lake City-and indestructible. I am told that even a direct hit by an atomic bomb, something like an asteroid collision, would have to occur to wipe it out.
NARRATOR: Of the seven billion names of the dead which have ever been recorded, approximately two billion have already been collected by Mormon volunteers and stored here. And today Mormons have baptized well over 100 million deceased people.
COLLEEN McDANNELL, Religious History Professor: Genealogy is a core ritual in Mormonism. As the living Mormon, you're the center of this great exchange. You are a part of creating this vast network of interconnection of people who've lived in the past and in the future. And so genealogy is something which Mormons feel very connected to.
NARRATOR: The Family History Library in Salt Lake City is one of approximately 2,000 LDS genealogical research libraries across the world. Their complete records are now on line and open to non-Mormons and Mormons alike. The archives are clearly tapping into an almost universal hunger for family history.
[www.pbs.org: Genealogy and the Mormon archives]
BETTY STEVENSON: I wasn't really interested in genealogy. I didn't even like my family. I had been hurt and abused verbally and just, you know- and to realize that my salvation was dependent upon their salvation, and then to do genealogy, go in and discover that my grandmother was raised on Oakley plantation- I had never come to grips with the fact that my folks not too far removed was the slaves that we talk about. And so now it's like I can go forward four generations and go backwards three. And when I started in the church, I didn't even know who Betty Stevenson was. And it's hard to explain the spiritual connection that I now feel to my ancestors.
NARRATOR: Those spiritual connections to the eternal family are at the core of the Mormon religion, and that belief system was at the center of this believer's greatest spiritual crisis. He and his wife risked everything for their faith.
JAMES DALRYMPLE, Sr., Filmmaker: We had seven children, and most people would think that they were complete or well beyond complete. We struggle with that. Marla struggled with it a lot because she had this sense of someone missing. There is another child there, another spirit waiting to come to earth, to mortality. There's another child there that is part of our family.
We prayed about it. We spent time on our knees together, asking God is this something that God wants us to do, and is there really another spirit child there for us?
I believe that we lived before we came to the earth, that we lived before this life as spirit children of our heavenly father. And somehow, in that pre-existence, our family that we have developed here- we were connected there, as well, and we're not yet complete. And so we decided to have another child. And it wasn't an easy decision. My wife was 42, and just being 42 and having had seven children already makes you a high risk case, and having gestational diabetes adds to that. And so there were a number of risks, and so it wasn't a decision that we made lightly.
And the baby was born, a little boy, named him David William. It was extremely difficult for her. She really had to give everything that she had to bring that baby into the world. Following the delivery, she had a blood clot which had gone to her heart and lungs, and they told me there was nothing they could do, that there was no brain function, that she had passed away. I was totally unprepared for that.
I'm hurt. I'm wounded. Someone has just torn at my heart. I still miss her horribly. If I knew that- I guess if I had to be honest, and say, "Knowing what I know now, would I do it again?" There are days when I would say no, I wouldn't. I wouldn't do it again because it came with a terrible price.
But I believe firmly that I will see my wife again and that we will be together again, that our family will be reunited again, and that this is not the end and we'll hold each other and we'll cry and we'll laugh and it will be very much like it is, now except better.
I don't know how others who stand on the brink of eternity and face death- how they could deal with that without an overwhelming despairing sense of loss. It brings me tremendous comfort to know that I have made covenants and promises in the temple with my wife that continue on.
TERRYL GIVENS, Author: The temple exists as a kind of vehicle through which we conquer mortality. We go to the temple, and our relationships with other human beings are rendered permanent and eternal in defiance of death. There are scriptures in the Book of Mormon, there are quotations from Brigham Young that emphasize 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. Not only will something remain, but everything will be reconstituted as it was.
HAROLD BLOOM: What is the essence of religion? Sigmund Freud said it was the longing for the father. Others have called it the desire for the mother or for transcendence. I fear deeply that all these are idealizations, and I offer the rather melancholy suggestion that they would all vanish from us if we did not know that we must die. Religion rises inevitably from our apprehension of our own death. To give meaning to meaninglessness is the endless quest of all religion. When death becomes the center of our consciousness, then religion authentically begins.
Of all religions that I know, the one that most vehemently and persuasively defies and denies the reality of death is the original Mormonism of the prophet, seer and revelator Joseph Smith.
NARRATOR: For more than 175 years, the Mormon story has played out across the American landscape, and increasingly on the world stage. It is the story of a people fired by a bold religious faith, who have struggled to find a way to stand with America and still preserve the power of the very distinct beliefs that can leave them standing apart.
JON BUTLER, Historian: Mormonism is extraordinarily successful. Mormons have huge numbers of worldwide converts, as well as millions of Americans who follow the movement. And yet there's still an odd limiting factor about modern Mormonism, that somehow, it's a religion that isn't respected.
The peculiarity of Mormonism is that, on the one hand, it's a profoundly historical religion for which evidence is sorely lacking, and yet that has never prevented Mormons from believing deeply in their religion. They believe in that history as a matter of faith. And yet at the same time, they practice a modern faith that dedicates itself to the reconstruction of the individual, the reconstruction of the family, the reconstruction of the community and the reconstruction of society, so that in the end, Mormonism is part of the modern religious and political landscape, and yet it's separate. It's apart. All religious systems have to move beyond their own creation. The question is, can Mormonism do it? Can it survive the present? Can it move into the future?