Co-produced for PBS by “American Experience” and “Frontline,” “The Mormons” is a two-part, four-hour documentary presentation on the history and social development of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
Directed by Helen Whitney (“John Paul II – The Millennial Pope”), “The Mormons” is at once as scrupulously respectful and sympathetic as any religious adherent might hope for in such a treatment, while also dealing directly and fairly with thorny subjects from Joseph Smith’s evolving accounts of his religious experiences to the Mountain Meadow Massacre of 120 travelers by Utah Mormons and the subsequent church cover-up.
With a clear intent to confront popular preconceptions and misunderstandings about Mormonism, Whitney emphasizes the church’s transition from self-imposed outsider status to the American mainstream, saving the topic of polygamy for the end.
A plethora of talking heads represent various points of view, from Mormons to non-Mormons to ex-Mormons — affiliations that unfortunately aren’t always made clear. Discernment is needed to navigate some of the rhetoric dealing with the historical problems of Mormonism’s recent origins, such as the suggestion that historic religions like Judaism and Christianity somehow get a break by having origins obscured in the mists of time.
Oddly, the actual doctrinal content of Mormon theology is virtually absent. Whitney focuses on the movement’s historical odyssey, and touches on some of Smith’s kookier ideas regarding, e.g., the Garden of Eden, but largely avoids discussing what the founders and leaders of this movement taught and teach about God and the afterlife.
Still, as a historical overview of Mormonism’s origins, “The Mormons” is worthwhile introduction for discerning viewers. Christian viewers may want to supplement it with a doctrinal critique, such as one of Mormon-turned-Catholic Isaiah Bennett’s books, such as Inside Mormonism.
Copyright © 2000– Steven D. Greydanus. All rights reserved.