American Experience and Frontline, two of PBS‘ most acclaimed series, join forces to present The Mormons, a new documentary series about the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. In two, two-hour episodes, filmmaker Helen Whitney explores both the history and the current reality of the Mormon faith.
Whitney gained unusual access to Mormon archives and church leaders as well as dissident exiles, historians and scholars both within and outside the faith. “Through this film, I hope to take the viewer inside one of the most compelling and misunderstood religions of our time,” says Whitney.
Devout Mormons believe that in 1827 in the town of Palmyra, New York, 21-year-old Joseph Smith dug up a set of golden tablets that contained the seeds of a new religion. According to Smith, he was guided to that spot by an angel who appeared to him in a vision.
The Mormons begins with the turbulent early history of the Mormon faith, from Joseph Smith’s astonishing visions and the creation of The Book of Mormon through the Mormons’ contentious and sometimes violent confrontations with their neighbors and the founding and ultimate abandonment of three major religious communities in Ohio, Missouri and Illinois. “The persecution of the Mormons was officially sanctioned by at least two different state governments,” says Dallin Oaks, elder of the Mormon Church. Adds Truman Madsen, author and historian, “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 state houses to pulpits.”
The Mormons traces the Latter-day Saints’ transformation in recent decades from the status of outcasts to mainstream players in U.S. politics and culture, and into a global religion with as many as 240,000 converts annually, thanks to the efforts of Mormon missionaries. Each year, 50,000 Mormon teenagers join “God’s Army” and march across the planet from Latin America to Mongolia to Zimbabwe. “You go,” says Bryan Horn, a returned missionary. “Dad went. Grandpa went. And Grandpa, who’s a descendant of Wilfred Woodruff, who was taught by Joseph Smith, went on missions.”
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