A Thoughtful Look at Mormonism; Two-Part PBS Film Explores the Religion's History and Growth

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Byline: HAL BOEDEKER

Religion rarely receives any time in prime time. So four hours devoted to Mormonism are going to stand out on the TV landscape.

PBS' The Mormons deserves the attention because the documentary takes a thoughtful, probing look at a religion that has angered and mystified millions through U.S. history. History matters as much as religious doctrine in this epic American story of outsiders becoming insiders.

The program premieres as Mormons gain new stature: Harry Reid leads Senate Democrats, and Republican Mitt Romney runs for president. Director Helen Whitney didn't interview either in the program, which airs from 9 to 11 Monday and Tuesday night.

But Whitney has found first-rate speakers and assembled the material with style. She achieves balance by interviewing believers and skeptics, church insiders and the excommunicated. Most crucially, she provides respect that has often been denied the religion.

Utah historian Ken Verdoia points to presidential inaugurations to trace the Mormons' rise. In the span of a century, presidents went from decrying the religion to asking the Mormon Tabernacle Choir to sing.

Mormons "were considered a knife at the back of the American experience," Verdoia says. "Now they are, in fact, considered in some ways the very embodiment of what it means to be American. How was that brought about?"

The first half examines the religion's history. Joseph Smith's vision of the angel Moroni led to publication of the Book of Mormon and the church's founding in 1830.

"It was religion made in the USA," author Simon Worrall says. "For the first time, you had a home-grown religion, a home-grown prophet."

And it was a source of controversy immediately, with newspapers and traditional Christians decrying what they saw as blasphemy and fraud. The Mormons faced persecution in Ohio, Missouri and Illinois. Smith's death at the hands of an Illinois mob could have been the end.

But Brigham Young emerged as leader and guided believers to the Valley of the Great Salt Lake in 1847. Whitney recounts that heroic feat in stirring style.

She also explores dark chapters in Mormon history. In 1857, Mormons attacked a wagon train in what became known as the Mountain Meadows Massacre. At least 120 travelers were slain, and a church cover-up began.

"How did these decent, religious men who had sacrificed so much for what they believed in, how did they become mass murderers?" historian Will Bagley asks.

Whitney turns to polygamy without sensationalism. …