Magazine article USA TODAY

Misunderstood Mormons Gaining Momentum

Magazine article USA TODAY

Misunderstood Mormons Gaining Momentum

Article excerpt

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is one of the U.S.'s fastest-growing religions and, relative to its size, one of the richest. Church membership, now at 12,000,000, sweeps the globe. Yet, from the moment of its founding in 1830, the Church has been controversial. In the early years Mormons were hated, ridiculed, persecuted, and feared.

In the past several decades, however, the Mormon Church has transformed itself from a fringe sect into a thriving religion that embraces mainstream American values; its members include prominent and powerful politicians, university presidents, and corporate leaders. Mormons always have had a peculiar hold on the American imagination, but few know who the Mormons actually are, or who they claim to be, and their story is one of the great neglected American narratives. No longer.

On April 30 and May 1, "American Experience" and "Frontline," two of PBS's best-known series, join forces to present the documentary, "The Mormons." In a pair of two-hour episodes, filmmaker Helen Whitney ("John Paul II: The Millennial Pope" and "Faith and Doubt at Ground Zero") explores the history and present 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," Whitney explains, "I hope to take the viewer inside one of the most compelling and misunderstood religions of our time."

In 1827, in the town of Palmyra, N.Y., devout Mormons believe 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 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," says Terryl Givens, the author of several books on Mormon history. "God doesn't deliver gold plates to farm boys." Yet, Smith's visions, which reportedly began when he was 14, are central to Mormons' faith. "We declare without equivocation that God the Father and his son, the Lord Jesus Christ, appeared in person to the boy, Joseph Smith," maintains Gordon Hinckley, president of LDS. "Our whole strength rests on the validity of that vision."

Part One of the documentary begins with the turbulent early history of the Mormon faith, from 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," notes Dallin Oaks, an elder of the Mormon Church. Adds author and historian Truman Madsen: "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."

"Why would they be so hated?" asks Jon Butler, professor of religion at Yale University. "It has to do with ... fear of unknown personal practices, polygamy, fear of unknown beliefs, the fear of power and hierarchy--did the Mormons really think for themselves or did Joseph Smith think for them? …

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