Wednesday, May 2, 2007

Whitney's "The Mormons": Reactions

After watching Parts 1 and 2 of Helen Whitney's documentary last night and the night before, I have a few observations. Overall, I thought it was well done and fair. I found myself frustrated at times that she wasn't telling the whole story. For example, the section on Polygamy presented the manifesto as something that was universally excepted by the whole church at that moment and ended polygamy in an instant. In reality, Mormon polygamy died a slow death. Even two Apostles, John W. Taylor, and Matthias F. Cowley were eventually excommunicated because of their refusal to abandon "the Principle." Greg Smith's FAIR article on post-manifesto polygamy gives a thorough and well-informed treatment. Though I'm not so sure about his conclusions, he tells the story well.

Giving the simplistic view, I think, cheapens the experience of Mormon polygamy and the inspiration of the manifesto. It is important to understand how much the pioneer saints had given and sacrificed for polygamy, and how long their leaders had preached it, to understand how hard it was to give up. Against this cultural background the courage and vision of the manifesto becomes clear. The simple view makes it seem like Wilford Woodruff was left with no choice and pressured into renouncing polygamy. In reality, the pioneer saints had "endured many things and hope[d] to be able to endure all things" to preserve what they believed was right. They would have gladly submitted to exile. It is too simple to say that the church dropped polygamy to get statehood. Polygamy was several orders of magnitude more important to men like John Taylor and Wilford Woodruff than was statehood.

Instead, a more holistic view takes the manifesto against that background as a visionary and progressive document. To essentially put aside 5 decades of church practice that had been tempered in the fires of Missouri and hardened through the plains and the deserts had to be more than mere capitulation to the federal government. Recognizing this, I think, recognizes the majesty and vision of the revelation behind the manifesto.

On the other hand, to tell the whole story would have been impossible in Whitney's medium. Polygamy would take the entire 4 hours. Her treatment was probably appropriate given the constraints.

Another criticism is that on a macro level, there was too much emphasis on the Mountain Meadows Massacre and on the September Six. These stories are important, but Whitney's states purpose was to give an outsider an insider's look at the Mormon experience. Many if not most Mormons know very little about the MMM and are not plagued by it. Whitney's devoting an entire 1/6 of Part 1 to the MMM made it seem like Mormons still have a guilt complex about it. I appreciated that Will Bagley's view was countered by Glen Leonard, but it would have been helpful to know that Bagley is on the fringe of the scholarly consensus on the MMM.

One last criticism: too much screen time given to Margaret Toscano and Tal Bachman. I've read most of Toscano's work. But her excommunication was not for her work and opinions as much as it was for her refusal to recognize that her own thoughts were not revelations to the entire church. She told the horror story of her church court but there was insufficient presentation of the other side. Part of that is the practical reality that disciplinary councils are confidential and the church does not publish those proceedings, so there really is only one side of the story out there. Whitney did acknowledge this, but it was brief. You could have easily missed it if you weren't paying attention. Bachman's remark that as a missionary he would have been willing to be a suicide bomber was inflammatory and totally unnecessary. It would have been helpful to counter that with a sane returned missionary. I was also annoyed by Bachman's insistence that he daily risked his life as a missionary. Sounds like a martyr complex to me.

Overall, though, I thought it was well done. The ending was great. I recommend it, but with the caveat that it is only a superficial treatment, a survey of sorts, and that only further reading will give you a more complete view. If "The Mormons" is the basis for all your knowledge of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, your understanding will be superficial and lacking. But if you use "The Mormons" as a starting place for further reading, you will find it a great appetizer for a meatier meal.

What did you think?

Other resources:

Dave over at DMI has a nice list of the people interviewed with some info on each.

"The Mormons" website on is a great resource with full transcripts of the interviews and more information.

The NYT gave it a positive review.

On, Filmmaker Helen Whitney took part in a conversation with readers about the film. Her comments are worth reading.

1 comment:

bwebster said...

I've posted a few of my own reactions to the PBS special on my own LDS blog -- they largely coincide with yours, though I address the issues raised in the 'September Six' segment in greater detail. ..bruce..

Bruce F. Webster