Mormons in the Spotlight

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Temple Square, the epicenter of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in downtown Salt Lake City, has been a busy place this spring.

Inside the walls, officials and members alike have been thinking about and reacting to a lot of news about their church, its image and its traumatic history. There is also interest nationwide, given that a Mormon is running for president of the United States.

Along with Mitt Romney, it's suddenly easy to compile a short list of all things Latter-day Saints, or LDS: "Big Love," an HBO Mormon polygamy drama; PBS's four-hour documentary "The Mormons," the second part of which aired last night; and "September Dawn," a movie about the notorious Utah massacre to be released in June.

WHAT TO KNOW
  • "September Dawn," an upcoming feature film starring Jon Voight, will probe the Mountain Meadows massacre of 1857 and investigate Brigham Young's role. Will this critical look at one of the darkest chapters in Mormon history shed new light on Mormonism?

"The biggest issue we have with news media is that they so often fall back on stereotypes to describe us, or their coverage is superficial," said Bruce Olsen, managing director of church public affairs, in a statement to ABC News.

But he turned the corner when commenting on the PBS broadcast.

"Whatever one says about these programs, four hours of television is not superficial," he said.

There was nothing "superficial" about the first part, which aired Monday night. Using carefully selected, articulate talking heads, the documentary explored the intriguing evolution of the church.

It began in the 1820s in Palmyra, N.Y., when young Joseph Smith said he was visited by an angel named Moroni. Smith claimed to receive several revelations and discovered inscribed golden tablets, which would form the basis for the Book of Mormon.

The documentary makes an important point when it tells viewers that the resulting church is uniquely American and so young that its founding events are not shrouded in the fog of centuries of history.

Its origins in revelation has made the religion an easy target. It's been criticized by intellectuals and skeptics. But the broadcast avoids going into depth on that level. "All religion depends on revelation," said prominent literary and cultural critic Harold Bloom in one act. "All revelation is supernatural."

Part one also probed the definition of faith and what Mormonism has in common with other religions. The similarities to Judaism and continuing persecution are striking.

Obviously, not everyone will agree with Mormon theology, but PBS did a thorough job in presenting a thoughtful analysis, warts and all.

Although church officials would not comment until they had seen both episodes of "The Mormons," the word on the street around Temple Square is that they are optimistic about being treated favorably. On background, one official said the church cooperated with the documentary's producer and came away feeling they would get a fair shake.

But it is the upcoming film, "September Dawn," that may cause the biggest stir.

The movie, which was filmed in Canada, not in Utah, where the story is set, takes a critical look at one of the darkest chapters in Mormon history and portrays followers and leaders as anything but saints.

The Mountain Meadows massacre of 1857 is considered the worst mass killing in U.S. history. On Sept. 11, 1857, 147 pioneers from Arkansas were killed in the territory of Utah by a raiding party whose ties to the church remain in dispute to this day.

The territorial governor and president of the church, Brigham Young (played by Terence Stamp), is heard -- in a voice-over -- encouraging vengeance. "Blood atonement" he called it.

The suggestion is that Mormons were seeking revenge after they were persecuted and driven out of Missouri. It happened at a time when Washington was threatening to take over the territory and Young wanted nothing of it.

Michael Purdy, a spokesman for the church, disputes historical claims that Young ordered the wagon train of settlers slaughtered to keep non-Mormons out of Utah.

"While no one fully knows what happened at Mountain Meadows 150 years ago, we recognize it was a terrible tragedy for all," he told ABCNEWS.com. "The church has done much to remember those who lost their lives there."

At a memorial service and dedication of the Mountain Meadows monument near Cedar City, Utah, in 1999, church president Gordon B. Hinckley said, "I sit in the chair that Brigham Young occupied as president of the church at the time of the tragedy. There is no question in my mind that he was opposed to what happened. Had there been a faster means of communication, it never would have happened."

Explaining the reference to "faster means of communication," Purdy said Young "sent a messenger by horseback but the messenger did not arrive in time to prevent the tragedy."

Brian Patrick, a film studies professor at the University of Utah who produced the documentary "Burying the Past," which may be the genesis of the "September Dawn," disagreed.

"Relatives of the Arkansas victims say Young ordered the killings," Patrick told ABC News. "No one knows for sure, but we do know after reviewing all the records that at the very least Young covered up a serious, serious crime."

Retired NFL star quarterback Steve Young, who is the great-great-great-grandson of Brigham Young, declined to comment, as did presidential candidate Romney.

To Patrick, the massacre evoked an eerie resonance. Referring to the Sept.11 attack on the World Trade Center, he said there's a "direct correlation with what happened at Mountain Meadows. It's the notion of religion running amok and religious fanaticism both then and now."

But Patrick and others stopped short of predicting any lasting damage to the church. "I don't think this, the movie or the PBS portrayal of the massacre will take them out," he said.

In Utah, where about two-thirds of the state's population is Mormon, reaction seems to depend on one's age and commitment to the church.

A young Salt Lake City computer technician brushed off the massacre controversy with a simple explanation. "It was a failure to communicate," he told ABC News. "There's nothing more sinister to it than that. It's not a big deal."

An architect from Park City who left the church years ago was harsher. "We were never, ever taught about the Mountain Meadows massacre in school," he said. "And you can and should quote me on that."

Historic amnesia is something a lot of people talked about when referring to church history and its impact on the LDS church today. Both the massacre and the early days of polygamy, which has long been outlawed by the church, are particularly painful to the faithful.

"The massacre is a horrific story and one the rest of the nation will be fascinated by," said Patrick. "The perpetrators singled out people and attacked them even after they raised a white flag of surrender. But today, Mormons still don't quite understand how to say, 'We're sorry.' They won't admit to anything at all."

When the monument was rebuilt eight years ago, it was "assembled with a lot of fervor and a great deal of volunteerism," said Patrick.

"All of a sudden, they were building the new one having torn down the old one repeatedly," he said. "And then they denied having anything to do with the massacre. Even when bones were accidentally dug up, there was a rush to send them to BYU [Brigham Young University], which infuriated the relatives of the Arkansas victims."

Patrick said there is no mention on the monument that would help visitors understand what happened at Mountain Meadows 150 years ago.

"They have taken control of history. The worst massacre in U.S. history, and no one is allowed to know about it," he said. "For a while, they seemed to be contrite but then, well, maybe their lawyers advised them to disavow everything."

Mormons have long been considered "a people apart." But now, as one of the fastest-growing religions in the world with more than 12 million followers, a presidential candidate vying for the White House and no shortage of media attention, Mormons may soon discover they can no longer "take control of history," no matter how painful.

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