The PBS Special: “The Mormons”

I watched this earlier this week when it was broadcast. My overall grade for the show is a “B”. I give it an “A” for production values, a “B” for effort, and a “C” for overall balance and accuracy. Case in point: referring to the various polygamous sects in Utah as “fundamentalist Mormons” is about as accurate as referring to the Church of England a century after Henry VIII as “fundamentalist Catholics”. I may post a more detailed critique of the show (which I recorded) later; I do intend to post on some of the specific issues raised. ..bruce..

[UPDATED 06/15/07 – 2036 MDT]

Since I seem to be getting a steady stream of people coming into this post (usually via Google), here are two follow-up posts I have written on the PBS special, “The Mormons”:

And here are a few other posts that, while not directly responding to the PBS special, do address some of the issues raised therein:

And, finally, here’s my own background and qualifications to write about all this.

Welcome to the site; I hope these posts are useful. ..bruce..

10 thoughts on “The PBS Special: “The Mormons”

  1. This makes no sense. Fundamentalist Mormons follow the principles taught by early Church leaders, disregarding later leaders who taught otherwise. They are both fundamentalist and Mormon, so what’s the problem with the term? You didn’t think that “Mormon” meant “Member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints” only, did you? The title was “The Mormons” not “Members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints,” and it would be reasonable to include anyone who proclaims themselves Mormon through some affinity for the Book of Mormon under that banner.

    If you’ve got details that indicate that Anglicans of that date were claiming to be following principles taught by early Catholic leaders, I’d be interested in seeing them — that would make some kind of support for the parallel you’re claiming. Or, perhaps, that Fundamentalist Mormons are claiming to be protesting against corruption and false doctrine in the Church.

  2. The Church of England (Anglican) split off from the Roman Catholic church over a single issue: Henry VII’s repeated marriages and annulments in order to produce an heir. Prior to that time, the Pope had actually given Henry the title “Defender of the Faith” due to his writings attacking Martin Luther and supporting the Catholic Church (ibid.). After the split, the Church of England continued to follow Catholic practices, theology, and ceremonies at the insistence of Henry V. A lot of sympathy for Catholic practices remained in the Anglican Church throughout that time period (and remains even today in some sections). The Church of England sees itself as following early Christian theology more closely than the Catholic Church. So, yes, I think it’s a fair analogy.

    And, yes, within what are termed “Restoration Churches” (meaning those that somehow trace their roots back to Joseph Smith; see, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is the only one that has been consistently designated “the Mormon Church” in media, scholarship, and popular usage. Virtually all the other Restoration churches assiduously avoid the name “Mormon” precisely to avoid confusion with the LDS Church.

    Ironically, the LDS Church has made efforts itself at various times to end the practice of referring to it as “the Mormon Church”, as recently as a few years ago, and still discourages its use, though the Church itself owns and runs the website. ..bruce..

  3. I think a closer case to “fundamentalist Catholic” would be Mel Gibson, personally.

    Yeah, Joseph was the one who coined the phrase “Mormon Church,” and it helped give the Church an identity from the beginning. However, the documentary wasn’t entitled “The Mormon Church,” it was entitled “The Mormons,” which means it’s talking about people, not (necessarily) churches.

    And the Church only accepts the names “The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints” and “The Church of Christ” at last word.

    Fundamentalist Mormons who use the phrase clearly do not have a problem connecting themselves with the term Mormon, and they have every right to use it that anybody else does. Certainly the Church that no longer accepts the name “Mormon Church” lacks the right to restrict the use of the word.

    Have you listened to John Dehlin’s interview with Anne B. Wilde? There’s a lot more to that community than Warren Jeffs, child brides and welfare fraud.

  4. Blain:

    Note my careful qualification: “…as referring to the Church of England a century after Henry VIII…”. At that point, the Anglican Church was still very much a mirror of the Catholic Church, except for whom they recognized as the Church’s head.

    While doing some completely unrelated reading, I also ran across the fact that the Puritans who came over on the Mayflower had left England (first to Holland and then to North America) precisely because they felt the Church of England was holding onto too many Catholic practices, doctrines and traditions. ..bruce..

  5. I noticed. Being a mirror to something has nothing (remotely) to do with being a fundamentalist version of it. The very best treatment on the subject of fundamentalism I’ve ever seen is at John Futterman’s The Virtual Church of the Blind Chihuahua, which, as it doesn’t require me to renounce my membership in the Church, I am also a member of.

    Yes, the Puritans saw the Church of England as having many of the same flaws of the Catholic Church, having a lot to do with corruption and a fair bit to do with idolatry. Their purpose in coming to North America was for their “errand in the wilderness,” whereby they intended to create pure and simple communities of the elect without the worldliness of civilization around them. This would enable them to live more correct lives, which would result in them receiving many blessings that God had not yet given them, which would produce their communities as shining cities on the hills which would attract the view of all the world. Thus, all the world (Christian Europe, England in particular) would see the correct way to live and the benefits of it, and the world would be saved from its corruption.

    They failed in this task for reasons that are rather clear from a modern Mormon perspective — they underestimated the power of free agency and overestimated their capacity to live pure and perfect lives. They forgot the Buckaroo Banzai principle of “no matter where you go, there you are.” So, gradually, they transformed from that strict Puritan model to a more moderated Congregational tradition which very heavily influenced the Church in its formative years, and the traces of it can still be seen in the Church today.

  6. BTW, I’ve asked some questions here that you’ve not answered. Are you going to address them in any fashion, or are you going to continue to cherry-pick the points you are more comfortable with?

  7. Blain:

    Uh…you have me confused as to what questions I haven’t answered.

    If it’s the use of the term ‘fundamentalist Mormon’, then I think I stated my original objection. There are dozens of ‘Restoration’ churches, almost all of which have split off because of a disagreement in doctrine, and many of which claim to have gone back to the ‘pure doctrine’ of Joseph Smith (cf. the original Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, which has now itself splintered into several factions).

    If I understand your use of the term, one could label a large number of these Restoration churches as ‘fundamentalist Mormons’ — but we don’t, either in general usage or in scholarly papers. If I misunderstand your usage of ‘fundamentalist Mormon’, then please explain it to me again so as to distinguish between the specific organizations you feel it rightly applies to and all the other Restoration churches. Then we can probably continue without talking past one another. Thanks. ..bruce..

  8. Questions I have asked that you haven’t answered:

    1. They are both fundamentalist and Mormon, so what’s the problem with the term?

    2. Have you listened to John Dehlin’s interview with Anne B. Wilde?

    I guess there weren’t that many actual questions after all. But, usually, the question mark at the end of the sentence is a give-aay that it’s a question, making them easier to find.

    I’ll throw another in, though.

    3. Who is this “we” that doesn’t refer to these people as “fundamentalist Mormons?”

    I know President Hinckley seems to dislike the phrase, but I have less understanding of what he doesn’t like about it than I do what you don’t like about it. Your objection seems to be that there is a large consensus of people who don’t use the term, therefor the term is invalid.

    As to fundamentalism, you clearly have not followed the link to the VCBC. I’m not going to reinvent that wheel, when it’s been built so well (and so entertainingly) there. If I have a problem with the phrase, it would be that the term “fundamentalist Mormon” describes quite a few members in good standing of the Church as well as it describes the people who would describe themselves with it. Summarizing very briefly, fundamentalism is the idolatrous worship of one’s own belief, rather than the object of that belief. It’s worshiping the Church, the Brethren, the Standard Works, a Gospel hobby, or anything else that isn’t God. Past that, you should go to the VCBC and check it out for yourself.

  9. Blain:

    I have no problem with you disagreeing with my criticizing the PBS Special’s decision to label modern Restoration polygamist sects as ‘fundamentalist Mormons’; others would disagree with me as well. I’m just not quite sure why you have such energy over this one criticism on my part.

    Notwithstanding, here are the basic roots of my objection:

    — There are and have been several dozen ‘Restoration’ churches that have in some way broken off from or being inspired by Joseph Smith’s restoration work (First Vision, Book of Mormon, founding of the Church of Christ, D&C, etc.). You are perfectly free to call them all “Mormons”, but I think that you’ll find that most serious literature (e.g., by historians and religious scholars) does not, precisely because the term itself is largely rejected by almost all such churches (including many of the polygamist Restoration churches). If the polygamous churches are to be labeled “Mormon”, then one could easily label all the Restoration churches as such.

    — While the ‘Are you a fundamentalist?’ quiz at the VCBC website is amusing, it is clearly pejorative rather than scholarly. In other words, VCBC (and you) are free to define “fundamentalist” however you choose, but that is not necessarily the standard that should be used for a documentary purporting to give a balanced, scholarly look at the LDS Church (and, for that matter, at related Restoration churches).

    — For example, let’s take the split that occurred after the death of Joseph Smith: which would be considered the fundamentalists: the ‘Brighamites’ (LDS) or the ‘Josephites’ (Reorganized LDS)? Each claimed to be following the foundational doctrines taught by Joseph Smith (just as the polygamous Restoration churches do today).

    — The Reorganized LDS Church itself has now splintered into several groups (Community of Christ, Restoration LDS, Remnant LDS, Restoration Branches) — do you consider them all to be “Mormons”? Are any of them “fundamentalist Mormons”?

    And so on and so forth. In short, I consider the PBS special’s use of the term “fundamentalist Mormons” to be sloppy, imprecise, unscholarly and misleading (as were a number of other narration statements made during the documentary). You clearly feel differently, which you’re perfectly free to do. ..bruce..

  10. Well, that’s one and a half of the three questions. I’m getting a better idea of where you’re coming from, although there are still some big pieces missing. To respond to your questions back:

    I think the label “Mormon” applies to pretty much anybody who wants it, and that works better for me than for someone to apply it to someone else. From what I’ve seen, some folks want it, and some don’t. If someone applies the term “fundamentalist Mormon” to themselves, I’m apt to let them have it, particularly if they’re practicing plural marriage and teaching doctrines that have been deprecated in the Church. I think the answer is going to be different for each of the different Restorationist churches, and I don’t see a need to apply or deny it to all of them in a blanket fashion. From what I’ve picked up, at least some of them prefer the term “independent Mormon,” indicating that they aren’t aligned with any particular group.

    And I’m well aware of the different Restorationist groups — I read “Divergent Paths to the Restoration” more than twenty years ago. You need not bring up their number again.

    Is there anybody that you think the term “fundamentalist Mormon” properly describes?

    We clearly place different weight on the value of something being scholarly. Can you cite a source for the claim that this documentary was intended to be scholarly — I don’t recall seeing that claim anywhere, but I didn’t particularly look for it either.

    VCBC definitely uses humor, and the author does take a strong stand against fundamentalism as he describes it, but that doesn’t make it insincere nor incorrect. It’s certainly not scholarly, but it is exceptionally well informed and well thought out by a very intelligent man with a very interesting life path. Strange that you would invoke Wikipedia as a source to respond with, presumably as a more scholarly example, when I have yet to have a professor who mentions it without also saying that we should not use it as a source because it’s not scholarly. I tend to think they’re a bit prissy — no encyclopedia should be used as a source in a scholarly paper, and that’s all that needs saying — but without exception they have said so.

    Now, how much of your criticism of this documentary is about its alleged lack of scholarliness, and how much of it is that it didn’t present the material you wanted it to in the way that you wanted it to?

    I’m going to take your repeated silence on the question of the interview with Anne B. Wilde to mean that you have not listened to it. I’m not even sure you know who John Dehlin is.

    I’m interested in this question because I’m trying to understand why anybody has a problem with the term “fundamentalist Mormon.” If I run into Pres. Hinckley on a blog, I’ll ask him about it from his perspective as well.

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