The gospel according to Smith

Review: PBS documentary on the founder of the Mormon church lacks balance but tells a tale for the ages.

November 26, 1999|By Chris Kaltenbach | Chris Kaltenbach,SUN STAFF

Whatever you think about the religion he started, Joseph Smith's life is one of the most extraordinary in U.S. history.

Largely self-educated, Smith turned a vision he insisted came directly from God into a whole new take on Christianity, one that said the Gospels were sometimes mistaken, proclaimed that a lost tribe of Israel had long ago made its way to the North American continent, and preached -- at least initially -- the advantages of plural marriage.

For their troubles, he and his followers were kicked out of community after community, state after state. They were harassed, persecuted and viciously attacked -- both in print and in person. Smith himself was jailed and, while imprisoned, murdered by a mob determined to rid the world of a man they were convinced was a false prophet out to undermine the American way of life.

"American Prophet," from director Lee Groberg and writer Heidi Swinton, unquestioningly accepts Smith's divine knowledgeand skillfully avoids some of the more controversial tenets of the religion he founded (polygamy is dealt with only in the film's waning minutes).

In that sense, it fails as a documentary. It would have been interesting to hear an in-depth discussion of the tenets of what Smith christened the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. It would have been enlightening to hear more about why Smith and his followers infuriated so many Americans.

And it would have been refreshing to hear from some of the historians who believe Smith's visions were little more than delusions -- and to hear the response from other scholars, including those representing the Mormon church.

So, it's important to realize "American Prophet" tells only one side of the story.

Still, the tale of how Smith, just 169 years ago, started a religion that today counts more than 10 million adherents in 160 countries, is one for the ages. Born in 1805 in Sharon, Vt. (the film was co-produced by Vermont Public Television), Smith was just 14 when, while praying in the woods for guidance on which church to join, he was visited by two "personages" who identified themselves as God and Jesus Christ. God, Smith said, told him to join no established church.

Three years later, Smith, then living in Manchester, N.Y., claimed he was visited by an angel, Moroni, who told him of a hidden book that would point the way toward a religion truer than any established Christian sect.

Smith found the book (inscribed on gold plates), translated it, showed it to a handful of fellow believers -- none of whom ever questioned the book's existence, though they later split with Smith -- and eventually published what would become known as the Book of Mormon.

On April 6, 1830, Smith organized his church and became its first president.

Smith and his followers, who went from New York to Pennsylvania to Ohio to Missouri in search of a city they could develop and call home, were shunned by much of society.

Not only were their beliefs different than much of Christian America's, but they tended to keep to themselves and not trade with outsiders, and they were not shy about telling anyone who wasn't a practicing Mormon that they were following the wrong religion.

But nothing excuses the crushing bigotry that the latter-day saints had to endure, bigotry that would lead to their leader's murder and their eventual exile to a barren area around a huge salt lake west of the Rockies.


What: `American Prophet: The Story of Joseph Smith'

When: 9 p.m.-11 p.m.

Where: MPT, Channels 22 and 67

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