Click On Title To Link To Wikipedia's Entry On The Mormons.
American Experience:The Mormons, various commentators, PBS Productions, 2006
At first glance the trials and tribulations, historically and currently of a fundamentalist protestant sect, the Mormons and their various off-shoots, would not seem to be the stuff of a left-wing secular political site. And in the normal course that would be true. However, there several reasons why this particular religious sect interests me. First, from early on I have been interested in that wild and somewhat decisive period in forming the national psyche in American history that goes under the name the “Age of Jackson”. The story of Joesph Smith, his early followers and later converts easily fit into this time in the early decades of the 19th century when a plethora of religious, political and social movements got jump-started by the freer and more democratic style of the Jackson period.
To that end, I have spend a serious amount of space here covering the anti-slavery movement, including the emergence of the abolitionist Underground Railroad and the exploits of the revolutionary abolitionist and hero of the black liberation movement, John Brown, a figure who easily fits into the kinds of individuals who were “making and doing” in that ante bellum period. I have also spend some time discussing the effects of that “burned-over” religious process that goes under the name the Second Awakening on the development of early American capitalism, especially in its upstate New York variant that the founder of this sect, Joseph Smith (and later leader Brigham Young) were immersed in. Additionally I have been interested in the Mormons, as such, more recently because in the 2008 Republican presidential nominating process, one Mitt Romney, ex-Governor of Massachusetts and a prominent Mormon was forced, or felt forced, to deal with the more esoteric aspects of his religion. That he might again surface as a potential candidate only places a greater emphasis on that interest.
Finally, the most important reason to get a better knowledge of this group is that, at least some of its off-shoots, are periodically targeted by various governmental agencies for their practice of polygamy, or as they would have it “plural marriage”. It is a political duty for leftists as, “tribunes of the people” to defend these sects against those governmental incursions. We do this under the umbrella principle that the government should left private consensual practice alone. In short, we stand for the principle of “government out of the bedrooms”. Although personally, having had trouble enough just having two girlfriends at one time in my youth, I do not see how they managed it my hat is off to the likes of Mitt Romney’s great-grandfather and other 19th century leaders. According to this documentary Brigham Young had some fifty wives and fifty-something children. No wonder the Mormons felt they needed to devote some much time to genealogy charts.
This four hour documentary goes into all of aspects of the Mormon story. However, for my purposes the first two hour segment was most important concerning the founding myths and trials and tribulations of the early Mormons as they kept getting banished further westward until they found a final central settlement in Utah. The second two hour segment concerning the assimilation of the more orthodox Mormons into the mainstream of political and social life and their successes at political power and their growth through missionary zeal are less important. We have been there before on this assimilation question for other ethnic and religious groups, notably the Roman Catholics of Irish, Italian and Eastern European heritage so that part was not of pressing concern to me.
I know the land that nurtured Mormon founder Joseph Smith, the farm country of upstate, mid-state New York. Places like Utica, Amsterdam, Rochester and so forth. At least I know the late 20th century version of those places. The seemingly endless rolling hills, the hard scrabble rocky land where there is no give without some Herculean effort. The vast tracts of trees and other obstacles to farming to be uprooted and brought to manageable size. The hard, hard winters that start early and end late. Hell, and that is what it is like now so one can only imagine what it was like for those who in the early 19th early were essentially on the American frontier looking to see if or why their god had abandoned them. There were more seekers, peekers, ranters, panter, shakers and quakers than you could shake a stick at this side of the 17th century English revolution. Put that together with a charismatic, rather mystical and intelligent young man, Joseph Smith, and you certainly have the genesis for some kind of religious movement. Or a political one for that matter. In a latter age that might very well have been the case. Whether, and if, such a plebian movement based on “revealed” truth could survive among the others more secular trends in the labor movement is the real question.
The documentary goes into some detail about Smith’s ability to gain converts (and spin off dissenters) after his conversion experience. It moves on to discuss the creation of the first Mormon communities in upstate New York, the pressure of other Christian denominations to push them out, the success of that effort and the first evacuation of Mormons to Missouri. After some hotly disputed fights from there to Illinois where Smith was assassination by other non-Mormon Christians. Then on to the Brigham Young led treks to the West, the establishment of thriving settlements there, the famous, if shadowy Mountain Meadow massacre by the Mormons on other settlers that, in effect, consolidated Mormon political power in the Utah territories; the fight over polygamy and the eventual entrance into statehood and the assimilation process mentioned above.
I first began looking for Mormon material over a year ago. I started and put down more than one biography about Joseph Smith or Brigham Young. Or histories of the early days (especially that controversial Mountain Meadow incident). The problem is that most of this material is by Mormons or Mormon-influenced authors and I felt I had to discount most of it, especially the "myth of creation” aspects around what Joseph Smith did or did not find out in those lonesome hills of up state New York. This documentary, more so than other PBS documentaries in this “American Experience” series suffer some of that same problem. There are too many “talking heads” identified as historians without being designated as Mormon historians. This is not generally a problem in other PBS productions. Still, if you need a well-produced introduction to this esoteric religion this is a good place to start. And perhaps to finish.