The Mormons: Director’s Cut

Heads up for those in the D.C. area. Greg Prince, co-author of David O. McKay and the Rise of Modern Mormonism, hosts a great series of events at his house in Potomac, Maryland, the next of which is coming up on Sunday, June 8th.

In April, Prince screened the first Act of the “director’s cut” of Helen Whitney’s “The Mormons” and organized a fascinating interfaith discussion afterward. Steve Orton, an institute teacher in the area, gave a Mormon response to the segment followed by responses from Dr. David McAllister-Wilson, president of the Wesley Theological Seminary, and several members of the Seminary faculty. Audience members then had the opportunity to ask questions of everyone who spoke. The discussion centered in part on an analogy offered by Terryl Givens in the documentary, in which he likened the “scandal” of the Golden Plates in Mormonism to the “scandal” of the Resurrection in Christianity (the theologians unanimously held that Christianity’s scandal was the “scandal” of the Cross, not the Resurrection).

The event next week will follow up with another screening from the director’s cut followed by a similar interfaith discussion. Here is Prince’s last announcement:

Our next session (and the final one before our summer break) will be Sunday, June 8th, 7:00 p.m. at our home. We will screen Act 7 of the PBS special, “The Mormons,” which is entitled “The Great Accommodation.” It deals with the transformation of Mormonism from a national pariah at the end of the 19th century, to a quintessential American religion by the late 20th century. As was the case last session, we will have LDS and Wesley commentators, and then a group discussion. The discussion will not focus on the documentary, but instead, on three questions raised by the documentary that are equally applicable to LDS and other faith traditions:

1. How do religious traditions change?

2. Why is it necessary that these traditions change?

3. How can religious traditions change to accommodate a changing world, while at the same time preserving their identities?

I’ve only attended one event so far, but I thoroughly enjoyed it and would recommend them to anyone. The portion of the documentary we screened included a significant amount of additional material that would please most members, with more insights and background from Church leaders and scholars, and the discussion that followed was substantive and thought-provoking.

Those interested in attending should email Prince (gprince at for more information or to RSVP. If you want to watch Act 7 before the screening, it’s online here (I don’t think the “Acts” from the documentary correspond exactly with the divided segments online, so if you’re going to watch this in preparation or to compare, you may want to watch a segment or two past “The Great Accommodation”).

6 comments for “The Mormons: Director’s Cut

  1. If you go and get Greg Prince’s ear, I’ve always wondered why he chose not to have the very prominent dream vision of David O. Mckay seeing Christ in his excellent biography. (The best biography I’ve ever read, perhaps.)

  2. Marc, you put “director’s cut” in quotes … is this really a version of the documentary with additional footage, or is this event just a screening of the original documentary with commentary from the live speakers you referred to in the post?

  3. Matt W – I don’t know a great deal about the vision, but if I have a chance sometime I’ll ask.

    Dave – As Prince described it, it is a 5 hour version that Whitney initially produced that was then pared down to the 4 hour feature that appeared on PBS. Prince, as a contributor to the documentary, was able to get the extended version that never aired. Like I said, I’ve only seen the first act, but he characterizes the whole as being more “artistic” in addition to having extra footage. He also seemed to insinuate, although I could be wrong on this, that Whitney didn’t make all the editorial decisions in deciding what was cut for the final version.

  4. Sounds like an interesting get-together. I wonder why we don’t have someting similar here in eastern Idaho (there ought to be a critical mass of interested people with a 50,000 plus LDS population in commuting distance and the faculty of BYU-Idaho, LDS faculty at Idaho State, and a lot of scientists and engineers working on nuclear research and materials science at the Idaho National Lab).

    Whitney’s documentary is a good stimulus for discussion, but I found it just incredibly (and I mean that in the precise sense of unbelievability) subjective, to the extent that many aspects of the Church are simply unrecognizable when filtered through Whitney’s perceptions. One usually expects that at least the visuals for a program like this will transmit unedited information, but Whitney did some of her most intrusive editing on that aspect of the program, with strange, dark and atypical depictions of Joseph Smith and Moroni and other aspects of the Church which few Mormons would recognize. I think the worst of these Whitney obfuscations was when she creates a visual to go along with the lengthy narrative of a church discipline hearing. She shows what looks like an attic level room with a high ceiling under a peaked roof, with stairs coming up behind a wooden railing where sit several tall straight-back wooden chairs and a vast empty wood floor with a single wooden chair facing the other three, a little bit of light coming in a window but overall dark and shadowed. But for a high intensity lamp, it looks like a military interrogation room at Guantanamo Bay.

    In response to questions in an interview, Whitney said this totally fictional depiction of an LDS meetinghouse high council room showed her own feelings about the excommunication narrative. Clearly, she was more interested in making the viewer feel like Helen Whitney felt (who clearly identified with the female professional scholar who was narrating her own experience) than having objective information so viewers could make up their own minds. Thus, we learn as much or more about Whitney’s own estrangement and emotional distance from the idea of objectively real spiritual entities as we do about the objective entity called the Mormons. Since her worldview and attitudes are distinctly at odds with much of Mormonism, she filters and censors the Mormon experience rather drastically. A more accurate title would be “What Helen Whitney feels about the Mormons.”

  5. Without trying to get in another debate about whether it is possible for an outsider (other than Mike Wallace) to make an “accurate” or “objective” portrayal of the Church, I would simply state that I thought the program was terrific.

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