Many years ago, my colleague and friend Louis Midgley alerted me to an instructive anecdote related by the eminent Protestant church historian Martin Marty.
It centers on Marie de Vichy-Chamrond (d. 1780), the Marquise du Deffand, a famous 18th-century French society hostess as well as a friend of Voltaire, Montesquieu, and other leading intellectuals of the day. She was also a notable cynic and skeptic.
Once, when the Marquise was discussing religious matters with the powerful Roman Catholic Cardinal de Polignac (d. 1742), he cited a purported ancient miracle. He reminded her that the Christian martyr St. Denis, the first bishop of Paris, had walked a hundred miles after his execution, carrying his head in his hand.
Madame du Deffand immediately replied that, “In such a promenade, it is the first step that is difficult.”
Whatever one thinks of the tale of St. Denis and his supposed walk—for the record, I don’t buy it—her response is very cogent. She meant, of course, that it’s not the claim that St. Denis walked a hundred miles that poses a difficulty. (Most sources describe a walk of only about six miles, incidentally, with the saint preaching all the way.) The distance is immaterial, a historical quibble.
The fundamental question is whether, after his beheading, St. Denis walked at all. If he did, the rest is mere detail.
Martin Marty used the story to identify what is fundamental in the claims of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, particularly as those claims have come under the lens of what he termed “the crisis of historical consciousness.” This crisis, he said, has been caused by the skepticism and intense scrutiny of modern historical scholarship, which has been directed against virtually all traditional beliefs, religious and otherwise, around the world.
“By analogy,” he wrote, “if the beginning of the promenade of Mormon history, the First Vision and the Book of Mormon, can survive the crisis, then the rest of the promenade follows and nothing that happens in it can really detract from the miracle of the whole. If the first steps do not survive, there can be only antiquarian, not fateful or faith-full interest in the rest of the story.”
Whatever complaints there may be about women’s roles in the church, same-sex marriage, the
Mountain Meadows Massacre, attitudes on racial matters, church finances, imperfect leaders, or any number of other topics that tend to distract us—matters on which (please don’t mistake me) I’m confident that the church and its leaders can be adequately defended—the fundamental claims are really quite few. But if they are granted, other issues are largely mere detail.
If—to borrow Martin Marty’s two “first steps”—Joseph Smith’s account of his First Vision is true, and if the Book of Mormon is genuine inspired scripture, many other important conclusions follow. There is, for example, a personal God. Jesus Christ is his atoning Son, who rose from the dead. The Bible is God’s word. Life continues beyond the grave. We are morally accountable. Joseph Smith is a prophet, a credible and reliable witness to divine things. God’s true church, accompanied by divine priesthood authority, has been restored to the earth. And so forth.
In my judgment, the accounts of the witnesses to the Book of Mormon are at the very heart of the most fundamental claims of the Restoration. By attending to them, we concentrate on roots, not branches. Moreover, in both trial procedure and historical research, eyewitness testimony is the gold standard, the coin of the realm.
For decades, accordingly, I have felt impelled—perhaps inspired or even called would be a better word for it—to tell and retell the story of the witnesses to the Book of Mormon. It seemed a responsibility resting upon me in a peculiar way. Whenever I presented a fireside on evidence for the Book of Mormon, I would always devote the first portion of my remarks to the witnesses. I find them compelling and deeply persuasive, extremely difficult to dismiss.
That is one of the two confluent streams that have joined for my involvement in the Interpreter Foundation’s forthcoming film project on the Book of Mormon witnesses. Here is the other:
Several years ago, my wife and I joined with a trio of professional filmmakers—Mark Goodman, James Jordan, and our neighbor Russell Richins—to launch a series of short films about Latter-day Saint scholars, artists, and composers who had made unique contributions to the unfolding of the Restoration. (Only one of these films has actually appeared so far: Robert Cundick: A Sacred Service of Music, about the late Tabernacle organist and composer.)
I have no illusions of becoming a Hollywood “mogul,” but I believe in the potential of film to reach large numbers of people, and to reach them in a uniquely powerful way. If done and distributed correctly, films can reach and influence an audience that is, to a significant extent, beyond the range of books and articles. For that and other reasons, I’ve long been interested in cinematography. (And I married a theater major, who shares my interest.)
The German composer Richard Wagner argued that opera could be what he called—in a deliciously massive German word—a Gesamtkunstwerk, a total work of art. Why? Because, he felt, it combined the visual arts (set design and costumes) with literature (the dialogue and lyrics or libretto), and joined them with drama and with music. He would, I’m certain, have absolutely loved the medium of film, which can obviously do all those things as well. Even better, in many ways.
Among those that we hoped to treat in our series were the brothers Karl Ricks Anderson, whom President Gordon B. Hinckley dubbed “Mr. Kirtland” for his services in recovering the history of that early Latter-day Saint settlement and in restoring it for visitors, and Richard Lloyd Anderson, who was, among other things, the premiere authority on the Book of Mormon witnesses. (His many publications on the topic, beginning with his 1989 book Investigating the Book of Mormon Witnesses, remain indispensable for any serious consideration of their lives and the credibility of their testimony.)
We spent a week interviewing Karl Anderson in Kirtland. But interviewing Richard Anderson, Karl’s elder brother, was also an urgent priority for me. He was still actively researching the life of Oliver Cowdery, but the clock was ticking. I’m pleased to say, though, that we got to it in time: We interviewed Richard for two days in mid-2017; he died on 12 August 2018, in his ninety-third year. In preparation for those interviews, I shared some of his writings on the witnesses with Mark, James, and Russ. Soon thereafter, they called me, exclaiming that the witnesses’ story would make an absolutely fabulous film. Needless to say, I agreed. In fact, to say that this was music to my ears would be a gross understatement. For me, it offered a way toward the fulfillment of a persisting dream.
As the project developed, it turned into a multi-pronged effort, including not only a dramatic film for theatrical release but a two-hour, two-part docudrama to accompany and support the theatrical film (see Undaunted: Witnesses of the Book of Mormon: https://witnessesundaunted.com/), and, especially for youth, a flotilla of short “snippets” that we hope to spread as widely as we can via social media. We’re also creating a website that will provide background information for the films.
Mitch Davis (who wrote and directed both installments of The Other Side of Heaven, as well as The Stray and other projects) wrote the initial script for our theatrical movie. Thereafter, as the project developed, the script was substantially modified by our director, Mark Goodman, on the basis of feedback from many of us.
That film, which focuses on the Three Witnesses, is essentially finished, and we’re simply waiting for COVID-19 to recede before we set a specific premiere date for it. (For updates on our progress, go to our Facebook page. Our efforts are now largely focused on filming additional scenes and scholarly interviews for the docudrama and the “snippets,” which will broaden our coverage to the Eight Witnesses and to what I call the informal or unofficial witnesses, including women.
Additionally, although it still requires considerable work and expansion, our website WitnessesoftheBookofMormon.org recently went up online. People who watch the films and have further questions will be able to go to that website in order to learn more about the Three Witnesses, the Eight Witnesses, others who saw and handled the golden plates, and people of the modern age who also accept the Book of Mormon as inspired scripture. However, we see the website as a resource not merely for those who will view the films but for people studying Church history and the Doctrine and Covenants this year and for years to come. As further research is published regarding the witnesses of the Book of Mormon, the site will continue to grow—to become, we hope, one of the foremost tools for the study of the witnesses, their history, and their testimonies.
My principal role in the project has been as a cheerleader and, inescapably, as a fundraiser. (I don’t enjoy asking for money, but I believe in our projects. Our efforts have only been possible because of the support of some very generous and faithful backers, and the effort continues.) But my wife and I were also involved in reading and commenting on the evolving scripts for both the theatrical film and the docudrama, in casting the lead actors, and in giving feedback on various iterations of the film. I’ve also conducted a number of the interviews for the docudrama. Occasionally, we have been present on the set during filming.
From the very start, we’ve wanted the project to reflect the drama of the original history, as well as the complexities of that history. We’ve insisted—and there was no resistance on this point from anybody involved—that we tell the story candidly and honestly, with no attempt at whitewashing what happened. We’re telling the story of the witnesses, including their departure from the Church. (Of the Three, two—Oliver Cowdery and Martin Harris—returned. But David Whitmer never did.) And there were specific reasons for their disaffection, including the awkward beginnings of plural marriage, the collapse of the Kirtland Bank (part of the national “Panic of 1837”), and—very humanly—bruised egos.
Not to have mentioned these things would have been inaccurate history. I believe, furthermore, that it would have severely damaged our credibility. And, although this played no role in our decision, it would also have made for a bland story. Some will perhaps be troubled to see such “negative” portrayals. But I firmly believe that the faithfulness of the witnesses to their testimonies shines all the brighter when seen against their genuinely tempestuous background in the early days of the Restoration. They stood by their accounts through times of extraordinary stress, despite loss and persecutions, not because they were rewarded with status or wealth, and not because they always liked Joseph Smith, but because they could not and would not deny what they had seen and heard.
The main goal, now that the theatrical film is finished, is to get it onto as many screens as we can. This is a particular challenge for areas where Latter-day Saints are in the minority. Theater owners need to be persuaded that, if they commit one of their limited number of screens to Witnesses, people will come, that tickets and concessions will be sold. And this is where readers can help us in a major way: At the website of our theatrical movie (https://witnessesfilm.com/), our distributor—who has unparalleled experience with films aimed at the Latter-day Saint community—asks all who are interested (yes, even those along the Wasatch Front and in Utah) to sign up in order to help bring the film to their neighborhoods. I can’t overstate the importance of this as a part of our campaign to get the movie out there.
I want people to have a better sense of the persuasive power of the witnesses’ testimonies. I worry that many, even members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, don’t fully realize how impressive they are. Through enormous stress, dangerous persecution, sometimes angry disagreement with Joseph Smith, and, in some cases, decades of distant alienation from the Church, they refused to deny what they had seen and experienced. They knew.
We hope, of course, to reach a Latter-day Saint audience in order to strengthen faith. But this is a dramatic human story that we’re telling, and we believe that nonmembers of the Church will also find it compelling if we can just persuade them to give it a chance. Moreover, we hope to provoke a conversation about the Witness testimonies—and, with the documentary and the “snippets” and the Witnesses of the Book of Mormon website, we want to be involved in and to inform that conversation.
Such conversations already began on the film sets themselves, in Ontario, Massachusetts, New York, and Utah. Many of the extras and some of the principal actors—notably Caleb Spivak as Oliver Cowdery and Michael Zuccola as the younger David Whitmer—are not Latter-day Saints, and they knew nothing, or next to nothing, about the Church and its history prior to their involvement with the film. I’m told, for example, that many interesting walks and chats took place between them and Paul Wuthrich (our “Joseph Smith”) when they weren’t in front of the camera. We hope and believe that many more such conversations will arise.