Joseph Smith: PBS special chronicles his life, faith

It's the story of his life, his death, his followers, his enemies.

It's the story of a 19th Century farm boy-turned-prophet who was divinely directed to establish in young America a church that has grown from six original members to nearly 11 million throughout the world. It's "American Prophet: The Story of Joseph Smith," to be telecast over the Public Broadcasting System Nov. 26 at 9 p.m. (EST) in most cities in the United States.

"American Prophet," which is not a Church production, is presented by Vermont Public Television and made possible through a grant from the J. Willard and Alice S. Marriott Foundation. Produced by Lee Groberg, who produced "Trail of Hope" for PBS in 1997, "American Prophet" is narrated by screen legend Gregory Peck and is filmed at various locations well-known in early Church history — England, Vermont, New York, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Illinois, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Missouri and Utah. The two-hour film attempts to not only tell the life of the Prophet Joseph but also to answer the question of how he "inspired such impassioned rancor or unflinching reverence."

"I didn't set out with any agenda as much as I felt compelled to tell the story," Brother Groberg, a member of the Bountiful 11th Ward, Bountiful Utah East Stake, said during a Church News telephone interview. An award-winning documentary film producer/director, he also produced "American Gunmaker: The John Browning Story" in 1991, which brought a regional Emmy nomination. It was while filming "Trail of Hope," the story of the Mormon migration west in the 1840s, that he decided to produce "American Prophet."

"I heard wonderful things from non-LDS scholars during my interviews for 'Trail of Hope,' " he recalled. "After interviewing numerous scholars, more than 40, it was further validated that there is tremendous respect and acknowledgement that Joseph Smith had a profound experience."

Did all the scholars believe in Joseph as a prophet? Not necessarily, but Brother Groberg said they also did not discount the impact Joseph Smith and The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints had on society and on America's religious future.

"American Prophet," written by well-known documentary screenwriter Heidi Swinton, filmed mainly by cinematographer Mark Goodman, and with music by the Emmy and Pearl Award-winning team of Merrill Jenson and Sam Cardon, begins in Nauvoo, Ill., on a sunny June day. The scene depicts the events surrounding June 27, 1844, when Joseph and his brother, Hyrum, were killed at Carthage Jail. After portraying the grief of the families of Joseph and Hyrum and the Saints, as well as the glee of the enemies of the Church, the film goes back in time to the eastern American coast in the early 1800s. From there, Joseph's family roots and his birth on Dec. 23, 1805, are mentioned.

Then begins Joseph's life, from his boyhood in New York and the experience of the First Vision in Palmyra, to his marriage to Emma Hale (whose voice is dramatized by Megan Follows of "Anne of Green Gables" fame) and through his family life, the founding of the Church in 1830 and the relentless persecution it endured. The film includes a poignant scene of the feet of Joseph in chains in Missouri when he stood to rebuke his guards.

The entire production took 14 months to film and edit, said Brother Groberg, who added that he, Brother Goodman and Sister Swinton sat through many long sessions critiquing and revising. In striving for historical accuracy, Brother Groberg sought many sources and scholars — LDS and non-LDS — for "American Prophet." The historical sources reflected not only the love Joseph's followers had for him, but also the hatred of his enemies.

By the time the film was completed, Brother Groberg said, he had "developed a greater and more profound respect for Joseph Smith. I've obviously come to know him better. He was not a dogmatic ruler. He simply was committed to do as he was told. He was compelled to tell what angels and deity told him to say. I also came to see his personality. There was a tenderness for Emma, a fondness for his children. He had the quality to make people feel they were the most important people in his life.

"And the respect I gained for Emma — just look at what she did. There is devotion," Brother Groberg added.

In speaking of filming "American Prophet," Brother Goodman, who is bishop of the Hunter 1st Ward, Salt Lake Hunter Central Stake, spoke of why the film rarely shows a full view of the face of the actor portraying Joseph. "It was a struggle to portray Joseph Smith. No matter what, we will not live up to people's expectations. So we tried to tell the story from accounts of people who were there and give the people glimpses of the Prophet and let them form their own opinions of what he was truly like."

During the two years Sister Swinton wrote the script (also the book by the same title) for "American Prophet," she said, she felt a particular responsibility. "I was in uncharted territory," she told the Church News. "It was just an incredible experience to get to know Joseph Smith. Here you have this prophet who is both bold and dynamic and yet in some eyes controversial — a man whose history has never been understood, or was never given the perspective of what he really did provide to America and to the world."

She was most intrigued during her research, she related, by the "descriptions of Joseph by so many of the people who knew him who described his eyes. They described them as clear and brilliant and full of light."

Of the undertaking to present such a documentary, Sister Swinton said: "The adversary does not want Joseph Smith's story told, so it's a challenge to go forward into the world, especially on PBS, with a story that is religious in nature and based on truth. We've been subjected to other people telling history whose agenda was not bringing people to Jesus Christ. Therefore, their story was not reflecting Joseph Smith because his story was of bringing people to Christ."

Please check local television listings for "American Prophet: The Story of Joseph Smith," as times and dates may vary according to region.

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