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New Harmony: Documentarian who made 'The Mormons' fascinated with Joseph Smith

Published: Wednesday, Feb. 20 2013 10:34 a.m. MST

Jane Barnes is not a household name among members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

For the record, she’s the woman who put together the documentary called “The Mormons” that played on PBS a couple of years ago.

Not everyone was tickled with it.

Some felt she stressed more LDS quirks than LDS qualities.

Others wished she’d identified the bias of historians better and given LDS apostles more than a few sound bites.

Still, however you feel about “The Mormons,” something amazing happened at the time it was being made.

Jane Barnes fell head-over-heels for the Prophet Joseph Smith.

And her recent book, “Falling in Love with Joseph Smith” (Tarcher Penguin, $25.95), tells the tale.

Not all Latter-day Saints will agree with her interpretations and conclusions in the book. But one point will likely strike readers as true and familiar: the mesmerizing charisma of the Prophet Joseph.

Most, if not all, red-blooded Mormons have felt it. Joseph was deeply embedded in the American grain, yet he displayed the originality of an avant garde artist. Any 25-year-old who could have such a positive effect on seasoned ministers, like Sidney Rigdon, was more than magnetic.

He was, in the eyes of some, magical.

And for Barnes, such swashbuckling charms soon proved irresistible.

She shows the reader how sophisticated visitors from the East were exposed as bundles of jaded affectations in his presence.

She says Joseph was a leader “who had let a tiger loose and a seer who knew the tiger was coming back to eat him.”

Just when she thinks she has gotten to know him, he surprises her in bedeviling ways.

Ah, love.

Toward the end, Barnes writes, “Joseph helped my unbelief, but I still had not answered whether he gave me what I needed to believe. Could I become a member of his church?”

She attends services, which she describes as “like a small town meeting of stockholders in a company devoted to the business of the Holy Ghost.”

She takes lessons from the missionaries.

She balks.

She returns.

Her mind reels.

Her heart lurches.

Eventually, she writes, “Among other things, my terror of the preexistence bode ill for any comfort I might draw from the Mormon afterlife, which was to die for.”

In time, she would abandon her quest.

But she could never fully abandon Joseph. In some strange, spiritual way he had stolen her heart and she knew she would never get it back.

In a way, it is the same dilemma that many early converts faced in the 1840s.

How did one separate love for Joseph from the claims and demands of the church he founded?

It is the same question that LDS converts face today, especially those who become deeply and eternally attached to the charismatic missionaries who teach them.

As the poet W.B. Yeats put it:

O body swayed to music.

O brightening glance.

How can we know the dancer

From the dance?

The answer is, you never can.

The dancer is the dance.

The teacher is the gospel.

The messenger is the message.

So it was in the era of Joseph Smith.

So it will always be.

Email: jerjohn@desnews.com

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