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Trent Toone, Deseret News
"History of the Saints" team Glenn Rawson, left, Bryant Bush and Dennis Lyman.

Glenn Rawson and Dennis Lyman weren't ready to quit.

It was early 2010, and for more than two years, both men had devoted themselves to helping produce more than 100 episodes of the KJZZ-TV "Joseph Smith Papers: Television Documentary Series," and in the process, their passion for the history of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints began to burn bright. But the project's main financial supporter, auto dealer and Utah Jazz owner Larry H. Miller, had died the previous year. The LDS Church History Department would continue to publish volumes of the Joseph Smith Papers, but it appeared the television series was over.

Yet Rawson and Lyman felt there was value in carrying on. One night as they drove home from Provo, they made a bold decision.

"We knew the public really had an interest in church history. We knew they wanted to keep it going," Rawson said. "We hatched the idea rather audaciously that we would keep it going ourselves."

They invited a third man, editor/director Bryant Bush, to join them. Lyman and Bush quit their jobs at KJZZ and "it was on," Rawson said.

The three-man team then created the History of the Saints Documentary Series, a private nonprofit entity dedicated to researching and accurately teaching the history of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

More than six years later, the trio is working on their seventh and final season of "History of the Saints." Along the way, the team has completed more than 200, 30-minute episodes featuring interviews with gospel scholars and historians, footage of LDS Church history sites, authentic documents and artifacts, and artwork portraying the most compelling stories from Latter-day Saint history, and all on a small budget with help from volunteers. The brand has also produced documentaries, books and other church history-related projects.

"A lot of it is payback," Lyman said. "The more you know about the history, the more you want to tell the story."

Seated together on wooden chairs in the Heber C. Kimball home at This Is the Place Heritage Park, Rawson, Lyman and Bush recounted some of the challenges, highlights and other memorable moments while working on History of the Saints.

Coming together

Lyman, a native of Salt Lake City, worked for KJZZ in broadcasting and video production for 20 years. He is a direct descendant of Elder Amasa M. Lyman, an early member of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles.

Dennis Lyman was bitten by the history bug when Miller asked him to work on some special projects during the 1990s, including "Utah Remembers," narrated by actor Wilford Brimley, videos featuring Utah's pioneer temples, and a special for the Mormon Handcart Historic Site, near Martin's Cove in Wyoming.

"It changed my life," Lyman said, "And I haven't looked back since."

Rawson, born and raised on a cattle ranch in Idaho, comes from pioneer stock but did not grow up in the church. His grandfather left the church, and Rawson converted to the LDS faith at age 18 and later served a mission in Iowa. His versatile career includes being a cowboy; driving 100-foot, two-trailer rigs; and teaching LDS seminary and Institute of Religion classes for 20 years.

Rawson is also a talented storyteller. In 1997 he began writing and producing stories for radio programs. A decade later, Rawson received a phone call from KJZZ-TV, asking him to write about the Prophet Joseph Smith, who restored the LDS Church, for this new television documentary series. To his surprise, he was also asked to grab a tie and stand in front of the camera.

"I never agreed to be on camera, that was never part of the deal," Rawson said, prompting laughter from his friends.

Working together on the Joseph Smith Papers television series resulted in Rawson and Lyman becoming good friends, paving the way for "History of the Saints."

More than 'dusty old books'

As work on the television series began, Rawson was skeptical about the show's viability.

"How are we going to make a television series out of a bunch of dusty old books with old men talking?" he said. "They thought I was a heretic."

It was the "dusty old books" that resolved Rawson's doubts. During one of their first shoots in a tiny room at LDS Church headquarters, Rawson put on his white gloves and picked up a historic volume. One of the church historians asked if he knew what he was looking at?

"That is Joseph Smith’s first journal from November 1832," Rawson said. "I opened it up and started to read in Joseph’s own hand. Boy, something hit me. That’s when it happened. I already had a love for the Prophet Joseph and the Book of Mormon but suddenly, these weren’t just dusty old books and tired old men."

The "Joseph Smith Papers" television series focused on the life and writings of Joseph Smith through documents and interviews with church historians and scholars. It fulfilled Miller's dream to make sure "billions (not just millions) will know Brother Joseph again," according to his autobiography, "Driven."

Miller died in February 2009. As the second season of the "Joseph Smith Papers" television series drew to a close, the LDS Church History Department decided to refocus its resources and goals, said Richard E. Turley Jr., the assistant church historian and recorder in 2010.

"We needed to get more effort into getting the published volumes out, so we decided to discontinue the Joseph Smith Papers videos," said Turley, now the managing director of LDS Church public affairs. "The people who were doing them decided they would continue in a little different format as 'History of the Saints.'"

A new series

Once Lyman and Rawson opted to continue with the series, they persuaded Bush to join them.

Bush, also a Latter-day Saint from Idaho, had worked with Lyman at KJZZ for about 15 years as a video editor and artist. It wasn't easy for him to leave his job during an economic recession, but after prayerful consideration, he accepted. Like his partners, it didn't take Bush long to discover a hidden love for church history. Over the years, he has uncovered a rich pioneer heritage that includes Levi Ward Hancock and other members of the Mormon Battalion.

"For me it's not so much the history of how the church started, it's my family's place in that history that has kept me going," Bush said. "It's been a tremendous reward getting to know my church heritage and family history, and I feel blessed that I've been able to pass it along to my kids."

Fortune smiled on the group one day while eating lunch at the Gateway food court. A friend who had previously worked at KJZZ and moved to be a sales rep at KSL-TV walked by and said hello. Lyman asked if the station was in need of a new television series, a follow-up to the "Joseph Smith Papers"? Indeed it was. In short time, Lyman was on the phone with KSL-TV's program director and they had a new show. They called it "History of the Saints," Lyman said.

As production began, Lyman and Rawson were preparing to film a segment on Independence Rock in Wyoming when they received a call from Salt Lake City informing them LDS Church leaders wanted to discuss the series, Lyman said.

"They would continue to feature the Joseph Smith Papers from time to time, maybe once or twice a year," Turley said. "But they would be independent … and responsible for their own content. We agreed to assist them, but not endorse their work."

LDS Church leaders emphasized the importance of being open, accurate and carefully placing the church's story in proper context, Rawson said.

"Be transparent and tell it straight up," Rawson said. "And I'll never forget the words, 'Whatever else you do with our history, inspire faith.' Based on the response we've had and the longevity of the experience, I think we've been marginally successful."

History becomes real

The trio takes pride in doing professional work. They receive voluntary contributions from scholars, artists and musicians in each episode and do most of their filming at This Is the Place Heritage Park. Their goal is take church history beyond historical facts and dates through powerful storytelling, Rawson said.

"We touch the sacred documents and stand at these sacred places," Rawson said. "That's the beauty of it."

In addition to traveling to LDS historic sites, the men enjoy meeting people and sharing what they have learned about the heroes of LDS Church history.

"It has been so gratifying to teach people about their ancestry and give them a sense of heritage. Family history for church members is church history," Rawson said. "You have hardline historians who just want to talk about historical facts and dates, and sometimes that can be about as exciting as watching grass grow. But when you bring in the human element and say church history was made by these people, let me tell you their story. That for me has been particularly rewarding."

Turley occasionally catches an episode of "History of the Saints" on radio or television.

"I think they make a consistent effort to be accurate and uplifting," Turley said. "I think it’s been generally a very positive program."

Memorable moments

Their journey has been full of memorable moments.

On one occasion, Rawson said he had a tremendous experience holding and reading the diary of early church convert Newell Knight. He also recalled a late-night shoot at Liberty Jail in Missouri, where Joseph Smith and several of the early church leaders awaited trial during the winter of 1838-1839.

During some of the filming downtime, he asked their missionary hosts if he could spend some time in the jail and was granted permission. Sitting close to the jail's original foundation stones, he pondered the Prophet Joseph's experience and had a spiritual experience.

"In a manner of speaking, I became a prisoner with Joseph," Rawson said. "In the end, I felt to keep going with ('History of the Saints') as long as I could so I could tell the history and inspire faith in the members of the church."

Bush has felt the frigid temperatures of Wyoming in the winter and appreciates the pioneers, but he spends most of his time in his home editing countless hours of interviews and footage. One day, he was particularly touched as church historian Steven C. Harper bore his testimony of Joseph Smith.

"I find myself a lot of times listening to these interviews and sometimes just crying my eyes out," Bush said. "Harper said once that it didn't matter what people told him about Joseph Smith, he'd had the personal witness that he was a prophet, and it didn't matter what people came up with. I've had my testimony shaken a couple of times … but that just hit me so hard. … I've had this manifestation so many times, why should I doubt?"

Like his partners, holding artifacts and reading journal accounts from events like Hawn's Mill in Missouri, where the settlement was attacked by a mob, in the church archive have become priceless experiences for Lyman. He has also gained new personal perspective by walking through the Kirtland Temple and the nearby Johnson home, where his great-great grandfather, apostle Amasa Lyman, once stood, he said.

"We've seen a lot of great things in the archives, been to a lot of great places and learned a lot of history," Dennis Lyman said. "The fun thing about our job is we get it all."

What's next

The seventh and final season of "History of the Saints" covers the period from the Missouri exodus to the martyrdom of Joseph Smith, and is slated to start airing in January on Sundays at 10 a.m. on KSL. Going forward, the team will continue producing documentaries and print publications, Lyman said.

In addition to the seventh season, fans of the program should watch LDS bookstores in the coming weeks for the book, "The Quincy Miracle: A Rescue Never to be Forgotten"; a DVD, "With Courage Strong: Stories of Handcart Pioneers"; and a documentary featuring the remarkable life of Edward Partridge, the first bishop of the LDS Church. Visit historyofthesaints.org for more information.

The "History of the Saints" team is also scheduled to do some book signings in the coming months.

If you go ...

What: Glenn Rawson, Dennis Lyman and Bryant Bush signing events

When: Friday, Nov. 25, and Saturday, Nov. 26, 11 a.m.-2 p.m.

Where: Deseret Book, 735 S. Bluff, St. George

Web: deseretbook.com

Also ...

When: Saturday, Nov. 26, 4-6 p.m.

Where: Deseret Book, 1420 S. Providence Center Drive, Suite 1, Cedar City

Also ...

When: Friday, Dec. 2, 11 a.m.-2 p.m.

Where: Deseret Book, Salt Lake downtown, 45 W. South Temple, Salt Lake City

Also ...

When: Saturday, Dec. 3, and Saturday, Dec. 10, 11 a.m.-2 p.m.

Where: Deseret Book, Orem Parkway, 232 E. University Parkway, Orem

Also ...

When: Friday, Dec. 9, 11 a.m.-2 p.m.

Where: Deseret Book, University Village, 1076 S. 750 East, Orem

Also ...

When: Thursday, Dec. 15, 11 a.m.-2 p.m., and Friday, Dec. 16, 10 a.m.-1 p.m.

Where: Deseret Book, 3025 S. Hitt Road, Ammon, Idaho

Also ...

When: Wednesday, Dec. 21, Thursday, Dec. 22, and Friday, Dec. 23, 11 a.m.- 2 p.m.

Where: Deseret Book, 1309 N. Main St. Suite 150, Logan

Email: ttoone@deseretnews.com, Twitter: tbtoone