On the evening of September 22, 1823, a young man named Joseph Smith ascended a hill in the village of Manchester, New York, in a solitary sojourn. Smith’s account of what happened on that hill would have one of the most profound effects in global theology – he stated that an angel would direct him to a box containing golden plates that he would translate into The Book of Mormon, the sacred text that would become the foundation for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (LDS), more commonly known as the Mormon faith.
Smith’s ministry and the efforts of those that followed him in establishing the religion he established created extraordinary controversy throughout the 19th century. By the early 20th century, anger and suspicion over the Mormon religion spread into the nascent motion picture medium. Films that depicted members of this religion as violent, sex-crazed lunatics – most egregiously, the now-lost titles “A Victim of the Mormons,” “The Mountain Meadows Massacre,” “Marriage or Death” – continued to pollute popular opinion against those that belonged to the Mormon faith.
In an effort to counter the warped imagery projected in anti-Mormon films and to establish a cinematic record to present its side of the story, the leadership of the LDS faith decided to pursue a film that offered a historical consideration of the founding of the religion and its positive impact on American society. It was decided that the 1905 book “One Hundred Years of Mormonism” by the Welsh-born Mormon educator John Henry Evans would be the ideal source for the film. (Evans’ centennial focus was pegged to Joseph Smith’s 1805 birth and not to his 1823 discovery of the golden plates.)
From its inception, the film version of “One Hundred Years of Mormonism” was plagued with problems. The church’s executives originally hired the Ellaye Motion Picture Company to produce the film, but the relationship between the church and its filmmakers quickly became acrimonious, resulting in the Ellaye team breaking its contract. (The filmmakers would claim that the church monitoring of their work was too strict, but the church suggested the filmmakers were too liberal and reckless with the funds allocated to them.) Another California-based film initiative, the Utah Moving Picture Company, was hired to complete the film – an action that brought forth a legal challenge by the unhappy Ellaye team; their action failed to stop the production.
Utah Moving Picture Company would then hire the Canadian-born writer Nell Shipman to produce a new screenplay for a then-unprecedented fee of $2,500. Why Shipman was chosen has never been determined, as she was not a Mormon and had no previous connection with the faith. Also joining the creative team was Norval MacGregor, who directed a 1913 film based on Shipman’s screenplay “The Ball of Yarn.” As with Shipman, it is not known why MacGregor was tapped for the assignment.
The resulting film version of “One Hundred Years of Mormonism” was budgeted at $50,000 and aimed at two key elements in the church’s history: the life of Joseph Smith and the westward odyssey of Mormon believers in search of their own territory in the vastness of the American frontier.
“One Hundred Years of Mormonism” was a remarkable achievement for its ability to use the cinematic medium to present a specific church’s message to an audience. The resulting work ran six reels – an epic length for its time – and premiered on February 3, 1913 at the Salt Lake Theater in the Utah capital of Salt Lake City.
According to Mormon film historian Randy Astle, the production was extraordinary in scope. “The cast was literally in the thousands, including many actual pioneers who reenacted their own journey across the plains, and filming took place in Independence and Nauvoo in addition to numerous sets and locations in Utah and California,” wrote Astle in an article on the Mormon Artists Group website.
Reportedly, some church leaders were not pleased with the liberties that the film took with Mormon history, especially in the Joseph Smith segment. But local audiences were ecstatic to see a pro-Mormon story on the big screen, and the film had two lengthy runs in Salt Lake City and shorter runs in Los Angeles and San Francisco.
At least three prints of “One Hundred Years of Mormonism” were known to be struck, and touring companies presented the film in locations where sizable Mormon populations would guarantee a commercially successful run. There were unconfirmed reports that the film also played in East Coast theaters and was seen as far afield as London. The film ultimately grossed $25,000 – a commercial flop, in consideration of its hefty budget, but an artistic and social success in presenting a Mormon point of view in a medium dominated by anti-Mormon films. Furthermore, the example set by the film encouraged others to create their own celluloid statements that celebrated the Mormon faith. “One Hundred Years of Mormonism” would become one of the most influential religious films of all time, laying the foundation for LDS-themed cinematic endeavors that exist to this day.
Alas, “One Hundred Years of Mormonism” seems to have vanished before the end of the 1910s. No materials connected to the film exist – we have no idea what the film looked like or who appeared in its cast. Considering the extremely limited number of prints, it seems highly unlikely that any copy of this elusive endeavor will reappear at this late date. More than a century after its premiere, “One Hundred Years of Mormonism” is nowhere to be seen.
(This essay is adapted from Phil Hall’s “In Search of Lost Films,” to be released later this year by BearManor Media.)