What is the purpose of the Interpreter Foundation’s Witnesses Project, and all the related media: the Witnesses feature film, the Undaunted companion docudrama, and the Insights videos?
This is the nineteenth in a series compiled from the many interviews conducted during the course of the Witnesses film project. This series of mini-films is being released each Saturday at 7pm MDT. These additional resources are hosted by Camrey Bagley Fox, who played Emma Smith in Witnesses, as she introduces and visits with a variety of experts. These individuals answer questions or address accusations against the witnesses, also helping viewers understand the context of the times in which the witnesses lived. This week we feature Daniel C. Peterson, President of the Interpreter Foundation and Executive Producer of Witnesses. For more information, go to https://witnessesofthebookofmormon.org/ or watch the documentary movie Undaunted.
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Witnesses of the Book of Mormon — Insights
Episode 19: Why the Witnesses Project?
Joseph Smith: I fear I have lost them.
Emma Smith: Who?
JS: David, Martin, Oliver. The list is long. I have done everything God asks, and yet I face opposition at every turn.
ES: Maybe God wants to you learn something.
JS: Seems I am only capable of learning from my mistakes.
ES: Moses didn’t make mistakes. [Emma and Joseph share a whimsical smile between them, and chuckle.] But you do learn, eventually.
JS: Yeah, eventually. Emma, I will do as God asks.
ES: There are many who claim that you are no longer a prophet.
JS: I know. And what does a prophet’s wife think?
ES: That you are too generous to run a bank.
JS: That is certainly true.
ES: But I believe you speak for God.
Camrey Bagley Fox: Welcome to our series on the witnesses of the Book of Mormon. My name is Camrey Bagley Fox and we are joined today by Daniel Peterson, President of the Interpreter Foundation and executive producer of the Witnesses project. Thank you for being here.
Daniel Peterson: Thank you for having me.
CBF: So, Dan, what exactly were your goals with the whole Witnesses project? You know, it’s a documentary, a feature film, and now with these web videos; what were you expecting with this? And it’s kind of all bigger than you expected now, isn’t it?
DP: Yeah, it is bigger than I expected, but we’re excited about it. I mean the thing that I really want to do, that WE really wanted to do, was to get the story of the witnesses out there. I found increasingly that even people in the Church, to say nothing of the critics, didn’t know the full depth and breadth of the witnesses’ story. They knew that there was, there were two official statements in the beginning of the Book of Mormon, didn’t know much about them, in many cases didn’t even know exactly who they were. And so we wanted to tell that story.
CBF: Do you feel like you’ve been successful so far?
DP: Well, a lot of people have told us that, ‘Wow, we didn’t know that. We didn’t we didn’t understand.’ I mean, people knew, on the whole, that the witnesses left the Church. They didn’t know why. Did they suddenly become evil or something like that? We wanted to show it as a human story, where you can sort of understand why they did what they did. But the fact that they left the Church makes their persistence in their testimony all the more impressive. But you have to show the contrast, their disaffection, their anger, their bitterness, AND their– their steadfastness in the testimony. A lot of people didn’t know that story and I think it makes it richer, it makes it deeper.
CBF: I agree, I knew very little about the witnesses before I came onboard this project and it’s been super interesting learning ALL the aspects of it, and particularly, like you said, kind of delving into the intimate parts of their life, learning all the angles and what caused them to make the decisions that they make is SO interesting to learn about.
DP: From the very start we insisted that we didn’t want it to be a simple ‘good versus bad,’ black and white sort of story. It has to be complex.
CBF: Because that’s not life. That’s not real. Good versus bad, it’s always, there’s always going to be that grey area, the tough decisions that people have to make.
DP: So some people worried, for example, that we humanize Joseph Smith too much. Well, he WAS human.
CBF [sarcastically]: WHAT?
DP: And we’re trying to show that this is a prophet who’s learning HOW to be a prophet. He doesn’t know. He has no models to follow, really. No living models, certainly. And he can’t always see everything. He doesn’t know what’s coming, he doesn’t understand everything, he doesn’t know the doctrines that are going to be revealed. Just like any human when he’s confronted with certain difficulties, he doesn’t know necessarily how to react to them. And so he’s learning and growing like every other human being on the planet has to do.
CBF: And I think that is so important because we have this habit in LDS church culture to assume that the leaders of the Church are perfect, and that everything they do and everything they say is perfect and they’re not gonna make mistakes. But, when you look at the history, you see that that’s not true, that these Church leaders are just learning, they’re just doing their best. And they are led by God but that doesn’t mean that they know everything right away. They’re still figuring out as they go, so I really loved that aspect.
DP: You know I see people sometimes, I hear them sometimes, discover that some leader of the Church, past or present, has differed from another one in an opinion, or has made a mistake on something or something like that. And we put them on this pedestal, and I don’t think it’s fair at all to them, and it’s not a solid foundation for faith, because every human being, even a prophet, is going to, in a sense, let you down sometime, by having an opinion you don’t agree with or something like that. And I can guarantee, I think, that if you went to one of the members of the First Presidency today, or one of the Twelve, and asked them, “By the way, are you infallible?” He’d laugh.
CBF: I would hope that they wouldn’t say yes. ‘Cause if they did, I’d trust them a little less.
DP: I can imagine them saying something like, ‘Well, ask my wife.’ That’s something we have to warn against; and it’s not we don’t respect them.
CBF: Of course not.
DP: It’s not that we don’t believe in their revelatory gifts.
DP: It’s just that, again, they’re human, and they’re not divine marionettes. They’re not being led at every second of their lives.
CBF: And I think that’s all the more powerful because it’s more accessible for us. It’s more, ‘They’re learning just as we are.’
DP: I don’t mean to dismiss or devalue the divine gift of revelation that they receive, that’s obviously very important. But it’s important also to understand that these are people who’ve been given a special assignment. And I think in this case, for example, of Jesus on the shore of the Sea of Galilee after his resurrection and he calls to the apostles; commands them three times to feed his sheep. And then he asks them after they’ve had a WONDERFUL day of fishing, which is what they’d made their living at for years, he says, “Lovest thou me more than these?” And I think what he is saying to them is, ‘I’ve had you on a three-year mission. Now I’m asking you to choose. You can go back to being fisherman, which is what you’ve normally done, or I’m gonna take you away from that. You’ll never be fisherman again.’ But they’re given a special assignment, a special role. We respect them for that.
CBF: In working on this project have you come to any new realizations? Or been changed in any way?
DP: I think that I have come to appreciate the witnesses more, and I already did appreciate them a great deal. I’d always been fascinated by the testimonies and read a considerable amount about them. But seeing their portrayal in the films, I begin to relate to them more as human beings, not just historical figures.
DP, cont’d: And so to me that’s important. Maybe this is wrong, but when I think of David Whitmer, I SEE David Whitmer in the film. When I think of Oliver Cowdery, I’m SEEING our Oliver Cowdery, and so on. But they become flesh and blood realities, not just abstractions, or people you happen to have a read some accounts of.
CBF: Yeah, and I think, particularly like, for people my age, I feel like the witnesses have never been something that have been focused on. And maybe that’s true for everyone, but I loved, I love being able to see that actual representation. Because it does make a difference. It’s different than just reading a story on a page. It’s a little more relatable to see a flesh and blood human up there depicting the witnesses.
DP: And you begin to put yourself in their place.
DP: Boy, you know, What would I have said in a situation like this? How would I have reacted? These are real people with real histories and real personalities and distinct personalities, I think. And I just think that’s really helpful. So that has been good for me, and I hope it’s been good in a similar way for a lot of the people in the audience.
CBF: Thank you.