“The Restoration of the Priesthood: A New Church Film Reenacts Sacred Events,” Ensign, Nov. 1982, 104–7
The making of a film for the Church carries built-in challenges and compensations. But to have participated in the accurate portrayal of eternal truths is its own reward—as those involved in filming The Restoration of the Priesthood would readily agree.
“There must be a central focus when you undertake a project like this,” muses Richard Hart, manager of audiovisual materials for the Church. “The goal of everyone involved was to focus their talents on one thing—to help bear witness that the restoration of the priesthood and the Church actually happened. Everything in the film is designed to achieve that specific objective.”
In a brief twenty minutes, there is a moving portrayal of some of the significant events of the nineteenth century—the Prophet Joseph Smith’s earnest struggle to learn and obey the Lord’s will; appearances to the young prophet and Oliver Cowdery by John the Baptist (who conferred upon them the Aaronic Priesthood) and Peter, James, and John (under whose hands they received the Melchizedek Priesthood); revelations concerning baptism and organization of a church; and the actual organization of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints on 6 April 1830.
Another major objective of the project, begun in the spring of 1979, was to render the film historically accurate. Jesse E. Stay, director of Brigham Young University’s Film Production Department and producer of the film, recalls that one of his responsibilities was “to see that it was shot in accordance with Church doctrine. It is absolutely as accurate as we could possibly make it.” Script writers used resources of the BYU Religious Instruction faculty and the Church Historical Department and consulted such responsible sources as the History of the Church by Joseph Smith, B. H. Roberts’ Comprehensive History of the Church, the writings of Lucy Mack Smith, and Joseph Smith’s own history as recorded in the Pearl of Great Price. “The desire of the Brethren to make this film scripturally sound was very intense,” adds Hoyt W. Brewster, Jr., manager of Adult Curriculum for the Church. “They wanted to make it accurate in every detail.”
Director of the film was Peter Johnson, a distinguished professional whose love for the Prophet Joseph Smith qualified him for a unique Church service opportunity. “Probably the reason that I chose to go into the motion picture business in my life was to work on Joseph Smith films,” he says. “I grew up on a farm in Idaho, and I guess I saw one or two movies a year. But even with a limited background, I always wanted to be a film director, and in particular I always wanted to do the Joseph Smith material. So when I was called and asked to work on this film, I was just thrilled.”
One of the greatest challenges of such a project, according to Brother Johnson, lies in the casting of an actor to portray the Prophet. “This is a man we all revere so highly,” he reflects, “that getting a good Joseph is like a miracle—to find a man with the right looks, the right charismatic qualities, and the right spirituality and warmth. That’s a pretty tall order.”
Brother Johnson, even now a bit awed at the unusual circumstances surrounding Greg Sperry’s selection as the Prophet Joseph Smith, tells the story:
“We were casting the angels—Peter, James, and John and John the Baptist—and I had this one fellow (Greg) come in, and we took some pictures of him as an angel and he was wonderful. I flew back to Los Angeles, but before long I got a call from our production manager, who said, ‘You know, there’s something really important that you need to look at.’ And so I came back to Utah, and he asked me to look at the pictures of the angels. Well, when I saw Greg, my mouth dropped open, and a big smile came across the production manager’s face. I said, ‘My goodness, that’s Joseph Smith—he’s perfect!’ We flew Greg in from Arizona, consulted with some of the other administrators, and the consensus was that he was the man to portray the Prophet Joseph. So I asked him if he would play the part. He nearly fainted.”
“I was taken completely by surprise,” chuckles Greg Sperry, now a business student at Brigham Young University. “I’d never acted in my whole life—and now this! What a challenge—to try to play the Prophet. It was one of the most exciting experiences of my life.” Greg is twenty-four years old the same age at which Joseph Smith organized the Church.
Brother Johnson sees Greg’s performance as a highlight of the film. “He has the personal qualities that I thought were very important, and I think they come across on the screen,” says the director. “As a performer, he was very concerned that he do well in the film.”
The script itself posed another challenge for Peter Johnson. A successful movie, he reflects, is generally dependent upon the conflicts or tensions among its characters and the climax, or high point, of the action. “When I looked at that script,” he recalls, “I thought, boy, this is going to be a tough one because there’s no conflict. And not only that, we start out with one of the high points—the appearances of angel—close to the beginning of the film.” Prayerfully considering the alternatives, he noticed one small sentence in the original script: “And they passed the sacrament.” “It struck me forcefully,” he says, “that the Lord introduced the sacrament—and this was the first time that it had been administered with authority since the time of the primitive church. That’s when I started thinking how we could really make this a lovely, lovely moment. And for me, it has become the high point of the film.”
The Peter Whitmer farm in Fayette, New York, and surrounding areas became the location for much of the filming. The farm, now a Church visitors’ center, had been restored in recent years, making a temporary return to the “old days” necessary. “We made it just as close as we could to what it would be if the Whitmer family were actually living there,” says Brother Stay. “We tore up the lawn, put some weeds in, set a haystack on the corner of the place, a goat in the back yard and a cow tethered in the corral, dug some wagon tracks in the lawn and made it all muddy. Then when we got through, we put it all back together.”
A few dozen Saints in the Fayette and Rochester areas portrayed early converts to the gospel who were present at the April 6 organizational meeting. Recalling their dedication, Robert Stum, associate producer of the film, reflects, “What was most touching to me was the actions of all those people who worked with us as cast. They just did a superb job. Many of them had to leave Rochester at four in the morning in order to get to our makeup call, but there was just no grumbling at all. They’d be there all day and leave after dark, because it seemed like we were always running late. We were so appreciative of their willingness to serve.”
Brother Johnson has warm memories of the Fayette experience. “There was a sacred, reverent feeling as we worked. The schedule was so tight that we had to shoot the entire sequence in the cabin, including going off to the baptism in the river, in two days. Those were two of the toughest days that I have ever had in filming. But once we got everything ready to shoot, there was just a wonderful feeling present. We all had burning testimonies of Joseph and of these sacred events that we were trying to portray.”
Some of the events connected with the filming were slightly less warm. “When I baptized Oliver [played by Bruce Newbold] and he baptized me,” recalls Greg Sperry, “the water was so cold. We had to stay in the river for about an hour, and we were really shaking and shivering. I kept telling Peter I wouldn’t be able to not shiver when I talked; he just said, ‘You can’t.’ As it turned out, there was just enough footage that was usable where Oliver didn’t shiver and I didn’t shiver.”
That same day, the cast waited “eight or ten hours” while a rainstorm dimmed their hopes of filming the baptism scene. Then, says Greg, “just about the last two hours of daylight, it completely cleared up and we got everything we needed. There were so many things that started out so badly, and turned out so well.”
As an interesting footnote, during the course of filming, Greg learned that he and Bruce were distant cousins—the same relationship shared by Joseph and Oliver. Greg and Bruce had never met prior to assuming their roles in the movie.
Everyone associated with the project remembers the two critical days (“the only two we had to film the cabin sequence,” says Brother Johnson) during which sudden illness swept through the cast and crew. “Many of them were very ill for about twenty-four hours,” says Brother Stum, “but somehow we worked around it.” Director Johnson views the incident philosophically: “I have also worked on another Church film, and I know this—there is an opposition that rises up before you, along with incredible obstacles and challenges. We had those all the way through. To me, it’s very, very powerfully and spiritually dramatic in that we had a sense of what it was like for Joseph Smith to have to go through the great challenging experiences that he did, never knowing beforehand how he was going to accomplish a lot of things that he did. And that was really the way we shot that sequence.”
Members of the production team share deep feelings and convictions about the film’s content and purposes. “I think for me,” says Brother Stay, “seeing the film bring alive the events researched made the restoration of the priesthood and the organization of the Church real for me, and made me feel that I was really part of it.
“Another thing that impressed me was that almost all of this revelation and instruction came to Joseph and Oliver as a result of prayer and inquiry. It schooled me in the process of revelation; and I think that’s a great lesson of the film—that these things are real, they actually happened, and they happened in proper order. The restoration was not haphazard in any way, and it was done the way it should have been done in order to establish this Church.
“I think the film will strengthen testimonies considerably. It will be a learning tool, particularly for the youth of the Church; but I think also that it will be a tremendous missionary tool. I think that for those who are seeking the truth, and who are approaching baptism, this will reinforce their decisions and help them understand that these events were real, that it isn’t just something somebody made up.”
Richard Hart adds his perception of the film as a teaching tool. “The beauty of The First Vision is that it teaches revelation—that you ponder, you pray, you get revelation, and then you obey. Those four things were exactly what Joseph did as he was searching for knowledge about the priesthood—he was applying principles he had learned through his first vision. If people viewing The Restoration of the Priesthood can make that connection, it will have great spiritual impact in their lives.”
“One of the things we are trying to do,” continues Brother Hart, “is to create audiovisual materials in the Church that are vehicles of the Spirit, so the Spirit of the Lord can bear witness of the truth. That was very important in this film, because we wanted the Spirit of the Lord to bear witness that these things actually happened.”
Brother Johnson affirms that “it was such a testimony-building experience to recreate, probably for the first time ever, the sacred events that happened on April the sixth, on the very location where they happened. To stand behind the camera and just sort of say to yourself ‘You’re not looking at a movie reproduction, but at the real thing’ was absolutely thrilling—and we all felt that. I don’t think I have ever had a more thrilling experience in film than when we shot the Joseph Smith sequence at the Fayette farm.”
In a letter to Church administrators dated 19 August 1982, President Ezra Taft Benson of the Quorum of the Twelve counsels leaders to make extensive use of “this moving film.” “Each stake and mission president,” he writes, “is encouraged to secure copies and develop a plan where priesthood and auxiliary leaders and teachers, missionaries, parents and home teachers can use it effectively in proclaiming the gospel and perfecting the Saints.
“The motion picture or filmstrip may be used in such events as investigator firesides, baptism services, open-houses, missionary discussions, stake, district and ward activities, and family home evenings where friends, neighbors and relatives might be invited. It can also be used in priesthood quorums, Relief Society, and other classes where missionary work, priesthood, or the Restoration is discussed.”
The Restoration of the Priesthood is available on sixteen-millimeter film ($75.00); video cassette (VHS or BETA, $34.95), which also contains other films; and filmstrip ($2.50).