Making the Grades
How many people have longed of find a Promised Land... a Utopia... a Zion?
The Steeds are that kind of folk and when they move to Palmyra, New York in 1830, some of them think they have found just that. It isn't the farmland, the community, or even the prospect of better opportunities. Instead, it is a local boy who claims to have seen God. Touched by his sincere story, Mary-Ann Steed (Brenda Strong) and some of her oldest children are soon convinced this Joseph Smith (Jonathan Scarfe) has been called as a prophet.
But not everyone is embracing this up-start religion with such open arms. The head of the Steed household completely disapproves, yet the more Ben (Sam Hennings) tries to rule his family with an iron fist, the more they seem to slip through his fingers. However, he shows more forbearance than many of the other villagers. As their feelings move from distain to downright hostility, Smith suggests it is time for his fledgling congregation to find a different location in which to build their Zion.
To keep the family together, Ben begrudgingly agrees to help them pack and set up a new home in Ohio, while some of the other faithful followers begin a second settlement in Missouri. Unfortunately, neither of these States proves welcoming. As the long-term residents watch the immigration of the many converts to the rapidly growing Mormon Church, they begin to fear they will soon be outnumbered.
The Missourians are particularly alarmed about the effect the shifting balance could have on future elections. Scared by the solidarity of the sect, the less law-abiding citizens (with the promise of a blind eye from a political leader) succumb to brutality in order to evict their religious neighbors. Among the angry conspirators is Joshua Steed (Eric Johnson), the estranged eldest son of the clan. Blaming the Mormons for everything bad that has happened in his life (like his father kicking him out of the house and his younger brother Nathan marrying his ex-girlfriend), the rebellious young man grasps this opportunity for revenge.
The fractured family will soon meet again -- on opposite sides of the line-- when Ben and Nathan (Alexander Carroll) join a group of men from Ohio and march to the aid of their brothers and sisters, who are suffering from the injustices of the Missouri mobs.
Considering the many abuses endured by these Zion-seekers, the moviemakers have made an earnest endeavor to keep most of the violence off the screen by fading to black, or having the audience hear--rather than see. Still, the viewer will feel the emotions of these cruelties, which include threats with guns, beatings, whippings, tar-and-featherings and the destruction of personal property. Blood is shown in some instances, like a punched nose and lash wounds. The film also shows the vulnerability of the women and children of this time period, from childbirth, illness, and domineering (sometimes drunken) men.
While the Steeds are fictitious, the events of religious persecution depicted in this movie really did happen to the early members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (nick-named The Mormons). Sympathetically addressed in this well-crafted movie, their story is a part of America's history. Similar in construction (although not a musical) to the tale of Jewish trials portrayed in Fiddler on the Roof, you don't have to share the same religious persuasion in order to empathize with the plight of these people. All you need is a heart that holds freedom as a sacred right for all mankind.
Discussion Ideas After The Movie
Teaching ideas and topics to discuss about The Work and The Glory II: American Zion.
To learn more about the history of Joseph Smith, the founder of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, check out the church’s official website.
Tar and feathering, which is depicted in this film, was a fairly common form of public humiliation at the time. You can learn more about this practice here.