IIt’s early to call it, but my fact of the year must surely be that Chorley – yes, that Chorley, halfway between Wigan and Preston – is the European center of Mormonism, the Lancastrian home of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (LDS). This is Salt Lake City in the UK.
I suspect the documentary The Mormons Are Coming is a direct result of this fact reaching the ears of a BBC researcher who, after nodding in disbelief and a quick search online to confirm, telephoned the nearest commissioner and informed him that Aunty had a duty to bring this extraordinary news to the people.
And it so happened that viewers were visited with an hour-long program about a handful of the approximately 800 clean-cut, bright-eyed young men who come to Chorley each year from all over the world for missionary training. work that is central to the Mormon faith, then sent on their first assignments.
Once they enter the training program, they give up their first names in favor of the titles of Elder/Sister and gain a constant companion (privacy is not a priority). They then spend six hours a day, except the Sabbath, studying the gospel, participating in role-playing games with unbelievers and potential converts, creating content for social media, and attending conferences about names such as “Normal and Natural Interactions” to help them connect with non-church people. Again!
We meet Elder Cook, an 18-year-old from an LDS family in Utah who is devoted to his mother, who fought for her ADHD diagnosis when the school was ready to drop her. He is happy to leave home for two years to try to spread the word of God. Sister Cooper, 19 and from a Mormon family in Hertfordshire, is equally eager, if a bit more discouraged. Her faith helped her deal with anxiety and depression, and Heavenly Father told her she could use her experience to comfort others.
Everyone we meet is lovely – sweet, kind, sincere. It’s hard not to warm to them each individually, and generally to a faith that chose not to protest the musical The Book of Mormon (which relies heavily on the essential absurdity of a book-based religion made of gold plates revealed by an angel to a 24-year-old farmer’s son 200 years ago) but instead chose to stand in front of theaters happily asking outgoing crowds if they’d like to hear about the real thing NOW.
And even. For an atheist in particular, which I am, there is something so unsettling about the rows of bright faces beaming in crisp white shirts and black ties or modest dresses waiting for instructions on how to persuade people to their way of thinking. Or, to put it more strongly, convince them of a lie. Or, to put it even more strongly, filling people’s emotional voids with their lies. Which description feels most appropriate to you will of course depend on your own upbringing, temperament, and voids, but you’ll likely find yourself oscillating between at least the first two, especially when Sister Cooper’s brother Matt speaks. . He left the church after finding himself “increasingly comfortable in queer spaces” and uncomfortable with LDS’ emphasis on heterosexual marriage and family, and the strict design of homosexuality as a sin. Their mother, too, has walked away from the church but cries that it means she and her husband will be separated in heaven, unlike “real” Mormon couples.
President Ostler, the head of Chorley’s training program, is asked about it, and 2019 footage plays of the church leader warning against gay marriage (“God hasn’t changed his definition “) but it’s not designed to be an extremely interrogative documentary. He mentions that the polygamy Mormons are known for was outlawed in 1890, but not the continued effects and frequent practice of it. He mentions that black members were not accepted until 1978, but does not ask Brother Johnson, who is black, what he thinks about it or how genuine or widespread the welcome is. And it ends with the wedding between two lovely young Mormons, Ashlyn and Joe (yes, that’s love at first sight on Joe’s prenuptial neck – “I didn’t say we weren’t allowed to kiss,” says Ashlyn) looking forward to this life and the next together; and with the baptism of Sister Cooper’s first convert.
The church granted the team unprecedented access. He must, on the whole, be very satisfied with what he received in return. If viewers feel the same way, I would be hesitant to say so.
The Mormons Are Coming aired on BBC Two and is now on iPlayer.