Smithsonian agrees to change factual errors in Mormon portraits' captions

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The Smithsonian has agreed to change the factual errors in the captions on a pair of portraits of early church leaders Joseph Smith and Brigham Young, after a Mormon scholar asked the Smithsonian Institution to correct the mistakes and a perceived negative slant in the text.

Elder Ralph W. Hardy Jr., the area authority for the Washington region and a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints' Quorum of the Seventy, contacted prominent Mormon scholar Richard Bushman to rework the captions before the exhibit at the National Portrait Gallery reopened in July.

"They were just erroneous and a lot of people thought they should be more factual," Hardy said.

The original captions, obtained by The Tribune through a Freedom of Information Act request after the Smithsonian initially refused to release them, contain some clear factual errors.

Church members who saw the original text at a sneak-preview event in June also felt it portrayed the early church leaders in a negative light and voiced concerns, prompting calls to the gallery from the offices of Sen. Bob Bennett and Rep. Rob Bishop.

"I frankly was appalled it would get that far," Bushman, an emeritus history professor at Columbia University and author of a new biography on Smith, said in an interview.

"Labels can have attitude but this was not only inaccurate but it was also slightly mean-spirited and not sort of the neutral position that labels normally go for, especially in a public institution," said Bushman, who was aided by an LDS Church historian and a Smithsonian curator.

How could it be, for example, that Young converted to Mormonism in 1823, as the Smithsonian captions stated, when it was 1830 - not 1827 as the text with Smith's portrait said - that the church was founded?

Bushman added other details, such as Young's role in colonizing the West, sending thousands of Mormon pioneers out to settle remote parts of the territory. And he softened the tone in other parts.

One passage that portrayed Utah's settlement as a "communal, undemocratic and separatist venture . . . antithetical to the ideals and structure of the national government" gave way to one noting that Young was elected governor before being replaced by an appointed territorial governor. However, it still described the new-founded empire as a "separatist communal and theocratic venture."

In another change, a passage on the Utah war was removed that said, "Eventually the government forced the Mormons to renounce polygamy and accept its authority. The struggle set the limits of federal toleration for separatist groups and was an important precedent in the decision to prevent the South from seceding in 1861."

That was replaced with an explanation that continuing conflicts led "the United States to dispatch troops to Utah in 1857 and assert federal authority. Young was notorious for his many wives, a practice taught as a religious principle by his predecessor, Joseph Smith."

Mormons believe that LDS Church President Wilford Woodruff declared an end to the practice of polygamy because of divine inspiration, not as a result of government pressure.

"There wasn't a lot in error there, it was just a matter of smoothing it out," Bushman said.

The changes helped correct some of the fairly obvious factual errors and were a major improvement in the tone, said Sarah Barringer Gordon, a legal and religious historian at the University of Pennsylvania law school.

They restored a focus on Mormonism as a religious movement, but also lost sight of the key conflict over plural marriage that dogged Mormons from their early days through their emigration West, she said.

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