Nephi’s Colored Plates

July 2008

by Randy Astle

A few years ago a new set of Book of Mormon plates was uncovered in Salt Lake City, this time not in simple gold or brass but in full glorious color. Nephi had not hand painted an additional record deposited in the side of Ensign Peak. Rather, Latter-day Saints in the early twentieth century had created a series of glass photographic slides of the story of the first book of Nephi that, after languishing in a leather briefcase for over half a century, have once again seen the light of day. 

The slides are images from one of the earliest filmmaking endeavors of Latter-day Saints. When hearing a term like “Mormon cinema,” many people may think of the spate of theatrical films released after Richard Dutcher’s God’s Army in 2000—titles like The Singles Ward, The Work and the Glory, and others, up to The Errand of Angels which has been released in Utah-area theaters this month. For others “Mormon cinema” may imply independent productions of yesteryear such as the 1989 video version of Saturday’s Warrior, while for others it means institutionally produced Church films like Johnny Lingo, Man’s Search for Happiness, Legacy, and others. While Mormon cinema certainly encompasses all of these, Mormons and movies actually met long before Mahanna climbed up her tree. The first recorded filming of Latter-day Saints occurred in 1898—a mere three years after the invention of cinema and decades before the advent of the “talkies” in 1927—in a short documentary connected with the Spanish-American War. Mormons in Utah and elsewhere began watching motion pictures around the same time, and soon a few adventurous Church members began making their own.

But the relationship was not always symbiotic. In 1911 and 12 Church members suffered through a barrage of high profile anti-Mormon films with titles like A Victim of the Mormons, The Mountain Meadows Massacre, and Marriage or Death. Plots invariably included forced polygamy along with intriguing missionaries, bloodthirsty Danites, or other stock characters that had been part and parcel of anti-Mormon literature since the 1840s. The Church’s attempts to legally suppress and censor these films proved fruitless, merely generating free publicity instead, so by 1912 Church leaders, having gained an increased appreciation of the power of motion pictures, decided to respond with a film of their own.

The result was One Hundred Years of Mormonism, a groundbreaking representation of the history of the Church from Joseph Smith’s childhood through the colonization of Utah. The film was begun by the Ellaye Motion Picture Company and completed by the Utah Moving Picture Company, all under direct supervision from the Church, including President Joseph F. Smith; the director was non-Mormon Norrval MacGregor. Running six reels at an estimated ninety minutes (the exact footage is unknown, and at that time projection speeds varied from screening to screening, or even within a single show), it was one of the longest motion pictures ever created to that point. The cast was literally in the thousands, including many actual pioneers who reenacted their own journey across the plains, and filming took place in Independence and Nauvoo in addition to numerous sets and locations in Utah and California.

It premiered in the historic Salt Lake Theatre, which had previously been outfitted for film projection, on February 3, 1913, with two other prints premiering a week later in Los Angeles and San Francisco. Each was accompanied by live music (probably a small string orchestra, rather than the traditional pianist) and narration, explaining the events depicted and their significance in LDS history. The three prints toured the western United States and grossed $25,000; there were plans to exhibit it in New York and London, though no record of such screenings have been found. While it may not have completely reversed the recent tide of anti-Mormon sentiment—it would take World War I to do that—it was significant enough to have warranted attention, and positive reviews, in mainstream trade journals. Among Latter-day Saints the film was seen as a phenomenon. Its premiere was the largest in Utah history and its distribution unprecedented for the region. Various scenes, particularly of the pioneers crossing the plains, were reportedly met with wild ovations. In March 1913 a special screening was held for pioneers who had come to Utah before the transcontinental railroad: over 1,000 were in attendance, and this was the last great reunion of the original pioneers. There were faults—evidently not everyone appreciated the actor who played Joseph Smith, and James E. Talmage noted a few historical inaccuracies in his personal journal—but, with the anti-Mormon films fresh on everyone’s minds, these were overlooked as President Smith and other general authorities gave the film enthusiastic public endorsements. As the age of the pioneers passed away, the age of Mormon cinema had arrived.

The success of One Hundred Years of Mormonism prompted many would-be filmmakers to undertake their own projects. Most of these were mainstream projects, westerns or romances that were produced in Utah but without any specifically Mormon subject matter. One project, however, delved straight to the heart of LDS theology. In December 1913 a young man named Chet Clawson announced in the Deseret News that he and his brother Shirl had received permission from the First Presidency to create a dramatic film based upon the Book of Mormon, covering its story from the exodus of Lehi to Moroni’s burying of the gold plates. “The remarkable history of the Nephite and Lamanite peoples will be produced at enormous expense,” he wrote, “and with the grandeur which will make it one of the greatest motion pictures in existence.” The immense scope of such an undertaking, named The Story of the Book of Mormon, quickly necessitated that it be broken up into individual pictures, and thus the film that would become The Life of Nephi was born.

Already active filmmakers, the Clawson brothers were grandchildren of Brigham Young through a plural wife of Hyram Clawson. Hyram had been President Young’s personal secretary, a prominent Utah businessman, and the designer of the Eagle Gate in Salt Lake City, but he was also a thespian who had participated in dramatics in Nauvoo and worked with his new wife at the Salt Lake Theatre—to a great extent, Shirl and Chet grew up on the boards. Their family connections presumably allowed the brothers access to Church leaders, and once the First Presidency, still pleased with the results of One Hundred Years of Mormonism, gave its approval the Clawsons contracted William A. Morton, a prominent leader of the Sunday School, to write the first scenario. Morton worked quickly, having each draft vetted by a committee of general authorities chaired by Elder Talmage, and within six months he submitted a workable—and officially sanctioned—version to the Clawsons.

Troubles immediately set in, however: for two years the Clawsons, apparently without funds, failed to pay Morton the contracted $400. After four failed contracts Morton notified the Clawsons in a letter that he would be assuming the rights to his screenplay himself, “as I have been told by the authorities of the Church that I am at liberty to do as I please with my scenario.” The Clawsons evidently did not protest this legal opinion, evidently given by the First Presidency itself, so Morton turned to various Salt Lake City businessmen, principally his friend Anton J. T. Sorensen, for financial support in preparation to make the picture himself.

Production occurred in the summer of 1915 near 700 East and 2700 South in Salt Lake City. The budget was much smaller than for One Hundred Years, so Morton proved himself an adroit producer and procured a cast of largely volunteer local actors, mostly Salt Lake temple workers. The Relief Society of the Forest Dale ward sewed the costumes gratis, and other locals were involved, free of charge, in every way. The actual direction was performed by one Briant Young, with the important assistance of a “professional cameraman” from California, while Morton and Sorensen retained tight control of the story. The story of The Life of Nephi was precisely that, with remarkably little variation from the Book of Mormon itself. It followed a series of tableaus of major sequences, such as retrieving the brass plates or the constructing of a ship, with written intertitles, containing explanation or dialogue, inserted when necessary. The film ran three reels, placing it between twenty and forty minutes, was ready to premiere on October 25 amidst the activities—and increased crowds—of the Church’s general conference. For the first time in history, the Book of Mormon had been depicted on the silver screen.

Sadly, there is much less information available about the reception of The Life of Nephi than of One Hundred Years of Mormonism. As yet we have no contemporary reviews, statements of general authorities, or other primary materials. The film was much shorter than One Hundred Years and had much less involvement from the institutional Church; its smaller budget meant that the geographical distribution of its prints, if indeed there were more than one, had to be more limited. Still, at a time when other churches were just beginning to create biblical films for ecclesiastical purposes the accomplishment of placing part of the Book of Mormon on film and exhibiting it throughout northern Utah was more than remarkable. The Life of Nephi remained a lone production, however, as further installments in the Book of Mormon series were never begun.

The vast majority of all films created before the 1920s has been irrevocably lost, a statistic that lamentably includes both One Hundred Years and The Life of Nephi. While we are therefore bereft of some of the great artifacts of Mormonism’s history, in recent years rediscovered still images have given us an idea what these productions looked like in full motion. The financier Anton Sorensen had the foresight during production of The Life of Nephi to hire a still cameraman from the Charles R. Savage Company to record the staging of key scenes. Sorensen had these photographs printed on glass slides which he used in an illustrated magic lantern lecture after the motion picture itself had run its course. The magic lantern was invented in 1671 by the Jesuit priest Athanasius Kircher but came into increased popularity with improvements in the mid- to late 1800s. Essentially a slide projector with no electricity, it featured a metal box containing an incandescent light; a metal tray in front of this held a small sheet or sheets of glass in place, and it was slid behind a lens in order to project the image on a screen, hence our term of “slides” today. Scenes could be painted or photographed, and they were generally projected onto the rear of a screen, with the audience sitting on the other side. A series of images was usually thus displayed while a live narrator recounted ghost stories, melodramas, travelogues, or nonfiction informational lectures. The magic lantern lecture was one of the chief entertainments of the Victorian era and the most direct ancestor of the cinema.

The first recorded use of a magic lantern by Latter-day Saints was in Iceland in 1911. After that, missionaries and Sunday School boards slowly began using them throughout England, Europe, California, and the rest of the missions. Sorensen’s decision to create his own lecture in 1915 was therefore not completely original but was on the cusp of this movement: it is possible that he was the first Latter-day Saint to create a magic lantern lecture in Utah itself. He toured the state charging a small admission for his Book of Mormon lecture and continued doing so long after the film itself was forgotten. Because multiple sets of the slides were created, we may also assume that others were licensed to exhibit the presentation as well.

Given the source material from which they came, the quality of Sorensen’s images was superb. Magic lantern slides measured 3.5 x 4”, and Sorensen paid to have his sets painstakingly painted by hand (the film itself had of course been in black and white). Today the painting of slides may seem quaint artisanal work—a throwback to the days before Technicolor—but it certainly was not. The craftsmanship on these slides is exceptional; as Brian Sokolowsky, the Church archivist who catalogued them in 2002, said: “Whoever painted [the slides] took their time; it’s incredible art.”

Such art was not appreciated, however, in the 1950s, when three incomplete sets of the slides were donated to the Church. They remained in their original leather suitcase until Sokolowsky began his work with them six years ago. Although he had no script or labels he easily identified the scenes’ chronology and assembled a complete set of forty images, covering all the major narrative points of First Nephi. He continued searching for related artifacts and eventually discovered a script as well. This find is just as important as the images, although it has not yet been studied by any outside reseacher. Even more recently, Church Audiovisual Department employee Robert Starling discovered a few photographic images from One Hundred Years of Mormonism incorrectly catalogued with images from some of the Clawson brothers’ later films. While this discovery was equally monumental, these printed photographs are in worse physical condition than the glass slides and do not represent, as a percentage, as much of One Hundred Years as The Life of Nephi slides do of it. Thanks to the work of Sokolowsky and Starling, all of these materials are now available for viewing on site at the Church Archives at Temple Square, representing a vast untapped resource for future researchers. Though still not widely known they represent a magnificent record of early Mormon cinema, dramatics, and photography.


Anton Johan Theodor Sorensen, “Highlights of my life and production of motion pictures of Book of Mormon, 1915,” n.d., unpublished manuscript, Church Archives, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Salt Lake City

Jason Swenson, “Images preserve first filmmaking attempt,” Church News (August 23, 2003), 6

Randy Astle is a New York City-based filmmaker and screenwriter specializing in children’s media. He has published in BYU Studies and Irreantum on the history of LDS film, and his films have shown at the LDS Film Festival in Orem, Utah and the Festival du Film Mormon in Brussels, Belgium.