WASHINGTON - A Mormon area authority waded into a controversy over captions on a pair of portraits of early church leaders Joseph Smith and Brigham Young, asking the Smithsonian Institution to correct factual errors 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.
"The thing that impressed me about the second set of captions was religion was front-and-center as it should be, but the key to the conflict wasn't front-and-center, and that would be polygamy," Gordon said.
The changes to the texts were made before the portrait gallery opened to the public July 1.
Bushman said he did the rewriting with input from Brigham Young scholar Ronald Esplin, who works for the LDS Church, and a curator from the Smithsonian.
The revised captions were "never vetted at any higher church level," Bushman said.
Portrait gallery spokeswoman Noelle Myers said the gallery had to write more than a thousand captions before the opening. "This was a mistake and it was corrected before the gallery opened," she said.
The images of Smith and Young are part of an exhibit called "American Origins," which contains portraits of prominent Americans from 1600 to 1900.
An e-mail that circulated among area Mormons before the official opening said "the exhibit claims Joe Smith was lynched and that Brigham Young was a tyrant." While it is technically correct that Smith was lynched - or murdered by a mob - the term today is widely understood as meaning a person was hanged by a mob. The name of the sender was removed from the e-mail when it was forwarded to The Tribune.
Gordon said that, while LDS members are sensitive about the public's perception of their past, their complaints in this case were merited. "If I had seen it, as a nonchurch member, I would have called them up, too," she said.
A Bennett spokeswoman said the senator was contacted by a church member who had seen the display and was concerned about its content, and those concerns were passed onto the Smithsonian, but the text had already been changed based on earlier complaints.
Likewise, a Bishop staffer inquired with the Smithsonian to make sure the concerns had been addressed.
The exhibit includes two portraits of Brigham Young, a small daguerreotype, an early form of photograph, and a later image printed on paper.
ä PEGGY FLETCHER STACK contributed to this report.