Evangelical Christians claimed they distributed 350,000 anti-Mormon DVDs in Utah on Sunday, hoping to convince members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints that the church is a non-Christian cult.
They said they gave out another 150,000 across the U.S. and Canada - about a half-million altogether.
Hundreds of volunteers placed the discs, which feature a picture of the church founder Joseph Smith and the Salt Lake temple, on doorknobs in a white plastic bag that said, "Good News for LDS." Others handed out the bags after Monday night's Jazz game in downtown Salt Lake City. Some confused it with the LDS Church's own promotional material rather than seeing the DVD as a critique of Mormon beliefs.
The door-to-door approach was part of the plan hatched by a group of Christians in 2005, said Chip Thompson, director of Tri-Grace Ministries in Ephraim, who helped with the distribution. He would not say who funded the project, only that it was written and produced by LaBarge Media near Rochester, N.Y.
"What inspired this was all the hype surrounding the celebration of Joseph Smith's 200th birthday," Thompson said Tuesday. "A lot of us viewed the information put out by the church as being pretty incorrect and only part of the story. The other parts were not being told at all."
Christian critics of the LDS Church decided to produce a professionally crafted tell-all film, Thompson said, to lay out their concerns about Mormonism - including Smith's claims about the Book of Mormon and other sacred Mormon texts and his involvement with polygamy. It asks viewers to compare Smith with Jesus Christ, and Mormonism with traditional Christian beliefs.
"The information in the video is all documented Mormon history," said Thompson, who also directs the Solid Rock Christian Fellowship at Snow College. "Nothing was fabricated."
The LDS Church and Mormon scholars disagree. Even some traditional Christians, who also reject LDS teachings, see the new effort as counterproductive to their outreach to Mormons.
"The accusations, innuendo and mischaracterizations portrayed in the video are divisive and hurtful to open dialogue and conversation," LDS spokesman Scott Trotter said. "It does not accurately represent the life of Joseph Smith or the doctrine and history of the church. Either deliberately or out of ignorance, the video ignores volumes of scholarly work which address the concerns raised. These criticisms are old and long-ago asked and answered."
LDS researchers and scholars at The Foundation for Apologetic Information & Research (FAIR) have issued a point-for-point rebuttal of the film's main arguments.
"Rather than focus on what they believe, the video's producers have taken it upon themselves to describe and interpret LDS beliefs and teachings, often in ways that would be objectionable or unrecognizable to Latter-day Saints," said Scott Gordon, president of FAIR.
The film includes parts of the church's temple ceremonies, which Mormons never discuss outside the sanctuary, Gordon said. "They offend us and then ask us to join them? They don't understand us at all."
As a student at Salt Lake Theological Seminary, John Morehead knows traditional Christianity. He also has been involved in religious dialogue with Mormons and vehemently opposes this DVD strategy.
"It's mean-spirited and nasty," Morehead said. "Any Mormon who does look at it will be turned off."
And it won't likely have the desired result: throngs of LDS faithful leaving the fold.
Morehead notes that a widely promoted film, The Godmakers," which laid out Mormon beliefs in simplistic and sensationalistic ways, made no dent in Mormon proselytizing. And this one is just "Godmakers" with better production values.
Instead of attacking LDS beliefs, he said, "we have to find common ground and recognize the positive in each side. We have to demonstrate compassion."
Thompson insists, however, that this method is working. The group has received dozens of calls to the hot line it posted on the bags.
"Lots of people are asking for more information," he said.
In December, organizers brought the completed film to Utah, where dozens of Christian pastors previewed it and offered to distribute it. They agreed not to tell any Mormons what they were doing.
"Mormon leaders often tell their people not to watch media produced outside the church, and the people blindly obey," Thompson said. "The secrecy was practical. We wanted people to decide for themselves."
Joe Wren, a South Ogden Mormon, was among the thousands who found a white bag on a doorknob. After viewing the film and realizing its purpose, he walked his Shadow Valley neighborhood and saw scores of white bags but no volunteers to discuss the issues with him. No one had knocked on his door, either.
"I found it distasteful - not to mention an extremely un-Christian tactic of being so sneaky and underhanded," Wren said. "It's amazing they'd stoop to that level."