Latter-day Saint Video Vault celebrates decades of uplifting, funny, weird, and sometimes cringe-worthy Mormon-related videos, most of which are now found on YouTube. Join Jared Jones every other Friday as he breaks down one of these classics.
Nearly 200 years ago this month Joseph Smith finally received the gold plates from the Angel Moroni after 4 years of prayerful preparation. (its actually 192 years, Sept 22, 1827). To mark this occasion I thought we would look at a film that testifies of the Book of Mormon from several different perspectives—How Rare a Possession.
How Rare a Possession was released in 1987. An article in the Ensign a year after its release reported it was the largest scale motion picture the church had ever done to date. With sets and costumes that span periods including Nephite civilization, the birth of the restoration in 1830, 1900s Sicily and New York City it truly was an ambitious project produced by the church curriculum department and BYU Motion Picture studio.
The sweeping film tells the story of the coming forth of the Book of Mormon and then recreates how this sacred text dramatically impacted the lives of Parley P. Pratt and Vincenzo Di Francesca.
The film opens in the Americas between 400 and 421 A.D. as we see Moroni walking through a landscape devoid of human life. He narrates his travels with words from Mormon 8 and Moroni 1. As he continues to share his final words he walks through a forest reminiscent of the Sacred Grove and we see him carefully placing the Liahona into a stone box. He offers a prayer, briefly recreating the famous Gospel Picture Kit image. He seals the plates in the stone box, the music swells, and we fly over the verdant hills of upstate New York.
A narrator then recounts the history of the coming forth of the Book of Mormon. How Moroni appeared to young Joseph Smith in his bedroom, Joseph’s years of preparation and finally how he receives and then translates the plates. We also hear the words of Joseph Smith, Brigham Young and John Taylor who all testify of the power of the Book of Mormon.
We then move to the home of Parley P. Pratt. His brother William is visiting and Parley tells him he is about to leave his beautiful home and farm to follow his personal revelation to preach the word of God to others. His brother doesn’t understand, but Parley is adamant that he must go. He sells his farm in August 1830 and heads on his way. Somewhere along the Erie Canal he feels he must leave his wife to do something in the region. He sends her on to friends in Albany and promises to come soon. As he travels through the area he meets someone who introduces him to someone else who owns a copy of the Book of Mormon. Parley returns the next day and reads the book all day and all night and is touched by the truth of the Book of Mormon. He knows it to be true and decides to go to Palmyra to meet Joseph Smith. Joseph has already moved to Pennsylvania, but Parley ends up speaking into the wee hours with Hyrum. Hyrum gives him his own copy of the Book of Mormon and Parley sets off on his travels again. He stops briefly and ends up reading what is now 3 Nephi 11 and esteems the information in the Book of Mormon to be more valuable than “all the riches of the world.”
We then fly through space and time from 1800s New York to 1899 Sicily and meet a young school boy named Vincenzo Di Francesca. Vincenzo’s tale takes up a larger proportion of the film than Parley’s, probably because it was the lesser known tale of the two.
Seeing promise in him from a young age, Vincenzo’s grandfather enrolls him in religious school where he cultivates his gift for reading the scriptures. He continues his religious education at a protestant high school and then travels to New York City at 17 to visit his brother. He enrolls in college and receives his degree to become a pastor.
On a February morning in 1910 Vincenzo is summoned to the Reverendo’s—or head pastor’s—home. On the way he cuts through an ally and finds a book on the top of an ash barrel. As the pages flutter in the breeze the gentle underscoring of “Oh Say What is Truth” swells and he wraps it in a newspaper and brings it along. The Reverendo asks Vincenzo to cover for him while he is taken ill, and Vincenzo gladly agrees.
After the visit he returns home and begins to read. Unfortunately, the title page is missing and the name of the book was missing from the cover and the spine. He secures supplies to clean the soiled pages and is captivated by these names he has never heard of before. He reads for several hours and is transfixed by the scene of Christ visiting the people at the temple in Bountiful in 3 Nephi 11. The film cuts to a reenactment of this key moment. Although a rainstorm rages outside Vincenzo’s window he reads on. The next day he applies the promise found in Moroni 10:3-5 and receives a testimony that the Book of Mormon was the word of God.
Vincenzo is so moved by the words in the Book of Mormon and begins to incorporate them into his sermons. He shares the words of King Benjamin to a nearly empty chapel, but eventually is teaching the words of Book of Mormon prophets to a packed house. This newfound popularity does not sit well with the other pastors of the parish, and he is called into a council for heretical teaching and disharmony in the sect. He is asked to burn the book and refuses—fearing to offend God for ignoring the testimony he so clearly received. Two years pass and he returns to an even larger council. They want reconciliation, but only if he burns the book. He refuses again saying “The musicians have changed, but the music is still the same.” He urges them to read it instead of just demanding its destruction but the council is not moved. They strip him of his credentials and degree and remove him from the church.
He is called to war in Italy and serves on the front lines. While serving he again runs afoul of religious leaders for his allegiance to this “book with no name.” He is confined for 10 days and ordered to stop talking about the book.
After the war he returns to New York City and meets a friend and former pastoral colleague who intervenes to have him reinstated as a lay member of the church. He travels with him to Australia to help support Italian immigrants there. The group has questions about errors in translations, and Vincenzo ends up teaching them about the “other sheep” that provide another witness to aid in understanding the bible. His friend is not amused and Vincenzo is again removed from the church.
Vincenzo returns to Italy and comes across the word “Mormon” in a French dictionary. Through his research he discovers the name of the church and that the church operates Brigham Young University. He writes a letter to the president of BYU, and this letter finds its way to church president Heber J. Grant and then to President of the European Mission John Widstoe. President Widstoe makes arrangements to baptize Vincenzo, but problems in Italy prevent Vincenzo from leaving Sicily. Later the Italian Ethiopian war prevent him from being baptized. He finally gets a letter inviting him to Rome to meet Hugh B. Brown, but the letter arrives too late. All missionaries had already left due to the start of World War II. Vincenzo continues to wait faithfully and spends his time translating the standard works into Italian and sending sections to friends. He again writes Elder Widstoe in 1949 asking to be baptized by an authorized servant of God. 1949. That’s 39 YEARS after he first gained a testimony of the Book of Mormon!
Finally, we hear the line that is always repeated in my mind. A mail carrier calls to him “Vincenzo! Vincenzo!” The sing-song way the actor calls his name really stuck in my head. Fast forward to time code 56:00 if you just have to hear it. Anyway it’s a letter from Elder Widstoe, informing Vincenzo that the President of the Swiss Austrian Mission was coming to Sicily to finally baptize him. On January 18, 1951, Vincenzo was baptized in the ocean near Termini Imerse Sicily—41 years after he pulled the book from the ashes. We zoom out to see Vincenzo walking up the hill toward the Swiss temple and a title card informs us he died firm in the faith in 1966 10 years after receiving the ordinances of the temple.
The final words of the film belong to a letter from the First Presidency. As we fly through the clouds they remind us that sometimes we take the Book of Mormon for granted, and each one of us must take the time to discover it.
How Rare a Possession’s period settings make the stories even more timeless and relevant to our day. They are inspirational without being saccharine and teach without preaching. The stories of Parley P. Pratt and Vincenzo Di Francesca showcase the life-changing power of a vibrant Book of Mormon testimony and urge us to persevere and give our all to build our own heritage of faith.