Latter-day Saint Video Vault: “Morality for Youth” Can Keep Heading Down the River

Morality for Youth
Jared Jones

Jared Jones

A youth river-rafting trip is a metaphor for keeping morally clean

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.

In 1977 the church began planning a film to reinforce standards of sexual morality. They formed a committee under the direction of General Authorities and ended up releasing Morality for Youth in 1982. This 22-minute film was designed with the purpose to “(1) understand the Lord’s standard of morality; (2) accept and desire to live that standard; and (3) learn how, with the Lord’s help, they can keep themselves morally clean and help others stay morally clean.”

The church premiered the film via satellite broadcast on Dec 5, 1982 with an introduction by President Gordon B. Hinckley. It was then distributed to units as either a filmstrip, 16 mm film or a VHS cassette. A 6-page discussion guide and teaching booklet was also included and leaders were encouraged to preview the film and the discussion guide prior to showing the film to youth to promote positive discussion.  Members of the committee who created the film strongly felt the film should not take the place of a parents’ involvement and should not be shown without a follow-up discussion. Details on the creation of the film were highlighted in a 1983 Ensign article.

What could go wrong?

Morality for Youth sets up the analogy of life and moral cleanliness as a river-rafting journey. We open on a group of youth on such a trip. They are smiling and enjoying the ride as experienced guides help them navigate down river. They ride the rapids—holding on tightly to the ropes of the raft and generally are having a great time. They pull ashore and the bishop instructs them to get everything from the raft and prepare for the evening.

Around a campfire the bishop tells them they’ve been good river runners—although from what I can see none of them held a paddle or had to do much other than hold on. The Bishop then reminds them the river demands respect and tells them of some mistakes they made that could endanger their safety the next day. One person needs to keep shoes on and another needs to wear a life jacket. Too many people were showing off, and it doesn’t take too much for one person to give trouble to an entire raft.

“As in life,” the bishop says “people get into trouble because they overestimate their ability or underestimate the forces causing danger.”

With the theme of our object lesson firmly in place, the bishop launches into a personal story. As a young river guide he took a youth group down a river. He had one youth in his group –Vaughan—who refused to follow the rules. Vaughan insists he is a good swimmer—he doesn’t need his life jacket. The bishop reminds him of the rules and he loosely puts it on. Vaughan acts as if he is the effort because he has been on the river before. He basically mutinies and tries to take control of the raft to steer them to a more exciting part of the river. In the process the Bishop (young river guide) finally wrests control back but it’s too late. The river gets cross current and flips as it hits a rapid. Everyone is thrown into the turbid waters. Most are wearing their vests and eventually float to shore. Vaughan is desperate to find safety. He actually pushes Molly under in his efforts to get above water. Others find Molly but she is unconscious and not breathing. Another youth calls Vaughan out on his actions against Molly and he walks away from the group as they attempt to revive her. He is angry and punches a tree in frustration and then kneels to pray.

Back at the campfire the Bishop says they almost lost Molly that day.

“There are things we can’t undo. People can drown. A run down it is a lot like staying morally clean. One has to obey the rules and follow good counsel. I know some of you are in the rapids now.”

As he makes that final comment the camera cuts to a young man and woman who exchange a glance. Clearly, they are “in the rapids.” Possibly together. We don’t know. It is the Bishop’s desire to help them avoid “capsizing their lives.”

With his extended metaphor established, The Bishop launches into a discussion of sexual morality and the river. His words are cut together with President Kimball’s’ words from an address on the same topic given in 1980. Their voiceover goes between shots of the bishop at the campfire and scenes of the ill-fated white-water trip of the past.

In addition to Bishop and President Kimball’s words about morality—let’s be honest here; there are many parts to being a moral individual but this is just about sex—we also see interviews of many church youth. They talk about their experiences on being morally clean and encouraging others to do the same.

I will refrain from doing a direct recap of every comment and quote. Suffice it to say that like many video presentations of the church the language and direction is very much appropriate to the time. Somethings still work. Many things don’t.

Topics include necking, petting, masturbation, pre-marital sex, exhibitionism, homosexuality, and pornography. Basically, all bad. Some things are unfounded. Like how masturbation leads to exhibitionism and homosexuality. It follows President Kimball’s talk pretty closely with many key points in his own voice.

A particularly bad part focuses on how young women need to act to support young men.

“And you girls are untrue to yourself…if the way you dress makes guys think you are interested in something different than you really are. That’s playing in the rapids.”

No, Bishop. Young women are not to blame for a young man’s bad thoughts or actions. Along these lines we later hear from a young man who says “I have to decide and be responsible for my own actions. It’s really up to me.!” This positive comment has the added benefit of helping this film to send a mixed message to young men. And young women.

Do I think young men and young women can support each other by making righteous choices? Yes of course. But not in the way discussed by the Bishop.

The youth interviews are probably the most important moments of the film. They offer meaningful suggestions about keeping morally clean. We hear from a diverse range of youth dealing with many problems. We hear expressions of faith, hope and repentance. Some of the comments are heartbreaking and underscore how as a culture we bad we are at teaching sexuality in the church.

Morality for Youth does attempt to emphasize the blessings and reality of repentance and the atonement. Any message of finding a way back from mistakes made is one we all need to hear. Any glimmer of hope, however is darkened by the bleak language used to describe sexual sin. I agree these sins are serious being unclear does no one any favors, but the language used in his falls flat.

The river rafting metaphor is apt for our journey through life. There are eddys and whirlpools, slow flowing straights and exciting rapids. A good guide and appropriate rules can help lead you safely through the adventure and home again. The metaphor is good. Let’s lead with that.

Thoughts, Musings & Trivia

  • Twenty youth from Provo and Salt Lake were recruited as cast members. Their assignment was to raft down a segment of the Snake River between Jackson and Alpine, Wyoming.
  • They shot in the fall making the 7-mile river run several times each day over the course of 3 days.

 

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