Imagine the longest trip your family has ever taken together. Now
imagine it lasting 11 years and covering thousands of miles through
scorching deserts and across vast expanses of ocean, including travel
on foot and via self-constructed boat. (Now try to calculate how many
times somebody is going to ask, "Are we there yet?")
Those are the rough parameters of the family excursion outlined in
"Journey of Faith." The new documentary records what scholars believe
is the probable route followed between 600 B.C. and 589 B.C. by
ancient inhabitants of Jerusalem who traveled to the Americas, as
documented in the Book of Mormon, a volume of scripture sacred to
members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
"Journey of Faith," completed over a five-year period in Israel,
Jordan, Yemen, Oman and Guatemala, is being presented to audiences for
the first time on all five nights of Brigham Young University's Campus
Education Week, which began Monday.
The documentary's estimation of the course traveled by the Book of
Mormon prophet Lehi and his kin is based on the best research
available, said S. Kent Brown, a BYU professor of ancient scripture
who is featured in the film and will present it to Education Week
Brown said the film -- to be marketed on DVD in Utah and elsewhere
later this year by Covenant Communications -- was made primarily for
Latter-day Saints, but that he believes it might be of interest even
to viewers with no connection to Mormonism. "We think we've done our
homework well enough," he said, "that anyone could watch it and find
the account to be believable, or at least credible."
The film was funded by private donors through Brigham Young
University's Foundation for Ancient Research and Mormon Studies, or
FARMS. Alison Coutts, director of publications for FARMS, said that
the foundation felt the film had the potential to reach a wider
audience than its numerous papers, journals and other scholarly
"I honestly think it's one of the most significant things that we've
done at FARMS," Coutts said.
A troubled production process
The fact that "Journey of Faith" exists is a testament to the
persistence of its makers. Director Peter Johnson, a resident of Orem
and longtime admirer of FARMS, devoted several months just to
developing the concept for the film with FARMS researchers.
"These are serious scholars who are very careful about driving stakes
in the ground," Johnson said. "I didn't want (the film) to be some
exciting thing that didn't have a lot of substance behind it."
Ready to begin work by late 2000, the filmmakers experienced their
first setback when, during a meeting to finalize travel arrangements
to the Arabian peninsula, they learned of the bombing attack on the
destroyer USS Cole in Yemen.
"We were literally in a production meeting with the crew" when the
attack was reported, Johnson said.
With travel to the region restricted, the filmmakers waited 11 months
before finally arriving in Yemen in the fall of 2001. The Yemeni
government provided an armed escort of more than a dozen soldiers,
including a military truck fitted with a large-caliber machine gun.
Filming progressed smoothly for several days -- so to speak. Just the
location was a challenge, said Brian Wilcox, the film's
"You have to protect yourself from the heat, the sun and the sand," he
said. "The sand gets into everything."
The crew was at work near Marib, one of a handful of sites generally
believed to be connected to the biblical Queen of Sheba, on Sept. 11.
"We had just finished our day's work," said Wilcox. Returning to their
accommodations in a small hotel, he said, the filmmakers were told of
devastating events unfolding around the globe, where terrorists had
staged attacks inside the United States targeting the World Trade
Center and the Pentagon.
"To our horror," Johnson said, "we sat in our hotel room and watched
the events of 9/11 occur."
On the following morning, Johnson and his crew learned that their
astonishment and sadness was shared by their hosts. The members of
their escort "had the most sad and dejected looks on their faces you
can imagine," Johnson said. "I went over to the commander and tears
welled up in his eyes. He said, 'We're so sorry. We're so sorry.' "
Contacted by U.S. officials, the filmmakers were told that, in the
short term, they would be safest remaining where they were. Realizing
that travel to the Middle East was bound to be even more complicated
in the future, they resumed filming.
Continuing their work, Brown said, turned out to be the best course of
action for all concerned. "We settled into a filming routine which
allowed us to continue in a normal way, without fright, without fear."
Once back in the United States, the filmmakers had to wait three long
years before they could return to the Arabian peninsula film sites in
An 'archaeological bull's-eye'
Although the text in the Book of Mormon that actually relates details
of the places visited by Lehi and his family is relatively scanty, the
"Journey of Faith" team has a high level of confidence in their
For anyone familiar with the Book of Mormon, Johnson said, the film is
a rare opportunity to see footage of "the actual locations where Lehi
and his family would have had to have gone."
The exact route remains a matter of some speculation. "We're not
saying it's an area as narrow as University Avenue," Johnson said.
On the other hand, he said, the Book of Mormon does contain "some very
One such indication is a verse, 1 Nephi 16:34, that relates the burial
of Ishmael, patriarch of a clan that accompanied Lehi on his journey,
in "the place which was called Nahom."
As Brown put it, "The name Nahom itself is what we would call an
archaeological bull's-eye." Nahom is the actual place name of a site
in Yemen where archaeologists have excavated extensively. Among other
discoveries at Nahom is a burial ground with remains dating to 600
"We have one of the top Yemeni archaeologists sitting on a grave in
Nahom" and discussing the site's historical significance, said
Critics of the Book of Mormon often allege that the text is an
invention of LDS Church founder Joseph Smith, who said that he
translated it from ancient records revealed to him by an angel of God.
Both Johnson and Brown believe, however, that the likelihood of
Smith's having been sufficiently aware of Arabian cartography to
correctly locate Nahom with respect to Jerusalem, or even know the
name in the first place, is exceedingly small.
Another significant site is the coastal Arab nation of Oman, which the
film suggests is the location of the Book of Mormon land of Bountiful,
so named, as recorded in 1 Nephi 17:5, "because of its much fruit and
also wild honey."
"There's only two or three places along the southern coast of Oman
that could have been Bountiful," Johnson said. "If you go eastward
from Nahom" -- the direction of travel indicated in 1 Nephi 17:1 --
"you go right there."
As with the other sections of the film, Brown said, the filmmakers
assembled a variety of experts to provide commentary on Oman. "There
are botanists who have studied in southern Arabia who comment on the
vegetation. Geologists who comment about the availability of ore in
that part of the world."
(The Book of Mormon record includes a key reference to Lehi and his
family finding ore in Bountiful to make the tools that enabled them to
construct a ship.)
And, as happened in Yemen, the filmmakers faced certain difficulties.
"You can only get to the site where we filmed on fishing boats,"
Johnson said. "There's almost no population there. It's like going
back in time."
The next best thing to being there
After concluding their work in Oman, Johnson's team wrapped production
in late 2004 at sites in Guatemala, where the travelers may have
landed after crossing the Indian and Pacific Oceans. Earlier forays
into Israel and Jordan connect the footage of Yemen and Oman to
Jerusalem, where 1 Nephi 1:4 records that Lehi had lived his entire
life prior to leading his descendants into the wilderness.
"We take them from Jerusalem to the New World," Johnson said.
Though many scholars have proposed connections between sites in the
Americas and Book of Mormon events, however, the emphasis in "Journey
of Faith" is largely on Lehi's travels through the Middle East.
In the Americas, said Brown, "exactly where this civilization
flourished is debatable." Arabia, he said, is "the one place in the
world where we can put archaeological flesh on the bones of the (Book
of Mormon) record. It's possible to hang the narrative on real places
that we can identify."
For Brown, going to those places was the adventure of a lifetime. "You
don't know how thrilling that is," he said. "There's nothing like
being on site."
The excitement that Brown experienced firsthand is something FARMS
official Coutts thinks the film communicates well to viewers. Most
Latter-day Saints, she said, won't ever have the opportunity to travel
to the film's locales. "Journey of Faith" is a chance to view them up
close without needing the assistance of a travel agent.
"This is a very intimate look into this particular journey," she said.
"I think it will touch anyone who sees it."
Cody Clark can be reached at 344-2542 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
If You Go
"Journey of Faith" presented by S. Kent Brown
What: A documentary film that traces the probable route of the
Israelite migration described in 1 Nephi in the Book of Mormon
Where: Auditorium, Joseph Smith Building (JSB), Brigham Young University
When: Daily through Friday, 5:50-8 p.m.
Cost: Standard BYU Education Week registration rates apply
Info: 422-2087 or ce.byu.edu/ed/edweek/index.cfm