GOSHEN, Utah County — From its mid-19th century roots as a Mormon agricultural settlement, this small town of fewer than 1,000 residents was known by names such as Sandtown, Mechanicsville and even Sodom before officially christened with the Biblical-like designation of Goshen.

And now, two miles south of Goshen proper, the LDS Motion Picture Studio is developing some 830 acres — a square-mile area – into a parcel of the ancient Holy Land that includes replicas of parts of old Jerusalem, Bethlehem and other New Testament-period places.

It's all for a movie studio set as The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints embarks on an ambitious multi-purpose film

venture it calls "The New Testament" project, re-creating New Testament sights, sounds and stories.

The result will be some 30-plus video vignettes, providing new material for myriad church uses — seminary and institute films, missionary videos, visitor center exhibits and stock footage for general conference and online clips for its Mormon Messages features on Facebook and YouTube.

"This is being done to create a scriptural video library for the church" said Elder Lynn G. Robbins of the LDS Church's First Quorum of Seventy and executive director of the Audiovisual Department.

Officials originally scoured church properties from Logan to St. George, looking for locales that were not flat, not rocky and not strewn with sagebrush.

The Goshen property was all that and more, with features that could double as plains or rolling hills and even boasting some sand dunes and a stream that with some work might resemble the River Jordan.

"We took a look, drove around, and our jaws just dropped," said project executive producer John Uibel, who is also the director of the A/V department's creative and story division. "We couldn't even find a rock bigger than a marble on that property."

Elder Robbins agreed: "It has just about all the topography we would want — it's almost a match made in heaven."

Goshen resident Verna Van Ausdal is well acquainted with the property, which was owned and operated by several generations of her Finch family — first by her grandfather in the late 1800s, followed by her father and then a brother before it was sold to the church in recent years.

Used first to graze sheep and later to raise cattle and grains, the property mirrors the area's hilly, sandy environs. "And, no, there's no rocks in Goshen," Van Ausdal laughed. "We have to haul them in if we want them."

About all the Goshen property lacks is a large body of water — a la the Sea of Galilee. No problem, says Uibel, since the current shooting plans don't call for it.

Whatever else is lacking — be it palm trees or full-blown buildings like Jerusalem's temple at the time — can be added digitally. Uibel anticipates digital enhancements to comprise between 20 to 40 percent of the final film project.

Besides the land itself, the property will feature a constructed, walled set measuring 300 feet by 330 feet. The set will not be a replica model of Jerusalem itself but instead be a puzzle-like collection of parts and pieces of buildings, courts, streets, alleys and the like.

"We think we've got a mix that, with a little dressing, we can recreate the scenes of the world at that time," Uibel said.

With the eight-week filming scheduled to begin in May 2011, construction crews are pouring concrete foundations for the sets, with set walls, columns and such already built and stored, awaiting installation.

When the LDS Church has filmed biblical projects in the past, it either built a temporary lot and then bulldozed it after use or filmed onsite at holy sites in and around Israel. "If you compare this to shooting on location in Jerusalem, this is a far less costly option," said Elder Robbins.

He declined to disclose property, set or project costs, saying the LDS Church keeps its financial information confidential.

With the project already two years in development, a first video — "The Parable of the Good Samaritan" — was filmed on the Goshen property earlier this year. The five-minute video was shown to the LDS Church's First Presidency for approval to proceed with the project.

"They liked it — this is a First Presidency project," Elder Robbins said.

The video and information on auditions for actors (See accompanying story) can be found at lds.org, with the video also available on the Mormon Messages site on Facebook and YouTube.

Conditional use for the property passed through Utah County's planning commission and board of adjustment earlier this summer. Enhancements included the installation of utilities, storage facilities, a new access road and a parking lot; there will be no office buildings or no overnight facilities on the property.

There may be as many as several hundred comprising the cast and crew on location at one time. And Uibel said he hasn't ruled out future projects — the Old Testament or Book of Mormon — at the same property and set, providing work for 100 to 200 people per day.

This is not the first time movie crews have made their way to Goshen — scenes for Lou Diamond Phillips' "Bats" and Jim Belushi's "Made Men" were filmed in and around Goshen a decade ago.

The town's name may sound fitting for a religious production — one of the three Biblical references to Goshen was the part of Egypt where Jacob's sons were forced by famine to relocate and where the Israelites dwelled before the Moses-led exodus.

However, the town was named by its first LDS bishop, Phineas W. Cook, for his birthtown in Connecticut; and the Sodom moniker was not a reference to the Bible's evil city but to the phrase of "sod-em up," when the roofs of 19th-century dugout dwellings were resodded in the spring and fall.

Names aside, VanAusdal and the locals agree the film project's spiritual nature and back-in-time set is pretty heady stuff for Goshen.

"No," she quipped, "I didn't think I'd ever live near Jerusalem or the Holy Land."

e-mail: taylor@desnews.com