Juvenile Instructor » “It’s hokey and didactic, but it works”: on the Mormon Miracle pageant in Manti, Utah*
 


“It’s hokey and didactic, but it works”: on the Mormon Miracle pageant in Manti, Utah*

By: Saskia T - July 08, 2014

In June, I went to Manti to witness the Mormon Miracle Pageant that is put on there every year. In many ways, it was an indescribable experience (which is slightly problematic seeing as the pageant is supposed to make its way into one of my dissertation chapters). I’ve pulled together some thoughts for this post, and would be interested to hear yours.

photo 1Those of you that have been to the pageant will likely remember the proselytizing that goes on before the show. Signs had been put up on church grounds that proselytizing was not allowed. Understandable, but a tad ironic, given the LDS Church’s emphasis on missionary work and the vast resources it expends to send missionaries all over the world. It raises interesting questions about center vs. periphery and the ethics of missionary work that I would be happy to debate at some other time (or in the comments, if anyone’s interested). In any case, the signs did not help much, as there were an abundance of people (very careful to stay on public roads) wanting to engage with Mormons about the alleged false doctrine in the church. They ranged from the three or four hecklers shouting at the top of their lungs, to the somewhat bitter ex-Mormons wanting to save their former brothers and sisters, to people calmly handing out pamphlets. Of the latter group, I got the impression that many had been recruited to do their Christian duty and probably could not have told you much about the church except that it was wrong. (This went for some of the hecklers as well: Mormon doctrine was heavily misrepresented in their talk of Mormon polytheism, for example.) In his dissertation, Policing the Borders of Identity at the Mormon Miracle Pageant (2005), Kent Bean writes that the Manti pageant should be framed as a power struggle, between evangelicals, LDS, and Mormon fundamentalists. While I do not entirely agree with his characterization of the Mormon-evangelical debate, there is something to be said for the issue of power being central. I’ll come back to that.

On to the production. What I came back to time and time again while I watched the show was the flattening of Mormon history. As the people here at JI well know, I’m not a historian. But I’m familiar enough with Mormon history to raise my eyebrows when handcarts are the transportation of choice long before the trek west, or doctrine stemming from the Nauvoo years is already in place at the printing of the Book of Mormon. Or, how in the pageant version of Mormon history, Mormons were always patriotic citizens, even when persecuted. For example, when the topic of the Mormon Battalion comes around, it is patriotism, not pragmatism, that has Brigham Young relent and send soldiers. In the pageant, George Washington and Thomas Jefferson appear to Young in a vision of sorts, reminding him that the American experiment of democracy is a divine one, too valuable to be lost, and it is now up to the Mormons to save it. And while you can argue that a pageant is not necessarily the appropriate vehicle for telling accurate history, it is a particular kind of Mormonism that is being performed here. This is a Mormonism that was revealed to its people verbatim, and is not subject to the organic renewal that other faiths go through. The pageant is very clear: Mormonism has not changed, or shifted emphases, either in doctrine or practice, since its founding in 1830. No need to deal with a messy reality if it doesn’t exist, right?

And then, the racism. The costumes, where the Lamanites wear animal skins and carry what I assume to be tomahawks, and the more civilized Nephites carry swords and shields. Where the moment the Lamanites are denounced as evil is the moment they are doing a “mystical” dance in front of a spewing volcano clearly meant to evoke, however grotesque and overwrought, every image the audience has ever seen of Native Americans and/or other indigenous peoples and their sacred dances. Whether the Lamanites actually were ancestors of today’s Native Americans doesn’t matter: it is clearly meant to appeal to the idea of “the savage” in the American popular imagination, and it does so quite successfully. In that same dissertation I mentioned above, Bean recounts a childhood memory (he lived in Manti as a teen) of boys getting ready for their Lamanite roles on pageant night:

White boys entered [the tent]: reddish-brown boys emerged. The paint stained everything so once they had painted themselves up they could not … touch the building, walk on the sidewalk, or get near any of the other costumes. And when we got on the temple hill, they could not, under any circumstances, touch the temples. These “rebels” were truly untouchables. (10)

Bean seems to regard this as a harmless memory, a joke being played on the rebellious “cool kids” who signed up to be Lamanites just because they could. But I think it’s actually very telling of how the pageant performs whiteness. While all the personages are flattened–pre-recorded dialogue and the great distance between audience and actors does not allow for much subtelty in acting–the Lamanites function purely as foil to the Nephites, their dark skin marking them as evil while the Nephites’ goodness shines through. Of course, the fact that many, if not most, of the pageant attendees have identified the Lamanites as evil from the very beginning and the abundance of folklore that surrounds this topic helps cement this assocication of not white=bad.

photo 2To get back to the power issue and finally end this too-long post: yes, the Manti pageant is about power. But I would not frame it as a Mormon-evangelical power struggle, as it is clear the battle has already been won. During the pageant, Manti radiates Mormonism, and those that do not fit the mold are placed outside the narrative of miracles presented each night. This is visible in a myriad of ways: in the welcome offered only to “brothers and sisters,” in the pageant script that offers little to those not already over-familiar with the story, in the way in which whiteness is performed and made an aspirational norm. Evangelicals and Mormons may still be battling it out in other areas, but in Manti, it’s clear where one’s allegiances should lie. [1]

[1] Quotation in title from Peggy Fletcher Stack, “For 25 years Richard Olsen of Manti Has Played the Part of Mormon.” Salt Lake Tribune. 8 June 1995

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7 Comments

  1. Great stuff, Saskia.

    Comment by Ben P — July 8, 2014 @ 1:36 pm

  2. Never been to the Manti Pageant, but it sounds like a unique experience. Reminds me of the old “All Faces West” pageant that was put on in Ogden during the 50′s and 60′s.

    How much of the “particular kind of Mormonism” presented there do you think is reflective of the more conservative, rural Utah Mormon view? The flattening of history, the unabashed whiteness aspect, and unchanging doctrine are things that I have experienced in attending meetings in Central and Southern Utah over the years with extended family members. who live in the area.

    Comment by kevinf — July 8, 2014 @ 2:28 pm

  3. Also never been to Manti, but I (shortly post-mission, with my parents and siblings) was in the Cumorah pageant. Lots of overlap, but some noticeable differences too, e.g. no difference in weapons between the two sides. I know, I had to choreograph my own battle with another guy who “killed” me every night.

    Thanks for the observations.

    Comment by Ben S — July 8, 2014 @ 3:02 pm

  4. Attended last summer. It’s impressive sitting out there in the night in a remote desert town, in the shadow of the Manti Temple, with an almost-full moon.

    I just asked around; most of my kids fell asleep, and I don’t remember much about the production since I was concerned about my youngest child turning blue because of the altitude. (Fontan circulation.) I do recall noting that there was no reference to the folk legend about Moroni visiting the town, reportedly thanks to Ardis’s write-up at Keepapitchinin and a local reader spreading the word.

    The hecklers would barely have registered in my consciousness since I’m used to ignoring them from my childhood days attending the Mesa Easter Pageant. At some point they fade into the background.

    And racial and historical issues? I was paying more attention to the cyanosis, but it’s interesting to consider them and the depth of explanation included in the presentation, so thanks for the write-up here, and the chance to remember the event.

    Comment by Amy T — July 8, 2014 @ 5:22 pm

  5. Thanks for the post. I grew up in Ephraim and remember the very beginnings of the pageant, from the rodeo arena to temple hill with the lights in the large trees at the base of the hill.

    When I go back it transports me back to an earlier, less complicated childhood. It moves me to hear the voices of so many people that I know, since many of the people that were locals recorded the original soundtrack. It used to be that once the trees were removed and the mounded stage was put in and before the soundtrack, that Maxine Rux and Robert Urry would read the script from either side of the stage. It is also ironic that the person behind the voice of the young Joseph Smith is a gay man today.

    I also knew Grace Johnson (who lived in Ephraim, and was a strong advocate of animals) who wrote the original script. She had a section in the pageant where Brigham Young gave a huge speech about not harming animals and had quite a fight with the pageant committee to let them cut it down to what it is now. This truly was just a locally written pageant written by a sweet woman who wanted to tell a story. Sure the doctrine is a little flakey, but as you pointed out, there are many who come away inspired. There is little to compare with the first time that one sees “Moroni” on the temple spire (holding on to the lightning rod for all he’s worth and held at the ankles by unseen assistant(s).)

    I always found it interesting that the pageant originally didn’t have Jesus appearing to people. I supposed that there were some who thought that it might compete with Hill Cumorah, but later church leaders basically said that it should be in there, so it was added many years later.

    I did do some time as a “Lamanite”, battling one of the Nephites with my branch and plywood tomahak, until slain by his plywood sword. There is the part, however, where the lamanites are shown to be peaceable followers of Christ, while the wicked Nephites do a sacrificial dance in front of a flaming Mayan temple, just before Samuel the Lamanite gets on the wall and calls them to repentance. But at the end, it is the indian (lamanite) arrow that sends “Robert” back to his beloved wife “Mary”.

    The pageant itself, in some ways, is the sideshow to the main event, which I think the OP is trying to discuss, where the missionaries, the Anti’s, the fundies, and all others, battle it out on the streets to show who’s right. It’s great fun to see it all play out. All in our little Manti.

    Comment by Paolo — July 8, 2014 @ 6:05 pm

  6. Thanks, Saskia.

    Comment by Steve Fleming — July 8, 2014 @ 7:24 pm

  7. Fantastic! Thanks, Saskia.

    Comment by J Stuart — July 8, 2014 @ 10:13 pm