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Pageants and practice

By: Guest - March 17, 2014

Megan Sanborn Jones is currently the coordinator for the Theatre Arts Studies program at BYU. She teaches undergraduate and graduate classes in theatre critical studies. Her work about religious performance in 19th-20th century America has been published in Theatre Journal, The State of the Art, and Theatre Topics. Her book, Performing America in Anti-Mormon Melodrama, was published by Routledge in 2009 and won the Best First Book Award from the Mormon History Association. We are pleased to have her contributions here at the JI.

My interest in religious practice in Mormon history is neither wholly religious nor very historical.  I’m grateful to colleagues in the field who focus on theological practices from baptism ordinances to temple ceremonies to relief society birth rituals.  The topics I study as performance scholar are rarely fundamental to salvation.  Contextualizing Mormon ritual is generally a nineteenth century study, requiring detailed looks at the archives to tease out foundational practices and first-person accounts of origins.  My interest in the material practice of Mormonism is more contemporary.  As Ryan T. points out in his introduction to Religious “Practice” Month at the JI, “Time. . .has brought a new consciousness of the embodied, external, purposive behavior of religious actors.”  I take his description literally and examine Mormon actors of the twenty-first century, on theatrical stages, in LDS Pageants.

Each year, the LDS Church produces four pageants across the United States—The Hill Cumorah Pageant in Palmyra, New York; the Manti Pageant in Manti, Utah; the Nauvoo Pageant in Nauvoo, Illinois, and the Mesa Easter Pageant in Mesa, Arizona.  Additionally, there are two biennial pageants—the Castle Valley Pageant in Castle Dale, Utah and the Martin Harris Pageant in Clarkston, as well as several non-sponsored annual pageants produced by local LDS congregations.[n1]  In 2013, the Church introduced their first international pageant, the British Pageant: The Truth will Prevail.[n2]  In each of these productions, Mormon sacred history is revived in order to bring participants and audience members closer to Christ.

In my current book project, Walking with the Dead: Acts of Faith in Mormon Pageant Performance, I examine how the four annual Mormon Pageants bring into focus the ways in which staging of the religious narratives by believers collapses the distance between past and present.  Religious theatre resurrects this past in order to invoke a religious feeling that will carry the believer into the future.  I study Mormon pageants as examples of acts of faith.  Acts of faith in this sense are not religious rites, but are the complex intersection of beliefs (in American conservative politics, eschatological theology, the power of prayer, the existence of ghosts, and the need for swelling musical underscoring) necessary to invoke religious affect.

The thousands of Mormons who participate each year in pageants are not just being cast in a play, but are engaging in a wholly immersive experience that is meant to change their lives so that they can better fulfill their religious roles.  The hundreds of thousands that pilgrimage to sacred sites to watch the pageants are also engaged.  They are all, in very real ways, practicing their religion, a function of theatre that has been promoted since the early days of the Church.

Brigham Young, the second prophet and president of the Mormon Church, was a particular advocate for theatre.  Contrary to most religious leaders of the mid-nineteenth-century, Young argued that:

Upon the stage of a theater can be represented in character evil and its consequences, good and its happy results and reward; the weakness and the follies of man, the magnanimity of virtue and the greatness of truth.  The stage can be made to aid the pulpit in impressing upon the minds of a community an enlightened sense of a virtuous life, also a proper horror of the enormity of sin and just dread of its consequences.[n3]

It should not be surprising, then, that the first prominent public building to be constructed and used in Salt Lake City was not a store or a chapel, but a theater.  Theatre, music, dance, and other fine arts have been an integral part of Mormon recreation since its inception; the Church has always used carefully staged events to celebrate and cement Church doctrine.

One of the first recorded pageants was an 1849 “jubilee” that commemorated the arrival of the first Mormon pioneers to the Salt Lake Valley, just two years earlier.  This elaborate celebration included the same large casts, creative costuming, symbolic actions, song, and dance that mark pageants today:

Twelve bishops, bearing banners of their wards.

Twenty-four young ladies, dressed in white, with white scarves on their right shoulders, and a wreath of white roses on their heads, each carrying the Bible and the book of Mormon; and one bearing a banner, “Hail to our Chieftain.”

Twelve more bishops, carrying flags of their wards.

Twenty-four silver greys [older men], each having a staff, painted red on the upper part, and a branch of white ribbons fastened at the top, one of them carrying the flag.[n4]

After the procession, notable Utah figures participated in a round of addresses, poems, and toasts.  This event was such a success that it became an annual tradition, then Pioneer Day.

Mormon pageants are not just spectacular productions, although they are certainly that.  Sets are behemoth; costumes number in the thousands and include everything from period petticoats to Vegas-style feather headdresses, depending on the production.  Mormons pageants feature extraordinary special effects: exploding volcanoes, heavenly messengers that hover in the air, earthquakes, herds of live sheep and a snow-white baby lamb, fire bombs, and a resurrected Christ soaring above the audience.  The scale of the production is a mark of pageant performance, but it is not the only, or even most important, defining feature.  What makes pageants such a rich Mormon practice is how they build community, produce the past, and communicate belief.

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[1] There are smaller LDS pageants that are produced by local congregations without official sponsorship of the LDS Church, which means that the ecclesiastic oversight is held at the local area and the congregation shoulders full responsibility for the production and its costs.  Examples of these types of pageants include The Mormon Handcart Pageant in Nephi, Utah, which was started with the help of Manti Pageant organizers in 2001 (http://www.handcartpageant.com/index.shtml).  The Kirtland Pageant: This Is Kirtland was started in 2003 and is featured as a part of the events available at the LDS historic sites in Kirtland, Ohio (http://ldsmag.com/ldsmag/travel/070705kirkland.html).  The New Market Ward Nativity Pageant in Ontario, Canada has been performing annually since 1987 and estimates that each year between 7,000-10,000 people attend.  (http://www.deseretnews.com/article/865592360/26th-year-of-nativity-pageant-building-bridges-in-Canadian-community.html?pg=all).

[2] The LDS Church also produces large-scale musicals or “spectaculars” for holidays or special celebrations like the 2002 Olympics or the 200th birthday of Joseph Smith.  In Salt Lake City, the most notable Church productions are Christmas offerings:  The Mormon Tabernacle Christmas Concert and The Savior of the World.  They are both performed in December in the LDS Conference Center which features a main auditorium that seats 21,000 and a smaller state-of-the-art theatre that seats 850.  Other official productions include the Sesquicentennial Spectacular: Faith in Every Footstep, a celebration of the 150th anniversary of the Mormon pioneer arrival in Salt Lake City (1997); Light of the World, a pageant staged for the 2002 Winter Olympics, Remembering the Prophet Joseph Smith Spectacular, a celebration of the 200th birthday of Joseph Smith (2005), and most recently, A Century of Honor, a commemorative pageant for the 100th anniversary of the Boy Scouts of America (2013).  Also significant are the pageants that accompany the dedication of new temples, generally called Temple Cultural Celebrations.  These are official productions but are entirely created at the local level and are performed almost exclusively by children and teenagers.  Two recent examples include the Kyiv Ukraine Temple Cultural Celebration (2010) that featured about 500 youth from Armenia, Russia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Ukraine, Bulgaria, Georgia, Moldova in a folk dance and music performance and The Gilbert Arizona Temple Cultural Celebration, entitled True to the Faith (2014).  In Arizona, 12,000 teenagers performed scenes, songs, and dances from the Old Testament, through Arizona Church history to the present.

[3] Brigham Young, Journal of Discourses 9:243 (March 6, 1862).

[4] Bitton, Davis, ed.  The Ritualization of Mormon History and Other Essays.  Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1994. (173).



12 Comments

  1. Ogden City, from about 1950 to the early 1970s produced a big outdoor pageant called “All Faces West,” a reenactment of the exodus from Nauvoo and the trek west.The city had built terraces on a hill above a park for the production, and involved a few actors from out of town, but mostly local talent. I was involved as a teenager for a few years as part of the stage crew, assembling and repainting scenery, shuttling scenery on and off the hillside during the show, and helping to guard the site at night from vandals. The highlight for me was setting fire to a replica of the Nauvoo Temple. It was great fun to participate in, but the production and interest in it dwindled, and the hillside was turned into bleachers for several softball fields.

    Comment by kevinf — March 17, 2014 @ 1:10 pm

  2. The only problem I have with this post is that it makes me extremely anxious for your next book!

    Comment by Ben P — March 17, 2014 @ 2:54 pm

  3. This is fascinating. I work on contemporary Mormon cultural memory and mention the pageants for the very reasons you articulate above. I’m hoping to go see the Manti one this year. And I’ll echo Ben in looking forward to your book!

    Comment by Saskia — March 17, 2014 @ 3:13 pm

  4. eta: that should be: mention the pageants in my dissertation. I apparently forgot half a sentence there.

    Comment by Saskia — March 17, 2014 @ 3:13 pm

  5. Cool. Megan, do Evangelicals frame their experiences in Passion Plays in any ways similar to what the Mormons are doing with their pageants?

    Comment by J. Stapley — March 17, 2014 @ 3:46 pm

  6. …also, my great-aunt wrote the first Manti Pageant. I’ve got an early signed copy. I could probably scan and send it, if you were interested.

    Comment by J. Stapley — March 17, 2014 @ 3:47 pm

  7. J., that’s an interesting question. I’m no expert on religious theater, but I do remember from personal experience that passion plays were talked about with some of the same language Megan indicates above. I’d be interested to hear what she has to say on the topic!

    Comment by Saskia — March 17, 2014 @ 4:09 pm

  8. This was a great post. I would be interested to know when boundary maintenance becomes an aspect of participation in pageants. In recent discussions with a friend who is hoping to participate in the Palmyra pageant, I was surprised at some of the criteria.

    Comment by Kris — March 19, 2014 @ 7:52 am

  9. Very, very interesting. I’ve always been intrigued by BY’s affection for theater. Also, your point about pageants as a means of collapsing of distance between past and present reminds me of Mircea Eliade’s notion “eternal return,” which argues that a fundamental part of the religious experience is returning to originary, archetypal moments and experiencing them as present.

    Comment by Ryan T. — March 20, 2014 @ 7:17 am

  10. Also, this is a bit late but thanks for this contribution, Megan!

    Comment by Ryan T. — March 20, 2014 @ 7:17 am

  11. Thanks for all the comments. I, too, and looking forward to the new book. You know, if I ever finish it! As far as the relationship between evangelical performance and Mormon performance, there are clear parallels between the purpose of it, the experiences had in it, and the spiritual affect they are meant to produce. There were actually two great books on this very topic published last year: John Fletcher’s PREACHING TO CONVERT and Jill Stevenson’s SENSATIONAL DEVOTION. I recommend them both.

    As far as the boundaries that guide Pageant participation, they are different for each pageant. In Mesa and Manti, all the participants are local (or within driving distance) since rehearsals are evenings and weekends over months. Also, in both of these pageants, participants are cast individually. Families are encouraged to participate, but you can be in one without the rest of your family.

    Nauvoo and Hill Cumorah both feature imported family casts and Nauvoo also has a paid “core cast.” The core cast is audition-only and actors are cast individually. For the family casts, however, families must be “complete.” This means that if you are married, both spouses and kids must participate together. I think the boundaries are both practical and also reveal issues of self-identity around what Mormons mean by “family” in the twenty-first century.

    Comment by msjones — March 24, 2014 @ 11:18 am

  12. Also, Saskia, I’d love to read your diss. Could you send along the title? And J. Stapely, I would LOVE LOVE LOVE a scanned copy of that script. Let’s make arrangements off-line.

    Comment by msjones — March 24, 2014 @ 11:21 am