The Beauty of (Church) Pageants

by Scott Hales

Last summer my family took a trip to Palmyra to attend the Hill Cumorah Pageant. I had not been to the pageant since 1987–when I was still too young to get much out of it.[1] In fact, there’s not much that I really remember about that first time around. I only have vague memories of my parents waking me up to put me in the station wagon, so I must have fallen asleep (obviously) sometime between Lehi’s Dream and and that scene where Moroni buries the plates. Of course, I hear that the pageant was much longer then than it is now, so my experience with it must have been pretty typical.[2]

My second time around with the pageant was much more successful—and not just because I stayed awake the whole time. We had good seats. The kids behaved. The weather was nice. And no one was kidnapped by rogue priests of King Noah.

No one I knew, at least.[3]

Of course, I was hassled by an anti-Mormon, which is pretty much part of any Church pageant experience.[4] Before the show started, my wife realized that we had forgotten something in the mini-van so she had me run pack to the parking lot to get it. On my return, an anti-Mormon with long hair and a beard pointed his megaphone at me and bellowed something about how Mormon men need to take off their bras and panties, quit talking about their emotions, and be real men.[5]

I thought that was funny. I had it Facebooked in no time.[6]

Sadly, though, the anti-Mormon’s comment will likely be the thing I remember best about that night. Don’t get me wrong: the pageant was entertaining, and its “Hollywood special effects” weren’t too shabby for a free show in the middle of nowhere New York. But I didn’t exactly leave the venue feeling like I had witnessed anything truly remarkable. In fact, part of me felt a little disappointed.[7]

I think this is usually how it goes for me and church pageants. When I was eleven or twelve, my family went to Nauvoo and saw its pageant for the first time. Again, there’s not much I remember about the experience except for all of the colorful acrobatics[8] and the catchy “City of Joseph” song. I must not have liked the pageant very much, though, because I remember the next day hearing one of the senior sister missionaries praise the singing voice of the narrator (“Oh, I could hear that gentleman sing all day!”) and thinking, “Geez, this lady’s been on a mission way too long.”[9]

Six years later I went back to Nauvoo with my priests quorum. One of our quorum members was in the pageant, so we were there to support him.[10] Before the show started, my friend and I wandered down to the visitor’s center where we met two young women—both about our age—who were visibly upset about the line of anti-Mormons picketing the pageant. Being teenagers and wise gospel scholars both, my friend and I invited these young women to return with us to the picketers and engage them in some healthy, rational debate about the Church, its doctrines, and principles.[11]

To our surprise, the young women agreed.[12]

At the time, we truly believed we could take on the anti-Mormons. My friend was a straight A student. I was a recent seminary graduate with only a year to go before my mission. The young women were…well, we didn’t know much about them, but we knew they were daughters of a Heavenly Father who loved them. So, we were a powerful quartet.

Until we opened our mouths.

Our approach was the old divide and conquer.[13] My friend and I took on one guy—a slim geeky fellow who looked like Bill Gates—while the young women waylaid another—a fierce-looking chap who probably drove a truck on weekdays. Right away, Bill Gates slammed me with a scripture, something from Jude that I had never heard before.[14] Then he started jabbering about Ancient Greece and agape and philos and a scripture in Galatians and the whole time he had this smile on his face that was begging for a fist to knock it on the floor.[15] I was lost before I had time to check the map.

The young women fared no better. Their anti-Mormon didn’t even bother with the pretense of a smile. He was a mean dude.[16] Before long, I couldn’t hear Bill Gates and his lesson on Ancient Greece and the Art of Christian Love. The trucker was in a Christian Bale-style shouting match with one of the young women. At one point, he reached to grab her shoulder and she slapped his hand away.

Crap, I thought. Oh, Crap.[17]

Around this time another member of our quorum found us and told us the Young Men’s president was out looking for us. I quickly made a lame closing statement, gave Bill Gates an agape-charged hug, and got the fetch out of there. I don’t know how long the young women kept up the debate after we ditched out on them. We never saw them again. They were still shouting when our crushed egos limped away.[18]

Of course, by the time the pageant began, I was fairly worked up. Somehow, the pageant’s prerecorded script, stiff blocking, and campy songs couldn’t match the intensity of my showdown with Bill Gates and his anti-Mormon hoard. To make matters worse, I was an eighteen-year-old kid with wire-rimmed glasses and pockets full of elitist notions about good art and theater. This was back in the day when I knew what good theater was—and the Nauvoo Pageant wasn’t it.[19]

This happened in 1998. Since then, the Nauvoo Pageant has undergone a significant facelift in order to center the production more on Joseph Smith and the newly constructed Nauvoo Temple. I haven’t seen the latest version, but I hear good things about it.[20] In fact, next week, my wife and kids and I will be heading west for a family reunion in Branson, Missouri.[21] Before we get our fill of kitschy entertainment and sequined suits, though, we plan to spend two days and nights in Nauvoo and see the pageant. Of course, I hate how this sounds, but I’m keeping my expectations in check. I’m not hoping for much more than a few songs and a fleet of bagpipers.

For the record, I’m also hoping to avoid any scuffles with anti-Mormons—no matter who they look like or what they drive on the weekdays.[22]

Of course, right now you may be wondering why I keep attending these pageants if all I do is clash with anti-Mormons and grumble about quality. I’m not sure I have an adequate answer for you. I mean, I’m of the opinion—and I express this to nearly everyone who raises the issue with me[23]—that the best time to visit a Church historical site is whenever a pageant is not going on. That way you get an experience free of lines, crowds, anti-Mormons, and small Utah businesses trying to sell you cartoons based on the scriptures.[24]

Still, I can’t avoid them. I’m drawn to them like Gatsby to his green light.[25] Pageants, after all, are one of those things that are a part of the Mormon experience. Think about it: they’ve been around at least since 1935—when the Hill Cumorah Pageant got its start—so they’ve had a place in the lives of five or six generations of Mormons. When you go to Palmyra, or Nauvoo, or to one of the western pageants, you’re not going to get your fill of great theater or art, so to speak, but to spend an hour or two among the Saints, watching simple reenactments of stories that mean something significant to you and those who came before you.

Church pageants, in a sense, are a lot like family reunions in places like Branson. When you go, you are neither expecting to be wowed by the quality of the entertainment nor hoping to see or do anything that will impress any of the regular folks back home. Rather, you’re there because the people you’re with are important to you, and the experience you share with them helps to bind you closer together. That’s the beauty of Church pageants. They’re among the things we do as a Mormon to better understand who we are and where we came from.[26]

I got a sense of this about a year after my wife and I got married. She was pregnant with our first child, and I was working as an early morning custodian at the BYU Bookstore. We had a lot of downtime, so we planned a weekend camping trip to Manti to attend the temple and see the Mormon Miracle Pageant. Neither of us had ever been there, and it had been years since either of us had seen a Church pageant.

So, after work one Friday, we packed up our Honda and wound our way through the farmland and backroads of central Utah until we found ourselves in the disappointingly small Manti, an anti-metropolis of some 3000 people and cows.[27] We set up our tent in a field, made an obligatory visit to a distant Walmart,[28] and then headed over to the pageant venue to grab our seats.

If you’ve never seen it, the Mormon Miracle Pageant is performed against the backdrop of the Manti Temple, the only building in town worth shining a light on. Like other pageants, this one covers the history of the Book of Mormon and Joseph Smith, but it also depicts the pioneer trek mixed in with some local history.[29] So, as stories go, the Mormon Miracle Pageant tells a fairly ambitious one, although it lacks the bells, whistles, and Hollywood pyrotechnics of its eastern cousins.

Still, even with its quasi-minimalist approach, it’s your typical Church pageant. I mean, you can’t expect a place like Manti, with all of its cows and fields, to have a pageant without a little cheese and corn. But what I remember best about walking out of the Mormon Miracle Pageant was the feeling that I was among my people, the Saints, who understood me better than anybody else.[30] Sure, that probably wasn’t really the case.[31] But watching that pageant with them, sharing that Mormon experience, I felt a part of something bigger. Even the anti-Mormons didn’t seem to matter.

Heck, they only added to the experience.[32]

I guess that’s why I keep attending Church pageants. It’s for the connection I feel with those around me, for the long history we share. That’s a sentimental way of looking at it, I admit, but Church pageants are sentimental things. They invite us to look back on a bright, colorful version of our past in order to make us yearn—together—for a brighter future. In that respect, the Church pageant experience is a thing of remarkable beauty.

A hokey kind of remarkable beauty, no doubt, but remarkable all the same.

Notes:

[1] Oddly, though, I remember word-for-word my cousin’s description of the movie Top Gun, which was in theaters at the time.

[2] This fact was confirmed to me last year by a woman in an ice cream shop just down the street from the Book of Mormon publication site. According to this woman, whose name and religious affiliation I never learned, the pageant used to go on and on until every child in the audience was either dead asleep or nodding off so violently that they looked, I assume, like head-bangers at a Nirvana concert ca. 1992.

[3] I wonder if anyone has every tossed around the idea of making the pageant more interactive (or terrifying) by having the wicked priests of Noah “abduct” audience members to play their wives. Obviously, this would not be a good idea since it would only prove to the sign-thumping anti-Mormons outside that H. B. Parkinson and everyone else involved in the production of the 1922 silent British film Trapped by the Mormons were right all along.

[4] Church pageants and trips to Salt Lake for General Conference.

[5] I assume this anti-Mormon was referring to the tendency among Mormon men to get choked up and even cry when they are a) bearing their testimonies, b) feeling the Spirit, c) giving a last-minute talk, d) imitating Glenn Beck’s onscreen sniffles, or e) talking about Jimmer Fredette. Of course, this happened several months before BYU’s aberrantly successful basketball season, so I highly doubt he was referring to option “e.”

[6] I would have Twittered it, too, but I had just cancelled my Twitter account.

[7] Of course, it could be that I felt this way because the hour of my life that followed the pageant was scene for a gauntlet of anti-Mormons, a traffic jam, and a roachy Days Inn a half-an-hour or so east of Palmyra.

[8] Who knew you could dance like that in pioneer clothes? They were holding way back in Pioneers in Petticoats.

[9] It’s too bad that I didn’t catch the name of this elderly sister. It would have been fun to friend her on Facebook, become reacquainted, and find out whether or not she ever spent a day listening to that gentleman’s voice. Of course, she’s probably long since dead by now. Still, it would be fun to at least Google her name and get an obituary or something like that to serve as a kind of epilogue to this little anecdote.

[10] He was one of the guys who wore colorful shirts, formed human pyramids, and threw skinny girls through the air In fact, he was the only guy in our priests quorum who had muscle enough to lift a skinny girl more than five inches off the ground. The rest of us were kind of on the wimpy side, afraid of girls, etc.

[11] I’m not sure what we thought we would accomplish by engaging the anti-Mormons in a doctrinal sparring match. I can’t speak for my friend’s motives, but I know I was hoping the cuter of the two young women would be so impressed by my courage and rhetorical prowess that she would want to spend the next day touring Old Nauvoo with me, maybe hold my hand at the RLDS sites, and give me her phone number, e-mail address, and horseshoe nail ring before parting at the end of the day. I don’t know. The motives of teenagers are never clear, even to the teenagers themselves.

[12] Trust me, if you had seen us then, you would have been surprised too.

[13] It seemed to work for Caesar in Gaul and Robert E. Lee at Chancellorsville.

[14] Although I was a recent seminary graduate, I didn’t even know Jude existed. Good thing he didn’t hand me his Bible and ask me to look it up.

[15] Lucky for him I was a self-proclaimed pacifist with no prior fighting experience and no training in the art of throwing the punch (beyond what I’d gleaned from primetime television, film, Saturday morning cartoons, and comic books).

[16] Pardon the unfair stereotype, but he probably had a Jesus-themed tattoo somewhere on his upper body.

[17] Regrettably, I’m not 100% sure if this is exactly what happened between the young woman and the anti-Mormon. It was, after all, thirteen years ago, and my memory of that evening is kind of foggy. Call it my own personal Rashomon moment,  but it’s possible that four other things could have occurred: 1) Nothing but shouting and screaming. 2) The young woman tried to grab the anti-Mormon’s shoulder, not the other way around. 3) The young woman’s friend tried to grab her shoulder in an effort to calm her down. 4) Chuck Norris showed up and signed autographs before driving off in a Dodge Ram.

[18] Now is probably an appropriate time to bring up my other attempt at meeting girls on that Nauvoo trip. The next day, my friends and I were in the Lucy Mack Smith home when a group of female students from Ricks College came in. Using my cool voice—that irony-saturated voice I used whenever I wanted to impress members of the opposite sex—I informed them that I would be attending Ricks College in the fall. “Where are you living?” one of them asked. “Rigby Hall,” I said, greatly encouraged. They then looked at each other, looked at me, laughed derisively, and said—in unison—“Dorm boy!” I didn’t know what that meant, but I was humiliated.

[19] I always laugh about how seriously I took myself as a teenager. If I ever fix the flux capacitor on my Honda Civic, I will travel back to 1994 and tell my fourteen-year-old self to lighten up and not take the next four years too seriously. Unfortunately, flux capacitor technicians are hard to come by these days, and they charge a ton of money for their service. Such is life. If time travel were really that necessary, it would be much cheaper, right?

[20] Now, keep in mind that Mormons—in general—tend to give anything a good review as long as it is free of inappropriate material.

[21] Just south of Zion.

[22] Although part of me wants to engage once more in glorious battle with them so I can blog about it.

[23] Which is maybe two people or so a year.

[24] When I was in Palmyra last summer, a twenty-something with a polished smile and an easy-going Utah accent asked me if I’d like a free family DVD. I was going into the LDS bookstore beside the Book of Mormon publication site, and my daughter had just ralphed her ice cream cone all over the sidewalk. I really wasn’t in the mood. But I asked him what the catch was and he said there was no catch and I said I wasn’t interested in buying anything and he said there was no obligation. All I had to do was listen to a two minute presentation about his product. Well, two minutes turned into ten. He went on and on about the evils of television and movies. He showed me pictures of his own family. He thought it was great that I was from “out east.” And he kept asking questions like “Wouldn’t you like to have a video that you know isn’t going to offend your wife and kids?” or “Don’t you think wholesome videos like these would be an investment?” The whole time I wanted to tell the guy that he was full of it, that I saw through his pushy salesman ways, but I held my tongue—even when he threw in words like “wicked” and “the Spirit” which I feel have no place in a sales pitch. I guess I didn’t want to go without my free DVD. That would have made the torture of listening to the guy try to manipulate me for eight minutes longer than he promised a complete waste of my time. So I held out, refused to buy his collection of wholesome DVDs, and got my prize: an animated version of the prodigal son. My kids, by the way, loved it. It gave them something new to watch on the way home. But that salesman was obviously P.O.’ed when I told him I wasn’t buying. I could tell that “no obligation” line he had fed me wasn’t exactly sincere.

[25] Thanks, Nick.

[26] Kind of like the temple.

[27] When you’re from the east, you spend the first eighteen years of your life hearing about all of these quasi-mythical Utah cities—Provo, Salt Lake, Manti, Bountiful, Logan, St. George, Ogden, etc.—only to discover, once you visit, that they’re pretty much like every other city—except they all have a temple and a Sizzler steakhouse.

[28] Where we bought a sweatshirt that has been bunched up on the floor of our garage for at least a year and a half now.

[29] From Wikipedia: “Manti was one of the first communities settled in what was to become Utah. Chief Wakara (or Walker), a Ute Tribe leader, invited Brigham Young to send Mormon colonists to the area. In 1849, Brigham Young dispatched a company of about 225 settlers, consisting of several families, to the Sanpitch (now Sanpete) Valley. Under the direction of Isaac Morley, the settlers arrived at the present location of Manti in November. They endured a severe winter by living in temporary shelters dug into the south side of the hill on which the Manti Temple now stands. Brigham Young named the new community Manti, after a city mentioned in the Book of Mormon. Manti was incorporated in 1851. The first mayor of Manti was Dan Jones. Manti served as a hub city for the settlement of other communities in the valley.”

[30] Here I readily apologize for my own variety of cheese and corn.

[31] First of all, everyone there was a stranger, so they obviously didn’t know me well enough to understand me. But you get what I mean: It’s kind of related to that jolt you get or that instant connection that happens when you accidentally meet another Mormon at some far away airport or McDonalds.

[32] We would miss them if they left. Really we would. Even the guy with the megaphone and the funny line about Mormon men and women’s underpants.

 

Scott Hales is a Ph.D. student in the Department of English and Comparative Literature at the University of Cincinnati. He also writes a weekly Mormon literature blog, “The Low-Tech World.” In the summertime, when he isn’t reading or writing, he likes to hop into the minivan with his family and chase down roadside historical markers.

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9 Responses to The Beauty of (Church) Pageants

  1. Lisa Torcasso Downing says:

    Amen. Mormon kitsch on display. There is something absolutely delightful about sitting with a bunch of really nice people, watching everyday folks try their hand at something they sincerely hope is extraordinary. The beauty of it is, so often so many audience members do have those extraordinary experiences, thanks to the Holy Spirit. Mormon pageants are precisely the place to abandon high brow thinking and relish in the simple. They are a clear reminder that God uses us to enact, or act out, his will, even if we aren’t a finely tuned, or fully sharpened, tool. I’ve only seen the Manti pageant a few times, but when I saw photos of my daughter there recently, it all came back. I felt so happy to see her having the experience her dad and I had. Thanks for posting.

    • Scott Hales says:

      “There is something absolutely delightful about sitting with a bunch of really nice people, watching everyday folks try their hand at something they sincerely hope is extraordinary.”

      I like how you put this, and it’s an aspect of pageants I don’t really touch on in my post. A few years back, I saw the outdoor drama “The Lost Colony” performed in Roanoke, North Carolina; it’s put on by paid professionals and has the polish of professor theater. While I enjoyed that production, I noticed that it lacked the earnestness of a church pageant. Everyone I know who has participated in a church pageant talks about how wonderful it is to be a part of it–for them, it is a spiritual experience, so they put their heart and soul into it. Amateurs often bring something special to art.

      In some ways, the performances that come out of church pageants remind me of Civil War reenactments in that they are the jobs of relatively self-taught performers–no prior acting experience required–who are deeply invested in their roles. When you watch them, you don’t get lost in the illusion of the performances–as sometimes happens in a professional performance–but you do catch a sense of their passion. You can’t help getting taken in by their sincerity.

  2. Jonathan Langford says:

    Scott,

    Have you read O. S. Card’s story “Pageant Wagon”? It’s part of his Folk of the Fringe short story cycle (an important set of stories for Mormon literature, set in a post-apocalyptic setting). I’m not quite sure how his story connects with your specific thoughts about the role pageants play in our sense of community, but clearly there’s a connection…

    • Scott Hales says:

      Yes–I’ve read “Pageant Wagon,” but it’s been several years. I ought to go back to it. From what I remember, the pageant in the story represents a kind of hope for the future of Mormonism: the group of performers keep the pageant going so as not to lose their connections with the past.

      I could be wrong, though. Like I said, it’s been a while.

      I guess I failed to mention in the post that Orson Scott Card actually wrote the Hill Cumorah pageant. I remember reading as essay he wrote in which he describes the struggle he had with writing dialogue for the Book of Mormon characters. He didn’t want to use stilted scripturespeak, but he also wanted to keep the production as close to the scriptures as possible. Ultimately, he and the pageant’s producers decided that the dialogue could deviate from the scriptural text for ever character but the Savior. His words had to be verbatim.

      And I think this is actually Church policy: any official depiction of Jesus Christ has to be in line with the scriptures. I imagine this is a struggle for some playwrights who want to keep the gospel message the same, but want to update the language in order to make the production more accessible to modern ears.

  3. Th. says:

    .

    I’ve been to Manti as a child and then again as an adult. I’m glad I went back and may someday take my kids. (Or maybe I’ll just make them read the book it’s based on. We have a copy, after all.) But I don’t have a lot of interest in the Big Shows of Nauvoo or Cumorah. I agree with your claim that it’s best to visit those places when no one’s there. I spent four months in Nauvoo with snow and cold and loved it. (I also loved the little song-and-dance-and-comedy-sketch show the senior missionaries put on every night. Used to go a lot. Had the whole thing memorized.

    But I must say, in other news, I would much rather deal with haters than priestcrafters. At least they’re honest.

    • Th. says:

      .

      Hmmmm. Hey webmaster? Any idea what’s wrong with my links?

      They were purely self-promotional, so I doubt anyone will care, but just in case, these:

      http://thmazing.com/PLandG_gettingthere
      http://www.motleyvision.org/2009/bug-eyed-blue-eyed-wrong/

      • Well, I looked at the links in your first comment (above), and they weren’t formatted with the “href” stuff, so they don’t work as links.

        Can you “edit” your own comments, Theric? If you can, maybe you will be able to see the formatting, and correct it.

    • Scott Hales says:

      I agree about priestcrafters. When I worked at the BYU Bookstore, they used to crawl out from underneath the rug and set up little booths during Education Week.

      Once, while I was polishing the stainless steel handrails, an old man came up to me, looked out at the priestcrafters hawking their wares, and said (in an old man kind of way), “Parasites! All of them! Parasites!”

      It was a classic moment.

      Incidentally, for a little self-promotion of my own, I’ve now seen the new Nauvoo pageant and have an opinion about it. I plan to write about it this week or next on my blog.

  4. My father-in-law, who is a physiologist, likes to point out that it is a biological truth that whenever you have a successful organism, you will find parasites for that organism. He agrees that this is an economic truth as well, and may even be a universal truth.

    I try to think that all the spam that this blog has to deal with is a hopeful sign that the reverse may be true as well.

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