Since the annual commemorations at the Hill Cumorah began unofficially in the early 1920s Mormonism has pursued outdoor pageants as a presentation of the gospel message. At the moment the Church lists six pageants on lds.org, and there have been many others performed in the past. All this makes me wonder why. What role to pageants serve that an indoor play does not? The following text by J. M. Sjodahl hints at an answer, but still leaves me wanting a bit more.
Janne M. Sjodahl (1853-1939) was one of the most prolific LDS authors and editiors of the early 20th century. Born in Sweden, Sjodahl was a baptist minister before meeting an LDS missionary and deciding to immigrate to Utah, where he joined the church. After becoming editor of the Manti Sentinel, Sjodahl drew increasingly important editorial assignments: the translation of the Doctrine and Covenants into Swedish, editor of the Deseret News, editor of the Millennial Star, editor of the Improvement Era and editor of the Church’s German, Danish–Norwegian, Dutch, and Swedish newspapers in Salt Lake City from 1919 until they ceased publication in 1935. He was also the author of a number of significant doctrinal works, including a seven-volume commentary on the Book of Mormon and a commentary on the Pearl of Great Price. The following excerpt is from his monthly Signs of the Times column in the Improvement Era.
Signs of the Times
by J. M. Sjodahl
The Recent Conference
Two features of the great Centennial conference of the Church, now when we look back upon the event as past, stand forth with notable prominence. One is the opening session and the reading by President Grant of the Message to the World from the First Presidency ; the other is the sacred Pageant, “the Message of the Ages,” the closing feature of the memorable jubilee gathering.
The sacred pageant has by visitors been pronounced “the greatest religious drama of modern times.” One visitor from the East compared it to the Oberammergau passion play, which is to be given this year in Europe. It is a sermon on God’s plan of salvation, given in the most beautiful and impressive form imaginable, with song and music, reading and pantomime, costume and wonderful electric light effects. It is a mobilization of modern resources for the service of our Lord. I hope it can be repeated at other conferences, as suggested by Elder George D. Pyper, chairman of the pageant committee; for such dramas, presented under the influence of the good Spirit, are just what our age needs. If they could be kept free from mercenary considerations, they might be a mighty force against the diabolic influences that are operating throughout the world by means of some products of the picture industry. An antidote against that moral corruption is highly needed. And who can supply the remedy if not the Church?
The Instructor, v65 n5, May 1930
In this case, the pageant is “The Message of the Ages” pageant written for the Church’s centennial celebration in 1930. The pageant, which involved more than 1,000 people, was presented each evening during the week of April 6-12, and then was so popular that performances were extended for more than a month. A special stage was constructed in the Tabernacle in Salt Lake for the performance. The pageant was also produced as a film, shot on the steps of the Utah State Capitol because of insufficient light in the Tabernacle.
Despite Pyper’s suggestion, as far as I can tell in a brief search, the pageant was only performed again in 1947, to mark the centennial of the arrival of the pioneers in the Salt Lake Valley (the same year that the musical Promised Valley premiered). The revival of “Message of the Ages” involved more than 1,400 people and was presented to a total of 135,000 over 25 performances.
The quoted characterization of the pageant as “the greatest religious drama of modern times” is clearly an overstatement. Less of an overstatement is the claim that the pageant “is a mobilization of modern resources for the service of our Lord.” While the Church hasn’t always adopted new technology quickly, it certainly did on occasion—use that wasn’t necessarily the first, but could be considered cutting edge.
I understand Sjodahl’s desire for keeping dramas “free from mercenary considerations,” but I’m not at all sure that doing so is possible—actors need to eat and production expertise usually isn’t free. Still, the Church’s pageants manage to do so; perhaps because in a pageant the focus can’t be on the quality of the acting so much as the visual effects of staging and costume and the audio effects of music and message. This is perhaps the core difference between pageant and play: the emphasis on the overall visual and audio presentation, as opposed to the individual effort.
Sjodahl uses this concern over mercenary influence to contrast the pageant with the then nascent “picture industry,” which he points out has produced some products with “diabolic” influence. These comments were written near the height of the controversy over censorship in film which led to the establishment of the 1934 Production Code Administration, the largely successful self-censorship board that cleaned up movies for at least the next 20 years. Today, after the code was replaced by a system that classifies movies instead of censoring them, we might say we have a similar situation to what Sjodahl complained about, although I suspect our movies today are more risqué than what he saw.
In this vein, Sjodahl says that “such dramas, presented under the influence of the good Spirit, are just what our age needs”—i.e., an “antidote against that moral corruption” found in film. Perhaps it is in a sense. But film itself might also provide the same antidote, right? Apparently many Mormons thought so, because film was pursued by many. Then again, given the resources then required, and the need to rely on non-Mormon outsiders, it is no wonder that even Mormon efforts, such as Lester Park’s Corianton, which premiered just 18 months after this pageant, could be corrupted.
What’s Sjodahl’s remedy? The Church. “Who can supply the remedy if not the Church?” he asks. At the time that may have been correct, at least for arts in which significant resources were required, like pageant and film. But for today I think a lot depends on what Sjodahl means by “the Church.” If he means “the collection of members of the Church,” then yes, we can do much to serve as an antidote for the immoral in culture. But if by “the Church” he means the organization, controlled by the brethren, I disagree with Sjodahl. We’re told that we need to be “anxiously engaged in a good cause,” one that, I think, doesn’t need to be determined by the organization we belong to.