Brigham Young, the second president of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and first territorial governor of Utah, once stated that if placed upon an island inhabited by cannibals and charged with civilizing the natives, he would construct a theater. One realm of LDS culture where Young’s endorsement of the virtues of a good show still thrives is the church’s pageant program.
The church produces six shows in four states, at least five of which are performed annually (two of the three pageants in Utah are part of an every-other-year rotation). The Mesa Easter Pageant is held annually in April at the Mesa Arizona Temple in Arizona, but the other five productions are all summer shows, and the first to be performed in 2011 is the Mormon Miracle Pageant, which begins next weekend in Manti.
(The Castle Valley Pageant, which celebrates the pioneer heritage of central Utah, is on hiatus this year and will return in 2012, when northern Utah’s Clarkston Pageant takes the year off.)
The Mormon Miracle pageant, begun in 1967, draws tens of thousands of visitors every year, including many who come from outside Utah. The pageant tells an expansive story that includes interludes from the life of LDS Church founder Joseph Smith and stories from the Book of Mormon, a volume of scripture sacred to Latter-day Saints.
Orem resident Lynette Reed said that she and her husband enjoy visiting the Mormon Miracle Pageant. “We don’t go every year, but we’ve probably been five or six times,” she said. Reed said the pageant is a nice family event and a good way to entertain their grandchildren. “We just go down and enjoy the day there,” she said.
The Clarkston Pageant, also called “Martin Harris: The Man Who Knew,” begins a two-week run at the end of July, and your stomach will thank you for making the two-plus-hour drive to tiny Clarkston in Cache Valley. Along with “Martin Harris: The Man Who Knew,” the pageant produces a nightly barbecue dinner that includes roast beef, potatoes and gravy, salad, dinner roll, a vegetable dish and dessert — yum!
Pageant president Don Jeppesen said that two of the actors in the show — which is centered on the personal history of Martin Harris, a close friend of Joseph Smith and key figure in the early history of the church — have performed in it every year. You can’t just reserve your spot in the cast of hundreds (well, cast of 100), though. “Every position was auditioned this year,” Jeppesen said.
Outside Utah, the pageant calendar includes the Nauvoo Pageant, which runs for most of July in Nauvoo, Ill.; and the Hill Cumorah Pageant, which has a two-week run in mid-July in Palmyra, N.Y.
Like many LDS Church programs, the pageant program has a missionary purpose — it disseminates information about the church and its doctrines. And like most of the church’s missionary efforts, the pageant program is heavily reliant on the enthusiasm of unpaid volunteers. In addition to performing, pageant actors in Manti set up all 14,000 chairs used for audience seating.
R. Glenn McMinn, who serves in the presidency of the Nauvoo Pageant, said in a church news release that pageant service is its own reward. And like all of the pageant participants, McMinn hopes pageant attendance will be rewarding for visitors, too.
“These stories help us sort through the cobwebs of life to find those things and paths that lead to lasting meaning,” McMinn said. “It can be a life-changing experience for those both of our faith and not of our faith.”