The British Pageant: Better than Expected?

Joel is a member of the Church in the UK and served a mission in Canada. He is married and currently studying for a PhD in genetics. We are very pleased to have Joel as our guest.

We first heard of plans for the British Pageant almost a year ago when initial calls for volunteers were issued. Then came the call for ticket reservations, which were soon dismissed as we had grim thoughts of a long drive in a bus from the Stake Centre, especially knowing my wife gets travel sick.

Until one evening last week. Idly perusing through my Facebook news feed I found a video about the Pageant, which had already begun performances, that included clips of the rehearsals and a description of all of the efforts that had been made towards it. I think it was soon after seeing the immense “Pageant Theatre” that was erected in the field just next to the Temple site that it dawned on us just what a huge affair this actually was for the British membership of the Church and how we just couldn’t miss this opportunity. We decided then and there to pull out all the stops to get tickets and were incredibly fortunate that good friends saw our plea on Facebook and had spare tickets for the following night, even though getting the tickets involved a significant detour.

I have previously attended the Nauvoo Pageant as part of a trip across the USA that included visiting many Church History sites. We enjoyed it so much that we watched it two nights in a row. Of course it was somewhat cheesy, but I didn’t come away from it thinking that it was trite or superficial. Nor was it, for the most part, a particularly spiritual experience, though there was at least one moment each night that touched me deeply and that I will never forget.

We didn’t make it in time for the pre-Pageant activities at the British Pageant, which included such delights as free costumed sepia photographs of family groups (how much do people normally pay for these!?), hands-on craft demonstrations and children’s games. But we arrived just in time to get some great seats in the huge, packed outdoor theatre. The scale of it was quite something. If I remember the figures correctly it seated 1500-1600 people and the stage was 60 feet wide – more than anything, I thought afterwards, ‘what an achievement for any church to put on something like this.’

Elder Stephen Kerr, Area Seventy, who presided as the head of the Pageant committee, welcomed us and introduced the Pageant as “our story”. The main story that was portrayed was a formulaic one that I have seen used in the Nauvoo Pageant and in other Church media productions such as Finding Faith in Christ. A family is divided because some members believe and others do not, but by the end the unbelievers have a divinely inspired change of heart, receive a testimony and join the Church.

However, around this was woven a richer tapestry of the history of the British Saints and a deeper testimony of the Restoration of the Church. As Aaron R hoped for, it included several (brief) depictions of principal players in the Reformation, dealing with the historical setting that preceded the coming of the messengers of the Restored Gospel to the British Isles beginning in 1837 including the need for a Restoration of authority. It portrayed the British people as a ‘people of the book’, hungry to read God’s word for themselves to try to know Him. I thought it was well balanced and kept on message, rather than trying to be a way of honouring all those who have sought for truth in the British Isles but have come to varying conclusions.

The story was told by a group of early converts to the Church in Britain, each telling the story of their family and community, but as one chronological synthesis beginning with Elder Heber C Kimball in 1837, through the period when the entire Quorum of the Twelve were sent to the British Isles, and finally with the call to gather to Nauvoo and leave on the ships for America. There was a lot of history to get through, and sometimes that was discernable, but the organisers did a good job in showing the varied experiences of those who heard these first missionaries: at first very few consented to be baptised (this wasn’t some huge sensationalist thing); the stories of others were depicted who had rejected the message at first then through prayer had received testimonies; others whose desire for baptism was so ardent that they visited the apostles to seek baptism in an icy river; congregations such as the United Brethren in Herefordshire who had been prepared to receive the message of the Restoration and almost en masse joined the Church; a young man who had little care for a God who didn’t care for His children but who received the Gospel; the list goes on.

How much of this would those not of our faith relate to? Depending on their own beliefs, perhaps little, but at least what came through loud and clear was the strong message that ultimately it is the testimony we each receive directly from God that really counts. Add to that the account of the faithful Ann Q Cannon who, though having had a dream that she would die in crossing the ocean, still went with her family and as a result allowed her posterity to join with the Saints in the USA, then combining with others to testify of the power of the covenants that would be made in the Temple to bind families together eternally.

What of the heritage of the British Isles? At least some of this was integrated in the dancing and music, where some of the folk dancing of each nation in the UK and Ireland was portrayed (these were still volunteers with a remarkably short time for rehearsal, so I’ll be generous in commenting on this – it was certainly fun to watch). Most of the music in the Pageant was actually arrangements of hymns later incorporated into our LDS hymnbook, though I notably enjoyed the entirely Welsh sung Suo Gân and my wife wished they had sung all of the verses of Jerusalem. As one who is classically trained in music I have no problem with ‘high-brow’ events, but I am glad that the Pageant was accessible to all people rather than trying to be too culturally demanding. I’m not trying to advocate any dumbing down, but rather to say that I think the level chosen was suitable and appropriate. Was it overly American? Jury’s out. They certainly tried to put as much of the fact that it is ‘our story’ into this whole event that this didn’t come across, and it wasn’t anything like EFY!

The Pageant was a fun, engaging way for members of the Church to participate together in making something significant, and brought together those who attended in an experience designed to enrich faith in learning about the stories of those from the British Isles who have preceded us. This is not the only way that we can gain this appreciation for their stories of faith and devotion, but given that we have no pioneer treks in the UK (for which I am grateful) I am happy for us to have had such an event where the faith of members of our nations is celebrated and learned from. For many it will be a signpost that will direct them to deeper sources to learn more about the heritage of faith in the British Isles.

I will end where the Pageant did, with a reminder that those who gave up their homes to leave this land and emigrate to build the Church in the USA subsequently sent and continue to send their posterity to our shores where they are striving as full-time missionaries to share the Gospel to the rest of their people they left behind. I am glad that today our call is to build the Church in our own nations, and even if the Pageant only helps the faith of our own members to burn a little brighter it will have been a success.

Comments

  1. Thanks for sharing about this, I’ve been intrigued to learn more. Do you have any idea if they will repeat it next year?

  2. Thanks indeed. We spent Jan-Apr in London, and it was interesting to hear how local LDS felt about it and the big PR campaign.

  3. Thanks for this perspective Joel. I am glad that it has been a success and I have certainly heard very positive things from the majority of members who have attended. Kudos to those involved, especially the steering group.

    However, one quick question, if they decided to put the show on again next year what might you want to do differently?

  4. Thank you. I heard from someone who lived in Ireland for a year, that they were looking forward to seeing the video of the pageant. (The person was being transferred to a post in the Middle East.) Do you know if the church is really making a video of the pageant, or how to get one?

  5. Thank you so much for this review. As someone who was involved from the beginning I am glad people came and enjoyed it. We had audiences between 1500 and 2200 each night (we had to increase capacity). The people who came, both member and non-member enjoyed a professionally produced performance. I worked with a number of BBC reporters who were very impressed with the organisation and performance. As to a DVD- I’m afraid there won’t be but there will be a series of videos with some of the scenes in on tge UK newsroom site. The music is also downloadable. Will it happen again? I really think so, but not next year:) As to doing things differently- that will be discussed at the appropriate time, but it should be able to huild on a great basis. As an example building the website will be much easier with images and comments to use. Some people have asked about another venue- who knows, but elements of the story were distinctly based in the North West but having said that there are elements from other parts of the British Isles.

  6. A brilliant production, superb singing acting and the whole things was amazingly produced. I’d give the story 7/10 – it was a little of a ‘Disney version’ and didn’t tell the full story of the saints in the British Isles and the terrible distress they felt when the reality of ‘the Gospel’ wasn’t quite what they’d expected. Multiple wives and Jesus’s second coming not happening weren’t what they’d signed up for. I can understand why only the faith promoting bits were included but is it wise to continue to sugar coat? My jury is out on that one. Wonderful for young people to have the experience and I know it was an enjoyable event for everyone who attended.

  7. it's a series of tubes says:

    Maggie, I suspect a pageant is poorly suited to address the issues you raise. “Sugar coating” isn’t an accurate or fair description in that regard.

  8. Thank you, Joel, for a good overview of the pageant. I have to concede that I was initially quite cynical, cynical about the historical accuracy, the overtones of sweet fuzziness, and the perception of ‘what a lovely time was had by all.’ I did enjoy the evening, it was very well produced, even professionally executed. The location of the pageant just below the Preston Temple provided an inspiration to me thinking more on the relevance to me today of the gospel. There is no doubt that as a production it was very successful and nearly all were uplifted by its energy and broader message. I enjoyed the evening and those that we took with us also enjoyed the message, reinforcing their decision to become members of the Church. The devotional aspects and confessional approach were expected, an LDS pageant is what it is. It is a narrative constructed to boost knowledge and create an air of belonging and purpose.

    That said, there has become a feeling that any formative feedback or discussions with friends and members is seen as ‘bad faith’ or churlish. For me as an historian, this is just not the case. If I accept that the production was confessional, I have no problem with that. What sits uncomfortably is the feeling that many members (and non) now believe that this is the history of the British experience. The reenactment of Preston and James Fielding’s church was perhaps an example of the inaccuracy, speeches of the 1st Vision, Rev. Fielding’s response to Kimble, Hyde, Richards, as well as ‘Truth Shall Prevail’ encounter and even the talk of emigration was much later. Some of these things simply did not happen. Frequently, I hear of the great spiritual uplift, and yes for a number it confirms a higher message, however, an adrenalin based, excitement and enjoyment of a theatrical production is not always the same as feeling the spirit as a confirmation of the truth.

    Susan Easton Black, 25 years ago, wrote about the American Gospel Hero, and where are the British heroes, this is a theme I have developed and embraced throughout my academic journey, it was disturbing and refreshing to hear feedback from my PhD supervisor a number of years ago, on the Vauxhall Chapel story. I will not share them here but nevertheless it caused me to sop and think. Similarly my examiner, Douglas Davies, highlighted difficulties for the Mormon ‘tradition’. The British Gospel Hero, (yes, a narrative trope also) very little was brought out, where was the Alfred Cordons, where were the great conversion stories, where were the Manchester experiences between 1838 and 1840, what about the British converts who came back as Conference Presidents, what about the experiences of British branches and their difficulties and successes. A great opportunity was missed, to present something more meaningful for a British audience. Something that occurs post 1842, still remains quite aloof from the British Mormon story. What of the great experiences in the twentieth century?

    I am not being a bad sport about all this, I am not focusing on things like the cost of the presentation, or the dynamics over the orchestration etc. these are production based issues, but I am genuinely concerned about the great difficulty we are having in the UK, families are falling away in disbelief, struggling with serious questions of faith, and the real consideration of being misled is real. Recently, Terryl & Fiona Givens undertook a lengthy series of firesides to try and address these problems. Their message was received quite well but it highlighted to many members their own struggle to find the median between the CES / Sunday School sanitised and smoothed over lessons with the making sense of the raw facts of the past. I am trying to consider how the pageant tries to reconcile these issues rather than reinforcing them.

    The production was professional, the enjoyment had was quite like a West End musical, and it provided the fluffy warm feeling of belonging. If that was the go it was a success.

  9. David, I sort of assumed that the pageant would tell the British success story, the contributions of men and women in those first and second waves who essentially made the theological depth and uniqueness of Mormonism available to the generations, who ensured apostolic succession, who formed in part the core of the pioneer faithful, whose legendary seekers found power to do miracles. I get the impression that this didn’t make the script. Too bad if that’s the case.

  10. WVS, as much as I enjoyed it, much of the points that you raise would indeed have made a splendid script. This was not the case though. I am proud to be a British member of the Church, and perhaps for most attendees the presentation was sufficient for them and I am being overly sensitive to my own hopes. I suppose my only regret was that it was focused primarily on the 1837-1842 period. I really did like the introduction of Tyndale and other forerunners of religion in Britain. However, there are many great stories of faith and added depth after this period that demonstrate a more indigenous feel.

  11. Joel, thanks for this writeup. I’m glad it was a good experience overall. I am also curious about plans to do it (or not, or differently) next year.

    I wonder what the goals were. Sometimes these things are better for strengthening fellowship of the saints, especially youth, than they are at missionary work. And I don’t think that’s necessarily a bad thing.

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