Feasts, Religiosity, and Conference

The streets are filled with people, shoulder to shoulder, Usually only a few people negotiate their path. But today there seems to be no room for even one more person.

It is a feast day in Copacabana, Bolivia. Thousands of pilgrims have come from Bolivia and neighboring countries to this place that many consider holy and have for thousands of years. They bring their new cars and vans, trucks and buses to have them blessed with holy water by the priest and with alcohol by them and their families. They buy miniature houses, cars, and businesses, as well as certificates of graduation, to have them blessed so that they can become real. They paint in wax on the walls of the cave like chapel of candles figures of the cars and houses they desire.

Inside the enormous basilica the miraculous dark Virgin, the Lady of the Lake and Snows, waits for them to come to mass, while outside seers read coca leaves to tell people what is wrong with them and what the future will hold.

The Franciscans often fit uneasily into the hustle of the feast. Officially the masses they officiate and the procession, when the Virgin leaves the walls of her Basilica and moves around the town’s plaza, are the formal, religious part that justifies the feast. It is a time for people to contemplate God’s saving grace and become more committed to His way. In the square outside the Basilica’s main door—and that of the chapel of candles—are signs saying, “do not throw confetti”. Yet the ground is covered with small, round, pieces of colored paper that people throw on one another when undergoing a ritual.

The feast is a set of Russian dolls, one inside the other, or a rope twined of so many things. There are the fortune tellers who will melt lead for you and from the patterns in the melt tell your future; there are the colorful macaws accompanied by a monkey that are trained to tell your fate. You can buy mattresses and blankets, pots and DVD players, pirated CDs and more clothes than imaginable. You can make offerings to the mountain, or to a cave at the base of Calvary where the toad lives and is a messenger to the underworld. Or you can climb Calvary leaving a stone at each station of the cross to represent a sin you are repenting of.

Catholic scholars coined the much debated term “popular religiosity” to describe the twined events and symbols that take place outside the official liturgy and yet are very important to people. It is called popular because it is of the people rather than of the formal institution. One critique points out that part of the Russian Doll effect is that the Church used much of this religiosity earlier although now it is defined as outside the domain of the formal. Even the syncretism with Andean religiosity—such as the coca reading—can be seen as part of the Catholic Church’s historic efforts to build itself in Latin America.

Well fine, that is Catholicism. But what about Mormonism? Although there is no branch in Copacabana, rarely have the missionaries spent much time here, nevertheless two of the town’s mayors over the last twenty years of so have been returned missionaries. There are Latter-day Saints here, and there are Methodists, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Baptists, Quakers and so on. But they all get drawn into the feast, even if it is only by shutting the door, picking up their scriptures, studying them, singing hymns, and praying. These acts take meaning by not being the feast. They provide another set of boundaries between the “legitimate” and the “illegitimate, the “holy” and the “worldly,” that is part of the twining of the feast. So many overlapping yet contradictory definitions of what is right!

But, what about Mormonism outside of this context? Can it be said to have a popular religiosity? Do things like General Conference share some things with the feasts?

If we are just asking about popular religiosity in its strict, Catholic sense, the answer would be no. But still there is a whole world of Mormonism twined with the official Church, with shifting and overlapping definitions of what is right and not, and we need some word to describe it. Others, such as John Sorenson, have used the words “folk religion” to try to discuss this. But folk is not appropriate either, although folklore has contributed much to understanding the phenomenon. It is not appropriate because of the essentialisms embedded in notions of folk. Nevertheless we need a word and either can work, with some caveats. But this needs lots of study.

I think of General Conference and I see a feast in the pilgrims who come, whether leaders with passes or not, from all over the Church to be at Conference. Some attend, some watch Conference on TV, and some are just in Salt Lake. Many other things get built around Conference such as commercialist sales, mission reunions, family events, and so on. Even groups outside the official Church have events timed around general conference.

Affirmation, the Gay Mormon organization, holds its Mission reunion and Gay bars schedule conference events. I am told that conference weekend is when the Gay bars are most filled, particularly with people who have come to Salt Lake for Conference.

When I was a teenager in Utah, April conference meant it was time to plant the garden. On Conference Saturday my dad would take a radio into the yard and get us boys to work with him preparing and then plating the garden with peas, lettuce, spinach and other early spring vegetables, with Conference sounding around us. The tones of Conference talks still make me want to till the earth as a result.

While one can draw lines to include some things and exclude others, such that Conference could only be the speeches, or the official activities involving the General Authorities, one can also see how the Conference sales, reunions, and so on, are part of the event. They get twined with it, although some would like to focus on only certain strands. The omnipresence of Conference as a feast impacts even non-Mormons in Utah.

But what about the carnivalesque? Here in Copacabana there is a dangerousness to the feast. Everywhere there are warning signs to be aware of all the thieves attracted to the feast. Some people get very drunk and the kinds of things you might expect from large numbers of inebriated people happen. There is an inherent unpredictability to the overall event. And one can see a fair amount of inversion. Does General Conference have an aspect that is carnivalesque, unpredictable, dangerous, and so on? I do not know and will have to think about it more. What do y’all think?


  1. MikeInWeHo says:

    There’ve been a couple of General Conferences that felt a bit dangerous to me…..

  2. Mike, I’m sure it’s not for nothing that they tell you to drive carefully and courteously when leaving conference EVERY time! I remember the first time I was in Salt Lake City during conference. I was wandering around downtown when Priesthood session got out. The sight of a mostly empty urban space FILLING with all these wonderful, clean-cut guys within a matter of seconds was breathtaking. Same thing with the other sessions, it was amazing to see so many people like me, pouring like water all over a city.

    For my family, conference was literally a feast day. We’d gather at my aunt’s house (they had cable, we didn’t) and just be happily together in the living room. The moms would be in the kitchen (adjacent), spending the whole time preparing a huge, delicious brunch, and then a huge, delicious feast of a dinner.

  3. Some people get very drunk and the kinds of things you might expect from large numbers of inebriated people happen.

    This also happens in Utah on conference weekend. Lots of people go to Lake Powell and watch conference on their boat, or at least they say they do. But there are also lots of jet-skiers and boaters who have a full cooler on board.

  4. In Utah, the Days of 47 celebration comes close–with pioneer museums, parades, and fireworks. I tried to persuade my 17-year-old son how fun it would be to go see a REAL SCYTHE at the pioneer museum, but he would have none of it.

    Because of our structure–stakes, wards, families, we tend to divide our celebrations into subsets. We have a stake picnic, ward parties, FHEs. On the Church-wide level, GC is really it–with slightly smaller subsets of Spanish-speaking conferences (filled with music not normally sung in our chapels), and, more recently, our 30th celebration of the Priesthood Revelation. The Genesis Group did extend that one by sponsoring a Genesis picnic right before the commemoration, but it’s nothing like Feast Day.

  5. I’m naturally drawn to early Mormonism folk-syncretisms; but you raise a fascinating question regards to our modern Church.

  6. Does General Conference have an aspect that is carnivalesque, unpredictable, dangerous, and so on?

    Oh, it’s got a freaky-holiday air to it, but more in the Simon and Garfunkel sense than in the carnivale/fasching close-to-the-edge danger zone. There are things Mormons do well; danger and carnivalesque are not among them.

    That said, it’s an intersting thought…

%d bloggers like this: