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.