Jump to ContentJump to Main Navigation
Kirtland TempleThe Biography of a Shared Mormon Sacred Space$

David J. Howlett

Print publication date: 2014

Print ISBN-13: 9780252038488

Published to Illinois Scholarship Online: April 2017

DOI: 10.5406/illinois/9780252038488.001.0001

Show Summary Details
Page of

PRINTED FROM ILLINOIS SCHOLARSHIP ONLINE (www.illinois.universitypressscholarship.com). (c) Copyright Illinois University Press, 2022. All Rights Reserved. An individual user may print out a PDF of a single chapter of a monograph in ISO for personal use. Subscriber: null; date: 28 June 2022

Staging the Temple, 1972–2012

Staging the Temple, 1972–2012

(p.131) 7 Staging the Temple, 1972–2012
Kirtland Temple

David J. Howlett

University of Illinois Press

Abstract and Keywords

This chapter examines the use of staged performances at pilgrimage sites to establish links between the past and the pilgrim. Since the late 1970s, the Kirtland Temple and its surrounding interpretative sites have served as venues for dramatic performances in which the shrine's past is resurrected and performed on stage. Plays about the Kirtland Temple have allowed audience members and actors to relate Kirtland's past to their present personal and institutional dilemmas and experiences, elevated the temple's status as sacred space, and shaped the way that individual groups socially construct the temple. Moreover, dramas provide an alternative space where the temple is interpreted and incorporated into a “useful past” that shapes the lives of pilgrims. They also further illustrate the process of parallel pilgrimage at the Kirtland Temple, as Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints and Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints members have constructed dramas drawing on common stories, with very different applications for those narratives.

Keywords:   staged performances, pilgrimage sites, Kirtland Temple, dramatic performances, sacred space, dramas, parallel pilgrimage

Anthropologist Simon Coleman suggests that, at pilgrimage sites, “links to the past can be established as much by staged performance as by history or archeology.”1 Plays performed at pilgrimage sites are among the most obvious kinds of staged performances that establish links between the past and the pilgrim. Since the late 1970s, the Kirtland Temple and its surrounding interpretative sites have served as venues for dramatic performances in which the shrine’s past is resurrected and performed on stage. Plays about the Kirtland Temple have allowed audience members and actors to relate Kirtland’s past to their present personal and institutional dilemmas and experiences, elevated the temple’s status as sacred space, and shaped the way that individual groups socially construct the temple. If tour-guiding provides one way to experience the temple, dramas provide an alternative space where the temple is interpreted and incorporated into a “useful past” that shapes the lives of pilgrims. Finally, dramas further illustrate the process of parallel pilgrimage at the Kirtland Temple, as RLDS and LDS members have constructed dramas drawing on common stories, with very different applications for those narratives.

For generations, Latter Day Saints have included plays as a feature of the pilgrimage experience at sacred sites. Starting first with the Hill Cumorah Pageant in 1937, LDS members offered summer pageants at many of the major stops along the Mormon church history trail, including outdoor plays in Independence, Missouri, and in Nauvoo, Illinois.2 Folklorist Kent Bean notes that this Mormon proclivity for pageants was part of a much wider early twentieth-century American cultural fad that Mormons simply continued when such practices lost popularity elsewhere.3 Additionally, LDS dramas at historic sites draw upon an early twentieth-century churchwide (p.132) tradition of local wards (congregations) producing “road shows,” or variety shows that interspersed theatricals with song and dance.4 In the 1980s, the Cleveland LDS community drew together these two dramatic traditions—the pageant and the road show—to produce an indoor historical drama about Kirtland. After a run of a few years, the Clevelanders stopped producing the play, and a new drama was written and performed in 2003. Above all, these performances were a mimesis for how LDS members should act in the present. They also functioned as mirrors for how the local Cleveland Saints had incorporated Kirtland and its past into their own story.

Before any LDS Kirtland dramas developed, however, RLDS members were performing their own productions at the Kirtland Temple. From 1977 to 1984 and again in 1986, members produced and performed dramas at the shrine. These productions drew on the tradition of community theater rather than the distinctive LDS cultural tradition of stakewide road shows, though the first RLDS productions also drew on the American tradition of outdoor pageants. Performed during the summer, RLDS dramas always stood in the shadow of much larger LDS dramatic productions like the Hill Cumorah Pageant (a grand outdoor play that could best be seen as dramatic spectacle).5 Aware of this, RLDS authors and actors attempted to shape their dramas in ways that would meet RLDS needs while not trying to compete with the larger, better-funded LDS productions. Additionally, RLDS plays about Kirtland functioned as bellwethers for changes within the denomination. The dramatic performances did not simply reflect these changes. Actors and directors actively participated in creating these changes, too.

Rehearsing Kirtland’s Past: RLDS Dramas, 1977–1986

Volunteer site staff first proposed an RLDS drama for performance at the Kirtland Temple in 1972. Senior guide Emma Phillips drafted an outline for a play and sent it on to the RLDS First Presidency for approval. Forwarding it to the denomination’s official church historian, Richard Howard, the First Presidency asked for Howard’s comments. Although the play outline no longer survives, Howard’s comments do, and they reveal some of the proposed play’s contents. They also highlight the tension in the 1970s between professional staff at the RLDS headquarters in Independence and volunteers at Kirtland who embraced an older form of RLDS piety. Phillips’s proposed drama followed a family of Saints, the Bardells, through their sojourn in 1830s Kirtland, highlighting the early history of the restoration movement along the way. According to Howard, the drama had an “overriding preoccupation (p.133) with Utah Mormon concerns.” That is, the drama attempted to “clarify denominational differences” at every turn. Essentially, the drama explained why RLDS were not “Utah Mormons.” Howard feared that such a drama would not only embarrass LDS “but would tend to breed attitudes of arrogance and self-righteousness” among the RLDS. Howard also worried that a drama in Kirtland might “cause the suspicion that the RLDS church were trying to compete with the now famous Mormon Pageant held each July at Hill Cumorah.”6 Additionally, there appeared to be a clear proselytizing element in the play, raising Howard’s fears about its propriety at the Kirtland Temple. “Drama should quicken RLDS people in their heritage in mission rather than hope to attract passing onlookers or already committed Utah Mormons en route to or from the Hill Cumorah Pageant.”7 For Howard, the drama should be targeted at inspiring already committed members in the church’s contemporary mission, rather than be used as a tool for evangelizing others. He also wondered if the proposed play was symptomatic of a much larger problem: “the misuse of historical sites, in terms of presumed proselytization values.” Howard used this opportunity to rhetorically ask the First Presidency, “how do we use sites such as Kirtland—as historical, or as polemical?”8 Clearly, he desired the former.

Howard was not opposed in principle to dramas at Kirtland. In 1975, he served on a committee that drew up a master plan for the temple and its future as a historic site.9 He supported a proposal by a Graceland College professor, Velma Ruch, to arrange a summer drama internship at the temple. Starting in the summer of 1977, Graceland College students could gain college credit in dramatic arts by guiding at the temple during the day and acting in a drama at night. While the plan was to attract theater majors, in practice, the summer program relied mostly on novices, some of whom had never been in a dramatic production. The play scripts, too, were produced by volunteers, only some of whom had experience as playwrights. The resulting production was amateurish and uneven in quality from year to year.10 With no budget for the production and few volunteers, the RLDS staff in Kirtland made the best of their situation.

After two years of productions involving various amateur drama enthusiasts, the RLDS Historic Sites director recruited a theatrical director who had professional experience. From 1979 to 1984, V. Lynne Matthews, fresh from a graduate program in theater at the University of Kansas, directed the Kirtland summer drama. Debra Bruch, another graduate student in theater at Kansas, also traveled to Kirtland to build sets for the production. Through revenue from advertising in the play program, Matthews and Bruch procured a rough set, sewed costumes, and spent night after night in rehearsal with their (p.134) amateur cast. Bruch left before the first performance each year, but succeeded in improving the set and props from year to year. Matthews recruited a few actors with acting experience after the first few years; together, they helped coach the non-theater-major college-age guides who served in the cast.11

The mid-1980s were years of dramatic upheaval at the Kirtland Temple and in the RLDS denomination as a whole. In 1984, the RLDS drama program ended after the director, Lynne Matthews, decided to pursue other projects.12 The denomination became embroiled in a schism, too, directing much of its energies elsewhere as members disputed ordaining women to the priesthood. However, in 1986, church leaders wanted a program during the summer to celebrate the sesquicentennial of the Kirtland Temple’s dedication. Richard Howard, the church’s official historian, contacted a playwright and director, John Horner, who was finishing his PhD in theater at the University of California–Santa Barbara. Horner was a lifelong member of the church and represented both the old heritage themes of the movement as well as the progressive direction that the church had taken in the 1960s and 1970s. Howard asked Horner to write, direct, and act in a play that would be performed inside the Kirtland Temple. With a small commission in hand from the RLDS church and enough money to hire five actors, Horner began to write The Kirtland Rehearsal.13 The play premiered at the Kirtland Temple on July 16, 1986, and ran until July 26.14 It was performed again for RLDS audiences in Independence, Missouri, in the fall of 1986. Finally, it was performed at the 1988 meeting of the Mormon History Association in Logan, Utah.15 The play is arguably the most critically serious and complicated drama about Kirtland ever performed at the site.

Within the limitations posed by the temple’s interior itself and a small cast, Horner created a short subplay within the play. This subplay portrays themes and stories familiar to an RLDS and LDS audience: an account of Joseph Smith’s first vision, shared by missionaries with Kirtland residents; a scene with Joseph Smith greeting Newel K. Whitney as he arrives in Kirtland for the first time; Joseph Smith healing Elsa Johnson’s arthritic arm; Joseph Smith and Sidney Rigdon being tarred and feathered by an angry mob in Hiram, Ohio; Joseph and Emma discussing the death of their twins and the chance of adopting a pair of motherless twins; Joseph and church leaders discussing the possible construction of the temple; a scene where women donate their china for the temple’s stucco; and the dedication of the Kirtland Temple. The five actors break up these scenes by a running series of conversations and arguments about the play. In the process, the actors raise matters of faith, belief, and doubt. Horner wrote each character to represent a point on the spectrum of RLDS members—from the extreme (p.135) of an agnostic/cultural member to the other extreme of a conservative “true believer.” Additionally, he allowed characters to make the best case possible for their position in his play.16 His characters were wrestling not only with the past but also with present struggles within the church.

One such struggle reflected the debate upon gender roles that raged within the church in the mid-1980s. By 1986, the first RLDS women had been ordained to the priesthood and others followed. This sharp challenge to traditional gender roles had sparked a revolt among conservative members. In some instances, entire congregations left the denomination. The Kirtland Rehearsal echoes these developments. At one point, an actor in a scene cries out in frustration at another actor’s portrayal of a scene, “God help us.” “Oh, he will,” retorts another actor. “He?” questions a female actor. The director pauses, and says, “Let’s not get into that right now.”17 Horner explained in a 2009 interview that he intended this last line as a reflection of the general feeling in the RLDS church. According to Horner, people were tired of arguing about gender roles, but it was a question that would not go away.18

While acknowledging the frustration that RLDS members experienced over endless arguments about gender roles, Horner both explicitly and subtly takes the side of fuller inclusion of women in the RLDS priesthood. In an early scene, a woman volunteers to play the part of Oliver Cowdery for the play within the play. “But you can’t play a man,” protests a male actor. “Why not?” asks the woman. “Because it just isn’t done,” retorts the other. “We’ll set a precedent,” responds the woman. “Reverse the conventions of Shakespeare’s stage where all the women’s roles were played by men,” muses another actor. The first woman explains, “I refuse to be relegated to the one big scene where the women bring the family china to be crushed into the mortar for the façade.”19 Here and elsewhere, Horner dramatizes intrachurch conflicts over gender and makes his own concern clear: Why should the priesthood only be open to men? By the play’s end, all five actors (including two women) have played the part of Joseph Smith, matter-of-factly and without dispute. Actors just read Joseph’s lines and act them out as they debate how best to put the emphasis on a line.

The portrayal of Joseph Smith in The Kirtland Rehearsal stands in some contrast to the hagiographic rendering in previous RLDS plays. Horner’s Smith is kind and understanding but feels real fear. This is highlighted in a section of the play where Horner focuses on the idea of miracles. In a scene in the subplay, Joseph Smith and Sidney Rigdon are dragged from their homes in the dead of night by members of a mob. Rigdon is knocked unconscious. With a cold, angry demeanor, a mob member begins stirring a bucket of hot tar while other men threaten Smith. He cries out, “No—please? I beg (p.136) of you. … Isn’t what you’ve done to Brother Sidney more than enough? Please don’t hurt me! Please?” Joseph whimpers with fear as he pleads with the mob. He is vulnerable, self-interested instead of selfless, and scared. As the scene continues, the characters on stage all freeze, struck by the terrible violence. Then they slowly walk off the stage. In a trembling voice, one actor narrates what happened the day after Smith was tarred and feathered. The very next day, the audience learns, Joseph preached a sermon on forgiving enemies and converts “some of the very ones who the night before had tortured him. … Their [Joseph and Emma Smith’s] adopted baby son died from the exposure [to the cold night air],” added another actor. Quietly, a third actor says, “Miracles.”20 Bittersweet irony tinges the word as the actor speaks it.

At another point, the play explores the ordinary versus the extraordinary nature of Joseph Smith in a scene where Joseph greets a Kirtland storekeeper and soon-to-be convert Newel K. Whitney. Horner drew this incident from a secondhand LDS source in which Joseph greeted Whitney, a man he had never met, and said, “Newel K. Whitney, thou art the man!” In Horner’s rendition, the “true believer” actor portrays Smith confidently saying in a booming voice, “Newel K. Whitney, Thou art the man!” “Stranger, you have the advantage of me. I could not call you by name, as you have me,” says Whitney. “I am Joseph the Prophet,” imperiously states the first actor. “You’ve prayed me here. Now what do you want of me?”21 Horner’s skeptic actor interrupts the true believer playing Smith. “Play the man like a human being,” chides the one to the other.22 The skeptic then steps into the scene and plays Joseph. As he approaches Whitney’s store, he mimes that he is reading a sign on Whitney’s store (bearing Whitney’s name), sees his opportunity to manufacture a miracle, and greets Whitney by name. Joseph is almost a charlatan in this portrayal. A third actor, a woman, then plays the scene, mediating between the two scenes that had gone on before her. The actor enters the store. Horner’s stage directions read, “She starts to take off her coat as she turns back to First [Newel K. Whitney in this scene], sees him and pauses as she studies his face. A delighted smile of realization spreads across her face.”23 Horner then writes the scene as follows: “(Savoring the words) ‘Newel K. Whitney.’ (First [Whitney] is caught off guard. Second [Joseph] moves toward him with extended hand, perhaps almost as surprised as he in her understanding.) ‘Thou art the man.”24 Whitney responds with his line. Then, Joseph says, “(delighted, almost not even believing it herself.) ‘I am Joseph the Prophet.’ (A very brief pause, then, explaining Newel’s own actions to him.) ‘You prayed me here.’ (Almost laughing) ‘Now, what do you want of me?”25 Here, there is a miracle, but it is a quiet miracle. Joseph (p.137) is not the all-knowing prophet, but a man surprised by the revelation that comes to him. By different inflections and stage actions for the same line, Horner shows three different versions of Joseph Smith and three different understandings of church history. One is bombastically iconic. Another is a thoroughly naturalistic, almost cynical portrayal. The last is a quietly inspired revelation. Horner’s dramatic medium allows him to raise these differences with his audience in a way that a written text could not accomplish.

The penultimate scene of Horner’s play brings together the simmering conflict among various types of RLDS members over religious faith and history. In the play within the play, four women (two of them played by men) bring their china to be crushed into the temple’s stucco. They address temple foreman Artemus Millett:


  • We wish a signal offering to the temple that will stand with it through time and eternity.
  • THIRD:

  • Measured in permanence.

  • A sacrifice of substance that will quietly tell our daughters’ daughter that, yes, we were undeniably a part of this.

  • So our presence will stand here, a part of the temple itself.
  • FIRST:

  • But the temple itself in time may creak and crack and sway and crumble to the rubble of time.

  • As may be, so long as we may be undivorced adornment to that rubble, that our presence may be present.
  • 26

    The four women then hand Millett their fine china to crush into the temple’s stucco to give the walls a sparkling sheen. The actors then step outside their historical characters, pause to reflect on the scene just portrayed, and one says that it “made me connect with them [the early Saints] in a way I hadn’t before.” “Yeah, the sacrifice,” comments another. “Too bad it probably didn’t happen,” quips the skeptic.27 He explains, “No one has ever found any contemporary account of the women taking their family china to be crushed for the stucco plaster. (cutting Third off) Any account.”28 After some haggling, the true believer responds, “Tradition tells us,” to which the skeptic berates him, “Tradition. Tradition imprisons us in the past and atrophies the mind.”29 The true believer shoots back, “Tradition helps ground us in. … Don’t you have any faith at all?”30 In the actual play, the true believer says this last line with gentle, evident hurt in his voice. Finally, the director, Horner’s mediator figure between the two extreme positions, steps into the scene. “I don’t think you even know what you’re arguing about,” says the director to both of the parties. “You think you’re caught up in some great debate about faith, and you’re not. … What you’re arguing about is belief, (p.138) not faith,” he continues, physically bringing the two arguing parties together on the stage. “Faith is our relationship to and with God. And it is given meaning and life in our relationship to and with each other. We meet God and try to understand that meeting. The trying to understand—that’s belief. But it’s meeting that is faith.”31 In Horner’s formulation, relationships bind people and the divine together while all belief propositions are simply better or worse expressions of those relationships.

    The two antagonistic parties, without resolving their argument, come together and play the last scene—the triumphant dedication of the Kirtland Temple. After Joseph offers a dedicatory prayer, the play ends in a typical manner for Kirtland plays, with the cast holding hands and singing the 1836 dedication hymn, “The Spirit of God Like a Fire Is Burning.” The director within the play breaks “the fourth wall” and gives the audience an invitation to stand and sing the last song with the cast. Thus, the audience members become “actors” in the play itself. The hymn ends, and the director looks at the audience and then back at the cast. “Not bad. We’ll work on it tomorrow,” he quips, bringing back the frame of the play itself that has become blurred by audience participation.32 Since the audience is standing as the play ends, several friends suggested to Horner that this was “a cheap way to get a standing ovation.”33

    Yet there is far more going on in this scene than an author’s playful self-mockery of his self-aggrandizement (that is, Horner’s setup for a standing ovation at the end). In the play’s last scene, Horner symbolically unites the actors across their differences. By playing their parts in the Kirtland drama (which stands for the “drama” of the continuing story of the RLDS church itself), the characters in The Kirtland Rehearsal held up the hope that RLDS members, despite their differences, could make room for one another united around common symbols—even if those symbols were understood very differently. When written in 1986, this hope seemed a real possibility. Yet in the following years, those RLDS members dissatisfied with women’s ordination (which began in 1985) began to withdraw in large numbers (perhaps 25 percent of the membership and even more of the active membership).34 More directly, only Horner and one other member of his five-member cast remained active in the RLDS church in the years after The Kirtland Rehearsal. His cast followed various spiritual paths. A woman became a Wiccan, another just simply became inactive in church life, and another withdrew his activity due to the church’s ambivalence on homosexuality in the 1980s. In a 2009 interview, Horner maintained, though, that the play had been an important part of his cast members’ lives, even if they were no longer active in the RLDS church. Ironically, The Kirtland Rehearsal signaled not only a (p.139) growing trend toward creating a “big-tent” church that valued the rhetoric of diversity, it also signaled the construction of a much smaller denomination, as diversity proliferated and the church began a gradual statistical decline.

    After 1986, no more dramas were produced or performed by RLDS staff at the Kirtland Temple. The denomination decided to devote its meager resources to other ways of conducting “staged performances”—namely, through better tour guiding and a long campaign for a new visitor center that would “perform” the site on a more permanent basis than the occasional staged dramas done in the summer. Yet plays would not disappear from Kirtland. As the RLDS tradition of Kirtland dramas was ending, the LDS tradition was just beginning.

    This Is Kirtland!: LDS Dramas in Kirtland

    Although historical Mormon pageants are often productions performed and directed by dedicated volunteers from across the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (and promoted by official church publicity), all of the LDS dramas at and about Kirtland have been strictly local productions. In the early and mid-1980s, the LDS Kirtland Stake produced its first play, which was repeated for at least three years in a row, and then LDS dramas were discontinued until 2003 when a vignette production was mounted. In the following year, the Kirtland LDS Stake Presidency formally commissioned a new drama that is still performed every summer. A small team led by professional director and choreographer Polly Dunn began work on the script, titled This Is Kirtland! Sunny Morton, a freelance writer and history buff, was pulled in to help with the script, and then later as one of the directors. As she recalled, the stake presidency only required that the play “be fun and not focus on darker aspects, but just celebrate the history of the people at the time.”35 Morton’s mother, Cheryl McClellan, explained to me that “Kirtland needed to be remembered as Joseph remembers it. And I think he had a lot of good memories of Kirtland.”36 McClellan’s use of the present tense (“as Joseph remembers it”) startled this interviewer, but it well illustrates the LDS belief that the audience for religious plays may not be limited to those in attendance. For believing LDS members, Joseph Smith as well as countless other early Kirtland Saints, are exalted, embodied beings evolving toward godhood; as such, they are well aware of what is transpiring in Kirtland.

    With a cast of fifty-four adults, teenagers, and children, This Is Kirtland! portrays the Saints’ arrival in Kirtland in 1831 and ends with the erection of the temple in 1836.37 The fictional Christopher Crary, an amalgamation of a father and son with the same name from 1830s Kirtland, serves as the narrator (p.140) for the play. Crary walks the audience through seven scenes in the hour-and-a-half play. These include a scene in which a child asks God if the Book of Mormon is true, a scene about education in Kirtland’s various schools, a scene portraying a feast thrown for the poor (with a dance sequence), and a scene in which missionaries leave 1830s Kirtland to evangelize abroad.38 Audience members who are LDS can relate their own modern culture to these scenes—from LDS welfare assistance, to seminary/institute instruction, to the great emphasis placed on the Book of Mormon since the 1980s, to the contemporary missionary campaign of the church.

    The writers and directors of the play intended their historical portrayals of Kirtland to relate directly to their contemporary LDS audience. In an interview, Morton acknowledged that “We [directors] have made it a point for people to extrapolate modern experiences out of this [play].”39 Joseph Smith’s portrayal in particular relates directly to the needs of contemporary Mormons. Scenes from the play mirror those in LDS visitor center films, such as portrayals of Joseph Smith running and playing with children. This figure is the very model of a kind father and a friend to small children. He is also portrayed as the model husband. In one scene, Joseph sings a particularly poignant love-song duet with his wife, Emma, modeling the kind of domestic tranquility and affection that contemporary LDS men are urged to share with their wives.40 This domestic Joseph dovetails well with the current LDS emphasis on the nuclear family as the foundation for the moral and spiritual well-being of contemporary culture.

    The LDS production of This Is Kirtland! dramatically illustrates what Davis Bitton famously termed “the ritualization of Mormon history.” According to Bitton, LDS confessional historians (who practice what is often referred to as “faithful history”) “celebrate that which is celebratable, ignoring much of the past as it was” and glossing over more problematic parts.41 Additionally, the writing of contemporary LDS confessional history does not allow for tragedies. Instead, as literary scholar Terryl Givens notes, all tragedies are turned into triumphs.42 This Is Kirtland! illustrates the point. For instance, the play conveniently omits any mention of the fracturing of the early Kirtland community due to the banking crisis of 1837. Instead, the Kirtland Saints who emerge from This Is Kirtland! are a happy, congenial folk who manage to find humor and God’s gentle guiding hand even in apparent trouble. In one scene, Parley and Thankful Pratt commiserate directly after their house has burned down. Parley had been scheduled to leave on a mission but was reluctant to leave his family while their home was under construction. Now, with his home in ashes, he does not know what to do. As the couple tenderly embraces, Thankful begins to laugh. When Parley questions his wife’s levity, (p.141) she tells him that now he has no excuse not to leave. Three friends now arrive, give Pratt a new coat and hat, volunteer a room for his family, and forgive his debts to them. “The Lord has left you with no excuses,” gently chides Thankful. “You better hurry on your journey or end up in the belly of a whale [a reference to the story of the reluctant biblical prophet Jonah].” With a beaming smile, Thankful then sends her husband away to do the Lord’s work. This scene, based in part on an incident recounted in Pratt’s 1850s autobiography, elicited a knowing “hmmm” from the audience during a performance that I observed in 2009.43 God always provides a way to accomplish His work, the mostly LDS audience collectively affirmed.

    Participants in This Is Kirtland! do not utilize the play simply as a way to instruct their audience members; it is also a way to deepen their grasp of key episodes and, indeed, to reexperience them. Morton reflected on how this experience has affected her eight-year-old son who was cast in the play in 2008. She related that “seeing him singing the songs we wrote and seeing these stories becoming important to him” was her best experience with the drama. “It’s great to see it becoming part of his mythos.”44 Gratifying his mother, he wanted to tour the Kirtland sites as a result of his participation in the play. Additionally, directors may cast an individual in a role so that she or he may gain a greater spiritual experience from the process. Morton explains that the directors attempt to spiritually discern the right people for the right roles during casting, making this process distinct from other community theater experiences that she has had. “We consider very prayerfully the kinds of experiences people are having and really look for the Lord’s guidance for the roles people should play,” she told me. “A lot of what we are portraying is about the beliefs of the people, and that comes off best with people who believe them,” she added.45 The perceived needs of actors as well as their past spiritual experiences play a role in the selection of actors.

    In a church with a strong missionary emphasis, it is not surprising that the team members who produce This Is Kirtland! have evangelistic purposes. Morton acknowledges that most of the audience for This Is Kirtland! is drawn from touring groups of LDS members on their way to Palmyra for the Hill Cumorah Pageant. She adds, however, that “our own stake’s primary interest is to reach our own members and reaching those within our stake’s boundaries who are not part of our church. Our real targets are the locals.”46 Yet, like the tours’ performances at LDS historical sites, This Is Kirtland! best reaches an LDS audience already emplotted in a Mormon mythos. Morton and her fellow directors understand this, as they have written the script to relate to new converts or the experiences of families dealing with the absence of a loved one on a mission. Unfortunately, I was not able to (p.142) interview any non-LDS or non–Community of Christ members who had seen the play. (Such a person is probably very rare.) However, I can recount my own reaction as a member of the Community of Christ who attended the play on several occasions.

    As a production, This Is Kirtland! was a very entertaining play; it was filled with dancing, witty dialogue, and toe-tapping songs that I sang in my head for days afterward. Still, there was one scene that really affected me emotionally—and not in a positive way. I jotted down the following reaction in my field notes the day after a 2008 performance: “I must admit that I was strangely upset with the characters at times during the play. For instance, a beautiful love song duet is sung between Joseph and Emma, during which I felt like standing and pointing to Joseph and yelling, ‘Hypocrite! You cheated on your wife in this time period when you were sleeping with Fanny Alger!’ [Of course, I did not do so.] The magic of the play worked, and I was taking the characters as real individuals, but probably not in the way intended by the production staff.”47

    A few other Community of Christ staff members who also attended the play were disturbed by the portrayal of Joseph in the drama. Clearly, the LDS construction of Joseph was not plausible for some Community of Christ members. I had been around LDS culture for years and studied it with some degree of academic detachment. I should not have been surprised in the least by its portrayal of Joseph Smith, yet I was taken aback. This experience further demonstrated how invested I was in my own movement and maintaining my own boundaries between myself and my ecclesiastical cousins.

    The LDS historical drama This Is Kirtland! functions for the local LDS community much like early twentieth-century pageants shaped local American communities. David Glassberg argues that pageants in this time period provided “a ‘common’ history … [and] a focus for group loyalties,” “plots to structure … individual memories,” and “a larger context within which to interpret new experiences.”48 Historical pageantry cultivated “the belief that history could be made into a dramatic public ritual through which the residents of a town, by acting out the right version of the past, could bring about some kind of future social and political transformation.”49 Glassberg believes this last function links directly to progressivism in the era.

    While Glassberg focused on dramas that primarily reflected American “civil religion,” his approach can help us understand the explicitly religious drama This Is Kirtland! As a conduit for “a ‘common’ history” and a “focus for group loyalties,” the play both provides a common project that helps unite the Cleveland LDS community and projects the present community’s pride in their local past. Cleveland members may or may not be literal descendants of the Kirtland Saints, but they claim spiritual descent from them and stand (p.143) in close geographical proximity to the places portrayed in the play. Kirtland’s history is their history, as showcased in their dramatic efforts. With the play as a kind of structuring device (a part of the habitus, in Bourdieu’s terms), new and old members can find models for piety as well as examples of how to relate God’s work in their lives. The dramatized stories of Kirtland become part of a “usable past” that individuals may draw upon, seeing themselves caught up in a work initiated by their Kirtland ancestors. Finally, as a story that promises the possibility of social transformations, This Is Kirtland! recounts how faithful Saints engaged in highly successful missionary work and built a temple through sacrifice. So, too, the play obliquely teaches that LDS members who model their efforts after their ancestors can grow their local church community through missionary work. Furthermore, it indirectly suggests that faithful attendance at a modern temple may alter the spiritual fate of the living and the dead. This Is Kirtland! in effect promises that a religious transformation (a particular kind of sociopolitical transformation) will be enacted if people perform in appropriate ways.

    Performing Religion, Dealing with Diversity

    When compared, the plays about Kirtland described in this chapter reproduce two genres that have dominated literature produced by Mormons: miracle stories and hero narratives. Literary scholar and LDS member Terryl Givens notes that most “faithful LDS literature” seems completely constrained by these two genres.50 The RLDS play, Horner’s Kirtland Rehearsal, fell into these tropes, too, though it took these genres to surprising ends—plumbing how people struggle to work together in a diverse church where heroes can be very human and miracles are mostly tinged with irony. In contrast, LDS plays portrayed different possibilities for the human condition. The kinds of hero and miracle stories present in LDS dramas avoid all suggestions of doubt by the faithful or of internal dissent. This reflects a cultural orientation that most LDS members share. Terryl Givens laments that it is difficult to “find space for doubt in a religious culture that asserts knowledge and certainty as a matter of course.”51 LDS plays, then, bifurcate doubt and faith as opposites instead of the mutual precondition for the other.

    RLDS and LDS plays based on the Kirtland experience, too, reflect different solutions to the press of religious diversity. Horner’s The Kirtland Rehearsal suggested that people with many different views can work together in a common cause through a process of give and take, mediation and meditation, argument and discussion. This was both symptomatic and constitutive of the growing religious diversity in the RLDS church. In contrast, LDS plays reflected on the unity coming from the dissolution of a cacophonous (p.144) diversity. This Is Kirtland! was written in an age of doctrinal standardization across the LDS church. Its premise is not that many people with many views can all make room for each other, but that people from all backgrounds can imitate the right models to gain unity.

    Through their theatrical projects, RLDS and LDS members put the Kirtland Temple in the service of their differing visions. Believers and pilgrims literally performed their parallel religions. Since plays have a limited run, though, most Kirtland visitors primarily have encountered a different type of “staged performance.” Pilgrims and site interpreters daily engage in the ritual of touring the temple. Although there was an eighteen-year gap between Horner’s Kirtland Rehearsal and the LDS This Is Kirtland!, tour guiding has been performed continuously since the Kirtland Temple admitted its first visitors in 1836. Touring the temple, perhaps more than performing or attending the plays, encapsulates the diversity, change, and challenge of the parallel pilgrimage experience for hosts and guests.


    (1.) Simon Coleman, “Pilgrimage to ‘England’s Nazareth’: Landscapes of Myth and Memory at Walsingham,” in Intersecting Journeys, 65.

    (2.) Additionally, outdoor pageants have been performed at Mesa, Arizona (an Easter pageant titled “Jesus the Christ”); Clarkston, Utah (the Clarkston pageant titled “Martin Harris: The Man Who Knew”); Castle Dale, Utah (the “Castle Valley Pageant”); and Manti, Utah (the “Mormon Miracle Pageant”). See Kent R. Bean, “Policing the Borders of Identity at the Mormon Miracle Pageant” (PhD diss., Bowling Green State University, 2005): 16.

    (4.) Terryl L. Givens, A People of Paradox: A History of Mormon Culture (New York: Oxford University Press, 2007), 265–66.

    (5.) Givens provides a brief history of the Hill Cumorah Pageant in his People of Paradox, 267–68.

    (6.) Richard P. Howard to First Presidency, “Re: Proposed Kirtland Drama,” September 15, 1972, in First Presidency Papers, “Kirtland Temple, 1967–1975,” RG 29–3, f7, CCA.

    (7.) Ibid., emphasis in original.

    (9.) R. W. Pearson to Duane E. Couey et al., “Re: Kirtland Temple Historic Center Workshop, February 16, 1975,” February 3, 1975, “Kirtland: Workshop on Historic Sites, February 1975,” in Historic Properties Papers, CCA, RG 26, f153.

    (10.) V. Lynne Matthews, interview by author, January 7, 2009, Independence, Missouri, typescript.

    (11.) Matthews, interview, January 7, 2009; Deborah Bruch, interview by author, October 31, 2008, via email.

    (12.) Matthews, interview by author, January 20, 2009.

    (13.) John A. Horner, interview with author, Independence, Missouri, January 6, 2009, transcript.

    (14.) Horner, The Kirtland Rehearsal, 3.

    (17.) Horner, Kirtland Rehearsal, 20.

    (19.) Horner, The Kirtland Rehearsal, 19.

    (20.) Ibid., 48.

    (21.) Ibid., 34.

    (22.) Ibid., 35.

    (23.) Ibid., 36.

    (24.) Ibid., 37.

    (25.) Ibid.

    (26.) Ibid., 57–58.

    (27.) Ibid., 60.

    (28.) Ibid., 61.

    (29.) Ibid.

    (p.242) (30.) Ibid., 62.

    (31.) Ibid.

    (32.) Ibid., 66.

    (33.) Horner, interview, January 6, 2009.

    (36.) Field Notes, July 14, 2009.

    (37.) “About This Is Kirtland,” http://www.thisiskirtland.org/ (accessed on March 5, 2010); Morton interview, July 17, 2009.

    (38.) Field Notes, July 19, 2008; This Is Kirtland! playbill, in possession of the author.

    (39.) Morton, interview, July 17, 2009.

    (40.) Field Notes, July 19, 2008.

    (41.) Davis Bitton, The Ritualization of Mormon History and Other Essays (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1994), 183.

    (43.) Field Notes, July 17, 2009.

    (44.) Morton, interview, July 17, 2009.

    (47.) Field Notes, July 19, 2008.

    (48.) David Glassberg, American Historical Pageantry: The Uses of Tradition in the Early Twentieth Century (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1990), 1.

    (49.) Ibid., 4.

    (51.) Ibid., 274.