“‘Virtuous, Lovely, or of Good Report’: How the Church Has Fostered the Arts,” Ensign, July 1977, 81
When the Saints drained a swamp in Illinois or dug ditches to carry water into western desert valleys, they weren’t just building cities and farms—they were out to create a civilization. And Nauvoo didn’t fit at all into the mold of an austere puritanical community: from the beginning music and dancing celebrated the Saints’ great occasions, while hymns and poetry were used to worship God along with their prayers.
The tradition continued in the West. Musicians were considered a vital part of every colony. Dramas played to eager audiences, not only in Salt Lake City but in meetinghouses all over the Church. Sculptors, poets, architects, composers—they were encouraged and supported by Church members and the Church organization.
Why the Church’s emphasis on the arts, especially in the early days, when every loaf of bread was the result of a long, hard struggle with the soil, when every dollar was earned twice over by dawn-to-dusk attention to the building of the kingdom? How did they find the time?
They found the time because the arts were not considered to be “extras.” They were a vital part of Zion. As early as 1834, Assistant President of the Church Oliver Cowdery wrote, “We believe in embracing good wherever it may be found; of proving all things, and holding fast [to] that which is righteous.”1 Eight years later, the Prophet Joseph Smith recommitted the Church to following Paul’s admonition: “If there is anything virtuous, lovely, or of good report, or praiseworthy, we seek after these things.”2
The Saints have produced art from the beginning. Some of it has been good enough to compare favorably with the best worldly art being produced at the time. Some of it has been homespun and humble. But whatever the quality by the standards of the world, Mormon art has achieved its purpose: It has touched the lives of Church members and nonmembers with a message of warmth, beauty, and meaning, carrying the ideals and messages of the gospel, filled with the love and beauty and strength of the Mormon people.
The Lord asked Emma Smith to collect hymns for the Church only a few months after it was organized. The first hymnals did not include the music—melodies were learned and passed on by rote. Instead, the hymnals were books of poetry to be sung to the familiar tunes. The early hymnbook contained ninety poems, of which thirty-nine had been written by Saints, including some that are still favorites, like “Redeemer of Israel,” “Gently Raise the Sacred Strain,” and “The Spirit of God Like a Fire Is Burning.”
Music began the Latter-day Saint artistic tradition, but distinctive architecture soon followed and has continued to this day. Temple-building was the early Saints’ supreme physical artistic expression of their love for and dedication to the Lord. The Kirtland Temple’s original plastered exterior glistened with pulverized china and glassware, sacrificed by the Saints so the first temple of this dispensation would shine like their faith in the Lord.3
Though the builders of the Kirtland Temple were by no means all skilled artisans, a national survey of historic American buildings described the result of their labors as being “so harmonious as to raise the question if they may not have been inspired as were the builders of the cathedrals of old.”4
The Nauvoo Temple was so original that one architect commented, “The Temple combined a distinctive architectural mass and original details to reflect fully the unique amalgam of the Mormon religious approach.”5 Although other Mormon buildings of the period looked very much like other contemporary buildings and consequently reflected both the best and worst of contemporary American taste, those first-generation temples embodied a distinctive architectural harmony.
Temporarily at peace in Nauvoo, the Church had time to nourish the cultural arts that promote social unity. Even in Kirtland, the School of the Prophets commissioned evening classes in voice and the Kirtland choir had a fine reputation. And bands were organized at Nauvoo in 1840. Under William Pitt the Nauvoo Brass Band performed at the Masonic Hall, and later at the Music or Concert Hall, which could seat seven or eight hundred people. Musical instruction was offered by the Nauvoo University, the Nauvoo Singing School, and Mrs. Pitchforth’s Piano School.
In such a musical atmosphere, public dancing was a popular cultural activity. Candlelit, formal balls became highlights of society in Nauvoo, though many Mormons, converted from austere Protestant sects that had prohibited dancing, stumbled through the steps with unaccustomed feet. Elder Orson Hyde described the problem of his fellow apostle, Parley P. Pratt, when the quadrilles and cotillions were first introduced:
“I observed brother Parley standing in the figure, and he was making no motion particularly, only up and down. Says I, ‘Brother Parley, why don’t you move forward?’ Says he, ‘When I think which way I am going, I forget the step; and when I think of the step, I forget which way to go.’”6
To remedy such plights, the Nauvoo Dancing School held evening lessons at the Masonic Hall.
The Prophet Joseph Smith introduced drama into Nauvoo, forming a dramatic company in which Brigham Young, Erastus Snow, George A. Smith, and other prominent Latter-day Saints acted. A Nauvoo school of dramatics was opened by a “Mr. J. M. and Miss Cole.” When veteran actor Thomas A. Lyne was converted to the Church in Philadelphia, he came to Nauvoo and produced such plays as William Tell, Damon and Pithias, and Pizarro. Brigham Young distinguished himself as an actor in the role of the Peruvian high priest in Pizarro, leading the chorus and company of actors into an Incan temple. Later Thomas A. Lyne, “with a merry twinkle in his eye,” told an interviewer, “I’ve always regretted having cast Brigham Young for the part of the high priest. … He’s been playing the character with great success ever since.”7
As the pioneers struggled for survival in Utah, the arts were championed by Brigham Young, who understood how music and drama could break the monotony of privation and physical labor. “Tight-laced religious professors of the present generation have a horror at the sound of a fiddle,” he declared, probably remembering his puritanical upbringing. “There is no music in hell, for all good music belongs to heaven.”8
Music and dancing crossed the plains with the Saints. Only two weeks after the settlers arrived in Salt Lake Valley, a choir was formed by a group of English and Welsh singers. Eventually housed in the new Tabernacle, this choir took on the name of the great building. Conductors George Careless and Evan Stephens trained the Tabernacle Choir into a technically excellent and spiritually soaring ensemble.
Music was not confined to Salt Lake City, either. Brigham Young insisted that each colonizing party have a musical leader; he subsidized two music classes, which were crowded with students; he even called “musical missionaries” to sing, lead choirs, and play instruments in the outlying settlements.9
The result was singing of such high quality that world travelers Jules Remy and Julius Brenchley, after hearing the Salt Lake Choir in the 1850s, wrote, “The Mormons have a feeling for sacred music … in no notable degree surpassed by that which is heard either under the roof of Westminster [Abbey], or the frescoes of the Sistine Chapel.” The singing in a Church meeting in Cedar City they found “good beyond anything to be expected in such a place.”10
Vocal and instrumental music of all kinds abounded, but the brass band reigned supreme on public occasions. In the spring of 1850 the Nauvoo Brass Band was reorganized and, aided by President Young’s $90 donation, attired themselves in uniforms of white dress coats, white pantaloons, and white muslin cravats, with sky-blue sashes and straw hats for striking contrast. By the 1860s there were at least forty bands scattered throughout the territory, and by 1875 there were twice that number. Few early Utah celebrations occurred, including the laying of the cornerstone of the Salt Lake Temple, without the participation of a band.
The crowning symbol of the Church’s commitment to music, however, was the Tabernacle Organ. Frontier conditions made its construction such a Herculean undertaking that even Brigham Young paused before the task. “Can we do this thing?” he asked as he paced back and forth before giving his approval. Joseph Ridges, its builder, remembered the tension of testing the first pipe and his exultant relief when the sound was true and rich: “It was as if God had spoken and the whole chorus of angels were shouting Hosanna!!” Those first pipes were made largely of native Utah woods—and much of the early casing, many original pipes, and the instrument’s cherished resonance have been carefully retained even though subsequent renovations have multiplied the number of pipes from 700 to over 10,000.11
Brigham Young once stated that if placed upon a cannibal island with the charge of civilizing the inhabitants, he would construct a theater.12 In the fall of 1850, the Musical and Dramatic Association was organized in Salt Lake City. Later known as the Deseret Dramatic Association, this ambitious group produced Shakespeare’s difficult Othello as early as 1856. Early makeshift stages gave way in 1862 to the Church-constructed Salt Lake Theater, which impressed such Eastern travelers as F. H. Ludlow, who commented, “I was greatly astonished to find in the desert heart of the Continent a place of public amusement which, regarding comfort, capacity, and beauty, has but two or three superiors in the United States.”13 President Young himself built its main chandelier from an oxcart wheel and donated props from his household. He often visited performances and rehearsals; he oversaw nightly financial reports; he called talented Church members to theatrical “missions”; and, according to one contemporary, he “knew more about the needs of a large stage than any manager now living.14
His enthusiasm was widely shared. Virtually every Salt Lake City meetinghouse doubled as a theater, while many congregations, even in outlying areas, built up their own dramatic companies and productions. The Salt Lake Theater presided over this bustle, becoming a “must” stop on the national theatrical circuit. It was so successful that a non-Mormon theatrical manager wrote:
“Sweeping as the statement may seem, I do not believe the theatre has ever rested upon a higher plane, both as to its purpose and in its offerings, than at Salt Lake City, the capital of Mormondom.”15
Naturally the theater influenced the visual arts. Many early Mormon artists painted drop curtains and stage sets. In addition, as the Church began building temples, it needed artists for the murals. George Ottinger, Daniel Weggeland, and C. C. A. Christensen, among others, contributed to the Manti, Logan, and St. George temples. President Wilford Woodruff, in order to prepare artists to finish the Salt Lake Temple, called “art missionaries” in 1890. Lorus Pratt, Edwin Evans, J. B. Fairbanks, and John Hafen studied at the prestigious Academie Julian in Paris on modest Church stipends plus their own meager resources. Such encouragement gave Mormon painting a solid tradition.
The pioneer period also produced some distinctive buildings. Two recent architectural critics selected Brigham Young’s official residence in Salt Lake City, the Beehive House, as one of thirty examples of superior domestic architecture, and described it as “a home of comfort, distinction, and architectural merit that would do credit to any long-established community of high cultural standards anywhere.”16
But the greatest praise, both professional and popular, has been reserved for the Salt Lake Temple and the Tabernacle. The imposing dignity of the Salt Lake Temple’s modified Gothic architecture has come to symbolize pioneer devotion and sacrifice; and architects have showered praise on the Tabernacle’s structural ingenuity. For over one hundred years, the Tabernacle was the world’s largest hall without internally supporting columns. The beautiful stake tabernacles of the nineteenth century—like those in St. George and Brigham City, to name only two—have received high marks for their proportion, details, and craftsmanship.17
Auxiliary organizations have encouraged the arts from their beginnings. When the Relief Society was founded in Nauvoo, one of its purposes was to further cultural development. Several decades later, such leaders as Zina D. H. Young were challenging the Society “to cultivate our home talent and stimulate our sisters to read, and to write.” One of the first tasks of the Sunday School Union and its Juvenile Instructor in the late 1860s was to circulate music sheets throughout the Church and to teach children the musical arts. As early as 1880, the Primary Association’s talent fairs displayed drawings and paintings by children, while the organization’s martial bands serenaded local communities, like Farmington, Utah, with resounding tones produced by “flutes, piccolos, a triangle, and three drums.”18
The Young Men’s and Young Women’s Mutual Improvement Associations (MIAs) were especially vigorous. First-generation Utahns had organized themselves into “Polysophical,” “Philomathian,” and “Universal Scientific” societies and later into “Ward Institutes” to promote cultural appreciation through informal discussions, debates, and performances.
A generation later, flourishing MIAs had absorbed and expanded these activities. The MIA magazine, the Contributor, focused on Mormon arts and letters. And in 1891 the organization held its first massive musical contest where more than 2,000 spectators heard groups vie for the first prize, awarded for the best choral rendition of Evan Stephens’s “Invocation to Harmony.” Other vocal and instrumental contests followed during the next decade and into our century.
As the pioneer period closed and the twentieth century began, MIAs were clearly seeking to respond to President John Taylor’s earlier challenge to “stand in regard to education and literacy, the sciences, the arts and intelligence of every kind, as high above the nations of the earth, as we do to-day in regard to religious matters.”19
When the First Presidency instituted the “Home Evening Program” in 1915 they specifically recommended “singing hymns, songs, and instrumental music” as part of every family’s program.20 MIA, ward, and Church programs continued the tradition of drama and music that still produces annual roadshows and ward choirs.
The twentieth century brought other new emphases in the arts. Even though the pioneer past was increasingly praised and celebrated, the Church also sponsored art that reflected greater diversity and proficiency.
For example, Mormon sculpture really began in the twentieth century, though President Woodruff and the First Presidency had selected Cyrus E. Dallin, a Utah native of Mormon ancestry, for several projects in the century before. Among the best loved are the Angel Moroni on the east central spire of the Salt Lake Temple and the Brigham Young memorial at the intersection of South Temple and Main streets in Salt Lake City. Although Dallin’s sculptures later won him a worldwide reputation, he remembered his “Moroni” as bringing him “nearer to God than anything I ever did.”21
In the twentieth century, Mahonri Young, a grandson of President Young and perhaps Mormonism’s most noted sculptor, created the Sea Gull Monument, Joseph and Hyrum (originally intended for the exterior niches of the Salt Lake Temple but now positioned on Temple Square), and This Is the Place Memorial at the mouth of Emigration Canyon in Utah. Avard Fairbanks and Torlief Knaphus captured the pathos of the exodus from Nauvoo with their respective Winter Quarters and Handcart Family works, and both also contributed to friezes and baptismal fonts in Latter-day Saint temples. Arno Alfred Steinecke contributed bas-reliefs for the Salt Lake, Logan, St. George, and Manti temples. Gutzon Borglum, the son of a Danish convert, was the creator of the four great faces carved on Mount Rushmore. Edward J. Fraughton, sculptor of the heroic Mormon Battalion Monument in San Diego, was commissioned by the Sons of the Utah Pioneers to create the eight-foot statue that now stands in the Brigham Young Cemetery in Salt Lake City. It balances a scene of parents burying their baby at Winter Quarters with one of a family rejoicing at their entry into Salt Lake Valley.
More recently, Franz Johansen, a Brigham Young University professor, and his associates made impressive bronze plaques for the gate and doors of the Washington Temple. The eight designs show such Mormon symbols as a sun face, a moon, the concentric circles of eternity, the planets in their order, and seven circles and pentagons for the seven dispensations. The largest of all Church-commissioned sculptures, however, is the thirteen-piece Garden of Women at Nauvoo. Commissioned by the Relief Society, sculptors Dennis V. Smith and Florence Peterson Hansen are preparing the statues for dedication in 1978.
The camera has also made its contribution to Mormon art. Pioneer photographers Charles W. Carter, Marsena Cannon, and Charles R. Savage recorded our pioneer past. George Edward Anderson of Springville, Utah, when called to an English mission in 1907, stopped both coming and going to photograph such Latter-day Saint landmarks as the Sacred Grove in upstate New York. “I must have a picture of this sacred spot,” he said. “When I return all will be changed. … Who will see them as I see them now?” Recently the Smithsonian Institution and the Boston Museum of Fine Arts honored Anderson’s sensitive photography by sponsoring traveling bicentennial exhibits of his work.22
In 1832 the Lord exhorted Joseph Smith and the Saints to seek wisdom from “the best books.” (D&C 88:118.) Nineteenth-century Saints generally interpreted “best books” to mean such practical or didactic literature as Orson F. Whitney’s aspiring epic Elias or Nephi Anderson’s Added Upon. The Millennial Star, the Contributor, the Young Women’s Journal, and the independently published Woman’s Exponent printed representative poetry from the world-renowned masters as well as original works by aspiring Mormon writers.
In 1923 the Relief Society began its Eliza Roxey Snow Memorial Prize Poem Contest to promote Latter-day Saint writing, and followed it in 1942 with an annual prize for the best short story. The Relief Society’s annual Eliza R. Snow poetry contest for women is now published in the Ensign. The New Era offers magazine subscriptions, cash, and scholarships for excellence in writing, art, photography, and music composition by teenagers and young adults, while the Ensign gives adults cash prizes for articles, short stories, and poetry in its own annual contest.
Today there is a large and growing body of able Latter-day Saint writers. Their work can be sampled in such recent anthologies as A Believing People and 22 Young Mormon Writers.23 Other fiction, poetry, essays, and articles by Latter-day Saints appear regularly in the Friend, New Era, and Ensign; the fifteen international magazines; BYU Studies; and various independent publications aimed at the Mormon people.
Mormon theater is still very much alive, although a sluggish economy and rival professional entertainment ended the Salt Lake Theater in the late 1920s. In 1972, for the purpose of creating “uplifting and gracious entertainment,” the Church refurbished an old Salt Lake theater and renamed it the Promised Valley Playhouse.24 Its amateur casts usually present light classics along with an occasional Latter-day Saint drama such as Elder S. Dilworth Young’s The Long Road Back or Carol Lynn Pearson’s The Order Is Love. Brigham Young University’s theatre seasons present classics, fine modern plays, and excellent original Mormon plays. It has also provided opportunities for Mormon writers to have their creations first presented to an audience. Doug Stewart’s A Day, a Night, and a Day and his popular musical (with composer Lex D’Azevedo) Saturday’s Warrior were first performed at BYU, as were Martin Kelly’s And They Shall Be Gathered, Orson Scott Card’s (with composer Robert Stoddard) musical about Moses, Stone Tables, Clinton Larson’s powerful poetic dramas, Robert Elliott’s play about missionary life, Fires of the Mind, and works by Thomas Rogers, Frances Smeath, and Charles Whitman, to name only a few. In addition, numerous private “little” theaters in different areas of the Church have provided an impetus for Latter-day Saint drama. Early twentieth-century “amateur home-written theatricals” evolved into “roadshows.” More than 3,800 of these productions were written and presented in 1960, and records show that local wards liked drama enough to do another 3,300 traditional plays per year.
Latter-day Saints have also produced religious pageants, beginning with the gigantic Message of the Ages commemorating the Church’s centennial in 1930. Seven years later the annual Hill Cumorah Pageant was launched, since then attracting thousands of members and nonmembers to be inspired by its message. By 1976 Church members were presenting major pageants at Nauvoo, Independence, Manti, and Oakland.
Film is the only art form that began in the twentieth century. The Brigham Young University Motion Picture Department, founded in 1952, has produced 275 religious and educational films that have touched Mormon audiences while receiving national and even international critical acclaim. Recently such films as Coronary Counter-Attack and The Great Dinosaur Discovery won the nationally prestigious Cine Golden Eagle Award and represented the United States in international competition, while Cipher in the Snow, in addition to its own Cine Award, has been given thirteen other national and international honors and has been shown extensively before Catholic and Protestant audiences throughout the United States.
And music has never been more successful in winning friends and expressing Mormon beliefs than it is today. Beginning with its silver medal at the Chicago World’s Fair in 1893, the Tabernacle Choir has been ever more widely acclaimed. By 1976 it had sung for the inaugurations of two United States presidents and performed in the longest running broadcast series in the history of network radio. Eugene Ormandy, conductor of the Philadelphia Symphony, called it “the greatest choir I have ever conducted.”25
Alexander Schreiner, current Tabernacle organist, may well be, as one critic suggested, “the most significant musical performer in LDS Church history” and one of “the Western world’s top organists.”26
Latter-day Saint composers have added to our hymnal and created such major works as Robert Cundick’s Song of Nephi and Crawford Gates’s Promised Valley and Hill Cumorah Symphony. And Leroy Robertson’s Book of Mormon Oratorio, completed in 1947 with partial support from a Church commission, remains as one of Mormonism’s most significant musical works. Outstanding faculty and student composers at BYU—and elsewhere—promise a continuation of the great Mormon musical tradition with major works like Merrill Bradshaw’s oratorio The Restoration (1974).
Church leaders have continued their interest in the musical arts. President Heber J. Grant called the first Church Music Committee and also established a community cultural center specializing in the musical arts. The Church-owned McCune School of Music and Art served Utah for over half a century as an accredited institution of music, offering bachelor’s and master’s degrees and sponsoring a yearly series of symphonic orchestra concerts. When the professional Utah Symphony Orchestra was founded, the Church gave it rent-free use of the Tabernacle, and more recently leased at a nominal fee the ground for its new community concert hall.
Since its establishment in 1969, the 400-member Mormon Youth Symphony and Chorus has received national recognition for its television and radio broadcasts. After a guest appearance in 1972, the distinguished American composer and conductor, Howard Hanson, praised the group for possessing “the spirit, the soul, and the eternity of great music.”27
The Latter-day Saint zeal for social dancing continued into our century, and in the mid-1960s Church auxiliaries sponsored over 13,000 dances, which drew more than half a million participants each year. The Church also sponsored massive dance festivals. Salt Lake’s Saltair resort housed the first such festival in 1928, and under the direction of W. O. Robinson, the program expanded until most Church wards contributed dancers from their local dance program, During the 1950s and 1960s more than 30,000 spectators crowded into the University of Utah Stadium to see 10,000 colorfully costumed dancers perform waltzes, rumbas, and fox trots. A writer for Dance Magazine called the 1958 event the “ballroom pageant of the year.”28
Other forms of dance also prospered. After Virginia Tanner’s Children’s Dance Theater, an outgrowth of the McCune School of Music, performed in 1953 before a Washington, D.C., audience of dance professionals, there was a moment’s hush followed by wild bravoes. The performance by the young Utah girls had captured the hearts of the experts.29
During the American bicentennial, an outburst of activity underlined the vitality of Mormon arts. The Tabernacle Choir toured the eastern United States, including performances in Washington, D.C., at President Gerald R. Ford’s invitation. An estimated 1 million people heard the Choir’s July Fourth concert at the Washington Monument. Millions more heard via television. The Heritage Arts Festival, held in conjunction with the MIA June Conference in 1975, presented plays, concerts, dance demonstrations, musicals, films, readers theater, and a huge display of Church history memorabilia to celebrate the Mormon contribution to American culture. And local Church groups produced over twenty bicentennial stage productions, complemented by the Church-supported musical Threads of Glory, written by Doug Stewart and Lex D’Azevedo, which played before primarily Latter-day Saint audiences in the American West.
As the Church expands, Latter-day Saints throughout the world are expressing their testimonies through local art forms. Regional and area conferences feature such cultural programs as Brazilians dancing their native heritage, Finns portraying in drama the emigration of progenitors, or Koreans demonstrating their historic martial arts. The Polynesian Cultural Center at Laie, Hawaii, preserves and displays the customs and crafts of Fiji, Tonga, Samoa, Hawaii, and Tahiti, and of the Maori people. The center and its almost 200 native guides have received rave reviews from such different sources as Honolulu’s Bishop Museum and Broadway’s publication, Variety.30
Brigham Young University’s Festival of Mormon Arts each spring presents distinctive Latter-day Saint plays, lectures, dances, exhibitions, concerts, panel discussions, and art shows. The Church Curator’s Division, organized in 1973, is actively collecting and preserving Latter-day Saint arts and artifacts. Church authorities are studying the possibility of constructing a museum devoted to the LDS cultural past. A new hymnal stressing the message of the Restoration has been authorized. Latter-day Saint artists, poets, musicians, dancers, sculptors, dramatists, and writers can be found in almost every stake.
Latter-day Saint culture is still young, yet through adversity, with minimal resources, it has survived. It thrives today—though sometimes Church audiences have been satisfied with the superficial, and sometimes Mormon artists, in an effort to satisfy the “world,” have neglected their religious traditions and so have not communicated with Latter-day Saint audiences. Today, though the Church officially sponsors only what is needed for special programs, creative and determined artists are finding the Mormon audience increasingly ready to accept and encourage excellence.
“The story of Mormonism,” President Spencer W. Kimball has challenged, “has never been written nor painted nor sculpted nor spoken. It remains for inspired hearts and talented fingers yet to reveal themselves. … [These artists] must be faithful, inspired, active Church members to give life and feeling and true perspective to a subject so worthy. … Our own talent, obsessed with dynamism from a cause, could put into such a story life and heartbeats.”31