in July the small town of Palymra, New York becomes the convergence point for a celebration nearly eight decades old. this is the Hill Cumorah Pageant, a production representing the cumulative effort of thousands of volunteer members from the LDS Church. these individuals forfeit three weeks of their summers–sometimes the only vacation time they have all year–to help construct, produce, and act in a dramatic rendition of the Book of Mormon. there are fire and water effects. there are points in the play when hundreds of newly-minted actors sway and jump in unison to music. there are actors who dramatically writhe as they are burnt alive in paper flame according to pre-recorded narration.
it was the second time i’ve been able to make it to “Pageant,” as they say. but Pageant isn’t just the production at the Hill Cumorah; it’s a larger experience of being in Palmyra where Mormon Prophet Joseph Smith grew up. and watching the unfolding of what many have only read about in the Book of Mormon, on the very site where Smith uncovered the plates from which he would later produce America’s homegrown bible. for me it was the opportunity to stand with Sister Reynolds, a young Mormon woman from Utah nearing the end of her mission, as she pointed out the significance of our tour location at the Smith family farm. “Right now,” she says with bright eyes bordering on tears, “We’re standing between two of the most holy places on Earth.” She was referring to our place between the the Hill Cumorah and the Sacred Grove, where Smith received his first vision.
i first met Sister Reynolds at Book of Mormon Publication Site on Main Street. She took me on a private tour which winded its way between two adjacent townhouses and culminated in a view of a first edition Book of Mormon (see below!).
we’re now in the midst of exchanging e-mail regarding seer stones and early Mormon history, and hope to meet at Pageant again next year.
-I’m researching the Father Divine movement right now and came across this uplifting video from the 50th Wedding Anniversary of Father and Mother Divine held on April 16th, 1996. The context of my research, conducted for a future book by Dr. Victoria Wolcott, concerns the utopian origins of the civil rights movement. Numerous projects of inter-racial cooperation during the first third of the century paved the course for future strategies utilized by civil rights groups. The Father Divine movement not only promoted a racially-inclusive faith, but started interracial co-operative farms in Ulster County, New York, as well as co-op restaurants and business in New York City during the 1930s and ’40s.
Video: The Father Divine Project
“The rolling exercise consisted in doubling the head and feet together, and rolling over and over like a hoop…The jerks consisted in violent twitches and contortions of the body in all its part” This description refers to a variant of religious expression carried out by a group labeled The Holy Rollers. Such religious behavior–eccentric, physical, emotional–was and continues to be considered aberrant, indicative of a pathology rather than reflective of “appropriate” religious interpretation and worship. The following will examine how the intersection of religion and madness, as it has manifested historically since the 19th century and into contemporary culture, has been addressed in six sources. These treatments explore the understandings of those religious believers whose modes of religious expression have been interpreted as madness. First, there is a pervasive understanding across the authors that the labeling of religious actors as insane was reflective of the fringe and therefore threatening quality of those actors’ religious affiliation. Second, due to the widespread medical practice of labeling religious behavior as deviant, thus stigmatizing religious adherents and religious practice more broadly, there is an attendant prescriptive tone advocating increased cultural sensitivity in approaching cases of purported irrational religions. Ultimately, the literature on the subject of religion and madness reveals a decided lack of familiarity with religious practice, and, by extension, a resolute lack of investigation of religious practice as it was experienced by the individual deemed mad.
Read the rest here.
This treatment concerns the material ways in which religious identity is predicated through an examination of two self-declared nineteenth century American Hebrew prophets,Mordecai Noah and Robert Matthews. According to their contemporaries’ perceptions, Noah and Matthews each exhibited extremes of performative religious activity in terms of their dress,rituals, public identity and religious interpretations. As embodiments of fringe religious beliefs, this work argues that each man distinctively self-stylized their bodies and public presences in an effort to give credence their unorthodox religious identities and prerogatives. The following seeks to uncover the ways in which these historical actors physically represented themselves and their belief systems. Specific attention therefore is paid to the material culture of religious adherence and promulgation in an effort to explore the activity of religious belief on a trans-sensory scale. By re-imagining the stories of Mordecai Noah and Robert Matthews in this theoretic framework, new attention is brought to the dimensionality of nineteenth fringe religious culture especially in the practices of ceremony, propaganda, and display.