Book Review: Jake Johnson, MORMONS, MUSICAL THEATER, AND BELONGING IN AMERICA (Illinois, 2019)

By August 15, 2019

Once I wrote this sentence: “The musical Saturday’s Warrior might well be the most influential theological text within the church since Bruce R. McConkie’s strikingly assertive 1958 Mormon Doctrine.” At the time I stared at the line on my computer and then deleted them. It felt like the claim needed more unpacking that I was in a position to do at the moment. Thankfully, Jake Johnson has stepped forward to do that work. Here is a creative and often insightful reading of Mormon popular culture, a topic that certainly deserves this sort of attention.

Johnson’s argument is that musical theater has been particularly influential within the LDS church for two reasons.

First, Mormons embrace what Johnson calls a “theology of voice.” The spoken word is particularly influential among church members, he claims, because of the church’s emphasis upon prophecy. “Mormonism’s loquacious God,” says Johnson, delegates the power of his voice. (14) This phenomenon, which Mormon theologians have called “divine investiture,” dates back as far as Joseph Smith’s First Vision, in which God appointed Jesus to speak for him, and Jesus in turn made Joseph Smith a prophet. Smith then delegated that power to other authoritative figures. Though Johnson does not unpack this unfolding of prophecy as thoroughly as he might, this ecclesiology of delegation and appointment is for him preeminently an act of speech. Authority is expressed through echoing the language and even verbal style (that is, the voice) of those in authority, as David Knowlton has observed of the vocal patterns of the LDS testimony meeting.

This is, I think, a smart argument, and in an odd way I think it reveals the faith’s rootedness in American Protestantism, whose reliance on Scripture is always in an uneasy embrace with the verbal word of the preacher. Protestants produced innumerable manuals of preaching produced in nineteenth century America, and the ways in which they sought to reconcile the authority of the written word with the mass appeal of the verbal word are strikingly similar to the tensions of authority Johnson sees within Joseph Smith’s nascent movement. For instance, Johnson cites the famous minister Henry Ward Beecher, who dismissed the theater as “garish” and “buffoonery.” (58) But of course, Beecher was famous precisely for his skill in preaching, his theatrical, imposing presence behind the pulpit, and he had many ideas about the relationship between scripture, verbalization, and truth (most tending toward the liberal).

Johnson traces this impulse toward speech and investiture through Mormon history, spending much of his time with the famous “transfiguration” of Brigham Young in August 1844, at which Young, speaking to the gathered and confused faithful in the wake of the assassination of Joseph Smith, was said to have taken on the image and voice of Smith. For Johnson, this was an act of mimicry. Young was, as Johnson notes, known for love of acting and the theater, and Johnson believes he consciously took on Smith’s voice and affect in an attempt to demonstrate his loyalty and take on the mantle of the fallen prophet.

Johnson compares this concept, briefly, the long-standing Christian notion of the “imitation of Christ” (43-45), in which the believer attempts to model their own existence upon the example of Jesus as a means of devotion. I think this is exactly right and an extremely valuable way to understand Mormon theatricality, particularly given LDS temple rites, in which believers witness a sacred drama about the fall of Adam and Eve and are told to envision themselves in those first humans.  But I think Johnson gives the notion a bit of a short shrift. He in quick succession surveys Augustine, a Kempis, Kierkegaard, and CS Lewis without fully delving into exactly how valuable the concept of Christian imitation might be for his argument. He claims that the way Mormons experience the concept is “fundamentally different from what most Christians have practiced and in fact serve different theological ends, since playacting for Augustine or Lewis is a private, even pious affair, while pretend in Mormonism depends on the presence of an audience.” (45) I don’t think this is quite right. The word “pretend” is a bit too cavalier for what these Christians thought was going on, and while a Kempis did advocate withdrawal from the world, he is an outlier among those who wrote about the concept. Most other such advocates, from Francis of Assisi to Ignatius Loyola, and particularly the Holiness Methodists like Phoebe Palmer, those most influential in nineteenth century America and therefore upon Mormons, believed that imitation could be and perhaps should be a public act. Of course, the single most important example of the imitation of Christ are the Christian sacraments of baptism and the Lord’s Supper, which are universally among the Christian churches collective ritual performances based upon the spoken word; grounding Mormon theater in this sacramental tradition would, I think, add a great deal to Johnson’s analysis.

We are moving a bit away from the concept of voice here, but Johnson brings us back as he develops the second reason why he is convinced musical theater matters to Mormons: as he puts it, voices are “inseparable from bodies and intimately connected to how those bodies move through and react to the physical world.” (21)  What you say shapes who you are, in part because it shapes what you do, and I think Johnson is right when he applies that point to much of Mormon musical theater history, particularly given the strong didactic and aspirational streak that runs through many Mormon performances that Johnson analyzes. This is a valuable idea, and Johnson draws on scholars of the theater like Andrea Most to make it. I think he would have also done well to draw on various theorists, and particularly given his subject matter, theologians of ritual who have also grappled with the relationship between physicality and verbality and meaning and movement like Catherine Bell or James K.A. Smith.

The great strength of the book comes in Johnson’s reading of various Mormon theatrical events, like 1947’s Promised Valley, an optimistic celebration of the Mormon settlement of Utah. Johnson perceptively explores everything about this event, from its aesthetics and publicity (which imitated the sunny juggernaut that was Oklahoma!) to the music, which Johnson points out echos the work of Kurt Weill, the popular composer whose work told stories of Americanization and inclusivity. Thus, Johnson argues, in Promised Valley the Saints were not only bidding for the cultural mainstream; they were in the performance quite literally embodying it. This feat echoes the achievements of the Mormon Tabernacle Choir at 1893 Chicago World’s Fair, and Johnson argues that the popularity of choral music in the show and in the Choir exemplifies Mormon ideals of cooperation.

The word “belonging” in Johnson’s title is particularly applicable to his analysis of a few other Mormon theatrical performances. Johnson offers an astute exploration of the performing events at the church-owned Polynesian Cultural Center in Hawai’i, which have a veneer of indigeneity but which he shows are actually based in very American musical traditions and styles. Johnson juxtaposes these performances with the tradition of Jewish theater (he finds great significance in the popularity of Fiddler on the Roof among church leaders, arguing that outside scripture it is the single most cited text among that group, a claim I found surprising), showing how both exemplify and embody ideals of assimilation to American whiteness. Mormonism, he claims, is America’s first “white” religion, in its self-conscious attempt to claim and defend an imagined racial ideal.

Johnson’s final two chapters focus on Saturday’s Warrior and The Book of Mormon (the musical), and it is here that I found his arguments least persuasive. He links both shows to the mid-twentieth century correlation movement within the church: a decades-long streamlining of authority and bureaucracy which centralized power in the hands of the upper echelons of the male priestly leadership and sought to shape the modalities of church culture by designating officially approved art, music, and so on. Johnson describes correlation as “a broad disciplining of the Mormon voice – what it can say, how it can say it, and how it is heard.” (127)  Correlation, he says, formulated a single universal Mormon sound. This is a clever and literally true way of conceiving of the movement.

But after this I think his analysis grows a bit muddled.  Johnson asks rhetorically whether correlation’s success in disciplining the Mormon voice has “compromised the essence of revelation and replaced the prophetic cry with an empty, failed voice?” It’s unclear exactly how this is the case. Johnson argues that “Mormonism is guided by the premise that voices can and should be molded, morphed, and made new; Correlation interrupts the vocal theatrics by insisting that Mormon voices, above all, should sound the same.” (139)  I have a bit of difficulty following Johnson’s logic here: indeed, it seems to me that much of the book so far has been about shaping voices to sound the same, following particular Mormon identities—whether it be young Polynesian Mormons embracing the musical styles of American Mormons at the PCC, Mormons adopting the style of the American musical in Promised Valley, or Brigham Young sounding like Joseph Smith.  Rather it appears to me that the correlation movement, which for instance produced a universal hymnbook and guidelines for the proper way in which one should bear a testimony, actually reinforces Johnson’s earlier argument about Mormon understanding of the relationship between speech and power: that they are delegated, intertwined, and achieved in part through mimicry.

Johnson claims that correlation has undermined the authority of the prophetic voice; as he argues, “When the prophet speaks, Mormons can no longer hear an unhampered voice; rather, through Correlation, prophetic utterance is really the mouthpiece of a committee.” (138) But critically, he does not provide evidence that this experience is a broad reality among Mormons (indeed, he provides no evidence for the claim at all). One could just as easily argue that correlation has enhanced prophetic authority among church members; that the stentorian, unsigned voice in church manuals and declarations has gained authority through mass reproduction, and that Mormons after correlation have a higher view of the prophetic nature of the church’s leadership than they did, say, in the 1920s. There is some evidence for this, including surveys of BYU students, the propagation of material asserting the divine authority of church leaders and the rising casual use of the term “prophet” to describe the church president in church periodicals. Johnson makes a number of assertions like this that he offers no evidence for: “Some argue that the Mormon Church has fallen into a nonrevelatory period;” “the absence of new revelation . . . may have to do with the imposition of institutional, as opposed to spiritual, policies of the Correlated Mormon Church.” (152) Johnson offers no sources for who the “some” might be, and more, the distinction he makes between the “institutional” and the “spiritual” requires examination: are the two necessarily opposed? Much of Johnson’s analysis to this point has explored the ways in which institutions have mediated power people understand to be spiritual, and therefore using the words as though they are in opposition seems to me difficult. To presume that there is a clear, agreed upon definition for the “spiritual” borders on a theological claim akin to his assertions that there is a “true” Mormonism which correlation betrays. I fear Johnson has fallen into the trap of the classic secularization thesis, which presumes that modern organization and the health of religions are self-evidently opposed to each other.

Johnson argues that Saturday’s Warrior disrupts the correlation movement by bringing “pre-Correlated Mormon ideals into the modern world.” (139) But again, he also argues that the point of the musical is “reconciliation between pre-mortality and mortality,” the formation of unity. He notes that unlike in other musicals, in which “seemingly irreconcilable worlds are united in the end through cultural and musical compromise, the pre-mortal and mortal worlds in Saturday’s Warrior now look and sound identical.” (136) The music becomes the same; the costumes become the same. The goal of the musical appears to be, indeed, the solidification of a certain sort of Mormon identity (in this case centered upon family), which seems entirely consonant with the aims of correlation to me. 

I find Johnson’s reading of The Book of Mormon more useful. Broadly, the case he makes is that the wild adaptations that the rogue missionary Elder Cunningham makes to the missionary message in a frantic attempt to make the faith appeal to Africans upends correlated Mormonism. This seems clearly true, and a nice way to satirize the difficulty a rigidly controlled religion has had in spreading to cultures outside the one it has flourished in already. The pastiche, Johnson illustrates, extends from the content of the play to its style; the music and lyrics are packed with allusion and echoes, making both the show and the plot a bricolage. It is also significant that the musical was produced by those outside the church; such a show—unlike Promised Valley—would not have received the sanction of the leadership of the church today.

It should be evident I have some quibbles with this book. Many of these may be emergent from disciplinary issues; Johnson is not a historian, nor is he a scholar of religious studies. This should not obscure the broader services Johnson has done us in this book. It adds to our understanding of the broad question that so many Mormon scholars have grappled with: the relationship between the faith and the nation. It extends the study of the faith into the critical arena of popular expression, and it helps us think more thoroughly about the place of Mormonism in modern American life.

Article filed under Book and Journal Reviews Popular Culture


  1. So what would you have said if you did have the time and space to unpack, ““The musical Saturday’s Warrior might well be the most influential theological text within the church since Bruce R. McConkie’s strikingly assertive 1958 Mormon Doctrine.”?

    Comment by Steve Fleming — August 17, 2019 @ 8:37 am

  2. I wish the dramatic aspects of the endowment were more widely appreciated. We do more than just “witness” the sacred drama. We *enact* the sacred drama, although the filmed version of the endowment obscures the fact that patrons and officiators are acting together on the same stage, without any real audience. Adam and Eve, and each member of their posterity, living and dead, are taken individually by name through their fall and redemption, finally returning to the Father. It is often stated that the endowment includes “watching a film about the creation and fall,” and there is often an idea that the “film” is somehow dispensable, something that we passively watch just for its information content. But to me, the drama is the essence of the ritual, and removing the drama from the endowment would be like removing water from baptism.

    The idea of “voice” does seem essential to the temple, particularly at the veil, where we literally give voice individually on behalf of every descendant of Adam and Eve. As we give voice at the veil, the element of physicality is also present, literally embracing the Lord as the returning prodigal.

    Comment by Left Field — August 17, 2019 @ 9:33 am

  3. .

    Just commenting on your first paragraph:

    Egad.

    Comment by Th. — August 26, 2019 @ 10:38 am


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