History of Mormons and Theatre – Part 1

A version of this article was previously published in The Mormons and Their Theatre, or The History of Theatricals in Utah, with Reminiscences and Comments Humorous and Critical, published in 1905

By John S. Lindsay

The early Mormon pioneers valued and enjoyed dance and the theater, which was a dramatic contrast to other Christian denominations of the day. This was true to such an extent that every Friday night during the entertainment season, in every community across Mormondom, was set aside by them for their dancing night. Their dances were typically overseen by the presiding bishop and were always started with prayer or invocation. They also always ended or dismissed in the same way, with a little thank-you to God for the fun they had.

The Mormon people enjoy theater so much that there is an amateur theatrical group in practically every town and community throughout their lands.

The fact that Salt Lake is the best show town of its population in the United States—and when we say that, we may as well say in the entire world—is hardly surprising. It is a well-known fact that Salt Lake spends more per resident on theater than any other city in the nation.

Such a social situation among rigorously devout people is not in the least strange, and it is largely because himself enjoyed dancing and going to the theater. He could “shake a leg” with the best of them and enjoyed leading his flock of fair matrons and young ladies into its giddy, perplexing labyrinths. At dances Brigham Young attended, certain circle dances, the waltz, and polka were always prohibited. The great Mormon leader only accepted vintage quadrilles and cotillions, as well as the occasional reel like Sir Roger de Coverly or the Money Musk.

The construction of the was a striking demonstration of Brigham Young’s love of theater and support for it. He understood the human need for simple entertainment, and the proverb “All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy” took on new significance for him. Maintaining a positive mood will prevent people from brooding and reflecting on life’s bigger issues.

Brigham Young’s amusement plan may have included this policy, but whether it did or not, he must be given credit for both intelligence and generosity because the policy undoubtedly helped to relieve people of their worries and brighten their spirits.

Although Salt Lake City has been the primary birthplace of these two forms of entertainment for the Mormon people, we will need to travel back in time and space to a period and location prior to the establishment of Salt Lake to discover the cradle in which they were first nursed into life. Before Brigham Young became leadership of the Mormon church, during the time of its first prophet Joseph Smith in Nauvoo, the Mormon people were encouraged to dance and attend plays. Indeed, the Mormons have always been a jovial people. It is said that their founder and prophet enjoyed himself so much that he frequently participated in foot races, tug-of-war, and even wrestling matches. His antics frequently astounded and occasionally startled the more reserved and pious members of his congregation.

The Mormons had a “Fun Hall,” or theater and dance hall combined, where they occasionally mixed in the merriment dance or sat to watch a play, before they even imagined of traveling to Utah (or Mexico, as it was then). At those times, much as later in Salt Lake, their prophet served as the center of attention at all of their social gatherings while guiding them through the perplexing evolutions of the terpsichorean numbers.

The Mormons have always found time to sing, dance, play, and have delightful social interactions while constructing temples and spreading their new revelation to the world, with the exception of course of their times of painful hardship. They truly stand out among religious groups in this regard, which has given Salt Lake City the reputation of being a “wonderful show town.”

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Thomas Ackley Lyne

In the Nauvoo era, there were many missionaries working the field, and the new religion attracted a large number of converts. Thomas A. Lyne, also known as “Tom” Lyne among his theatrical colleagues, was one of those drawn to the modern Mecca to investigate the claims of the new evangel.

At this time, in 1842, Lyne was a well-known actor who was about 35 years old and in the prime of his life. In addition to having starred in all the well-known classic roles, he had provided prominent support to Edwin Forrest, the older Booth, Charlotte Cushman, and Ellen Tree (before she became Mrs. Charles Kean). Lyne was the second actor to portray Bulwer’s Richelieu in the United States; the first was Edwin Forrest.

The tale of “Tom” Lyne becoming a Mormon caused quite a stir in the world of theater at the time and serves as an example of the tremendous proselytizing influence the founding fathers of the new religion wielded.

When Lyne first learned about Mormonism, he was skeptical since he had outgrown his belief in all of the creeds. George J. Adams, Lyne’s brother-in-law, unexpectedly appeared in Philadelphia, where Lyne lived, in 1841. There, he met the well-known actor and related the tale of how he came to convert to the Mormon faith. Adams had visited Nauvoo, seen the prophet, and had since become one of his most ardent followers. Adams had above-average talent as an actor and as a preacher, he emerged as one of the most accomplished and successful proponents of the new religion. In the hopes that his skillful presentation of the new gospel might convert that staid city of brotherly love to the new and everlasting covenant, Elder Adams had been dispatched as a missionary to Philadelphia.

Elder Adams wasted no time upon reaching his field of labor in seeking out his brother-in-law, “Tom” Lyne, to whom he related with dramatic fervor and religious enthusiasm the story of his wonderful conversion, his subsequent visit to Nauvoo, and his meeting with the young “Mohammed of the West,” for whom he had conceived the greatest admiration. This is in accordance with the New Testament injunction that the Mormon missionaries be sent out into their fields of labor without purse or

Adams persuaded Lyne in such a way that he left such an impression that he was immediately very interested in the Mormon prophet and his new revelation. Elder Adams, who was completely without “the sinews of battle” with which to launch his major campaign, found this to be of enormous assistance.

The brothers-in-law decided to rent a theater, put together a company, and perform “Richard III” for a week after consulting with one another about how the campaign fund should be raised. Lyne, one of Philadelphia’s most well-known actors at the time, was a native of the city. Adams had first met him there a few years prior, where he also introduced him to his sister-in-law.

Lyne played Richard and Elder Adams, Richmond, in the ongoing theatrical production. After covering all costs, the week’s company generated a sizable profit. Elder Adams found a suitable hall and started his missionary work, and Lyne willingly donated his portion to the new cause in which he had now grown so passionately devoted. Many people were converted to the faith by his eloquent explanation of the novel and unfamiliar religion; Thomas A. Lyne’s conversion was one of the early results of his efforts.

Lyne was so moved by Adams’ portrayal of the Mormon prophet and the City of the Saints (Nauvoo) that he was unable to relax until he had visited to see for himself. He gathered his clothes and set out for Nauvoo. Lyne quickly gained the trust of the Mormon populace after receiving a cordial letter of introduction from Elder Adams to the prophet. He encountered the prophet Joseph, fell in love with him, and gladly agreed to follow the novel and bizarre beliefs that the prophet advanced, but “this deponent saith not” whether he did so with one eye on his eternal salvation or with both eyes on a lucrative engagement.

According to the legend, after spending a long time in Nauvoo with the Saints and portraying some of his favorite characters with the help of the entire Mormon cast, he bid the prophet and his followers a tearful farewell and left for his usual haunts outside Liberty Hall.

Mr. Lyne performed in a variety of classical plays when he was in Nauvoo, including “William Tell,” “Virginius,” “Damon and Pythias,” “The Iron Chest,” and “Pizarro.” Brigham Young was chosen to portray the role of the Peruvian high priest in the latter play, and it is said that he led the singing in the Temple scene where the Peruvians give a sacrifice and chant the invocation for Rolla’s victory. According to legend, Brigham Young genuinely cared about the role of the high priest and performed it with exemplary seriousness and majesty. Here was a very early and clear indication of Brigham Young’s love of drama.

When describing to the writer this Nauvoo episode from his own experience, Mr. Lyne suddenly got funny and said:

“I’ve always felt bad about using Brigham Young as the high priest in that role.”

“Why?” I queried, a little taken aback.

The man said, “Why don’t you see John, he’s been playing the character with great success ever since,” with a jovial gleam in his eye and a sly grin in his voice.

Few members of the former Nauvoo dramatic company, which helped “Tom” Lyne, are now alive and well in Salt Lake. One of the original managers of the Salt Lake Theatre was Bishop Clawson.

At Nauvoo, Lyne dealt a winning hand. The prophet took a strong liking to him and wanted to ordain him and send him on a mission because he believed that Lyne’s oratory skills would make him an excellent preacher. However, “Tom” had not been sufficiently inspired by the prophet’s insights to give up the career he so deeply loved and become a traveling elder moving from place to place without a purse or money, as opposed to a well-liked actor in demand earning a respectable wage.

The sequel will demonstrate how Lyne had made his visit financially rewarding and had cemented his place in the hearts of the Mormon people, but he abruptly drifted away from them. After converting to the new faith, it was confidently anticipated that he would stick with the Saints and become one of them; however, he drifted away from them, and the Mormons did not see “Tom” Lyne again until he showed up in Salt Lake 20 years later, shortly after the Salt Lake Theatre’s opening.

Lyne was the first famous person to perform there, and she had a lot of bookings from 1962 until 1970. His performances at the Salt Lake Theatre brought in enough money for him to support himself for the rest of his life. Except for the occasional reading, he barely made an appearance in public over the last twenty years of his life. He settled down and enjoyed life with his French wife Madeline, living comfortably in their own cottage, and in 1891, at the advanced age of 84, Thomas A. Lyne passed away peacefully. He was a firm believer in an afterlife but was completely opposed to the Mormon creed, which he had abandoned soon after leaving Nauvoo.

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