“Yes, the schools are at work on the production of a pageant, the story of Joseph. It is the same one that was given two years ago, but this time we are getting it up particularly for the Assembly. Step into the gym, if you are on the Campus, and see the work that is being done—clothes lines hung with dyed costumes, sewing machines humming, and anthropoids working with coils of wire and big lamps. Painted properties stand against the wall and the throne of Pharaoh occupies the corner” (Beryl Caldwell, “The Pageant,” The Academy Yearbook, 1930, 9).
In 1930, a pageant depicting The Story of Joseph was presented at an Assembly held by the General Church of the New Jerusalem in Bryn Athyn, Pennsylvania. The recently dedicated Assembly Hall (now the Mitchell Performing Arts Center) served as the location. The pageant was performed on the evening of June 14th by pupils from both the Bryn Athyn Church elementary school and the Academy of the New Church schools. It is estimated that 1,100 spectators and performers were present (see New Church Life 1953, 515). A description of the pageant in New Church Life expressed the following sentiment concerning its spiritual purpose:
“We cannot measure the benefits derived from such a sacred representation by those who took part and those who beheld. The whole effect was beautiful, reverential and inspiring. The onlookers saw a splendid spectacle, but felt that they were witnessing and sharing in a form of devotion such as might be experienced in the spiritual world. Either to see or take part in a representation of Divine Doctrine concerning the Humiliation and Glorification of the Lord is to receive an uplifting sphere of faith and worship” (New Church Life 1930, 580).
Two years earlier in 1928, the pageant had been performed on an outdoor stage complete with floodlights. The ambitious project involved dancing, singing (Psalms and Hebrew songs), and acting. The text of the pageant was written by Bishop George de Charms; Besse Smith was in charge of special music and worked with the singers; Fred Finkeldey was in charge of staging and costuming, and Florence Roehner worked with the dancers (see New Church Life 1928, 515). The children clearly relished the event because they are reported to have requested the opportunity to perform it again at the Assembly (see New Church Life 1930, 580).
There is a long tradition of pageants in the General Church, especially at Nineteenth of June celebrations and various Assemblies, a tradition that continues to the present day. A belief in the power of the depiction of stories from the Word to reveal interior truths, and instill affections, remains an inspiration for the creation of pageants.
Photos: The photographs of Pharaoh being carried on a litter and the Egyptian dancers holding ankhs appear to be staged shots that were taken at the time of the 1930 Assembly. In the photograph of Pharaoh’s litter, Joseph is walking alongside bound in chains. The photograph of a large group of costumed children may be from the 1928 Joseph pageant, but a definitive identification has not yet been made. All of the photographs and the 1930 program are in the collection of the Academy of the New Church Archives, Swedenborg Library, Bryn Athyn, PA.
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