Tom Lyne and the Theatre in Nauvoo

We don’t often delve into the history of Mormonism in the arts, although I don’t think that is by design. More likely, this history is simply not very well known among even those of us who write about Mormon culture, and, I suspect, many details simply aren’t known. Other details were known at one time, but have largely been forgotten.

In the latter vein, I came across the story of perhaps the first major Mormon actor, Tom Lyne, who already had a substantial reputation as an actor in Philadelphia when he joined the Church. Here is an account of his relationship with the Church.

The following is from Chapter 1 of The Mormons and the Theatre (1905) by John S. Lindsay:

“¦Back in the days of Nauvoo, before Brigham Young was chief of the Mormon church, under the rule of its original prophet, Joseph Smith, the Mormon people were encouraged in the practice of dancing and going to witness plays. Indeed, the Mormons have always been a fun-loving people; it is recorded of their founder and prophet that he was so fond of fun that he would often indulge in a foot race, or pulling sticks, or even a wrestling match. he often amazed and sometimes shocked the sensibilities of the more staid and pious members of his flock by his antics.

Before the Mormons ever dreamed of emigrating to Utah (or Mexico, as it was then), they had what they called a “Fun Hall,” or theatre and dance hall combined, where they mingled occasionally in the merry dance or sat to witness a play. Then, as later in Salt Lake, their prophet led them through the mazy evolutions of the terpsichorean numbers and was the most conspicuous figure at all their social gatherings.

While building temples and propagating their new revelation to the world, the Mormons have always found time to sing and dance and play and have a pleasant social time, excepting, of course, in their days of sore trial. Indeed, they are an anomaly among religious sects in this respect, and that is what has made Salt Lake City proverbially a “great show town.”

Mormonism during the Nauvoo days had numerous missionaries in the field and many converts were added to the new faith. Among others that were attracted to the modern Mecca to look into the claims of the new evangel, was Thomas A. Lyne, known more familiarly among his theatrical associates as “Tom” Lyne.

Lyne, at this time, 1842, was an actor of wide and fair repute, in the very flush of manhood, about thirty-five years of age. He had played leading support to Edwin Forrest, the elder Booth, Charlotte Cushman, Ellen Tree (before she became Mrs. Charles Kean), besides having starred in all the popular classic roles. Lyne was the second actor in the United States to essay the character of Bulwer’s Richelieu–Edwin Forrest being the first.

The story of “Tom” Lyne’s conversion to the Mormon faith created quite a sensation in theatrical circles of the time, and illustrates the great proselyting power the elders of the new religion possessed.

Lyne, when he encountered Mormonism, was a skeptic, having outgrown belief in all of the creeds. It was in 1841 that George J. Adams, a brother-in-law of Lyne’s, turned up suddenly in Philadelphia (Lyne’s home) where he met the popular actor and told him the story of his conversion to the Mormon faith. Adams had been to Nauvoo, met the prophet and become one of his most enthusiastic disciples. Adams had been an actor, also, of more than mediocre ability, and as a preacher proved to be one of the most brilliant and successful expounders of the new religion. Elder Adams had been sent as a missionary to Philadelphia in the home that his able exposition of the new evangel would convert that staid city of brotherly love to the new and everlasting covenant.

In pursuance of the New Testament injunction, the Mormon missionaries are sent out into their fields of labor without purse or scrip, so Elder Adams, on arriving at his field of labor, lost no time in hunting up 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, his meeting with the young “Mohammed of the West,” for whom he had conceived the greatest admiration, as well as a powerful testimony of the divinity of his mission.

Adams was so convincing and made such an impression on Lyne that he at once became greatly interested in the Mormon prophet and his new revelation. This proved to be a great help to Elder Adams, who was entirely without “the sinews of war” with which to start his great campaign.

The brothers-in-law put their heads together in council as to how the campaign fund was to be raised, and the result was that they decided to rent a theatre, get a company together, and play Richard III for a week. Lyne was a native of Philadelphia and at this time one of its most popular actors. It was here that Adams had met him a few years before and had given him his sister in marriage.

The theatrical venture was carried through, Lyne playing Richard and Elder Adams, Richmond. The week’s business, after paying all expenses, left a handsome profit. Lyne generously donated his share to the new cause in which he had now grown so deeply interested and Elder Adams procured a suitable hall and began his missionary labors. His eloquent exposition of the new and strange religion won many to the faith; one of the first fruits of his labors being the conversion of Thomas A. Lyne.

Such an impression had Adams’s description of the Mormon prophet and the City of the Saints (Nauvoo) made upon Lyne that he could not rest satisfied until he went and saw for himself. He packed up his wardrobe and took the road for Nauvoo. With a warm letter of introduction from Elder Adams to the prophet, it was not long before Lyne was thoroughly ingratiated in the good graces of the Mormon people. He met the prophet Joseph, was enchanted with him, and readily gave his adherence to the new and strange doctrines which the prophet advanced, but whether with an eye single to his eternal salvation or with both eyes open to a lucrative engagement “this deponent saith not.”

The story runs that after a long sojourn with the Saints in Nauvoo, during which he played a round of his favorite characters, supported by a full Mormon cast, he bade the prophet and his followers a sorrowful farewell and returned to his accustomed haunts in the vicinity of Liberty Hall.

During his stay in Nauvoo, Mr. Lyne played quite a number of classical plays, including “William Tell,” “Virginius,” “Damon and Pythias,” “The Iron Chest,” and “Pizarro.” In the latter play, he had no less a personage than Brigham Young in the cast; he was selected to play the part of the Peruvian high priest, and is said to have led the singing in the Temple scene where the Peruvians offer up sacrifice and sign the invocation for Rolla’s victory. Brigham Young is said to have taken a genuine interest in the character of the high priest and to have played it with becoming dignity and solemnity. Here was an early and unmistakable proof of Brigham Young’s love for the drama.

Mr. Lyne, while relating this Nauvoo incident in his experience to the writer, broke into a humorous vein and remarked:

“I’ve always regretted having cast Brigham Young for that part of the high priest.”

“Why?” I inquired, with some surprise.

With a merry twinkle in his eye and a sly chuckle in his voice, he replied: “Why don’t you see John, he’s been playing the character with great success ever since.”

There are still a few survivors of the old Nauvoo dramatic company, who supported “Tom” Lyne, living in Salt Lake. Bishop Clawson, one of the first managers of the Salt Lake theatre, is among them.

Lyne played a winning hand at Nauvoo. He made a great hit with the prophet, who took such a fancy to him that he wanted to ordain him and send him on a mission, thinking that Lyne’s eleocutionary powers would make him a great preacher. But “Tom” had not become sufficiently enthused over the prophet’s revelations to abjure the profession he so dearly loved, and become a traveling elder going about from place to place without purse or scrip, instead of a popular actor who was in demand at a good sized salary.

Lyne had made his visit remunerative and had enshrined himself in the hearts of the Mormon people, as the sequel will show; but he drifted away from them as unexpectedly as he had come. Having become a convert to the new religion, it was confidently expected that he would remain among the Saints and be one of them; but he drifted away from them and the Mormons saw no more of “Tom” Lyne till he turned up in Salt Lake some twenty years later, soon after the opening of the Salt Lake Theatre.

Lyne was the first star to tread its stage and played quite a number of engagements during the years from ’62 to ’70. He made money enough out of his engagements at the Salt Lake Theatre to live on for the remainder of his days. For the last twenty years of his life, he rarely appeared in public except to give a reading occasionally. With his French wife, Madeline, he settled down and took life easy, living cosily in his own cottage, and in 1891 at the advanced age of eighty-four Thomas A. Lyne passed peacefully away, a firm believer in a life to come but at utter variance with the Mormon creed, which he had discarded soon after his departure from Nauvoo.

3 thoughts on “Tom Lyne and the Theatre in Nauvoo”

  1. Fascinating, Kent.

    That’s awesome that a production of Richard III raised money for proselyting.

  2. I dunno, Th. I don’t think it lives up to its title at all. It principally only covers theater in Salt Lake City to about 1880 and doesn’t cover any Mormon-themed works at all, and is only about “Mormons” because most of those in Salt Lake at the time were Mormon. Although I haven’t read the whole thing, my overview leads me to think that there is very little value in it, unless you are interested in the 1855-1880 period.

    So, I’m pessimistic about its prospects, unless someone can persuade me otherwise after reading it.

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