Pillar of the Community
In March 1937, Representative Jed Joseph Johnson (D-OK) introduced a bill calling for commemorative half dollars "in commemoration of the Wichita Mountain Easter Sunrise Service of Holy City, Oklahoma."
The Easter service began in 1926 when Reverend Anthony Mark Wallock held his first presentation of the Resurrection of Jesus Christ at a site in the Wichita mountains new Lawton, Oklahoma. He had a cast of five and an audience of about 200. The presentation proved popular and grew in cast size and attendance over the ensuing years. In 1936, for example, the pageant was staged by 2,000 cast members and was watched by approximately 100,000! Its renown had grown to such a level by 1937, that the US Government saw fit to produce a full-length film of the performance. Approximately 225,000 people visited the site in 1939 to watch the performance - the largest audience it ever had.
As the pageant grew in popularity, Wallock's congregation worked to recreate portions of Jerusalem in the Wichita Mountains, with each structure created being one that was important in Jesus' life. The structures built were incorporated into the pageant.
Multiple online sources state that the Works Progress Administration (WPA) was involved in building the site's structures in 1934, 1935 and 1936. It's my understanding that the WPA came into existence via Executive Order signed by President Roosevelt on May 6, 1935 and that its projects didn't get started until July 1935. (Source: The Final Report on the WPA: 1935-1943)
This would make the WPA's involvement in the project in 1934 and early 1935 "difficult" at best. I'm thinking that the initial work on the site may have been done under grants from the Federal Emergency Relief Administration (FERA) which was launched in May 1933. I need to research this further to know for sure, however.
To provide ongoing administration of the pageant and the recreated biblical site, an oversight organization was formed; the group created was the Wichita Mountain Easter Sunrise Service Association. In 1938, the group was officially registered as a non-profit.
Looking to raise funds for its popular attraction, the Association sponsored the proposed half dollar via Representative Johnson. The coin bill's language regarding the number of coins that could be struck is unnecessarily confusing. In one part of the bill it is stated that no more than 40,000 coins can be struck, while in another part it states that no fewer than 40,000 coins can be ordered and delivered at any one time. Seems to me this sets the minimum and maximum to the same number - why not just say 40,000 were to be struck?
All of the coins were to be dated "1937" regardless of the year they were struck. The date is not a milestone anniversary year for the pageant and appears to have little significance beyond the fact that it coincided with the year the film about it was produced. Maybe the Association, knowing the film was going to be made, wanted to create a souvenir that could be sold to those who watched and were inspired by it? At this point, that's pure conjecture on my part.
The bill didn't get very far in Congress; it was referred to the Committee on Coinage, Weights, and Measures and never reported out. The coin's religious connotations were very likely an obstacle to the coin's passage, as was the rather local nature of the event.
Today, the Association is known as The Holy City of the Wichitas and it continues to host the annual Easter passion play which is titled "The Prince of Peace" - 2015 marks the 90th year it has been presented. While the pageant comes only once a year, the site and its various buildings are open year-round and continue to attract thousands of visitors each year.
To those celebrating, Happy Easter!
Collecting history one coin or medal at a time! (c) commems. All rights reserved.