Eureka Springs, Arkansas
Eureka Springs, Arkansas is home to a number of interesting Christian sites, largely a legacy of Gerald Smith. A prominent if controversial figure, Smith turned Eureka Springs into something of a religious vacation destination. Here he established a center with everything from a Bible Museum to the largest statue of Christ in the United States. But the main draw is the Great Passion Play, the largest traditional Christian Passion Play in America, as well as the most-attended outdoor drama in American history. Since 1968 it has been watched by nearly eight million people. After briefly looking like it would close down in 2013, new funding ensured the continuation of this tradition for the immediate future.
Gerald Smith was one of the most prominent and controversial figures in America during the mid-20th century. A far-right political activist, Smith was known for his support of such men as Huey Long. In many ways an extremist, his views were those prevelant in the American South at the time. That said, he was ardent in his faith, and much of his later life was devoted to the development of a Christian-themed tourist destination.
In 1964, Smith and his wife acquired a large estate in Eureka Springs on Magnetic Mountain. His first project was the building of a statue of Christ. This statue, known as the Christ of the Ozarks, was completed in 1966 as the largest statue of Jesus in the United States. Upon its completion, he began to embark on additional projects.
The most famous of Smith’s creations was the Great Passion Play. Inspired by the world famous Passion Play of Oberammergau in Germany, the Great Passion Play was designed to be a huge affair. A giant amphitheater was carved out of the mountain beneath the statue, and an immense stage was built to house a football-field sized recreation of Jerusalem. The play gave its first performance in 1968, and it has been running ever since.
The Great Passion Play in its early years was just as controversial as its German predecessor and its founder, accused of promoting Anti-Semitism. Over the last few decades the more controversial aspects have been removed, with a greater focus on sacrifice than blame. Gerald Smith died in 1976, and many of his personal issues were buried with him at the foot of the statue which he built. The legacy of the play and other religious institutions he created has grown beyond him and now has a prominent place in American Christian culture.
The Great Passion Play is a huge production. Its permanent set includes recreations of the Temple, the houses of Pontius Pilate and Herod and Golgotha. Running two hours, the show was produced by Robert Hyde and stars a cast of hundreds. Over the course of its run, the Great Passion Play has attracted between one and two hundred thousand visitors annually. Performances generally run from May until October.
Beyond the Great Passion Play, the complex at Eureka Springs is home to other places of interest. Best known among these, of course, is the Christ of the Ozarks statue. Also on site is the Church in the Grove, along side which is displayed a section of the Berlin Wall; a Memorial Chapel; a recreation of the East Jerusalem Gate; a Sacred Arts Museum; and a Bible Museum. The latter has among its exhibits a first edition copy of the King James Bible, a page from a Gutenberg Bible, and an original Bible published and signed by the founders of the Gideons.
The Great Passion Play is located on Magnetic Mountain just outside of Eureka Springs, approximately 100 miles northwest of Little Rock. The play generally runs weekends from May through October, with additional performances on Tuesdays and Thursdays in peak season. Hours for the shows and various exhibits vary widely, with varying admission and ticket prices (see the website). Web: www.greatpassionplay.org (official website).
The small town of Eureka Springs is home to another another truly interesting Christian site: the Thorncrown Chapel. This amazing church, completed in 1980, is considered to be a masterpiece of modern design and was honored by the American Institute of Architects in 2006.