Along the way, pilgrimage participants get a firsthand look at the places that have come to make up the mythos of Mormon origins. They walk up the narrow staircase of the Smith family farm and peer into the room where the Angel Moroni supposedly roused Joseph Smith and directed him to the Hill Cumorah to unearth the ancient plates. They walk around the grounds of the Nauvoo temple, where the pioneering Mormons established the most sacred rituals in Mormon religious life. And in all of these places, the pilgrims are reminded that “the world” rejected Mormonism, that the Mormons’ stays in New York and in Nauvoo were cut short because of anti-Mormon persecution.
In the 1980s, the pageant became a pilgrimage site for another group entirely: hard-right evangelicals. So explains professor Hillary Kaell, a scholar of American religious history who has studied the pageant extensively. After a period of tense relations, the LDS Church and these evangelicals, mostly from nearby Palmyra, came to a compromise. LDS officials designated areas on the edge of their property where the group could distribute evangelical literature. But in the last decade, Kaell says, “a new breed of ‘professional’ protesters” has begun to show up, coming from nearby cities like Rochester—and even caravanning up from as far south as Tennessee and Virginia.
Mormons aren’t the only targets for these highly organized protesters, who hold professionally made signs and matching anti-Mormon T-shirts. “We just came from a sodomite parade in Rochester,” Larry Craft, one of the group’s leaders, told me. But he and the others especially relish the opportunity to “preach the gospel” to a large gathering of Mormons, who they believe teach “false doctrines,” according to Craft, “like the idea that you can ‘work’ your way into saving grace.”
Besides erecting a fence and enlisting dozens of volunteer security guards, the LDS Church recently established a parking lot adjacent to the pageant grounds. Before, pageant-goers had to cross Route 21 and pass through what some described as a “gauntlet” of anti-Mormon protesters. “They were just nasty,” explains Bonnie J. Hays, the motherly, red-haired executive director of Palmyra’s Historic Museum. “Yeah, they’ve got ‘freedom of speech—it’s in the Constitution,” Hays recognizes. But, she says, it’s not very Christian or American to scream invectives at the families who visit the Hill Cumorah. “They target women and children, calling them names that I won’t repeat, and make them cry. We’ve got lots of different religions here. And we just don’t do that in America.”
On the other side of the fence, the atmosphere among the pageant participants is like a “summer camp for Mormons,” in the words of Dolly Wright. There are many other families like the Wrights, who use vacation time to participate in the pageant, many of them coming back year after year. More than 2,500 Mormons apply for the 750 slots in the production; getting into the pageant is like gaining admission into a selective college. (Preference is given to families who have participated in the pageant before and have some dance or acting experience.)
Before the seven nighttime performances, the cast goes through a week of rehearsal focused on organizing a massive group of nonprofessional actors to move in sync to the music and voice recordings and to navigate the multi-tiered stage. Samuel Hatch, a 16-year-old from Salt Lake City who was cast as Joseph Smith (“because I’ve got the right hair and height,” he tells me) says the rehearsals are exhausting. “But all that sacrifice reminds us of the early church members who sacrificed so much for their right to worship freely.”
When they’re not in rehearsal, the pageant organizers break the cast up into teams of 18 to 20, reminiscent of the Mormon pioneer companies that crossed the plains during the exodus to Utah. In the shade of festival tents, these teammates practice their moves, read scripture together, and do the sort of arts-and-crafts activities typical of summer camp.
For those of the participants who come from areas that are not, like Utah and Idaho, dominated by Mormons, “this is a rare occasion when everybody speaks the same language,” according to Clawson. “They don’t have to explain themselves, or be shy about their faith. And that’s great for their spiritual growth.” “There are even little romances formed,” says Dolly Wright. Dolly’s husband, Norman, says they “know two married couples who met at pageant. Now they’ve come back, and this place has special meaning for them.”
During the twilight hour before the show, which starts promptly at 9:15, the protesters march along the fence, chastising the Mormons for “worshiping idols,” failing to obey the Ten Commandments, and denying Christ’s divinity. “You’re no better than the Catholics who have idols, like the Muslims who have idols, like the Buddhists who worship the Buddha!” shouts Larry Craft.
Yet if the protesters were to actually watch the production—many of them return to their cars while the pageant is underway—they would find much in common with their own faith. At one point during the pageant, the Book of Mormon prophet, Abinadi, teaches the Ten Commandments, with particular emphasis on the second commandment, “Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image.” And while the story can be difficult to follow for those who don’t know the Book of Mormon, one thing is made very clear: As McKay Coppins, a Latter-day Saint himself, tweeted during the pageant, “it would be hard for anyone to watch the Hill Cumorah pageant and not think Mormons are Christians. Climactic scene is Jesus’ visit” to the Americas.
When the pageant concludes, with a bright white Christ beaming into the night sky, the protesters start up their own performance again. (Part of the agreement between the pageant organizers and the protesters is that the latter will remain silent during the show itself.) They fill the well-established role of Mormon persecutors. (Abinadi, too, faced such opposition: For preaching about the impending arrival of Jesus, he was burned alive, according to the Book of Mormon.) But in this day and age, from behind the wire fence, their aggression is sanitized, made safe. It has become an integral part of the experience of visiting these sites where Mormons once faced much more dangerous forms of persecution.
In this way, the “trolls,” to use that security guard’s label, are more than a nuisance. “I think it’s a good thing that the protesters are here and act the way they do,” another security guard, who declined to share his name, tells me. “The contrast between their messages of intolerance, their anger and hate, and our music, sense of fellowship and community does a lot to highlight our message of Christian love. They say we’re not Christian,” he continued. “But who's acting more Christian now?”