How the Hill Cumorah Pageant Explains Mormon Identity

Religion, spirituality, and sacrilege.
July 19 2012 9:11 AM

“A Spirit of Persecution”

What the Hill Cumorah Pageant tells us about Mormonism’s past—and its present.

Nephi's vision of Lehi's dream, as depicted in the Hill Cumorah Pageant.
Nephi's vision of Lehi's dream, as depicted in the Hill Cumorah Pageant.

Photo courtesy of Eustress via Wikimedia Commons.

When I got out my camera, a Mormon security guard made it clear that he didn’t like what I was doing. “Excuse me sir,” he said. “Please don’t feed the trolls.”

The “trolls” were the anti-Mormon protesters carrying anti-Mormon signs and yelling anti-Mormon slurs—some of them using bullhorns. They amass at dusk on the seven nights in July when the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints puts on its annual Hill Cumorah Pageant. It’s here, on a tree-lined hill that rises above the flat farmland of western New York state, that the founder of Mormonism, Joseph Smith, claimed to have unearthed metal plates from which he translated the Book of Mormon. And for each of the last 75 years—except during World War II—Mormons have staged an elaborate production dramatizing the Book of Mormon’s sacred history of a Pre-Columbian Christian civilization.

A cast of some 750—with a support crew of hundreds more—don beards, wigs, and “brightly colored Mayans-meet-Moses robes.” Pyrotechnics and a mist cloud accompany a prerecorded soundtrack from the Mormon Tabernacle Choir.

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The security guard was dressed in a more typical Mormon uniform: white shirt and conservative tie. I told him I was writing an article about the pageant and needed photos of the evangelical Christians who march along the wire fence that separates the LDS-owned grass parking lot and N.Y. Route 21 running south out of Palmyra. He said, more warmly this time, “I prefer you focus your attention on the message of Jesus Christ about to be delivered.” He then waved his hand toward the field where the thousands of other guests were laying out their picnic blankets on the grass below the hill, which, like a Mormon temple, is topped by a large statue of the Angel Moroni. Mormons believe Moroni brought young Smith to the plates buried in the hill.

The security guard’s wariness was understandable. The candidacy of Mitt Romney has made all things Mormon matters of great media interest—not to mention popular targets of ridicule. But for anyone interested in the Hill Cumurah Pageant, the protesters are an essential part of the story. “You’re going to burn in hell, Mr. Mormon!” they shout. “You worship Joseph Smith. He’s a pedophile! You worship a gold idol, the angel Moroni!” The pageant participants, meanwhile, dressed in their costumes, walk among the audience members, posing for pictures, each of them greeting guests with one hand and holding a Book of Mormon in the other. They’re not necessarily looking to convert the few non-Mormons in the audience. They just want “to show the world we’re like everybody else,” only “in cuter costumes,” jokes Dolly Wright, from Provo, Utah, who has participated in the pageant three times with her husband, Norman Wright, and their three children.

They also want to show that they are sweeter, more loving, and, most pointedly, more “Christian” than their loud and angry detractors. Indeed, the protesters feel like part of the carefully orchestrated display that is the Hill Cumorah Pageant. Which, in an important sense, they are. Though they carry picket signs and bullhorns rather than pitchforks and muskets, the protesters help sustain the persecution narrative that, for 182 years now, has been a key part of Mormon identity.

Protesters at the Hill Cumorah Pageant.
Protesters at the Hill Cumorah Pageant.

Photo by Max Perry Mueller.

It was only in the early 20th century—after the church gave up polygamy, Utah became a state, and Mormons began to win grudging acceptance into American political and social life—that the LDS Church reclaimed key historical sites outside its home in the Mountain West. Joseph Smith, who was born in Vermont in 1805, was raised in New York, where his family farmed 100 acres of land with limited success. In 1830, Smith published the Book of Mormon in Palmyra, then a small but growing Erie Canal village. He established Mormonism a few months later in a farmhouse in Waterloo, claiming leadership of God’s restored church on earth.

Soon the Mormons were run off by neighbors unhappy with their unorthodox practices. Chased out of Missouri, Ohio, and Illinois—where Smith, in 1844, was assassinated—they ended up in Utah, under the leadership of Brigham Young. Another 60 years passed before Joseph F. Smith, then the president and prophet of the church his uncle founded, made a pilgrimage east, established a memorial at his namesake’s birthplace in Vermont, and paid a visit to Palmyra.

His pilgrimage paved the way for the Hill Cumorah Pageant, which officially began in 1937. According to the pageant’s spokeswoman, Toi Clawson, the LDS Church always had big ambitions for the pageant. They hoped it would become “America’s Oberammergau.” For its 50th anniversary, the church recruited famed science-fiction writer and lifelong Mormon Orson Scott Card to revamp the script, with the hope of making it more accessible to the “Bible-reading, non-LDS public.” And while the appeal to non-Mormons remains limited, the pageant has become a major stop on a summer-long pilgrimage undertaken by many Mormons who live out west. Ken Adams, a retiree from St. George, Utah, told me that he and the tour group he was traveling with from Utah were “hitting all the spots” on the now well-established route, which starts with Joseph Smith’s birthplace in Vermont and ends at Nauvoo, Ill., where, in the early 1840s, Mormons built a city that, at the time, rivaled young Chicago in size.

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