We packed the car with a picnic blanket, folding chairs, and copious amounts of coffee for the late trip back home (although we knew there would be concessions this staple would not be for sale). My husband, my little sister, and I hit the road, driving about an hour north of our home and traveling through all manner of small upstate villages and long stretches of idyllic farms. Eventually we arrived in the otherwise excessively quiet town of Palmyra. Tonight it was not quiet, it was home to the 75th annual Hill Cumorah Pageant.
Before we could get down to experiencing one of the trippiest events that upstate has to offer we had to park. This presented itself as something of a nightmare, as all large event parking does. But about a half dozen smiling parking attendants later we were parked neatly and in a section of the lot (read: field) that would allow us to get back on the highway in the direction we wanted to go without crossing any traffic. Terrific! Now to get on to the serious trippiness!
The Hill Cumorah Pageant commemorates Joseph Smith finding the golden plates on which the Book of Mormon was written. It dramatizes the main themes of the Book of Mormon and tells the story on stage. It is a big deal in this area, being something of a Mormon pilgrimage site. It brings in thousands of tourists and their spending money to a fairly forgotten little town.
The first thing that we noticed were the license plates, families had driven here from all over the country. Lots of Utahs, Colorados, and Californias, some Maines, Georgias, and Delewares. Texas, Maryland, and Tennessee. I didn’t see an Alaska or Hawaii, but I’m betting they flew in instead. I reminded myself that while this was spectacle for me, it was serious spiritual business for most of these folks who had come from so far away and I tried to moderate my unabashed gawking.
You know who didn’t moderate their gawking? The protesters. We had a very small contingency of conservative Christians protesting with signs and bullhorns, many with children in tow. They shouted the things you’d expect: “God loves you and doesn’t want to send you to hell!”; “You can only be saved through Jesus Christ!”; and most horrifying, “Mormons burn in hell!”. Except for that last bit it was striking how badly they failed to set off their own message from that of the Mormons, I spent a lot of time asking my family why they bothered yelling at the Mormons the very things that Mormons teach? It might have been more effective if they had chosen chants of, “Jesus’ being the new Adam was just an allegory!” or, “Our book lines up with modern archeological findings considerably better than yours!”. Or maybe not, I suppose they lack a certain conciseness.
Anyway, as unfriendly as the protestors were the greeters were the exact opposite. Lots of people milled about in costume stragetically placed so that even if you took the path of least hellos, you’d be welcomed a dozen times before finding your seat. Let’s briefly talk about those costumes. They were ridiculous. If the Mormons want to rewrite the pre-Columbian history of the Americas they should at least have regard for those parts of history that don’t directly contradict their teachings. These costumes were layer upon layer of boldly printed cotton, draped kind of robe-like, inevitably tied at the waist with a curtain tie-back. One man wore a wizard hat. Another had a costume made primarily of the long nylon fringe you see on old-style heavy drapes. They all look like they had walked naked into a Joanne’s Fabric store and some kind clerk had dressed them in whatever remnants they had on hand. More than the ridiculous story they were telling this seemed very disrespectful to the actual native peoples of the Americas.
They play itself was impressive, if hard to follow. The stage is gigantic, being a several storied high quasi-step pyramid and capable of holding the entire cast of 800 (and giving them room to repeatedly fight to the death or dance in jubilation). Many times when God metes out his punishment the stage leaps in flame and the audience gasps. Another time great storms whips a boat to shreds, breaking it’s mast and it’s occupant’s spirits. Great big walls of mist rise around dream sequences leading one to presume that Mormons dreams must be damp affairs generally. Streams of water, lit dramatically from below in red and orange stand in for lava flows in the final scenes of destruction. This is great theater.
But what is happening between the fireballs and torrential rains? God speaks to a prophet who then speaks to the people. The people promptly rejects the prophet and God rains down judgement. This happens over and over and no one seems to learn their lesson. Perhaps it is because these messages are delivered to subsequent generations over centuries, but that fact does get lost in the production. Anyway, the audience has certainly learned their lesson by the time the play brings us to Joseph Smith digging up the plates at Moroni’s instruction. And with that, we are dismissed. Just like that!
So that was it. Big production, little direct proselytizing. I think the lack of overt evangelizing comes from the pageant’s pilgrimage nature, most of the audience is already mormon, we were among the few nosey locals showing up. It was generally very interesting, and an excellent snapshot of how strange a religion can seem when you see its inner workings from the outside.