LONSBERRY: Save The Hill Cumorah Pageant

I’m not writing this as a Mormon.

I’m writing it as a Rochesterian.

Not that I’m a very good Mormon, or a fair example of the breed, but it is where I go on Sunday mornings.

This column, on the other hand, is about where I go on weekday mornings.

On weekday mornings, I go to work, with an obligation to the people of a chunk of upstate New York – and to my employers – to give honest commentary on the news of the day.

And so, in that vein, I’d like to talk about the announcement by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints that it is, after 81 years, going to cancel the Hill Cumorah Pageant.

It is a horrendous decision that destroys a positive tradition for Mormons and non-Mormons alike, betrays the region that gave the church its birth, and benefits no one but the headquarters of the church, which will save itself however much it set aside each year to pay for the pageant.

Way back in the Depression, when Mormons were even rarer in the Rochester region than they are now, some missionaries and members put on a little play at the base of a drumlin they called the Hill Cumorah, claiming it was an important site in their church’s history. That play – the pageant – has continued to the present. But over the weekend we learned that after the 2020 production, it will be shut down.

The Hill Cumorah will be scrubbed of its staging, parking lot, buildings and – quite possibly – the statue of an angel named Moroni that has graced its top for most of a hundred years, and the hill will be restored to its “natural” state.

And the pageant, with its influx of tens of thousands of people, come for an annual tradition in Palmyra, will be no more.

The church says this is because of a re-emphasis it is placing on encouraging Mormon families to be together at home, and because it wants to focus all its efforts on proclaiming Christ.

This doesn’t seem credible.

I’ve attended the Hill Cumorah Pageant over a period of more than 40 years, and the people in the cast and in the audience are overwhelmingly there as families, and the historic and official name of the pageant is America’s Witness for Christ.

The reason sounds like an excuse.

Perhaps the real reason is money, perhaps it is part of the church’s refocused emphasis on Mormons who live outside the United States. Perhaps the church is tired of the responsibility and hassle.

I have no idea.

But I know it’s a bad call.

I would say that if it was your church, and it’s no different just because it’s my church.

The pageant has gone through ebbs and flows over its decades, and certainly now is not one of its healthier times. Attendance seems to be down significantly – as evidenced by people in seats and milling around on Main Street in Palmyra – and there’s not a lot of enthusiasm in the greater community for actually going and seeing the play.

Organizers are to blame for that, as they have allowed the pageant to stiffen into a presentation that has little appeal to contemporary Americans. The storyline is almost impenetrable, and there is little entertainment value.

What Mormons call reverent, everybody else calls dull, and the current script – which was mediocre on its best day – has been stripped of most of its dramatic appeal by a series of directors and leaders who seem every few years to mark their turf by removing from the presentation its vestigial engaging aspects.

The destruction scene used to look like a destruction scene, dancers used to look like dancers, a ship in a storm used to look like a ship in a storm, playing children used to look like playing children, and the depiction of the Second Coming of Jesus Christ used to have the audience collectively gasp in awe.

But not so much anymore.

And audiences have fallen off as a result, bringing a change in the focus of the pageant. Initially, it was meant to teach non-Mormons about the beliefs of the church, and invite them to know more. Three generations of Mormon converts in the region largely had their origin in the audience at the Hill Cumorah Pageant. But in this day, the pageant is mostly for Mormons themselves, coming from across the country and world, on something of a family pilgrimage.

And that is worthwhile.

That builds their faith, energizes the local community and economy, and continues the tradition of the pageant.

Those are good things, and worthy of preservation.

But instead of fixing the pageant, the church is ending it.

And this departure will seem like an abandonment, and it will continue a string of seemingly weak church decisions surrounding its historic properties in the Palmyra area.  

The gutting and rebuilding of the Joseph Smith Home several years ago took an actual historic structure – with almost 150 years of Mormon history in it – and replaced it with a speculative building with some original parts, but most of its heritage stripped away. Meant to be faith promoting, the re-do never would have passed muster with any sort of historical preservation board or standard. It’s nice, but it’s not real. It’s a little bit like Frontier Town at a theme park.

Ditto for the Grandin Building in downtown Palmyra. The actual building was taken down – I watched with broken heart as the brick edifice was knocked down and trucked away – and a simulation was put up in its place. From the outside, it looks artificial, and I’ve always been amazed that the Palmyra village board let that happen. I tell people that if they ever want to see the building where the Book of Mormon was first printed, they’ll have to come to my house, I’ve got a piece of it in my basement, scavenged for me by a workman who knew of my faith.

And now the pageant is going away and the hill is going to be reimagined.

To recapture how it was on four days spread over four years in the 1820s.

And erase how it was for more than 80 years for successive generations of visiting Mormons and native New Yorkers. To expunge an experience that was shared by millions and which gave identity to a region.

To kill something beautiful and wonderful.

As a Mormon, I’ll go along with it. As a Rochesterian, I say it’s bull crap. And I hope that public officials and Salt Lake church leaders can rethink this decision. Mormon pageants are being allowed to continue in Mesa, Arizona, and Manti, Utah, and it seems like that ought to be doable in Palmyra, New York. This pageant was the first, biggest and best in the church, and shutting it down achieves nothing and hurts much.

And it’s not just a Mormon issue.

It’s a New York issue, and the people of New York get a screwing on this deal.

Beyond that, I have been witness over the years to incredible good that has come from this pageant. I spent my 18th birthday at the Hill Cumorah, as a cast member. My wife and children have been in the cast the last three years, and the experience has been a rich blessing for our children. I have seen friends from every part of my life at the pageant, and taken friends, to show them more about the church I attend. Like countless families, ours has long-standing traditions around the pageant.

And I have one life-changing experience.

The Mormon church is unique in that it believes that the heavens are opened and that God speaks through prophets today. The start of all that involved a young man from Palmyra named Joseph Smith. To truly be a believer in the church, you have to have a witness that Jesus is the son of God and the savior of the world, and that Joseph Smith actually was a prophet. Believing those and other things is called having a “testimony.”

Well, as a teen-ager, I had come to the pageant one early evening, parked in the grassy field across Route 21, and was waiting with the crowd to cross the road. As we stood there, one of the anti-Mormon preachers harangued us, yelling that we were going to hell and breathing out all sorts of crude comments about Joseph Smith and the teachings of the church. We all looked straight forward, ignoring him, like always.

But as I stood there, I started to cry.

And in that moment I knew in my heart that he was wrong. That what he was saying was false. And I knew that Joseph Smith had been telling the truth, and that the Book of Mormon was, like the Bible, true.

Standing there, waiting to cross the road to go to the Hill Cumorah Pageant, I received the spiritual impression that has guided my Christian life since.

Not that I’ve been good at it, or that I’m not a tremendous embarrassment to Rochester Mormons, but to me it was a big deal. And I think that the pageant is a big deal.

And so have generations of Mormon leaders.

My hope is that this generation of Mormon leaders can reexamine this decision and see their way clear to allowing this pageant to continue in some form, as a blessing to Mormons and non-Mormons alike.



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