“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.

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.

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.”

Norman and Dolly Wright, dressed for the Hill Cumorah Pageant.

Norman and Dolly Wright, dressed for the Hill Cumorah Pageant.

Photo by Max Perry Mueller.

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.

Protesters at the Hill Cumorah Pageant.

Protesters at the Hill Cumorah Pageant.

Photo by Max Perry Mueller.

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?”