All photos by Daniel Arnold unless otherwise noted
The word Mormonism typically brings to mind the church’s gothic headquarters in Salt Lake City, the tract housing and Humvees of Big Love or a pair of boys dressed in twin suits seen through the peephole of a front door. But the faith got its humble start in Upstate New York and the Hill Cumorah Pageant, which takes place annually in the village of Palmyra, is still one of the largest gatherings of Latter-day Saints in the country. For a week and a half each July, the seeds of Mormonism spread and germinate among a nightly crowd of nearly 8,000 people in the small town, 24 miles east of Rochester. It’s free and open to non-Mormons like me, who are, as they say, “ready to receive”.
The actual Hill Cumorah bears similar traits to Israel's Wailing Wall as a spiritual and historical pilgrimage site. According to Mormon history, in 1823 the angel Moroni directed Joseph Smith to the grassy slope to search for buried golden tablets that contained the tenets of Mormonism. Smith, guided by a couple of rocks that he referred to as seer stones, translated the tablets into English and released the text as the Book of Mormon. “Pageant”, as regular attendees refer to the festival, is a 75-minute dramatic revival of scenes from the Book held outdoors at the base of the Hill Cumorah. “Pageant” is also a demure word for the event, which to the average spectator looks like 650 war reenactors dodging fireballs and flashfloods in a Michael Bay blockbuster. At one point in the performance the body of a murdered prophet is rolled off a ten-foot drop, never to be seen again.
Photo via Wikimedia Commons
This general apocalyptic vibe is the creation of author Orson Scott Card, most famously known for the sci-fi doomsday novel Ender's Game. His script is pre-recorded and mixed with triumphant music and booms over the audience. Waves of actors, mostly children dressed as Bedouins, pour over the multi-tiered stage, gesticulating and lip-syncing to the narration. Pyrotechnics burn prophets at the stake, water mists in a halo around a sacred tree and Jesus seemingly descends from a grove of alders. But despite the epic battles depicted onstage, the crowd was anything but violent. Instead it felt like a big Mormon tailgate, complete with uncaffeinated drinks and salt potatoes. As the mechanic at the Firestone selling me a new wiper blade the next day would remark of the event, “There’s something for everyone!”
Most participants in Pageant have been called here through prayer. They arrive at the Hill Cumorah a mere week before the first performance. Eight hundred Mormons, complete strangers to one another, receive their roles and rehearse for just seven days before opening night. Their time off work and away from their daily lives culminates in 230,000 hours of collective missionary service. Those who don’t have an active role in the production come in caravans as a sort of pilgrimage to see the famous Mormon sites, like Joseph Smith’s cabin, and to receive messages every night at the performances. One older couple, the Cleggs, had seen the show nearly 90 times and even acted in it themselves. A high point was sharing a scene together with all five of their sons. “It’s been life-changing for us,” Elder Clegg, who reminded me of Coach Taylor from Friday Night Lights, said before pausing to fight back tears, overwhelmed by the atmosphere of thousands of believers called to gather.
Preceding the performance, an army of very confident children, clad in their costumes, roamed the grounds. They worked in pairs, carrying their Books of Mormon and pamphlets, striking up friendly banter with other kids who weren’t lucky enough to be actors in the show. Their colourful skirts and headdresses put them in an enviable position, and they used this allure to recruit would-be peers in the audience for future Pageants. As I waited for the event to start, multiple sets of the child actors approached me. Eerily mature, they spoke about going on missions and the joys of participating in Pageant. Two enterprising boys who looked like Roman warriors approached me and asked whether I was familiar with the Book of Mormon. One acknowledged that he loved Pageant, but lamented that it took him away from Idaho, where he went to high school and ran a nonprofit, a summer camp for local children. Home commitments aside, for most of these kids Pageant seemed like a reprieve from the motivated and ambitious lives of Mormon teenagers, like a really fun summer camp where you get to dress up and run around with spears all day.
A lot of what I've decribed so far might make Hill Cumorah sound like some sort of testosterone-fuelled cosplay convention, but Pageant is nuanced and detailed and casts plenty of young women alongside the men. At one point I looked up from my seat to see a gorgeous almond-eyed girl, Rachel, wearing a headscarf and bangles standing next to me. “May I read you my favorite quote from the Book of Mormon?” she asked. The self-possessed teenager was raw and rather intimidating. She subverted my expectations the way I’ve seen David Blaine do with his Street Magic: “You think X, but let me tell you, X is an illusion.” Rachel was playing the role of an Unbeliever, a skeptic of the Book of Mormon. She felt the role suited her because just months before, as a freshman at Brigham Young University, she had fallen out of love with Mormonism. Throughout the previous year she had teetered on the verge of leaving the church, unsure of Christ’s existence because negative things were happening in the world at such a mind-boggling clip. But now Mormonism was back in her good graces, some sea change in her belief system having occurred. Perhaps she was discovering, as I had around her age, that when it comes to believing, the path of least resistance is skepticism rather than sincerity.
When I was 13, a soft-spoken pastor with one eye that rolled unmoored in its socket backed me into a spiritual corner at a youth-group retreat. He posed a hypothetical scenario to me: If we all died that very night, everyone would go to heaven except for me, because I hadn’t accepted Jesus Christ into my heart. Unlike the other kids on the retreat, I was on a path to eternal hellfire. The old man spooked me enough that I became a Christian for exactly two months, until I discovered weed. But as I spoke with Rachel and the other teens at Hill Cumorah, I wondered: What if the person proselytising to me had been another kid my age? The army of Bedouin children was genius! They weren’t there to speak with people like me; they were there for the other kids, to perpetuate the believers rather than convert them. It was like being a freshman in high school at the activity fair and drooling over the cheerleading booth.
Photo via Flickr user Seabamirum
As the sun set, horns trumpeting over the loudspeaker marked the start of Pageant. The Latter-day Saints in Israel were taking a boat across the Atlantic Ocean to come to America where Mormonism could prosper freely. On stage, a sail attached to a giant mast was erected and then shredded by the force of some special effect supposed to indicate wind. I watched the herds of child warriors in their element, throwing rocks and sticks at one another. The kids, in roles taken seriously, were having the time of their lives. Another army of children, whose chance to participate in Pageant still awaited them in the future, watched from the audience, ready to receive.
More on Mormons: