I was sitting in my car in a parking lot in Palmyra, New York, listening to a man shout accusations against Mormons into a megaphone. The man had been shouting for hours, from the late afternoon all the way into the evening, because of the Hill Cumorah Pageant, a production put on every year by the Church of Jesus of Latter-Day Saints. The Mormon Church's annual pageant is a big, flashy spectacle complete with pyrotechnics and dramatic fight scenes. And every year, the LDS followers gathered inside are matched in vigor by the anti-Mormons outside, many of them evangelical Christians, trying almost as hard to convince people that Mormonism is a lie.
I heard the man with the megaphone shout, "Why would God appear to a perverted farm boy? A man who translated a book through a peep-stone? A man who, before he was 37, married 40 wives?"
I leaned forward, suddenly alert. Buried in his hate speech, the man with the megaphone had hit on a nugget of truth, a controversy that is quietly rippling through Mormonism. I got out of my car and headed towards him.
I know the Hill Cumorah Pageant well, because I was once an insider. I was raised in a Mormon family, and I went through all the rites of passage, striving to believe and to be a good person according to the tenets of Mormonism, only to have my faith crumble as a teenager. I ended up leaving Mormonism, although with my family still practicing, I can never be entirely free of its influence.
I came back to the pageant for a specific reason: I was searching for the memories of fear that shaped my upbringing. As a young child, I used to come here with my family. We'd spread blankets on the grass and I'd watch, transfixed, as the Book of Mormon stories I learned about in primary school came alive before my eyes. Then, as the pageant died down and we trailed our way back to the car, our feet trampling the grass beneath us, we'd pass some blank-faced people holding up pieces of paper. My father warned us in the strongest of terms never to take any.
As we walked past these people, I always looked sideways in fear. These were the "anti-Mormons" I had heard so much about. I knew, without even needing to look, that those papers contained nothing but the vilest of lies, full of Satan's trickery designed to lead us away from the one true church.
When I left Mormonism, I had to confront the fact that I had become the person that I once feared, that my family and friends still feared. The one inviolable belief of my upbringing was that "The Church Is True"—a phrase we repeated constantly and organized our attitudes, thoughts, and actions around. And so, if a member ever left like I did, it could only be because they were full of pride, or deluded by Satan, or wanting to sin. After I left, people probed at my individual circumstances, asking questions until they found whatever evidence they needed to place me into one of those neat categories.
It's obvious that I don't fit in anymore. When I first drove into the parking lot of the visitors' center next to the Hill Cumorah, the attendant on duty took one look at my sleeveless shirt, the coffee cup in my car (coffee is forbidden in the LDS), before gently explaining to me the religious nature of the nearby sites. When I talked to the performers who were milling around interacting with the audience, they too assumed that I was a curious non-member. I let them think this. After all, my outfit was a deliberate choice; one that clearly signaled the fact that I was not wearing the undergarments—the magic Mormon underwear, the Jesus jammies—that faithful Mormon adults are supposed to wear.
When asked if I'd been to the pageant before or if I knew about the Mormon religion, I said no, because I didn't want to go through the pain of explaining that I'd left the church long ago. Performers dressed in colorful costumes pressed religious pamphlets into my hands. Two missionaries, dressed in long flowing dresses and sporting black nametags, gave me a Book of Mormon, bearing a teary-eyed testimony that this was the true church.
I didn't like this dishonesty, but I knew it was necessary: I can no longer fake being a Mormon and I know, from years of experience, that the truth of my Mormon background will only invite pain. To be a non-Mormon is one thing—you still have time to discover the one true church—but to be an ex-Mormon means that you already found the one true church and rejected it.
I found a chair and sat down, looking at the crowd of people at the pageant, about a third of whom were costumed performers. With 650 performers, all of whom were volunteers, they seemed almost as numerous as the audience. The performers were all dressed in a weird mixture of ancient Jewish and Native American attire. They were supposed to represent a version of history where American civilization descended from Jews, although the costume designers didn't have much actual history to base their garments on.
I wondered what would happen if I started talking about the controversial aspects of Mormonism—the uncomfortable nuggets of truth that, as a faithful Mormon, I dismissed as Satan's attacks against the Mormon Church. Things like the fact that Joseph Smith, who I was raised to revere as a prophet of God, had a habit of marrying the wives of other men and teenage girls. The fact that the Book of Mormon describes civilizations, supposedly the descendants of settlers from Jerusalem that existed here in the Americas, for which there is no archaeological or genetic evidence. The fact that Joseph Smith wrote multiple conflicting accounts of the First Vision, which is considered the cornerstone of the Mormon religion.
Within the past few years, Mormon leaders have been quietly releasing letters, couched in careful language, that address these uncomfortable facts. These letters strive for plausible deniability, twisting these facts into a message about the trials and tribulations of faith, but the facts are still there. These facts still push at the boundaries of belief. My sense of the controversy, based on the zone of silence that seems to surround these letters, is that most Mormons either don't know about these letters or are making an active effort not to think about them too carefully.
I was wondering what would happen if I started probing, but I also remembered the weird skipping habit that my brain developed as a by-product of growing up as a Mormon—a habit that persisted long after I left the church. This mental skipping caused me to dismiss out of hand most of the weird rumors I heard from outsiders.
What could outsiders possibly know about Mormonism that I didn't? I dismissed the mention of secret handshakes as myth. (That's actually true—I just never went through the temple ceremony, so I never learned the handshake.) I vehemently denied the crazy-talk about blood oaths. (Unfortunately, that was also a part of the temple ceremony, at least up until 1990.) When I first read Jon Krakauer's book Under The Banner of Heaven, I skipped over the history section, completely missing the mention of Joseph Smith's polygamy and the doctrinal basis of polygamy. When I saw the South Park episode about the Mormons, I thought the scene of Joseph Smith putting his face into a hat to translate the Book of Mormon was an over-the-top parody. (Nope—also true.)
And so, sitting at the pageant, I tried to reconcile these two parts of me: the part that knew the truth, the part with logic; and the part that had spent so many years clinging to my unwavering faith. I was reminded of this when a middle-aged married couple from Utah, who came over to talk to me. The husband was wearing a yellow headdress and fake beard, while the wife was wearing a red turban with tinkling metal charms hanging around her forehead, which I guess is what passed for the fashion of the Jews-who-created-ancient-civilizations-in-the-Americas.
"Do you know much about the Book of Mormon?" she asked me.
"Most of what I know about Mormons comes from South Park," I replied, smiling with what I hoped was charming sheepishness.
Their faces were blank. Then recognition dawned on Jeff's face.
"Oh, the cartoon," the husband said. "Don't worry, we're not offended." His words sounded a little slow and carefully cheerful.
And once again, I retreated. I've been down this road a hundred times before. I could push. I could make South Park jokes and be my usual profane self, but the truth is that I wasn't there to argue or offend. The conversation moved on. I listened politely, trying to keep a smile on my face as they explained the Book of Mormon stories that I already knew so well. Lara told me that when I watched the pageant, I should listen to my feelings. She compared listening to the Holy Ghost to a conducting a science experiment.
"It's a test," she said, "like when you're testing…" and she fumbled for the correct words.
"Like when you test a hypothesis?" I asked. I remembered telling another performer about my training as a scientist. Jeff and Lara had probably been told that the blonde woman sitting alone was a curious non-member with a background in science. But Jeff and Lara still seemed like nice people, even if it their efforts were suspicious.
These were the people of my childhood. I know them, I understand them, and I love them, even though I am no longer one of them.
And then, as the sun set and the sky deepened into dark, the hill came alive with the light and noise of the pageant. This was the same pageant of my childhood, with the script and the props almost an exact match for my memories. The gray stage set, which in the daylight looked odd pressed up against the steep hill, turned into an old-fashioned Biblical city, lit with a number of colorful lights. The costumed performers who had been wandering around earlier trying to convert me crowded the stage.
The story played in the pageant was a re-enactment of the Book of Mormon. The actor-version of Mormon prophet Lehi, who in real life was an actuary, shouted hellfire and damnation to a skeptical Jerusalem. Then he left Jerusalem, traveling with his family by boat to the Americas. Once in the America's, Lehi's children split into the factions, into the "good" Nephites and the "bad" Lamanites. More prophets came, all sounding, as Lehi did, like crotchety old men shouting eternal damnation into the empty air. Jesus made an appearance, along with a bunch of trumpeted angels. The performers reenacted huge battles, their metal swords flashing against the colorful lights of the pageant. And then the pageant ended with one last battle, with a prophet burying a record of their people into the Hill Cumorah, with the final scene ending in Joseph Smith digging up this record and translating it.
The story was all black-and-white—the bad people all bad, the good people all good. The noise and color was over-the-top: the director must have been obsessed with pyrotechnics, as flames leaped up on the stage for any excuse. Flames backlit Jesus on the cross and jumped up as Lehi preached hellfire and damnation. The contrarian in me started to root for the "bad" people, as the "good" people were just too pompous, their prophets angry and querulous.
Which brings me back to sitting in my car, after the noise and pomp of the pageant had ended, I found myself listening to the man with a megaphone shout accusations against the Mormons. There was that nugget of truth—Joseph translated the Book of Mormon from a hat, Joseph and his many wives—that as a Mormon, I had learned to dismiss unequivocally. When I was a Mormon, there were no gray areas.
I got out of the car and approached the protesters. By now, the man with the megaphone had gone quiet and was speaking to another man, so I started talking to the kid next to him. This kid was sturdy-looking and blonde, and looked far too old for his age, which I estimated to be about 12 or 13. I started asking him about why he was here. He told me he was home-schooled and that he traveled around the country with his family, picketing events. As he pointed towards the white van his family traveled in, my heart broke. He was too young: just as I had once been afraid of him, he was now learning to fear me.
Then a woman came over, who seemed to be the kid's mother. She introduced herself as Stephanie.
"You a Mormon?" she asked.
"No," I said, honestly. I told her I was a writer, that I had cousins who lived nearby, that I wanted to write about the pageant—all true. But when she started probing about my beliefs, I started evading her questions. Just as the Mormons would have been offended by my former Mormon status, I figured Stephanie, a devoted Christian, would be offended by my agnosticism.
When I told Stephanie that I'd been following the controversy about Mormon history, her response was sharp and immediate.
"You be careful," she told me, gesturing with her hands. "I don't know what it is but there's something compelling about the Mormons."
And there it was: the fear, which had also been my own fear for a long time. Inside Mormonism, I had been afraid of the outside world. Outside Mormonism, my fear turned into nightmares where I returned to church. Even though I never had the personality or temperament for Mormonism, I was still heartbroken when I realized that I would never fit in again. And so, for years after leaving, I was afraid of the possibility that I might feel compelled to force myself back into the painfully narrow mold expected of me.
As I look around at the Christian activists, their voices slowly cracking from a long night of yelling, and at the detritus of a pageant based on simplistic stories that have no basis in physical reality, I felt completely foreign. So I returned to my car and left, my headlights sweeping past the crowds, and drove back to the life of gray areas I'd created for myself.
Thumbnail photo of the Hill Cumorah Pageant by Krishna Kumar.
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