A Non-Believer’s Benediction for Cumorah, and Other Things

Mormonism’s Sci-Fi Swan Song | The Point Magazine

A little less than two weeks ago, the church broadcast a Hill Cumorah Commemorative Devotional, acknowledging that the Hill Cumorah Pageant was no more, and celebrating its legacy. However, for better or worse that commemorative devotional was very much a product of the contemporary church–not the church in which creative, inventive, deeply devout, culturally oblivious, and definitely slightly crazy Mormons came up with the pageant, and kept it going, over the decades. I never saw the Hill Cumorah Pageant live (shout out for the Manti Pageant, however, my personal favorite!). Andrew Kay, a non-Mormon writer and a native of the Hill Cumorah region of New York, did see it however–saw it in 2019, in fact, in what turned out to be its final performance. The essay he has crafted about the experience, and what he has thought about it since–“Mormonism’s Sci-Fi Swan Song“–is the finest essay I have read about our church and our culture in many years. Using the pageant as a lens, Kay sees the American Mormonism that was–but isn’t so much anymore–whole: devout, campy, decent, rich, insular, plainspoken, charitable, practical, kind of racist, kind of sexist, and really very weird. It is a deeply compassionate essay, one that captures the vagaries of a genuine, comprehensive belief in a society where belief is mostly compartmentalized into discreet boxes for the sake of the believer and the non-believer alike. Here’s a taste:

I looked out across the landscape to the road below, where an SUV drove by, and imagined the driver sipping a coffee and glancing up at us innocently and then spraying the coffee. The road was Route 21, which I’d lived off of growing up. Then I glanced back at Jesus, encircled by players who, by tomorrow, would be dressed in the Native costumes I’d seen earlier. I felt full-force the scene’s terrible ambiguity. You could have called it, rightly, a disturbing symbolic drama in which a white Jesus literally descended to dispense wisdom and salvation to Indigenous people. In that sense it was the epitome of a colonial mindset that had produced the Indian Removal Act.

At the same time, it was a stunning piece of outdoor religious theater: ordinary people were acting out ultimate things amid gnats, birds, trees—and doing so despite a wider culture that had mostly abandoned outdoor theater and, increasingly, ultimate things. They were ushering in a new reality: the scene’s title meant not just the premodern Americas but life now, made annually novel, alive with ghostly energy, by this hillside ritual. It was a defibrillator to the heart of an old and disenchanted world.

Anyway, if you’re Mormon, or ever were, or ever knew any of us, or ever just wondered why thousands of people flocked to western New York once a year for decades (but never will again), find a half-hour, and read this. I have no idea if you’ll love it or hate it, but it’ll make you think, that’s for sure. And in the meantime: consider this an open thread on the Hill Cumorah Pageant. It’d be great to hear from those who actually performed in it, but whatever your thoughts, free free to share them here.

Comments

  1. dclorenzen says:

    I have never been to an LDS pageant, but had a tendency to cringe at them from afar. But this one line here – about it representing a part of a prior, enchanted world, hit hard. I definitely think we need more enchantment, and see this now as the loss it is.

  2. Josh Doying says:

    I was in the cast twice as a youth (one time back when Nephite soldiers we’re still costumed like centurions) and recognized how campy it was, while at the same time marveling that they gave the whole thing to us (a bunch of volunteer amateurs) to figure out how to perform. I had a lot of fun, made friends, felt the spirit. Feels like a pretty good analogy for church/life.

    I especially remember one of the dance directors who lead us to choreograph one of the war scenes, dance his testimony to us before our first performance. It was (to me) a unique way to express and understand the spirit that isn’t present in many other areas of the current church.

    Also, as a member of the church on the east coast, pageant was somewhere we could go and gather as a community. There was a long time where it was (even at a 6hr drive) closer than the nearest temple.

  3. Villate says:

    I was a missionary in the New York Rochester Mission in the mid-90s and spent a fair amount of time taking investigators to the historical sites in Palmyra. The second half of June and most of July were always dedicated to Pageant-related missionary work, which I enjoyed because people tended to be much more interested in seeing an outdoor play than in learning about LDS views on lifestyle and God. I got to see the Pageant once as a missionary (we were able to take the day off from proselyting so as not to detract from the cast) and again a couple of times when I lived in New York in the 2010s. As a missionary, I got dozens of referrals from attendees, some of whom participated in discussions and a few of whom were baptized as a result. One of the most devout members I met on my mission was introduced to the Church through the Pageant. I recognized how cheesy and emotionally manipulative it was (I was less aware of the appropriation aspects back then), but there was undeniably a power in the experience of seeing it. Just being there with so many members and interested non-members was very emotional and satisfying. I’m not a fan of the style of music featured in the soundtrack, but it still gives me chills. I was very sad when the announcement was made that it would no longer be held.

  4. I grew up about an hour from Palmyra and went to the Hill Cumorah Pageant each year — it really was, as Josh said, a place to find spectacular community. It was a massive source of local pride — local members told *everyone* about it and even brought friends (way more than to, say branch Christmas or Halloween parties). People also made plans to go on the same day as friends from neighboring stakes (who lived an hour or two away) and to visit the various church history sites before the pageant started at sunset. You could feel *just a little* smug that condescending people from Utah traveled to where you lived, and walk through the protestors afterward to get to your car with the solidarity of your friends and the novelty of a community around you. And — and! — you could eat the best salt potatoes in the world. It was a modern festival; a full day of immersing yourself in all parts of (what was then) Mormonism — the people, the historical sites, the culture, the faith — a day to just live fully in the part of yourself that was Mormon, without any real need to explain, downplay, or code-switch that identity — before heading back to your real world.

    Of course it was a bit ridiculous. But, at least for me, it made me stop and reflect on what gave the ridiculousness life. I wouldn’t say it strengthened my testimony, exactly, but it certainly made me think about it. As a teenager, every year I saw the actor playing Jesus descend to a crowd of actors who were actually my neighbors, and got smacked over the head with a reflection on the incarnation of Christ, the intimacy and universality of his ministry (although as a teenager, I probably wouldn’t have used those words). Every year it affected me. The Book of Mormon could sometimes feel rote, scenic, and blase from being referenced but never imagined, read but never enlivened. Except at Pageant.

    It was at Pageant — ironically, nine years ago today — that my husband and I started officially dating; it’s unfortunate our children can never experience what it was. My sister actually cried when she heard the news; it was an even bigger part of her childhood than it was of mine.

    I think it’s a major loss, especially for local members — a loss for its role as a community gathering-place, a loss for its gifts of solidarity and identity, a loss for its weirdness, a loss for its multi-sensory experience of church, a loss for its earnest innocence, and — and! — a loss for its salt potatoes.

  5. kamschron says:

    The Spanish-language version of the Christ in America filmstrip from 1975, but not the English version, used a lot of music from the 1957 Crawford Gates music for the Hill Cumorah Pageant. I always liked to hear that music when I was a missionary, and I had often listened to it earlier, playing a vinyl record of the Crawford Gates Symphony No. 2. I was glad to learn that Gates had been asked to compose the new music for the 1988 version of the pageant, and I look forward to finally seeing the new two-decades-old new pageant.

  6. If local members started it, why wouldn’t the church hand the reigns back to the locals?

  7. I saw the pageant several times as a child, driving with my family from New Jersey. I found the scene where Christ descends from the blackness, both frightening and inspiring. We took our children twice, driving from Boston, and I found the pageant itself less inspiring as an adult, but was more aware and impressed with the time and effort the entire production must have taken. In other words, it was the hard work and effort of the people in it that I found inspiring as an adult. I’m sad to see it end but actually it’s kind of amazing it continued as long as it did.

  8. Wow, what a read. A very interesting perspective from a “none”/atheist who was raised by hippies as an atheist. If religionists are to convert atheists, it isn’t through Mormonism. Honestly, the religion, or at least the proselytizing narrative of it, is designed to convert Christians from other denominations; people who already believe in spiritual and supernatural phenomena. Mormonism takes it a step further. Don’t just believe that Jesus resurrected and was born of a virgin, also believe that the Jesus walked and spoke among ancient Americans and his crucifixion caused massive natural disasters throughout the Americas. Mormonism doesn’t stand a chance against skeptical nones.

  9. Bro. B. says:

    Interesting perspectives. I never saw the Hill Cumorah Pagaent. But my family had the privilege of being in the Nauvoo Pageant. In is captivating experience. I hate to see it go but I understand. If there’s any doubt that the world still has an appetite for pageants, consider the Olympics. You can’t have the games without the spectacle of the opening and closing ceremonies. They do a much better job than the Church pageants of honoring indigenous peoples. I suspect that soon we’ll be seeing changes to the Pioneer Day Days of 47 Parade here in Utah, which could be a good thing. I just hope it doesn’t go away altogether., or we’ll be missing another piece of our unique culture.

  10. I’ll admit rolling my eyes at his occasional historical illiteracy — there are thousands, if not millions, of folks who perform exorcisms *now*, in the age of not only the fax machine but also of the internet and the Large Hadron Collider, and pre-modern enchantment never vanished from the world, just from his heritage — but some things got me, including these:

    ‘In order for people to abandon their self-interest and commit to a grand cause, writes Jane Bennett in The Enchantment of Modern Life, something has to happen to their aesthetic being—that part of them that is sensory and emotional. They have to fall in love. “One must be enamored with existence,” she writes, “to be capable of donating some of one’s scarce mortal resources to the service of others.” Put baldly, “You have to love life before you can care about anything.” Enchantment turns out to be the precondition for committed political life together—a way of charming people toward self-transcendence with a vision of existence that pulses with animacy and purpose. Ethical codes are stillborn without such visions; they can’t catch unless people are inflamed by some story of their lives capable of drawing from them, again and again, virtuous performances.’

    ‘It had always borne the seeds of sci-fi, the Christian story—an otherworldly emissary, the logos incarnate, sent here on an errand to save us…’

    And, of course, the ending.

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