PLANK AUGUST 3, 2012
As darkness fell on the wooded slopes of the Hill Cumorah on Friday, July 20, hundreds of costumed performers made their way through a crowd of Mormon faithful and a handful of non-Mormon onlookers. They had gathered at the birthplace of the Mormon religion—Mormons believe that Joseph Smith, with the guidance of the Angel Moroni, first found the gold plates of the Book of Mormon buried on the hillside—in order to witness the penultimate performance of the seventy-fifth annual Hill Cumorah Pageant, which consists of scenes from the Mormon scripture, such as “The Resurrected Christ Appears to Ancient Americans.”
The Pageant is a Broadway-style event (last year, a critic compared it to “Spider Man”), with a volunteer cast of 750, a score featuring the Mormon Tabernacle Choir, elaborate lighting, overwrought costumes, and detailed choreography. Every July come Pageant time, an infusion of visitors who outnumber the local population many times over “provides a real shot in the arm for the local economy,” according to Beth Hoad, a longtime dairy farmer and historian of the nearby town of Palmyra, NY, where the Smith family farmhouse is located.
A New York Times headline called this year’s pageant “a Respite from Politics,” implying that any non-political Mormon news story is noteworthy for that reason alone. A Slate article on the pageant focused on the anti-Mormon protestors who regularly attend the event—the only available kernel of political discord—never mentioning that there were fewer than ten such protestors present. Both were representative accounts of what the media has dubbed our country’s “Mormon Moment”—our new era, in which Mitt Romney’s religion has gained new relevance because of his nomination for the presidency.
But the Mormons I met at the Hill and in Palmyra didn’t feel like they were part of any such Moment at all. They didn't feel that their pageant was an instance of political theater, and they didn't see this as an anomaly. As an intra-communal picnic and reunion, the pageant was that rarest of all things in this election year: a chance to see Mormons the way they see themselves.
AFTER NIGHTFALL on the evening of the pageant, attendees filled the six thousand-or-so chairs at the base of the hill and the wide lawn space before, behind, and on either side. A man named Craig Roberts, his wife Julie, and his youngest daughter Bethany, all cast-members, stopped by my folding-chair to hand me a pamphlet and welcome me to the Hill. Craig had grown a full beard—a style disfavored by most Mormons—for his role as an ancient, evil Jerusalemite. “My wife doesn’t like the look,” he told me. She nodded to confirm.
Palpable, contagious anticipation simmered in the crowd. The local LDS Bishop sitting to my right took his young daughter onto his lap. Rock concert lights rose on a wide, multi-terraced stage built into the lower portion of the slope. Imagine: a stage large enough to hold comfortably seven New York Philharmonics, or twenty casts of Wicked.
As a narrator with a low, booming voice—all audio is pre-recorded—began to recount the travails of the prophet Lehi, costumed multitudes began moving across the stage in dazzling crescendos of logistical achievement, and the crowd fell into a reverie that lasted the full seventy minutes. The actual scenes—the prophet Lehi leading his people into the wilderness, ancient Jews building a boat and sailing to the Americas, the various wars between the Nephites and Lamanites preceding and following the coming of Christ to America, and the ministry of Joseph Smith—served as an adequate introduction to the Book of Mormon. The fight scenes were particularly impressive, and worthy of any Shakespeare history. Geysers of fire and competent choreography aside, I found the performance to be surprisingly dull. Witnessing life breathed into the stories with which one grew up is one thing; encountering them as a layperson is another. The script had the non-Mormon in mind throughout, but ultimately, the most enthralled members of the audience were Mormon children.
Despite its missionary ambitions, in practice the pageant is an insular LDS event, and it was unsurprising to discover that the Mormons who attended the spectacle were not closely attuned to outside attention. Hardly anyone at all was eager to discuss the spotlight that Mitt Romney’s campaign has directed towards their religion. “I don’t feel any different as a Mormon now than I did before,” said RJ Mattei, recently returned to Dallas from his mission in Salt Lake City. “But it’s honestly hard to say. It’s totally separate from anything I pay attention to.” Numbers from recent Pew polls do, in fact, suggest that Americans, even as they become more accepting of Mormons, aren’t learning (and aren’t interested in learning) much about Mormon beliefs. In reciprocation, the Mormons I met at the pageant have decided to tune out all of the newfound attention, insisting almost unanimously that they do not feel substantially different about themselves or their place in society now that one of their co-religionists is on the precipice of becoming president.
The morning after the pageant, I visited Palmyra, which was for the most part an ordinary upstate New York town. Almost every store sold live bait, and a smattering of old-fashioned steeples punctuated the flat rooflines along Main Street. Near the town center, attractions included the print shop where the Book of Mormon was first published, and a neighboring LDS bookstore, which offered titles such as Every Man’s Guide to Outdoor Survival, by Dave Martin and Bedtime and Naptime… and Bedtime and Naptime: The Simple Joys of a Mom’s Life, by Hilary Weeks.
On the outskirts, near the Hill, pilgrims thronged the Smith family property. Visitors could enter a replica of the cabin where Joseph Smith was born, and walk through the Sacred Grove, where Mormons believe that Jesus and God the Father appeared to young Joseph in a vision. Beech, birch, maple, and sassafras lined wide paths, and secluded benches along the way offered points to stop for prayer and reflection.
Somewhere in the grove I encountered a Duke Professor named William Noland, who was trying to capture the “mood” of the site for an experimental documentary project. “I expected to find people here with some anger or feeling of aggrievement,” he told me. “What I found is that the Mormons are in a very contented place. Having immersed myself in the Tea Party, which is so contentious, I expected to see here some evidence that an important election is taking place. But these people are more impervious than I could have imagined. And in the pageant, there were many mentions of the dangers of wealth, of the rich oppressing the poor.”
Back in D.C., I called Orson Scott Card, who wrote the script for the pageant. He is best known as the author of Ender’s Game, a science fiction classic about a child prodigy who battles aliens (Mitt Romney’s favorite novel, according to the Washington Post). A devout Mormon, Card rejected the idea that 2012 is a positive time for the LDS Church. “The Romney candidacy is potentially a disaster for the things that matter most for the Church,” he said. “The last thing we need is for people around the world seeing the Church as an instrument of American foreign policy. We have enough trouble as it is getting our missionaries into countries that have bad relationship with America.”
I asked him why the Mormons at the pageant seemed so impervious to politics. “It’s not that we don’t care,” he said. “It’s that we don’t care as Mormons.” In the pageant parking lot, I saw license plates from 33 states, but not a single Romney bumper sticker.
For Mormons, who appear to be comfortable and content with their religion and role in American life, the Mormon Moment, if it exists at all, doesn’t signify any great change.
“Overall, there’s a sense of the Church being on the rise in terms of public awareness, but I’m not sure most Mormons feel any different,” Brent Hanson, artistic director of the Hill Cumorah Pageant, told me. “The interesting thing about the pageant is that you get to see everyday Mormons and what makes us tick.”