The Pageantry of Faith

The Pageantry of Faith

by Hillary Masell Oswald

Image: Hill Cumorah Slideshow - Final

Teenagers focus their thoughts while reading the Book of Mormon on the sacred Hill Cumorah.Click the photo to see a slideshow of the pageant's last night.

PALMYRA, N.Y.—Perhaps the last place you’d expect to find an FBI Special Agent is decked out in costume, acting in a pageant on the side of a hill in upstate New York. But that’s just how Bill Matthews, an agent stationed in Bangkok, spent his summer vacation.

For 14 days in July, Matthews, his wife Jamie and their youngest son Tim, 15, joined about 680 cast members on a 10-level stage in rural Palmyra, N.Y., to reenact scenes from the Book of Mormon.

The performance is known as the Hill Cumorah Pageant—named for this scenic place where members of the LDS Church believe their prophet Joseph Smith, in 1827, found the tablets from which he translated the Book of Mormon.

Formally, the event is called “America’s Witness for Christ,” a name that reveals the pageant’s—and the church’s—evangelistic purpose. Over the course of its seven-night run, about 80,000 people, the vast majority of them Latter-day Saints, come to watch the spectacle.

“We’ve taken family vacations where we’ve gone to Disneyland,” said Matthews, whose family has been a part of the pageant for the last five years. “But we thought this would be a little more meaningful than just going to an amusement park.”

“Pageant” is something of a misnomer, especially if it conjures images of Christmas Eve skits directed by Sunday school teachers. There are no robe-clad children shuffling into church sanctuaries here, no cardboard wings, no rickety nativities with dolls doubling as the baby Jesus.

In short, there is nothing amateur about the show.

Twelve light towers shine Broadway-caliber beams onto the massive stage built onto the side of the hill in Palmyra each summer. A state-of-the-art sound system booms the recorded track into the otherwise quiet night. And Hollywood special effects—explosions, gushing waterfalls, even a Jesus who appears to float from the star-speckled heavens—make clear this pageant is something quite different from what most Americans have witnessed.

And that’s the point.

“There’s a lot of people who don’t believe Mormons are really Christians,” Matthews explained. “So the biggest reason [for the pageant] is to try to publicize to the world that yes, we are Christians and this is a sacred place to us. We let them know that we believe in the Book of Mormon as well as the Bible. We just get the side benefit of being able to come and tell the story that we believe in.”

In many ways, this story requires the grand production. The Book of Mormon—and thus the pageant—begins 600 years before the birth of Jesus Christ. Lehi, a prophet in Jerusalem, warns evil city-dwellers to repent, but they ignore his warnings. God leads Lehi and his family away from the destruction that awaits Jerusalem and, eventually, the faithful build a ship and sail to the Americas, where they prosper.

In the New World, centuries pass, and prophets predict the birth of a Savior, an event marked by a night without darkness, and his death and resurrection, marked by destruction and darkness in the Americas. The Book of Mormon teaches that after the resurrected Christ appeared to his followers in Jerusalem, as depicted in the Bible, he appears to believers in the New World, organizes his church and then ascends into Heaven.

In the pageant’s final scenes, the prophet Mormon abridges the history of his people, writes it on metal plates and asks his son Moroni to hide them, which he does on the Hill Cumorah.

Fast forward about 1,400 years to the pageant’s last scene: Joseph Smith follows the angel Moroni to the side of the hill and digs up the metal plates, which he will translate, publish and use to establish an American home-grown religion that will eventually stretch across the globe.

On a recent July night, as the sun set and the air cooled, the vast “bowl” at the bottom of the hill filled with families who claimed their spots in the perfect rows of chairs set up by volunteers. Costumed cast members milled about, chatting with friends, sharing their faith with non-Mormons, while the local Lions and Rotary clubs sold food—no caffeine, no alcohol—in massive tents nearby.

Mike Kesler, from Glens Falls, N.Y., comes to the pageant every year. He met his wife when they were cast members in 1979, and this year, he brought 11 family members—including his six children—and eight family friends from church.

“There’s a special spirit here,” Kesler, 46, said. “Important historic things happened here. It’s similar to, but better than, the feeling you get at the Lincoln or Jefferson memorials.”

The Kesler family spent part of their day at Palmyra’s LDS temple, performing baptisms for the dead. Mormons believe these ceremonies, usually performed on behalf of a saint’s ancestors, give the deceased person a choice in the afterlife to follow Christ and enter his kingdom.

While his mom went to buy pizza at the concession stand, 9-year-old Daniel Kesler collected autographs from the costumed cast members on a printed picture of Jesus, a gift to all pageant attendees. “Wicked cool” was how Daniel described the pageant.

“I look forward to it every year,” the boy said. “I like all the special effects stuff, like the dreams when it’s all sparkly,” he added, referring to a dream sequence that takes place behind a sheer wall of shimmering water, in which God calls the prophet Lehi to leave Jerusalem.

But not everyone is as pleased. Every year, the pageant draws a small contingent of Christians who challenge the LDS’s claim that it is a Christian church. These protestors pace the quaint streets of downtown Palmyra with pamphlets and set up tents on the strip of public land near Hill Cumorah in hopes of catching pageant-goers’ attention.

Tom Jones stood in one of these tents, wearing a bright yellow T-shirt that advertises a website: Jones, the president of Christian Research and Counsel, a St. Petersburg, Fla.-based organization that highlights the differences between Mormon theology and orthodox Christian beliefs, objects to what he sees as the LDS church’s lack of candor about its true doctrine.

“The reason we’re here is because those people will hear a Christian-sounding message, but without an understanding of what they’re actually hearing,” Jones said. “Every Christian term that you’ll hear in the pageant … has been redefined.”

He offers this example: “When our Mormon friends say, ‘We believe in God the Father,’ that’s a Christian term. It means the only true God who has always existed as God,” explained Jones, whose Mormon wife of 25 years opposes his appearance at the pageant. “But what that means to the Latter-day Saints is very different.”

Jones is referring to a radical divide between the LDS church and the traditional Judeo-Christian belief: the question of where God comes from. The LDS church teaches that God was once a mortal man with a real body who became God; followers of the LDS church too can eventually become gods through processes of purification.

“Our hope is that people simply will read the literature and understand that Mormonism is a different religion from Christianity,” Jones said. “If someone wants to understand Mormonism and join it, I don’t have a beef with that.”

Just hours later, as the character playing Jesus descended to the stage packed with New World disciples, members of the audience murmured their amazement. Somewhere on stage, FBI agent Matthews acted out his faith. The pageant avoids many of the contentious theological questions that divide the LDS church from traditional Christian churches. For LDS members, it’s a simple faith-building experience, and for the audience, it would seem, it’s at the least one impressive show.

“We just hope that the story reaches people,” Matthews said. “The pageant is not for the people who are in it, not primarily, but for us, it’s a phenomenal spiritual experience in a sacred place.”