A pair of young Israelites stand near the popcorn stand, posing for photos. One wears the bejeweled breastplate of an Israelite priest and the other has carefully wrapped a multicolored cloth around his head, tucking a feather into the folds of his turban. They drape their arms around each other’s shoulders and smile for the camera.
“When the sun sets,” a loudspeaker calls, “the Pageant will begin. Welcome to America’s Witness for Christ.”
I’ve come to upstate New York, south of Lake Ontario, to see the Hill Cumorah Pageant, an annual reenactment of the Mormons’ origin story that has been held here since the 1930s.
Hundreds of years before the birth of Christ, the Book of Mormon teaches, Israelites settles in ancient America. After Jesus Christ’s crucifixion, the Book of Mormon teaches, Christ came to the long-forgotten Israelite tribes living in the Americas, announcing himself as “the one the prophets said would come.”
The hill where we are congregating is a sacred site for Mormons because tradition teaches that this is where the original Book of Mormon, inscribed on golden tablets in an Egyptian language, forgotten for over a thousand years, was unearthed.
More than 30,000 Mormons convene here every summer to retell this story. The cast, which numbers around 700, don outfits meant to resemble the Israelites of Mormon lore. The scene looks like an amalgamation of time periods and civilizations, like history collapsed on itself: Mayan, Aztec, Olmec, Hebrew, a dash of Vikings.
I wander through the crowd, speaking with performers and visitors. One family is laying out a blanket just steps away from the staging, a massive multi-story design set into the hillside, adorned in Mayan-style glyphs. They want to get a front row seat, they say, while balancing lemonade and cheeseburgers for dinner.
A man dressed as the wicked Nephite monarch of Mormon legend, King Noah, gives me a theatrical scowl when I take his photo. “I’m the bad king,” he says and twirls his fingers, showing flashy golden jewelry. “The outfit is supposed to symbolize my pride.”
In the 19th century, fiery revivals were once so common in this region that that the area was called the Burned-Over District. The region, “is about the size of Palestine,” the historian Morris Bishop observed in 1941, “and like Palestine has been fecund of faiths and heresies.”
For decades, Western New York was full of prophets. And Joseph Smith was among them.
Starting in 1820, a teenage Smith was visited by a series of heavenly figures, including God, Jesus Christ, and an Israelite angel named Moroni, tradition teaches.
Moroni led Smith to Cumorah, the story goes, where he unearthed a set of tablets made of gold. On them was a record of America’s Israelites, forgotten prophets of the new Promised Land, which had laid buried in the hills of New York. Smith alone could make sense of the tablets, the story goes, which were written in a form of Egyptian.
Smith’s book, “translated and transcribed” in 1830, was derided as fantasy, but it also managed to sway a handful of early converts.
His ideas turned out to be so provocative that he and his followers were chased out of New York, and through many states, before Smith was eventually killed by a mob in Illinois.
Today, there are millions of Mormons. But Smith and his spiritual ancestors still have their critics. Near the parking lot at the pageant, Christian protesters stand on the road outside. “WhatMormonsDontTellYou.com,” reads one sign. “Joseph Smith was a liar!” one man shouts. “Mormonism is not Christianity!”
The show begins at sundown. But before that, I want to visit the nearby family home of the Smiths.
The structure has been reconstructed and smells like new wood. Inside, a missionary named Sister Akeny greets me and a French-speaking family of Mormons from Quebec who push a baby in a stroller.
The farmhouse is restored to look like what it may have looked like in Smith’s time. Cast iron pots lay on the hearth, a meal of plastic vegetables is laid out for a family.
“Joseph Smith didn’t know what religion to follow, there were religions popping up everywhere. None of the world’s religions were true, they all had bits and pieces, and he was going to restore them. So he asked God to show him,” Akeny says.
Behind the Smith home is another pilgrimage site, the Sacred Grove, where Smith met with Jesus Christ and God at age 14. He was told to not join any of the existing Christian sects, which were not honoring the fullness of the Gospel. “When I came to myself again,” Smith wrote, “I found myself laying on my back looking into heaven.”
I ask the French couple if they consider this land sacred. The husband pauses and says, yes, it is, but that there are many sacred places.
Horseflies buzz around us as we walk deeper into the woods. “God visited Joseph Smith in these woods, but God has visited many men in many places and some of these prophets we still don’t know about,” the husband reflects.
The sun is beginning to set and the shadows are deepening in the fields behind the Smith family farm. I head back to the pageant.
After sunset, the show begins. The lights dim, and the seats creak in the quiet.
For the next hour, we watch an abridged version of the Book of Mormon, starting in Jerusalem, hundreds of years before Jesus’ birth, and ending in the 1800s. The gestures are large, hundreds of people filing on stage, a mass of Israelites looking for their Promised Land.
Groups of Israelites arrive in America by boat and live here for generations, the play shows. Cities rise and fall; prophets emerge and teach the word of God. Some Israelites, like King Noah with his golden rings, spurn the word of God; others remain faithful.
Back in Jerusalem, Jesus Christ is crucified. After his resurrection, he appears to his distant children on the other side of the Atlantic Ocean.
Before Christ makes his appearance, the voice of God calls from heaven. The sound “did pierce them to the very soul,” the Book of Mormon reads, “and did cause their hearts to burn.”
When Jesus appears on stage, descending from the sky in bright white, the crowd stirs. Cellphone cameras glow through the rows. Prophets walked these roads and highways; the Messiah was not in some faraway land, but in our backyards.
“For ages the voices of these ancient American prophets lay forgotten in the dust.” A voice from a loudspeaker rolls over the crowd. “The world will now know that there lived a nation in this land that knew the name of God.”
As the lights come back on, we file out into the parking lot and start our cars, headlights spilling into the empty country roads. Mormon volunteers stand alongside traffic cones, gesturing with flashlights and guiding the stream of traffic onto the empty highway.
The next morning, I follow a well-groomed path to the summit of Hill Cumorah. I can see for many miles. One Mormon family is making a home video, the father coaching his daughter off camera. “Now tell us something about our holy father and Jesus Christ,” he says, “now say something about Joseph Smith.”
I wave down a volunteer and ask him exactly where it was that Smith is said to have found the tablets.
Roger, an older man with a wide-brim hat and walky-talky slung around his neck, is happy to help. We are just a few paces away. he points, the site is just underfoot.
He also gestures to what he says is a Native American site in the distance. “There is a lot of history in this area,” and lists off the names of tribes that passed through here, too, including the Seneca, Cayuga and Onodaga.
As Roger tells it, the Israelites of ancient times wandered in the same wilderness that 19th-century farmers sought to beat back.
And plowing their fields, Roger goes on, those pioneering farmers were confronted with the layers of history and violence underfoot.
“Thousands were killed here. When farmers plowed this land, they found lime from their bones.”