Mormon Faith and Spectacle at Hill Cumorah in Palmyra, N.Y.

New York Times/July 27, 2007
By Ethan Todras-Whitehill

I love being a missionary!" Sister Kimber, an enthusiastic, apple-cheeked woman of 23, proclaimed to a couple in her tour group at the Publication Building in Palmyra, N.Y., the sleepy town where the Mormon faith was born. Outside on a bright and cool day last week, a line snaked toward the building, passing stands selling Mormon literature and advertising the clothing company ModBod, which promises modest (yet stylish) clothing for girls and women.

Across the street, a gift shop sold T-shirts and hats printed with messages like "Child of God," "ARMY" (for A Righteous Mormon Youth), or a listing of the costs of a trip to Palmyra ending with "Seeing where it all began: priceless."

Inside, Sister Kimber described the 19th-century process by which the Book of Mormon was originally printed, in excellent detail. Along the way, she also told the group more than once that she was convinced beyond any doubt of the book's truth.

The holy sites of the world — the Kaaba in Mecca, Lhasa in Tibet and St. Peter's Basilica, among others — double as some of the planet's biggest tourism draws. Believers (and nonbelievers, where they find a welcome) flock to see firsthand the dwellings, graves and shrines of prophets whose charisma and teaching launched global faiths. For American tourists, most of these trips require a trans-oceanic flight. But not Palmyra, a town of 8,000 nestled in green countryside between the Finger Lakes and Lake Ontario.

Palmyra was the home of Joseph Smith, the founder of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, known as the Mormon Church. It is the logical destination for travelers interested in learning about Mormonism — including those whose curiosity is piqued by the current news coverage of the presidential candidacy of Mitt Romney, a Mormon, or by the HBO series "Big Love," which fantasizes about the renegade Mormons who violate the church's modern teachings by practicing polygamy.

Touring in Palmyra last week, I discovered that from the church's point of view, the Mormon sites there function year-round both as places of great historical interest for practicing Mormons and as venues for proselytizing. All of the guides I met were missionaries, working in the stints that young Mormons are encouraged to take. And although the majority of visitors they see in their months or years in Palmyra are Mormons, often from Utah, many others are not.

Every July, both kinds of tourists crowd into town, filling hotels and bed-and-breakfasts for 25 miles around, to witness the church's major annual commemoration of its founding, the extravaganza of drama, special effects, proselytizing and piety known as the Hill Cumorah pageant. A colossal affair with 10 lighting towers, a booming sound system and 680 cast members, it draws tens of thousands of spectators each year over eight days; this year's final performance was last Saturday. At the pageant, between 15 and 30 percent of spectators are non-Mormon, church surveys show, and, as Sister Kimber confided, "It's like Christmastime for missionaries."

The village itself is not predominantly Mormon, although relations are cordial. Its Mormon church is only one of half a dozen or more churches in town, all the rest of other denominations. Many pageant attendees arrive by bus, Mayor Vicky Daly said, and do not stay long.

I arrived at Hill Cumorah on July 18, one of the opening days of the pageant, at around noon, when the site was dominated by teenagers — the largely adolescent cast of the pageant along with busloads of youth groups. I climbed the little hill to the golden statue of the angel Moroni on top. Two young boys of a typically hellion age walked the path in front of me, and when one strayed onto the grass, the other immediately chastised him.

I used an umbrella to reserve one of the 10,000 or so plastic chairs lined up for that night's pageant (it's free and first come first seated) and drove to the Joseph Smith Farm. I wasn't sure how I'd be received, not being a Mormon myself, but I wasn't worried. I couldn't imagine anyone would ask.

"Are you a member of the church?" asked the guide outside the welcome center, a pretty young woman with curly blond hair, immediately after she inquired about my name and where I'd come from. The other visitors were families with an average of four children each, and were all members. I stammered out a reply in the negative, but added — truthfully — that I was anxious to learn more.

Inside the farmhouse, a low-ceilinged, cramped but cozy wooden building, a second guide, Sister Smithee, showed us the places where each of the 11-person Smith family slept and the sorts of furniture and tools they would have used, giving particular attention to how supportive and close-knit the family was. A plump young woman whose smile covered her whole face, she said that it was within these walls that Joseph Smith first spoke with the angel Moroni. "I know these things are true," she said before ushering us out, smiling beatifically. "I've asked the Heavenly Father, and I encourage you to do the same."

A walk down a gravel lane lined with log fences and haystacks took us to the frame house where the Smiths lived later. Again we were greeted by a blissful-looking, pretty young woman, who had us wait outside until it was our turn to go in. She told us how, once Joseph Smith had visited the Hill Cumorah at Moroni's prompting and dug up the golden plates on which the Book of Mormon was written, he had hidden them from the greedy people of Palmyra in various spots around the house. He had listened to the feelings of his heart in choosing the plate's hiding spots, she said, and she enjoined us to do the same, for that was how we would know that what she was saying was true.

I walked out of the house and into the Sacred Grove, a maze of old elms, oaks and hickories where Smith said he had received his first vision. Here, no guide ushered us through. Instead, benches were set up for quiet contemplation, earshot apart, individuals and families sitting alone on them with their books and journals. I was glad for it, feeling a little shellshocked. I had read about the prominent facets of Mormon culture: emphasis on the family, obedience, proselytizing, listening to feelings to know what is true. I just didn't expect to see these facets so neatly arrayed in front of me within the first hour of entering their world.

Back at the Hill Cumorah, the grass parking lot had started filling up with cars with an inordinate number of Mitt Romney bumper stickers. The show started at dusk, and two hours beforehand, the cast entered the audience in force, wearing their costumes and makeup. The attention to detail was evident in things like the handmade, startlingly lifelike beards, which were sadly indistinguishable from a bad toupee once the actors got on stage.

Like the missionaries at the farm and the printing building, the actors introduced themselves to audience members. The church members in the audience and the cast members shared their "testimony" with each other, hoping to strengthen the faith of each, according to cast members I spoke with. Nonmembers were offered literature and an introduction to the pageant and the Mormon faith. After speaking a while, they gave people stickers to wear. Failure to wear the sticker could result in being approached 10 or 12 times before the pageant began.

Charles Streb, 62, a retired schoolteacher from nearby Rush, N.Y., looked as wide-eyed as I felt. He and his wife, Katy, are non-Mormons but have always lived nearby and decided this year to see what it was all about. I explained to him that people came to see not only the hill, but also the farm and the publication building. He started to laugh and said, "Me, I'm just looking for the guy with two wives!"

The sky grew dark, and a hush settled over the crowd. The story began in Jerusalem around 600 B.C., when a righteous man named Lehi was instructed by God to take his family to America. A bitter conflict arose between Lehi's sons, the emotions communicated through the gestures of the actors as they lip-synched to the recorded soundtrack.

The special effects were as remarkable as advertised: on the ocean voyage the sail was rent as if by lightning as a deluge of water soaked the stage, and prophets and heretics alike were burned at the stake with flames that reached as high as 10 or 15 feet. The descendants of Lehi's righteous sons became corrupted and were destroyed by their evil counterparts (who proceed to lose the memory of their past and become the American Indians encountered in the age of colonization, although that is not mentioned in the show). But not before Moroni, spotlighted in brilliant white, buried the golden plates on the Hill Cumorah, so that he could finally reveal them to Joseph Smith in 1827.

"If you're a Christian of any faith, trying to explain to an atheist how an old man built a ship and put two of everything in it, they're going to look at you like you're an alien," Don Hass, 47, said before the show began. Mr. Hass, an Olympic bobsled coach, is not a member of the Church of Latter-day Saints, but he said he believes the stories in the pageant are true.

"It's the same thing with the Book of Mormon," he said. "You accept it on faith."

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