Hill Cumorah Pageant. Instantly visions of “the most elaborate and greatest of all American panoramas” spring to the minds of those who have seen it. But those who have been a part of it perhaps remember the nightly enactment of the Book of Mormon story least of all during their two-week “mission” in Palmyra, New York.
When I hear the word pageant now, it is like a magic password that opens up a chest of treasures and wonders that lie within the spirit of the Hill Cumorah itself. And then I begin to remember: 560 brothers and sisters working together in the same cause … the laughter and jokes in the cook shack as literally mountains of sandwiches are made each day for consumption by the cast … the stage fright on that first night when, with your companion, you are to meet the audience that has come from all over the world and bear them your personal testimony … the quiet of night resting on your bent-over shoulders as you report in to the Father on the successes and failures of the day … and the sea of souls covered by the tall oak and birch of the Sacred Grove bearing witness to the reality of Jesus the Christ and of his visit with the Father to young Joseph Smith.
But most of all, I remember sitting in a merciless rain on the hill with a sister and her companion while she, with joy filling her eyes, told me how happy she was to be in pageant and related to me a personal incident that had happened to her a few days before.
It was a brisk morning in Palmyra, and she and five other sisters who were staying with a nonmember family during pageant were waiting for the bus that would take them to the rehearsal on the hill. Across the street, a young boy was tossing a baseball up and down in the air. It had been over a week since she had last been with her family in the West. She missed her little brothers and her home.
Before she knew it, she was across the road and asking the young lad if she could play catch with him. The boy’s eyes lit up, and he thanked her for asking him.
“You’re a Mormon, aren’t you?” he asked jubilantly.
“Yes,” she replied, wondering why this eight-year-old youngster was asking.
“I love Mormons,” he added, as if in answer to her thought. “You’re all so nice. You dress nice. You look nice. And all of you are always fun to be with when you come for the pageant.”
Possessed with the true missionary zeal of the pageant and touched by the boy’s comment, this sister asked if he would like to have two “representatives” come to his house. The answer and the feeling that emanated from him brought tears to her eyes.
“That’d be great! But my mother wouldn’t like it. See, Daddy died a little while back, and she doesn’t really want to see anyone. But I keep working on her.” At this point, the boy stopped playing catch, looked at her with the surety and faith that only an adolescent can possess, and said, “I’ve seen the pageant every year, and I pray in secret every night. I love Jesus, and I know Mr. Smith found those plates over there. Someday I’m gonna be a Saint too, and I’m gonna be in pageant and tell everybody what I believe.”
From the mouth of a child, the Lord had given her all the encouragement she could need to be an example. And being an example is the key to the miracle of the pageant. No one thing influences the effect and success of the pageant more than the spiritual atmosphere present on the hill. For this reason, during the performance, participants who are not on stage maintain reverent silence. The result is an astonishingly spectacular pageant that has awed, thrilled, and inspired millions of viewers since its inception thirty-four years ago and has received news reports in papers in all of the fifty states and many other nations, in addition to widespread television and radio coverage. For anyone not to be deeply inspired by pageant, he would have to have water instead of blood in his veins.
During the daytime, all members of the cast live mission rules. Each is assigned to a companion, complies with the dress standards of a mission (“I never thought it’d be so easy to give up levis for all this time,” said one sister), and spends much of his time on his knees—mental knees, if not physical. A large part of the first week is spent in studying the history of the restoration of the gospel and memorizing key scriptures to help in testimony bearing. During the week of the six performances, three-hour testimony meetings are held each morning and afternoon. A hard life? Nothing anybody would want to do? Not so.
The testimony meetings and prayers set each member on a high spiritual plane, depending on how much he puts into it, and this is why it is considered an honor and privilege to be in the pageant. It is hard for nonmembers to understand why pageant participants quit jobs and willingly foot their own expenses and put in eighteen-hour days to make the pageant click. “We just tell them our pay is the thrill of seeing them respond to the message of the pageant,” explains one elder.
A book could be written about the many experiences of those coming to pageant this year. One lad walked 100 miles to be in it. Robert and Danielle Baird participated in the pageant for their honeymoon, having been married one week before. And Jane Whitesides of the San Leandro Second Ward in California had incurred a bad case of poison oak as a counselor at girls camp just a few days before pageant. It was the first such case in ten years. Aided by the prayers of all the girls in the camp and the blessing of two elders, Jane was healed in what a doctor termed “a miraculous time.” To Jane, it was an encouragement to put her all into pageant, since she knew that was what the Lord wanted her to do.
And I met no one at the pageant who did not believe that he was at the right place, doing the right thing, at the right time. For example, I met three girls who were converted at pageant. One of them had desperately wanted to see it, and not knowing exactly where it was being held, she had borrowed a car and followed a car with a Utah license plate.
Another young married woman, concerned about religion, had lived in New York for years, but she had never gotten around to seeing the pageant until this year. When Samuel the Lamanite called out the destruction of the City of Zarahemla with thunder, lightning, and fire to back him, this sister, in her ninth month, felt great conviction within herself. She had her child that night, and the missionaries came in response to the referral card she had filled out. Had she not gone that night before she had the child, she feels she might never have seen the missionaries. Coincidence? Those who have been at pageant know that there are very few coincidences attached to it.
And pageant is great for families. Among the many was the Don Allan family from the Manhattan First Ward in New York City—a rough city for a Mormon to live in. They have all, nevertheless, retained a beautiful testimony of family life and how great that can be. They’re wonderful examples of the fun that can exist within a family while still retaining the deep spiritual qualities that tie together their hearts, at least, for all time. Joining them this year in the songs and laughter they always provide in the programs for the participants was Arty Maurent, who is a character himself. Having been the “Lamanite sacrifice” for two years, he claims the rare distinction of having been “resurrected eleven times.”
The “bus sisters” who come all the way from Utah to be in pageant are almost a legend. This year, six buses started out from Salt Lake City. Only three hours later one bus broke down, which meant a crowding of the girls all the way to Palmyra. It warmed my heart to learn of the pioneer stoicism and fortitude these girls displayed. “Rest stops would take two hours,” said bright-eyed Nancy Cox from the Lynwood (Oregon) Ward. “It was really crowded on the bus until someone finally bought some little kids’ chairs to sit on in the aisles.” What did they do to relieve the monotony and keep discouragement at a minimum? “We sang a lot and prayed. I feel very close to all the girls on my bus,” said Nancy. No doubt “Come, Come, Ye Saints,” with its trek-to-Salt Lake origin, was a favorite.
When their buses pulled into the little town of Palmyra in the sleepy Finger Lakes region, where once the Mormons were spurned and the Prophet mobbed and driven out, they were greeted by banners strung across the main street: “WELCOME, MORMONS.” Dr. Harold I. Hansen, director of the pageant for more than thirty years, recalls the many years in which Palmyrans were cold to him. “I know what it is to have an alderman of the village say, when we asked to rent the electrical and sound equipment of the village, ‘I would rather personally break it with a hammer than allow you people to touch it,’” said Dr. Hansen. This year residents threw a party in the park for participants and opened up their homes to many of them. One sister was placed in a home with children grieving the loss of a parent to cancer, a situation that she had experienced in her own home. Another group of sisters were able to get a minister to accept a visit from the elders.
There were two concerns that were generally felt by the new members of the cast: the long meetings and proselyting. Both fears were invariably allayed; in fact, it was the general consensus of most of the young people that they wished the testimony meetings would go on for hours more. The hardest thing was trying to get all of your testimony in the two-minute time limit, which was later reduced to one minute because of the great number of members wishing to participate. And the most amazing thing of all was that no one was ever bored, though the same thing was said time and time again. It was this very sameness, this belief in the Prophet Joseph Smith, the restored gospel, and the mission of Christ in our lives, that bound us together in a thread of common belief and spiritually carried us through two three-hour meetings held back-to-back.
Even the youngest children weren’t bored. The little Batemans of Trumansburg, New York, all bore their testimonies. The fourteen Batemans were special to everyone because one or another of them was always there. Coming down in two Volkswagens loaded with fifteen people, fourteen suitcases, and a hundred dresses, they were the epitome of the always-laugh-at hardships genre. It was one of their littlest ones that brushed by me in testimony meeting as I was looking a bit dejected from only three hours sleep the night before. With a sweet smile on her face she said, “Smile—Heavenly Father loves you!” and the day was once again mine.
From the testimonies borne, it was obvious that pageant had helped many to cross the line between believing the gospel is true to knowing it is. With all of the great spirits and souls there, one sister laughingly said that when she prayed she was afraid that because of everyone else’s communication with the Father, she might get a busy signal. There was something indescribably beautiful about listening to witnesses of God in the Sacred Grove standing as straight as the trees that have stood since Joseph was there, something about the song of a bird wafted by the gentle breeze, and the warmth of the sun and friends in the gospel around you. It was times like those that you were thankful to have a companion just so you could have someone special to share it with.
As for the fear of proselyting, much of it ended on that first night. Credit definitely goes to the inspiring messages and testimonies of the 130 elders of the Cumorah Mission who performed in pageant. It was a thrill to watch them among the audience—the joy they had for being back tracting after a week away from it was obvious in their handshakes. But Heavenly Father deserves most of the credit. As Barbara Eichler of the Fairport Ward, New York, explained: “After the study group meeting, my companion and I decided we could use all the help we could get, so we went up to the top of the hill and prayed. As we rose from our knees and walked back down, we could feel our bodies being led, but not by our own power.”
Part of the power for the participants seems to come from the hill itself, like the mythological tale of the giant Anteaus who received all of his strength only while he was touching the earth. One could not help but be humbled while selling a copy of the Book of Mormon on the very hill from which the records in it were uncovered years before. I myself was caught up in the zeal of it and put myself to the test several times.
For instance, there was the man who helped me out on the freeway when I ran out of gas. In payment for the gas I thought I might as well give him the gospel—it was the least I could do. By the end of an hour he had enthusiastically agreed to see the missionaries. Among the audience, my favorite tracting trick was to claim I was a representative from a magazine (which I was) that was interested in nonmember opinions of Mormons. If they had no opinions to give, then I offered to inform them about the religion and get their opinions along the way. It worked great! At no time, though, did I do anything extraordinary except try to be an instrument of the Lord.
The audiences that came to see pageant on the six nights numbered approximately 110,000. No exact count can be given since there is no admission charge. And that makes Hill Cumorah Pageant different from anything else the audience had previously been exposed to—no admission charge, no parking charge, and no concessions—nothing to sell except the Book of Mormon, and many copies were given away by eager proselyters. In this “Woodstock generation,” the young Saints impressed the crowds. Many in the audiences were moved to tears by these “green missionaries.”
The last night of pageant, Saturday night, rain poured down as if the sky knew of our sadness at the coming departure. And we shared one last beautiful experience.
As everyone came in from their proselyting and the rain poured on down, we readied ourselves for prayer. Rain was not a new thing to pageant; in fact, it had developed a kind of mystique in connection with the performances. It was legend that many times during the thirty-four years of the pageant, rain had drenched the countryside and yet not touched the Hill Cumorah. Many times it had rained just before a performance and begun again just afterward, leaving New York weathermen scratching their heads or chuckling about “those Mormons.” As was the custom, the visiting General Authority was to say the prayer.
As Elder Delbert L. Stapley gave the prayer, he asked that the rain would stop, that we could perform and touch the hearts of the spirits that were there. As soon as he’d spoken those words, the rain stopped and within a few minutes a light breeze swept across the hill to dry the muddy slopes. The whole cast went up the mountain, determined to make this the best performance.
It flew by without a hitch, and before we knew it, we were all assembled together for the last after-pageant meeting, knowing that it was all over and that the love that had developed would exist only as a memory. After the pageant theme song, “I Am a Child of God,” was sung and the closing prayer was said, a reverent hush filled the night. Then slowly, faintly, all 560 brothers and sisters vocally embraced each other in the soft melody of “God Be With You Till We Meet Again.” As I tried to hold back the tears, I remembered the calm words an elder had spoken in the Sacred Grove. With head bowed, he had said, “Friends in the gospel never meet for the last time. …”