Photo courtesy of Toi Clawson
PALMYRA, N.Y. — It was because of missionaries that the Hill Cumorah Pageant took shape nearly 76 years ago, and it’s because of a missionary mindset that the Palmyra, N.Y.,-based spectacle continues to inspire audiences today.
"The intent of all the pageants is to introduce an audience to the story of the (LDS) church," Hill Cumorah Pageant President Dwight Schwendiman said. "Specifically with the Hill Cumorah Pageant, it's the story of the Book of Mormon."
The pageant officially started in 1920 as a celebration of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Missionaries of what was then the Eastern States Mission would gather annually in celebration of Pioneer Day, observed July 24, which marks the day in 1847 when Brigham Young and a group of Latter-day Saints arrived in the Salt Lake Valley.
This Cumorah Conference, as it was termed, first started when mission president B.H. Roberts traveled with his missionaries to the Smith family farm.
"Part of that celebration included the acting out of scenes from the Book of Mormon and church history," Gerald S. Argetsinger, former pageant director and presidency member, wrote in his comprehensive history of the Hill Cumorah Pageant.
The pageant ebbed and flowed over the next few decades with festivities ranging from four-day conferences, sermons, athletic events and public entertainment programs. Through it all, there was a strong emphasis on Joseph Smith, the Restoration of the gospel and the coming forth of the Book of Mormon.
The message of the Restoration continues to be a pillar for the pageant today.
"The intent is to introduce people to the church and provide through a spiritual message and presentation an opportunity for the Spirit to touch (the audience's) hearts," Schwendiman said.
In 1935, the pageant settled into its permanent home on the Hill Cumorah.
"That summer, as part of the dedicatory exercise ... 'The Book of Mormon in Song, Picture, and Story' was presented, featuring vocal selections by such eminent soloists as Margaret Romaine, formerly of the Metropolitan Opera. For the first time, trumpeters played from the crest of the hill, a tradition that still marks the commencement of the Hill Cumorah Pageant," Argetsinger wrote.
The following year, New York University professor H. Wayne Driggs wrote a new script, centered on the Book of Mormon and titled "America's Witness for Christ."
With the exception of war years, this script was performed for the next 50 years.
"Its purpose was to depict the Book of Mormon as the fulfillment of Bible prophecy and as a testimony of Christ's divinity," Argetsinger wrote.
After a visit to the pageant by President Harold B. Lee in 1973, missionaries were phased out of pageant participation. Members have been incorporated to help put on the program ever since.
"The cast now consists entirely of church members, primarily families and single adults, who converge from all over the world to participate in the 'pageant experience,' a unique opportunity that is much like a youth conference during rehearsal week and a missionary conference during performance week," Argetsinger wrote.
Schwendiman said that on any given performance night, it is not uncommon to see audience members come from nearly 45 of the contiguous states.
“When you walk around the parking lot you can see license plates from just about all over,” he said. “In a sense, it’s a pilgrimage.”
In 1987, the pageant underwent revisions creating what Schwendiman called a new, simplified version of the production. In addition to new costumes, script and staging, the pageant was cut by approximately 30 minutes.
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