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.
"It was shortened to be more in tune with the attention span for the modern audience of the time," Schwendiman said.
Author Orson Scott Card was commissioned to write the script for the pageant.
"Orson Scott Card was instructed not to watch the earlier pageant, but to write a new one," Schwendiman said. "He delved into the Book of Mormon and selected stories that he felt could move these stories along, leading to the appearance of the resurrected Christ at Bountiful, that being a high point."
Schwendiman said the depiction of the Savior’s appearance is a high point — and always has been — and always will be a part of the pageant.
"Overwhelmingly, the main message I found was the good news of Jesus Christ — that he would come to Earth, atone for our sins, provide for our resurrection, and leave us with the path we must follow to return to our Father in heaven," Card said.
He added that although he wasn't always consciously aware of it, many life experiences helped prepare him for the task of writing a new script.
"The Book of Mormon fascinated me from the moment I learned how to read. I read it over and over; the music of the language was imbued in me, the stories became a part of my memory," Card said. "In college and later, I wrote plays based on stories from the Book of Mormon: Alma and the sons of Mosiah; Abinadi; Gideon; even some fictional characters living in that culture."
If professional experience was any indication, it was clear that Card was the man for the job.
"My experience in script-writing, in theater direction and production, and in reading and studying the Book of Mormon in great depth and for many purposes, all prepared me to be able to write what I was asked to write: a script that would communicate clearly to nonmembers the message and content of the Book of Mormon, in a dramatic and entertaining way," he said.
And because the pageant is centered in the doctrine of the LDS Church, it allows participants, who are strictly volunteers, to connect with its missionary roots.
In fact, missionary-mindedness is a key part of participant training leading up to the seven-day run of the pageant.
“We train (the cast) in three one-hour sessions,” Schwendiman said. “We teach: How do you greet people? How do you bear simple testimony? We teach them to say, ‘I know you’ll enjoy the show tonight because ... ’ or ‘I feel something ... ’ or ‘I know the Book of Mormon is true because ... ’”
With the help of prompts like these, the cast interacts with the audience each night before the performance. It's Schwendiman's hope that as they bear testimony to those who attend, the audience members will feel something special.
"We don't try to teach the doctrine. Through the greeting process, we try to touch the hearts of people so that they might be interested to learn more," he said.
And just like the pageant itself, the missionary approach has received some revamping over the years.
In 2007, former Missionary Training Center President Ed Pinegar and his wife, Pat, served as site missionaries in upstate New York and were involved with the pageant.
Pinegar helped revise participant missionary training, aligning it closely with elements from the scriptures and the Preach My Gospel manual, Schwendiman said.
Part of Pinegar's responsibilities included teaching participants to overcome their fears of opening their mouths to share the message of the gospel. He taught the cast promises from the Lord found in scripture and encouraged them to radiate love.
And it worked.
"You could not imagine what happened," Pinegar said. "There were 12-year-old boys walking down the rows of the audience asking to share a scripture from the Book of Mormon with them. It was one of the most glorious experiences."
The most incredible part, Pinegar said, was the result.
"From there, we had a feast. Over 5,000 referrals were received in 2008," he said. "The year before there had been about 600. The cast was bold, but not overbearing."
Because of the improved training, Schwendiman said pageant participants have returned home to their own wards, implementing the skills they learned and have overall become better missionaries.
But it’s not the pre-show efforts of the cast that leave an impression. In the 1990s, the pageant presidency and the artistic team, then headed up by Argetsinger, recognized a greater need for spirituality among the cast.
The pageant leadership implemented methods that focused not just on the artistic components of the performance, but on the participants' experience as well.
“As the spiritual quality of the experience was enhanced, both the aesthetic quality of the show and the quantity and quality of missionary referrals increased,” Argetsinger wrote.
Argetsinger, along with other leaders, found that taking time for the participants’ spiritual growth was more effective than long, arduous rehearsals.
“Almost 3,000 referrals were generated in 1997, 10 times greater than the 250 referrals gathered in 1988. The positive response to missionary contacts was also significantly higher,” Argetsinger wrote.
And since its trial in the '90s, the heavy emphasis on the casts’ spirituality has remained as a crucial part of the pageant experience.
A cast of approximately 730 members arrives on a Friday and is selected for parts that evening. Saturday marks the first day of intense rehearsal. But on Sunday, they take a break.
“On Sunday, rather than doing rehearsal, the directors take the cast members for an hour or so and the directors go through the stories on a scriptural basis. They say, ‘Here is what we are trying to do spiritually,’” Schwendiman said.
It’s because of exercises like this, he said, that the audience is able to feel the testimony of those performing.
And it's making a difference.
Schwendiman told the story of a Boston-area minister who visited the pageant a few years back. She later wrote an op-ed that was published in London, explaining what mainline Christians can learn from the Mormons.
"She talked about the fervency of the testimonies and the friendliness without overbearance," Schwendiman said. "She feared they would have tried to proselyte and baptize her the minute she walked on the ground."
Whether it’s the testimony of the cast, the historical ties of the location or the message from the production itself, those involved say there is something special about the pageant.
“I’d say it’s impossible to track the number of individuals who join the church as a result of seeing this pageant or any of the pageants,” said Schwendiman. “We will never know (a number), but there were lives touched.”
Seventeen-year-old Casey Reichhart, a native of Hamlin, N.Y., located near the Hill Cumorah, attended the pageant in July 2011. She said going changed her life.
“The biggest impression I had gotten that day was that this was the first time in a really long time I remember truly feeling happy,” Reichhart said.
While at the pageant, Reichhart filled out a card for a copy of the Book of Mormon. Missionaries later showed up at her front door, and she was baptized into The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints on Oct. 29, 2011.
Schwendiman recalled a particular performance several summers ago that stands out from the rest.
“Usually, as soon as the show is done and the lights go up, people rush to their cars. That night, the show ended and the audience didn’t move,” he said. “You could tell on that particular night that something special had happened. It doesn’t happen all the time, but on that night, it did.”
Emmilie Buchanan is an intern for the Deseret News with Mormon Times. She recently graduated from Brigham Young University-Idaho. Contact her by email: firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter: @emmiliebuchanan
Copyright 2016, Deseret News Publishing Company