It’s been a long journey from the persecution of prophets to a pageant that brings profits to Palmyra. However, as the 75th anniversary celebration of the Hill Cumorah Pageant “America’s Witness for Christ” approaches, the Mormons and the citizens of the small town seem to have achieved a peaceful coexistence.
The Mormon story began in the 1800s when young Joseph Smith found himself struggling to find a religion and church which corresponded with his beliefs. During this period of introspection and exploration, according to Mormon doctrine, he experienced a vision in which he was instructed not to join any of the established churches in the Palmyra area where he lived. Smith subsequently received a second message, directing him to unearth a set of golden plates on which was recorded the history of the People. After translating this, he published it as The Book of Mormon: Another Testament of Jesus Christ, meant to be a companion to the King James Holy Bible. Smith, along with his follower’s, believed that he had been called on to be a prophet of God. In 1830 he formally organized and became the first President of the restored Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS).
From the beginning, Mormons were perceived as economically-, politically-, and religiously-threatening by many of their Palmyra neighbors and the group was subjected to intense persecution in their hometown. Eventually growing weary of the harassment, Smith began to lead groups of Mormons west toward what he hoped would be a friendlier environment.
“Discrimination against LDS members continued well into the 20th century,” says Toi Clawson, Mormon and volunteer for the Hill Cumorah Pageant Public Affairs Office. In 1915, the Willard Bean family moved into the Joseph Smith farm where they lived for 25 years. “Luckily, he was a prizefighter,” she observed. “He had to be able to defend himself and his family against the reprobates who tormented them.” These days things are changing for the better, Clawson adds, noting that Palmyra’s current mayor has remarked that the citizens of the town really appreciate the Pageant and the sense of community and fellowship it engenders.
Hosting an annual event the magnitude of Hill Cumorah has given Palmyra a worldwide presence that most towns its size can only dream of. The Pageant also provides a major fundraising opportunity that several local service clubs rely on each year. This financial windfall is made possible by the thousands of hungry visitors who amass from near and far each July to experience the religious extravaganza’s special effects, music recorded by the Mormon Tabernacle Choir, and elaborate costumes. “Ninety percent of what these clubs take in financially from their food concessions at the Pageant stays in Ontario and Wayne counties and goes towards their local human service
programs,” Clawson elaborates.
Hundreds of Mormons convene annually in Palmyra to portray expertly choreographed scenes from the Bible and the Book of Mormon, but that’s not all they do. The younger members of the LDS also donate their time and energy during the three days they have off between Pageant performances towards community service projects in the area. Retired scientist Barton Dahneke, who’s also a Mormon and a long-time Palmyra resident, organized these work projects for several years. Each spring, over 40 invitations are sent out to local not-for-profits, asking if they’d like to take advantage of the Mormon work crews. Past recipients of LDS’s volunteerism include the Palmyra-Macedon schools, the Wayne County Fair, 4-H Camp Bristol Hills, the Town of Walworth, the Pioneer Library System, and Sonnenberg Gardens. Two dozen work crews, composed of approximately 20 young adults and supervisors, will do almost anything, including landscaping, painting, washing school lockers and windows, trail maintenance, and filing. Based on the heartfelt thank you notes they receive afterwards, Dahneke believes their efforts take a huge load off the organizations’ staff and volunteers. “These are small towns that don’t have the finances to hire someone else to do these things for them,” he elaborates.
For over 20 years, Dahneke, his wife, and their five daughters have also participated in the Pageant, no small feat since there are always more applicants than openings for cast members. “Hill Cumorah is one of the best experiences that I’ve ever had, mostly because of the quality of the people you associate with,” he asserts, adding, “It’s what I imagine heaven will be like!”
Though Dahneke agrees that tensions between the Mormons and the local townspeople have lessened, he believes there’s still room for improvement. “Among the Evangelicals, Mormons still aren’t too popular. They call us unchristian because we don’t believe in the Nicene Creed,” he observes. Though community involvement could offer LDS members an opportunity to educate the public about their beliefs, that’s not how it works. “We stick to business, to talking about things that have to do with the projects,” Dahneke says.
For 16 years, Bonnie Hays, Executive Director of Historic Palmyra, has reaped the benefits of LDS volunteerism for her organization, not just at Pageant time when she estimates that cast members donate hundreds of hours to Historic Palmyra, but year round. She explains that when the PalMac Lions Club hosts bimonthly dinners to raise money for Historic Palmyra, Mormon couples always help with setup, serving, and cleanup and others come as paying dinner guests. “They’re amazing; the most giving, generous, and kindest people,” Hays asserts. “They work hard and they’re the only group that says ‘Thanks for letting us help you!’” Additionally, LDS members help the organization with tasks like cleaning or sorting artifacts and an LDS couple always serves on their Board of Trustees. “The worst part about this relationship is when they have to leave us,” Hays admits.
However, many Mormon volunteers take a piece of the town with them when they move on, joining Historic Palmyra so they can receive newsletters and updates on what’s happening in the community. This is a connection she’d like to continue to expand on, Hays says. Her other goal is to try to bring religious visitors, who frequently come to Palmyra on pilgrimages that are extremely focused on what they want to see and learn, “off the Hill” and into the town to learn more about the community Mormons have called home for years.
Everyone should experience the Hill Cumorah Pageant at least once, the three agree. “It’s a tremendously meaningful performance that speaks to the heart and brings a message of peace and hope that offers us a reason to keep going,” Clawson notes. After 75 years, the significance of commemorating this event, for both the Mormons and Palmyra residents, is undeniable.
Display Tent: There will be a welcome tent at the entrance to the pageant with a DVD loop that highlights scenes from the Hill Cumorah Pageant and major Pageant milestones from years past.
Historical Exhibits: Photos (black and white and color), newspaper articles, a historical timeline of the Pageant, and costumes from past performances will be on display at the Hill Cumorah Visitor Center, the Joseph Smith Farm Welcome Center, the Grandin Building, and in the Historic Palmyra Museums.
Reunions: Those who have been a part of the Pageant (especially missionaries who now live elsewhere) are encouraged to reunite during Pageant week.
Historical Presentations: Special presentations by former creative and technical Pageant staff and former cast members of the Pageant will be scheduled between 6:00-8:00 p.m. the night of each performance.
Hill Cumorah Blog: This blog isn’t affiliated with the Church of Latter Day Saints but was put together by members of the Pageant who felt inspired to tell their own stories about their experience at Hill Cumorah and to share their recollections of the Pageant in their own words.
FaceBook: Many of the younger people who have been involved in Hill Cumorah in some way are connecting on FaceBook so they can meet at this year’s Pageant.
by Sue Henninger