Hill Cumorah to take on quieter role after pageant’s final run in 2021

On Thursday, April 30, the Church announced that this year’s Hill Cumorah Pageant will be postponed to 2021. The outdoor theatrical production, which has occurred annually since 1937, was originally scheduled to make its final run this July.

Due to restrictions on large gatherings during the COVID-19 pandemic, the final performances will now take place July 8–10 and 13–17, 2021.

After the lights go down on the last performance, the hill that has hosted one of the largest outdoor theater productions in the United States will prepare for a quieter role, similar to that of the nearby Sacred Grove.

Fifty years ago, visitors to the Sacred Grove could drive into the trees, leave their cars in a parking lot and walk about 100 yards to an amphitheater with speakers, lights and a stage.

This infrastructure supported meetings and performances at the historic site where the boy Joseph Smith received his First Vision — but it was damaging the grove, said Dr. Ben Pykles, a historic sites curator for the Church History Department.

Church leaders decided it was time to rehabilitate the grove, returning it to something like what Joseph would have seen when he walked into the trees in the spring of 1820 to pray. Today, the site features walking paths that invite quiet reflection. The welcome center lies outside the grove, next to the reconstructed log home where Joseph lived as a child.

Now, leaders are preparing the Hill Cumorah — another sacred site about three miles south of the Sacred Grove in Manchester, New York — for a similar transition. “There’s only one place on the planet where Moroni appeared to Joseph Smith multiple times to instruct him about how the Lord was going to conduct His kingdom in the last days, and where he was able to ultimately deliver the golden plates to the Prophet,” Pykles said. 

The Hill Cumorah is pictured near Palmyra, New York.
The Hill Cumorah is pictured near Palmyra, New York. Credit: The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints

The historic site can help visitors connect with the story of the Restoration of Jesus Christ’s gospel, he added. This is one reason Elder George Albert Smith, then of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles and later president of the Church, spent years negotiating the Church’s purchase of the hill until the sale occurred in 1928.

Today, Church leaders want to return the Hill Cumorah to a natural setting that evokes the sacred nature of the Prophet Joseph Smith’s experiences there — including five encounters with the angel Moroni and the retrieval of the ancient gold plates from which he translated the Book of Mormon.

What does it take to put on the Hill Cumorah Pageant? Here’s a look at the 2019 production

But the pageant will have one last hurrah first.

Before it was canceled, organizers were preparing for up to 10,000 audience members per night at this year’s pageant, which relies on about 1,000 volunteers, including a cast of 750 from the Palmyra area and across the country. About 75 percent of the cast was new to the show in 2019, and event leaders plan to maintain a similar ratio for the final run, allowing more people one last chance to participate.

Amanda Lonsberry, a local Church member who serves as the pageant’s public affairs representative, said it will be bittersweet to put on the show for the last time. “I think I speak for almost everybody on the cast when I say being part of it has been a huge blessing in our lives, and we’re very supportive of the Church’s [decision],” Lonsberry said, noting that the pageant requires about 230,000 volunteer hours each year.

A scene from the Hill Cumorah Pageant depicts the Savior visiting the Americas. The pageant ran July 11-13 and 16-20, 2019, on the hillside next to the Hill Cumorah Visitors' Center in Manchester, New York.
A scene from the Hill Cumorah Pageant depicts the Savior visiting the Americas. The pageant ran July 11-13 and 16-20, 2019, on the hillside next to the Hill Cumorah Visitors’ Center in Manchester, New York. Credit: Matt Barr, Hill Cumorah Pageant

Hill Cumorah Pageant President Neil Pitts said he has been involved in the production for more than 20 years, including playing the Prophet Joseph Smith for two years in the late ‘90s. For the past five years, he and his counselors have organized the schedule, sifted through thousands of applications, prayerfully selected cast members, arranged contracts and permits and catering — all to help both participants and attendees come closer to Christ through 16 days of rehearsal and performance.

But with the Church’s renewed focus on studying the gospel in the home, guided by President Russell M. Nelson, pageants and other large cultural events are being phased out, President Pitts said. The behind-the-scenes work of the Hill Cumorah Pageant is largely carried out by the six stakes that surround the hill, he added. “It’s just not needed anymore for us to take that much time from people and their families.”

Guest artists, including the Nashville Tribute Band and Alex Boyé, had been invited to perform onstage before some of the nightly shows in 2020. “We’ve asked [them] to focus their performances on testifying of the Restored Church,” Lonsberry said. The pageant has not yet announced whether those special performances will be rescheduled for the 2021 run.

The Hill Cumorah Pageant consists of 10 scenes, with the first nine episodes portraying stories from the Book of Mormon and the last depicting the modern Restoration of the gospel.

View of the Hill Cumorah on a performance day from the back of the seating area.
View of the Hill Cumorah on a performance day from the back of the seating area. Credit: Kenneth Mays

After the final bows, a different kind of restoration will take place. Pykles said the stage and pageant equipment will be removed, making space for the clear-cut area to be reseeded with native trees.

As with the nearby Sacred Grove, regrowth will require years, but the hill will eventually return to its natural forested state.

A new network of trails and footpaths will lead up to the existing monument of the angel Moroni, which has stood on the hill since 1935. The Church History Department wants to create “a reverent, quiet, sacred experience” for visitors, Pykles said.

On-site work was originally scheduled for completion in 2021 but will be postponed.

“We’re trying to take a landscape and a site that has been used for other purposes for … over 80 years, and … rehabilitate [it] into a sacred historic place,” Pykles said of the hill’s upcoming role.

“It won’t be exactly as it was when Joseph Smith retrieved the plates there, but it will be a sacred historic place where people can go and reflect on the wonderful things that Heavenly Father has done for us … in restoring the gospel to the earth.”