How the Church plans to rehabilitate the Hill Cumorah historic site

With the final curtain having fallen for the Hill Cumorah Pageant, the Church will engage in a long-term project to both rehabilitate and preserve the sacred historic site.

In his June 11 remarks during the 56th Annual Mormon History Association Conference, Elder LeGrand R. Curtis Jr. highlighted the historical significance of the Hill Cumorah site for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and outlined plans to restore it to more closely resemble what Joseph Smith would have experienced there in the early 1800s.

Hill Cumorah is a drumlin — a low, small hill — located in Manchester, New York, where Joseph Smith met annually for four years with the angel Moroni and was eventually entrusted with the gold plates and their translation into what is now the Book of Mormon. 

The Hill Cumorah in Palmyra, New York, is pictured on Aug. 4, 2018. The Hill Cumorah is where Joseph Smith met annually with the angel Moroni from 1823 to 1827 and received the gold plates.
The Hill Cumorah in Palmyra, New York, is pictured on Aug. 4, 2018. The Hill Cumorah is where Joseph Smith met annually with the angel Moroni from 1823 to 1827 and received the gold plates. Credit: The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints

“In the Church History Department, we are grateful for this opportunity to focus our attention on preserving this sacred historic site so future generations can experience the place where Joseph Smith was carefully tutored and prepared for his prophetic role through repeated angelic visitations,” said Elder Curtis, a General Authority Seventy and the Church historian and recorder.

Barbara Jones Brown, Mormon History Association executive director, said Friday’s presentation regarding the New York historic site was supposed to be shared during the association’s 2020 conference in Rochester, New York. Unfortunately, the COVID-19 pandemic caused the 2020 conference to be cancelled and the 2021 conference to be held in Park City, Utah, instead of New York.

In his presentation, Elder Curtis noted that the Hill Cumorah rehabilitation project follows the precedent set at the Sacred Grove, located in Palmyra just four miles to the north, where the Church took careful steps to try to enable a place of reverence and reflection.

The project at the Hill Cumorah will have three major components, Elder Curtis explained:

  1. Removing pageant infrastructure and other nonhistorical facilities.
  2. Rehabilitating the landscape.
  3. Upgrading the messaging of the hill’s historical and sacred significance.

The rehabilitation process

Through the years, as the Hill Cumorah Pageant grew in popularity, so did its infrastructure. In the 1960s, the stages on which the pageant was performed grew to 25 platforms, requiring the removal of 150 trees. Eventually, 10 light towers, five miles of wiring needed for lighting and special effects, a control building used to operate special effects as well as the pageant’s sound system, an electrical building, two storage sheds, two restroom buildings used by cast members, separate restrooms for the public, a costume shop, a cast changing building with an attached open pavilion, an administration building, a large covered seating area known as “the study shelter,” an industrial kitchen facility used to feed the pageant cast and crew, and concrete pathways connecting it all were added to the site.

The first action to rehabilitate the Hill Cumorah will involve the removal of 21 nonhistorical buildings and about 400,000 square feet of asphalt and gravel roads, parking areas and pageant paths. The visitors’ center at the base of the hill and Angel Moroni Monument atop the hill will remain.

Next, the area will be reforested with thousands of native-tree seeds. “Over time, these seeds will grow into a mature forest, similar to the forest that visitors can now enjoy on other parts of the hill,” Elder Curtis said.

It is important to recognize, Elder Curtis said, that it took 80 years for pageant infrastructure to accumulate. “It will similarly take many years for the hill to return to a forested environment. This process of reforestation will require patience and a long-term commitment as this transformation occurs, but we are confident that the ultimate goal of reclaiming this sacred setting of the Restoration will be worth the wait,” he said.

Amid the reforestation efforts, the Church will also create a network of accessible trails. At the central trailhead will be a kiosk providing information about sacred events that occurred on the hill and a map of the trail system. Each trail will ultimately lead visitors to the Angel Moroni Monument at the top of the hill.

The angel Moroni statue will be regilded and the landscaping of the plaza surrounding the monument refreshed with native plants. Several new exhibits will be installed in the visitors’ center by 2023, in time for the bicentennial of Joseph Smith’s first visit there. 

“These new interpretive materials are designed to help visitors increase their understanding of, and appreciation for, the ways in which young Joseph Smith was divinely tutored and prepared for his mission as the Prophet of the Restoration,” Elder Curtis said.

Honoring the pageant

In his remarks, Elder Curtis highlighted the extensive history of the Hill Cumorah Pageant and its legacy as an effective missionary tool.

“For the last 80 years, the pageant has helped millions of visitors understand more about the Book of Mormon and the Restoration,” Elder Curtis said. “Like the sacred events of the Restoration that took place on the hill in the 1820s, the pageant represents another important chapter in the history of the Church’s involvement with the Hill Cumorah. It also holds an important place in the hearts of the many converts who were introduced to the Church through its production.”

Elder Curtis recalled first attending the pageant when he was 11 years old and then returning decades later with his own children. “It has produced wonderful memories for many, many members.”

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

However, entertainment options have changed over the years, he noted. Pageants, as an art form, are less popular. In 1983, annual attendance to the pageant surpassed 200,000. In 2011, however, attendance dropped to 30,000, while in 2019 — the pageant’s final year of performances — it hosted approximately 42,000. 

Elder Curtis cited the official statement issued in October 2018, where the Church discouraged large productions such as pageants.

Soon after the October 2018 statement, it was announced that the Hill Cumorah Pageant would be discontinued entirely following a final 2020 summer production. In April 2020, the Church announced the Hill Cumorah Pageant was postponed due to COVID-19 restrictions, with the production’s final performances tentatively rescheduled for July 2021. The 2021 run was also canceled due to precautions related to the pandemic. 

Church Historian and Recorder Elder LeGrand Curtis, speaks at the Mormon History Association Conference at the Utah Olympic Park in Park City on Friday, June 11, 2021. Elder Curtis, spoke of the history and usage of the Hill Cumorah, and gave information about the future plans for property now that the Hill Cumorah Pageant is no longer being presented.
Church Historian and Recorder Elder LeGrand Curtis, speaks at the Mormon History Association Conference at the Utah Olympic Park in Park City on Friday, June 11, 2021. Elder Curtis, spoke of the history and usage of the Hill Cumorah, and gave information about the future plans for property now that the Hill Cumorah Pageant is no longer being presented. Credit: Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

“Scaling back on large productions like the Hill Cumorah Pageant allows the Church to focus its efforts on programs and activities that bless the lives of its global membership,” Elder Curtis said.

The Church will host a commemorative devotional on July 9, 2021, at 6 p.m. MDT. The event will include remarks by Elder D. Todd Christofferson of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles and a rebroadcast of the final Hill Cumorah Pageant.

It is normal to feel a sense of loss when something longstanding and beloved comes to an end, Elder Curtis acknowledged. “It is important, however, to remember that the discontinuation of the pageant and the subsequent project to rehabilitate the Hill Cumorah is only the latest of many changes this sacred site of the Restoration has seen over the years. Where one door closes, another one opens, leading to the unique opportunity to recapture and preserve the sacred setting of some of the foundational and spiritually significant events of the Restoration.”

Strengthening faith of the Restoration

Elder Curtis assured that visitors who experience the rehabilitated, sacred setting of the Hill Cumorah will have their faith and personal witness of the reality of the Restoration strengthened. “We hope that the revitalized Hill Cumorah will encourage these visitors to remember and give thanks for all the Lord has done to bless us with His restored Church and gospel in our day.”

The Hill Cumorah project announcement comes just two weeks after the completion of another preservation project: Elder Quentin L. Cook of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles dedicated the Temple District of Nauvoo, the area just west of the Nauvoo Illinois Temple, on Saturday, May 29.

During the event, Steven Olsen, a senior curator of the Church’s historic sites, told the Church News that historic sites “are the strongest material witnesses of the Restoration” the Church has.

In a Church News article in January of this year, Ben Pykles, Church historic sites curator, explained that the purpose of a tour at any historic site — from the Sacred Grove and Hill Cumorah in New York, to the Mormon Battalion Historic Site in San Diego, California — is to provide an understanding of the significance and sacredness of the place and to invite the Spirit to testify that what happened in these places is real. “That’s why we want to share them with the world,” he 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