Close to 60 years ago as a teenager in New Brunswick, New Jersey, Elder D. Todd Christofferson heard about something called “the spirit of pageant” from a pair of young women in his ward, Anna Vee and Marilyn Daines.
Although young Todd had no idea what they were talking about, the Daines sisters enthusiastically explained the Hill Cumorah Pageant, and he and his brother Greg were accepted to be in the cast for the 1962 performances.
“To actually be in Palmyra, visit the Sacred Grove, walk on the Hill Cumorah — it almost seemed a dream,” Elder Christofferson, now a member of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, recalled during the Hill Cumorah Pageant Commemorative Devotional broadcast on July 9.
Elder Christofferson spoke of the “powerful, moving” musical score and the Spirit-filled devotionals, study groups, testimony meetings and rehearsals. Mingling with attendees at the pageant became a highlight as he attempted to share a bit about the gospel or his testimony.
“That experience, and a second opportunity the next year, burned into my heart and memory what Marilyn and Anna Vee Daines called ‘the spirit of pageant,’” Elder Christofferson said.
Elder Christofferson reminisced about his participation in the pageant as part of a devotional to commemorate the production’s final run. Friday night’s commemorative devotional also included a broadcast of the 2019 Hill Cumorah Pageant, as well as brief testimonies from Shawnda Moss, pageant artistic director for 2019; Brent Hanson, pageant artistic director for 2003–2018; and Jennifer Buckner, a pageant participant. Pageant President Neil Pitts gave a brief history of the pageant and Elder Robert C. Gay of the Presidency of the Seventy also offered remarks.
In his address prior to the broadcast of the 2019 production, Elder Christofferson spoke of the faith-building experiences provided by the pageant and expressed gratitude to those who contributed to the pageant in its 84-year run.
“May I express profound thanks to the many thousands who over the years since 1937 have had any role in or made any contribution to the Hill Cumorah Pageant — ‘America’s Witness for Christ.’ I speak on behalf of the First Presidency and Quorum of the Twelve Apostles in so saying. Thank you, and God bless you, each and every one,” the Apostle said.
A spiritual high
Elder Christofferson shared his belief that for all who volunteered, the Hill Cumorah Pageant became a cherished part of their lives and of their conviction regarding the Book of Mormon and the Savior.
He shared the experience of a father who stayed in a tent with his family in what was called “Zion’s Camp” on the back side of Hill Cumorah. After being immersed in a “Zion” culture with no media, everyone dressing modestly and using clean language, listening to good music and focusing on the Savior, the father explained how jarring it was to stop by a shopping mall on the way home and be faced by “the world.”
Elder Christofferson had a similar experience, he said. “I believe that this family, and all of us who have been part of the Hill Cumorah Pageant, are different in good and lasting ways as a result. … True, we may not have been able to sustain the spiritual high of pageant every day since, but the bar was raised for us. Our conversion was deepened, and our spiritual resolve strengthened. Of the many things in life that a gracious God continues to grant each of us to confirm and strengthen our faith, the pageant experience is surely one of the most significant and enduring.”
Although few were skilled actors, cast members knew the stories were true and believed in the living reality of the Savior, Elder Christofferson said.
“All of us are grateful for each precious soul who eventually came into the Church motivated at least in part by the influence and witness of the Holy Spirit they felt at pageant. God did bless us and many others with the Hill Cumorah Pageant in its time.”
Why end it?
Given all the positives surrounding the Hill Cumorah Pageant, some may ask, why end it? “The decision to discontinue the pageant was in no way a denial of the things I have been reminiscing about or praising,” Elder Christofferson said.
The Church is now at a time in its history when the majority of its members will never see the Hill Cumorah or visit the Sacred Grove. “The fame of these places will endure and grow, but relatively few will ever be there,” he said.
The First Presidency determined that in an increasingly worldwide Church, they could not justify the cost of current and future maintenance, security and safety upgrades running into several millions of dollars when only a relative handful of members and visitors would benefit from the experience.
“Times are changing; the world is changing, and quite rapidly. The future is challenging but glorious,” Elder Christofferson said. The ways to perform the Lord’s work will differ in important ways from the six decades since he was in the pageant.
“Yes, the Hill Cumorah Pageant was a formative experience for many of us, but going forward, different and equally compelling formative experiences will come for families and for the current and future rising generations,” Elder Christofferson said. “Those experiences will be tailored to their time and suited to their need.”
Elder Christofferson said he will always be grateful for the Hill Cumorah Pageant and encouraged all those with similar pageant experiences to “hold it close and seek to inspire others for their time.”
Witness of the Book of Mormon
“The Book of Mormon is specifically directed to our day, our experience and the time ahead. It has always been especially relevant, but it grows more relevant every day,” Elder Christofferson declared.
“We need to apply the lessons of its history in our own generation. We need its perspective, its teachings and its testimony more and more as time goes on. It is the tool for the latter-day harvest of souls; it is the Lord’s instrument of conversion for those both in and out of the Church; it is palpable proof of the Restoration; it is an unparalleled written witness of Jesus Christ for an unbelieving world,” he said.
Elder Christofferson encouraged his listeners to “let your experience with the Hill Cumorah Pageant and the witness of the Holy Ghost bind you to the Book of Mormon so that it will be your daily guide and counselor — a continual source of spiritual strength and divine sustenance to you.”
The Book of Mormon has come by the power of God because its authors and other faithful saints prayed with faith. “Their love and their blessing are upon us. Perhaps you felt that as you portrayed their stories in a simple drama enacted on the stage of a sacred hill. In all events, their book which is now our book, has unique power to bless you. Hold it close.”
In his remarks, Elder Gay — who raised his family not far from Palmyra and attended the pageant many times — also bore witness of the Book of Mormon. “The pageant at Hill Cumorah, above anything else, is a testimony that at this place a prophet of God, Joseph Smith, received from an angel of God, Moroni, gold plates which contained what the world knows today as the Book of Mormon,” Elder Gay said.
Even as they commemorate “wonderful pageant memories,” Elder Gay invited listeners to remember the blessings that come through the Book of Mormon. “By the Book of Mormon we may know that Jesus is the Christ, we may know that Joseph Smith is His prophet raised up in our day to help prepare the world for His Second Coming. Let us also be grateful that we have in the Book of Mormon a sure witness that God lives and speaks in our day and has blessed us with an instrument that can guide and direct us in all aspects of our lives.”
History and future
The pageant, which featured scenes from the Book of Mormon, took place on the hillside where the Prophet Joseph Smith experienced five encounters with the angel Moroni and retrieved the ancient gold plates from which he translated the Book of Mormon.
Staged each summer since 1937, the Hill Cumorah Pageant became one of the largest outdoor theater productions in the United States. It required about 230,000 volunteers hours and roughly 1,000 volunteers, including a cast of 750 from the Palmyra area and across the country.
In October 2018, the First Presidency released an official statement discouraging large productions such as pageants. Soon after, it was announced that the iconic pageant would be discontinued following a final 2020 summer season and that the sacred site of the hill would prepare for a quieter role, similar to the nearby Sacred Grove.
Unfortunately, COVID-19 restrictions caused the 2020 production to be postponed and ultimately for the rescheduled 2021 season to be canceled.
In his June 11 remarks during the 56th annual Mormon History Association conference, Elder LeGrand R. Curtis Jr., the Church historian and recorder, highlighted the historical significance of the Hill Cumorah site for the Church and outlined plans to restore it to more closely resemble what Joseph Smith would have experienced there in the early 1800s.
Plans to rehabilitate the Hill Cumorah involve 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.
The area will be reforested with thousands of native-tree seeds. The Church will also create a network of accessible trails. 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 at Hill Cumorah with the angel Moroni.
The Hill Cumorah Pageant devotional and broadcast is available in English, Spanish, Portuguese and ASL until July 22 on broadcasts.ChurchofJesusChrist.org. After then, the 2019 Hill Cumorah Pageant will be available in Gospel Media. The Hill Cumorah devotional with Elder Christofferson, however, will no longer be available for viewing.