After 84 memorable years, the Hill Cumorah Pageant has ended. I had the privilege of performing in the cast as a young 17-year-old, back in 1978.
I still remember kissing my anxious mother goodbye as I pointed my little red Datsun eastward on a hot July morning. I had never ventured so far from home before, and never alone. With my hands firmly gripping the wooden steering wheel, and a bevy of paper road maps laid across my lap, I was off.
No cell phone and no GPS, just the wind in my hair and my favorite music playing on the eight-track player — America, James Taylor, Bread, Seals and Crofts, Simon and Garfunkel, Three Dog Night. I rode through the days on a horse with no name, and felt fine in the evening’s summer breeze, a cheeseburger in one hand and a milkshake in the other, the steering wheel guided expertly by my knees (you did it too... don’t lie!).
I can still see the rolling hills, red gambrel-roofed barns, and stark, black and white Holsteins dotting the pastoral countryside of Ohio and Pennsylvania — Kodak moments around every bend. It was a hot and dusty evening, the sunflowers bowing under the weight of the heavy twilight air, when I arrived at Hobart College in the Finger Lakes region of upper-state New York that would be my home for the next two weeks, along with 700 other energetic young volunteers.
From its beginning in 1937 until 1975, the pageant’s cast had been composed of full-time missionaries. The opportunity for church members to participate was new and had been enthusiastically received.
Before sunrise each morning, we’d file into a fleet of old yellow school buses and in a procession worthy of uniformed escort, caravan the 30 or so miles through the winding countryside to the little village of Palmyra. Named after the ancient Syrian city, Palmyra is a frontier town, founded in the westward expansion of 1789. Its history is marbled with events surrounding the Civil War, the Industrial Revolution, and the Second Great Awakening.
Palmyra is best known, however, as the birthplace of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, and it is a hillside (a small rise really, in an otherwise flat expanse of farmland) three miles west, that brought over 35,000 annual visitors to witness the reenactment of scenes from the Book of Mormon. That first morning were auditions and casting — really nothing more than a walk around the room as the director quickly determined who would play what role. Since the pageant soundtrack was prerecorded, cast members needed only memorize movements and follow cues.
Being taller than most, I was quickly chosen for the big, strong, strapping role of … the Roman soldier who crucified Christ. Wait. What? A wicked, two-bit, one-scene part? Had I walked like a thug? There must be some mistake. Didn’t they know that I had the leading role in the ward play that year? We’ve always said its not where you serve, but how, right? I would be the best Roman soldier the pageant had ever seen. Pageants need bad guys too.
After just a week of rehearsals, it was showtime. Each evening as the audience began to settle, those in the cast would canvas the hillside handing out pamphlets, looking for missionary opportunities. I soon discovered that finding a non-Mormon at Cumorah was as likely as finding a Mormon at Lourdes! Over the years the pageant had become a pilgrimage for Latter-day Saints from all over the world. The goodwill shown, appreciation expressed, and camaraderie felt can never be forgotten. It was more than a memorial; it was a celebration!
The mornings were spent visiting nearby historical sites. In this region known as the “burned over district,” religious revival swept the land throughout the late 18th and early 19th centuries. The downtown intersection of Canandaigua and Main is the only place in the world with a church on each corner, facing one another as if in a duel. First came the Episcopalians, then the Presbyterians, followed by the Methodists and the Baptists. The good Baptists opened their doors and fed us on several occasions.
Just a block from this corner lay the now abandoned Erie Canal. The water motionless and covered with algae, it seemed more of a reflecting pool than the busy corridor of commerce that connected the Great Lakes with the Hudson River, a 363-mile engineering marvel that ran from Albany to Buffalo. Palmyra was known as the “queen of canal towns,” an important stop along the Underground Railroad, harboring hundreds of escaped slaves prior to the Emancipation Proclamation of 1863.
We walked through the Sacred Grove, toured the Joseph Smith Sr. family home, and visited the E.B. Grandin Printing Shop where the first copies of the Book of Mormon rolled off the press in 1829. Spaced between these excursions were daily devotionals, often conducted by LDS general authorities. It was here I first met Gordon B. Hinckley, who 17 years later would become the 15th president of the church. Star struck, I asked if I could take his picture.
“Yes,” he replied, “but it won’t get you into heaven.”
He must have known I was the Roman soldier.
It’s been 43 years since my pageant debut — half a lifetime but only minutes in the story of a hill. As the curtain closes on its final performance, this place that hosted the largest outdoor theater production in the United States for the better part of a century will prepare for a quieter, more reflective role. Church leaders want to return Cumorah to its natural setting, inviting quiet reflection of the events experienced there. For the millions who came to watch, and the tens of thousands who played a part, that reflection may well turn personal … to a cherished memory of a spectacular, eventful, and inspiring July of their past.
Marc K. Ensign is a resident of Paradise and owner of Jack’s Wood Fired Oven in Logan.