The Hill Cumorah Pageant began in 1937 as an LDS missionary tool and, for most of its 80 years, young Mormon proselytizers acted in the spectacle, passed out pamphlets and copies of the Book of Mormon to thousands of audience members, or brought potential converts to see it.
In other words, missionaries have been a constant presence at the Mormon version of Oberammergau, Germany’s famed live Passion play.
Last week, full-time LDS missionaries in the New York Rochester Mission were forbidden to attend the annual showing — even with investigators in tow — during its run, which ends Saturday.
“This is primarily due to an effort to strengthen relationships between local members and those learning about the church,” LDS Church spokesman Daniel Woodruff writes in an email. “Members are encouraged to invite nonmember friends to the pageant, while missionaries play a critical role in preparing those people to have meaningful experiences there.”
On top of that, Woodruff says, “the mission president felt concern about the late hours and long distances missionaries are required to travel when attending the pageant.” Better, the mission president reasoned, for them to just stay in their areas.
Jerry Argetsinger, who directed the play in the 1990s, has a slightly different explanation for the ban: numbers.
In 1997, the last year Argetsinger directed, some 73,000 people saw the pageant, of whom 35,000 were not Mormons, he says. Missionaries collected some 2,400 “referrals” from playgoers saying they would welcome later visits from LDS proselytizers.
These days, he says, it’s closer to a total of 25,000 attendees, and most are already members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
In the early 2000s, David Cook was an LDS stake president in Rochester and asked members in every congregation he oversaw how many were converts. In every case, about half the hands went up, Cook says. Of those, how many came from the pageant? Another 50 percent.
“There are still pageant converts,” he says, “but I don’t see large numbers of referrals coming into our ward.”
Years ago, the pageant would create a massive traffic jam and parking headache, especially on opening weekend. Last Saturday, Cook and his wife, Kathleen, drove by the hill and saw a much smaller audience and no line of cars.
“If no one is going, and the missionaries are not getting any referrals,” Argetsinger asks, “why put so much money and time into it?”
It could be, says Barbara Jones Brown, executive director of the Mormon History Association, “pageants are a thing of the past.”
An innovative effort
In the 1920s, Eastern States Mission President B.H. Roberts took a group of missionaries west from New York City to the farm of LDS founder Joseph Smith in Palmyra, N.Y., the cradle of Mormonism, to celebrate Pioneer Day, according to a history compiled by Argetsinger. Part of that celebration “included the acting out of scenes from the Book of Mormon and church history.”
The church acquired the Hill Cumorah in 1928, and the celebration moved there. In the summer of 1935, as part of the dedicatory exercises of the Angel Moroni Monument, “The Book of Mormon in Song, Picture, and Story” was presented.
Two years later, the show had a script, missionaries as cast members, and lofty ambitions, Argetsinger writes.
By midcentury, the “elders” from the entire mission took the lead roles in the pretaped performance as well as being in crowd scenes, while young women from LDS Church-owned Brigham Young University were bused to the East Coast to fill in those throngs (the few coveted female roles included the Virgin Mary and Sariah, wife of Book of Mormon prophet Lehi).
Dave Wonnacott, a retired businessman in St. George, took part in the pageant in 1965 and 1966 as a missionary.
The cast assembled the week before the first performance, he recalls, and missionaries helped train the young women on how to approach nonmembers in the audience.
“Apostles and [LDS] general authorities would come out from Utah and give firesides and speeches,” Wonnacott says. “It was a great time and a great spiritual experience.”
When the original script was retired in the 1980s, Argetsinger says in his history, “it was the last representative of a lost art form: the American community pageant.”
Many communities stopped staging Founders Day and Fourth of July pageants, the tradition that gave rise to the Mormon showpiece, he writes. “The audience was now accustomed to films and television and could not understand a presentation of unrelated ‘scenes on a theme.’”
The church commissioned Mormon sci-fi writer Orson Scott Card to produce a new script, Argetsinger writes, “targeting the non-scripture-reading, non-Mormon young adult.”
The show added more special effects — erupting volcanoes, for example — and colorful costumes, imagining itself as a theatrical rather than a strictly religious production, Argetsinger says in the history.
The “most notable change” occurred in 1991, when service organizations — Rotary, Lions and Kiwanis — agreed to “provide snacks and meals to pageant visitors.”
Because of such involvement, Argetsinger writes, the community no longer viewed it “as someone else’s pageant, but as ‘our pageant.’”
That is still the case, says Kathleen Cook, who has been in the production seven times during three decades of living in Rochester.
“It is still really important to our non-Mormon local population,” she says. “The cast of 600 people spends the second week of the show doing a lot of service.”
For these clubs, she says, “it’s their biggest fundraiser of the year.”
A new look
In 1998, Argetsinger stepped down as director, and the church’s Missionary Department took over the pageant’s supervision from local LDS leadership.
Its audience and approach, he says, began to evolve.
Some attendees complained that the costumes — designed by Argetsinger’s wife, Gail Argetsinger — were too skimpy.
They were not “Mormon modest,” she quips. Skin was covered, colors were muted, and the look became more “handmade.”
Others said the volcano was distracting and the loudspeakers set off car alarms. So these effects were phased out.
The aesthetic was changed from a “professional Eastern production to a theater-savvy audience of those not of our faith, non-scripture-reading, non-church-attending young adults and families,” Jerry Argetsinger says, “to a destination pageant primarily for Western Mormons and their families.”
Officials in the Missionary Department are now “reaping what they sowed,” he says. “They wanted a show for Mormons, and that’s what they got.”
That’s not necessarily bad, says David Cook.
Entering into the LDS scriptural story to throw rocks at Samuel the Lamanite, to hear the conversion of Alma, watch for the star over Bethlehem or witness Christ’s ascension into heaven has been life-changing, he says. “It truly has been a spiritual experience for us and our kids, who have all been in it.”
Even if it doesn’t convert others, he says, that’s enough.