A grand display of Mormon faith
Don and Lee Preston, who teach at an international school near Shanghai, were sitting under a gaily striped tent last Saturday in a field near the birthplace of the Mormon prophet Joseph Smith, helping entertain a group of Mormon teenagers.
The Prestons could have gone home to Arizona for their vacation -- “but we wanted to do something more meaningful with our summer than eating in restaurants and seeing movies,” said Lee, 43.
So they packed up their three teenagers and flew to upstate New York instead. Along with hundreds of other Mormon families, they would spend a couple of weeks here in a glorified summer theater camp, talking about Scripture by day and performing it by night.
By nightfall that Saturday, the Prestons and their children -- Alynne, 18, Emma, 16, and John, 14 -- had changed from T-shirts and shorts into elaborate costumes of a lost tribe of Israel. Don was still getting used to his long, straight wig, which he said had a Cher vibe going. After posing for family pictures, they joined 700 other bearded, bewigged and bejeweled volunteers on a massive, seven-tier outdoor stage to perform in the annual Hill Cumorah Pageant, a celebration of the Mormon faith that more than one of its adult actors described as a “bucket list” experience.
For more than an hour, amid explosions, waterfalls, fiery deaths and a Christ in glowing white robes who floats to stage from a heavenly height, the Prestons and their brethren helped bring to life the stories told in the Book of Mormon.
“Plato listed spectacle as one of the basic elements of drama, and we certainly cash in on that,” said pageant artistic director Brent Hanson, a theater professor at Utah’s Dixie State College, who, like all pageant staff, is a volunteer.
This seems to be a propitious moment for Mormonism, a uniquely American faith beset by misconceptions, many stemming from its polygamous roots and an enduring suspicion among some Christians that Mormons are not really Christian. (The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints officially disavowed plural marriage more than a century ago; the practice endures among fundamentalist breakaway sects.)
Two of the Republican Party’s presidential hopefuls -- Mitt Romney and Jon Huntsman Jr. -- are Mormons.
In mid-June, the LDS Church unveiled a rebranding campaign in New York City aimed at countering negative associations that came up in focus groups. Featuring smiling Mormon faces on taxis and the electronic billboards of Times Square and the slogan “I’m a Mormon,” the campaign, which directs people to an LDS website, Mormon.org, is slated to expand to other cities in the fall.
And the Broadway musical hit “The Book of Mormon” is reeling in audiences and money. Though some Mormons have taken offense at the show, which pokes ironic fun at the religious zeal of two missionaries sent to a Ugandan village plagued by AIDS and a violent warlord, some Mormons here said they welcomed the attention.
“What’s exciting to me is that it may be in some measure a reflection of our faith’s coming of age -- that people think we’re important enough to make fun of in a friendly way,” Hanson said.
And while “The Book of Mormon” patrons have to empty their piggybanks, fans of the real Book of Mormon don’t have to pony up a cent. They don’t even pay for parking.
“This is the antithesis of Disney World,” said Kingsley Allan, 46, a scientist at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, who greeted arrivals last weekend in a gray wig and rustic skirt with his 13-year-old son, Stewart, also in costume. “Disney World is all gimme, gimme, gimme. This is about them giving back.”
Many Mormons here say they have felt the sting of prejudice. Protesters often show up, and each night a van with a placard advertising an anti-Mormon website sponsored by an evangelical Christian group drives back and forth on the road bordering the site.
“Did you know in the late 19th and early 20th century there was folklore that Mormons have horns?” said pageant staging director John Huntington, an actor and singer who teaches at Saddleback College in Mission Viejo. “That comes from ignorance.”
“I’ve answered some bizarre questions,” said Brenda Williams, a Visalia history teacher who brought her 78-year-old mother from Salt Lake City to see the pageant. “People think we do bad or satanic things.”
Once, Williams said, when she dropped off a flier about a multidenominational Christmas celebration at her church, the secretary at an Episcopal church asked, “Do you mind if I ask you a question? How many husbands do you have?”
The annual extravaganza, which began in 1937, is overseen by the missionary department of the church headquarters in Salt Lake City. The actors fan out into the audience before and after the show with pamphlets and copies of the Book of Mormon, eager to talk about their faith. A survey four years ago showed that a quarter of the audience was not Mormon.
The pageant is an enormous logistical undertaking with a short lead time. After applying online between the previous August and November, selected participants arrive in Palmyra on a summer Friday. They are cast based on appearance alone, since the soundtrack is prerecorded by professional actors with singing by the Mormon Tabernacle Choir.
After a week of rehearsal, the show opens. It was to close Saturday after seven performances.
The stage is set into the hillside -- the hill is called Cumorah -- exactly where Smith claimed to have found the metal tablets written in what he called “reformed Egyptian” in the 1820s that he translated into the Book of Mormon and used to found the faith.
“We believe it’s an ancient book of scriptures that God spoke to prophets in ancient America just like he did in the Bible in the Holy Land. God used Joseph Smith as his frontman to make that happen,” said Hanson, the artistic director.
After the pageant ended at 10:30 p.m., Helen Newton, an ophthalmologist from Bloomfield, Conn., waited for a hotel shuttle with some friends.
Newton, 56, who is African American, was aware of the church’s checkered racial history when she converted from Catholicism 15 years ago. The Mormon Church did not allow black men to be ordained as priests until 1978.
“I had heard about polygamy, so when I went to church I was checking out all the family units,” Newton said. “I studied a lot and prayed about it. And the answer I got was that the author of the New Testament and the Old Testament was the same author as the Book of Mormon.”
She’d been wanting to see the pageant for years, and the spectacle did not disappoint. But, Newton said: “I tried not to let the special effects wow me more than the message.”
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