Among the scores of religions in the United States, one of the least understood is Mormonism. This Christian sect boasts almost six million members nationally and over 13 million members worldwide. It's one of the fastest growing religions in the world.
Mormons believe that after his crucifixion, Jesus came to the Americas to preach. They believe that the prophet Mormon wrote a record of that event on golden tablets, which were later buried in upstate New York. Their religion's founder, Joseph Smith, unearthed The Book of Mormon in 1827.
Today, the Mormon Church (formally known as the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints or LDS for short) is headquartered in Salt Lake City, in the western state of Utah. But every year, the focus returns to Hill Cumorah, New York, where the tablets were found. As VOA's Adam Phillips reports, tens of thousands flock there to an elaborate pageant dramatizing the story of the religion.
It's 5:00 on a golden afternoon in Hill Cumorah, more than four hours before show time. But on a patch of grass below a giant five-tiered outdoor stage, a score of toga-clad youngsters are already hard at work rehearsing the screaming and the dying they must do for the Destruction of Ancient Jerusalem scene halfway through the performance. It is one of the pageant's special effects marvels of sound and light.
As in the first Hill Cumorah pageant 70 years ago, the entire cast and crew are volunteers. Those early performances were modest affairs, presented on primitive wood plank stages, with the actors dressed in costumes that were little more than artfully disguised bathrobes. Today's pageant features a cast of 680, who mime the movements of their characters to the accompaniment of a pre-recorded soundtrack because the outdoor amphitheater is so large. They are supported by more than 120 other volunteers behind the scenes, who build the sets, apply the make-up and the beards, sew the costumes and create special effects, including fireballs, waterfalls, floods and the vivid re-imagining of various divine miracles.
Artistic Director Brent Hanson, who oversees the rehearsals and the week of nightly performances, says the pageant is a labor of love. "Even though this is exhausting," he says, "I go away refreshed because of the commitment of the people involved. And ultimately, it's not about theater, It's about faith." And he notes that using theater to teach is not a new idea. "It's the way theater has always been used, really.".
The pageant's words and actions are meant to move the audience. But they are also deeply inspiring to the actors, all of whom are Mormons. Seth Probert, an 18-year-old from Oregon, plays Moroni, the New World prophet Mormons believe buried the golden tablets telling of Jesus' arrival in the New World and the various disasters that befell the people who disobeyed God. "Moroni was pretty amazing," he says. "I only wish I could be half the man he was because he had the Spirit with him all the time. He is an example to everybody."
Fourteen-year-old Jacob Done says playing a warrior in the pageant is fun, but that, for him, the greatest joy is experiencing the Holy Spirit. "It's been described as a burning in your bosom. Lots of people cry when they feel the Spirit," he says, adding that he does. "I get very emotional."
Perhaps no cast member is better acquainted with the pageant's combination of spirituality and fun than the young man who portrays Jesus. In the show's dramatic climax, 18-year-old Spencer Baker appears alone, suspended high in the air above the audience. The white spotlight that bathes him in a heavenly aura also masks his supporting harness and cables. He says it is exhilarating. "You are just hanging there by your shoulders and your groin. It's a one-of-a-kind of experience. But it's been a neat experience for me in the way it has opened my eyes to the love our Heavenly Father [God] has for us."
Most of the 5000 or so people in the audience each evening are Mormons, who want to see a dramatized re-telling of what they already believe. Others come simply out of curiosity or a desired to be entertained. LDS members hope that the emotional impact of the pageant will encourage that group to convert.
It's clear 15-year-old Merlina Williams was intrigued, both by the pageant and the Book of Mormon. "It was 'uber-awesome' [excellent]!," she gushes. "I was just so excited about the whole thing." Williams does not know if she will become a Mormon as a result of seeing the pageant, but says she does plan to read the Book of Mormon. When asked what sort of books she likes to read, William is unequivocal: "Anything that just catches my attention. And that pageant pretty much did!," she laughs.
Indeed, Mormonism has been getting the attention and scrutiny of many Americans recently. Mitt Romney, one of the leading Republican candidates for president, is a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints. If elected, he would be the first Mormon president in American history.