The Course of Reason

Reflections on the Hill Cumorah Pageant

July 20, 2010

Freethinkers from CFI and Buffalo visit the Mormon Hill Cumorah Pageant and engage with protesters.

This past Saturday, Debbie Goddard, Ed Beck, two other members of Buffalo Freethought, and myself headed over to Palmyra, New York for the Hill Cumorah Pageant.

A shot of the crowd at the Hill Cumorah Pageant (circa 2009).

The Hill Cumorah Pageant is a yearly theatrical production put on by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints. It follows the alleged origins of Mormonism, from the arrival of a lost tribe of Israelites in the “promised land” of the Americas, to the discovery of tablets detailing this same story by Joseph Smith in the 1800s, and in fact the Pageant takes place on the very same hill where the discovery allegedly took place. The event is free and open to the public, and is attended by the faithful and the interested from across North America.

This was my second year attending the Pageant, both times with a group from CFI. Our goal in attending has been and was to experience first hand a largely foreign culture and test our mental notions of Mormonism against reality, as well as dialogue with some of the attendees. To those ends, we arrived early and began wandering around.

Before we could even meet any Mormons though, we ended up stopping to speak with the Baptist protesters. “Protesters?” you ask, “What were they protesting? Proposition 8, perhaps? The Mormon practice of shunning apostates from their communities and families, maybe?” No, this was a far older battle. The Baptists were protesting the Mormons for worshiping the wrong god.

A Baptist protester at the Hill Cumorah Pageant dressed as the Devil.

The gentleman you see above was behind the fence, next to the public road, where the protesters were allowed to demonstrate. He was dressed as the Devil and holding a Book of Mormon as he was of the opinion that the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints had been founded by Satan himself.

What were particularly interesting were the arguments the Baptists used against the Mormons. Our devil friend pointed out numerous contradictions within the Book of Mormon, the lack of any archaeological evidence for its claims, and the changing nature of what is divinely acceptable behavior for Mormons over time (e.g., polygamy). While the masked evangelist subscribed to a theism nearly identical to what might have been found two thousand years ago himself (going so far as to tell the females in our party that they don’t deserve the right to vote, and should be at home taking care of children instead of working or going to college), it is interesting, though sadly all too common, that he did not turn his first two criticisms against his own beliefs.

A young Baptist protester holding a sign that reads,

I ended up in a debate with Debbie against two Baptist women, who argued evolution and personal theology with us. Over the course of our discussion, they brought up arguments of irreducible complexity, divine revelation, and Pascal’s Wager. Both of these women were mothers, and their children were holding signs and playing in the grass behind them. Each was very pleasant, and I believe they were honestly there, as they claimed to be, out of love and a desire to help the rest of us reach heaven. They just express this in the only way they know how, through a system of beliefs and prejudices developed by ignorant, confused, and frightened Bronze Age mystics.

In the end, after nearly an hour of debate about science, evolution, and the foundations of knowledge, we parted ways with a deal. I’d take their Bible and read it, asking their god to reveal to me the truth of its existence, and they would consider their holy book and beliefs with the same critical eye they turned toward the Mormons.

A quote from the Bible. Romans 5:8

Shortly after making our deal, the Pageant started and we quickly took to our seats as the protesters stayed behind to maintain their vigil of the road, I suppose. The show itself is a massive, overwhelming affair. There are some few hundred performers who take the stage at various times, for both shows of numbers, and to act out the roles of prophets, patriarchs, and princes. If you ever find yourself in Upstate New York in mid-July, I thoroughly recommend making time to see the Hill Cumorah Pageant.

A scene from the Pageant. Jesus descends after his crucifixion to a crowd of waiting tribespeople in the Americas.

There’s hardly a better primer for the implausibility of any religious belief than the productions of the religion itself.

 

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