It’s a warm summer night in upstate New York. The sun is setting as lights illuminate a large stage on a small hill.
With 10,000 audience members eagerly waiting and 1,000 volunteers working hard behind the scenes, the stage is set for the largest outdoor theater production in the United States.
Although it ended in 2019, the Hill Cumorah Pageant, produced by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, had a tremendous impact on the Palmyra area, participants and audience members. The legacy it left behind will not be forgotten.
During his 10 years of serving in the Hill Cumorah Pageant’s presidency, Chris Bjorling had the opportunity to meet and work with thousands of people from around the world. One of Bjorling’s assignments was to redesign the member-missionary experience, including how participants interacted with guests. Bjorling said as part of this renewed effort, they began having participants walk around in their costumes before the show, sharing messages about the Book of Mormon with audience members. The effect was nothing short of a miracle.
“We went from 500 referrals [to local missionaries] up to 5,000 the first year…that speaks to the power of the project and those experiences,” Bjorling said.
Despite the pageant’s discontinuance, Bjorling continues to see many opportunities to share the gospel with individuals in the area. He explained how members in the Palmyra area make frequent efforts to help others learn about the history and beliefs of the Church.
Bjorling is confident in the power of inviting others to come and see, sharing how “once we get [people] in our doors, they’ll feel the Spirit”.
“He knows who I am”
Like Bjorling, Gail Argetsinger saw the miracles that came from the pageant and how it has continued to influence the area since its final performance.
Argetsinger is a costume design professor at the State University of New York in Brockport. Her creativity and passion for the theater has provided her with many prestigious opportunities to utilize her talents.
For Argetsinger, the Hill Cumorah Pageant was unlike any other project she had previously worked on. Not only did it require intense skill and attention to detail, but also much prayer and inspiration through the Spirit.
“There [was] a lot of inspiration…fasting and praying in the temple, [and]…early hours of the morning receiving…visions of certain costumes,” Argetsinger said.
Argetsinger explained how the pageant was a chance to bring the Book of Mormon to life and create memorable experiences for audience members. She understood the opportunity before her to share her own testimony through her designs.
“We all bore our testimony through our work,” she said. “I want[ed] [guests] to look at this and say, ‘this is the quality of excellence that we expect from The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.’”
Argetsinger was able to witness countless miracles while working on the pageant. Yet, one of the greatest and most long-lasting blessings she’s seen is the strengthening of her own testimony.
“He knows who I am. He cares about me, and He helped me to magnify my calling and do what I needed to do,” Argestinger said.
Memories from the hill
Jonathan Porschet, a local member of the Church, knows the Sacred Grove and Hill Cumorah like the back of his hand. For six years as a youth and young adult, he helped maintain the historic Church sites in Palmyra. Porschet shared that because of that time working on the sites, he knows the area “very intimately.”
Growing up, Porschet would attend the Hill Cumorah Pageant every summer with his family. He explained how the pageant provided an opportunity for members to get involved and have hands-on experiences with the historic sites. He shared how “it was all hands on deck” to get things organized for the pageant. He remembers even as a young child helping his mom feed pageant cast members everyday.
Porschet said the time he spent in those sacred spaces was influential in the development and strengthening of his testimony. While taking care of the land and performing other maintenance jobs, Porschet couldn’t help but relate the work he was doing to what Joseph Smith, Jr. and his family would have been doing while living there.
Having the opportunity to spend so much time in the same places where Joseph Smith lived also strengthened Porschet’s testimony of the Book of Mormon and the Restoration. While on his mission, Porschet was able to share the testimony he had developed during those years working on the historic sites.
Years later, his testimony of Joseph Smith, the Restoration and the Book of Mormon still remain strong. Porschet believes that his life would be drastically different without his knowledge of the gospel.
“[The] Book of Mormon is central to my testimony [and] my faith…[without the Book of Mormon] my life…would be quite void of the things that I value most,” Porschet said.
Although it’s been an adjustment to not have the pageant every year, Porschet feels it’s inspiring that the Church is working on restoring the Hill Cumorah to reflect how it would have looked during Joseph Smith’s life.
“It’s kind of a bittersweet thing for people, but it’s nice to look around and imagine this is how it was…in the 1820s,” Porshet said.
Porschet believes that there has been an increased effort in the area to help share the gospel since the pageant ended. “I think there’s been a real focus on remembering the sacred events that happened here,” he explained. Porschet has found that helping others to experience the sacred sites of the Church provides a powerful opportunity to invite others to learn more.
Legacy of the Pageant
Doctrine and Covenants 128:20 states: “And again, what do we hear? Glad tidings from Cumorah!” For years, faithful members fulfilled this scripture by sharing their talents and skills in the Hill Cumorah Pageant. When the pageant was discontinued, many wondered how they would be able to remember and share the sacred events that took place in that small village in upstate New York in the early 1800s.
However, members in the area have discovered new ways to continue to fulfill that scripture as they have shared their experiences, testimonies and talents with those around them. By doing these things, they have helped others continue to feel the strong spirit that fills those sacred sites.
Through this process, they have further strengthened their own testimonies and pointed individuals to Jesus Christ and His restored Church.