On a July evening in upstate New York, in a field long ago nicknamed “the Bowl,” a dozen men of divergent builds and ages line up in a row. They are wearing street clothes, and they stare—some at the ground, others at the sky—with the studied demureness of people who know they are being watched. Some ten yards away a huddle of people acting in an official-seeming capacity size them up with laserlike intentness, shielding their mouths as they mutter impressions to one another. And all around them a hundred hushed onlookers have gathered, sharing whispered speculations about the outcome of something plainly momentous.
This is the culmination of casting day for the 2019 Hill Cumorah Pageant, a production put on by Mormons each summer and likely the largest outdoor theater event in America. It’s a spectacle that from the vantage of 2021 seems doubly alien: first because it is among the most bonkers, if least-known, of all pieces of Americana; second because it is an immense gathering of bodies, so my mental pictures of it, when I conjure them amid the pandemic’s late stages, appear like negatives of a vanished world.
The pageant is best described as cosmic cosplay: a volunteer cast of 770 Mormons from across the continent—electricians and nurses and adjunct professors, selected from an applicant pool of thousands—acts out key scenes from the Book of Mormon, the faith’s foundational text, before an international audience. (In 2019 that audience will total 43,000.) It has been happening since 1937, but in late 2018 the Mormon prophet, Russell Nelson, decreed that it must end; the last show, pageant organizers decided, would happen in 2020. Because of COVID, though, the finale will get postponed to 2021, and in time that too will be canceled—meaning this, the 2019 pageant, is the actual finale. That no one knows this now gives the events of this week a strange retrospective poignancy.
Since morning they have cast all 770 souls—all but one, that is—assigning parts both major and minor for a mythic drama that sprints through the panicked flight, from Jerusalem, of a party of fugitives in 600 BC, repulsed by that city’s godless decadence; their journey by ship to the Americas; their multiplying in time, then fissuring into two rival tribes; the appearance, hundreds of years later, of the just-resurrected Jesus before them—here, in the Americas, where Mormons believe Jesus walked and preached; the killing-off of the more virtuous tribe by the wickeder one, but not before the good tribe has buried a history of its doings through the centuries, inscribed on gold plates, for posterity; and finally, the unearthing of those plates 1400 years later by a young Joseph Smith, Mormonism’s founder, at the urging of a being named Moroni, on the very hillside (the Hill Cumorah) where the pageant is performed.
All this they will reenact just six days from now, when the pageant’s directors will elevate this ragtag army to theatrical competence. Then, on opening night, in costumes ranging from nineteenth-century Yankee garb to whatever fugitive Israelites living in the pre-Columbian Americas might have worn, they will dramatize these scenes on a ten-level stage overlooking the Bowl. Striding about, they will trace memorized movements and lip-synch dialogue to a soundtrack from the 1980s featuring an epic, John Williams-esque score. Many will dance, embodying that double helix of the sacred yet campy that Mormons have mastered. And when the show is over, per tradition, they will go forth to meet the crowd, and the actor playing Joseph Smith, a perennial fan favorite—this year, a cherubic grocery-store consultant with an MBA—will get mobbed as if he were Freddie Mercury or Kesha.
All of that, though, is yet to come. Now they must cast Jesus—or rather, the Jesuses, for though there is only one Jesus in Mormonism, he is played in the pageant by two men. The first role, by far the less prominent, is the Jesus who appears early in the show, in a vision to the prophet Lehi in Jerusalem, foretelling his birth centuries later; he is called “Vision Savior.” The second is the Jesus who, at the pageant’s pinnacle, visits the Americas: “New World Multitude Savior.”
The men in the row mill about now, striking sheepish smiles or mumbling quips. Then they take turns stepping forward and pacing back and forth, waving magnanimously and exclaiming, “Bring me your children!” while the directors assess their resemblance to the Son of God. One is a friendly-faced man with auburn hair and a dad bod, perhaps 42; another, 23 or so, has a thick middle-parted mane and looks like a young Eddie Vedder. Still another, about the same age, looks to be a disciple too of CrossFit—and when it is his turn to stride to and fro he teeters backward in his cross trainers, as if burdened by his own pecs. It is unclear whether Jesus can be jacked, but the answer would appear to be no: he and the Vedder look-alike are politely waved away by the directors.
Evening advances, and the sky turns a providential pink. The directors confer, engaging in an act that they understand, by their own account, in miraculous terms. They cast everyone based on spiritual hunches: as Mormons see it, every human is a kind of telegraph that clicks, at intervals, into clarity and articulacy, alive with vibrations from beyond. (Mormons call these intervals “personal revelation.”) They await this clarity together now—and I have the sense, viewing them and the anxious would-be Jesuses, that I am seeing something I am not supposed to see: that the powers that be in Salt Lake City, who know of my trip to the pageant—who have stipulated that I must be accompanied by an escort at all times and have, I keep imagining, reviewed my criminal record and even my browser history—would not want me witnessing this unchoreographed scene.
At last the pageant’s artistic director, a Brigham Young University theater instructor named Shawnda Moss, hastens alone toward the remaining men, dismissing all but two—one the man with the dad bod, the other a slender kid in his early twenties with blond hair and dark eyebrows. The crowd coos. Moss looks up at both and, on the verge of tears, declares, “I would like to cast the two of you as our saviors.” Then she turns to the younger of the two and says, “I would like to cast you as our New World Multitude Savior”; to the middle-aged man: “I would like you to be our Vision Savior.”
INTERLUDE; OR, WHAT THE HELL AM I DOING HERE
All that summer I had been sleepwalking. Mornings I woke, and with a glazed-over slowness, a boredom, slouched through my workaday round. Long after work I slouched down streets, familiar streets, which in darkness came to seem projections of my own neural pathways—a circuitry I was sick of. “I feel like I’ve lost the ability to be surprised,” I told a therapist. I tried edibles—chocolates—and when the first did nothing ate a second, then a third, and then all three arrived at once, a stampede that left me rocking back and forth, repentant, ready to moonlight as a D.A.R.E. speaker.
It wasn’t “depression,” exactly; it was spiritual, a staleness that, as an irreligious person, I’d fought with all my life. Except this time was different: I was glimpsing it all around me—in my students especially, college kids to whom I taught writing. The boy with the 142 IQ who went full Brian Wilson and stopped getting out of bed one day. The girl who confessed to me, in chillingly dispassionate tones, that she saw no point in living out the rest of her days. Something was afoot: some gathering despondency, strongest in the young, that had no shortage of worldly causes —planetary, economic—and yet exceeded these. It was a ghostly deficiency. All the Christian faiths in America were hemorrhaging members—and panicking. Fewer than half of millennials now identified as Christian, while Zoomers had just been declared “the Least Religious Generation.” “Nones” outnumbered Catholics and equaled evangelicals.
Meanwhile, a host of weird pseudo-religions like QAnon had sprung up to fill the void, which terrified me. One morning I drove out to the country and, cresting a summit, saw a giant Q mowed into a hillside.
One day I saw a headline that woke me up: the penultimate Hill Cumorah Pageant was approaching. I knew about the pageant because, though I live in Wisconsin, I grew up half an hour from where it takes place. I’d never attended, but knew that once a year a wormhole materialized down the road, something akin to J.K. Rowling’s Platform 9 ¾ that bore you not to Hogwarts but a parallel universe of mature make-believe. The headline kindled my curiosity. I pictured Mormons—a pair of missionaries clacking their way down the street in those white short-sleeve shirts, black pants and dress shoes, facsimiles of Gallant from Highlights—and it struck me that they were the antithesis of what afflicted me and those I knew. Something in their door-to-door deportment, their earnestness and brio, seemed a soft rebuke to my own disenchantment.
I would go and walk among them, discover what they were plugged into and even absorb something of their radiance. In the process I would return to where I was from—and where, I should explain, I first knew the jolt of something higher. I’m an older millennial, one of the legions of “nones”; my upbringing was an experiment in godlessness—secular and scientific, shorn of euphemism. My mom was an ex-flower child, my dad an alumnus of the original Woodstock who made kombucha and jogged on our home treadmill in just tighty-whities and blue Pumas. To teach my brothers and me about origins, they read aloud from that candid seventies picture book, Where Did I Come From? In it were illustrations of a plump, ruddy-cheeked couple with thicket-like pubes who, in one image, were in bed together, locked in a coital embrace. “It’s a little like a sneeze,” the caption read, “but much better.”
What happens when you raise a child in a vacuum of religion, untroubled by sin, bereft of any metaphysical framework? I spent Sundays watching MTV and playing outside; I discovered masturbation at eight (privately dubbing orgasm “the super feeling”), then, convinced anything so delightful must be injurious, renounced it. At night I lay awake, brooding on eternity. The worldview of Where Did I Come From, however clear-sighted, reduced human life to biology alone; there were no sequels entitled Why Am I Here? or Where Am I Going? What dogged me most was the endlessness of death: an electric shock coursed through my body when I tried to grasp the infinitude of it, how all the eons I could think of were, joined together, the briefest prologue to whatever lay beyond the grave. How was everyone I knew just going about their affairs—talking on the phone, dawdling at the mall—when it was obvious they were hurtling toward that blankness? Shouldn’t they be screaming?
At some point, to divert my brain, I took to reading late into the night. The books were science fiction and fantasy—and because I shared a room with my younger brother who fell asleep easily, I read them by the glow of a Nintendo Game Boy accessory called a Light Boy. I sat up reading, at first, Orson Scott Card’s Ender saga, Madeleine L’Engle’s Time Quintet and the requisite Tolkien novels, then weirder stuff: David Lindsay’s A Voyage to Arcturus, Arthur C. Clarke’s Childhood’s End.
The books drilled a hole through my world of Saved by the Bell reruns, and through that hole I could peer at a widened reality where good and evil lay as clearly demarcated as oil from water. Supernaturalism abounded: people died and rose again, often many times over. It was possible to believe that the sensible world was a fraction of what was—that a numinous realm hovered behind it where other life forms dwelled, watching and invisibly swaying us.
I now know that nearly all these writers—and with them heavyweights like Philip K. Dick, Gene Wolfe and C. S. Lewis, plus recent voices like Stephenie Meyer—were, or are, ardent theists. I think I leapt at them because they were smuggling in religion under the guise of science fiction. Or was there a difference? I see myself sitting up in bed like a miner in darkness, equipped with the Light Boy and holding it, lamp-like, over books that together formed a vein of something—some ore of strangeness, of wonder, that I hadn’t known I’d needed but couldn’t now ignore.
It was a luminous July morning. I was being driven about the grounds in a golf cart by Neil Pitts, the pageant president, a man of 68 with the benignant and fatherly air of an elementary-school principal, who was indeed wearing a white short-sleeve button-down and black pants. We drove past the ten-level stage, an enormous Chichen Itza-like structure with a steel frame and façade of gray fiberglass sheeting, built into the lower half of the Hill. Pitts explained that the pageant began in the 1930s, when Mormon missionaries living on the Joseph Smith Family Farm, down the road, put on impromptu skits from the Book of Mormon to amuse themselves. In 1937 it became standard and they moved it to the Hill Cumorah.
We entered Zion’s Camp, crammed with RVs and tents, deserted just now. We passed one tent with a huge banner-like photo draped across the front; pictured was a family of eight, arms around one another—good-looking, Rockwellian people who sparkled. Then we cut back across the Bowl, and Pitts described the seismic power of the sound system, complete with speakers below the stage that rumbled during the show’s most action-packed sequence—a scene called “Destruction,” when earthquakes and flooding rock the Americas as Christ is crucified. Though I knew this from my reading, I turned to Pitts and, with the artless fascination of a child, said, “So the consequences of the Crucifixion were felt here?” He nodded: “Big-time.”
We passed a pavilion called the Study Shelter, where meals and hymns happened, then skirted the cast area, full of tents where youths hung out when not rehearsing. At last we made our way back to the stage, where some two hundred cast members had gathered for morning rehearsal. Pitts dished me off to my next chaperone, associate director Shelby Gist, a straight-talking woman in a streaming floral blouse and jorts. Gist stood at the center of a throng of players, telling them with the exasperation of a JV hoops coach when to depart the stage after a scene: “The exact line is, ‘Then he will pour out his spirit abundantly upon you.’ Then you can move!”
The cast dispersed to their stations about the stage. Many were clad in BYU merch, others in a popular t-shirt that read “AIR MORMON,” featuring a silhouette spread-eagled in space—but instead of Michael Jordan dunking it was an angel blowing into an apocalyptic trumpet. They ran through a “boat scene” depicting the fugitives’ voyage from Jerusalem to the Americas, in which they reared up a mast nested in the stage while spray geysered up. As the brassy space-opera soundtrack blared, I watched an attempted mutiny as Nephi—the Book of Mormon’s extremely sincere protagonist, its Frodo—got ambushed, only to shriek, “Touch me not!” in tones that would’ve made Elijah Wood blush; and, magically, the mutineers flew backward and collapsed.
I started laughing at this, adult LARPing that it was, yet found it captivating: it was the strangest cocktail of old and new, ancient yet American. The pageant was conceived as America’s answer to Oberammergau, a passion play performed in Bavaria since 1634—it continues to this day—in which local people reenact Jesus’s last days. With this in mind I began to see this spectacle for what it was: the last vestige of a centuries-old tradition of outdoor religious theater, the heir to the medieval morality plays in which an “Everyman” faced some great temptation, undergoing a trial in which his soul hung in the balance—the creaky entertainments of the English countryside that Shakespeare watched as a child.
Yet there was something undeniably contemporary about this play and the religion it celebrated. I found it impossible to forget that this story had been written less than two centuries ago: the whole religion was as recent an invention as the lawn mower. And in its modernity it kept reminding me of that genre in which I’d taken refuge as an insomniac kid. It wasn’t just the soundtrack or the apparitions being staged; it was the terms I heard people casually using, like “spirit prison” and “Melchizedek Priesthood.” It was the fact that the Jesus statue at the Salt Lake Temple visitors’ center is backed by a huge mural of the Milky Way—an outer-space Jesus.
So when I learned the pageant’s script had been written by Orson Scott Card, the controversial sci-fi novelist I’d read by the glow of the Light Boy, it rather put me over the edge. Card told me, when I tracked him down: “I’m on the record many times over, calling Mormonism a ‘science-fiction religion.’” He meant Mormon cosmology, an interstellar system graced with a lore to rival Dune, which crystallized in the 1820s—the decade that brought Mary Shelley’s best-known novels—and continued to be built out in the decades that followed, which saw luminaries like Jules Verne and, later, H. G. Wells.
What was the point of this sci-fi faith? All around me were clues: the fact that the cast saw themselves as creators of a celestial city on earth, here in this field. They called that city Zion, an ancient name for Jerusalem that Mormons have revived; they believe themselves charged with forging New Jerusalems now, modern microcosms of the ancient one that take shape wherever people gather, commit to the greater good, and thereby grow godlike. Mormonism is filled with such cobwebby concepts—and rites—dredged up from antiquity and given strange new life in contemporary America: they believe the Garden of Eden is in Jackson County, Missouri. The earliest Mormons performed exorcisms in the age of the first fax machines. And this was key, to faith and pageant both. They depended on a furious effort to resuscitate what was buried in a premodern past—ritual energies, characters, symbols—in the midst of modernity: a landscape of decaying interstates and shuttered malls, where these antique constructs sat as awkwardly as mastodons. Keep going, those around me seemed to say, arms outstretched like so many Gatsbys toward a dream of divinely charted existence. It can persist even here.
Morning bled into afternoon. I followed my next handler, an ebullient Filipino-American woman named Cherlyn, toward the outer edge of the Bowl. There, by the road, I watched a group of teens practice a scene called the Harvest Dance. The soundtrack featured a jaunty Disneyish waltz, which the directors played on a boom box while the teens cavorted. Here I noticed something I would go on observing during youth rehearsals: the directors called out, “This actually happened.”
An outsider might have perceived all this as akin to, I don’t know, the Middle Earth Festival, but to the cast, of course, it was tantamount to a Gettysburg reenactment: not fiction but received truth, a kernel of vision they had internalized and that, acorn-like, ramified into all they said and did. They were meant to emerge from this with the pivotal episodes of the Book of Mormon lodged in their muscle memory. (Surely no attendee at the Middle Earth Festival marvels afterward, “I finally get what Gandalf went through at Moria.”) What did it mean to sacralize a science fiction, ramping up its imaginative plot points to the status of historical fact?
Standing at the roadside, I saw a line of eighteen-wheelers parked beside the Bowl, their cargo spaces open. They held chairs. A coordinated army of cast members approached the trucks, took hold of the chairs and carried them to the Bowl, wave after wave, trundling them by the thousands and fixing them in rows on the grass. A small city was taking shape here in a matter of days. It was a huge extrusion in the physical world of one guy’s imagination, of a wild saga inscribed in the brains and bodies of his followers. The kingdom, I saw, was here. Whether the vision that had birthed it was fact or fiction, historical record or fever-brained concoction, hardly seemed to matter.
INTERLUDE: THE VISION
Two hundred years ago, in a wood three miles from this field known as the Sacred Grove, a teenager arrived on an early-morning walk. He was shy and apparently unremarkable—poor, uneducated, the fifth of eleven kids. Joe Smith. He’d grown quieter of late, tormented by his sinfulness and the hypocrisy of those around him.
Across the region people were starved for the supernatural, for more than the standard church service could provide. Unlettered hicks spoke in tongues; farmers saw stuff in cornfields, preached the Second Coming of Christ in the flesh—and soon. The Smiths were steeped in that enthusiasm, practitioners of a backwoods occultism that led them to scour the land for buried treasure. He had a divining rod—a forked hazel branch he carried through the countryside, which he believed pointed toward riches in the earth—and with it a seer stone he held to his eye for the same purpose. Ludicrous and Tom Sawyerish, maybe—but then, the Western world was in a cusp-moment, caught between premodern magical thinking and an Enlightenment rationalism whose conquest was far from complete.
So: a teenager awash in magic, on an early-morning walk. He came to a clearing in the woods, knelt down to pray but couldn’t speak. Suddenly he heard footsteps behind him, shot up and spun around, only to find no one. He stood there unable to shake the thought that he was being stalked, tracked down “by some actual being from the unseen world.” He would die. Just then, a pillar of light tunneled through the trees and staggered him. You’re forgiven, said a voice. All the churches have grown putrid. Go off and live virtuously.
What happened next is either unutterably enchanting or unsuitable for adult discussion. He went up to bed one night and began to pray, and as he did so his room flared with light and a paranormal being in a white robe hovered before him. He stated his name as Moroni; he had come to tell Smith of a new gospel buried in a hillside nearby—he specified where—inscribed on gold plates and bearing “an account of the former inhabitants of this continent and the source from whence they sprang.” Buried with the plates was a pair of seer stones like those he’d used to hunt after gold, which he would need to translate them. Go and find them, the thing urged him, dig them up and translate them for the world. Then he vanished and the room grew dark.
That was how it started: as a poor boy’s dream of treasure, transmuted into divine longing. Gold gave way to God. He bided his time—got married—then set out one night with his new wife, Emma Hale, toward the hill. He found the appointed spot and began to dig—and while he toiled the being materialized again, watching over him. Hours later Smith descended the hillside with the plates swaddled in his coat like a live thing. Hale never saw them directly, but rather caressed them under cloth, feeling their metallic hardness, the grooves of their inscription.
The characters on the plates, he said, were written in something called reformed Egyptian. They needed translating. So he retired to a room with an assistant and, placing the covered plates on a table and one of the seer stones in a top hat, gazed into the hat and did something oracular. In the darkness of the hat the seer stone glowed, and above it a parchment materialized, upon which the characters appeared, and below them their English translation. Smith spoke what he saw while the assistant, rapt, transcribed. He unspooled a saga of ancient American tribes from Jerusalem—their feudings, visit from Christ, the better tribe’s extinction. The work was finished by June 1829, hitting the shelves at a local bookstore as the Book of Mormon the following year. It was a feat of magic: Smith pulled a world religion out of a hat.
Whether you find the product unreadable (Mark Twain called it “chloroform in print”) or discover in it a mystical document on par with the Bhagavad Gita is a matter of personal temperament. If you are like me, you are apt to see in Smith an early writer of speculative fiction. It’s not just the supernaturalism of his saga; it’s that it has a strong element of the seriality that typifies the genre: whatever Smith’s plates really consisted of—and no one outside his innermost circle ever saw them—he used them as the basis for a sprawling piece of Bible fanfic. The Book of Mormon is a superfan’s paean to the King James Bible: there’s a reworking of Exodus, but instead of Moses there is Lehi, leading his people not to Canaan but to America. An ark of sorts bears them there. There are ancient submarines worthy of Jules Verne. Above all there are Jesus’s dealings in the Americas post-resurrection—The Further Adventures of Jesus Christ.
There’s a term known to lovers of science fiction—namely, retroactive continuity (“retcon” for short). It describes how writers take an existing series and reinterpret its details to make possible the series’ continuance. At its best, retconning can breathe new life into a stagnant franchise; at its worst it’s a cringey affront to the audience’s memory and intelligence, the author scarcely acknowledging some preposterous contradiction with what came before. Think of Star Wars: in The Return of the Jedi Palpatine dies decisively, hurled down a reactor shaft by Darth Vader. But in The Rise of Skywalker, in a WTF-caliber retcon, he’s simply…back. (“Somehow,” a character remarks airily, “Palpatine returned.”) Mormonism constantly retcons the Bible: in John 10:16 Jesus tells his disciples cryptically, “Other sheep I have, which are not of this fold: them also I must bring.” Does he mean the Israelites in the next county over? No, Smith revealed; he means he has to go materialize amid chocolate, maize, ocelots, preaching before Native Americans. For that matter, Adam and Eve lived in the Greater Kansas City Metropolitan Area.
Transposed to the religious realm, retroactive continuity becomes a gesture of defiance, a refusal to let the series—the Judeo-Christian franchise, nearly two millennia old—come to an end. The U.S. into which Smith was born was undergoing a spiritual stagnation not unlike our own: in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, religious participation was shockingly low. Just 17 percent of Americans in 1776 belonged to a church. In his “Divinity School Address” a few decades later, Ralph Waldo Emerson bemoaned “the universal decay and now almost death of faith in society.” “Half parishes,” he noted, “are signing off.”
How do you thwart a large-scale decay of faith? It is as a response to this question that Smith and Mormonism speak pressingly to us now. Smith’s answer was to insist that revelation was ongoing, that ancient scripture could be opened up and revised—continued—with new visions that drew on the old but retreaded them for a nascent U.S. “Men have come to speak of the revelation as somewhat long ago given and done, as if God were dead,” Emerson complained. So Smith revived it, retconning the Bible into a new myth, a sequel with America at its center: America was the site of Eden, of a Christ visit; in the end, it would be where humanity gathered to await the Second Coming.
“He waged a resistance movement against disenchantment,” Richard Bushman, Smith’s ninety-year-old biographer, born into the church, told me. That was the conceptual engine at the heart of this sci-fi faith and the pageant that celebrated it. They were modern re-enchantment projects, huge sweaty efforts to counteract disbelief with the jumper cables of a resuscitated myth. Here, in the middle of contemporary life—on a hill in upstate New York—God was fully, thrillingly alive.
The cast Wi-Fi password was “ComeUntoChrist.” It was 4:30 now and hot, and I was tired and irritable. There was no coffee to be had on pageant grounds, I was beyond the reach of my 4G LTE service and, worse, weary of the constant supervision. They were so damned nice, the escorts—but their niceness couldn’t conceal the fact that I was being surveilled. It was odd: there’s a thriving subreddit called r/exmormon, where apostate Mormons vent and defiantly proclaim their indulgence in masturbation, Jim Beam, lattes. Had I been after dirt on the church, did Salt Lake City really think I needed to travel halfway across the country to get it?
But there was a Hill Cumorah Wi-Fi network, and it was cool if I used it (I imagined 90 percent of the internet being blocked)—and I was walking now with a handler named Kristin a stone’s throw from a restroom hut. I decided to stage a mini-rebellion: I would go into the hut and camp out, getting my internet fix and some alone time. What if Kristin gave up and left before I came out?
She walked me to the hut and I went inside, entering a stall where I stayed forever—answering texts, checking all the things. At last I washed up, drew a breath and left the hut, glancing about. The coast was clear. I felt an influx of giddiness that was choked off when, some 25 yards away, I spotted Kristin beaming at me and waving. I plodded my way to her like a guilty spaniel, but when I reached her she showed no sign of annoyance. “Hey!” she cried. I half-expected her to add, “How’d it go?!”
She handed me off to my next chaperone, Scott, the middle-aged ex-CEO of a street hockey league. Scott’s kindness was more than skin-deep, a preternatural goodwill than made me briefly forget my annoyance at being monitored. His affect was fully Fred Rogers, his eye contact unswerving as a Mack Truck. What was my background? he inquired. Former academic, I said. Scott gazed mutely into my eyes and thence my soul for some five seconds. “That’s why you’re so thoughtful,” he said at last.
We headed toward the stage. “The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is the greatest organization in all the world,” Scott said, “because it can pull people together to get great things done like this, in such short periods of time.” He cited the church’s readiness to aid communities stricken by natural disaster: when Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans, droves of Mormon volunteers rushed to the scene, bringing food and manpower well before the U.S. government had lifted a finger.
When we got to the stage I saw that dress rehearsals were underway. Here I had my first glimpse of the costumed ancient Americans. The latter, I should pause to explain, are the reason the pageant and the Book of Mormon can make for distressing experiences. The book posits that two tribes, the Nephites and Lamanites, lived in the pre-Columbian Americas, and that the Lamanites, having killed off the Nephites, became the peoples now known as Native Americans. What makes this origin story especially painful is its timing: the Book of Mormon was published in March 1830, two months before President Jackson signed the Indian Removal Act, which authorized the U.S. government to force Native peoples off their ancestral lands and relocate them west of the Mississippi. And it was marketed as a history of the Native Americans, who came, it revealed, from Jerusalem. While Indigenous people were being shunted westward in death marches like the Trail of Tears, their history was being quietly overlaid by the visions of a white kid from upstate New York. It was its own Indian Removal.
I should clarify that however gruesome these origins, the LDS church is now a multiethnic phenomenon with more members outside the U.S. than in it—and plenty of these members balance clear-eyed critique with a regard for what they find redemptive in the faith: often, its contention that revelation is continuous and anyone can have it. Still, this much is clear: Mormonism is a modern re-enchantment project that took shape on a continent populated, to begin with, by people who never saw themselves as bereft of wonder. “We as Indigenous people never were kicked out of our Garden of Eden,” Elise Boxer, both a practicing Mormon and an enrolled citizen of the Fort Peck Assiniboine and Sioux Tribes, told me. “That’s where we live.”
Gazing at the stage now, I saw that on either side, two groups of about twenty teens—white as Wonder Bread, clad in skirts rather like Navajo quilts—practiced a battle dance while the soundtrack blared. They brandished spears. One group played the Nephites, the other the Lamanites; it was a call-and-response. At its close the two groups chanted, “Hah!”
Closer at hand I saw other players decked out as ancient Americans. Some wore headdresses containing feathers, plus beaded necklaces and shirts decorated with pelts; another wore a kilt studded with turquoise. Still others were clad in a different sort of outfit that looked not Native but vaguely biblical: gem-filled headdresses, purple and emerald robes that undulated in the breeze. These were the fugitives who flee Jerusalem toward the start of the pageant. At one point I saw the (partially costumed) man playing Joseph Smith stroll by in a khaki nineteenth-century tailcoat and wig, plus cargo shorts; he paused to share a joke with a Nephite man in a feathered headdress and kilt. Watching them chortle together I wondered if I might be on whippits.
The redface, though. It was in such cartoonishly bad taste, it was hard to balance with the extreme kindliness, the charity, that the cast radiated. (Later I asked one of the escorts, “Is it okay for a nearly all-white cast to dress up as Native Americans?” She replied, “Please don’t ruin anyone’s day by asking them that.”) I thought of the Boston Tea Party, whose dissidents dressed up as Mohawk Indians. Writing now, I think of the storming of the Capitol—of the Q Shaman, whose aesthetic was less Viking than Native. Why, in precisely those moments when they wanted to trumpet their identity to the world, did Americans play Indian dress-up?
Scott turned to me: “How would you like to be in a scene?” Over his shoulder I saw two teens in Native gear, at ease during a lull in rehearsal, doing the “Raise the Roof” dance. “We’re going to do a run-through of the New World Multitude scene. You can be a Nephite.” Processing this, I felt my visage crumple into a constipated expression. This was the climax of the pageant, when the risen Christ appears among the Natives. For an instant I pictured myself—tired, angry, emanating B.O.—unwillingly donning a headdress, then being embraced and kissed by Jesus. That image, in turn, being uploaded to the pageant’s Instagram, then picked up by the Salt Lake Tribune and going low-key viral. My alarmed friends blowing up my phone: “Yo, call me as soon as you get this.”
But it was to be a street-clothes rehearsal (aside from Jesus), which seemed less risky. Soon cast members, hundreds, began congregating at the foot of the stage. They arrived in waves. It was early evening and the atmosphere had grown expectant, alive with the ambient power that can only come from a concentration of bodies outside. And, of course, Jesus was coming.
Together we trekked up the hill, taking our places at stations on either side of the stage. I was a knot of anxiety: Was this okay? The Nephites were a made-up people; wasn’t it impossible to appropriate a culture that hadn’t existed? But then I recalled the faux-Native getup I’d just seen, the chants. I couldn’t possibly go through with it. Also, wasn’t I partaking in a sacred myth I didn’t believe in—and didn’t that mean I was appropriating Mormon culture? I felt mired in layers of wrongdoing; I was losing my shit.
Suddenly they flipped on the soundtrack and the scene started. All around me cast members were looking toward the top of the stage as if entranced, and I followed their gaze and stopped cold. It was him: it was Jesus Christ. Shoulder-length auburn wig with middle part. Synthetic beard. White robe, brown sandals. He looked like the Jesus from the gaudy religious pictures I’d seen in older relatives’ homes—except he was standing atop Chichen Itza.
He had a beam of light trained on him, and stood motionless with arms outspread and palms turned upward, a radiant wisp against the New York sky. He could have been a superhero. “I am the light and the life of the world,” he lip-synched. Joyous choral music ensued; the voice of God sounded through the speakers: “Behold my beloved son, in whom I am well-pleased.” As the carol continued, the hundreds of cast members filtered onto the stage, a massed and carefully patterned congregation. Scott, beside me, nodded: it was our turn.
We found our places and stood still. Jesus, still at the top of the edifice, dropped his hands. There was a central staircase leading down the stage, and he began to descend it, the beam of light staying with him. “Arise, and come forth unto me,” he mouthed. I scarcely recognized him from the casting ceremony. His name was Austin Reid, and he had gone from an early-twentysomething who ran an online outdoor-gear company to a sort of ghost, lordly and wraithlike and totally self-assured. “Thrust your hand into my side,” he pronounced—and a lone player walked up the steps and did just that. “Now you know that I am the God of Israel,” he said. “The God of the whole earth.”
Players rushed to greet him, in keeping with the script, but it seemed they were hardly acting—just viewing him as the thing he represented, genuinely magnetized. Some he touched, healingly; others he embraced. The chorus swelled to a refrain of “Hallelujah.” Near me a young mom held a toddler who cried, “We have to go! Take me to Jesus!”
I looked out across the landscape to the road below, where an SUV drove by, and imagined the driver sipping a coffee and glancing up at us innocently and then spraying the coffee. The road was Route 21, which I’d lived off of growing up. Then I glanced back at Jesus, encircled by players who, by tomorrow, would be dressed in the Native costumes I’d seen earlier. I felt full-force the scene’s terrible ambiguity. You could have called it, rightly, a disturbing symbolic drama in which a white Jesus literally descended to dispense wisdom and salvation to Indigenous people. In that sense it was the epitome of a colonial mindset that had produced the Indian Removal Act.
At the same time, it was a stunning piece of outdoor religious theater: ordinary people were acting out ultimate things amid gnats, birds, trees—and doing so despite a wider culture that had mostly abandoned outdoor theater and, increasingly, ultimate things. They were ushering in a new reality: the scene’s title meant not just the premodern Americas but life now, made annually novel, alive with ghostly energy, by this hillside ritual. It was a defibrillator to the heart of an old and disenchanted world.
I woke at 5 the next morning in my Airbnb, a rural guesthouse, peeled back the sheets and found a large white spider beside me. I barked, shot out of bed and, unthinkingly, dressed and set out driving.
It was still dark. It is strange to drive the roads of the region where one is from when one’s family is gone from there; stranger still if the region is western New York. If you are from this place, you can understand how a religion started here. There’s a feral rawness to its woods, and the roads that lead through them are lonely and trance-inducing. The fields are limitless: you ramble through them, and when you get to the end, seemingly, there is only more field, as in a dream or a prefiguration of eternity.
I was thinking about Joe Smith. On a morning like this he’d had his first vision. What got me, though, was what came after: how he spent his life expanding this Bible fanfic into a cosmology that millions lived in. The way he disclosed that cosmology—it reminded me of nothing so much as the pulp science-fiction magazines that, a century later, marked that genre’s golden age: Amazing Stories. Other Worlds. (Scientology, itself a sci-fi faith, began in one of these.) Smith revealed his cosmos one mind-blowing installment at a time. His visions were serialized in a sense, separated by months sometimes; converts awaited each with the bated breath of cult fandoms biding their time till a new issue, volume or episode drops. Only the stakes were everything: their destinies, the nature of the universe and of their souls.
Here is what he revealed: God was an embodied extraterrestrial who lived near a distant star called Kolob—and if by some marvel we could see him, “if the veil were rent today,” we would find ourselves eerily mirrored. It was the 1840s and telescopes had grown more sophisticated. People peered through them expecting to see God, and when they didn’t, they merely concluded he lay beyond the reach even of these new instruments. Smith’s story was of its time in that sense, but added a crucial wrinkle: God had been one of us but upgraded himself into a superior being. The purpose of our own lives was to replicate his ascent, becoming ourselves gods who would populate our own planets after death, parents of new creation. “God himself was once as we are now, and is an exalted man, and sits enthroned in yonder heavens!” Smith thundered to his followers just before his death. “That is the great secret.”
Smith’s was an extremely American drama—bootstraps individualism given mythic form by a man who’d spent his youth in poverty, hunting treasure. How could you get more upwardly mobile than to become a god? There was a catch, though: no one could attain godhood singly; we got there as units—by marrying and having children—which sounds like a championing of the nuclear family, and is, to an extent. Beneath this, though, lay something more poignant: an insistence that we need each other, that we’re interlocked by spokes of dependency, our souls’ progress conjoined. The Mormon heaven is social: in death we find ourselves surrounded, in thriving celestial hubs, by the people we loved in life. To the extent we perfect our bonds with them here, now, we are already there.
I went on driving, watching woods give way to drumlins, remote roads to residential ones. I made my way by instinct down one such road, scudding by silos and houses just lighting up, and veering at last onto a steep street I climbed and then pulled over. I looked at the silhouette of the house I’d grown up in, warm now with other lives. I’d not seen it in fifteen years. In the stillness I heard our voices as they’d sounded when we were gathered in this place: children’s screaming laughter, my dad belting out Grateful Dead songs, my mom in her bathrobe laughingly chiding him. It occurred to me that in the Mormon heaven I would never lose these people. I saw my bedroom and me in it at night, already dogged by the insomnia that would rack me as an adult and driven, for distraction, to books. The reading was a kind of prayer, as all fiction-reading is. Hands close together, I lay summoning what was invisible, miraculous: aliens, unfathomed planets, unseen forces that governed all we did.
The memory of these stories blended in my head now with Mormon myth, and I had the sense that they had sprung from the same impulse. Mormonism and science fiction were modern inventions that responded to a new reality, one increasingly dominated by scientific thinking and the technology it bred. People found themselves in a Copernican universe far vaster and more impersonal than the biblical heavens, and one way to react to this new normal was to discover in space itself—its stars and planets and imagined denizens—the stuff of religious awe. So in science fiction, the wonder and terror long inspired by the Judeo-Christian God, and by angels and devils, gets remapped onto aliens; visitations become visitors. In Mormonism, God is an alien; we are all incipient aliens, bound up in a project of collective deification.
Why did it matter, this drive to enchant? I thought again of that spiritual desiccation I had glimpsed in myself and my students. And of what I’d seen on the ground that week: people supercharged by a modern myth that insisted on the sociality of salvation, a retconning finally of redemption itself, which held that we are delivered as collectives or not at all. It was a mythos for the era of disasters. It lay behind the Mormon response to Katrina, and lately COVID, which saw bishop’s storehouses, positioned around the globe, bring nearly one hundred million pounds of food to beleaguered populations in 2020.
Was the culture I belonged to—a culture of unbelief that wanted, nonetheless, to confront the catastrophes ahead, which threatened to tilt reality toward science fiction—capable of such feats of social strength? My time here had made me skeptical. Because belief was the crux of it, the impetus behind the directors’ calling out to the young cast: this actually happened. That was what elevated their story from sci-fi to scripture, from Dune to an architecture of revealed truths in whose image they remade the world. What did I or my friends—secular, overeducated, climate-terrified yet basically inert—have to rival that?
In order for people to abandon their self-interest and commit to a grand cause, writes Jane Bennett in The Enchantment of Modern Life, something has to happen to their aesthetic being—that part of them that is sensory and emotional. They have to fall in love. “One must be enamored with existence,” she writes, “to be capable of donating some of one’s scarce mortal resources to the service of others.” Put baldly, “You have to love life before you can care about anything.” Enchantment turns out to be the precondition for committed political life together—a way of charming people toward self-transcendence with a vision of existence that pulses with animacy and purpose. Ethical codes are stillborn without such visions; they can’t catch unless people are inflamed by some story of their lives capable of drawing from them, again and again, virtuous performances.
Opening day. Morning.
Across the grounds people bustled. Some drove golf carts. On the Bowl, cast members did last-minute run-throughs while directors, clutching at walkie-talkies, fine-tuned and fretted. The air crackled with promise.
I had arrived late. There had been a dry run of the New World Multitude scene and I had played hooky, having decided against the part. Now I strode with Scott through the cast area, where a mood of serenity had set in. People were finding each other. They sat in clusters outside the tents, playing guitars and singing, touching each other reassuringly and laughing. I had never witnessed a pilgrimage. I saw people divorced from their workaday lives who—bathless, deviceless—had been deprived into clarity.
“Everything else is stripped away,” said a girl named Emily.
“It’s a very similar feeling, I would imagine, to when people converge on disasters, and they’ll sacrifice of their own to give to some cause,” added another kid, Jonathan. “Everyone’s made some sacrifice to be here. And love is at the center of that.”
I went on walking, surveying all I saw with the attention one bestows on something about to vanish. No one knew, of course, that this was the last pageant—that the pandemic would obliterate the planned finale—but there was something valedictory about it all. The show needed revision—the redface had to go—yet it seemed a pity that this huge, weird piece of Americana, which had survived into the age of TikTok, was ending because a 94-year-old man in Salt Lake City had demanded it should. The church’s official line was that it wanted people focusing on their home lives—scripture-reading, prayer—not theater. This sounded like a cover for wanting to save money, issued by an institution that as of 2020 had $100 billion in assets.
Morning blurred into afternoon, afternoon into evening. Somehow, the premiere was close at hand; the cast left to change.
For once unchaperoned, I followed a party of players toward a costume house at the hill’s southwest end. Here, as players disappeared behind curtains, I took in a scene that included an entire wall stocked with boxes containing beards, each labeled. There was NEW WORLD MULTITUDE SAVIOR and, beside it, UNBELIEVER #1. “They’re all made of human hair,” said a voice beside me. It belonged to a spectacled seamstress named Jackie. “A beard can take a year to make.” There were hundreds. She plucked a box off the wall—VISION SAVIOR, the lesser Jesus—and opened it. “Church members donate their hair for these,” she murmured, dangling a reddish pelt before my face. I gaped at what was at once the beard of God’s son and the Norelco trimmings of some ginger guy in Utah, then turned away.
All emerged from the costume house dressed and I followed, watching as they rambled down the hill. There they were joined by the clad players from the other houses, several streams of people made suddenly mythic, who came together in one teeming body aimed, I saw, for the devotional pavilion. Beyond them I glimpsed the Bowl, swarming now with spectators—thousands—staking out chairs. With a giddy solemnity the cast crowded into the pavilion, ranging in rows—characters from a Mesoamerican past brushing shoulders with those from Jacksonian America. A director led them in a last prayer, after which they sang a hymn called “God Speed the Right,” then marched out to meet the crowd.
I walked with them. The premiere was slated for 9 p.m., and it was 7:30; this time had been allotted for the players to mingle with the audience. I watched the graying cherub playing Joseph Smith—Willy Wonka-ish in top hat, tailcoat and breeches—get swiftly engulfed by stans seeking selfies. Vision Savior, who worked in Big Oil and lived year-round in Saudi Arabia, flashed me a beatific smile, then turned to greet a family of eight.
I surveyed the acreage of people before me and, in the gathering darkness, ventured in. It was the most international of crowds. I met a family that had flown in from Honduras that day, and when the show was over would return by red-eye flight. I met a party of women from the Sichuan province of China who’d been born into Buddhism but converted as adults to Mormonism, enticed by the emphasis on family.
At this point I became aware that the weary cynicism that had steered me to this place was being dislodged by something else. A doubt about my doubt? The energy, the immense shared electricity coursing through this outdoor cathedral, unmoored me. A man in the missionary getup—mid-fifties, indefatigable as a jackrabbit—pulled me aside, training laserlike gray eyes on mine. “I teach economics and finance at Columbia. These are not individuals lacking in intelligence,” he said, gesturing across the crowd. “They’re brilliant.” He had fused his spiritual and logical intelligence, he needed me to know, into “an incredible technicolor understanding.”
Whatever unsteadiness I was feeling, it seemed a consequence of being inundated by thousands of worshippers. I suppose I would’ve felt the same approaching the Kaaba at Hajj. I met two women from Massachusetts who spoke to me of the afterlife with such passionate certitude, such detail, they could’ve been returning tourists. “The amazing love that exists on the other side of the veil is outstanding,” one said. They spoke of becoming kings and queens in death—of deification—and with gentle firmness stressed how I needed to pray to receive personal revelation. When I asked how—was there a wikiHow?—they laughed: “Just talk to God. Just ask Him.” (Earlier, in private, the pageant president had told me the same, more forcefully: “You have to kneel down and ask!”)
All at once the cast vanished, full night came on and the show started. I found a seat. In the dark, a cluster of robed women appeared atop the stage, flourishing apocalyptic trumpets they pretended to play while an epic fanfare sounded through the speakers. The cast marched onstage, an army, some bearing flags—and as they assumed their places in an opening tableau there were whoops and whistles in the crowd.
All went semi-dark. A group of players danced and jumped while the narrator, an omniscient father figure who sounded like Charlton Heston, set the scene: Jerusalem, 600 BC. Depravity reigns. Lehi, the Mormon Moses and his son Nephi have visions foretelling Jerusalem’s destruction and Jesus’s coming. They need to flee. The visions took the form of “water curtains,” big cumulus mists plumed up from understage, through which apparitions shone: a manger, a tree, a middle-aged angel high above the stage who for years dangled from a cable but in 2019 stood on a hidden platform. The production quality lay between full-on professional and DIY.
It started raining; babies cried. Someone farted. I watched the fugitives cross the Atlantic in that wooden boat, limousines-long; their arrival in the Americas and campy harvest dance; the fracturing of the party into rival tribes.
The show’s climactic sequence kicked into motion. “Far away, on a hill outside Jerusalem, three crosses rose,” the narrator announced. At the upper-right corner of the stage a trio of crucifixes swung into view, thronged by flames, then vanished. A stage-wide inferno followed—the cataclysm that killing Jesus triggered here. I watched as firebombs burst, geysers shot up and waterfalls plummeted; I saw the silhouettes of a few hundred cast running about screaming while, below us, the earth convulsed with subterranean sound.
Total darkness and silence ensued. Then the risen Jesus appeared, this little refulgent being clad in white and perched at the pinnacle of the stage. It had always borne the seeds of sci-fi, the Christian story—an otherworldly emissary, the logos incarnate, sent here on an errand to save us—and here Jesus looked like nothing so much as a lone visitor. His person was mediated by streaks of rain. It was so quiet across the Bowl, a deep and babyless silence. Lights slowly came on, and I watched the scene I’d acted in two days before: Jesus descending the staircase, the cast filtering onto the stage, all surrounding and venerating him. Around me, people started crying.
The scene ended and they told of the two tribes going to war afterward, of the Nephites’ dying off—but not before one of them, Moroni, had buried their history in this hill. It’s hard to convey the all-out weirdness of the next, final episode. “Centuries later, in the spring of 1820,” the narrator declared, “the Lord heard the earnest prayer of a young man named Joseph Smith.” There was Smith excavating the hillside while Moroni supervised; there he was sharing the good news with a bunch of New Yorkers in bonnets, corsets, suit jackets. It was impossible to ignore how meta—how postmodern, really—it was: the abrupt fast-forwarding fourteen centuries, the found text which is the very text you’re watching, the author inserting himself into the story. It was at once deeply moving and reminiscent of a senior thesis by a screenwriting major.
The show concluded and the Bowl resounded with cheering. Anxious to beat the crush, I got up and hastened away. Rain fell more heavily. When I reached the roadside I turned and took in the scene a last time: the multitudes gathered on the grass like groundlings, as they’d gathered here nearly a century; the cast advancing to meet them; the whole thing an international city, the shadow-image of the ones they hoped to form in death. And the driven rain deluging it, in effect, out of existence.
I found my car and drove off, making my way back to the guesthouse, where I peeled off my wet clothes and stood a moment savoring the silence. Then, warily, I approached the bed. What I wanted to do I had never once tried, despite being almost 37—and couldn’t at first. What brought intelligent people, brilliant people, to kneel?
Nevertheless, I lowered myself, placing my knees on the tile and feeling the soreness in my nearly middle-aged body, no longer that of the boy who’d arrived to bed each night seeking communion with the spirit world. To whom or what was I even kneeling? Jesus Christ? The phrase embarrassed me. The embodied God who’d preceded us in space?
A line from Wallace Stevens came to me: “The final belief is to believe in a fiction, which you know to be a fiction, there being nothing else. The exquisite truth is to know that it is a fiction and that you believe in it willingly.” I couldn’t decide whether this was sublime or Orwellian. Still, I brought my hands together and asked—to be more inspired, surprised, tuned to a godly frequency that as yet I hardly heard—and felt something unfamiliar: a peace that was either grace itself or the relief of giving up control. This I let linger, studying it, till it got really late—till the imprint of the day, of the whole mad pilgrimage, began to weaken, eroded by the sound of rain hitting the guesthouse, great percussive drops that drew me by degrees to sleep.
Photo credits: Heather Ainsworth
This story was published in partnership with Longreads.