Mormons: Why Are Thousands of Them Gathering in Upstate New York This Week?

This week, thousands of Mormons are meeting up in Upstate New York for what's called the Hill Cumorah Pageant.

Of course, the pageant is getting a little extra attention this year, and not just because 2012 marks the fest's 75th anniversary.

G.O.P. presidential contender Mitt Romney is Mormon, and his politically uncommon faith has been subject to the same scrutiny as JFK's Catholicism had been.

But what is the Hill Cumorah Pageant, you might ask?

Let's rewind to the early 1920s.

Back in the day, a small group of New York City-based missionaries hit up the Joseph Smith Farm for the Cumorah Conference -- a gathering of Mormon faithful and leaders, if you will.

They were also celebrating Pioneer Day which, according to Mormon belief, marks Brigham Young's entry into Salt Lake Valley in 1847.

Over time, the conferences started getting longer and bigger, including missionaries from the Eastern Seaboard and Canada. Programming also expanded to feature sermons, athletic events, and an organized pilgrimage to the Hill.

The Cumorah, billed as "the most notable of many hills, or drumlins, in New York State's Finger Lakes region," is a holy site in the Mormon religion. Here, in the 1820s, founder Joseph Smith claims to have discovered golden plates on which the Book of Mormon is written.

Religious episodes were first presented theatrically in 1923. The first notable expansion took place in 1930, when a production honoring the church's centennial boasted a cast of 30 and an audience of 200.

In 1934, after the Church of Latter Day Saints bought the Cumorah, leaders decided to move the entire conference from the Farm to the Hill.

What has since evolved is a Mormon musical of epic proportions: Some 750 actors -- complete with sets, lights, special effects, and costumes -- take to the stage to reenact the discovery. The 70-minute play features scenes from the Book of Mormon and the Bible.

Estimates suggest that 35,000 people attend the weeklong annual fest, or some 7,000 daily. This year, shows are scheduled on July 13,14, 17, 18, 19, 20, and 21.

Some interesting facts?

Apparently, Mormons take their special effects very seriously -- past productions have included fireballs, floods, and earthquakes.

Also, Orson Scott Card -- LDS member and author of the classic Ender's Game sci-fi series -- authored the present script, which shifts some emphasis from religious instruction to entertainment, as part of the Church's move to attract youth.

In 1988, Card's modernized version debuted, shaving 40 minutes off the original, and was accompanied by an entirely new score.

Past performers have included Metropolitan Opera alums and Donny Osmond.

Info from: "The Hill Cumorah Pageant: A Historical Perspective," Hill Cumorah, New York Times.

Follow Victoria Bekiempis @vicbekiempis.

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