Grace Wyler / Business Insider
PALMYRA, N.Y. – Curiosity and speculation about the Mormon religion has reached new heights this year, as the presidential candidacy of Mitt Romney sparks what amounts to a national intro course on the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints.For those looking for a crash course into the history of Mormonism and its beliefs, there is perhaps no better place than the annual Hill Cumorah pageant, an elaborate Mormon spectacle that takes place here every July.
For one week every summer, thousands of Mormons descend upon the tiny hamlet outside of Rochester to see the pageant, which is staged on the very hill where the founder of Mormonism, Joseph Smith, is said to have found the golden tablets that contained what is now the Book of Mormon.
This year marks the 75th anniversary of the pageant, so it seemed like a great time to make a trek to the Finger Lakes and find out what Hill Cumorah is all about. The show, which recreates scenes from the Book of Mormon, is breathtaking — with a cast of 750 and special effects worthy of Broadway, it is a cross between a substance-free Coachella Festival and a blue-eyed hajj.
Thousands of Mormons from around the world travel to Palmyra every July to see the pageant. This year, attendance is expected to reach 35,000 by the end of the week.
The audience waits for the Hill Cumorah pageant to begin on Saturday, July 14.
The show takes place at the foot of Hill Cumorah, the hill where the Angel Moroni is believed to have directed Joseph Smith to find the Golden Plates that contain what is now the Book of Mormon.
Pageant-goers usually arrive early to visit the statue and take in the views from the top of Hill Cumorah.
A Mormon family from Maryland pauses to take a photo at the statue of the Angel Moroni on top of Hill Cumorah Saturday, July 14.
Hill Cumorah isn't the only sacred Mormon site in Palmyra — here's a map of other historic sites in the area where important milestones in the early history of the Mormon Church occurred.
The Smith family farm, where Joseph Smith had his visions of the Angel Moroni in the early 1820s, is the go-to spot for Mormons visiting Palmyra.
Religious persecution drove the Smith family and other members of the early LDS church from New York in 1831. The church regained ownership of the Smith family farm in the early 1900s.
Visitors to the farm can also see the Sacred Grove, where Joseph Smith had his first vision of God and Jesus Christ.
Despite being the cradle of the LDS faith, Palmyra's Mormon community was relatively small until recently. The area's first temple was built in 2000.
Not every one who goes to the pageant can visit the temple. In order to visit any LDS temple, the church requires members to qualify for 'temple recommends' by proving that they have lived up to the core tenets of the religion, including tithing 10% of their income to the church.
It's hard to grasp the enormity of the production until all 700+ cast members are on stage together.
Wendy Orle, left, was chosen to be a 'convert at the waters of Mormon' in this year's pageant. Her husband, Corry Orle plays a believer, as well as a 'destruction victim' in one of the pageant's big action sequences.
The Stewart family traveled from Alberta, Canada to be in this year's pageant.
Karri Stewart, pictured top right, said that she saw the pageant several years ago and has always dreamed of being in the show. She is a dancer in King Noah's court in this year's pageant.
When they are not rehearsing or performing, members of the past spend time with other actors in their age group. Here are some Nephite warriors taking some downtime before Saturday's show.
There are also a lot of Mormon missionaries wandering around — one Mormon Elder explains that that the pageant is a good proselytizing tool for missionaries in the Rochester area.
The special effects are insane — this destruction scene includes fire, water, and simulated earthquakes.
In the pageant, as in the Book of Mormon, Jesus visits the people of North America after his death in Jerusalem and appoints another set of 12 apostles.
The story closes with Joseph Smith's vision of the Angel Moroni and his discovery of the Golden Plates.
And Smith's subsequent founding of the LDS Church, which Mormons believe is the restoration of Christ's original church.
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