Reclaiming Hill Cumorah

Curtis Ashton
25 February 2019

On the night of September 21, 1823, Joseph Smith’s family had lived in New York for nearly seven years. A little more than seven years later, they fled New York for a new life as “Mormonites,” firmly convinced that their son and brother had obtained an ancient sacred record from an angelic messenger on a hill near their home.

G. E. Anderson's photo of Hill Cumorah, circa 1907

As the Church grew, Joseph Smith led his followers ever further west. Once the main body of the Church moved to the Rocky Mountains, few people in the Church or outside it considered “the gold Bible hill” with more than passing curiosity.1

All that began to change with a camera and a friendly Apostle.

Picturing and Purchasing Cumorah

George Edward Anderson served in the British Mission from 1909 to 1911. He left for his mission two years early to travel across the country. As a professional photographer, Anderson wanted to capture a “complete historical file” that could tell the founding story of the Church in photographs.2 The Deseret Sunday School Union of the Church published some of Anderson’s work, including striking images of the Sacred Grove and the Hill Cumorah, and people began to reconnect to locations where sacred events occurred.

Lucy W. Smith stands with Pliny Sexton atop Hill Cumorah

In the same year that George Edward Anderson left his home in Springville, Utah, for his mission, Elder George Albert Smith of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles and his wife, Lucy, left Salt Lake City on a different mission. With $20,000 in cash sewn into Lucy’s skirt, the couple was charged by Church leaders to buy the Hill Cumorah and the Joseph Smith Sr. farm.

While the Smith farm sale went smoothly, the owners of the farms that included the Hill Cumorah refused to sell. Undaunted, Elder Smith struck up a friendship with owner Pliny T. Sexton. Both men found they had been named after their grandparents, and Elder Smith pointed out that generations earlier, the Smith and Sexton families had been friends. After a few years, Sexton agreed to sell, but at an unfair price.3 Elder Smith politely refused but continued friendly correspondence until Sexton’s death in 1924. The Church was finally able to buy the property from the Sexton estate in 1928.4

Gathering to Cumorah

In the meantime, Elder B. H. Roberts (1857–1933) of the Seventy was called to serve as a mission president in 1922. In an unusual move, the First Presidency told Elder Roberts that he could choose to preside over any mission in the United States. Having previously served as assistant Church historian, Roberts selected the Eastern States mission because “it had the attraction of including within it the territory of the early activities of the church . . . and the coming forth of the Book of Mormon.”5

After a general mission tour, President Roberts announced in 1923 an ambitious mission conference. With the permission of Pliny Sexton, all of the 140 missionaries scattered across 11 states gathered for three days in September at the Smith Farm and the Hill Cumorah in honor of the centennial of Moroni’s first visit to Joseph Smith in September 1823. The missionaries were expected to preach along the way, wearing bright blue banners with “Cumorah” printed in bold, white letters. The conference was so successful that afterward an annual “Palmyra Celebration” was on the mission calendar.6

Missionaries on the road to 1923 Cumorah conference

Monument to Moroni

Once the Church owned the Hill Cumorah, Church sculptor Torleif S. Knaphus (1881–1965) approached Church leaders with a proposal for a monument in honor of the angel Moroni. Knaphus took five years to create the Moroni monument, more than double the time he spent on any other art project in his life. He depicted Moroni as a mature, bearded man “in a position as though calling the inhabitants of the Earth to reverence of the Gospel message.” Knaphus himself supervised the monument’s placement. In his journal, he recorded the reverence he felt of the place “where heavenly beings had walked and talked to man in this modern time.”7 President Heber J. Grant dedicated the work on July 24, 1935.

Heber J. Grant and Torleif Knaphus pose with other Church members at the Moroni monument dedication, 1935

Almost immediately the monument became the backdrop for increased missionary work. In 1936, a “bureau of information” opened at the foot of the hill, and lights were installed at the base of the monument. The monument’s dedicatory exercises had included a presentation called “The Book of Mormon in Song, Picture, and Story.”8 This presentation led to the following summer’s pageant entitled “Truth from the Earth.” Based on its success, planning began for a new, even grander pageant for the next year.

Pageant and Commemoration

A young missionary with theater experience named Harold Hansen (1914–1992) took on the 1937 pageant production. He was reluctant at first. “I didn’t know anything about pageantry,” he recalled. “Besides, I came on my mission to tract and to do the other things that missionaries do!” The following year, Hansen had a new calling as pageant director. He held the calling for 40 years and gained respect in and out of the Church.9

The Hill Cumorah Pageant, “America’s Witness for Christ,” has become a major annual attraction that runs several weeks each summer. The script was rewritten in 1988 for a larger, more dynamic performance.10 As audience expectations have changed, so has the landscape. The hill now includes stages, administrative structures, light fixtures, and lawns.

Finale for the Hill Cumorah Pageant. Photo by Brent Walton, 2013

Another transformation complements the hill’s pageant stages. When the Church purchased the property, the native woodlands that had once covered the entire hill were reduced to small patches on one side. In the 1930s, Willard Bean, who had been called to care for the property, received 65,000 evergreens from the New York State Conservation Department to plant on the hilltop. With help from his family, local missionaries, and hired hands, he also transplanted 3,000 seedlings from the outskirts of the Sacred Grove to Cumorah.11 Visitors walking these woods today can discover a quiet setting similar to the one in which Joseph Smith received his instructions from Moroni in the 1820s.

Even as the landscape changes, Cumorah remains an abiding and powerful witness of the Restoration of the gospel in our time.