Angel Was Here, Birthed Mormonism
Palmyra, New York
Cults come and go, but Mormonism is still the most successful home-grown U.S.A. religion (In its mainstream form as the Church of Latter Day Saints). A hill in Palmya is where it began, conveniently just two miles off an exit on the New York State Thruway.
A gilt statue of Moroni -- "the last survivor of a great civilization that had inhabited the Americas since about 600 BC," according to information supplied here -- stands atop Hill Cumorah. Moroni overlooks a visitors center and the Sacred Grove, where in 421 AD he buried gold plates that recorded the history of his people.
Joseph Smith, just an average Joe at the time, stumbled onto Moroni (who was now an angel) and the plates at this exact spot on September 22, 1823. Exactly four years later Moroni gave the plates to Smith, who translated them into the Book of Mormon, then perhaps unwisely buried them again. Smith's lack of proof did not, however, prevent him from becoming a prophet and founding one of the world's most powerful religions.
The Visitors Center, Sacred Grove, Hill Cumorah, and Moroni statue are a popular destination for Mormon families, the men and boys all dressed alike in white, button-down shirts. The gilded statue of Moroni, erected in 1935, glitters atop the hill. He stands on a 25-foot-tall shaft of white granite, one hand pointing toward heaven, the other clutching those elusive plates. His golden toga is blinding in reflected sunlight.
An outdoor pageant, held at the hill over several evenings every July, recreates the Mormon drama with a cast of hundreds, curtains of water, laser beams, and a levitating Jesus.