Humanists Invade Palmyra - Summer of 2001

Jeff Hammel, a non-Mormon participated in the July 2001 - “Mormon Origins in Ingersoll Land” and files this report.

The Official Return and Report from Palmyra 2001

Subtitle:  No Man Knows What I Did Last Summer

"New York's beautiful Finger Lakes District isn't only the birthplace of freethought firebrand Robert Green Ingersoll. It's part of the so-called "Burned-Over District," named for the countless social and religious experiments that inflamed the area during the 19th century. The women's rights movement, Spiritualism, the Seventh-day Adventists, and Mormonism all began within miles of Ingersoll's Dresden, New York, birthplace."

The first weekend of July, 2001, started with a Friday drive from Ohio to Geneva, NY.  Geneva is on the northern tip of one of New York’s beautiful finger lakes, and it is not many miles southeast of Palmyra.  I arrived and checked in at the hotel a couple hours before the first events were scheduled, but a small book table had already been set up in the hotel lobby.  The organization hosting “Mormon Origins in Ingersoll Land” was the Council for Secular Humanism.  Robert Ingersoll is most known for his eloquent speeches from the late 19th century.  This conference was designed for attendees to learn about two men associated with this scenic area of New York, Robert Ingersoll and Joseph Smith, Jr.

Since I had arrived early I planned on getting a nap in my room prior to the opening tour of the Ingersoll home in nearby Dresden.  I was delighted, however, to find out that there would be a showing of “God’s Army” for those lucky enough to have arrived early.  I quickly ran my things to my room and sat down for the movie.  Aside from its faith-promoting biases, it really wasn’t too bad.  I found myself explaining much of it to the other two people who made it to the early showing.  I soon learned that although the weekend’s visitors were well versed in free-thought, their knowledge of Mormonism was only surface deep.

The first event to follow the movie was a bus trip to the Robert Ingersoll home.  The tour of the home was much like many I have experienced at LDS-owned sites, except this time I could really feel the Spirit!  Honestly, though, there is only one thing that really sticks in my head about the tour to this day.  It was a portion of a speech delivered by Ingersoll in which he stated (my ineloquent paraphrase) “Happiness is my creed – to be happy and to strive for the happiness of others.  If there is a creed pertaining to a next life, then I will worry about that when I get there”.  This is probably nothing like the original portion of the speech in the words themselves, but that was the substance of it.  The tour concluded with the unveiling of a restored Ingersoll bust from the old Beckwith Theatre in Michigan, but by this time I was hungry, too hot, and ready to head to the lake for dinner.  I will note that this tour was the first chance I had to give a good look over the conference visitors.  Most were men and women over 40, some married and traveling together.  One couple brought their two kids who had to be near 10 years old along for the weekend.

Dinner was held at a party hall on the west bank of the lake.  As the sun went down, the evening turned comfortable, and nobody could have asked for anything better.  This is wine country in New York, and many enjoyed sampling some of west-central NY’s best.  I had a fantastic time at dinner.  I sat with two elderly couples who were old friends meeting once again.  I enjoyed their stories as much as I would have enjoyed those of my own grandparents.  Another couple who joined our table came from California and were ex-mormons.  They were two of only perhaps five or six ex-Mormons to attend the conference.  Their tales of family rifts as a result of their apostasy were sad, but this couple seemed well-adjusted and very happy with all the good relationships in their lives.

Dinner was followed by an amusing performance by Sally Roesch Wagner.  She came dressed both in costume and in mind as Matilda Jocelyn Gage.  She spoke of her own life and her struggles to achieve equality for women.  She discussed reasons why taking a stand caused her to disappear from history in comparison to the legacy of women such as Anthony and Stanton.  She then took questions from the audience and responded with the wit and wisdom of which perhaps only Gage and Wagner were capable.

Friday evening concluded with the bus trip back to the hotel, and all slept well upon return.

Saturday began with a continental breakfast and several consecutive talks designed to give the attendees an introduction to Mormonism.  Having studied Mormonism rather extensively, I didn’t find this portion of the conference particularly beneficial, but I did want to get a good idea of what others there would be hearing for the first time.  Two of the speakers were from the Council of Secular Humanism, but four of the speakers had closer ties with Mormonism.  George D. Smith, president of Signature Books, explained Mormonism’s growth and its appeal.  Clay Chandler spoke about Joseph Smith’s mystic past.  Neal and Rebecca Chandler, editors of Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought, discussed some of the evidences of a natural origin of the Book of Mormon.

After the talks concluded, the group (now numbering near 60 people) boarded buses for a trip to the Palmyra area.  I purposely boarded the Chandlers’ bus and was rewarded by further discussion about our common LDS acquaintances.    It was also a good thing I was near the front since I ended up telling the bus driver how to get to all the historical sites.  He had some degree of difficulty finding the Palmyra McTemple, and even more difficulty distributing the cheeseburgers.  Many were disappointed that we could not enter.

I’m getting ahead of myself.  The first stop was not the temple parking lot, but rather the Hill Cumorah visitor center.  Despite the large pageant crowd, we were able to shuffle everyone through the center in just three shifts.  Imagine yourself a missionary standing next to a statue of Christ (a miniature to the white one in SLC) and trying to explain to about 20 secular humanists why this is so special to you.  To their extreme credit, the humanists were very well-behaved and did not seize the opportunity to emotionally scar the young woman for life.  A few questions were asked, though nothing that wasn’t effectively answered by a testimony from one of the True Believing Mormons in the tour audience.  The tour concluded with no conversions or de-conversions to my knowledge, and we again boarded the bus.  Unfortunately, free-thinkers are too often free-wanderers, as some from the leading tour groups decided to roam the hill looking for bones and gold plates.  Rumor has it they’re still looking.

My bus decided to wait no longer and went to the temple.  From there, we proceeded to the Smith home, but only to learn that we did not have time to take the tour of the home or the sacred grove if we still wished to have dinner in Palmyra before the pageant.  We will now never know if Jesus Christ and Heavenly Father were waiting to appear to us on that day.

Never had I seen so many people roaming the streets of Palmyra, NY.  We were dropped off in front of the Grandin printshop where the original 1830 BoMs were printed.  With the large crowds, additional tents were set up behind the shop for the showing of a pre-tour video about the Book of Mormon.  I don’t remember the substance of the tape, only that it was brown and smelled bad.  The tour was nothing particularly special.  I had visited the printshop some time before when the guide had significantly more time to explain the operation, but they simply had too many visitors on this day.  After leaving the printshop, I walked the street and scanned the various wares of the LDS street vendors think how glad I was to have no desire to spend my money on any of it.  There was, of course, a man dressed as a billboard whose words reminded all the good LDS folks of their hell-bound state.  What more entertainment could these humanists have asked for?

I managed to take a side jaunt down the road to old Erie Canal landing.  I could almost hear Parley Pratt thinking to himself as he got off the packet boat in 1830 “I have no idea why the Spirit has led me to this place.”  Then I heard him say “Oh ya, I’ve got to go to the Smiths’ house and pretend I’ve never heard of them before this trip.”

Dinner followed at a lovely historic inn just down the street from all the festivities.  I was fortunate enough to sit at a table with people whose great thrill it was to buy a couple of rounds of beer for the table.  I figured what the hell, I’m going to kill brain cells by watching the Hill Cumorah pageant anyhow.  Nobody drank to excess, however, and we were all filled up and ready to roll to the hill.

We arrived and found the section of seats which had been reserved for the past several hours by some worthy volunteers.  As we mulled around our area, some of the pageant participants and other Mormon volunteers would approach us and strike up conversation.  They seemed interested in the fact that we were not Mormons.  They assured us that we would enjoy the performance.  We expressed our concern about the impending storm clouds, but we were reminded how in times past the Lord had stopped the rain just prior to the show.  We, therefore, relaxed in complete confidence.

Just minutes before the beginning of the show, the rain began to pour.  But the young Mormons were correct, for my faith was so strong that I could see the sun with my spiritual eyes.  And evidently there was no rain because the only thing referred to in the opening prayer was moisture, albeit about 20 times.  Of course, extreme gratitude for the moisture was expressed, though its evil twin rain had been spoken of badly in pre-pageant conversation for the last several hours.  But, the show must go on, and so it did.  There’s no point in boring you with the story.  If you’ve read the BoM, then you already know the unabridged version.  It should be said, though, that the Mormons put on a pretty good show with all that tithing money.  Again no conversions or deconversions to note.

I would be lying to say that I even have much of a memory of what happened on Sunday morning.  There were a couple of talks relative to the state of free-thought today and to future directions for the efforts of free-thinkers.  As I didn’t see myself becoming an integral part of such efforts with my other time commitments, I tended to tune out the speakers and dwell on my own free-thoughts for those couple of hours.  As the conference ended, I said goodbye to those I had the pleasure of meeting, and then went on my way back to Ohio.

Comments Section

Simply hilarious; I love it...--Mormons may revel in their bland conformity, but I'd forgotten just how positively entertaining it can be to all of us soul-less, non-believers. - 04/20/2005 - Eric Hill, Secular Humanist

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