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Cover Story: For 33 years, pageant has worked miracles on youth testimonies

MANTI, Utah — In these parts, it's known as, "the hill" — short for Temple Hill — where for 33 years the Mormon Miracle Pageant has strengthened, night-after-night and year-after-year, the budding testimonies of the area's youth.

Since 1966, the hill, with its natural amphitheater setting, has been the stage for the pageant where millions have witnessed the triumphs and travails of the Mormon saga.

"Many young people come to be in the pageant with only a beginning testimony," said Lee R. Barton, past president of the Manti Temple and the pageant. "As the youth participate, they learn of the Restoration and build a testimony of the gospel. They feel the spirit on the hill. It touches them.

"They see the various scenes portrayed — whether it's the Angel Moroni standing in gleaming white on the temple, or the battles of the Nephites and Lamanites, or the consequences of pride on society, or the hardships of life — and it gives them insight."

Speaking from his three-year experience as president of the Manti Temple, Pres. Barton said, "Almost without exception, from the time they are able to come to the temple to be baptized for the dead, to the time they come to be sealed, these young people comment on the influence the pageant has had in shaping their desires to attend the temple."

The blessings of performing in the pageant are many, added Pres. Douglas M. Dyreng of the Manti Utah Stake.

"The youth cannot help but be affected," he said. "It changes their lives as they rehearse their parts, and study the scriptures to get a feel and a knowledge of the characters they portray. The youth come to have deeper, more poignant feelings than they had before. These experiences can't help but make them better, more capable, more knowledgeable, more inspired missionaries.

"After participating in the pageant for several years, the youth soon learn to recite large portions of the script. The pageant keeps the youth occupied during parts of two months of the summer. They hear the Plan of Salvation over and over again, and memorize the selected scriptures out of the Book of Mormon. This is a wonderful thing. Leaders of visiting youth groups say they relish the experience our youth are able to receive through the pageant and wish they could offer the same for their youth."

While it would be impossible to track statistics of those who served missions or married in the temple because of a testimony gained while participating in the pageant, Pres. Dyreng said the pageant's influence can be seen in the activities and attitudes of the youth.

"It is midnight by the time the youth complete the pageant and turn in their costumes," described Pres. Dyreng. "And then they will be up — blurry-eyed, perhaps — but they will still be up by 6 a.m. to help prepare breakfast for the visitors who stay overnight."

Teenagers, he continued, "wouldn't do this for any other cause."

By his own experience, Pres Dyreng knows of the spiritual witness that comes of the pageant. "As the lights and the music come up," said Pres. Dyreng, "the Spirit floods the soul with a witness of the truthfulness of this work. It happens every time, and it's a thrill that never gets old."

The energy, and the commitment, and the desire to sponsor the pageant year after year is self-perpetuating, said Jay Cluff, president of the pageant.

"It's the power of the Spirit that keeps us coming back each year. The truth of the message and the influence it has on the individuals who participate create the spirit that keeps us going," he said.

Last year the pageant averaged about 16,000 visitors each night of the eight performances for a total of nearly 125,000. But the success of the pageant is not found in sheer numbers, explained Pres. Cluff, but in changed hearts.

"Our responsibility is to prepare a setting so each can feel the Savior's love. When the cast feels the Spirit, the audience is likely to feel the Spirit," he said.

Such preparation includes an individualized scripture list for each character, a devotional before each performance and a fireside prior to the beginning of rehearsals, as well as a testimony meeting at the close of the performances. Eldred G. Smith, emeritus General Authority, spoke during this year's opening fireside.

Those who make the effort to study the scriptures and who try to feel what the ancient prophets were feeling, said Ivo Peterson, a member of the pageant presidency and director of the pageant, will have their eyes and hearts opened.

"One young man," explained Brother Peterson, "who was portraying Captain Moroni had been reading how Moroni abhorred war and was saddened by the carnage of lost life. After playing that scene one night, I could see by the pained expression on the his face that he was suddenly feeling something of what Moroni felt.

"I later asked him about it, and he said he was struck by the horror of war's slaughter, something he had never felt before."

One of the unspoken blessings of the pageant in the area, explained Pres. Dyreng, is the unity it builds in the community. "It brings out the best in the people around here," he said. People seem friendlier and yards seem to be more beautiful. For a community of 3,000 to host an audience of 125,000 visitors "is no small undertaking."

"I think everyone in the community is involved in one way or another. Whether it's sewing costumes or building stage sets or controlling traffic or washing dishes — it's a community effort. And those who prepare the visitors' evening meal by barbecuing turkey over a flame on a hot June day know something about sacrifice."

In total, participants from 52 communities are involved in producing the pageant.

There is no limit to the number who may participate in the cast, said Pres. Cluff. Auditions are held for the major roles, such Mary and Robert Henshaw who are the central figures in the story line. But any individual or family wishing to participate is included. This year's performances will include more than 500 cast members.

And although the pageant obligates members in these communities during the summer, which compresses their time for other Church and family activities, stake and pageant leaders return each year with renewed vigor for the pageant.

"We love the pageant," added Pres. Dyreng. "We couldn't do without it."

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