Almost 525,000 tour Utah Area’s ‘Tabernacle Experience,’ which will conclude Oct. 12

Visitors to the Utah Area’s Tabernacle Experience project, which concludes next week, included dignitaries from Ethiopia and Iraq

HIGHLAND, Utah — In a replica of the Holy of Holies in the ancient tabernacle of Moses, Mariwan Naqshbandi paused to say: “I feel a great happiness here.”

“That happiness that you felt in there,” later explained service missionary Elder Matthew Maddox, “that’s the love of God.”

On Oct. 5, Naqshbandi — who has worked as a senior director in the Ministry of Endowments and Religious Affairs in the Kurdistan Regional Government of Iraq for 28 years — toured a full-size replica of the tabernacle that has been traveling around the Utah Area for the past year and a half. The project, the Tabernacle Experience, will conclude in Utah on Thursday, Oct. 12.

Naqshbandi may have been with a translator, but the Spirit testified in the same language to all present.

Mariwan Naqshbandi talking with a group of youth in Sunday best, with a replica of the tabernacle in the background.
Mariwan Naqshbandi talks with youth from the Lehi Utah Pheasant Pointe Stake near a replica of the ancient tabernacle of Moses in Highland, Utah, on Oct. 5, 2023. | Elder Matthew Maddox
Mariwan Naqshibandi talking with two young men, next to a statue of the brazen serpent On a stick.
Mariwan Naqshbandi talks with Erol Yellowhair from the Lehi Utah Pheasant Pointe Stake, at a replica of the brazen serpent in Highland, Utah, on Oct. 5, 2023. | Elder Matthew Maddox

Elder Maddox and his wife, Sister Julie Maddox, have been the site leaders for the exhibit’s most recent journey to Highland, Utah. The two have been preparing for their area’s reception of the project for six months.

While recently working with a division to promote religious tolerance among youth, Naqshbandi was especially impressed by the youth volunteers who served as tour guides and bore testimony of the Savior, Jesus Christ. “I hope my whole country learns what you are teaching,” he told a pair of volunteers.

Visitors of non-Latter-day Saint faiths have not been uncommon. On Sept. 29, the site welcomed two Ethiopian dignitaries — Ambassador Mussie Hailu, representative to the United Religions Initiative on Religious Affairs (Ethiopian Orthodox); and Haji Messau Adem Shifa, deputy director of the Inter-Religious Council of Ethiopia (Muslim).

While in Utah for the week, these two leaders went to the Church’s Humanitarian Center, BYU’s International Center for Law and Religion Studies and even October 2023 general conference. Yet at the end of the week, Shifa said the visit that stood out to him the most was the tabernacle exhibit. In a comment card he wrote after his tour, he said he was most impacted by “hearing the young kids, knowing that they knew the history, and hearing them bear their testimony.”

Ambassador Mussie Hailu and Mr. Haji Messau Adem Shifa standing in a small group outside and looking at a young man talking.
Ambassador Mussie Hailu, second from right, and Haji Messau Adem Shifa, third from right — Ethiopian dignitaries — listen to a young man explain the purpose of the altar of sacrifice in the ancient tabernacle of Moses in Highland, Utah, on Sept. 29, 2023. | Elder Matthew Maddox
Ambassador Mussie Hailu and Haji Messau Adem Shifa standing in a small group inside and looking at a wall of pictures of the temple.
Haji Messau Adem Shifa and Ambassador Mussie Hailu — Ethiopian dignitaries — listen to Elder Patrick Russell, Utah Tabernacle Service Mission leader, explain that the restored sealing power can unite families for eternity, in Highland, Utah, on Sept. 29, 2023. | Elder Matthew Maddox

About the Tabernacle Experience

“I think we kind of had an idea what it might look like, but I think it’s exceeded all of our expectations,” said Elder Patrick Russell, a service missionary and mission leader of the Utah Tabernacle Service Mission. He and his wife, Sister Kim Russell, have worked with the project since September 2021.

The idea for this event all started with the Meridian Idaho North Stake, which built a full-size replica of the ancient tabernacle in 2015 for a Young Men camp to learn about the Aaronic Priesthood. In 2016, Huntington Beach California Stake leaders set up a tabernacle exhibit in the boundaries of the Murrieta California Stake — which bought 20 acres of land for the site — for a stakewide youth conference.

This California tabernacle was eventually loaned to Utah for usage, and leaders took the tabernacle through Davis County from April to mid-June 2022. Afterward, Elder Kevin W. Pearson — General Authority Seventy and president of the Church’s Utah Area — formed the Utah Tabernacle Service Mission and asked that the missionaries take the exhibit to other parts of the state.

They made two replicas of the borrowed tabernacle and sent it back to California. Then the new replicas started being used in the first week of August 2022, in Tremonton, Utah. Since then, the seven-days-a-week project has been welcomed to Utah cities like St. George, Provo and Salt Lake City.

The mission’s two replicas of the tabernacle of Moses have been to a combined 32 sites and have seen almost 525,000 visitors. About 220 service missionaries from across Utah have helped lead these efforts, and more than 35,000 youth have been trained to run the project. 

The Tabernacle Experience’s season in the Utah Area will come to a close next week, when the exhibit in Highland, Utah (located at 5335 W. 11200 North) will conclude its last tours Thursday, Oct. 12.

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With such an iconic display, some faiths have held their Sunday service in the courtyard of the tabernacle model. And Latter-day Saints even celebrated the start of 25-hour-long Yom Kippur, or the Day of Atonement, the one day a year that the high priest would enter the Holy of Holies. At sundown on Sunday, Sept. 24, a young man blew into a ram’s horn, or shofar, a symbolic act done in biblical times to gather the Israelites.

Said Elder Maddox about the exhibit, “You can’t go through this without feeling something.”

A young man blowing into a ram’s horn, with a sunset in the background.
Aiden Stay, Lindon Utah West Stake, sounds a shofar at the start of Yom Kippur, or the Day of Atonement, on Sunday, Sept. 24, 2023, at the life-size tabernacle exhibit in Highland, Utah. | Elder Matthew Maddox

Objectives of the Tabernacle Experience

While bringing Old Testament scripture to life, the project has brought to pass several outcomes:

Bring others closer to the Savior. Visitors to the tabernacle replica progress through stages of the exhibit, starting with entering the gate on the east side. They travel through the outer courtyard, through the Holy Place and into the Holy of Holies, symbolic of a progression of fallen beings toward God.

“The temple shows that same thing,” said Sister Maddox, “that God invites us to draw near to Him, to draw into His presence, to seek to become clean, to seek to draw closer to Him. And it’s just been a powerful witness, this whole experience, that there is a God who lives and loves us, that He speaks to His prophets on earth.”

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Connect the ancient and the modern temples. Elder Russell said that through the exhibit, “people are making the connection between the ordinances of the ancient tabernacle and our modern temples.”

The mission leader shared with touring dignitaries about having been diagnosed with cancer. Testifying about ancient and modern-day temples throughout this project, Elder Russell has developed a richer, more dynamic faith in the sealing ordinance, a sure knowledge that he will be with his wife through eternity.

“While I probably had an intellectual testimony of that,” he said, “as we’ve participated in this, it’s only strengthened my spiritual testimony of that. And then to be able to bear testimony to them that we believe this and we know this to be true, ... I think the Spirit bore witness to them of the truthfulness of that principle.”

Elder Patrick Russell in a suit speaking to a group of people, with the colorful curtain of the tabernacle exhibit behind him.
Elder Patrick Russell, a service missionary and Utah Tabernacle Service Mission leader, bears his testimony in a life-size tabernacle exhibit in Highland, Utah, on Oct. 5, 2023. | Joel Randall, Church News

Strengthen the rising generation. Out of the thousands of comment cards written by visitors after following a tour, the most frequent comment has been to applaud the over-35,000 youth for the power of their testimonies in the gospel. “That impresses them more than anything else that they’ve gone through,” said Elder Russell.

The Ethiopian Orthodox dignitary who toured last week, recounted Elder Maddox, “said, ‘I can see we have a great deal of hope for the future with these young people. They learn the scriptures, they have built the faith and they know from inside of themselves. So that gives me a great deal of hope.’”

Sister Russell shared how a high councilor was originally not that excited for the tabernacle exhibit. Then, when he went through it, the leader realized the larger objectives. “He said, ‘This isn’t about the Old Testament tabernacle; It’s all about the youth.’”

According to Elder Russell, Elder Pearson “has said that in his opinion, the Old Testament Tabernacle Experience for our youth is a transformational experience just as important as FSY or trek, and that it’s that transformational with our youth.”

A young man wearing a white shirt and tie talking to a group of people, with a replica of the tabernacle of Moses behind him.
Ethan Shepherd, 19, of the Roy North Stake, in Roy, Utah, talks with visitors at the altar of the ancient tabernacle replica on display in Syracuse, Utah, on Saturday, May 7, 2022. | Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

Build interfaith relations. As the books of Moses are canon for many religions, the tabernacle exhibit has seen visitors from several faiths. Around 20 interfaith devotionals held in conjunction with the project have given people of these faiths an opportunity to join together and learn from one another.

Elder Russell said that visitors of non-Latter-day Saint faiths often “walk away saying, ‘We have far more in common than we have different with each other.’ It’s been a really unifying experience.”

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Prepare Saints for temple attendance. Elder Russell said, “Stake presidents are telling us that this has been one of the best temple preparation activities they’ve ever had for their youth.”

Seeing the tabernacle in person has especially opened dialogue for those seeking to receive their endowment. In temple recommend interviews, the interviewer can easily connect symbolism in the tabernacle to today’s temples to increase understanding. “They’re connecting those dots, if you will, on how the ancient tabernacle relates to our modern temples.”

A group of people standing next to a replica of a laver of water.
Sister Kayle Flake, a sister missionary, shares about the ancient tabernacle while attendees walk through a full-size replica of the Old Testament Tabernacle at the Gather Together Conference, part of the Utah Area YSA Conference, at the Salt Palace Convention Center in Salt Lake City on Saturday, Aug. 19, 2023. | Megan Nielsen, Deseret News

Testify of the Restoration of the gospel. Parallels of symbolism and practices between the ancient tabernacle and Latter-day Saint temples today show the truth of the restored gospel, said Elder Maddox.

“It’s all teaching the same doctrine,” he said, “that Christ came and that He died for us and was resurrected. Everything points to Him in the gospel, and to see how Joseph Smith put that together, he couldn’t have done it — nobody knows enough to have put that together — it had to come by revelation, and it had to come from God.”

Sister Maddox said that the whole time she has worked on the tabernacle project, she has felt the Spirit confirming that the gospel has been restored through the Prophet Joseph Smith.

“Joseph Smith had this experience where he saw God the Father, and He saw His Son, Jesus Christ,” she said, “and the temple is a training whereby we can learn what God is like and how to prepare to go back into His presence. So it’s beautifully illustrated by this path through the gate, into the more sacred space, into the Holy of Holies.”

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Engage in love, share and invite. The project would not have worked without ward and stake help. In addition to being devoted volunteers, local Latter-day Saints have invited their neighbors of various religions to join in with the experience as brothers and sisters.

“One of the things about the tabernacle being an Old Testament experience,” said Elder Russell, “is that it doesn’t matter if they’re Jewish or Muslim or evangelical. It means something to so many different faiths that it is so easy to love, share and invite others to come and see.”

Note: This article was updated on Oct. 23, 2023, when additional visitor information was released.

A 13-year-old boy wearing a suit coat and talking to a group of people inside the ancient tabernacle replica.
Aaron Yardley, 13, from the Roy Utah North Stake, gives information to visitors at the ancient tabernacle replica on display in Syracuse, Utah, on Saturday, May 7, 2022. | Scott G Winterton, Deseret News
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