Manti’s ‘Miracle’

“Manti’s ‘Miracle’” New Era, July 1978, 18

Manti’s “Miracle”

The sand-colored stone of the temple must have shimmered that day as temple president L. R. Anderson stood surveying the town of Manti from the crest of the hill. From this site he could see Manti’s lush greenness contrasted against the barren, brown mountains; housetops and chapel spires could be seen poking through the thick trees. Main Street, with its movie theaters, malt shops, and drugstores, nestled in the middle of the community. It was the 1950s, and Manti was sweltering through a summer much like any other small Utah town. But President Anderson knew that someday it would be different.

Below him, at the south end of the temple grounds, workmen labored in the heavy heat to clear land for a parking lot. Directly sloping down from where President Anderson stood, trees on the relatively ungroomed though expansive south hill quivered in the hot wind. What was in his heart as he pondered the scene? We will never know, but a thoughtful comment he made to a workman who had joined him has become an oft-repeated example of the sense of divine destiny that the Manti populous feels for the yearly event that has come to make its summers quite extraordinary.

In that majestic setting the temple president looked around and said, “You know, I will never live to see it, but someday this side will be the most beautiful side of the temple. And,” he added thoughtfully, “I don’t know why, but thousands of people will come here.”

That someday is today. On eight nights a year, standing where that prophetic conversation took place, one can see a 20-mile ribbon of cars snaking its way into Manti. At the base of that beloved hill, thousands of families gather with smiles of anticipation, eyes aimed at the beautifully manicured slope of the south side of the temple. As the sun begins to set below the low mountains to the west, a ripple of excitement ruffles the crowd. The Mormon Miracle Pageant is about to begin another performance.

The pageant is the special miracle of the residents of this valley, and they don’t question how a town with a population of less than 3,000 can take in up to 22,000 visitors a night, feeding and housing many of them, and always sending them away with strengthened testimonies of the gospel. Their faith, prayers, and hard work have gone into making this pageant a striking success story.

Over a thousand people take part in the fever pitch activity that precedes the pageant. There are chairs to be stored and set up, traffic logistics to be mapped, costumes to be mended, and hours upon hours of rehearsal for the 400 performers. Most of the cast are young people, and many work on family farms or for Main Street merchants and have had to hurry from an eight-hour workday to a five-hour rehearsal. But energy rarely lags as they practice graceful dances, block out battle scenes, and trudge up the slope with imaginary handcarts. Most are from Manti or neighboring towns and are friends before the pageant begins rehearsals. But those who aren’t to begin with become so in short order, for they are united in preparing Manti’s contribution to Church drama.

“Everyone in town loves to be a part of it,” says Sister Carol Braithwaite, in charge of pageant hostesses. “They don’t care what part they are asked to play!”

“If you’re willing to put in the time, there’s usually something you can do,” agrees Alene Macfarlane, a 17-year-old, who adds, “I’m a wicked Nephite dancer!” Somehow, her words are incongruous with her wide smile and freckles.

Happy smiles like Alene’s are contagious as the night of the first performance draws near. Local wards prepare succulent roast beef dinners; a table piled high with copies of the Book of Mormon is set up under a tree on the temple grounds; and everything is ready as the first influx of campers, buses, and cars pull into carefully designed parking areas. A group taking part in a youth conference sets up a volleyball net on a patch of grass nearby; families pull cans of soda pop from coolers and wait for the sunset and the start of the performance; and everywhere there are the greetings and hugs of reunited friends.

People have come from every state in the union and virtually every foreign country to Manti. In 1977 alone, Sister Braithwaite reports, there were 18 foreign countries represented, including Japan, Thailand, Australia, France, and New Zealand. Many LDS wards sponsor excursions, and one day in 1977 saw eight full-size busloads of members from the Phoenix area take their places at the base of the hill.

At about 7:00 P.M. on pageant days, while the shadows lengthen on the hillside, the crowd becomes thick as people assemble themselves for the evening. The temple, an ever-present benediction, glows pink and gold in the sun. The scent of moist earth and fresh-cut grass lends a feeling of peacefulness. And the audience, knowing that most have come from faraway for this spiritual treat, share a feeling of comradeship.

Only a few blocks away another group assembles. This group is somewhat younger and a good deal noisier than the other. They are hurrying, peering into makeup mirrors, and primping hair. Now making last-minute preparations in the back of an unused chapel on Main Street, these are the ones who will later wait silently in the shadows until their cues are heard.

Danette Allred pauses before beginning her transformation from a fair-haired Wyoming girl into a wicked Nephite dancer. Blue eyes sparkling, she relates the events that have brought her here: “I came to the pageant last year with a youth group, and it really touched me. I decided right then that I’d like to be in it. It made me realize that there is more to the Church than I had thought. And even then I knew I’d like to be a dancer and an angel, which is what I’m playing now.”

Because of her double role, Danette spent weeks of rehearsal with a five-hour, four-day-a-week schedule. Did she ever get tired of it? What about the eight performances? “Oh no, never! I get a special feeling during every performance.”

Across the room stands perhaps the tallest man in the cast. Niel Dobson, 24, a University of Utah medical student, combs his dark hair into a distinctive curl against his forehead, and as he turns, the profile is strikingly familiar.

“Yes,” he says, “I play Joseph Smith.”

Niel is serious as he describes the feelings he has for the Prophet after playing him for four years. “Every time I do it,” he says, “there’s a thrill to it. I have kind of developed a feeling for the things he went through. I’ve read a lot about him, and I know a lot more now than I used to.

“The jail scene, especially, gets to me. I really feel the love he had for those who were there with him. And the part where everyone calls him a liar—I get the feeling that everyone’s against me. When Robert and Mary, the young couple whose story is told in the pageant, want to hear what Joseph has to say, I feel grateful and happy.”

Playing the younger Joseph is a blonde 15-year-old named Kelly Warnick. “I read a couple of books on Joseph and on the first vision. It’s really neat to kneel under a tree, and sometimes I almost feel like he must have felt; I feel a lot closer to him since I have been playing the part.”

Glendale Larson sits very still as a synthetic beard and brown aging lines are applied to his face. The eyes are serious, yet twinkle just a bit, much like one would imagine his alter ego’s would. “It makes me weak to think I’m playing a prophet of God,” he asserts. “It has certainly been a wonderful experience to play Brigham Young, and I’m happy to have had the opportunity.”

It is not only for their personal enlightenment that these cast members are thrilled; it is for the many nonmembers who will be watching them as they perform.

Sister Braithwaite relates one experience that was “a special spiritual awakening” for her. “One year there was a young man on a motorcycle going through town during pageant time, and he stopped to ask what was going on. I told him and asked him if he knew anything about the Mormon church. He said, ‘Not a thing,’ so I invited him to stay with my family and watch the pageant. At first he said ‘No, I’m too grubby,’ but I told him he could shower and get cleaned up, and he agreed. He did watch the pageant and slept on our lawn in a sleeping bag that night. Well, we didn’t hear from him again for a year and a half. Then we got a letter from him in the mission field.” She pauses to blink back tears. “You know, I could just see the light of Christ in his eyes. That’s what this pageant is all about. And just recently, another lady and I were in Provo making some purchases for the pageant. A man in the shop heard who we were and walked up to us and said, ‘I owe the conversion of my son-in-law to the Mormon Miracle Pageant.’”

Macksene Smith Rux, pageant director, tells of a New Jersey family “who saw the pageant and later took the discussions and were baptized. They saved all their money so they could come back to the Manti Temple and be sealed.”

And as well as the conversion from nonmember to member, the pageant inspires many members to read the Book of Mormon and leads them to increased testimonies. BYU freshman Cheryl Smith says, “As I witnessed the pageant and felt the Spirit of the Lord, I felt more strongly than ever that the Church is true. When I think of it, I want to lift my voice to the heavens and thank the Lord.”

“The pageant was really beautiful—it really strengthened my testimony,” says Janet Snarr of Salt Lake City. Camille Briggs adds, “Until this pageant I didn’t realize how sacred this country is. Now I can see that it was planned from the beginning of the world. I’m grateful that I can live in it.”

Testimonies like these no doubt linger in the minds of the cast as they apply finishing touches to makeup and board yellow school buses that will take them to temple hill.

Perhaps, too, in their minds are the years of hard work that have gone into the pageant’s present success. The story of the pageant began in 1947, when Grace Johnson wrote a narrative called The Mormon Miracle and presented it to several groups. In 1967 it was produced in pageant form on the county fairgrounds in Manti, and a year later it was moved to temple hill. In 1970 Macksene Smith Rux revised the script into its present version, and later the soundtrack was recorded. Since then there have been virtually no changes, although audiences have swelled from 5,000 a night in its early years to 1977’s record night of over 22,000. Altogether over half a million people have watched the pageant, and there are no signs that the tide of growing popularity is slowing.

Cool breezes cause spectators to clutch sweaters closer as the sun disappears. Stars begin to pinprick the sky, and the moon shines on the unlit temple. Twenty thousand people watch an unparalleled drama begin with an invocation and a flag ceremony.

The plot encompasses the story of the Restoration, starting with the confusion among the religious sects in 19th-century New England and leading to a young man’s earnest prayer under a tree at the top of a hill. A shaft of bright light breaks through the summer-green leaves. Severe persecution follows, but it is softened by the acceptance of the gospel by a young couple also seeking truth.

Scenes from the Book of Mormon are enacted as Oliver scribes for Joseph. Later, the Prophet and his brother are martyred and a new phase of Church history is explored with Brigham Young, who leads the company of Saints to the Salt Lake Valley.

Throughout the pageant we continue to follow the saga of the young couple, Robert and Mary Henshaw. They cross the plains and Mary dies en route. Later Robert also passes on, and the conclusion is a breathtaking scene of their reuniting as they ascend the temple steps into the spirit world. Lining the temple wall, which is now lit, are seemingly hundreds of white-clad angels, singing praises to Heavenly Father. The feeling is one of supreme triumph as the couple greets family and friends and joins in the chorus. Now the temple is bathed in a bright glow of floodlights, stirring the hearts as much as any human drama can.

The last angelic strains fade away, and the audience slowly prepares itself to go home. But scenes from the pageant will never leave their minds—the prophet Samuel raising his arms in indignation against a generation of wicked Nephites, a Nauvoo family praying in gratitude for the beautiful haven they’ve been led to, a handcart company struggling up the steep slope, and perhaps most striking of all, the golden outline of the temple against the dark, silent sky.

Cars rev up their engines, headlights flash on, good-byes are said, and blankets are folded up. Sleepy children are deposited in the backseats of station wagons, and the snaking trail of cars forms a stream of red taillights heading out of town. From the top of the hill the line is visible curving northward for 20 miles.

The air is cold now. Gentle winds nip at those who still linger, putting away equipment or talking to friends. President Anderson never did live to see Manti fulfill the vision he had, but tonight, thousands have reaped the benefits of the hard work, faith, and prayers that the people of Sanpete Valley have put into making that vision come true.

Photos by Scott Poulsen