PALMYRA, N.Y. For all the drama of the major scenes of the Hill Cumorah Pageant, it's the simple, tender moments that tug at the heart strings, noted pageant president Wayne Lehman.
The scene where the Savior dressed in white descends to the Nephite crowds was so moving during one performance that a little boy in the Nephite group was overcome with emotion and instead of merely standing and looking into the face of the actor portraying the Savior, he reached up his hands to the Savior.
"It wasn't part of the production," President Lehman said, "but it was so moving to see a little boy reach up to touch the Savior that I asked him to continue the gesture each evening."
"The Hill Cumorah Pageant has been a wonderful tool for missionary work," said Elder W. Craig Zwick of the Seventy and president of the North America Northeast Area. "It strengthens our abiding faith in Jesus Christ. Theatrical presentations connect the people with the message of a living Christ in unique ways," he said, referring to the sense of love and kindness that swept the audience as the child reached to touch the Savior's face. "The Spirit we felt in each performance was a spiritual motivation for members as well as non-members of the Church."
Elder Zwick, who attended three performances during the July 7, 8, 11-15 schedule, told of a man and his family who are now studying the gospel after attending the pageant. "Nobody knows the full spiritual impact of this pageant," he said. "As significant a missionary tool as it is, its greater good may come in the strengthening of families who participate as cast members and in its unifying effect on the families," he said.
"After a performance I went to a spot near the Hill Cumorah known as Zions Camp where more than 45 families in the pageant were living in trailers," Elder Zwick said. "I heard them speaking of their experiences and of the faith they were gaining by portraying the great Book of Mormon characters. They were drawing together as a family. There was a clear uniting."
Beyond the special effects of lightning and volcanoes, the real strength of the pageant lies in the spiritual preparation of the work crew and staff, Elder Zwick said.
"Early one morning in the Sacred Grove, our recently returned missionary son and I were enjoying reading the scriptures together. We noticed a few work crew members who had worked late the night before who were also there reading their scriptures. They were there for the right reasons, contemplating the supernal events which took place in the Sacred Grove. Their testimonies were strengthened regarding the characteristics of God and of His Son Jesus Christ."
Unique this year was the "added spiritual dimension that came with the dedication of the Palmyra temple," Elder Zwick said. "The full blessings of the Church are now available in the beautiful area where the grand events of the Restoration took place."
"It's the best year we've ever had," said Dick Ahern, chairman of media relations, referring to missionary referrals and interest by the press. "It rained all day on the last day. I must have answered 200 phone calls asking if the pageant would be presented. Two hours before performance time the rain stopped and 7,500 people watched under dry skies. At the conclusion of the performance, the rain resumed."
Brother Ahern attributes the growth in attendance to an emphasis on the spiritual aspect of the pageant and less on the theatrical aspects. "Several years ago we wondered if participation would drop with an emphasis on 'feeling the Savior's love' instead of highlighting the special effects."
The pageant actually enjoys "the largest crowds it has known" since the first pageant was performed in 1935.
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