Martin Harris comes to life in Clarkston Pageant

Published: Monday, July 29 2013 5:00 a.m. MDT

The Clarkston Pageant tells of the life and testimony of Martin Harris, one of the three witnesses to the origin of the Book of Mormon.

John Poppleton

Clarkston, in Cache County, is in a remote spot in northern Utah. And yet, since 1982, thousands of visitors have congregated to the small town every other year. Why? Clarkston is home to the resting place of Martin Harris, as well as the Clarkston Pageant titled "Martin Harris: The Man Who Knew," is presented nearby in the town’s “Field of Dreams” amphitheater.

Pretty impressive, considering there isn’t even a grocery store or gas station.

“We built an outdoor theater and had never put on a show,” said former Clarkston Mayor Denzel Clark. “We built it on faith without knowing if people would really come — but come they did.”

The amphitheater, marking its 30th year, is expecting 35,000 visitors this year, likely including its millionth visitor in the pageant’s history.

The pageant, a one-hour and 15-minute production, was originally put on independently by the community. As its popularity grew, so did the task of running it. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints eventually took over.

“Everything is donated as far as manpower,” said Paul Willie, this year’s director. “It takes a staff of well over 100 people to pull this off. … Hundreds of local actors, singers and dancers combine their talents to tell of the events that took place.”

Unlike other pageants, not only does the Clarkston Pageant take place in a real seated amphitheater — it’s also not pre-recorded.

“It’s a real production,” Willie said. “The actors are actually saying their own lines.”

The story outlines the time surrounding the coming forth of the Book of Mormon in the spring of 1828, with a special emphasis on Harris’ involvement as scribe and as one of the book's Three Witnesses.

Rhett James, who penned the original pageant, noticed during his research that Harris was a special character, marked by his remarkable memory, enthusiastic personality and bold testimony — often saying, “I don’t believe — I know.”

“Martin Harris was told in a blessing given by Joseph Smith Sr. that his testimony would be heard by many and that it would ‘convince thousands,’ ” James said.

Though Harris is sometimes regarded as a controversial character in the church’s history — from losing 116 pages of the original Book of Mormon translation manuscript to having a confusing relationship with the church for parts of his life — Willie feels that should not detract from the power and spirit that comes from participating in or watching the pageant.

“He’s a great character,” Willie said. “He’s a great witness to the events of the Restoration.”

Along with that, Willie believes that Harris can also be very misunderstood among people who speculate about certain choices he made, when in reality, his example in those early years is one to be celebrated and remembered.

“Martin’s story isn’t too different than what any one of us face," Willie said. "He wondered, ‘Am I really going to believe this boy?’ Every member eventually gets backed up to the wall of faith and realizes they need to know for themselves.

“His character kind of plays out what everybody faces: Where do I align myself? Do I believe this incredible story? That’s why it rings a bell with a lot of us, because we can see how we are like him.

“It’s a pretty clear demonstration of a choice a person has to make.”

That is just one facet of many. While Harris’ story is the outline of the pageant, those involved want the main focus to be on the Restoration and coming forth of the Book of Mormon.

“The essence really is that it’s a testimony of the Book of Mormon — how it was translated and published, what the force was behind it," Willie said. "It really isn’t a one-man story.”

With that being said, “Without Martin, it never would have gotten published,” Willie added.

The pageant is at the Martin Harris Memorial Amphitheater, 1100 N. 8400 West, and is scheduled Aug. 2-3, 6-10 and 13-17. Shows begin at 8:30 p.m. For tickets and additional information, call 435-563-9090 or visit www.clarkstonpageant.org.

Kate Sullivan is an intern at the Deseret News with Features and Mormon Times. She is a student at Brigham Young University. Email: ksullivan@deseretnews.com

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