More than 100,000 LDS young people and their leaders gathered in two Utah sports stadiums Saturday to recall the life of a man who lived two centuries ago.
Yet the teens revere Joseph Smith, founder of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, whose bicentennial year they gathered for a "Day of Celebration" to remember with music, pageantry and a charge, from President Gordon B. Hinckley, to join their forebears in "carrying the gospel across the world and bringing light and understanding to people everywhere."
President Hinckley entered the darkened stadium on a golf cart late in the evening celebration, waving a scarf to a standing ovation from the crowd as he made his way to the podium. His first words to some 45,000 youth assembled in Rice-Eccles Stadium at the University of Utah:
"What a show! You do great justice to the prophet Joseph, who liked to have fun! And what a wonderful lot of fun you've had. It's been a wonderful presentation."
Thanking Elders Merrill J. Bateman and Jeffrey Swinton for their work organizing the event over the past 18 months, he noted that tens of thousands have or will participate in similar celebrations across the state.
"This has been the capstone of all of these great presentations. To all of the young men and young women who have danced, to all who have sung, to all who have performed in any way, I express my thanks and compliment you, every one."
He urged participants to never forget the experience, keeping it as "a reminder of the great and sacred obligations which you have as members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
The Prophet Joseph Smith "has done more save Jesus only for the salvation of men in this world than any other man that ever lived in it," President Hinckley said.
"He lived great and he died great in the eyes of God and his people, and like most of all the Lord's anointed in ancient times he has sealed his mission and his works with his own blood."
Participants left the stadium energized and smiling.
Brian Stacey of Mountain View, Wyo., traveled nearly two hours and took a half day off work to attend the event "because it has to do with the gospel." He said he's not concerned about whether friends at home think his participation is "cool or not."
"Joseph Smith is a true prophet whatever people might say. I'm not worried about that at all."
Whitney Hammond of Sandy said she was a bit hesitant about participating in the choir at first, "but my mom wanted me to do it really bad. Once I got there," and began going to several practices over the past few months, "I decided it would be really cool."
Her friends, Lauren Timmins and Allison Andrews, agreed the effort was worth it, even though they sat in the stadium on Friday during 100-plus degree heat from 3 to 11 p.m. for the dress rehearsal.
"I think it's impressive that the stadium is full," Timmins said. "It's amazing how many they got to participate," Andrews added. "It's really cool to be a part of it."
The program opened with 2,400 flag carriers marching in formation across the field and through the stands, accompanied by a choir of 16,000 voices that filled the north end of the stadium. More than 5,200 dancers then moved onto the field, hundreds waving streamers in a dance of "shouting for joy."
Choreographed dance numbers, musical performances and an energetic Tongan drum circle teaching chants to the audience drew appreciative cheers from the crowd.
Organizers got the entire stadium involved with packets of three-colored scarves placed under each seat. Rolling "waves" of color rotated around the stadium along with a variety of directed chants from the crowd. As scores of cameras flashed in the stands, they spelled out "Joseph's 200," "Follow the Prophet" and "Choose Light," with help from the director.
The last phrase was the theme for the evening, with each participant also wearing a glow-in-the-dark wristband with the phrase. Following President Hinckley's remarks, the stadium was illuminated with more than 52,000 light wands that spread gradually around the stadium as the audience joined the choir and hundreds of LDS missionaries singing a final anthem, "The Spirit of God."
In addition to Joseph Smith's bicentennial, the LDS Church is also marking the 175th anniversary of its organization in 1830 this year.
As the festivities at the U. were getting under way in earnest, celebrants in northern Utah were winding through the second of two spectaculars staged Saturday at Weber State University's Dee Event Center.
LDS artists Sam Cardon and Cherie Call wrote and arranged music specifically for the show, which drew some 58,000 young people from Davis and Weber counties. Because of its size, the group had to be split for two separate but similar performances with two separate casts.
Musicians Jon Schmidt, Enoch Train and the a cappella group T-Minus 5 also performed, with Bruce Newbold and Spence Kinard providing the live narration.
Thousands helped beat out the rhythms of service in a gigantic stomp number and lit the indoor arena with 24,000 glow sticks before witnessing the finale burst with pyrotechnics.
Katelyn Krum, a participating teen, didn't hide her enthusiasm."Some people say that church is so rigid, and I think it's awesome that we can all get together and celebrate like this. I'm so excited!"