The Religious-Education Professors who Moonlight as Magicians
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The Y Report

Tricks of the Trade

Three religious-education colleagues share a love of performing magic.

John Hilton III pulls his book "Voices in the Book of Mormon" from a hat, Devan Jensen demonstrates a guillotine magic trick, and Alex Baugh holds other magic props.
John Hilton III, Devan Jensen, and Alex Baugh (from left) moonlight as amateur magicians. Photo by Bradley Slade. 

With confounding illusions and perplexing powers of prediction, Religious Studies Center executive editor R. Devan Jensen (BA ’91, MA ’95) was dazzling Cub Scouts at a local park with a magic performance. At the show he bumped into someone unexpected: his friend and colleague John L. Hilton III (BS’ 00, PhD ’10), a BYU professor of ancient scripture. Hilton confided that he too moonlighted in magic. In the years since, the two discovered another religious education magician, Church history and doctrine professor Alexander L. Baugh (MA ’86, PhD ’96).

Each started from a young age; Hilton learned magic from his dad, and Jensen asked his parents for a magic set. “I was a shy kid,” Jensen remembers. “But magic was a way that I could engage with other people and have fun.”

Although they have separate acts, they occasionally combine their talents. At one magical department meeting, Hilton placed a cup atop a brave volunteer’s head—after verifying with the religion faculty that it was full of water. “Everyone was fully expecting him to get soaked,” recalls Jensen, aka Mr. Magic. But when the cup finally fell, the water had vanished into thin air.

Next up was Jensen’s slightly more nerve-wracking trick involving a small guillotine. Another (even braver) volunteer placed her arm under the chopper next to a carrot. Jensen remembers onlookers sweating, almost unable to watch. When the blade came down it appeared to pass right through her arm, chopping the carrot. “They were so nervous that she was going to lose an arm,” laughs Jensen.

Today the colleagues swap tricks of the trade and learn new secrets at a local magic club. This fall Jensen and Hilton (with his apprentice—his son Joseph) will trade in their suits for top hats to perform at the Timpanogos Storytelling Festival.

While these researchers can pull bunnies out of hats, by day they pull books out of laptops. Each is editing or writing books on the Church’s history, its international growth, and the Book of Mormon.

As magicians the three perform for audiences ranging from family groups to gatherings of hundreds. Professors Baugh and Hilton occasionally perform tricks for their students.

Jensen says making magic is all about “the spark,” or the moment when the audience believes the impossible has happened. “It’s so fun to see the look on their faces when something disappears,” adds Hilton. “It brings us so much joy to see people happy.”