President Gordon B. Hinckley of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints died this evening. He was 97.
Hinckley’s life spanned the 20th century, a time marked by LDS global outreach and technological advances. He saw his church evolve from a tiny sect in the Intermountain West to a respected religious movement with more than 13 million members worldwide. He embraced each new communication device, from radio to satellite to YouTube, as a chance to spread the Mormon word.
He began his career in the 1930s as a missionary defending the faith on a soapbox in London’s Hyde Park and lived to see the country’s first viable Mormon candidate for president. Through it all, Hinckley worked tirelessly to gain acceptance for his church on the world’s stage.
“We are not a weird people,” Hinckley told Mike Wallace in a 1995 “60 Minutes” interview.
With the shrewdness of a politician, Hinckley downplayed the more controversial aspects of LDS history. He welcomed the world to Utah for the 2002 Olympic Winter Games, promising everyone they could get a drink here and accepted one of America’s highest honors – the Presidential Medal of Freedom.
He highlighted Mormon commonality with other Christians, forging alliances with other faith groups while scolding LDS Church members for being too clannish, self-righteous and unfriendly to their neighbors.
“This church has grown into a great worldwide organization affecting for good the lives of people in more than 140 nations,” Hinckley told The New York Times in 1995. “You can’t, you don’t, build out of pessimism or cynicism. You look with optimism, work with faith, and things happen.”
Even as he looked outward, Hinckley energized the faithful with his forward-thinking proposals.
He undertook the most ambitious building program in the church’s history, including the massive Conference Center near Temple Square and 83 temples – that’s 24 more in nearly 13 years than the 50 constructed in the previous 165 years of LDS history. He created a plan to help returned missionaries in Third World countries get an education. He revitalized missionary work, worked on the retention of new converts, sent apostles to live in far-flung regions for the first time in Mormon history, and replaced many paid positions with volunteers.
Hinckley also remodeled the image of a Mormon leader.
When he became the church’s 15th president in March 1995 at 84 years old, Hinckley essentially had been leading the church for more than a decade due to the frail health of his predecessors. He was determined to defy the view of LDS presidents as feeble, secretive and quaintly parochial. He dazzled people – members and outsiders alike – with his encyclopedic memory and almost superhuman work ethic. During his nearly 13 years as president, Hinckley gave more than 2,000 speeches, visited more than 150 countries, and greeted hundreds of diplomats and ambassadors. He was interviewed by journalists from nearly every major American newspaper, charming many with his folksy wisdom and self-deprecating humor.
“Treat me well,” he would say with a sly grin. “I’m just an old man.”
Yet even in his 90s, the figure Mormons consider a “prophet, seer and revelator” rarely thought like an old man.
“His keen intellect and thirst to understand how everything works resulted in a storehouse of knowledge that will be nearly irreplaceable,” said Elder Marlin Jensen, the church’s official historian. “I believe he was a true prophet but it didn’t hurt that he was a genius, too.”
Roots of leadership
Throughout childhood, Hinckley split his time between a Salt Lake City home and a farm in East Millcreek, where he learned to work the land, love the trees and grow his Mormon faith.
It was there where he had his first spiritual experience. He was about 5 years old and suffering from a painful earache.
“My mother prepared a bag of table salt and put it on the stove to warm,” he said in 2000. “My father softly put his hands upon my head and gave me a blessing, rebuking the pain and the illness by authority of the holy priesthood and in the name of Jesus Christ. He then took me tenderly in his arms and placed the bag of warm salt at my ear. The pain subsided and left.”
Cradled in his father’s arms, Hinckley drifted off to sleep, his father’s words lingering in his mind.
“That is the earliest remembrance I have of the exercise of the authority of the priesthood in the name of the Lord,” he said.
While the Hinckley home was awash in Mormon practices, it was also a place of learning. The five children (as well as several half-siblings) read Harvard classics around the kitchen table, where Hinckley became a devotee of Milton, Shakespeare, Kipling and especially Charles Dickens.
Such wide-ranging reading was unusual for a homespun Mormon family, but it provided the wellspring of education to which Hinckley would return again and again in his career. It allowed him to speak “non-Mormon” fluently. In 1998, Hinckley wrote a small volume, Standing for Something: Ten Neglected Virtues That Will Heal Our Hearts and Homes, in which he drew on many childhood experiences without a single use of uniquely LDS language or beliefs.
To the faithful, Hinckley spoke in simple, imperative sentences like a grandfather – stern when condemning abuse, pornography or racism, gentle when encouraging faith and devotion. No grand theology, no fancy wordplay. Just no-nonsense advice.
“For the most part we are a happy people,” he said at the 1998 Semi-Annual General Conference. “We’re mindful of and continue to pray for those who are experiencing hardship due to natural or man-caused calamity. But even those among our number who are bowed down with sorrow and pain, go forward in faith with the certain assurance that God lives and is watching over his children.”
Hinckley told Jensen he had no particular system for crafting his speeches.
“I just keep reading and clipping things and putting them in a drawer,” the Mormon prophet said. “Then, when I have a talk to give, I go to the drawer and whatever is on top is what they get.”
Such humor belies the truth, Jensen said. “Few have ever been as eloquent and inspiring in their speaking as he. He could relate and connect with everyone – old and young, rich and poor, educated and unlearned.”
Building a career
Hinckley’s two-year mission to England at the height of the Great Depression was an education in itself. He learned how to deflect antagonistic questions and discovered what would become his life’s work – using the printed word, and later the airwaves, to promote the faith.
In 1933, few Britons were joining the American church, and many heaped insults and ridicule on its young representatives. Mormon missionaries would preach from portable podiums in London’s Hyde Park while onlookers challenged them to verbal duels.
“We learned to speak quickly on our feet. And Elder Hinckley was the best of the bunch,” the late Wendell Ashton, one of Hinckley’s missionary companions, told LDS Apostle Jeffrey Holland.
The missionaries had no set oral presentation or prepared materials to distribute other than a few pamphlets and the faith’s scripture, The Book of Mormon.
“Our conversion rate was terrible,” said Ashton, former publisher of the church-owned Deseret Morning News. “We would just knock on doors and try to teach people, and it wasn’t a good method.”
At the end of his mission, Hinckley complained about the lack of aids to his mission president, who ordered him to report immediately back to LDS Church headquarters in Salt Lake City, rather than tour the Holy Land as he had planned. When Hinckley had given his report, LDS President Heber J. Grant hired him on the spot.
At 24, Hinckley took over the newly created Church Radio, Publicity and Mission Literature Committee and would spend much of the next five decades thinking of new ways to get the church and its message into the American consciousness.
He wrote and edited scripts and supervised production for a radio series, “Fullness of Times,” which featured 39 half-hour dramatizations of church history. He persuaded Mormon leaders to sponsor an exhibit at the 1938 World’s Fair in San Francisco, including a scale model of the famed Mormon Tabernacle on Temple Square and daily organ recitals. He produced a similar exhibit for the centennial of the 1849 discovery of gold in California, with a replica of a cabin occupied by members of the Mormon Battalion.
Told in heroic detail, the Mormon story was repeated over and over as a way to attract potential converts – or at least to correct what Hinckley saw as public misconceptions of LDS teachings.
With his help, the church built a vast media empire, including radio and televisions stations. It had produced award-winning TV spots and ads for the church in Reader’s Digest magazine. It had satellite technology at every wardhouse on the planet and could beam the sermons around the world.
Hinckley began his globe-trotting duties after he was named an apostle on Oct. 5, 1961.
While on speaking assignments, he was always available to comfort members in need. He was in Tonga when a boatload of Mormons drowned. He was in South America when a devastating earthquake hit Peru. He was in South Korea when there were gunshots in the streets.
As the decades passed, Hinckley shouldered more and more of the church’s bureaucratic burdens.
Taking the lead
In 1981, President Spencer W. Kimball was weakened by brain surgery and his two aged counselors in the governing First Presidency were scarcely more capable of managing the church’s affairs. So Kimball took the unusual move of bringing Hinckley, then an apostle, into the First Presidency as a third counselor.
From that day forward, Hinckley took on nearly the entire responsibility of leading the church, all the while seeming to be but a dutiful soldier bravely serving his general. After Kimball’s death, Hinckley would help the enfeebled President Ezra Taft Benson in much the same way.
When Hinckley ascended to the church presidency in 1995, then, he was better prepared for the office than any man before him. He knew the church’s system and programs intimately because he had designed many of them, much as he built his own home as a young man.
Architect, engineer, electrician, roofer, carpenter, brick layer and plumber all in one, Hinckley often boasted that he hammered every nail in the home – and never a one on Sunday. Over time, he planted more than 1,000 trees on his East Millcreek acreage.
“There is something in me that makes me plant trees each spring,” he said in 2003. “They are very small now, but in 20 years they will be magnificent.”
Designing spaces, ripping out walls, planting seeds for the future – this is what Hinckley did for the church, its people and programs.
Hinckley conceived and directed the transformation of the grand old Hotel Utah into an office building for church employees. After awakening from a dream, he sketched a temple that would be built atop a commercial building in Hong Kong. He remembered tiny details – when a certain chapel’s roof was last replaced, or the name of someone he met years earlier. He instituted smaller, less expensive temples to serve members in remote areas.
For the first time in its history, the church launched a humanitarian service department that spent millions of dollars in emergency relief for people outside the faith. Hinckley also created a Perpetual Education Fund to help returned missionaries in Third World countries go to college.
And no one took a stronger lead in the church’s political efforts.
He built alliances with other Christian denominations to oppose same-sex marriages and defend religious liberties. In 1998, Hinckley announced a “Proclamation on the Family,” which laid out the church’s support for the sanctity of marriage, the significance of family and the importance of chastity.
That became the theological foundation for the church’s opposition to any effort to promote same-sex marriage. In 2000, the LDS Church defended the Boy Scouts’ right to exclude gays from leadership positions, and the church and its members in Alaska and Hawaii gave time and well over $1 million to thwart same-sex marriage initiatives; in 1999, members in California helped finance the push for a Protection of Marriage Act on that state’s ballot.
“What’s a church for if it isn’t to fight for values, to take a stand and face up to these moral issues?” Hinckley said in a February 2000 interview with The Salt Lake Tribune.
Mormon rock star
When Hinckley became president in 1995, the man who once dreamed of becoming a reporter had come full circle. He seemed to thrive on media attention, bantering with journalists and honing his skills at artfully dodging questions.
He repeatedly mentioned that Mormons were just ordinary people, trying to live simple, moral lives. He downplayed controversial aspects of the church’s history, especially polygamy.
“It was a very limited practice, carefully safeguarded. In 1890, that practice was discontinued,” Hinckley told CNN interviewer Larry King. “That’s 118 years ago. It’s behind us.”
While that didn’t satisfy critics who argued that the church continued sanctioning polygamous marriages into the early decades of the 20th century and that it’s still part of the church’s scriptures, it went a long way toward eliminating Mormonism’s image as strange and foreign.
Hinckley also took his message of normalcy to other countries as he dedicated temples there. He launched a series of “cultural nights” where members in the region could gather in giant stadiums to show off their unique traditions and talents. Such giant public events helped mute the suspicion of this American church.
It also elevated Hinckley in the eyes of local members.
When Hinckley entered those arenas – or, indeed, in any large gathering of the faithful – the crowd instinctively stood up and grew suddenly silent.
Yet such hero worship had its downside. He could never take a stroll on Salt Lake City’s Main Street Plaza or a city park without being besieged. As he recovered from his 2006 surgery in a Salt Lake hospital, he was virtually imprisoned in his room to protect him from well-meaning intrusions.
To the end, Hinckley faced head on the seduction of veneration.
“Adulation is a disease I fight every day,” Hinckley said.
On the homefront
Though he was constantly looking beyond the Wasatch Mountains, Hinckley never lost sight of the importance of Salt Lake City as the church’s headquarters. He built goodwill by opening the Tabernacle on Temple Square to interfaith groups, by creating an Inner City Mission to help people find their way out of poverty, illness and addiction, and by contributing to the restoration of the Catholic Cathedral of the Madeleine and Westminster College of Salt Lake City.
In February 2004, as his wife Marjorie lay dying, Hinckley’s secretary called homeless advocate Pamela Atkinson to say the president “was very concerned with the very cold weather we were having.” He wondered how they were managing and wanted to give some of his own money to Atkinson to help them, Atkinson said.
“That was the third time Hinckley did this,” she recalled. “Here’s a man who is a leader of a worldwide church, his wife is not well, and he thinks about homeless people and how he can help. I was taken aback and in awe.”
For all his sensitivity to outsiders, though, Hinckley sometimes charged ahead without anticipating the anger his actions might generate.
The prime example was in 1997, when the LDS Church bought a block of Main Street from Salt Lake City to extend its headquarters, closing it to traffic and eliminating free expression there.
The move was opposed by many residents, some of whom joined a lawsuit filed by the American Civil Liberties Union. As the suit progressed through the courts, various groups emerged, notably the Alliance for Unity, to try to salve the hurt on both sides.
Then came the 2002 Winter Olympics. Hinckley promised the church would not use the occasion to proselytize and instructed his missionaries in Utah to stand down. Mormon volunteers even took a class in how to break the habit of preaching the Mormon gospel. Utahns from every religious group worked shoulder to shoulder in hopes that Salt Lake would take its place as a worldly, welcoming city.
During the Games, President George W. and Laura Bush, U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan, German President Johannes Rau and many other national and international dignitaries all paid courtesy calls on Hinckley.
He watched most of the 2002 Olympic events on TV and was especially wowed by the half-pipe snowboard gyrotechnics. What could be more American – and normal – than that?