SALT LAKE CITY — Most of the time, this city succeeds in projecting the secular, cosmopolitan image that its leaders and residents have polished over the years: the ski capital, the economic engine, the desert metropolis of wide streets and mountain vistas.
But at times like this, with a president of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints lying in state in Temple Square, the old roots show, and the impulses that led to the city’s founding as a religious capital in the 1840s are revealed again as if the frontier were new.
On Saturday, if only for a day, in saying goodbye to the Mormon church’s 15th president, Gordon Hinckley, who died last weekend at age 97, Utah was Zion all over again, and all roads, at least for the faithful, led here.
Twenty-one thousand people packed the LDS Church Conference Center, with broadcasts in 69 languages around the world to Mormon converts.
Tens of thousands more had come earlier in the week to view Hinckley’s remains and many were still here. The Mormon Tabernacle Choir, in full-throated glory, raised the roof, singing several hymns with words by Hinckley himself.
Mormon dignitaries lined the front rows, including former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, the Republican presidential hopeful, who arrived here on Friday night with two of his sons and his wife, Ann. The Romneys sat near Sen. Harry Reid of Nevada, a Democrat and majority leader in the Senate, and Utah’s Republican governor, Jon Huntsman Jr. Utah’s two Republican senators, Bob Bennett and Orrin Hatch, rounded out the VIP section.
But the eulogies were simple, in keeping, perhaps, with Hinckley himself, who was described as self-effacing and always ready to poke fun at pretension, as he did some years back in walking into a meeting of senior church leaders in their dark suits, white shirts and conservative ties and telling them, by way of hello, that they all looked like penguins.
People talked about how, in his 90s, urged to use a cane for his balance, he instead adopted it as a prop — waving it around, usually, to the dismay of his doctors and the delight of those who loved him.
Deep connections noted
“We have watched you grow old on stage,” said one of the funeral orators, Earl Tingey, a senior church leader. “We are better because of you.”
Some of the “talks,” as the eulogies were called in typical Mormon usage, described the deep personal connections that Hinckley, who had headed the 13 million-member church since 1995, was able to make with many people beyond the faithful through his writing and his folksy, avuncular style.
Hinckley sat for an interview with 60 Minutes and wrote a book in 2000 called Standing for Something about “neglected virtues that can heal our hearts and homes,” which made The New York Times best-seller list in the advice and how-to category. He was the most traveled president in church history, visiting more than 60 countries and establishing dozens of temples to support the church’s global missionary program.
Missionary work — Mormonism’s face to people all over the world, through the conservatively dressed young men dispatched in pairs — exploded under Hinckley’s leadership. Over 400,000 were sent forth, about 40 percent of the total ever called. Almost one third of the current church membership joined under his presidency.
Too much exposure?
Hinckley’s passing comes at an awkward time for many Mormons, who have said in recent months that they feel themselves to be under a microscope as national attention focuses on Romney and his bid for the presidency. The scrutiny, from magazine-cover discussions of what Mormons believe to national opinion polls about whether people would vote for a Mormon for president, has evoked a mix of feelings, from pride to consternation over the misconceptions the world shares about them.
The public display of mourning for Hinckley this weekend evoked an older array of emotions. The Mormons, after the church’s founding in the early 1800s in upstate New York, came west in 1847, fleeing persecution but also carrying a heavy burden of destiny — critics, then and now, have called it arrogance — that they had found the one true Christian faith.
In the voices of many mourners, that rock-ribbed certainty was the dominant expression.
“President Hinckley still lives,” said Thomas Monson, who under church seniority rules is next in line to succeed Hinckley, and who gave the final talk. “He is on a heavenly mission to others who await his influence and testimony.”