As members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints on Saturday laid to rest their leader of 13 years, Gordon B. Hinckley, they bid farewell to a devoted and energetic man whose vigorous public relations outreach helped pluck his religion from the obscurity of the Intermountain West and bring it to international prominence, despite opposition from religious and secular foes.
The funeral for the 97-year-old man, whose followers deemed a “prophet, seer and revelator,” was translated into 69 languages and beamed by satellite from downtown Salt Lake City to some 6,000 local LDS Church buildings around the world. Hinckley had spent his life encouraging his flock to “to live a little better,” and bantering with members of the media in hopes of improving Mormonism in the eyes of the public. In many ways, he succeeded, though there is much work left for his surviving colleagues.
President George W. Bush and his wife Laura sent a message of condolence, read during the memorial service by Hinckley’s likely successor, Thomas Monson. Bush, who in 2004 awarded Hinckley the Presidential Medal of Freedom, remarked on Hinckley’s seven decades of service in the church, saying he “demonstrated the heart of a servant and the wisdom of a leader.”
The funeral drew a bipartisan political crowd that included Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, GOP presidential candidate Mitt Romney, and Health and Human Services Secretary Michael Leavitt.
In an age when many churches face declines in membership, Hinckley was able to oversee a wide expansion. Nearly a third of today’s church members were baptized under Hinckley’s tenure, which also saw the 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City, the construction of some 75 new temples, millions of dollars sent from the church to various humanitarian crises, and the creation of the Perpetual Education Fund offering educational and work opportunities for poor young men and women from developing nations.
During his tribute to Hinckley, Earl C. Tingey, a senior member of the Church’s Quorum of the Seventy, called the man a “great communicator” (borrowing the title from Ronald Reagan), a testament to his writing and oratorical skills, which were honed during his time as a young missionary preaching from a soapbox in London’s Hyde Park.
After his mission, Hinckley, who had aspired to be a journalist, was instead called by then-prophet Heber J. Grant in the mid-30s to head up the church’s fledgling public affairs department. This was before the field of public relations had solidified, and Hinckley enjoyed the challenge, churning out reams of pamphlets, essays, and speeches.
His skills were noticed and Hinckley rose through the ranks of church leadership before taking its helm in March 1995. His extraordinary efforts to mold how the world views Mormonism were a mixture of success and heartbreak.
HINCKLEY’S DETRACTORS point to his involvement in the Mark Hofmann forgery scandal that culminated in the murder of two people in 1985.
Reports from that time indicate that Hinckley was among the church leaders who were swindled by Hofmann, an antique dealer and a man raised as a devout Mormon who later fell away. Posing as a mild-mannered, pious Mormon, Hofmann convinced Hinckley and his colleagues that he possessed damning letters that would cast doubt on LDS Church founder Joseph Smith and his faith’s origins.
One of the phony letters contained an account by Martin Harris, a close friend and follower of Smith who said the church leader had claimed that a supernatural white salamander had led Smith to find the gold plates Smith claimed contained the original text of the Book of Mormon.
Using $15,000 in church funds, Hinckley, a counselor in the First Presidency, the church’s highest governing body, engineered the purchase of one letter Hofmann claimed showed Smith was involved in necromancy as a young man. Church leaders squirreled away these purchased letters into a vault, worried their disclosure could damage the church’s reputation. When Hofmann realized his forgeries had been discovered, he created bombs that killed two people he feared would expose his secret.
The Hofmann tragedy caused a crisis of faith for some members, who couldn’t understand why church leaders, who teach members they can receive personalized revelation from God to guide their lives, had failed to recognize the deception. They also questioned why leaders, who publicly taught a set of history and doctrine at odds with the letter’s contents, would give such credence to the documents’ claims.
Church leaders since have been fairly tight-lipped about the scandal. When they have talked, they’ve pointed out that Hofmann beguiled numerous scholars and antiquities experts, including a document handler who exposed a forged diary supposedly belonging to Adolf Hitler.
Hinckley also grappled with the issue of historical racism from past LDS prophets and a church policy that excluded blacks from holding the priesthood from 1830 until 1978. When asked about this policy, Hinckley told Mike Wallace on 60 Minutes in 1996, “It’s behind us. Look, that’s behind us. Don’t worry about those little flicks of history.”
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