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.”
Of course, the LDS Church is not alone in its offensive beliefs about blacks — the Southern Baptist Convention didn’t apologize for its affinity for slavery until 1995, nearly 20 years after the LDS ban was lifted. Critics of the LDS church usually don’t mention that the Mormon community has made great strides in the African-American community as well as on the African continent, enough so that Hinckley was awarded the Distinguished Service Award by the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and in 1997 was the first LDS leader to address that group.
The LDS church has struggled for acceptance among both the religious — Smith’s teachings were heretical to most mainstream Christians — and the secular — Smith did not have the luxury of thousands of years buffering his claims and thus they are more susceptible to modern scrutiny. Bi-annual conferences held by the church in Salt Lake City routinely attract hordes of protesters who label the church a cult and sometimes resort to offensive tactics.
“We are not a weird people,” Hinckley told Wallace during his 1996 interview. “The more people come to know us, the better they will understand us.”
AND YET, MANY people still don’t understand, or are troubled by members of Hinckley’s faith. Their suspicion of the religion has consistently haunted Mitt Romney in his quest for the Oval Office. One poll conducted last summer found that as many as 43 percent of Americans would not vote for a Mormon president. We don’t know what this figure would have been like prior to Hinckley’s dedication to forge ties across racial, religious, and international boundaries.
As Monson, Hinckley’s lyrical replacement, said on Saturday, Hinckley “was an island of calm in a sea of storm.” His optimism, stalwartness, and missionary zeal have helped solidify the church’s place as a major world religion. He laid the groundwork for a continued dialogue between Mormons and their non-Mormon, “Gentile” neighbors. It remains to be seen whether this conversation will continue.