Among the big-screen movies showing here, “Legacy,” an official production of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, is one of the hottest tickets in town.
Screened 10 times daily on a 62-foot-wide screen with symphonic Dolby sound, it tells a fictional love story set against the backdrop of the Mormon trek to Utah, a covered-wagon journey beset by winter weather, sickness and vigilante attack. In the church’s estimate, 2 million people have seen the hourlong film since July 1993.
Yet even as it finds new ways to celebrate its pioneering past, the Mormon Church is caught up these days in a vast and historic demographic change. Once confined largely to Utah, the church’s membership now numbers more than nine million, double what it was 15 years ago, and nearly half live outside the United States.
Signs of the church’s internationalization are much in evidence here, from a young Frenchwoman showing visitors how to use the computers in a Mormon genealogical library to a Japanese tour guide at the church visitors’ center.
While the top leadership remains overwhelmingly white and American-born, change among the rank and file is such that the Mormons’ president, Gordon B. Hinckley, could assert in an interview that the church was becoming “a multicultural organization.”
Hinckley, 85, became the church’s 15th president in April, after the death of Howard W. Hunter. As such, he is regarded as a living prophet, able to receive revelation directly from God.
In this time of sweeping change in the church, Hinckley portrayed himself as a steady helmsman rather than an innovator. If there were a theme for his presidency, he said, it would be: “Carry on the great work of those who have gone before.”
Dressed in a dark gray suit, Hinckley spoke informally and at length about himself and the church while seated in his spacious, wood-paneled office in the Church Administration Building, a stately stone structure resembling a turn-of-the-century bank, a block from the ornate Salt Lake City Temple.
He talked of a need for “an increased spirit of civility” among Americans of different faiths, praised Mormon educational institutions and warmly recounted instances of meeting the faithful on official trips abroad.
On the wall behind him hung portraits of Jesus and the Mormons’ second president, Brigham Young, who led the faithful to Utah from Illinois after the assassination of the founder, Joseph Smith.
Noting the Young portrait’s ubiquitous gaze, Hinckley said with a smile, “Everywhere I go walking up and down this room, he’s looking at me.”
In the Mormon story, Young has a role like that of Moses among Jews. It was he who guided the Saints, as Mormon pioneers are called, through the American wilderness to Zion, the deserts around the Great Salt Lake. Hinckley’s grandfather, who made the trek, built a fort in Utah at Young’s command, a structure since restored as a tourist attraction.
Hinckley grew up on a local farm and was put in charge of the church communications committee in 1935, when there were fewer than a million Mormons. In 1979, he wrote a short history of the church titled “Truth Restored.” Since his elevation in 1981 to the church’s highest inner circle, its first presidency, he has dedicated 22 Mormon temples on six continents.
While the rate of membership growth has declined somewhat from that of the 1980s, some church observers still wonder whether all the new converts overseas have placed the American base under financial strain.
“Can the American church sustain the international church?” Elbert E. Peck, editor and publisher of Sunstone, an independent Mormon magazine, said in an interview.
“For every several hundred persons you convert, you have to build a new chapel.” And because the new converts often lack the money, “the persons who pay for the chapel are North Americans.”
Hinckley, by contrast, expressed no such reservations. Although he briefly acknowledged that rapid growth “involves great challenges and brings serious problems,” such growth proves, he said, that the church “answers people’s needs.”
“Growth is wonderful,” he said.
Asked whether the church risked losing track of members during so rapid an expansion, Hinckley answered: “I hope not. Our emphasis must always be on the individual.”
Jan Shipps, a professor of religious studies at Indiana University-Purdue University in Indianapolis who is considered a leading expert on the Mormon Church, said that in recent months she had found hints in the speeches of Mormon officials suggesting a subtle shift in power from the president, as the church’s prophet, to its top 15 officials, a group comprising the president, his two counselors (the triad that makes up the first presidency) and the Council of the Twelve Apostles.
“It’s moving more by consensus than by the prophetic voice,” Dr. Shipps said. “I see this as a response to what we call the gerontocracy problem.”
That was a reference to the incapacitation, near the end of their tenures, that afflicted the church’s 12th and 13th presidents, Spencer W. Kimball and Ezra Taft Benson, who died at the ages of 90 and 94, respectively.
Asked whether such a power shift had taken place, Hinckley said that nothing in church procedures had changed.