The next president of the Mormon Church is a well-read history lover with roots in the first Pilgrim colony and the American West.
More important for a church experiencing formidable growth pains, Gordon B. Hinckley, even at 84, is perhaps the most vigorous and experienced heir to the faith’s prophetic mantle in modern times.
As the senior apostle in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Hinckley will ascend this week to the presidency. Church President Howard W. Hunter died Friday.
Hunter, 87, afflicted with prostate cancer that had spread to his bones, served just nine months - the shortest tenure of any Mormon president.
Hinckley will be ordained “prophet, seer and revelator” by his 13 fellow apostles in the Salt Lake Temple sometime after Hunter’s funeral Wednesday.
“It would be hard to conceive of anyone better prepared by experience to lead the church,” said Francis Gibbons, who served 16 years as secretary to the governing First Presidency.
For more than 10 of his 14 years as a counselor to three church presidents, Hinckley directed the church’s daily affairs while the presidents were enfeebled or ailing.
Since 1981 when Hinckley entered the First Presidency - made up of the president and two counselors - church membership has nearly doubled to 9 million and the missionary force topped 50,000.
The numbers point to a numerical irony awaiting Hinckley’s presidency.
A grandson of pioneers who has sermonized eloquently about the Mormon exodus from the Midwest under Brigham Young soon will lead a church that has more members abroad than in the United States.
The clash of rigidly controlled Utah Mormonism with Third World cultures is seen by many as the greatest challenge facing the church. And D. Michael Quinn, who is completing the second volume of a history of Mormon hierarchy, believes Hinckley understands the problem of “cultural imperialism” better than anyone.
“He’s remarkably without ego. And it’s far easier to build consensus if you’re not having to build it around your own powerful ego,” Quinn said.
Hinckley’s effectiveness as a surrogate for incapacitated leaders grew out of a lifetime as “consummate bureaucrat” in a variety of church jobs.
But, Quinn said, that’s not to suggest Hinckley has a “gray, bureaucratic mentality.” Far from it.
The picture that emerges in interviews with friends, associates and his children is of a deeply spiritual man who is easily moved to tears, a lifelong reader, prodigious traveler and eloquent storyteller, a man of humor who sometimes laughs so hard he has to leave the room.
One might glean an even better insight, though, by examining Hinckley’s pioneer heritage and how it has shaped his life and values, says daughter Virginia Pearce.
One ancestor sailed to America on the Mayflower. Another, Thomas Hinckley, was a governor of Plymouth Colony. A grandfather, Ira N. Hinckley, knew church founder Joseph Smith in Illinois and came West in 1852.