It was a startling tableau: a healthy president of the Mormon Church standing before a flock of surprised reporters and asking if they had any questions.
Few in the ornate lobby of the Joseph Smith Memorial Building knew it had been fully 21 years since any man who served as the faith’s “prophet, seer and revelator” had held a news conference.
But they realized what they were seeing was rare and that a statement was being made.
For years the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints had been governed mostly by committee as presidents who lived to be 90, 94 and 87 became frail, worn out or enfeebled in office.
Enter Gordon B. Hinckley, ordained last Sunday as the 15th president of the fastest-growing religion founded in America, a man who for 14 years had ensured a healthy continuity in the church’s three-member First Presidency.
Though 84, Hinckley made a point of standing to deliver a brief statement and then to field a couple of dozen questions. One reporter asked about his health.
“I spent one night in the hospital in my life. I was past 75 when that occurred,” he replied.
“That doesn’t mean I’m ready to run a 100-yard dash.”
By turns candid, humorous and artfully vague, Hinckley appeared every inch the man who pioneered the modern church’s extensive public relations arm and its use of television and satellite technology to deliver its message.
And at the end, there was a hint of more to come.
“Thank you ever so much. Thank you,” Hinckley said. “We’ll see you again some time. Thank you.”
His robust performance had a galvanizing effect on church employees. There were smiles everywhere, and the switchboard lighted up with calls of support from rank-and-file members.
“I was delighted to see the church take this kind of step forward,” said Bruce Olsen, managing director of church’s public affairs department. “I for one hope this is the first of many of these kinds of experiences.”
D. Michael Quinn, author of a twovolume work on the Mormon hierarchy, said that while mainstream members are sensitive to gibes about placing their faith in a gerontocracy, their excitement with Hinckley’s strong advent has a softer center.
“I don’t think that their reaction is one of relief at no longer having to listen to the criticisms of nonMormons,” he said. “I think it’s more a sense of relief that the leadership of the church, which they love, is no longer burdened that way.”
It is virtually impossible to overstate the reverence Mormons feel toward their “living prophet” as one chosen by God to receive divine revelation. That choosing is done by a tradition of apostolic succession in which the church’s most senior apostle becomes president at the death of his predecessor.
Hinckley succeeded Howard W. Hunter, who died March 3 at age 87 after just nine months in office.
The model for all Mormon presidents is church founder Joseph Smith, who said he was visited by God and Jesus Christ and told to restore “the only true and living church on the face of the Earth.”
Since its beginnings in upstate New York in 1830, the church has grown to 9 million members and, with an expanding missionary force of 50,000, is doubling in size every 15 years. Soon there will be more Mormons abroad than in the United States.
Indeed, Hinckley identified rapid growth as the church’s main challenge heading into the 21st century.
Quinn and others believe Hinckley, who has worked in the church bureaucracy and hierarchy for 60 years, is especially well-suited to the formidable task of reconciling Utah Mormonism to Third World cultures.
“I expect to see many more innovations in adapting to the different cultures and backgrounds of the people in all the world,” said Bruce A. Van Orden, associate professor of church history at Brigham Young University.
Yet in his news conference on Monday, Hinckley took pains to reassure the membership that his would be a presidency built on the foundations he safeguarded as a counselor to three presidents.
“Our theme will be to carry on the great work which has been furthered by our predecessors who have served so admirably, so faithfully and so well with the great traditions of this church,” he said.
“Building family values, yes. Fostering education, yes. Building a spirit of tolerance and forbearance among people everywhere, yes. And proclaiming the Gospel of Jesus Christ.”
But the fact remains, Van Orden said, that during his many years as de facto leader of the church when presidents were incapacitated by age, Hinckley was often heard to say: “This is a decision that can only be made by a president of the church.”
“He felt he had no authority to make decisions for anyone else,” Van Orden said. “But now he can.”