SALT LAKE CITY – Gordon B. Hinckley, the oldest president of the Mormon church who presided over one of the greatest periods of expansion in its history, died Sunday, a church spokesman said. He was 97.
Hinckley, the 15th president of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, died because of complications from age and was surrounded by his family.
“His life was a true testament of service, and he had an abiding love for others,” said U.S. Sen. Orrin Hatch, a Utah Republican and fellow Mormon. “His wit, wisdom, and exemplary leadership will be missed by not only members of our faith but by people of all faiths throughout the world.”
Hinckley had been diagnosed with diabetes and was hospitalized in January 2006 for the removal of a cancerous growth in his large intestine. In April 2006, he said at a church conference he was in the “sunset of my life” and “totally in the hands of the Lord.”
By tradition, at a church president’s death, the church’s most senior apostle is ordained within days on a unanimous vote of the Council of the Twelve Apostles. The longest-serving apostle now is Thomas S. Monson. The presidency is a lifetime position.
Hinckley, a grandson of Mormon pioneers, took over as president and prophet on March 12, 1995 and oversaw one of the greatest periods of expansion in church history.
The number of temples worldwide more than doubled, from 49 to more than 120, and church membership grew from about 9 million to more than 12 million.
The number of Mormons outside the United States surpassed that of American Mormons for the first time since the church was founded in 1830.
Hinckley began his leadership by holding a rare news conference, citing growth and spreading the Mormon message as the church’s main challenge heading into the 21st century.
“We are dedicated … to teaching the gospel of peace, to the promotion of civility and mutual respect among people everywhere, to bearing witness to the living reality of our Lord Jesus Christ, and to the practice of his teachings in our daily lives,” Hinckley said.
Over the years, Hinckley labored to burnish the faith’s image as a world religion far removed from its peculiar and polygamous roots.
“The more people come to know us, the better they will understand us,” Hinckley said in late 2005. “We’re a little different. We don’t smoke. We don’t drink. We do things in a little different way. That’s not dishonorable. I believe that’s to our credit.”
Born June 23, 1910, in Salt Lake City, Hinckley graduated from the University of Utah with a degree in arts and planned to attend graduate school in journalism. Instead, a church mission took him to the British Isles.
Upon his return, he became executive director of the newly formed Church Radio, Publicity, and Mission Literature Committee at $60 a month. Hinckley always worked for the church, except for a brief stint during World War II as a railroad agent.
Hinckley was preceded in death by his wife, Marjorie Pay Hinckley, whom he married in 1937. She died April 6, 2004.