It seemed that he would go on forever, his charm disarming us, his vigour in great age amazing us, his way with people impressing us but at 97 Gordon B Hinckley succumbed to “symptoms attendant to old age” and stepped out of time into eternity. He was born into the Mormon Church, served a mission, worked in the church all his life and has probably had more opportunities than anyone to become familiar with Mormonism and know it thoroughly. Yet his stock answer to so many questions put to him by the press and media, with whom he had a good relationship, was, “I don’t know”. Now he knows for sure.
I have already remarked that I think Gordon B Hinckley was probably the greatest Mormon dissembler since Joseph Smith. In responding to questions about the faith into which he was born, in which he grew up, and in which he worked all his life, he dodged the issues time and again. Ever the PR man, he knew what people needed to hear and what was best kept under wraps and anyone talking to Mormons today will know that this, too, is part of his legacy, i.e. the widespread Mormon instinct to put a face on things, highlight the acceptable and obfuscate the darker and more controversial aspects of the faith. Future presidents who want to take a more direct and forthright approach will have a hill to climb to overcome an ingrained habit of dissimulation.
Remembering these things, this is a look back at how the man became the greatest PR man Mormonism has ever had, the antithesis of Bruce McConkie you might say, why they will miss him so much, and how this man, who must have known where all the bodies lay hidden, successfully developed a reputation for innocence, sincerity and integrity.
The Hinckley Timeline
Gordon B Hinckley, Mormon Church president, held several distinctions and his life had been, understandably, celebrated by the Mormon Church. He served a mission in London in 1933, unusual in Depression Era Mormonism. On his return he accepted a job offer in 1935 to lead the new Mormon public relations department, bringing with him his college qualifications in journalism. This move effectively made him the first ‘career Mormon’ in the church’s history.
Later, as church president, he became the most travelled Mormon president ever, also having the distinction of being responsible for the largest temple building programme in the church’s history. More than two thirds of all currently operating temples were dedicated during his incumbency and he has brought the number of temples up from 27 to 124 in just 12 years, with 10 more announced or under construction.
He was the second oldest president after David O Mc’Kay and despite recent surgery for prostate cancer showed no signs of slowing down, let alone stopping, right to the end. Some would argue that he deserved the accolades laid on him and I am not about to deny the man his due. A question arises, however, as we look at his extensive and impressive history. The Hinckley time-line will help you see what I mean.
23 June 1910 - born in Salt Lake City, Utah, he has been at the centre of Mormonism from birth. Just twenty years before, Mormonism had “officially” renounced polygamy. The president during Hinckley’s formative years, Heber J Grant (1918-1945), was a practising polygamist, fleeing the country in 1903 to avoid being arrested, finally convicted in 1906 and fined $300. Grant was born in 1856, when Brigham Young was teaching that Adam was God, was 21 in 1877 when Brigham Young, died, and became an Apostle in 1882, when the church was still teaching the Adam/God doctrine.
At this time, and for some time to come, the Journal of Discourses, source of much of the controversy surrounding Mormon doctrine, was still regarded as authoritative, a “Standard Work” of the church. In 1913 James Talmage, an Apostle of the church, first published The Articles of Faith, a comprehensive look at church doctrine based on Joseph Smith’s famous creed. 1915 saw the first publication of Talmage’s magnificent work on the Saviour, Jesus the Christ. Both books have proved seminal works for generations of Mormons and are still key text books today.
1928 - Hinckley completed High School in Salt Lake City, going on to study at the University of Utah. His education was thoroughly Mormon-based.
1933 - After attending the University of Utah he was called to go on a mission to London. He would have built his presentation of Mormonism on long-established Mormon works such as Journal of Discourses, as well as more recent works like those produced by Talmage.
1935 - Hinckley returned to the United States and accepted a job offer to lead the Church's new public relations department. Hinckley's responsibilities included developing the Church's recently established radio broadcasts and making use of the era's new communication technologies, putting him, from an early age, at the centre of presenting Mormonism to the world.
1937 - He started serving on the Sunday school General Board, putting him at the centre of the Mormon teaching programme.1938 saw the publication of The Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith by Joseph Fielding Smith, Apostle and Grandson of Hyrum Smith, martyred brother of Joseph Smith Jr.
1954 the teachings of Joseph Fielding Smith himself, a man regarded as “the leading gospel scholar and the greatest doctrinal teacher of [his] generation” began to be published in three volumes. Doctrines of Salvation is, again, a comprehensive study of key Mormon doctrine and has proved definitive for generations of Mormons. The same year John Widstoe published the Discourses of Brigham Young.
1958 - After service in a stake presidency, Hinckley became a General Authority of the Church in the now discontinued position of Assistant to the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, giving him experience in application and leadership at the highest level. This year saw the publication of Mormon Doctrine, Bruce R McConkie’s attempt at producing a definitive systematic theology of Mormon teaching. It is much quoted by the church to this day.
1961 - At 51, Hinckley himself became an Apostle and member of that Quorum, the youngest at that time. Being an Apostle from such a young age has given him more opportunity than most to study Mormon leadership, policy-making and doctrinal decisions at the highest level. Around this time America was in the middle of the great Civil Rights Movement and the Mormon Church came under a lot of fire for its policy of barring coloured people from holding the priesthood. Nevertheless, the church put up a robust defence of its anti-Black doctrine until it gave in to pressure and made a policy change in 1978. Hinckley was there, along with a handful of chosen men, when the decision was made.
In the early 1980’s the ill health of both Church President Spencer W Kimball and his ageing Counsellors N Eldon Tanner and Marion G Romney led the Church leadership to resort to the occasional practice of adding an additional Counsellor to the First Presidency. Hinckley filled this position on July 23, 1981. At the time of Tanner's death in 1982, Romney succeeded him as First Counsellor and Hinckley succeeded Romney as Second Counsellor. 1980 also saw the publication of Ezra Taft Benson’s famous Fourteen Fundamentals in following the Prophet, in which he makes clear that the prophet “speaks for the Lord in everything, is more vital than the Scriptures, can make Scripture, and that rejecting the counsel of the prophets brings suffering.”
During this time period, there were a number of questionable, new Mormon historical documents that began to surface, and Hinckley oversaw the purchase of some of these documents. Later, most of the newly surfaced documents turned out to be the forgeries of Mark Hoffmann, the Salt lake City Bomber, including the Salamander Letter. Because of his prominence in the Church and his responsibility n overseeing the purchase of historical documents, Hinckley became a key figure in the investigation of Hofmann, giving him vital experience in being at the centre of and dealing with controversies surrounding Mormon Church history.
By this time, however, Hinckley was largely shouldering the burdens of the First Presidency himself. Though he officially remained Second Counsellor, he was informally referred to in the press as "acting President of the Church."
1985 - Kimball and Romney remained largely out of the public eye until President Kimball died in November. Older Mormons will remember that, with the calling of a series of elderly men dogged with ill health, this made him de facto president of the church from this period. His official incumbency is twelve years, but his de facto incumbency is nearer 25 years. These twenty five years have given him unparalleled experience as a top church leader, and his lifetime of service, from missionary to president, a familiarity with church polity and doctrine unmatched by any other president.
Ezra Taft Benson became Church President, and named Hinckley First Counsellor. Romney succeeded Benson as President of the Twelve, though age and health problems effectively prevented him carrying out his duties. Thomas S Monson became Second Counsellor, and, for a while, all three members of the First Presidency were able to perform their duties. In the early 1990s however, Ezra Taft Benson developed serious health problems and, although the church kept up the pretence of his running things, his own grandson publicly denounced them for exploiting a sick old man. First Counsellor Hinckley again carried out many of the duties of the President of the Church until Benson died in 1994. Meanwhile, 1992 saw the publication of the Encyclopaedia of Mormonism in which much Mormon knowledge and doctrine was gathered and explained.
Howard W Hunter, who had succeeded Romney as President of the Twelve, became Church President and Hinckley and Monson became his Counsellors, In addition, Hinckley becoming President of the Twelve by seniority.
March 12, 1995 - When Hunter died after a presidency of only nine months, Hinckley was chosen to be president of the Church at the age of 84 and has led the church until his death in 2008.
Under his leadership, the Church has expanded the number of temples world-wide from 27 to 124. His involvement with Mormon temples, their purpose and operation would have given him key insight into temple doctrine.
23 September 1995 he announced and read The Family, A Proclamation to the World, a statement of belief and counsel prepared by the First Presidency and Quorum of the Twelve. He has had a key role in formulating and clarifying Mormon doctrine on marriage and the family.
He is the most-travelled Church leader-past or present, travelling hundreds of thousands of miles over the years. In spite of his advanced age, he continued to travel the world over as he dedicated temples and met with the Saints, making it vital that he brought a thorough understanding and clear presentation of Mormonism.
Questions for the Prophet
In an interview in the New Yorker Magazine, January 2002, President Hinckley confessed, “Brigham Young said if you went to Heaven and saw God it would be Adam and Eve. I don't know what he meant by that.” Pointing to a grim-faced portrait of the Lion of the Lord, as Young was called, Hinckley said, “There he is, right there. I'm not going to worry about what he said about those things.”
Q. But the first prophet you knew, Heber J Grant, had sat at the feet of Brigham in his youth, the same Brigham, who taught this very doctrine until his death in 1877. The Journal of Discourses, considered a Standard Work of the church in your youth, clearly reports this teaching in some depth. Weren’t you paying attention?
The gods of Mormonism
The same article reported, ‘I asked whether Mormon theology was a form of polytheism. “I don't have the remotest idea what you mean,” Hinckley said impatiently.’
Q. But Talmage’s great works, The Articles of Faith and Jesus the Christ, have been standard Mormon text books from the time you were three years old and they clearly teach a plurality of gods, otherwise known as polytheism. One example will suffice. Interpreting the plurality of Genesis 1:26 in the classic Mormon way, Talmage writes:
The Scripture specifies three personages in the Godhead…this fact is instanced by the plurality expressed in Genesis: “And God said, Let us make man in our image, after our likeness”;…From the words of Moses, as revealed anew in the present dispensation, we learn more about the Gods who were actively engaged in the creation of this earth…In the account of the creation recorded in Abraham, “the Gods”, are repeatedly mentioned (Jesus the Christ, Deseret Books, pp 32/3. The references to “Moses” and “Abraham” are to ‘modern revelation’, which speaks often of gods)
Didn’t you read Talmage? Were you not familiar with the authoritative work he references, The Pearl of Great Price? Didn’t you read Widstoe’s collection of Brigham Young’s discourses, in which is recorded, “Gods exist, and we had better strive to be prepared to be one of them”?
God an Exalted Man
In a 1997 interview with the San Francisco Chronicle the following exchange was reported:
Question: “There are some significant differences in your beliefs [and other Christian churches]. For instance, don't Mormons believe that God was once a man?”Hinckley: “I wouldn't say that. There was a little couplet coined, ‘As man is, God once was. As God is, man may become.’ Now that's more of a couplet than anything else. That gets into some pretty deep theology that we don't know very much about.” Interviewing Gordon B. Hinckley, San Francisco Chronicle, April 13, 1997, p 3/Z1
Q. Didn’t you take the time and trouble to study the teachings of your own founding prophet, published in 1938 by Joseph Fielding Smith? A volume in which can be read:
"God himself was once as we are now, and is an exalted man, and sits enthroned in yonder heavens!"
The Mormon Colour Bar
In another question and answer section from an interview Jan 29th, 2002 conducted by reporter Helmut Nemetschek, ZDF television, Germany, at Salt Lake City, Utah, in the Church Administration Building we read: Question: “Until 1978 no person of color (sic) attained the priesthood in your church. Why it took so long time to overcome the racism?”Hinckley: “I don’t know. I don’t know. (long pause) I can only say that. (long pause) But it’s here now. We’re carrying on a very substantial work on Africa for instance and in Brazil. We’re working among their people developing them.”
Q. Weren’t you paying attention in the sixties and seventies when the civil rights movement caused the Mormon Church to make a robust and defiant defence of church doctrine barring Negroes from holding the priesthood? Didn’t you understand the issues when, in 1978, church policy was so radically changed? By this time you were an Apostle of the church and at the centre of leadership and public relations – and you were in the room.
We have been here before, of course, but making the timeline makes this Mormon prophet’s public persona and official remarks seem even more disingenuous as we consider what unparalleled resources have been available in his 97 years. So my final question is:
Was the late Mormon prophet simply forgetful in his old age, or had a lifetime of public relations work robbed him of any capacity for truth telling?
His successor seems likely to be Thomas S Monson. The Salt Lake Tribune reports:
“Long before he became a counselor to President Gordon B. Hinckley, Thomas S. Monson was well-schooled in the way of Mormon prophets and well-known to the Mormon faithful.
Monson has spent his entire career in the service of the LDS Church, working alongside every president since 1963 when he was named one of the twelve apostles at the age of 36.”
We wait to see if this octogenarian’s considerable experience of the faith will produce more candour than did that of his predecessor. Apparently he worked for 30 years in Newspaper Agency Corp., the company that handles advertising, production and distribution of the Tribune and the LDS Church-owned Deseret Morning News. Monson represented the Deseret News and sat on the board. We wait, but we don’t hold out much hope.