The leader of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Gordon B. Hinckley, died Jan. 27. He was 97 years old.
According to a news release posted on the LDS Church’s Web site, Hinckley died at 7:00 p.m. from “causes incident to age” in the company of family members.
Hinckley, who was the 15th President of the church, had been “in failing health for some time,” church spokesman Bruce Olsen told CNN. In 2006, he underwent surgery for colon cancer and made what doctors termed a full and quick recovery. He received follow-up chemotherapy treatments as late as Jan. 22.
Elected president on March 12, 1995 Hinckley was the longest-serving president since Spencer W. Kimble and the oldest leader in church history. Under his 12 years of leadership, Hinckley led the Salt Lake City – based church into the age of globalism and saw it grow to a denomination of over 10 million members. He traveled widely, speaking to audiences as diverse as world religious leaders, the National Press Club and the NAACP and personally dedicated over 70 temples across the world. He was also the first LDS president to visit nations in sub-Sahara Africa, such as Ghana, Nigeria and Kenya and the best-selling author of two books, Standing for Something and a book for teenagers, Way to Be: Nine Ways to Be Happy and Make Something of Your Life.
Hinckley was also a media-savvy leader, embracing new technologies such as the internet and YouTube. He was one of the first LDS leaders to be extensively interviewed on camera, by 60 Minutes’ Mike Wallace in 1996 and most famously by Larry King in 2004.
“I've been blessed so abundantly that I can never get over it,” Hinckley told the CNN show host at the time. “I just feel so richly blessed. I want to extend that to others, whenever I can.”
Hinckley’s leadership, however, was often criticized. In 1998 a deal between the church and then-Salt Lake City Mayor Deedee Corradini to turn a section of Main Street into a church-owned park ignited a firestorm of public protest over the church’s increasing presence in the capitol city. Critics said that the park, where smoking, drinking alcohol and free speech activities (such as protesting church policy) would be banned, violated the Establishment Clause which guarantees governmental separation from religion.
The controversy was finally resolved in 2005 when a Tenth Circuit judge ruled that the city was within its legal rights to sell the land.
Hinckley was also criticized for his beliefs on homosexuality, which he expressed as early as 1987 in an article for Ensign, a LDS Church-owned publication. The church believes that gay sex is sinful, and that the union between a man and a woman is the only legitimate form of marriage.
Hinckley often said that while the church loved its gay and lesbian members, it could not condone same-sex relations. He encouraged gays and lesbians to be abstinent.
“We're not anti-gay,” he told Larry King in 2004. “We are pro-family. Let me put it that
way. And we love these people [gays and lesbians] and try to work with them and
help them. We know they have a problem. We want to help them solve that problem.”
When King followed up by asking if homosexuality was an inborn trait, Hinckley responded: “I don't know. I'm not an expert on these things. I don't pretend to be an expert on these things. The fact is, they have a problem.”
But Hinckley also said that the church’s policies should not be used as an excuse to mistreat gays – a fact which, for some, suggested that his presidency had at least attempted to be more aware of the needs of gay and lesbian members.
“Our opposition to attempts to legalize same-sex marriage should never be interpreted as justification for hatred, intolerance or abuse of those who profess homosexual tendencies, either individually or as a group,” Hinckley said in a 2000 address to Evergreen International, a Mormon-run ex-gay group that attempts to help gay Mormons change their sexual orientation. “We love and honor them as sons and daughters of God. They are welcome in the church. It is expected, however, that they follow the same God-given rules of conduct that apply to everyone else, whether single or married."
Despite his 2006 cancer scare, Hinckley kept active. According to KUTV News, he finished a full day at work on Jan. 23 and was unable to get out of bed the following day.
“He was speaking in public as late as two to three weeks ago and had a full schedule in his office as late as last week,” said Olsen.
Hinckley’s family members told the news station that he was conscious and was able to spend time with each of his children and that his death was peaceful and painless.
In the three days following Hinckley’s passing, letters of condolence have inundated the LDS church from several nations and from people of many faiths – a testament to Hinckley’s efforts, as president, to encourage strong relationships between Mormons and people of other religions.
The U.S. Congress observed a moment of silence for Hinckley’s passing at the beginning of the session on Jan. 28 and devoted half an hour to speeches about the former leader.
“He was a tireless worker and a talented communicator who was respected in his community and beloved by his congregation,” President George W. Bush, who in 2004 awarded Hinckley a Presidential Medal of Freedom, said in a White House release. “Laura and I will miss Gordon's friendship and wisdom. Our thoughts and prayers are with his five children and the rest of the Hinckley family.”
Presidential hopeful and former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney said he will return to Utah to attend Hinckley’s funeral.
A viewing will be held Jan. 31 and Feb. 1 at the Church Admin Rotunda from 9:00 a.m. to 7:00 p.m. His funeral will be held at the LDS Conference Center on Feb. 2, starting at 11:00 a.m.
Hinckley will be buried next to his wife Marjorie Pay Hinckley, who died in 2004.