Interview by Religion Reporter Don Lattin of the San Francisco Chronicle
If you want to know which religions are growing the fastest, pay attention to who's knocking on your door. If that missionary is a clean-cut young man in a cheap dark suit, you've discovered one of the secrets of the Mormon Church's phenomenal worldwide success -- vigorous proselytizing.
Leading the charge is Gordon B. Hinckley. Now 86, Hinckley has been at the highest levels of Mormon power for more than 35 years. In 1961, when Hinckley was named to the church's Council of the 12 Apostles, the Mormon Church had 1.8 million members. Today, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, as the Mormons are officially known, counts nearly 10 million members and is one of the world's fastest-growing religions.
On March 12, 1995, Hinckley was ``set apart'' as 15th ``president, prophet, seer and revelator'' of the Mormon Church. Founding prophet Joseph Smith Jr. started it all in upstate New York in the 1820s when he claimed an angel named ``Moroni'' led him to golden tablets. Smith never produced the tablets, but did come up with the Book of Mormon, which he claimed to translate into English from ``Reformed Egyptian.''
Early Mormon history is very much the history of the American frontier. Smith called his creation ``the sect to end all sects,'' but the Mormons were seen as one of the most dangerous cults of the 19th century. Their founder was murdered by an angry mob. They were persecuted and chased to such remote outposts as the Great Salt Lake and a West Coast hamlet then known as ``Yerba Buena,'' which became San Francisco.
When Hinckley was born in Salt Lake City on June 23, 1910, there were only 398,000 Mormons in the world, and most of them were in Utah. It had only been 20 years since Mormon President Wilford Woodruff issued his ``manifesto'' and agreed to end the church's controversial practice of ``plural marriage,'' or polygamy. In exchange, Utah was granted statehood five years later.
Hinckley was interviewed last month in his room at the Santa Clara Marriott Hotel, just before he delivered an address to the World Forum of Silicon Valley. As Hinckley spoke, his church had 55,000 full-time missionaries in most of the nations of the world, knocking on doors and talking about the Book of Mormon.
Q: As someone who has worked for years in the Mormon Church's publishing and broadcasting efforts, you seem to be a president more open to the media than some of your predecessors. Is there a new attitude in the church toward the press and the outside world?
A: It may appear that way, but I don't know that it's a conscious effort. We've enlarged our public communications department. And in that sense, yes, we have more people working at it, and that brings about a larger result.
Q: Do you think there are lots of misconceptions about Mormons?
A: Oh, sure. (Laughter.) They'll have some forever, I guess. But that's gradually dying. It's changing.
Q: What do you think are some of the main misconceptions?
A: Well, the greatest misconception is that we're not Christians. That's the dominant misconception. And, of course, there isn't a bit of truth to it. If there's anybody who believes in Jesus Christ, we do. His name is a part of the name of the church. And we carry that name, we believe in it, we worship him. He's the central figure of our theology. We are Christians in a very real sense. That's the big misperception.
Q: My understanding of the Mormon Church is that you see your church as a restoration of the original church.
A: Right. Not a reformist church but a restored church.
Q: There are some significant differences in your beliefs. For instance, don't Mormons believe that God was once a man?
A: 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.
Q: So you're saying the church is still struggling to understand this?
A: Well, as God is, man may become. We believe in eternal progression. Very strongly. We believe that the glory of God is intelligence and whatever principle of intelligence we attain unto in this life, it will rise with us in the Resurrection. Knowledge, learning, is an eternal thing. And for that reason, we stress education. We're trying to do all we can to make of our people the ablest, best, brightest people that we can.
Q: What do you see as some of the differences between Mormon theology and other Christian theologies?
A: Well, in the first place, it's the restoration itself. The Catholic Church is here, the Protestant churches are outgrowths from the Catholic Church. We are not part of the Catholic Church, and we're not protesting anything. We say that we are a restoration of the church that existed anciently, and that's the reason we have the name ``Latter-day Saints.'' In the early days of the church, back in the days of the Apostles, they were called saints as Christians. We're the latter-day saints. And that's one thing that's different. Modern revelation. We believe all that God has revealed, all that he does now reveal, we believe he has yet to reveal many great and important things pertaining to the Kingdom of God. So, we believe in the principle of continuous revelations.
Q: You are the president, prophet, seer and revelator of the Mormon Church?
A: I am so sustained, yes. (Laughter)
Q: Now, how would that compare to the Catholic Church? Do you see yourself as Catholics would see the pope?
A: Oh, I think in that we're both seen as the head officer of the church, yes.
Q: And this belief in contemporary revelation and prophecy? As the prophet, tell us how that works. How do you receive divine revelation? What does it feel like?
A: Let me say first that we have a great body of revelation, the vast majority of which came from the prophet Joseph Smith. We don't need much revelation. We need to pay more attention to the revelation we've already received.
Now, if a problem should arise on which we don't have an answer, we pray about it, we may fast about it, and it comes. Quietly. Usually no voice of any kind, but just a perception in the mind. I liken it to Elijah's experience. When he sought the Lord, there was a great wind, and the Lord was not in the wind. And there was an earthquake, and the Lord was not in the earthquake. And a fire, and the Lord was not in the fire. But in a still, small voice. Now that's the way it works.
Q: You've come to San Jose to speak on the growing global impact and influence of the church. Where do you see the fastest or greatest growth for the Mormon Church?
A: Well, the church is growing faster, at the moment, in the Spanish-language countries. Mexico, Central America, South America. We have tremendous growth in that area. We've passed the point where we have more members outside the United States than we have in the United States. That's a very significant thing. And that brings with it some problems. With growth comes challenge. We have two great challenges with that growth.
One is the training of leaders. All of our congregations are presided over by local men. They have to be trained. We have that program. Two, providing places of worship. And so we're constantly building chapels, meeting houses, all over the world -- some 350 a year. That's a very substantial thing.
Q: When The Chronicle did a series last year on the global impact of the Mormons, we spoke to Mormons in Japan, Russia and Mexico, and some say the church has not moved fast enough to give power and authority to Mormons from other ethnic groups.
A: It'll come. It's coming. It's coming. We have people from Mexico, Central America, South America, Japan, Europe among the general authorities. And that will increase, I think, inevitably. As we become more and more a world church, we'll have greater world representation.
Q: Like many American religious movements that began in the mid- 19th century, the Mormons began with a strong millennial or apocalyptic focus.
A: I hope we still have a millennial view.
Q: That's what I wanted to ask you. It seems like that's not played up as much as in the early years of the church.
A: It may not be, but I think we have a tremendous vision of what this church ought to be. And in light of that vision, we're moving across the world. In a very remarkable way, really. We're now in 165 countries. We have a membership of about 9,700,000. We're carrying this message far and wide -- as widely as we have the capacity to do so.
Q: One of the other things I think people are curious about in the Mormon Church are the temple rites, and why they are kept so secret.
Q: Sacred, but closed off to outsiders. I can't think of any other religion that has such secrecy about its temple rites.
A: When we build a temple, we invite people to come. They come in large numbers. We'll be dedicating the St. Louis temple this coming May. Before we dedicate that, we'll have an open house. There will be hundreds of thousands of people go through that temple. Anybody and everybody. (Laughter) The curious and everybody else. And they are free to ask any questions about it, anything they'd like to ask. After it's dedicated, then it becomes endowed with a particular sanctity, as we view it. And it becomes available then only to those who are qualified to enter the temple.
Q: One of the Mormon rites that's gotten a lot of attention is baptism of the dead. As you know, some Jewish groups were upset to learn that Holocaust victims were being baptized in your temples. Do you think that was a mistake?
A: We're trying to search out our own dead. That's our basic premise. That's the basic responsibility. We reached an accommodation with the Jewish people on the matter of those Holocaust names. We're not doing them. We were sensitive to their sensitivities over this thing. And I think that we've reached that accommodation and it's going along very well.
Q: Why does the church feel the need to baptize the dead? I don't know of any other church that does that.
A: Paul speaks of it. In Corinthians. ``Else what shall they do, which are baptized for the dead? If the dead rise not at all, why are then they baptized for the dead?'' He's very specific about it. We believe that it was that way in the ancient church; we believe that it should be that way in the modern church.
Q: Is the idea that people who lived before the time of Joseph Smith need that opportunity?
A: They need the opportunity. And there is the election. They can accept it or reject it. There's nothing mandatory about their accepting it. It's a matter of election. Free agency.
Q: Another Mormon practice people are curious about is the garment. What's the spiritual significance of that piece of underclothing?
A: We have a sacred garment just as some other people. The Jews, the Orthodox Jews, wear certain clothing. There's nothing mysterious about it. It's a sacred thing to us, and we so regard it.
Q: Is it a sign of your baptism?
A: No, it's a sign of having been to the temple.
Q: I also wanted to ask you about some political issues.
A: (Laughter.) I watch those pretty carefully . . . I stay away from those.
Q: The church has issued a statement concerning the campaign for legal recognition of same-sex marriages in Hawaii and other states. And the church has asked its members to write to their legislatures opposing this.
A: Yes. We've been involved in some action against same-sex marriages. Now, we have gays in the church. Good people. We take no action against such people -- provided they don't become involved in transgression, sexual transgression. If they do, we do with them exactly what we'd do with heterosexuals who transgress.
We have a very strong moral teaching concerning abstinence before marriage and total fidelity following marriage. And, regardless of whether they're heterosexuals or otherwise, if they step over that line there are certain sanctions, certain penalties that are imposed.
Q: What about gay people who feel God made them that way? You're saying they must lead a celibate life?
A: Well, yes, I suppose, essentially. A lot of people live a celibate life. Lots of them. A third of the people in the United States are now single. Many of them live a celibate life.
Q: But what homosexuals say is they don't have the opportunity to marry and be monogamous and faithful.
A: We believe that marriage, of a man and a woman, is that which is ordained of God for the procreation of children. That's a very sacred thing and is ordained of God and ought to be observed.
Q: On another issue, what is the Mormon position on abortion? Are you against it in all cases, or is it more nuanced than that?
A: Well, we make some allowance in terms of the health of the mother, when that's determined by more than one physician, and so on. We make exception in terms of that. We make an exception in terms of rape. We have a narrow window of exception. But by and large, we're opposed to this wholesale business of abortions. And particularly to this practice that's come to light recently of . . . what do they call it?
Q: Partial birth?
A: Partial-birth abortion. It's a heinous thing. It's a vicious, evil thing. Life is precious. Life is sacred. And it ought so to be observed.
Q: Of course, the Roman Catholic Church has that same feeling. They also extend that to include their opposition to the death penalty and euthanasia. What are the Mormon Church's teachings on those two issues?
A: We have the death penalty in the state of Utah. That's a matter for the civil government. And it's so handled. With reference to euthanasia, no, at this point at least, we haven't favored that. I'm not a fan of Jack Kevorkian. But we're sensitive to the feelings of people, when they have conditions that seem terminal or hopeless. But we want to keep them alive and as comfortable and as well and as happy as we can.
Q: What about this business of cloning?
A: This business of cloning is getting so complicated now.
Q: Yes, and people are looking to the churches for guidance.
A: My position on that is simply that God ordained that a man and a woman should become the creators of children. A man and a woman properly married should become the fathers and mothers of children. I can't quite understand why or how you are going to pick the right one to clone? Who's he going to be? What are his particular characteristics that you want to clone? I don't expect to see anybody try to clone me. (Laughter)
Q: One of the impressive things about the Mormons are their extensive welfare program for members in the church -- from farms to growing food, processing it, distributing it.
A: We're trying to take care of our own. We feel that's an obligation of the church to do that. And in a very simple but remarkable program that we follow, of a fast offering. Refraining from two meals a month -- which doesn't hurt any of us. And contributing the value of those meals for the care of the poor.
Now, not only do we have this vast welfare enterprise, we're reaching out to help others. The last five years, we've given $138 million in humanitarian aid across the world. To people not members of the church, much of it distributed by Catholic charities, relief.
Q: In addition to that, the church owns a lot of businesses, like insurance companies, retail stores, even a pop music station in San Francisco, KOIT. Why does the church have so many secular businesses?
A: Well, let me talk to you about the broadcasting business, for instance. The church got into the broadcasting business through the Deseret News, our newspaper, back at a time when newspapers were encouraged to get into the broadcasting business.
That was clear back in 1922. And from that we've grown into this Bonneville International Corp., which I served as chairman for many years. That helps us with our communications, it helps us with expertise, it makes us a part of the broadcasting fraternity, which assists us in our work of spreading the gospel. Now these are commercial stations, but we have on the FM sideband the LDS Radio Network. The FM station has a sideband. And we broadcast on that our own programming to our people who have receivers who can pick up that sideband signal.
We have a bookstore, a publishing company to take care of church publications. We have a real estate arm to assist in seeing that we keep downtown Salt Lake livable.
And this company is now building a big building across the street from Temple Square. These are all things that impact the work of the church.
Q: Many people see the Mormon Church as a church of tremendous wealth. I've seen estimates back in 1990 where it was estimated that the church brought in $4.3 billion a year in tithing. That's a lot of money.
A: That's excessive. (Laughter.) I can tell you that.
Q: That's not in the ballpark?
A: No, that's excessive. But we believe that tithing is the Lord's law of finance. That that's the way a church ought to be financed. Not with a plate or a platter or a bingo game. Things of that kind. But with the law of tithing, which reaches back into the Old Testament. And it works. It's a wonderful law. It works. And it makes possible all that we're trying to do across the world.
Q: You could build a couple temples just with 10 percent of (San Francisco 49ers quarterback) Steve Young's salary.
A: (Laughter.) I don't know what Steve makes. That's one thing we don't do. We don't investigate the amount. That's confidential between a man and his bishop.
Q: What about Steve Young? He's a great spokesman for the church, isn't he?
A: Steve is a good fellow. I enjoy Steve very much. He's a fine man.
Q: One more question: A few years back, the church excommunicated some dissidents. Is the church large enough to put up with having a loyal opposition?
A: It has always had that. We believe in intellectual curiosity. We carry it on constantly. We maintain the largest church-owned university in America. We believe in education, in thinking, in doing things. But when somebody goes out and publicly fights the church, opposes the church, then we move in.
Now, we had six excommunications, as I remember. That same year, in the state of Utah, we had more than 5,000 convert baptisms. Six versus 5,000 convert baptisms. Now that's the picture. But these are blown all out of proportion. They attract the media.
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