SUNDAY INTERVIEW -- Musings of the Main Mormon

Gordon B. Hinckley, `president, prophet, seer and revelator' of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, sits at the top of one of the world's fastest-growing religions

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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.


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?


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?


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