SALT LAKE CITY — Most of the time, this city succeeds in projecting the secular, cosmopolitan image that its leaders and residents have polished over the years: the ski capital, the economic engine, the desert metropolis of wide streets and mountain vistas.
Gordon B. Hinckley, Mormon Leader, Is Dead at 97 (January 28, 2008) But at times like this, with a president of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints lying in state in Temple Square, the old roots show, and the impulses that led to the city’s founding as a religious capital in the 1840s are revealed again as if the frontier were new.
On Saturday, if only for a day, in saying goodbye to the Mormon church’s 15th president, Gordon B. Hinckley, who died last weekend at age 97, Utah was Zion all over again, and all roads, at least for the faithful, led here.
Twenty-one thousand people packed the Latter-day Saints Conference Center, with broadcasts in 69 languages around the world to Mormon converts. Tens of thousands more had come earlier in the week to view Mr. Hinckley’s remains, and many were still here. The Mormon Tabernacle Choir was in full-throated glory, singing several hymns with words by Mr. Hinckley himself.
Mormon dignitaries lined the front rows, including former Gov. Mitt Romney of Massachusetts, the Republican presidential hopeful, who arrived here on Friday night with two of his sons and his wife, Ann. The Romneys sat near Senator Harry Reid of Nevada, the Democratic leader, and Utah’s Republican governor, Jon Huntsman Jr. Utah’s two Republican senators, Bob Bennett and Orrin G. Hatch, rounded out the V.I.P. section.
But the eulogies were simple, in keeping, perhaps, with Mr. Hinckley himself, who was described as self-effacing and always ready to poke fun at pretension, as he did some years back in walking into a meeting of senior church leaders in their dark suits, white shirts and conservative ties and telling them, by way of hello, that they all looked like penguins. People talked about how, in his 90s, urged to use a cane for balance, he instead adopted it as a prop — waving it around, usually, to the dismay of his doctors and the delight of those who loved him.
“We have watched you grow old on stage,” said one of the funeral orators, Earl C. Tingey, a senior church leader. “We are better because of you.”
Some of the “talks,” as the eulogies are called, described the deep personal connections that Mr. Hinckley, who had led the 13-million-member church since 1995, was able to make with many people beyond the faithful through his writing and his folksy, avuncular style.
Mr. Hinckley sat for an interview with “60 Minutes” and wrote a book in 2000 called “Standing for Something” about “neglected virtues that can heal our hearts and homes,” which made The New York Times best-seller list in the advice and how-to category. He was the most traveled president in church history, visiting more than 60 countries and establishing dozens of temples to support the church’s global missionary program.
He had dreamed of being a journalist, according to a biography on the church’s Web site, but after serving as a missionary in England in the 1930s, was asked to help write a new package of publicity materials so that missionaries could better explain the religion to potential converts. In many ways, he kept up that assignment the rest of his life, becoming one of the most visible church leaders in Mormon history.
One of the speakers, Boyd K. Packer, told the story of one of Mr. Hinckley’s first days in his new assignment, how he had gone to the church office supply room and asked for a full ream of paper, 500 sheets.
“What do you suppose you’re going to do with 500 sheets of paper?” the incredulous supply clerk asked, as quoted by Mr. Packer.
“I am going to write on them one sheet at a time,” Mr. Hinckley responded.
Missionary work — Mormonism’s face to people all over the world, through the conservatively dressed young men dispatched in pairs — exploded under Mr. Hinckley’s leadership. Over 400,000 were sent forth, about 40 percent of the total ever called. Almost one third of the current church membership joined under his presidency.
Mr. Hinckley’s passing comes at an awkward time for many Mormons, who have said in recent months that they feel themselves to be under a microscope as national attention focuses on Mr. Romney and his bid for the Presidency. The scrutiny, from magazine-cover discussions of what Mormons believe to national opinion polls about whether people would vote for a Mormon for president, has evoked a mix of feelings, from pride to consternation over the misconceptions the world shares about them.
The public display of mourning for Mr. Hinckley this weekend — downtown parking lots and restaurants full, streets near Temple Square streaming with families — evoked an older array of emotions. The Mormons, after the church’s founding in the early 1800s in upstate New York, came west in 1847, fleeing persecution but also carrying a heavy burden of destiny — critics, then and now, have called it arrogance — that they had found the one true Christian faith.
In the voices of many mourners, that rock-ribbed certainty was the dominant expression.
“President Hinckley still lives,” said Thomas S. Monson, who under church seniority rules is next in line to succeed Mr. Hinckley, and who gave the final talk. “He is on a heavenly mission to others who await his influence and testimony.”
But the funeral also underlined how recent the connections are to Utah’s early settlement. Mr. Hinckley was only one generation removed from Utah’s founding as a territory. His father was an 11-month-old baby in 1850 on the pioneer journey of converts. Big families have long been a hallmark of the Mormon culture. And the gathering of believers here this weekend reflected how deeply those old roots run as well, not even counting Mr. Hinckley’s 25 grandchildren and 62 great-grandchildren.
By 5 p.m. on Friday, for example, 20,000 people had streamed by to view Mr. Hinckley’s body, and Brendo Simko’s family was not unusual in the throng.
“I want to teach my children who the prophet was,” said Ms. Simko, 38, who was standing in line on Friday afternoon with her five children, ages 1 to 12.
By KIRK JOHNSON (New York Times)
Published: February 3, 2008