- The Washington Times - Monday, January 28, 2008

SALT LAKE CITY (AP) — Gordon B. Hinckley, the longest-serving president of the Mormon church, who presided over one of the greatest periods of expansion in its history, died yesterday, a church spokesman said. He was 97.

Mr. Hinckley, the 15th president of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, died because of complications from age and was surrounded by his family.

Mr. Hinckley, a grandson of Mormon pioneers, was president for nearly 13 years. He took over as president and prophet on March 12, 1995. The number of temples worldwide more than doubled, from 49 to more than 120, and church membership grew from about 9 million to more than 12 million.

Like his contemporary, Pope John Paul II, he became by far his church’s most traveled leader in history. And the number of Mormons outside the U.S. surpassed that of American Mormons for the first time since the church, the most successful faith born in the U.S., was founded in 1830.

The church presidency is a lifetime position. Before Mr. Hinckley, the oldest church president was David O. McKay who was 96 when he died in 1970.

Mr. Hinckley had been diagnosed with diabetes and was hospitalized in January 2006 for the removal of a cancerous growth in his large intestine. In April 2006, he told a church conference he was in the “sunset of my life.”

By unfailing tradition, at a church president’s death, the church’s most senior apostle is ordained within days on a unanimous vote of the Council of the Twelve Apostles. The most long-serving apostle now is Thomas S. Monson.

Mr. Hinckley began his leadership role in 1995 by holding a rare press conference, citing growth and spreading the Mormon message as the church’s main challenge heading into the 21st century.

Over the years, Mr. Hinckley labored long to burnish the faith’s image as a world religion far removed from its peculiar and polygamous roots. Still, during his tenure, the Roman Catholic Church, Southern Baptist Convention and United Methodist Church — the three largest U.S. denominations — each declared that Mormon doctrines depart from mainstream Christianity.

“The more people come to know us, the better they will understand us,” Mr. Hinckley told the Associated Press in 2005. “We’re a little different. We don’t smoke. We don’t drink. We do things in a little different way. That’s not dishonorable. I believe that’s to our credit.”

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