STEVE INSKEEP, host:
The world's 12 million Mormons are mourning the death of their president and prophet. Gordon B. Hinckley died of natural causes yesterday at age 97. During his 12-year tenure, Hinckley helped transform the American-born faith into an international religion. He also worked to change the Mormon image from cult to mainstream.
From Salt Lake City, NPR's Howard Berkes reports.
HOWARD BERKES: On his second day at the helm in 1995, Gordon B. Hinckley did something most of his predecessors would not do. He ventured beyond the Mormon pulpit to take any and all questions from reporters, to joke with them and charm them.
Unidentified Woman: President Hinckley, with your background in media, can we expect more press conferences like this?
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. GORDON B. HINCKLEY (Mormon President): Haven't given it a thought, Peggy(ph).
(Soundbite of laughter)
Unidentified Woman: Second of all…
Mr. HINCKLEY: You look so formidable out there. I'm - I wouldn't dare make a commitment today.
(Soundbite of laughter)
BERKES: The new Mormon president was 84 years old then, grandfatherly and approachable despite the stiff business suit. Hinckley's tone turned serious with questions about church involvement in politics, about excommunications of dissidents, and about his message for women in this patriarchal faith.
Mr. HINCKLEY: Do the best you can and remember that the greatest assets you have in this world is those children whom you've brought into the world, and for whose nurture and care you're responsible.
BERKES: Hinckley took on all kinds of reporters, including the toughest of them all - "60 Minutes" correspondent Mike Wallace.
Mr. MIKE WALLACE (Correspondent, "60 Minutes"): His candor, his willingness to entertain any question, no matter how difficult or perhaps embarrassing. He just was absolutely open with me. And the more time that I spent with him, it became quite apparent to me that there was a great deal in the Mormon religion that I genuinely admired.
BERKES: The Mormon religion didn't change under Hinckley, but the way it was presented did. Mike Wallace was so charmed he and Hinckley became friends. The new message included an emphasis on Christian roots. Don't call us the Mormon Church, Hinckley said, it's the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. A new logo spelled out Jesus Christ in oversized letters. This was a response to evangelicals who characterize the religion as a non-Christian cult.
Jan Shipps is an Indiana-based religious scholar who has studied the Mormon faith for 40 years. Hinckley was trying, she says…
Ms. JAN SHIPPS (Religious Scholar, Indiana): …to change the image of the Church from being on the margins, from being weird to being not weird, in his language. In my language, it's moving from the margins to the mainstream.
BERKES: This occurred as the Mormon capital of Salt Lake City hosted the Winter Olympics, as Mormon leaders campaigned against gambling and same-sex marriage, as more and more Mormons were elected to prominent political offices, and as church growth mushroomed outside the United States.
Kathleen Flake studies American religious history at Vanderbilt University, and she says international growth is another Hinckley hallmark.
Ms. KATHLEEN FLAKE (Student, Vanderbilt University): Making that international church feel, and an actual fact be, an integrated part of what has been an American church - in Nigeria, in Brazil, in Japan. And to make sure that the full component of the church's program was available in those areas.
BERKES: The program included thousands of new chapels and temples around the globe. It included a scholarship loan fund for thousands of poor followers overseas. There was an effort to bolster the faith with pilgrimages to historic sites and a campaign to reread the Book of Mormon. Hinckley was also the missionary-in-chief. In April of 2006 at a gathering of the faithful, he looked back 70 years at where he and the Mormon gospel have been.
(Soundbite of archived audio)
Mr. HINCKLEY: Since then I have lifted my voice on every continent, all up and down - from north to south and east to west, in every great capital of the world. It is all a miracle.
BERKES: Gordon B. Hinckley leaves behind an international Mormon faith that is attracting more attention than ever. That's due, in part, to the Republican presidential candidacy of Mormon Mitt Romney. Hinckley didn't live long enough to see whether Americans are comfortable enough with his faith to put a Mormon in the White House.
Howard Berkes, NPR News, Salt Lake City.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR's programming is the audio.