Salt Lake City Gordon Hinckley is a pixie of a prophet determinedly leading his people into the mainstream.

A small, wiry man with a mischievous gleam and a self-effacing humor, Hinckley serves as president, seer and "revelator" of almost 11 million Latter-day Saints worldwide. He is considered the latest successor of Joseph Smith, who reported having a vision in 1823 of an angel named Moroni who led him to a hill in New York state where he was shown goldlike plates engraved with ancient records that were pulled together as the Book of Mormon.

Today, from this future Olympic city dominated by a temple with a shining gold Moroni on its spire, Hinckley has become a public persona in a faith whose elderly leaders have often seemed as somber and standoffish as Cold War Soviet premiers.

Earlier this month, Hinckley stood on a stage in his church's new state-of-the-art Conference Center with purple, pink and white fresh-flower leis around his neck and welcomed a crowd of 21,000 ecumenical leaders and faithful members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints to his 90th birthday party. Hundreds of Mormons lined the wall around Temple Square, hoping for admission.

The crowd was a tribute to the evening's entertainment, which featured a constellation of stars that included Mormon convert and Atlanta native Gladys Knight, Pip-less on this night--and to Hinckley himself.

"He's so much a man of the people. He's so endearing, church members just adore him," said Carolyn Moore, 26, a Mormon eating lunch in Temple Square the day of the party. "I think he's very influential not just inside the church but outside the church as well," said Jed Rogers, 21, who recently returned to Utah from a two-year mission in Costa Rica. "I do know that he's a prophet of God."

The party, described by Hinckley as his "gift back to the community," was just another in a long list of ways Hinckley is adding new openness to this American-born faith. Since becoming president in 1995, he's addressed the National Press Club and the Religion Newswriters Association, chatted twice on CNN's "Larry King Live" and been grilled by the legendary Mike Wallace of "60 Minutes." Wallace was so impressed that he wrote an introduction to Hinckley's new book, "Standing for Something." It hit the best-seller list of Publishers Weekly, the trade magazine of the book industry, on his birthday.

"My '60 Minutes' colleagues and I learned, from the time we spent with Gordon Hinckley and his wife, from his staff, and from other Mormons who talked to us, that this warm and thoughtful and decent and optimistic leader of the Mormon Church fully deserves the almost universal admiration that he gets," Wallace wrote.

Richard Ostling, formerly of Time magazine and now a religion writer for The Associated Press, compares Hinckley to Pope John Paul II. "Both men have strengthened their office by taking it worldwide and raising the profile of the office," said Ostling, who with his wife, Joan, wrote "Mormon America."

Hinckley is "by far the most-traveled president ever," Ostling said. Hinckley has dedicated Mormon temples in Hong Kong, Alaska, Mexico, Spain, England, Colombia, Canada, Hawaii and Bolivia, and toured New Zealand, Australia, Nigeria, Ghana, Kenya, Zimbabwe, South Africa, Indonesia, the Pacific Rim and many American cities, including Atlanta.

"We love Atlanta," he said, "but we don't always love that airport."

He seems to draw strength from the people he visits.

"I was in Darwin, Australia, and there were about 250 people at the airport," he said in a birthday interview with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. "They're not visited very often by authorities of the church. To be there with them and see their steadfast devotion becomes a very moving thing."

Within the church, Hinckley will probably be remembered for his vast building program, Ostling predicted. Besides the new 21,000-seat Conference Center, Hinckley has announced new temples around the globe, including several smaller temples in various degrees of completion in the Southeast--Nashville; Birmingham; Memphis; Columbia; Raleigh-Durham; Baton Rouge, La.; and Louisville, Ky.

Rites of the faith

For many years, Mormons from across the Southeast traveled to the Atlanta temple in Sandy Springs, dedicated in 1983, to perform the sacred rites of the faith--the "sealing" of marriages so that, according to Mormon theology, the relationship of husband, wife and children will last through eternity, and the baptism by proxy of the dead, who are believed by Mormons to be able to decide after death to become part of the church.

The reasoning behind the temple building boom is simple, Hinckley said: "To get the temples near the people so they don't have to travel so far."

In another effort to take the faith to the people, Hinckley established a presidency office in Atlanta--the first in North America outside Salt Lake City. It serves a portion of the United States that includes about 280,000 church members and the Caribbean, where Mormonism is growing rapidly. Metro Atlanta itself has 54 congregations, with about 25,000 members.

"We've done this as an experiment to see how it would work," he said. If the Southeast office is deemed successful, other regional U.S. presidencies will follow.

Two-pronged approach

Jan Shipps, a United Methodist scholar who has studied the Latter-day Saints for 40 years, sees larger implications in the decentralization of the church. By placing temples in more communities, she said, Hinckley is reminding Mormons of their distinctiveness from traditional Christians while also emphasizing their commonalities.

Shipps points to the church's logo, changed by Hinckley a few months after he took office, to make the words Jesus Christ in the church's name much larger than "The Church of" or "of Latter-day Saints."

"The implications are extraordinary," she said. "Not only is it bringing Mormons into the Christian fold, it represents a shift in what is in church publications."

Latter-day Saints magazines and newsletters used to emphasize the Mormon pioneers and church leaders, who fled harassment and persecution, going from New York to Ohio, then Missouri, Illinois and finally, after Joseph Smith was executed by a mob, to Utah. Now, said Shipps, "instead of stories about early Mormons, they have stories about (Jesus') disciples. That's important."

Through aggressive proselytizing, Mormons have swelled their rolls with converts from traditional Christian groups who are comfortable with the church's direction, she said. But at the same time, Hinckley wanted to make sure that the core of Mormon theology was not diluted.

Mormons reject "original sin," the idea that mankind inherited sin from Adam and Eve, the first human beings. They teach that the Book of Mormon is sacred scripture. They recognize a Mother God as well as a Heavenly Father, but they do not pray to her.

Their doctrine says that all humans existed as spirits before their earthly conceptions, that they came to Earth to fulfill a divine plan, and that they can eventually become gods and goddesses if they know the right signs, rituals and passwords, which are taught in special temple rites.

Visitors are welcome at regular Sunday church services held in neighborhood "wards" or churches, but the temple is open only to Mormons in good standing whose leaders have issued a "recommend" affirming that they tithe and live by the social regulations of the church. To enter, they dress in white--including their "garments," special underwear worn next to the skin as a reminder of their faith. Once issued the garments at the temple, they wear them for the rest of their lives.

If Mormons did not have temples to remind them of these things, "I think there would have been a drift to have Mormons move into a sort of pan-Protestantism," said Shipps.

In fact, with their strong emphasis on the traditional family, prohibition of abortion and disapproval of homosexual relationships, they have a great deal in common with the evangelical Protestants who are their loudest critics theologically. Some groups that call them a cult are lobbying beside them for the same causes.

"I hope we can work with other people on many causes of great importance to all of us without in any way giving up our other beliefs and standards," said Hinckley. "We can disagree without being disagreeable."

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