A famous saying within the Church states, “As man is now, God once was; as God is now, man may be.” This couplet, originating from Joseph Smith’s King Follet discourse, was popularized by the fifth Church President Lorenzo Snow. Time Magazine published an article about Mormons and asked President Gordon B Hinckley about this concept in an interview. When asked, President Hinckley responded, “I don’t know that we teach it. I don’t know that we emphasize it.” Critics argue that this statement is not only misleading but also entirely untrue. They contend that the president of the Mormon Church either provided false information in an interview with Time Magazine or didn’t understand the basic doctrines of the church.
When Salt Lake City was selected (in 1995) as host for the 2002 Winter Olympics there was a national and even global spotlight on the city and thus the LDS church. President of the church at the time, Gordon B. Hinckley, saw this as an opportunity as the leader chiefly responsible for church PR since World War II he wasn’t afraid of interviews and made himself available multiple times to be interviewed. We have his interview with Larry King, on 60 Minutes, and shortly after this TIME Magazine interview (which wasn’t published in its entirety but only used throughout the Kingdom Come article, he was interviewed by the San Fransisco Chronicle. This was a precursor to the next Mormon Moment (when Mormonism was again in the spotlight in 2007 due to Mitt Romney running for president and the simultaneous Broadway hit, The Book of Mormon musical).
Here is the relevant section of the article which quotes President Hinckley minimizing the Mormon doctrine.
In an interview with TIME, President Hinckley seemed intent on downplaying his faith’s distinctiveness. The church’s message, he explained, “is a message of Christ. Our church is Christ-centered. He’s our leader. He’s our head. His name is the name of our church.” At first, Hinckley seemed to qualify the idea that men could become gods, suggesting that “it’s of course an ideal. It’s a hope for a wishful thing,” but later affirmed that “yes, of course they can.” (He added that women could too, “as companions to their husbands. They can’t conceive a king without a queen.”) On whether his church still holds that God the Father was once a man, he sounded uncertain, “I don’t know that we teach it. I don’t know that we emphasize it… I understand the philosophical background behind it, but I don’t know a lot about it, and I don’t think others know a lot about it.”Kingdom Come Article, TIME Magazine, August 4, 1997
This statement makes it seem that President Hinckley is not aware of this distinct Mormon doctrine, which comes from the teachings of Joseph Smith as well as subsequent church leaders such as Lorenzo Snow. Either he is not aware, or he is being deceptive in his answer here. For an honest question about a doctrine in an interview and the response to be so different from reality, we must ask if it could have been an accident or oversight, or if this was a more calculated response.
This is echoed in other interviews of the time. We can see Hinckley dodging the complicated questions that don’t fit within the current PR goals of the church. Just a short time later he is asked again during an interview with the San Fransisco Chronicle about this Mormon doctrine and he again, deflects the question and refuses to give a clear answer.
Is it possible that President Hinckley is not intimately aware of these distinctive doctrines of Mormonism that trace back all the way to Joseph Smith?Dodging and Dissembling Prophet? By: Joel B. Groat and Luke P. Wilson, August 22, 2011
Church Issues Public Response to TIME Article
The church did make an official statement in response to the article though, and rather than clarify the misrepresentation of church doctrine by the church president they wanted to clarify that the estimates of the church’s wealth were “grossly exaggerated”. There is no mention from the church public affairs of the president being incapable of explaining a core doctrine, and instead dismissing it with either ignorance or lies.
In a written statement, Bruce Olsen, managing director of LDS Public Affairs, said the Aug. 4 article’s “estimates of the Church’s wealth and income are grossly exaggerated.””It would also have been well if they had pointed out that the bulk of the Church’s assets are money-consuming assets, rather than money-producing.”Church issues response to Time magazine story
Institute for Religious Research Inquiries
However, the director of the Institute for Religious Research, Luke Wilson, actually sent inquiries to confirm these claims. He asked the church for confirmation of what President Hinckley was saying here since he genuinely wanted to know whether the statement was reliable so they could inform people when they asked about the church’s teachings.
I am inquiring about a statement attributed to President Gordon B. Hinckley in the August 4, 1997 issue of Time magazine.
In response to Time’s question as to whether or not it is a teaching of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints that “God the Father was once a man,” President Hinckley is quoted as replying, “I don’t know that we teach it. I don’t know that we emphasize it … I understand the philosophical background behind it, but I don’t know a lot about it, and I don’t think others know a lot about it.” (page 56)
Would you please confirm for me whether or not in this statement President Hinckley was accurately quoted? The Institute for Religious Research and Gospel Truths Ministries is frequently asked about the teachings of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. It would be most helpful to know whether this statement is reliable.Letter to the Office of the First Presidency from Luke P. Wilson, Executive Director of the Institute for Religious Research, August 27, 1997
The church responded to him claiming that this statement was taken out of context.
I have been asked to acknowledge your letter of August 27, 1997, with regard to statements reported as made by President Gordon B. Hinckley on the topic of eternal progression in the August 4, 1997, issue of Time magazine.
The quotation you reference was taken out of context. The statement was made in response to a question about the actual circumstances and background surrounding remarks given during the funeral services of a man named King Follet, not the doctrine of exaltation and the blessings that await those who will inherit the celestial kingdom.Letter in response to Luke P. Wilson, from F. Michael Watson, Secretart to the First Presidency, September 3, 1997
Then, Luke Wilson wrote to TIME magazine to inquire about the quotation to see what the content of the interview was and if they believed the church’s account of his response being taken out of context.
Because successive Presidents of the LDS Church, going back to Joseph Smith in 1844, have clearly taught that God was once a man who progressed to become God, I found President Hinckley’s answer to your question remarkable. I wrote the Office of the First Presidency to seek clarification, and received a letter stating that President Hinckley was quoted out of context (see enclosed correspondence).
Would you be so kind as to tell me whether you accept as accurate the explanation offered to me in the letter from F. Michael Watson of the Office of the First Presidency, namely, that you quoted President Hinckley out of context.Letter to TIME Magazine Article Author, David Van Biema, from Luke P. Wilson, Executive Director of the Institute for Religious Research, September 9, 1997
TIME responds to his inquiry with the actual transcript of the interview:
Here’s the transcript of my question and President Hinckley’s response to me. This came just after a long discussion on whether men can become gods, which the President affirmed. You can judge Mr. Watson’s “out of context” assertion for yourself.
Q: Just another related question that comes up is the statements in the King Follet discourse by the Prophet.
Q: … about that, God the Father was once a man as we were. This is something that Christian writers are always addressing. Is this the teaching of the church today, that God the Father was once a man like we are?
A: I don’t know that we teach it. I don’t know that we emphasize it. I haven’t heard it discussed for a long time in public discourse. I don’t know. I don’t know all the circumstances under which that statement was made. I understand the philosophical background behind it. But I don’t know a lot about it and I don’t know that others know a lot about it.Letter response to Luke P. Wilson, from TIME Senior Correspondent Richard N. Ostling, the man who conducted the Hinckley interview.
Luke, who shares this whole fascinating writeup in an article on the Institute for Religious Research, makes the unmistakenly clear conclusion that Hinckley seeks to conceal this doctrine from the public.
Notice that President Hinckley’s answer, “I don’t know that we teach it … ” comes in direct response to the question, “Is this the teaching of the church today, that God the Father was once a man like we are?” Thus, the statement in the letter from the Office of the First Presidency that President Hinckley’s words were quoted out of context — that these were made “in response to a question about the actual circumstances and background surrounding remarks given during the funeral services of a man named “King Follet, not the doctrine of exaltation,” — is clearly false.
What Joseph Smith declared proudly and unambiguously — that God the Father was once a man — President Hinckley apparently now wishes to conceal from the public.Dodging and Dissembling Prophet? By: Joel B. Groat and Luke P. Wilson, August 22, 2011
These teachings are Mormon doctrine and have been taught virtually since the beginning of the church, since founder Joseph Smith expounded on these ideas as doctrine in a talk at the funeral of church member King Follet, in Nauvoo, April 6, 1844, usually referred to as the King Follet Discourse. Fifth church President, Lorenzo Snow coined the famous phrase which is commonly used to teach this Mormon doctrine: “As man now is, God once was: As God now is, man may be.” The church commonly refers to this couplet in teaching manuals and in talks and on the church website. It is preposterous to believe Hinckley “doesn’t know that” it’s taught or emphasized.
President Hinckley Personally Addresses the Concern
In the next General Conference, just 2 months after the article was published, President Hinckley made reference to the fallout in general conference. He states that members of the church do not need to worry that he, the president of the church, doesn’t understand some matters of doctrine. He claims, “I think I understand them thoroughly, and it is unfortunate that the reporting may not make this clear.” He states that he has been quoted and in a few instances, “misquoted and misunderstood.” Here, in front of the church, he points a finger at the press, stating that all the misunderstanding is because he was misquoted.
Never before has the Church had a better reputation than it has now…
The media have been kind and generous to us. This past year of pioneer celebrations has resulted in very extensive, favorable press coverage. There have been a few things we wish might have been different. I personally have been much quoted, and in a few instances misquoted and misunderstood. I think that’s to be expected. None of you need worry because you read something that was incompletely reported. You need not worry that I do not understand some matters of doctrine. I think I understand them thoroughly, and it is unfortunate that the reporting may not make this clear. I hope you will never look to the public press as the authority on the doctrines of the Church.
Notwithstanding these occasional blips we have been treated very well, and we are grateful to the writers and the editors who have dealt with us honestly and generously.Gordon B. Hinckley, General Conference, October 4, 1997 (bold added)
The public relations department follows suit and claims that his words were taken out of context. But from the previous correspondence with the church public relations department and the journalists at TIME magazine, we know that this is not a misquote. It would be hard to believe that Hinckley does not understand the doctrine, and he even reassures us in this message that he “understand[s] them thoroughly.” We’re really just left with the explanation that he wanted to hide this controversial and possibly complex Mormon doctrine during the interview so the church would appear more acceptable to other christians.
The apologetic site centered on Mormon topics, FAIR, responds to this as well. They are informed enough to actually quote Mr. Wilson, whom is denoted and discredit as a “Professional anti-Mormon,” though in reality, he is the Director of the Institute of Religious Research at MIT. They are extremely concerned by the misleading use of an ellipsis in the TIME article when quoting President Hinckley. FAIR alludes that this ellipsis shows that the press knew what they were doing and they were deliberately pushing Hinckley’s words out of context. This is funny, because that is what the church itself does with ellipsis when quoting church leaders. The apologist view is in line with the church and President Hinckley, as it must be, that the quote was taken out of context. Is this true or just a faith-promoting answer to reconcile the dissonance?
Does the church teach that God was once a man? The church may not emphasize it, but they certainly teach it! The apologist article even confirms that the church teaches it, just after claiming that the article took Hinckley’s comment out of context with “You bet they did.”
The church does teach that God was once a man, and that man may become gods with terms such as eternal progression. They don’t like to talk about things openly due to other “anti” material like the God Makers films. These ideas are not Christian, while the church desperately wants to be viewed as and accepted by the Christian community. FAIR specifically states that the LDS church is Christian except for the nature of God, “Everything Latter-day Saints teach about God is in agreement with the rest of the Christian world, with the exception of His nature.” They then continue and explain clearly the Mormon doctrine which Hinckley denied.
Everything Latter-day Saints teach about God is in agreement with the rest of the Christian world, with the exception of His nature. Joseph Smith said God is in the same form as we are, because we were created in His image as the Bible plainly and clearly tells us. But again, we do not emphasize Heavenly Father’s past, but the possibility of our future. Besides being created in God’s image, the Bible also informs us that Jesus Christ is the Son of Man. If God calls Himself man, and we are in His image, and we are called man, then is it correct to say that Heavenly Father was once like we are? Apparently so according to scripture. And I would much rather believe what the Bible teaches us than what the historic and traditional creeds teach us.Does President Gordon B. Hinckley Understand LDS Doctrine?
So FAIR, wants us to believe the quote was taken out of context, and also that what Hinckley declared doctrine that the church doesn’t teach, or emphasize and that he personally doesn’t know a lot about or think others know a lot about. While also explaining this doctrine in defense of Mormonism, which Hinckley attempted to minimize by saying, “I don’t know that we teach it. I don’t know that we emphasize it… I understand the philosophical background behind it, but I don’t know a lot about it, and I don’t think others know a lot about it.” He says “I don’t know” six times in a few sentences! What does he know? He knows how to mislead and distract the press.
This clearly explains why Hinckley wanted to side-step the question by feigning ignorance or de-emphasizing the doctrine. It was probably the smart PR move, but was it honest? Is it honest for apologists to continue to claim it was “out of context” when it was clearly a dodge by the PR-savvy church president?
Church Teachings on Honesty
The church understands honesty, and even teaches that “intentionally deceiving” others is a form of lying. The manual even states that the devil “encourages us to justify our lies,” and that honest people “will speak the whole truth, even if it seems to be to their disadvantage.”
Lying is intentionally deceiving others. Bearing false witness is one form of lying. The Lord gave this commandment to the children of Israel: “Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbour” (Exodus 20:16). Jesus also taught this when He was on earth (see Matthew 19:18). There are many other forms of lying. When we speak untruths, we are guilty of lying. We can also intentionally deceive others by a gesture or a look, by silence, or by telling only part of the truth. Whenever we lead people in any way to believe something that is not true, we are not being honest.
The Lord is not pleased with such dishonesty, and we will have to account for our lies. Satan would have us believe it is all right to lie. He says, “Yea, lie a little; … there is no harm in this” (2 Nephi 28:8). Satan encourages us to justify our lies to ourselves. Honest people will recognize Satan’s temptations and will speak the whole truth, even if it seems to be to their disadvantage.Gospel Principles: Chapter 31: Honesty
Has President Hinckley and other church leaders been honest about the church? Is the church honest? Let us know if the comments or in your very own wasmormon.org profile.
Kingdom Come, TIME Magazine Contents
Here’s the full TIME Magazine article in full in case it ever goes missing from the web.
Salt Lake City was just for starters–The Mormons’ True Great Trek Has Been To Social Acceptance And a $30 Billion Church Empire
By David Van Biema Monday, Aug. 04, 1997
In Salt Lake City, Utah, on a block known informally as Welfare Square, stands a 15-barreled silo filled with wheat: 19 million lbs., enough to feed a small city for six months. At the foot of the silo stands a man–a bishop with the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints–trying to explain why the wheat must not be moved, sold or given away.
Around the corner is something called the bishop’s storehouse. It is filled with goods whose sole purpose is to be given away. On its shelves, Deseret-brand laundry soaps manufactured by the Mormon Church nestle next to Deseret-brand canned peaches from the Mormon cannery in Boise, Idaho. Nearby are Deseret tuna from the church’s plant in San Diego, beans from its farms in Idaho, Deseret peanut butter and Deseret pudding. There is no mystery to these goods: they are all part of the huge Mormon welfare system, perhaps the largest nonpublic venture of its kind in the country. They will be taken away by grateful recipients, replaced, and the replacements will be taken away.
But the grain in the silo goes nowhere. The bishop, whose name is Kevin Nield, is trying to explain why. “It’s a reserve,” he is saying. “In case there is a time of need.”
What sort of time of need?
“Oh, if things got bad enough so that the normal systems of distribution didn’t work.” Huh? “The point is, if those other systems broke down, the church would still be able to care for the poor and needy.”
What he means, although he won’t come out and say it, is that although the grain might be broken out in case of a truly bad recession, its root purpose is as a reserve to tide people over in the tough days just before the Second Coming.
“Of course,” says the bishop, “we rotate it every once in a while.”
For more than a century, the members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints suffered because their vision of themselves and the universe was different from those of the people around them. Their tormentors portrayed them as a nation within a nation, radical communalists who threatened the economic order and polygamists out to destroy the American family. Attacked in print, and physically by mobs, some 30,000 were forced to flee their dream city of Nauvoo, Ill., in 1846. Led by their assassinated founder’s successor, they set out on a thousand-mile trek westward derided by nonbelievers as being as absurd as their faith.
This year their circumstances could not be more changed. Last Tuesday, 150 years to the week after their forefathers, 200 exultant and sunburned Latter-day Saints reached Salt Lake City, having re-enacted the grueling great trek. Their arrival at the spot where, according to legend, Brigham Young announced, “This is the right place” was cheered in person by a crowd of 50,000–and observed approvingly by millions. The copious and burnished national media attention merely ratified a long-standing truth: that although the Mormon faith remains unique, the land in which it was born has come to accept–no, to lionize–its adherents as paragons of the national spirit. It was in the 1950s, says historian Jan Shipps, that the Mormons went from being “vilified” to being “venerated,” and their combination of family orientation, clean-cut optimism, honesty and pleasant aggressiveness seems increasingly in demand. Fifteen Mormon Senators and Representatives currently trek the halls of Congress. Mormon author and consultant Stephen R. Covey bottled parts of the ethos in The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, which has been on best-seller lists for five years. The FBI and CIA, drawn by a seemingly incorruptible rectitude, have instituted Mormon-recruitment plans.
The Mormon Church is by far the most numerically successful creed born on American soil and one of the fastest growing anywhere. Its U.S. membership of 4.8 million is the seventh largest in the country, while its hefty 4.7% annual American growth rate is nearly doubled abroad, where there are already 4.9 million adherents. Gordon B. Hinckley, the church’s President–and its current Prophet–is engaged in massive foreign construction, spending billions to erect 350 church-size meetinghouses a year and adding 15 cathedral-size temples to the existing 50. University of Washington sociologist Rodney Stark projects that in about 83 years, worldwide Mormon membership should reach 260 million.
The church’s material triumphs rival even its evangelical advances. With unusual cooperation from the Latter-day Saints hierarchy (which provided some financial figures and a rare look at church businesses), TIME has been able to quantify the church’s extraordinary financial vibrancy. Its current assets total a minimum of $30 billion. If it were a corporation, its estimated $5.9 billion in annual gross income would place it midway through the FORTUNE 500, a little below Union Carbide and the Paine Webber Group but bigger than Nike and the Gap. And as long as corporate rankings are being bandied about, the church would make any list of the most admired: for straight dealing, company spirit, contributions to charity (even the non-Mormon kind) and a fiscal probity among its powerful leaders that would satisfy any shareholder group, if there were one.
Yet the Latter-day Saints remain sensitive about their “otherness”–more so, in fact, than most outsiders can imagine. Most church members laughed off Dennis Rodman’s crack about “f_____ Mormons” during the N.B.A. championships. But the subsequent quasi apology by Rodman’s coach Phil Jackson that his player hadn’t known they were “some kind of a cult or sect” deeply upset both hierarchy and membership. Perhaps, however, they should learn to relax. Historian Leonard J. Arrington says the church, along with the values it represents, “has played a role, and continues to play a role, in the economic and social development of the West–and indeed, because of the spread of Mormons everywhere, of the nation as a whole.” And in a country where religious unanimity is ever less important but material achievement remains the earthly manifestation of virtue, their creed may never face rejection again.
The top beef ranch in the world is not the King Ranch in Texas. It is the Deseret Cattle & Citrus Ranch outside Orlando, Fla. It covers 312,000 acres; its value as real estate alone is estimated at $858 million. It is owned entirely by the Mormons. The largest producer of nuts in America, AgReserves, Inc., in Salt Lake City, is Mormon-owned. So are the Bonneville International Corp., the country’s 14th largest radio chain, and the Beneficial Life Insurance Co., with assets of $1.6 billion. There are richer churches than the one based in Salt Lake City: Roman Catholic holdings dwarf Mormon wealth. But the Catholic Church has 45 times as many members. There is no major church in the U.S. as active as the Latter-day Saints in economic life, nor, per capita, as successful at it.
The first divergence between Mormon economics and that of other denominations is the tithe. Most churches take in the greater part of their income through donations. Very few, however, impose a compulsory 10% income tax on their members. Tithes are collected locally, with much of the money passed on informally to local lay leaders at Sunday services. “By Monday,” says Elbert Peck, editor of Sunstone, an independent Mormon magazine, the church authorities in Salt Lake City “know every cent that’s been collected and have made sure the money is deposited in banks.” There is a lot to deposit. Last year $5.2 billion in tithes flowed into Salt Lake City, $4.9 billion of which came from American Mormons. By contrast, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, with a comparable U.S. membership, receives $1.7 billion a year in contributions. So great is the tithe flow that scholars have suggested it constitutes practically the intermountain states’ only local counterbalance in an economy otherwise dominated by capital from the East and West coasts.
The true Mormon difference, however, lies in what the LDS church does with that money. Most denominations spend on staff, charity and the building and maintenance of churches; leaders will invest a certain amount–in the case of the Evangelical Lutherans, $152 million–as a pension fund, usually through mutual funds or a conservative stock portfolio. The philosophy is minimalist, as Lutheran pastor Mark Moller-Gunderson explains: “Our stewardship is not such that we grow the church through business ventures.”
The Mormons are stewards of a different stripe. Their charitable spending and temple building are prodigious. But where other churches spend most of what they receive in a given year, the Latter-day Saints employ vast amounts of money in investments that TIME estimates to be at least $6 billion strong. Even more unusual, most of this money is not in bonds or stock in other peoples’ companies but is invested directly in church-owned, for-profit concerns, the largest of which are in agribusiness, media, insurance, travel and real estate. Deseret Management Corp., the company through which the church holds almost all its commercial assets, is one of the largest owners of farm- and ranchland in the country, including 49 for-profit parcels in addition to the Deseret Ranch. Besides the Bonneville International chain and Beneficial Life, the church owns a 52% holding in ZCMI, Utah’s largest department-store chain. (For a more complete list, see chart.) All told, TIME estimates that the Latter-day Saints farmland and financial investments total some $11 billion, and that the church’s nontithe income from its investments exceeds $600 million.
The explanation for this policy of ecclesiastical entrepreneurism lies partly in the Mormons’ early experience of ostracism. Brigham Young wrote 150 years ago that “the kingdom of God cannot rise independent of Gentile nations until we produce, manufacture, and make every article of use, convenience or necessity among our people.” By the time the covered wagons and handcarts had concluded their westward roll, geographic isolation had reinforced social exclusion: the Mormons’ camp on the Great Salt Lake was 800 miles from the nearest settlement. Says Senator Bob Bennett, whose grandfather was a President: “In Young’s day the church was the only source of accumulated capital in the territory. If anything was built, it had to be built by the church because no one else had any money.”
In the first century of corporate Mormonism, the church’s leaders were partners, officers or directors in more than 900 Utah-area businesses. They owned woolen mills, cotton factories, 500 local co-ops, 150 stores and 200 miles of railroad. Moreover, when occasionally faced with competition, they insisted that church members patronize LDS-owned businesses. Eventually this became too much for the U.S. Congress. In 1887 it passed the Edmunds-Tucker Act, specifically to smash the Mormons’ vertical monopolies.
But there is an additional aspect to the Mormons’ spectacular industry and frugality. Their faith, like several varieties of American Protestantism, holds that Jesus will return to earth and begin a thousand-year rule, this glory preceded by a period of turmoil and chaos. During the dark years, church members understand that it is their destiny to sustain a light to help usher in the kingdom to come. In their preparations to do so, they shame even the most avid of secular survivalists. Church members are advised to keep one year’s food and other supplies on hand at all times, and many do. The wheat-filled Welfare Square grain elevator fulfills the same principle. Of the millennium, President Hinckley says, “We hope we’re preparing for it. We hope we’ll be prepared when it comes.”
But Hinckley qualifies that: “We don’t spend a lot of time talking about or dreaming about the millennium to come; we’ve always been a practical people dealing with the issues of life. We’re doing today’s job in the best way we know how.” From the beginning, the Saints’ millennial strain was modulated by a delight in the economic nitty-gritty. Of some 112 revelations received by the first Prophet and President of the church, Joseph Smith, 88 explicitly address fiscal matters. And although the faithful believe the “End Times” could begin shortly, their actual date is (to humankind) indefinite, and certain key signs and portents have not yet manifested themselves. Rather than wild-eyed fervor, most church moneymen project a can-do optimism.
Or, in their higher echelons, a case-hardened if amiable professionalism. A primary reason for the church’s business triumphs, says University of Washington sociologist Stark, is that it has no career clerics, only amateurs who have been plucked for service from successful endeavors in other fields. (In fact, there is no ordained clergy whatsoever: the term priest applies to all males over age 12 in good standing in the church, and “bishops,” while supervising congregations, are part-time lay leaders.) Religious observers point out that this creates a vacuum of theological talent in a church with a lot of unusual theology to explain. But the benefit, notes Stark, is that “people at the top of the Mormon church have immense experience in the world. These guys have been around the track. Why do they choose to invest directly? Because they are not helpless. They are a bunch of hard-nosed businessmen.” Rodney Brady, who runs Deseret Management Corp., has a Harvard business doctorate, served as executive vice president of pharmaceutical giant Bergen Brunswig and from 1970 to ’72 was Assistant Secretary of the U.S. Department of Health, Education and Welfare. Similar figures fill the church’s upper management: Tony Burns, a “stake president” (the rough equivalent of an archbishop), is chairman of Miami-based Ryder Systems, the truck-rental empire.
And then there is Jon Huntsman. Currently a powerful “area authority,” Huntsman may at some point make official church fiscal policy. But right now he is exemplary of the Mormon gift for not only making a buck but also spending it on others. An enthusiastic missionary as a young man, at age 42 he was asked to serve as “mission president” for a group of 220 young proselytizers in Washington. He took leave from his company and moved his wife and nine children with him. When his stint was up, they headed back to Utah, and Huntsman resumed building the $5 billion, 10,000-employee Huntsman Chemical Corp., which he owns outright. Ten years ago, Huntsman shifted his company’s mission from pure profit to a three-part priority: pay off debt, be a responsible corporate citizen and relieve human suffering. Thus far, his company has donated $100 million of its profit to a cancer center at the University of Utah. It has also built a concrete plant in Armenia to house those rendered homeless by the 1988 earthquake, and it is active in smaller charities ranging from children’s hospitals to food banks. Since the shift, says Huntsman, “we have a far greater spirit of accomplishment and motivation. Our unity and teamwork and corporate enthusiasm have never been higher.” And he still puts in his 15 to 20 hours a week as a lay clergyman. He concludes, “I find it impossible to separate life and corporate involvement from my religious convictions.”
And that, of course, begs the question: Just what, exactly, is the belief underlying those convictions, the rock upon which faith and empire are built?
Mormon theology recognizes the Christian Bible but adds three holy books of its own. It holds that shortly after his resurrection, Jesus Christ came to America to teach the indigenous people, who were actually a tribe of Israel, but that Christian churches in the Old World fell into apostasy. Then, starting in 1820, God restored his “latter-day” religion by dispatching the angel Moroni to reveal new Scriptures to a simple farm boy named Joseph Smith near Palmyra, N.Y. Although the original tablets, written in what is called Reformed Egyptian, were taken up again to heaven, Smith, who received visits from God the father, Jesus, John the Baptist and saints Peter, James and John, translated and published the Book of Mormon in 1830. He continued to receive divine Scripture and revelations. One of these was that Christ will return to reign on earth and have the headquarters of his kingdom in a Mormon temple in Jackson County, Mo. (Over time, the church has purchased 14,465 acres of land there.)
There is a long list of current Mormon practices foreign to Catholic or Protestant believers. The best known revolve around rituals of the temples, which are barred to outsiders. At “endowment” ceremonies, initiates receive the temple garments, which they must wear beneath their clothing for life. Marriages are “sealed,” not only until death doth part, but for eternity. And believers conduct proxy baptisms for the dead: to assure non-Mormon ancestors of an opportunity for salvation, current Mormons may be immersed on their behalf. The importance of baptizing one’s progenitors has led the Mormons to amass the fullest genealogical record in the world, the microfilmed equivalent of 7 million books of 300 pages apiece.
Members of the church celebrate the Lord’s Supper with water rather than wine or grape juice. They believe their President is a prophet who receives new revelations from God. These can supplant older revelations, as in the case of the church’s historically most controversial doctrine: Smith himself received God’s sanctioning of polygamy in 1831, but 49 years later, the church’s President announced its recision. Similarly, an explicit policy barring black men from holding even the lowest church offices was overturned by a new revelation in 1978, opening the way to huge missionary activity in Africa and Brazil.
Mormons reject the label polytheistic pinned on them by other Christians; they believe that humans deal with only one God. Yet they allow for other deities presiding over other worlds. Smith stated that God was once a humanlike being who had a wife and in fact still has a body of “flesh and bones.” Mormons also believe that men, in a process known as deification, may become God-like. Lorenzo Snow, an early President and Prophet, famously aphorized, “As man is now, God once was; as God now is, man may become.” Mormonism excludes original sin, whose expiation most Christians understand as Christ’s great gift to humankind in dying on the Cross.
All this has led to some withering denominational sniping. In 1995 the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) issued national guidelines stating that the Mormons were not “within the historic apostolic tradition of the Christian Church.” A more sharply edged report by the Presbyterians’ Utah subunit concluded that the Latter-day Saints “must be regarded as heretical.” The Mormons have responded to such challenges by downplaying their differences with the mainstream. In 1982 an additional subtitle appeared on the covers of all editions of the Book of Mormon: “Another Testament of Jesus Christ.” In 1995 the words Jesus Christ on the official letterhead of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints were enlarged until they were three times the size of the rest of the text. In Salt Lake City’s Temple Square, the guides’ patter, once full of proud references to Smith, is almost entirely Christological. “We talk about Christ a lot more than we used to,” says magazine editor Peck, whose journal’s outspokenness has earned him an edgy relationship with the church. “We want to show the converts we are Christians.”
And not just the converts. In an interview with TIME, President Hinckley seemed intent on downplaying his faith’s distinctiveness. The church’s message, he explained, “is a message of Christ. Our church is Christ-centered. He’s our leader. He’s our head. His name is the name of our church.” At first, Hinckley seemed to qualify the idea that men could become gods, suggesting that “it’s of course an ideal. It’s a hope for a wishful thing,” but later affirmed that “yes, of course they can.” (He added that women could too, “as companions to their husbands. They can’t conceive a king without a queen.”) On whether his church still holds that God the Father was once a man, he sounded uncertain, “I don’t know that we teach it. I don’t know that we emphasize it… I understand the philosophical background behind it, but I don’t know a lot about it, and I don’t think others know a lot about it.”
It would be tempting to assign the Mormons’ success in business to some aspect of their theology. The absence of original sin might be seen as allowing them to move confidently and guiltlessly forward. But it seems more likely that both Mormonism’s attractiveness to converts and its fiscal triumphs owe more to what Hinckley terms “sociability,” an intensity of common purpose (and, some would add, adherence to authority) uncommon in the non-Mormon business or religious worlds. There is no other major American denomination that officially assigns two congregation members in good standing, as Mormonism does, to visit every household in their flock monthly. Perhaps in consequence, no other denomination can so consistently parade the social virtues most Americans have come around to saying they admire. The Rev. Jeffrey Silliman, of the same Presbyterian group that made the heresy charge, admits that Mormons “have a high moral standard on chastity, fidelity, honesty and hard work, and that’s appealing.”
There are limits to Mormon sociability. In 1993 the church capped a harsh campaign of intellectual purification against dozens of feminists and dissidents with the excommunication of D. Michael Quinn, a leading historian whose painstaking work documented Smith’s involvement with the occult and church leaders’ misrepresentation of some continued polygamy in the early 1900s. The current crackdown, some analysts believe, stems from fears of loss of control as the church becomes more international. Most think it will get worse if, as is likely, the church’s hard-line No. 3 man, Boyd Packer, someday becomes President. Some wonder how the strict Mormon sense of hierarchy, along with the church’s male-centered, white-dominated and abstemious nature, will play as the faith continues to spread past the naturally conservative mountain states.
Yet it is hard to argue with Mormon uniformity when a group takes care of its own so well. The church teaches that in hard times, a person’s first duty is to solve his or her own problems and then ask for help from the extended family. Failing that, however, a bishop may provide him or her with cash or coupons redeemable at the 100 bishops’ storehouse depots, with their Deseret-brand bounty. The largesse is not infinite: the system also includes 97 employment centers, and Mormon welfare officials report that a recipient generally stays on the dole between 10 and 12 weeks, at an average total cash value of $300. Perhaps the most remarkable aspect of the system is its funding, which does not, as one might expect, come out of tithes. Rather, once a month, church members are asked to go without two meals and contribute their value to the welfare system. The fast money is maintained and administered locally, so that each community can care for its own disadvantaged members.
“Our whole objective,” says Hinckley, “is to make bad men good and good men better, to improve people, to give them an understanding of their godly inheritance and of what they may become.” And he intends to do it globally. In what will undoubtedly become the hallmark of his presidency, he is in the process of a grand expansion, the organizational follow-up to the massive missionary work the church has long engaged in overseas. To gather the necessary capital for it, Hinckley has decelerated the growth of Mormon domestic investments: although still on the increase, their pace is far below that of previous decades, and the church has extracted itself from such previously Mormon-heavy fields as banking, hospitals, private schools and sugar. The church authorities have removed the tithe from the authority of local administrators and pulled every penny of it back to Salt Lake City for delegation by a more select and internationally minded group of managers.
No one thinks the push abroad, and the complementary balancing act domestically, will be easy. Says Bradley Bertoch, a venture capitalist (and nonpracticing Mormon) who specializes in attracting money to Utah: “The church needs to recruit adequate labor to drive its business growth beyond the borders of the U.S. But at the same time it has to make sure that it doesn’t lose control of the home ground. It’s the same problem of resource allocation in new markets faced by any multinational.”
Will it succeed? Will the generations of young Mormon men who have so avidly evangelized beyond the borders of their country be followed by a fiscal juggernaut that will make the church as respected a presence in Brazil or the Philippines as it is in Utah, Colorado or, for that matter, America as a whole? Assessing the church’s efforts at overseas expansion, author Joel Kotkin has written that “given the scale of the current religious revival combined with the formidable organizational resources of the church, the Mormons could well emerge as the next great global tribe, fulfilling, as they believe, the prophecies of ancient and modern prophets.”
Hinckley puts it another way. “We’re celebrating this year the 150th anniversary of the arrival of the Mormon pioneers,” he says. “From that pioneer beginning, in this desert valley where a plow had never before broken the soil, to what you see today…this is a story of success.” It would be unwise to bet against more of the same.Kingdom Come Article, TIME Magazine, August 4, 1997
Do you remember this period when Gordon B. Hinckley was interviewed regularly by journalists? How did his responses feel to you at the time? The church was happy with the press coverage but was President Hinckley honestly representing the church and the church doctrines to the public? It seems like he was a master at PR and knew what to say to boost the church’s reputation more than anything. Did this affect your faith at the time or has it since? Tell your own Mormon faith transition story at wasmormon.org.