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 Sunday, a church spokesman said. He was 97.
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.
"His life was a true testament of service, and he had an abiding love for others," said U.S. Sen. Orrin Hatch, a Utah Republican and fellow Mormon. "His wit, wisdom, and exemplary leadership will be missed by not only members of our faith, but by people of all faiths throughout the world."
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" and "totally in the hands of the Lord."
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.
The church presidency is a lifetime position. Before Hinckley, the oldest church president was David O. McKay who was 96 when he died in 1970.
Hinckley, a grandson of Mormon pioneers, was president for nearly 13 years. He took over as president and prophet on March 12, 1995 and oversaw one of the greatest periods of expansion in church history. 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 United States surpassed that of American Mormons for the first time since the church, the most successful faith born in the United States, was founded in 1830.
Hinckley began his leadership role in 1995 by holding a rare news conference, citing growth and spreading the Mormon message as the church's main challenge heading into the 21st century.
"We are dedicated ... to teaching the gospel of peace, to the promotion of civility and mutual respect among people everywhere, to bearing witness to the living reality of our Lord Jesus Christ, and to the practice of his teachings in our daily lives," Hinckley said.
Over the years, 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.
"We are not a weird people," Hinckley told Mike Wallace on "60 Minutes" in 1996.
"The more people come to know us, the better they will understand us," Hinckley said in an interview with The Associated Press in late 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."
Church became his life's work
Hinckley's grandfather knew church founder Joseph Smith and followed Brigham Young west to the Great Salt Lake Basin. He often spoke of the Mormon heritage of pioneer sacrifice and its importance as a model for the modern church.
"I think as long as history lasts there will be an interest in the roots of this work, a very deep interest," Hinckley said in a 1994 interview with the AP.
"Because insofar as the people of the church are concerned, without a knowledge of those roots and faith in the validity of those roots, we don't have anything," he said.
In 1997, Hinckley seemed to drive that point home in his orchestration of the lavish sesquicentennial celebration of the Mormons' arrival in the Salt Lake Valley. The yearlong festivities featured a TV-friendly reenactment of the dramatic Mormon exodus from the Midwest by handcart and covered wagon.
Born June 23, 1910, in Salt Lake City, Hinckley graduated from the University of Utah with a degree in arts and planned to attend graduate school in journalism. Instead, a church mission took him to the British Isles.
Upon his return, he became executive director of the newly formed Church Radio, Publicity, and Mission Literature Committee at $60 a month. Hinckley always worked for the church, except for a brief stint during World War II as a railroad agent.
Hinckley was preceded in death by his wife, Marjorie Pay Hinckley, whom he married in 1937. She died April 6, 2004.