âHeâs been the face of the church, not only for church members, but more than any other president, to the world at large,â said Richard Lyman Bushman, professor of history emeritus at Columbia University, a member and scholar of the church. âHe exposed himself to all these interviews and seemed to enjoy it. That has won the admiration of church members. We have been a little bit isolated and clannish, and itâs wonderful to see our church presented to the world.â
During his tenure, Mr. Hinckley faced tough questions about whether the church had muzzled critical scholars and about the role of Mormons in the Mountain Meadows massacre in 1857, when a wagon train of emigrants crossing the Utah territory was attacked. Under Mr. Hinckley, a church magazine published an article about the event, and a memorial was constructed at the massacre site.
He would often disarm interrogators with peppery humor, once welcoming a New Yorker magazine reporter to his office with the greeting, âAll writers should be put in a box and thrown in the sea.â
In Mr. Hinckleyâs term, the church grew to count more than 12 million members worldwide â more than the largest Lutheran denomination. It is now believed to be the fourth largest church in the United States. (But the Mormon church has acknowledged reports that a significant percentage of new converts, especially overseas, do not remain active members.)
Mormon presidents serve in office until their death, but Mr. Hinckley stood out for his enduring vigor. When his wife of 67 years, Marjorie Pay Hinckley, died in 2004, he told Larry King: âThe best thing you can do is just keep busy, keep working hard, so youâre not dwelling on it all the time. Work is the best antidote for sorrow.â
President Bush awarded him the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2004.