Speaking from the perspective of Church leadership, President Gordon B. Hinckley gave a panoramic view of the Church – including a description of its growing membership and a glimpse of its doctrine – to journalists assembled for the 49th annual convention of the Religion Newswriters Association in Albuquerque.
"We speak of large numbers, 10 million of us, but our responsibility is to deal with individuals," he said. "There is something of divinity in everyone."President Hinckley spoke to several dozen religion reporters from newspapers across the U.S. with his usual wit and charm Sept. 14 during the weekend conference.
"I am now getting old," he mused in opening comments. "I am in my 88th year, and I am not quite as adroit in repartee as I once was.
"I make a commitment a long time in advance, thinking it will be a simple thing, and then when the date approaches the whole thing appears more formidable."
President Hinckley used the opportunity to address those who shape religious opinion by painting a picture of the Church's expansive efforts and programs – including its history, doctrine, means of finance, and system of charity – while lacing his comments with his testimony.
"We are a part of the great community of Christians," he said. "And yet we are a peculiar people, in some respects difficult for you to understand and write about. . . . We are somewhat peculiar in our doctrine. Are we Christians? Of course we are! No one can honestly deny that. We may be somewhat different from the traditional pattern of Christianity. But no one believes more literally in the redemption wrought by the Lord Jesus Christ. No one believes more fundamentally that He was the Son of God, that He died for the sins of mankind, that He rose from the grave and that He is the living resurrected Son of the living Father."
Anticipating some of their questions and concerns, President Hinckley began by describing the diverse demographics of the Church. "At some time during the early part of November, we anticipate the membership of the Church will reach the 10 million mark. Fifty years ago, 55 percent of the Latter-day Saints throughout the world lived in Utah. Today, only 17 percent live there, although there are more Latter-day Saints living there today than ever before.
"We now have some 24,000 congregations in 160 nations. Today, a new Latter-day Saint is more likely to be a Latino in Mexico or Argentina than a white male in St. Louis. We embrace such diversity. We are secure in the knowledge that our Church will succeed by welcoming members from many different cultures and people."
Such tremendous growth, he noted, poses the two great problems facing the Church; namely, construction of buildings and training of leadership.
"We are building some 350 new chapels a year and will have to speed up this process."
To give the writers some perspective of the width and breadth of the worldwide Church, President Hinckley noted how he had recently visited every nation in South and Central America, with other visits to Asia, Europe, New Zealand and Australia, and then concluded, "Everywhere there have been vast congregations of people. They speak a variety of languages, but their hearts all beat with one conviction: that Jesus Christ is the Son of God and the Savior of all mankind."
Recounting the history of the Church, President Hinckley described the commemoration of "the 150th anniversary of the arrival of our pioneer forbears in the valley of the Great Salt Lake" by describing how wagons rolled and handcarts were pulled the thousand miles from the Missouri River to the valley of the Great Salt Lake.
"Service projects have been undertaken by our people not only across the United States, but in foreign countries as well. Great festivals have been presented and have been seen by tens of thousands," he said.
"To me it is an absolute miracle that Brigham Young would lead his people, and plan for the thousands who would follow, to a place of which they knew nothing through experience.
"They established the spot where they would build a temple, and from this point surveyed the valley, marking out streets 132 feet wide, which have become a great boon in these days of heavy traffic.
"I am only the third generation in this Church," he continued. "My grandfather came west as a young man. Traveling with him were his wife and baby and his brother.
"Somewhere around Fort Laramie his wife and brother both died on the same day. He fashioned a simple coffin, dug a grave, and buried them in an unmarked grave that would never again be found by his descendants. He tenderly picked up his infant child and tearfully turned west. Here in the valleys of the mountains he became a pioneer, a builder of renown.
"We are a people with a peculiar and remarkable heritage," he said.
Dispelling media accounts of the wealth of the Church, President Hinckley called the figures cited in a recent Time magazine article "grossly exaggerated."
"Our major source of revenue is the ancient law of the tithe.
"We aim to take care of our own," he continued, discussing the welfare program. "In addition to this, in the last five years, we have contributed more than $172 million in 2,300 humanitarian-aid projects in 137 nations across the world."
President Hinckley spoke of the Church's "strong emphasis on education," and called the vast seminary and institute program that touches the lives of some 585,000 young people, "a tremendous program with far-reaching results."
"All of you are somewhat familiar with our missionary program," he continued. "It is comprised of a great band of dedicated people, most of them young men. . . . At an age when most young men are prone to think only of themselves and pursue headlong the often reckless course of youth, these missionaries give themselves entirely to the service of others."
As for other items of interest to the press, President Hinckley cited an updated study by Dr. James Enstrom performed at the University of California at Los Angeles that stated Mormons live 10 years longer than their peers.
"It is no great denial to go without the use of alcohol and tobacco," he said.
"I hope that we are a friendly people, an open people," he said in conclusion. "I am told that 15,000 Baptists are coming to Salt Lake next summer and that they will try to proselytize among us. I hope that we will be gracious and respectful toward them."
Thumbnail facts about the Church in President Gordon B. Hinckley's address to the Religion Newswriters Association:
- Church membership is expected to reach 10 million during the early part of November.
- Fifty years ago, 55 percent of Church membership resided in Utah. Today, only 17 percent of Church membership is in Utah, even though more members live in the state than ever before.
- 24,000 congregations are organized in 160 nations.
- 350 new chapels are built each year, a process that must be accelerated to match growth.
- In the last five years, the Church has contributed more than $172 million to 2,300 humanitarian-aid projects in 137 nations.
- Approximately 585,000 young people are enrolled in seminary and institute programs.
- Church members live 10 years longer than peers, according to a UCLA study.