Newsweek puts focus on LDS church founder

Published: Tuesday, Oct. 11 2005 12:00 a.m. MDT

Newsweek's LDS cover story will appear in the Oct. 17 edition. The article was written by a BYU graduate.

The cover story of Newsweek magazines that hit newsstands Monday focuses on the 200th birthday of LDS Church founder Joseph Smith, who the magazine refers to as "prophet and polygamist, mesmerizer and rabble-rouser, saint and sinner."

This year's 200th anniversary of Smith's birth gave Newsweek assistant editor Elise Soukup, a 2002 Brigham Young University graduate, the idea for the article she researched and wrote.

Smith's reputation among Latter-day Saints, historians and the general public made him an interesting story topic, she said.

"It's actually amazing that he stands alone as a source of doctrine," Soukup said. "That's something you don't see with most religions."

Soukup experienced a highlight of her career four months ago when she interviewed President Gordon B. Hinckley of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

The New York resident flew to Salt Lake City to talk to the religious leader and found the hourlong meeting both exciting and terrifying; the 95-year-old is a prophet to roughly 12 million Latter-day Saints across the globe — Soukup included.

"You're sitting there in front of your spiritual leader, knowing you'd have to ask questions you'd rather not ask," she told the Deseret Morning News.

When she asked him for her article if Mormons are Christians, the witty leader replied, "You know all about that. Why are you asking me?"

Soukup's cover story in the edition dated Oct. 17 is titled, "The Making of the Mormons, Beyond Prophecy and Polygamy: The Future of a Booming Faith." The cover is illustrated with a stained-glass window depicting what LDS faithful refer to as the First Vision, when Joseph Smith was visited by God the Father and his son, Jesus Christ.

In addition to the main story, the magazine includes a sidebar on Soukup's interview with President Hinckley in question and answer format.

Newsweek has a worldwide circulation of 4.3 million, including more than 3.2 million in the United States.

"This is a signal that Mormonism is moving up in the world," said Jan Shipps, a non-LDS scholar and professor emeritus of history and religious studies at Indiana University-Purdue University who has studied Mormonism for 45 years. "It's certainly not where it was 50 years ago."

The Newsweek article explores controversial aspects of the religion, like polygamy, the validity of the Book of Mormon and Smith's personal life. But ultimately, it finishes with a positive conclusion.

"Smith founded cities, built temples and ran for president. But his most meaningful contribution was as 'prophet, revelator and seer,' as he called himself — and as the architect of a church that tends to nurture the bonds between its members in a spirit of charity. Smith's vision — optimistic, vigorous, a source of continuing personal growth for all who accept its blessings — in many ways echoes the American Dream. Millions around the world now see in their own lives what a young man found for himself in that New York grove."

The article can also be read on the magazine's Web site, www.newsweek.com.

"It tells the story, essentially, from the Mormon point of view. But it doesn't have the underlying sense of skepticism about religions generally," Shipps said. "In a way it's refreshing to not always have that level of skepticism. But on the other hand, it will bother a lot of people who have some serious concerns about whether everything Joseph said was true."

Soukup has read on a handful of blogs, various viewpoints about her article, but said she reported objectively, separating the journalist from the LDS faithful. Numerous editors reviewed the article before it went to press. At 10 a.m. MDT Wednesday, she will hear more opinions through a live chat on the LDS Church in America on www.newsweek.com.

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