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.

LDS Church spokesman Mark Tuttle released a statement Monday about the Newsweek story:

"The depiction of the First Vision on the cover of one of the world's best-known news magazines is a noteworthy acknowledgement of Joseph Smith as the Prophet of the Restoration at the approach of his 200th birthday. We appreciate Newsweek's effort to bring this remarkable story and its implications to the attention of their readers.

"It was said of Joseph Smith that his name would be known for good and evil throughout the world. While people will debate and quibble over some of the details and interpretations in the magazine, the Newsweek articles are another indication of the increasing recognition of the unparalleled contributions of this extraordinary man to our understanding of God's plan for his children."

The church received unprecedented national press during the 1997 sesquicentennial of the pioneer trek to Utah and surrounding the 2002 Winter Olympics.

In September 2001, Newsweek's cover, headlined "Mormons," examined the state's dominant religion prior to the 2002 Winter Games. At the time, LDS Church spokesman Michael Otterson sent a letter to Newsweek editors, criticizing the tone of the piece and pointing out a misidentified photograph. The article implied that the church's emphasis on Jesus Christ meant that the church was de-emphasizing Smith in order to appeal to the mainstream.

Salt Lake Organizing Committee members also were concerned over the article's tone, fearing it would perpetuate the notion of what was dubbed the "Mormon Olympics."

Soukup called researching, reporting and writing her article a "fascinating journey for myself." A turning point came in her reporting, she said, when she put judgment aside, tackled the hard stuff and presented both sides of Smith's life and the religion he founded.

Comment on this story "If the church is true, you shouldn't be afraid of looking into its history, and that was something I learned for myself," she said. "In the end, it definitely made me a stronger Latter-day Saint."


E-mail: astowell@desnews.com