Mormons are regular people, President Gordon B. Hinckley said during a 1995 interview on "60 Minutes" that thrilled American church members who longed for their neighbors to see them as normal.
The moment he told Mike Wallace "We are not a weird people" was the high-profile zenith of what scholars inside the church and out say was a successful 73-year effort, first as the leader of the church's publicity committee and later for almost a quarter century as its de facto president, to change how others viewed the church.
Along the way, he changed Mormon culture, altering the way members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints talk, the way they worship and, in doing so, scholars say, was instrumental in seeing that they were accepted into mainstream America.
"What really made a difference that he personally engineered was the church's engagement with the wider world," said Philip Barlow, the Leonard Arrington Chair of Mormon History and Culture at Utah State University. "He was the face of Mormonism for a long time because he was acting or de facto president of the church for nearly 25 years. His skill with the media and his personality has led to an engagement with the world that I think might be history-changing."
As the church grew to 13 million members from 730,000 in 1934, when President Hinckley took over as secretary of the Radio, Publicity and Mission Literature Committee of the church, the man who had aspired to be a journalist created or oversaw the messages the church presented to members and to the world through the media and its missionary program.
"It wasn't just amazing growth but amazing growth that led to a kind of acceptance of Mormons as a part of the American social and cultural mainstream," said Jan Shipps, professor emeritus of history and religious studies at Indiana University-Purdue University. "Not necessarily the religious mainstream, which we're finding with Mitt Romney's presidential campaign, but culturally and socially, Mormons aren't weird."
President Hinckley's obvious wisdom, goodness and stability challenged outside views of LDS beliefs, said Richard Bushman, the Howard W. Hunter Professor of Mormon Studies at Claremont College.
"The beliefs can't be that strange if they can produce that kind of person," Bushman said.
Internally, Shipps, who is not LDS, said Hinckley's legacy was the way he managed church growth.
"I heard a lot of conversation in the late 1970s and early '80s, about the time he became the essential leader because Spencer Kimball was incapacitated and later Ezra Taft Benson was incapacitated, that there was a lot of distinction growing between those born into the church and the many converts who were joining the church," she said. "It looked in many ways as this would be a divide in the church that would be dramatic."
Shipps said President Hinckley provided a variety of ways for the two groups to find common ground. He created a way for them share in the Mormon past by establishing centers at church historical sites. He also changed the language of the church, even moving emphasis away from the colloquial "Mormon Church" back to the official name, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
"You moved from Mormonhood to church membership," Shipps said.
President Hinckley also made himself "a gift" to converts by traveling more than any other church president, visiting more than 60 countries. "He made it a common community, even though it wasn't the community that existed at the end of the second World War," Shipps said. "It was a huge effort and it was successful."
President Hinckley dramatically changed the way Latter-day Saints experience the temple. First, when President David O. McKay asked him in 1953 to solve the problem of presenting the temple ceremony in multiple languages for the opening of a temple in Switzerland, he created a film of the rites. In the 1990s, he amended the temple ceremony.
Most significantly, he introduced what Bushman called the miniaturization of the temple. By building many smaller temples, Latter-day Saints around the world could experience temple worship without making long, expensive pilgrimages.
When he became church president in 1995, there were 47 temples. Today there are 124. For many Mormons, that will be his lasting legacy.
"We always talk about buildings, the scores of temples," Bushman said. "But I think the legacy of President Hinckley is that the building was part of his vision that every Latter-day Saint around the world should have all the advantages the Latter-day Saints in Salt Lake City have. The expanded temple program culminates the reversal of the gathering" to Utah. "It's the final commitment to globalization."
The internationalization of the church, with more members living around the world than in the United States, is a major shift unimaginable when President Hinckley was a missionary in England in the early 1930s.
President Hinckley also changed the way members experience Sunday worship, Barlow and Shipps said, managing correlation of church teachings and creating the three-hour block of Sunday meetings. Fewer meetings during the week also allowed members to interact more with the larger communities around them.
"He showed church members that you don't have to be a mini-Zion with a fence around you," Shipps said. "You can be a part of the larger culture and still be a good Latter-day Saint."
Such signals are the only ones many church members have ever known. Fully one-third of church members have known a single president, having been added to the rolls during President Hinckley's 13 years at the head of the church."It's hard to overstate the effect he has had shaping Mormon culture," said Terryl Givens, a professor of literature and English at the University of Richmond.
E-mail: [email protected]