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LDS prophet who cherished history now takes place in annals of his faith

Published January 28, 2008 12:36 am

This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2008, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

History was one of Gordon B. Hinckley's passions. He lived it. He read it. He engaged it.

No other LDS president so balanced an attachment to the past with a devotion to the future.

During his nearly 13-year tenure at the top of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Hinckley oversaw the building of temples in Palmyra, N.Y., near Fayette, where the church was founded in 1830, and in Winter Quarters, Neb., where the Mormons rested for a season before resuming their long trek across the country. He took personal pride in the church's reconstructed temple in Nauvoo, Ill., on the same site and with the exact dimensions and outside architectural detail of the one that was destroyed by fire and weather in the 19th century.

He spruced up the church's historic sites in Kirtland, Ohio, and Cove Fort, Utah, among others.

In the summer of 1997, Hinckley watched approvingly as hundreds of modern pilgrims dressed as their forebears to climb aboard horse-drawn covered wagons or pull handcarts in a massive re-enactment of the 1847 trek from Illinois to Utah. Four years later, another group re-enacted their ancestors' sea voyages from Europe in tall sailing ships.

"What he did was move history out of the academic arena into the public domain," said Jan Shipps, the pre-eminent non-LDS historian. "With the historic sites, the re-enactments and the building of the Museum of Church History and Art, he made Mormon history accessible, not only to the non-Mormons but to recent converts, too."

Modern-day Mormons can go into founder Joseph Smith's store in Nauvoo or into Brigham Young's house and get a taste of what it really was like.

"It is a chance for converts to feel themselves a part of the story," said Shipps, author of the forthcoming volume, Being Mormon: The Latter-day Saints Since World War II.

History also presented Hinckley with some of his biggest challenges.

He dealt personally with Mormon forger Mark Hofmann and was just as duped by Hofmann's deceptions as the public was. He also worked strenuously to lay to rest the tensions over the Mountain Meadows Massacre, an episode in 1857 in which Mormons in southern Utah murdered immigrants from a wagon train passing through. Hinckley ordered the small monument to be fixed up and rededicated. He met with descendants of the victims, the most public gesture that had been offered by anyone in the church's hierarchy.

But it was not enough. Hostilities continued to simmer, which pained Hinckley. So he authorized a group of professional Mormon historians to conduct an exhaustive study of the episode and gave them a blank check to follow any lead they could.

"This is an effort to help Latter-day Saints themselves come to grips with the Mountain Meadows Massacre, which is really destructive if you come at it cold," Shipps said. "It will help to put it into a larger context."

Under Hinckley's watch, the LDS Church has made thousands of pages of historical documents available online and in CD format.

"He has created a set of resources from which Mormon history can be written for the next century," she said.

For all his reading and knowledge of history, Hinckley was never torn by inconsistencies or conflicting accounts.

"There is something about his internal workings that is very direct and efficient," said LDS historian Richard Bushman. "He didn't lose energy through anxiety. He had straightforward, simple answers when most of us would be agonized. He had an unusually conflict-free personality."

pstack@sltrib.com