An Interview With Gordon Hinckley

A Look Back At Mike Wallace's 1996 Interview With The President Of The Mormon Church

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The original segment aired on April 7, 1996.

The president and prophet of the Mormon church, Gordon B. Hinckley, died last Sunday at age 97. He was buried Saturday in Salt Lake City. The church broadcast his memorial service around the world in 69 languages.

President Hinckley presided over the global expansion of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, which is one of the fastest growing religions in the world, and the fourth largest religion in the United States. Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney is a Mormon.

The church used to be known for polygamy, but it gave up the practice more than 100 years ago when Utah became a state. Faithful Mormons don't have premarital sex, and they don't smoke or drink-even coffee is prohibited. And heads of the church did not give interviews, until Hinckley decided to sit down with Mike Wallace 11 years ago. Their conversation began with the beginning of the church: Mormons believe that God and Jesus appeared one day in New York state, before a 14-year-old farm boy.

"Your church says God and Jesus spoke with your founder, Joseph Smith, back in 1820 and told him to start this church. You believe that?" Wallace asked.

"Yes, sir," Hinckley replied.

"He was 14 years old... a backwoods farm New York state?" Wallace asked.

"That's the miracle of it," Hinckley told Wallace.

You'd expect the head of the church to believe it, but so does Bill Marriott, chief of the Marriott hotel chain, a hard-headed businessman, and he's a Mormon.

"Fourteen years old and God and Jesus come to see him? You believe that?" Wallace asked Marriott.

"Yes, I do. We believe that the early church of Jesus Christ faded away, and that it came back to Joseph Smith," Marriott explained.

And the senior U.S. senator from Utah, Orrin Hatch, a Mormon, believes it, too. "We believe that we know that this happened," the senator said.

What began with God, Jesus and a single farm boy has now become a worldwide religion with more than nine million members. But more than a religion, Mormonism is a lifestyle, an island of morality, they believe, in a time of moral decay. Hinckley acknowledged it is not easy to follow the Mormon faith, and called it the most demanding religion in America.

"It is demanding, and that's one of the things that attracts people to this church. It stands as an anchor in a world of shifting values," he told Wallace.

For example, Mormons adhere to a very strict health code: no alcohol, no tobacco, no coffee, no tea, not even caffeinated soft drinks. They're supposed to eat meat sparingly, exercise, and get plenty of sleep.

And the result? Mormons live several years longer than most other Americans. Another reason they live longer, Mormons say, is that they suffer less from stress because they have strong, supportive families. Many Mormons marry early and have lots of children.

Premarital sex, as we said, is forbidden among Mormons; so is adultery. Mormons don't even go to R-rated movies. But students at Brigham Young University insisted that having high moral standards did not prevent them from having a good time.

"We like to have fun. We like to go on dates. So we like to do just normal things," one student told Wallace.

"But you don't fool around?" he asked.

"No," the student said. "It's not something that I think is fun. A guy I remember, he told me, 'You know, you'd be so much fun if you'd drink. You would have, you know, you'd be looser and everything.' And I'm like, 'You know, I like to have fun knowing what I'm doing, being completely in control and just having fun with life.'"

And while these young Mormons stressed self-control, they themselves are controlled, to a remarkable degree, by the church. In fact, Mormons who break the rules of morality or health are not allowed to enter sacred Mormon temples.

Living as a devout Mormon is not easy. In addition to what you cannot do, there's a lot you are supposed to do. You're expected to read scripture daily and to read scripture together as a family at least one night a week; students attend daily religious courses.

Sunday services last three hours. But beyond that, church activities take several more hours each week. All of those hours and all of those rules are too much for some Mormons, who fall away.