President Gordon Hinckley is the 15th president of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. He has led the church since March 1995. This is the edited transcript of an interview conducted in January 2007.
We've spoken to a lot of people about the significance of that 1978 revelation [ending the ban on people with African blood becoming priests]. Blacks and whites and Mormons describe it as one of the most extraordinary moments in the church's history in the 20th century. I haven't spoken to anybody who was there, but I have read what you've said and written about that moment. Can you talk about it?
It was a landmark occasion. We were in the temple. We gathered in prayer, and President [Spencer] Kimball led [us] in prayer, and he talked about it. It had been on his mind for a good while. And as he prayed, he talked with the Lord about it, and there just settled over us a feeling that this is the right thing; the time has come; now is the opportunity. And on the basis of that we proceeded.
In some of your speeches and writings on the subject, you also used language that I would love to know more about. You felt that a conduit to God had opened up and almost a Pentecostal spirit [was there] in the room.
“That element of sacrifice, which represents faith, is the foundation stone on which this church is established and on which it will go forward in the future.”
No, it wasn't like any other moment. There was something of a Pentecostal spirit. But on the other hand it was peaceful, quiet, not a cataclysmic thing in any sense. There was just a feeling that came over all of us, and we knew that it was the right thing at the right time and that we should proceed. And this made all the difference in the world. We've grown strong in Africa and in Brazil and in other places. There is no race bias among us. It's been well received all over the church, and I'm satisfied in my own mind, as one who was there, that the right thing happened at the right time in the right way.
I gather for President Kimball it was something he brought to the Lord on many occasions, that he prayed night after night. Is that true?
That's my understanding. This was not just all of a sudden. This had been on his mind for a good long time. He had prayed about it, worried about it, talked about it. And then it happened.
Could I ask you a little about revelation itself? Some scholars who have not experienced it describe it as communication with God, but distinct from impressions or insights. How would you describe it or explain it?
I think it's best described in the experience of Elijah: When there was a great wind and the Lord was not in the wind; and a great fire and the Lord was not in the fire; and then a still small voice, and the Lord was there. That's the best description I know of the process of revelation.
I gather that in your church, revelation can have as its subjects monumentally important events like the one we just talked about -- the revelation on the priesthood -- but it can also be about smaller things.
Oh, of course. We believe in continuous revelation. We believe this church is guided by revelation. We pray, we ponder, we think, we ask, and we receive direction as to what to do. I think that's going on all the time. That's faith, [the] story of this church. That's the reason it's made such tremendous progress, and it's going on all the time. Without it, we just stand still. With it, nothing can get in our way.
I would like to ask you some questions about the afterlife. I've spoken to a range of scholars, both Mormons and non-Mormons, who have said to me that the Mormons are one of a very few religions that believe in a richly detailed, concrete afterlife. For so many religions, mine included, it's all so nebulous and vague, not very much to hang on to. Can you talk to us about this?
Well, this is a very personal thing for me because I lost my wife two years ago, so I've experienced something that I believe is real and personal, and there's no question in my mind that life goes on. The whole essence of the Christian religion is based on the atonement of Christ, his death and his resurrection. There would be no Christmas if there was no Easter. The fact that he was resurrected gave credibility to his whole life's mission, and that's the essence of it. We go on living. This is a stage in our eternal journey. We lived before we were here. This is our mortal existence, and we shall go on living after this.
I'm wondering whether you can talk to me a little bit about what you imagine the afterlife will be. Who will be there? Will there be purposeful activity?
Of course there will be. There will be a great deal of activity. We're not just going to be there and have wings and float around, of course not. We'll be personalities. We'll be individuals. We'll be purposeful in what we do. We'll talk; we'll work; we'll be very active in every respect. There's no question in my mind about that.
That's a very consoling view for a lot of people. I would like you to reflect on a Brigham Young quote. He says: "Even though a person's body may be buried by the ocean, eaten by wild beasts, burned by ashes, the particles will be watched over and be preserved until the resurrection. At the sound of the trumpet of God, every particle will be reassembled to every man. Not one particle will be lost."
Well, that's what Brigham Young believed; that's what he talked about; that's what he taught. That's our belief; that's our doctrine. In the resurrection all of the elements will be brought together, and we'll be individuals, recognizing one another and working with one another. There's no question in my mind we won't be just amorphous creatures. We'll be people, after the resurrection, with bodies, who will work together to accomplish the work of the Lord.
The temple, in your words, is a bridge between here and the hereafter, almost as if it is a concrete symbol of the afterlife. What happens in the temple that is distinctive to the LDS Church?
Well, every temple that we build is a testimony of our belief in the immortality of the human soul. Everything connected with the temples is in terms of eternal life, eternal purposes, eternal existence. And the temple in effect becomes a bridge from mortality to immortality. If there were no immortality there would be no need for temples. There would be no need for eternal marriage if there were no eternity.
And so those sealings that take place in the temple, that's the heart of it?
Sure, that's the heart of it. Exactly.
There are many, many people -- and I'm talking about the people who are respectful of your religion, and who are knowledgeable, literate -- who nonetheless question whether you are, in fact, Christian according to their definition. I'm wondering whether you can talk to the people who really are trying to understand: Can you address their concerns? What is it that people find so difficult?
I don't know. I can't understand it. The very name of the church is the name of Jesus Christ. Our whole message is centered around Christ. The Book of Mormon is an additional witness for Christ. Everything we do is done in the name of Christ. I don't understand why people say we're not Christians. That's their right, of course. They can have their own opinion. But all that I can say is that in our terms, we worship Christ; we believe in Christ; we accept him. And he's our savior; he's our redeemer. He's the Son of God; he's the great creator; he's the word made flesh as spoken of by John. He's the savior of the world, Jesus Christ, the Son of God.
Our film [features] a very strong statement you made. You are talking about the foundational story of Mormonism and why it must be taken literally, that Joseph Smith had the vision he described and obtained the plates the way he did. You said there is no middle ground. Other churches are approaching their foundational stories and turning them into metaphor at times and going perhaps for the essence of the meaning. But that isn't true for you or for this church. I'm wondering if you can develop that idea: Why can't there be a middle ground in the way those foundational stories are understood?
Well, it's either true or false. If it's false, we're engaged in a great fraud. If it's true, it's the most important thing in the world. Now, that's the whole picture. It is either right or wrong, true or false, fraudulent or true. And that's exactly where we stand, with a conviction in our hearts that it is true: that Joseph went into the [Sacred] Grove; that he saw the Father and the Son; that he talked with them; that Moroni came; that the Book of Mormon was translated from the plates; that the priesthood was restored by those who held it anciently. That's our claim. That's where we stand, and that's where we fall, if we fall. But we don't. We just stand secure in that faith.
What would your hopes be for a television program like this? At the end of the four hours of traveling through the Mormon landscape, the defining moments and themes, what would you like people to walk away with?
I'd like them to walk away with an appreciation of this church, of its history, of the sufferings of its people, of the terrible things through which they went, as they were pushed from one area to another all across this country, from New York to this valley. They made terrible sacrifices, and that element of sacrifice which represents faith is the foundation stone on which this church is established and on which it will go forward in the future.
It's been a remarkable last 100 years, when you think of the transformation from a religion that was an outside religion, pariahs in the country's eyes, to where you are now. It's one of the great neglected narratives.
Well, this is the only religion that began on the soil of America that has spread across the world, yep. And it will continue to spread because it's based on truth. You can't build a great building on a weak foundation. You must have a solid foundation if you're going to have a strong superstructure. And that's exactly the case with this church. The foundation is sure, and that ensures the security of the superstructure.