Gordon B. Hinckley

Hinckley restored vitality to the church's presidency. (George Frey / EPA / October 7, 2007)

Gordon B. Hinckley, the elderly but indefatigable Mormon leader who guided the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints into the 21st century by building more temples, traveling more miles and moving Mormonism closer to the religious mainstream than any of his predecessors, died Sunday. He was 97.

The cause of death was not announced. Hinckley was hospitalized in January 2006, reportedly for the removal of a cancerous growth in his large intestine. According to a church statement, he died surrounded by his family.

Though he became the Mormons' 15th president and prophet at age 84, Hinckley's energy, style and longevity, which drew comparisons to Pope John Paul II, allowed him to engage millions throughout the world and provided the church a media-friendly face.

"On the basis of sheer numbers of members, Hinckley's leadership will be marked by the church's move from the margins, especially in the U.S., to the center, if not the mainstream," said Dr. Jan Shipps, a professor emeritus at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis and one of the nation's leading scholars on Mormonism.

According to Mormon doctrine, the church's leader is a "prophet, seer and revelator" able to receive divine revelations. The prophet is assisted by two counselors and, on the next step down in the hierarchy, 12 apostles, also considered prophets.

Upon the death of the president, the apostle with the longest length of service -- in this case, 80-year-old Thomas S. Monson -- ascends to the top post. Monson, a former newspaper executive with a fondness for storytelling, will run his presidency in a manner similar to Hinckley, several observers said.

During Hinckley's more than 12-year presidency, church membership, fueled by 56,000 young missionaries, swelled by nearly 37% to 12.3 million people, according to church figures.

"People are looking for stability in a shaky world," Hinckley told The Times some years ago. "They want something they can get hold of that's firm and sure and an anchor in the midst of all of this instability in which they're living. I think we offer that."

The religion of Romney

Interest in the church also was heightened in the last year by the candidacy of former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, a Mormon, for the Republican presidential nomination. There was no immediate comment late Sunday from Romney's camp on Hinckley's death.

Latter-day Saints believe that their founder, Joseph Smith, received a divine revelation that he published in 1830 as the Book of Mormon. The scriptures include instructions from Jesus, who Mormons believed visited America after his resurrection, about how to restore the fallen Christian church.

Because of this text, Mormons believe that they are the one true church and the rest of Christianity is in a state of apostasy -- a belief downplayed by Hinckley in his public appearances.

To keep up with the church's growth, Hinckley approved the construction, on average, of about 400 building projects a year worldwide. Most visible were the 75 temples -- each capped by a golden statue of a trumpet-blowing angel -- on six continents that opened during his presidency, including ones in Newport Beach and Redlands. The temples represent a 166% increase in the number built before Hinckley's leadership.

His largest construction project -- the church's Conference Center in Salt Lake City -- was dedicated in 2000. The 1.2-million-square-foot granite building seats 21,000 and has a broadcast center that can translate messages into 60 languages. The center's black walnut altar was crafted from a tree in Hinckley's backyard.

Though Salt Lake City is the Mormon version of the Vatican, Hinckley often said he would rather be out among the faithful in the world. At 95, for instance, he traveled more than 35,000 miles visiting countries including Russia, India, Kenya and France.

Public relations pro

In top health for his age for most of his presidency, Hinckley restored vibrancy to the Mormon leadership position, an office often hobbled by the debilitating illnesses of its geriatric presidents.

In fact, observers said that Hinckley, a top aide to his three sickly predecessors, in reality served as the faith's de facto leader for 25 years.

Hinckley also was known as a brilliant public relations man, able to sooth the public's fears about Mormonism without alienating the faithful and oftentimes winning over a skeptical media.