Mormons' Leader Has Stern Words for the Young

Times Staff Writer

Mormon Prophet-President Ezra Taft Benson on Sunday exhorted about 16,000 young Mormons in Anaheim to lead moral, productive lives and called some novels and publications "corrupters" and "distorters of truth."

In his first appearance in Orange County since being named head of the church in 1985, the frail, elderly Benson gave harsh, far-ranging advice on such teen topics as what to--and not to--read, how to find a job, whom to date, how much to sleep and how to exercise, supplemented with quotes from the Bible, the Book of Mormon and Poor Richard's Almanac.

"Many novels and modern publications are corrupters of morals or distorters of truth," Benson, 87, said in a 50-minute, prepared speech delivered to Mormon students who came from around the Southland and ranged from junior high school to college age.

"Disease, fevers and unexpected deaths are some of the consequences directly related to disobedience," he told the capacity audience at the Anaheim Convention Center's arena.

Benson's speech Sunday marked only his third appearance in Southern California since he was named "prophet" of the church in November, 1985. Benson, who served as President Dwight D. Eisenhower's secretary of agriculture, assumed the church's top post when Spencer W. Kimball, 90, died.

An estimated 47,000 members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, the Mormon Church's official name, live in Orange County, according to a local church spokeswoman. The church estimates that there are about 6 million faithful worldwide, 500,000 statewide and 350,000 in Southern California.

Benson "came down for this (the meeting with students) alone because he is concerned for the young people," said Kit Poole, a church spokeswoman for the Southern California area.

Poole said Sunday that the audience was made up mostly of young Mormon students ages 14 to 25. She said most local church officials could not be invited because of space limitations.

Although many religious leaders have come out strongly against drugs recently to warn young people of their dangers, Benson did not directly mention the war on substance abuse. Rather, he emphasized Mormon doctrine and urged youths to follow its teachings against the consumption of tea, coffee, tobacco and alcohol.

Benson also underscored the more traditional teachings of the American-born church, as they relate to marriage and the sexes.

"Young women," he told the group, "you are not required to lower your standards to get a husband. Keep yourselves attractive, maintain high ideals, place yourselves in a position to meet worthy men and be engaged in constructive activities."

He told the young men in the audience: "It will be your role to be the leader in the home. You will be the provider, and so you must carefully and prayerfully choose a career."

The reactions of Benson's young audience ranged from devoutness to disinterest Sunday. Kristin Gibbs, a Fountain Valley high school student chosen to present Benson with a souvenir of his visit, was tearful and lightheaded as she stood on the podium.

"I feel so lucky to be here today," Gibbs said, choking back tears. "Last night and this morning I wasn't able to stand up, I felt so sick and dizzy. . . . But I know without a doubt that the Book of Mormon is true, and President Benson is the true prophet."

In contrast, Kevin Riggs, 17, Lakewood, was one of the first to leave the packed arena. And his comments were terse. Of Benson's speech: "It was pretty good." Of his earlier plans for Sunday afternoon: "I'd be at the beach, but I'm here."

Faithful Mormons believe that the Book of Mormon is the literal word of God and contains the account of ancient Hebrews who traveled to the Americas and were visited by Jesus Christ. Mormon Church founder Joseph Smith said he translated the record during the 1820s from plates of gold given to him--and subsequently taken back--by an angel.

Benson, who refused interviews and questions Sunday, made no mention of the controversy that has rocked the church in the past three years, or of the recent guilty pleas of a rare documents dealer whose alleged discoveries once threatened to undermine official Mormon Church history.

Mark W. Hofmann, 32, pleaded guilty two weeks ago to forging historical church documents and killing two people--one a Mormon bishop--to prevent exposure of the forgeries. He was sentenced to two counts of second-degree murder and two counts of theft by deception. His sentences, which will be served concurrently, run from five years to life.

During 1984 and 1985, several 19th-Century documents appeared in the Salt Lake Valley that connected the church's founder to spiritualism, fortunetelling and treasure hunting. Many of those papers were sold by Hofmann.

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