Ex-corporate lawyer, 86, is Mormons' new leader

June 07, 1994|By New York Times News Service

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints announced yesterday the selection of Howard W. Hunter, an 86-year-old former corporate lawyer, as its 14th president, recognized as the supreme authority and "prophet, seer and revelator" by the world's 8.7 million Mormons.

As successor to Ezra Taft Benson, who died at the age of 94 on May 30, Mr. Hunter heads a church that is rapidly growing but is also facing lingering disputes about feminism, intellectual freedom, a recent series of excommunications and about the system that has a top leadership advanced in age and in some cases failing in health.

The new leader sought to deliver a conciliatory message at a news conference yesterday at Mormon headquarters in Salt Lake City.

"I pray that we might treat each other with more kindness, more courtesy, more humility and patience and forgiveness," he said. "To those who have transgressed or been offended, we say come back. To those who are hurt and struggling and afraid, we say let us stand with you and dry your tears."

But Mr. Hunter also signaled continuity in the church's policies by appointing Gordon B. Hinckley and Thomas S. Monson as his first and second counselors. Both had served Mr. Benson in those positions. The president and his two counselors constitute the First Presidency, the church's top executive and policy-making authority.

Mr. Hunter was next in line for the presidency as senior member of the Quorum of Twelve Apostles, the church's highest level of leadership after its president. His ordination by the Quorum to the church's top position took place on Sunday in the church's Temple.

Mr. Hinckley, who will turn 84 this month, is also next in line to become the church's president, which is a lifetime post. He is followed in seniority on the Quorum of Apostles by Mr. Monson, who is 66, and then by Boyd K. Packer, the new acting president of the Quorum, who is 69.

Since World War II, the Mormon church has had six presidents. All were in their 70s or older when they took office. Four died in their 90s, unable to carry out their official duties in their final years.

In 1980, Mr. Hunter had a heart attack and surgery to remove a benign tumor. He underwent a quadruple bypass in 1986 and surgery for bleeding ulcers and lower-back trouble. In 1989 he broke three ribs when he fell backward from a podium while speaking, but he pulled himself up and finished his talk. Last year he was in a coma for three weeks after complications from gall-bladder surgery.

But at yesterday's news conference he delivered his remarks vigorously and with no hesitation.

"Without question, [Mr. Hunter's] mind is very clear," said D. Michael Quinn, a Mormon historian who was among a number of scholars recently excommunicated from the church or fired from the church-affiliated Brigham Young University for challenging the church's view of its 19th-century origins or for feminist thinking. Mr. Quinn said that Mr. Hunter's statement "reflects his personality -- he is not a partisan and has never been strident."

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