Mormon leader meets the faithful Turnout at Arena indicates growth of church in Maryland

November 16, 1998|By John Rivera | John Rivera,SUN STAFF

The Baltimore Arena was transformed into a house of worship yesterday as Gordon B. Hinckley, president and prophet of the 10 million-member Mormon Church, paid a visit and urged Maryland's followers to "be honest, be true, be men and women of integrity."

Dressed in their Sunday best, people thronged downtown streets, children in tow and babes in arms, to hear Hinckley -- a turnout that reflected the state's growing membership in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

"Thank you for your faith and faithfulness," Hinckley told the families filling all but the top tier of the arena. "There are 7,000 of you gathered in this hall this morning. Who would ever dream a few years ago that you could call a meeting of this kind and you could have 7,000 members of the church gather on a Sunday morning?"

According to the church, Maryland has about 30,000 members -- a number that has doubled since 1980.

Hinckley, 88, who has served as leader of the church since March 1995, is presiding over an expansion that, thanks to extensive missionary efforts, now has more Mormons living outside the United States than inside.

Hinckley, the most traveled president in the church's history, has visited six continents. He came to Baltimore as part of a short trip to the East Coast that included stops in North Carolina and Richmond, Va.

After reading a passage from the Gospel of John on the Apostle Thomas, who doubted Jesus' resurrection, Hinckley told the congregation that his message for them was the same as that of the Savior: "Be not faithless, but believing."

He urged Mormons to nurture their relationship with God through daily prayer.

"What a marvelous and wonderful treat it is to know that although he is the greatest of all, we can approach him in prayer, and he will listen and hear and respond," Hinckley said. "I know that God, our eternal father, lives. I have no doubt about that. I know that he answers prayers. I have no doubt about that. I have had that experience again and again and again."

The early days of the Mormon Church were marked by persecution that included forced relocations, an extermination order in Missouri, and the murder in 1844 of the founding prophet, Joseph Smith, by a mob in Carthage, Ill. After that, led by Brigham Young, the Latter-day Saints were forced to move from nearby Nauvoo, in a harrowing 1,400-mile trek across the plains, to what became the church's present headquarters -- Salt Lake City.

Once shunned, the church is gaining more public acceptance, Hinckley said.

"Once we were a hated and despised people," he said. "We were driven from pillar to post. People now see the virtue of that which we have. They see the virtue of that which we teach. We are coming to be recognized and acknowledged as a good people and as a people who go about doing good."

Hinckley wondered aloud why others do not accept the Book of Mormon, which church members believe is a second testament of Jesus Christ that complements the New Testament. The Book of Mormon is a history of ancient civilizations in the Americas between about 2200 B.C and 420 A.D., and includes an account of the ministry of Jesus in America after his resurrection. According to Mormon teaching, Joseph Smith found and translated gold plates containing this history.

"I can't understand why those of other faiths cannot accept the Book of Mormon," Hinckley said. "One would think that they would be looking for additional witnesses to the great and solemn truths of the Bible. We have that witness, my brothers and sisters."

Hinckley urged the crowd, particularly young people, to continue to live by the rules of the church, which include strict morality, and avoiding alcohol, caffeine and tobacco.

"You boys and girls that are here, be what you ought to be as members of this church," he said. "Don't smoke, don't drink. Don't touch beer, stay away from it. Don't ever become involved in immorality. Stay away from pornography, it will destroy you. Stay away from drugs, they will destroy you."

Rather, he said, "Believe in yourself. Get all the education you can, that you may take your place in the society in which you will become a part and make a contribution of significance to that society."

After he finished speaking, dozens of church members rushed to the stage, waving to Hinckley and hoping to grasp his hand.

"I will never forget, nor I hope will my sons ever forget, this experience," said an emotional Lee Young of Hunt Valley, who stood next to 11-year-old Tyler and 8-year-old Cameron.

His wife, Tonya Young, said Hinckley had given them a lesson on how they should live.

"People look at us as Latter-day Saints," she said, "and they expect a lot more from us."

Pub Date: 11/16/98

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