SALT LAKE CITY — Mormon Prophet-President Ezra Taft Benson on Saturday opened the church's 156th annual conference, the first under his leadership, and showed no sign of the fiery political conservatism that dominated his past and had caused some church members to fear that he would politicize the office.
Instead, Benson, 86, who assumed the top position when Spencer W. Kimball, 90, died Nov. 5, seemed intent upon continuing the spiritual policies of his church predecessor.
Benson, who served as secretary of agriculture under President Dwight D. Eisenhower, is a longtime advocate of right-wing causes and an ardent anti-Communist. As a church leader, he has often mixed theology and politics in the pulpit to the embarrassment of less conservative colleagues.
But in the opening speech at the two-day conference here, Benson stressed the evils of sexual impurity and the dangers of pride.
Benson urged members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, as Mormons are formally called, to repent of their sins and make the Book of Mormon the center of their lives.
Faithful Mormons believe the book, like the Bible, 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.
"In the category of sins," Benson said, "the Book of Mormon places unchastity next to murder. . . . We must forsake immorality and be clean." Benson spoke slowly and firmly, but at times with a slight quaver.
Benson was joined on the platform by other members of the church's First Presidency--Gordon B. Hinckley, first counselor, and Thomas S. Monson, second counselor. The 350-voice Tabernacle Choir and other choral groups provided music during the twice-daily general sessions.
About 8,000 faithful crowded into the domed tabernacle on Mormon Square, and tens of thousands more were linked by radio and satellite broadcast in their homes and at more than 1,000 local church centers in the United States and Canada. There are an estimated 475,000 Mormons in California.
Speaker after speaker formally presented faith-oriented exhortations from the pulpit. Women do not speak at general sessions, and they are not permitted to attend the meeting of the all-male Mormon priesthood.
Benson, the Latter-day Saints' 13th "prophet, seer and revelator," in several weekend speeches continued the emphasis that he has placed on the importance of the Book of Mormon in earlier public appearances.
Describing the book as "the most correct of any book on Earth, and the keystone of our religion," Benson told a meeting of the church's regional representatives that the text "exposes the enemies of Christ" and fortifies against their "evil designs, strategies and doctrines."
Nearly all objections to the church, Benson said, "hinge on whether Joseph Smith and his successors were and are prophets of God receiving divine revelation."
Neither Benson's messages nor the prepared texts of other church authorities scheduled to speak here this weekend made direct reference to recent problems that the church has faced over documents dealing with the church's origins and early history.
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 rare documents dealer Mark Hofmann, 31, who has been charged with murder in the booby-trap bombing deaths last October of two people, one of them a Mormon bishop.
Area historians are divided over whether the papers sold by Hofmann are authentic, and Hofmann has been accused of committing the murders to cover up forgeries of a number of the documents.
On the eve of the annual church conference, Hofmann was charged in 5th Circuit Court here with four additional counts of theft by deception, bringing to 27 the total of fraud charges against him in connection with his business dealings.
Preliminary Hearing Set
A preliminary hearing for Hofmann has been set for April 14. There has been no suggestion that church officials are involved in any wrongdoing.
The scandal, however, has exposed high-level church involvement in a web of high-stakes dealings with Hofmann over at least 40--and perhaps more than 100--documents. Some of the papers are said to sully the reputation of church founder Smith and cast doubt on the official versions of Mormon origins
Whether the controversial documents turn out to be authentic or forged, the bizarre case has focused the attention of Mormon intellectuals on documents that show a connection between folk magic and early Mormonism and question the divine authorship of the Book of Mormon.
In his speech to church leaders here, Benson said: "Objectors (to the church) must determine for themselves whether the book (of Mormon) is true. They can do that by reading it, pondering its message and then prayerfully asking God if it is true."