Death ends Mormon feud

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THE death this week of Ezra Taft Benson, 94, head of the Mormon church, ends a controversy over his leadership which has grown since a severe illness in 1989 left him unable to speak or recognise his relatives. Last year his grandson denounced the hierarchy ruling the 8.7 million member church for covering up the extent of Benson's incapacity.

Deeply conservative, Benson, who was once President Eisenhower's agriculture secretary, last appeared in public two years ago at the funeral of his wife. During his last years he was under the care of a nurse in his home in Salt Lake City, Utah.

The Mormon church has grown with extraordinary speed from a membership of 1.7 million in 1960 to 8.7 million today. Aided by the proseletysing of 50,000 Mormon missionaries the church sends out every year, the number of members outside the US has risen from 200,000 to almost 4 million over the last 30 years.

The church can also draw on immense resources because the tithe on the income of its members brings a revenue of dollars 4.3bn ( pounds 3bn) a year. Founded in 1830 by Joseph Smith, it survived persecution which drove its members to take refuge in Utah. Abandoning polygamy in 1890 it became the exponent of sober family values, patriarchy and self-reliance, eschewing tobacco, alcohol and gambling, and moving sharply to the right.

Benson, a member of the Twelve Apostles who have been the church's ruling group since 1943, originally denounced graduated income tax as 'Marxist'. He was also closely associated with the extreme, conservative John Birch Society but, on becoming president of the Mormons in 1985, he grew markedly less vocal on politics.

Mormons believe that the president of their church, formally known as Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, receives revelations direct from God. The church has identified homosexuals, feminists and 'so-called scholars' or intellectuals as its main opponents.

Benson's successor will be Howard Hunter, 86, who heads the Twelve Apostles and who has himself been in poor health.

Obituary, page 14