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Mormon pioneer Gordon Hinckley dead at 97

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  • Hinckley was president of Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints since 1995
  • The Church will choose a successor after Hinckley's funeral
  • Hinckley died at about 7 p.m. with his family by his side
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(CNN) -- Mormon leader Gordon B. Hinckley died Sunday night at age 97, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints announced.

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Gordon B. Hinckley, 97, president of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, died Sunday.

Hinckley had "been in failing health for some time and his passing is due to age," said church spokesman Bruce Olsen. "He was speaking in public as late as two to three weeks ago and had a full schedule in his office as late as last week."

Hinckley became president of the Salt Lake City-based church in 1995, at age 84, and had been a member of its top leadership since the 1960s. Mormon church presidents serve for life.

The church has about 13 million members worldwide and has experienced 5 percent annual growth in recent years.

He died about 7 p.m. Sunday with his family by his side, church officials said.

"His life was a true testament of service, and he had an abiding love for others," said U.S. Sen. Orrin Hatch, a Utah Republican and fellow Mormon. "His wit, wisdom, and exemplary leadership will be missed by not only members of our faith, but by people of all faiths throughout the world."

Hinckley married Marjorie Pay at the Salt Lake City temple in 1937. They had five children, 25 grandchildren and 38 great-grandchildren. Marjorie Hinckley died in 2004.

"I've been blessed so abundantly that I can never get over it," Hinckley told CNN's Larry King in 2004. "I just feel so richly blessed. I want to extend that to others, whenever I can."

Hinckley was the 15th president in the 177-year history of the Mormon church. President Bush awarded him a Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2004. Video Watch Hinckley receive medal, share his views »

According to a church statement, Hinckley was the most-traveled president in the church's history, visiting more than 60 countries. He also oversaw a massive temple-building program, doubling the number of temples worldwide to more than 100.

Hinckley spent 70 years working in the church and is considered the architect of its vast public relations network. He worked to defuse controversies over polygamy and to promote full inclusion of nonwhites.

Mormons believe the president of the church is a living prophet and apostle. They considered his words divinely inspired, including his views on homosexuality and the role of men and women in the home.

"We are not anti-gay. We are pro-family, let me put it that way," Hinckley told King in 2004. "We love these people and try to work with them and help them. We know they have a problem. We want to help them solve that problem."

In an earlier interview with King, Hinckley laid out his views on family structure.

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"Put father at the head of the house again," he said. "A good father, who loves his wife and whose wife loves him, and whose children love him ... and let them grow together as good citizens of the land."

A church body known as the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles becomes its governing body upon the death of a president. It will choose a successor after Hinckley's funeral. No arrangements have been announced, Olsen said. E-mail to a friend E-mail to a friend

CNN's Matt Smith, Ed Payne and Ninette Sosa contributed to this story.

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