Russell M. Nelson, a 93-year-old heart surgeon who has served as an apostle of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints for 32 years, was publicly named the next leader of the Mormon Church on Tuesday following the death of its previous president.
Historically, confusion over the Mormon succession was gradually ironed out as first church founder Joseph Smith and then his successor Brigham Young died in 1844 and 1877, respectively. Since the end of the 19th century, there has been no question that the church is governed by a president and his two counselors in tandem with a Quorum of the Twelve Apostles. All are men, and they serve for life. When an apostle dies, a replacement is selected by the president. When a president dies, the senior apostle succeeds him and selects new counselors, nearly always from the Quorum. It is a tidy system, and generally ensures that whatever disruption the church experiences at the death of a president is stylistic rather than political.
These 15 men value unanimity and consensus, and Nelson’s replacement of the recently deceased Thomas S. Monson may well cause barely a ripple.
And yet, style does matter. Differences between Monson and Nelson point to particular challenges facing the church as a new leader takes the helm.
Monson died on Jan. 2, after serving as president of the church since 2008. He was the product of a small suburb of Salt Lake City who grew up with chickens in his yard, and consistently in his addresses to the church recalled the small-scale, friendly community that was the Mormonism he grew up with. He carried eggs to his neighbors as a boy, visited his neighbors in the hospital as a young man, and as he rose in the ranks of church leadership was known to arrive late to meetings because he had stopped at the home of an elderly widow. Like President Ronald Reagan, Monson was a skilled storyteller and master of nostalgia, and he evoked for his followers a vision of Mormonism as he both remembered it and wanted it to be: a church of fellowship and intimacy. It was no mistake that under Monson the LDS church mounted a massive relief effort directed at aiding refugees from the war-torn Middle East.
And yet, the world, and Monson’s church with it, has been changing. In the United States nothing has wrenched the Christian churches more painfully in the past 60 years than conflicts over gender; indeed, so pervasive and powerful have been these fights that the word “Christian” in the United States has become for many simply a synonym for “anti-gay.” Monson’s church has not escaped these battles.
Under Monson’s leadership, LDS church’s growth in the United States has slowed, and it has become increasingly evident that the weight of Mormon membership and growth has shifted toward the global south.
One of Monson’s earliest acts as president was to authorize the church’s involvement in California’s Proposition 8 in 2008. His presidency encouraged church members to volunteer time and money to make same-sex marriage illegal in the state. The church had been quietly involved in such campaigns before, but this time church leadership received negative publicity at unprecedented levels — a sign that the traditional norms of Monson’s youth were waning.
Though the church later sought areas of compromise, endorsing laws in Utah banning discrimination based on sexual orientation in housing and employment, in 2015 church leadership announced that entering into a same-sex marriage would be considered apostasy and the children of those in such marriages would be restricted from baptism until they were legally adults.
The church also made moves under Monson’s presidency to distance itself from the Boy Scouts of America, scaling down involvement in a program it has been officially affiliated with for more than a hundred years. Scouting was dear to Monson’s heart, emblematic of the well-scrubbed traditionalism he grew up with. But in recent years, the two organizations have grown apart.
The Boy Scouts have admitted gay scouts and gay leaders and most recently girls, while the church has maintained commitment to gender complementarianism, rebuffing calls from Mormon women who sought access to the church’s all-male priesthood and excommunicating one such activist after a series of demonstrations at the church’s headquarters. As importantly, while scouting has long served as a de facto youth program for young Mormon men, the church has found it less and less appealing as its membership has grown increasingly international and increasingly diverse.
Monson, again like Reagan, seemed to float above the tumult. His regular speeches to the church’s membership, delivered twice a year at the church’s General Conference, were chronologically interchangeable. He rarely addressed specific controversies or current affairs.
Instead, in anecdote and in scripture, and with a genuine warmth, he pleaded with his people to recreate the warm and inviting Mormon community of his youth — one in which the pain of the conflicts that took place on his watch simply did not exist.
Nelson, it seems, may be inclined to a different leadership style. He has been the Mormon leader most vocal in his defense of the church’s 2015 policies on same-sex marriage, calling it “the will of the Lord.” Monson never mentioned the policy change in a public address at all. Nelson has also broken with recent precedent in the selection of his counselors. It is quite common for a new church president to retain the counselors of the president who preceded him in office; indeed, a new church president has not dropped a counselor since 1970.
Nelson has done so, replacing Monson’s counselor Dieter Uchtdorf, a German who recently took U.S. citizenship, with Dallin H. Oaks and retaining Monson’s other counselor, Henry Eyring. Oaks, lawyerly and precise, and Uchtdorf, warm and charismatic, offer something of a contrast of style.
Uchtdorf was known for addresses to the church that acknowledged the fallibility of church leadership, urged Mormons to think of their church as inclusive, and pleaded with members struggling with church policy to stay. He now returns to the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles.
Oaks, formerly a member of the Utah Supreme Court, has a reputation for being thoughtful and measured, and a vocal advocate for the church’s positions in the public square. Before the Supreme Court’s ruling that marriage equality would be the law of the land, Oaks was a determined opponent of it; since then, he has advocated for what he calls “fairness for all.”
Oaks has acknowledged that church leadership still must seek inspiration on its policy toward transgender people, and condemned Kentucky official Kim Davis for refusing to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples after the Supreme Court ruled that marriage equality would be the law of the land. At the same time he has made clear that the church will hold firm to its position that marriage should be between a man and a woman only. He has also argued that the First Amendment, and the norms of American pluralism, make space for his church to advocate for and hold to that policy in the various institutions it influences.
The simultaneous elevation of Nelson and Oaks may indicate that the church will witness a stylistic transformation that points to deeper institutional trends. Nelson’s and Oaks’s willingness to speak out on the issues Monson rarely commented upon shows a growing sense that Mormonism’s place in the world is shifting. Monson grew up a Boy Scout and served in the Navy and routinely invoked Broadway musical lyrics in his talks; he evinced comfort with a certain set of social norms rapidly passing from dominance in American culture. Nelson and Oaks, while of similar age to Monson, seem far less at ease.
Matthew Bowman is associate professor of history at Henderson State University, and the author of “The Mormon People: The Making of an American Faith” (Random House: 2012).