People walk past Salt Lake temple as they arrive to attend the biannual general conference of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in Salt Lake City on April 5, 2014. Photo by Jim Urquhart/Reuters

Mormons after Monson: What comes next?

(RNS) — If tradition holds, Thomas S. Monson, who died Tuesday (Jan. 2), will be replaced as president of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints by the most-senior apostle, Russell M. Nelson, within a few weeks. The line of succession within the Mormon church is meant to symbolize stability, as there is no doubt as to who will take over the reins. History shows, however, that the transition between leaders can mean significant change for a global faith still defining its relationship with the wider world.

Like most denominations, the modern Mormon church strikes a complicated balance between cultural assimilation and retrenchment. During his tenure, Gordon B. Hinckley, the LDS president between 1995 and 2008, was known for ushering in a period of outreach and inclusion. With a background in media, he built strong relationships with journalists, including giving a number of engaging interviews with Mike Wallace and Larry King, and often emphasized the similarities between Mormons and their neighbors. His decade in leadership marked an outward-facing image that helped the often-marginalized church appear more mainstream.

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In some ways, Monson built on this trajectory, including on progressive issues. He added “caring for the poor and needy” to the church’s top priorities and spoke out in favor of charitable immigration policies. In the midst of the “Mormon Moment,” when Mitt Romney’s campaign for the American presidency and the "Book of Mormon" musical resulted in a blinding spotlight on the faith, the church responded with a media-savvy “I’m a Mormon” promotion that emphasized diversity and inclusion. And under Monson’s watch the church published a series of essays that addressed controversial historical and doctrinal matters in a surprisingly candid way. These developments seemed to fit with what was expected of Monson, who was known for helping widows and other marginalized Mormons and for interfaith outreach.

But there were limits to this inclusivity. Monson’s tenure will also be known as a time of increased schism between the church and the American nation on issues such as LGBTQ rights. One of his first major causes after becoming president was overseeing the church’s effort to pass Proposition 8, a ballot initiative to outlaw gay marriage in California. After the Supreme Court ruled in favor of gay unions in June 2015, the church instituted a policy that November that labeled those who enter same-sex marriages “apostates” and barred their children from full fellowship. These and other initiatives caused many to reconsider the church’s relationship to modern society, as the cultural rift appeared much more stark.

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These competing trajectories within the last decade were, at least in part, the result of Monson’s physical condition. His health declined quickly after he was ordained as prophet, and by the end of his tenure he had been incapacitated for a few years. This led to a vacuum of authority that others tried to fill. Monson’s two counselors in the First Presidency, especially German-born Dieter F. Uchtdorf, became known for an inclusive approach; on the other hand, several members of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles — the second-highest governing body of the church — were vocal proponents of a more traditional stance that refused to bend to contemporary opinions.

Russell M. Nelson, president of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, looks on before the start of the two-day Mormon church conference in Salt Lake City on Sept. 30, 2017. (AP Photo/Rick Bowmer, File)

 This image is available for web and print publication. For questions, contact Sally Morrow.

Key among those who pushed for retrenchment was Nelson, slated to become Monson’s successor. Trained as a heart surgeon, Nelson has been a member of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles for more than three decades. In recent years, he has presented a firm resistance against any accommodation regarding several cultural issues, most notably homosexuality. It has been reported that he was the leading architect behind the November 2015 policy regarding same-sex families. Regardless of how the policy came to be, Nelson later described it as a “revelation,” removing any chance for revision for the time being.

Once he becomes the official LDS president, it is possible that Nelson will continue that trajectory. That might include canonizing “The Family: A Proclamation to the World,” a document that sacralized heterosexual marriage but has heretofore existed in a quasi-canonical status. Such a move would further cement the faith’s distinctiveness within an increasingly gay-tolerant society.

But a Nelson presidency could still be much more moderate and conciliatory than expected. One of his predecessors, Ezra Taft Benson, was similarly considered a conservative hard-liner before his ordination in 1985. However, perhaps due to a combination of his age as well as the weight of the position, Benson turned out to be much more restrained and even pacifying as prophet. Mormons believe their president to be led by revelation and, notwithstanding personal backgrounds and prejudices, those who have risen to the office often refer to it as a sobering experience that prompted reverence and humility.

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As has been the case with every president before him, Nelson will have the choice to follow several different, and at times competing, trajectories for the church in relation to the surrounding culture. His decisions may shape the movement for decades to come.

(Benjamin E. Park is an assistant professor of American history at Sam Houston State University in Huntsville, Texas. His work focuses primarily on American religions, including Mormonism. Follow him on Twitter @BenjaminEPark. The views expressed in this opinion piece do not necessarily reflect those of Religion News Service.)


  1. Nelson should simply declare Mormonism to be null and void and proceed to dismantle the Mormon business empire built on the backs of Mormon tithes by returning the ill-gotten money to the pew sitters.

  2. Or he should continue to build a faith community that has had a positive and even life-saving impact for millions of people. Either way, really.

  3. The author seems to claim a great deal of insight into the internal discussions of the First Presidency and the Quorum of the Twelve without giving any reason to believe that insight.

    “This led to a vacuum of authority that others tried to fill. Monson’s two counselors in the First Presidency, especially German-born Dieter F. Uchtdorf, became known for an inclusive approach; on the other hand, several members of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles — the second-highest governing body of the church — were vocal proponents of a more traditional stance that refused to bend to contemporary opinions.”

    While this seems plausible, the “vacuum of authority” and implied power struggle seem to reach farther than is justified by the evidence.

  4. Continue to believe in prophets, angels , demons, heaven and hell? Such a waste of time and energy and tithes!

  5. Monson’ off to Planet Kolob hopefully – I heard its real nice there.

  6. and you continue believing in…..nothing, so you are nothing, What are the feeling of a person who believes , he is nothing?

  7. Au contraire!! Tis a person who believes in the goodness of the human spirit, family, a good education, gardening and golf!! I need no gods to muddy up the waters of humanity!!

  8. I would say that believing in something that 99% of the world thinks is nonsense doesn’t make you anyone.

    for myself, I believe i’ll have another beer.

  9. IIRC, Uchtdorf was born in Czechoslovakia and later moved to Germany.

  10. OK, but why do you have this need, almost an occupation, to constantly roam the interwebs to insult folks who do have religious belief systems? That’s very irrational.

    BTW, Mormons don’t really believe in Hell.

    Folks can leave the churches, but they can’t leave the churches alone!

  11. My comments are not insults but conclusions based on the foundations of all religions. And whose missionaries can’t leave us non-Mormons alone?

  12. What comes next is 93 year-old Russell Nelson…a young reformer no doubt !!

  13. I think he was born in what is called “the Sudetenland.” When Czechoslovakia was formed after World War I, that part of its territory was inhabited by ethnic Germans. If you are familiar with Neville Chamberlain’s “peace in our time,” that remark was made after a treaty allowing Germany to annex the Sudetenland.

  14. So, your God is beer …..hahahahaha, and by the way to be a professor teach me how to be a minority,in front of the mayority of my student believers in Beer like you…..

  15. But all this, will end when you die…your experience and knolodge will end with you, the only god that you know is your face in the mirror, if you believes that you are eqqual to a fly, be happy with that, but I know that God lives.

  16. Actually, unvarnished personal journals of the General Authorities and other Mormon “elites” show that power struggles among the 15 old men are frequent and hard fought. When Spencer W. Kimball penned the Priesthood Revelation in 1978, he referred to the sudden reversal of policy to extend the Priesthood to men of African descent as “long anticipated” when it was a complete surprise for most Mormons. He was taking a victory lap with those words over the racist bigots still alive and kicking among the top 15 because that debate among the top 15 went clear back to when Brigham Young reversed the inclusive policies of Joseph Smith to curry favor with pre- civil war slave states over polygamy.

  17. That won’t happen. The GAs all take oaths in the “upper rooms” of the Salt Lake Temple to put the Church first ahead of their families and their own lives. Even disgraced, ex-GAs never break those oaths.

  18. Or go in alternative directions of personal faith that don’t require the loss of free will to the rigid views of old men.

  19. Good article. It gives balance to the time and tenure of President Monson that you won’t read in any Utah papers about him. The article also touches on the apprehension of LGBTQ members about President Nelson who makes Monson look very moderate by comparison

  20. and all this beauty will end with your life……

  21. the GA’s are at best ‘good’ men, and at worst ‘decent’ men. Trying to paint them with shade removes any credibility to your comment. Lets look at the evidence.

    1. These men have a lifetime of Church service under their belts, and have voluntarily given decades upon decades of their lives to church service. Conclusion. These guys aren’t just putting it on for the cameras.

    2. These men have often sacrificed reputable and profitable careers in other fields to serve in the Church. GA’s are not career evangelists whose livelihood depends on building up a congregation to scape an income from. Conclusion. Church service has probably hindered their ability to generate serious money for themselves in their personal lives. Russel M. Nelson gave up being a heart surgeon to serve in the Church for nothing. $500,000 per annum as a surgeon, or $0 per annum as an Apostle. That’s a pretty hefty pay cut in any ones book.

    3. The tithes of the Church have built chapels, temples, schools and religious institutions in some of the poorest nations on earth where members ‘need’ a place of worship. These buildings sometimes sit in the middle of some of the poorest places on earth. Did the might of the local economy pay for these beautiful buildings in the middle of these slums and ghetto’s? No. These buildings are expensive to build, operate and maintain. But it is essential to providing hope to the lives of the people wherever they live. Conclusion. The money isn’t being pocketed by Monsen (ex GM) , Nelson (ex Heart surgeon), Eyring (ex Stanford Professor) or any other GA.

    It is easy to become cynical, and cast shade on the good work being done. But the truth is, my small and insignificant tithe has gone towards helping save many broken people. who might be living in broken homes, broken communities, or even broken countries with broken systems of government. The cynical will never understand that my little tithe has helped get the work of helping done. I can spend it on myself, or I can help God do whatever needs to be done to help others has gone on to do something bigger than I can do on my own. And it is blessing peoples lives for the better.

  22. ill-gotten money? business?. The Church isn’t some televangelist, money making religious pyramid scheme like your making it out to be. Mormons have an unpaid clergy. Every Mormon leader from the bottom to the top are volunteers. Thomas S. Monsen, Russel. M. Nelson, Henry B. Eyring most certainly gave up lucrative careers to serve pro-bono as General Authorities. The Church has also built temples and chapels in some of the poorest places on earth.

    Chapels and Temples might seem like wastes of money to the Secularist or Atheist, but these buildings are absolutely vital to the spiritual, emotional and personal well being of the Mormon-theist. These buildings are symbols of hope, faith and refuge to whomever might be seeking emotional, spiritual and personal shelter from our sick and decaying societies.

    These sacred places are like our homes away from home, and are the religious and cultural centers of Mormon life. These buildings are dedicated to worshipping our God, Marrying our children, Mourning our Deceased etc… These things are absolutely fundamental to most human cultures, so why not build up edifices specific to meeting these needs? Its not like the Church has asked for Government tax grants or funding to do this for us! I can go to any LDS temple, chapel or building on the planet, and worship their because I know that I am a part of something bigger than myself.

  23. The leaders of the Mormon Church/”Cult” are not paid? Actually, they are/were paid via being executives of the large Mormon-owned businesses:


    “The Quorum of Twelve’s president Ezra Taft Benson was a director of Beneficial Life Insurance Co. Apostle Howard W. Hunter was president of the Polynesian Cultural Center
    (Hawaii), and director of Beneficial Life Insurance Co., of Continental Western
    Life Insurance Co., of Deseret Federal Savings and Loan, of First Security Bank
    of Utah, of First Security Corp., of Heber J. Grant & Co., of PHA Life
    Insurance Co. (Oregon), of Watson Land Co. (Los Angeles), and of Western
    American Life Insurance Co. Apostle Thomas S. MONSON was president and chairman
    of the board of Deseret News Publishing Co., vice-president of LDS Social
    Services and of Newspaper Agency Corp, and director of Beneficial Life
    Insurance Co., of Commercial Security Bank, of Commercial Security Bankcorporation,
    of Continental Western Life Insurance Co. (Iowa), of Deseret Management Corp.,
    of IHC Hospitals, Inc., of Mountain States Telephone and Telegraph Co., of
    Murdock Travel, of PHA Life Insurance Co. (Oregon), of Pioneer Memorial
    Theater, and of Western American Life Insurance Co. Apostle Boyd K. Packer was
    chairman of the board of Utah Home Fire Insurance Co., while also director of
    Murdock Travel and of Zion’s First National Bank. Apostle Marvin J. Ashton was
    president of Deseret Book Co., chairman of the board of ZCMI, and director of
    Beneficial Development Co., of First Security Bank of Utah, of First Security
    Corporation, of Laie Resorts (Hawaii), and of Zion’s Securities Corporation.

    Apostle L. Tom Perry was director of American Stores Co. (which operated Skaggs
    Drugs and Alpha Beta supermarkets), of ZCMI, of Zion’s First National Bank, and
    of Jewel Companies, Inc. (Chicago), and trustee of LDS Social Services and of
    Nauvoo Restoration. Apostle David B. Haight was director of Bonneville International
    Corporation, of Deseret Management Corporation, of First Security Bank of Utah,
    of First Security Corporation, and of Valtek, Inc., while also a trustee of
    Deseret Management Corporation Foundation. Apostle James E. Faust was
    vice-president of Deseret News Publishing Co., director of Commercial Security
    Bank, and of Commercial Security Bank Corporation, while also a trustee of
    Ballet West and of LDS Social Services. Apostle Neal A. Maxwell was director of
    Mountain Fuel Resources, Inc., of Mountain Fuel Supply Co., and of Deseret News
    Publishing Co. Apostle Russell M. Nelson was director of Zion’s First National
    Bank. Apostle Dallin H. Oaks was chairman of the Public Broadcasting System
    (national), while also director of O.C. Tanner Jewelry Co. and of Union Pacific

    Bottom line: Mormonism is a business cult using religion as a front and charitable donations and volunteer work to advertise said business.

  24. Thanks for the longwinded, highly defensive response. You use a lot of words to circle the wagons. BTW, wrong evidence. No one is alleging that Mormons misuse their tithing funds; just a red herring on your part to divert the discussion. The church causes real damage in the ordinary lives of ordinary people through its harsh policies, and then try to blur the record with euphemistic “happy talk.” I grew up Mormon, in a very difficult home, made worse by Church “leadership.” Had child protective services existed in my childhood, we would have been removed from the home and our local ward leaders could have been held liable for assisting our mother in her abuse of us. The church basically blamed our mother’s abuse on my dad even as he worked for the Church in constructing an LDS stake center under the old local “volunteer” labor program. My dad typically worked a 72-hour week but only got paid for 40, “volunteering” the rest to oversee other “volunteer” work crews. My mom was not an effective parent and having more unsupervised time with us put stress on her that resulted in physical harm to us, but our welfare was “sacrificed” for the greater good of the construction of that building. I literally had to spend all day every Saturday on the building site at an age that would not be allowed by law nowadays just to have time with my dad. I cleared scrap wood, went down in foundation caisson holes without safety gear, and did any number of odd jobs on the building site between ages 8 and 13, just to have time with my dad and to be safe from the wrath of my mom. So, please don’t tell me about how wonderful church leaders all are. I know better. I had a bishop tell me at age 7 to “stop driving your mom crazy.” I wasn’t even old enough to get baptized when some bishop was blaming me for the abuse I got from my unstable mom.

  25. L Ray is one of those “experts” whose expertise is based upon imagining that his prejudices are facts. I wouldn’t put too much store in his opinions if I were you.

  26. As one of those Mormons who was actually a Mormon in 1978 – as opposed to Google experts – I was anticipating it.

  27. Is it as much of a waste as obsessing about the religious beliefs of others?

  28. All of which ended in 1996.

    Yes, the GA’s are compensated, since they give up their careers to serve full time. Before being called as General Authorities, they prove their dedication and unselfishness by long years of unpaid service.

    I wonder, RC: How much voluntary, unpaid service have you ever done?

  29. L. Ray: “Even disgraced, ex-GAs never break those oaths.”

    This is the classic “evidence” put forward by conspiracy theorists. “Those people” are all plotting and scheming, the bigots snarl. Then why doesn’t anyone spill the beans, you may ask? Ah, that’s because they’re all in it together! The lack of evidence proves that they’re in a conspiracy!!

    So tell us, L. Ray: Are you really bigoted enough to believe that kind of stupidity, or are you cynical enough to know that this is a dirty rabble-rousing trick, but still use it?

  30. Ah, so your personal suffering story renders your opinions fully authoritative and immune from criticism, does it?

  31. L. Ray: “…Brigham Young reversed the inclusive policies of Joseph Smith to curry favor with pre- civil war slave states over polygamy.”

    And yet, when the Confederates tried to entice Brigham into joining them, with offers of statehood, he said that he would stand by the Union.

    Your nasty assumption is supported by no facts.

  32. Verification? The accounting books are kept closed except for the GAs and the “prophet”. .

    Presently a full time HOA and medical condition volunteer.

  33. “But how he got those names is a mystery.” The entire process is a black box, and always has been. I don’t see why this case would be treated any differently. Also, President Monson gave two talks at the October 2015 Conference when those names were submitted. Clearly, if he was in a position to speak publicly (albeit belaboredly), he was certainly in a position to be able to reflect on a topic that I’m sure he had thought about for his entire tenure and ask for revelation on the matter. Your argument depends on a whole bunch of assumptions.

    “Oh, and by the way, please listen to and read our talks instead of the New Testament.” If you’re getting this message from Church publications, you’re not paying attention. Or could you point me to a talk that places conference talks above the Standard Works?

  34. “Verification” for what, exactly?

    And yet you still have time to haunt blog discussions, holding forth about religions you don’t believe. Amazing!

  35. I can’t respond to everything here, but I will note a few things. First, you should recognize that your own observation is filtered through a whole host of biases. Some of this sounds a lot like general “kids these days” talk that every generation goes through, when in fact major societal themes remain constant, but the observer changes. I think you do recognize that, but I will note that your description of the current state of things seems very foreign to me. For example, I haven’t noticed any messaging that would imply that spending time with family is not a good use of time on the Sabbath.

    I would also note that you appear to complain that the new curriculum is somehow less adaptable to local concerns, when in fact it is much more so. In previous years, Priesthood/RS lessons were out of a manual that was written the previous year. Lazy teachers could (and did) merely read out of the manual. The new curriculum places much more responsibility on local leaders to try to adapt to the needs of their congregation. You have to go back many years before you get to a time when topics were not centrally decided. The advantage now is adaptability.

    The focus on the Standard Works has also barely changed, and yet you seem to think there is some major de-emphasis of the scriptures. All age groups currently rotate through the standard works every year with a few exceptions: young children and youth. For young children, this has always been the case. For youth, I honestly don’t remember what we studied in Sunday School when I was a youth, but this age group also goes through a more intensive study of all of the standard works in seminary, so it makes sense to do something different on Sundays. That something different allows a lot more flexibility than the old manuals. There is intentionally much more material included than can be covered, and so teachers must pick and choose what is best for their students.

  36. Verification as to what the GA and prophet pay themselves every year.

    Some required reading before making any judgments or holding forth about religion:

    1. Historical Jesus Theories, – the names of many of the
    contemporary historical Jesus scholars and the titles of their over 100 books
    on the subject. Each with a discussion.

    Early Christian Writings,

    – a list of early Christian documents to include the year of publication–

    30-60 CE Passion Narrative

    40-80 Lost Sayings Gospel Q

    50-60 1 Thessalonians

    50-60 Philippians

    50-60 Galatians

    50-60 1 Corinthians

    50-60 2 Corinthians

    50-60 Romans

    50-60 Philemon

    50-80 Colossians

    50-90 Signs Gospel

    50-95 Book of Hebrews

    50-120 Didache

    50-140 Gospel of Thomas

    50-140 Oxyrhynchus 1224 Gospel

    50-200 Sophia of Jesus Christ

    65-80 Gospel of Mark

    70-100 Epistle of James

    70-120 Egerton Gospel

    70-160 Gospel of Peter

    70-160 Secret Mark

    70-200 Fayyum Fragment

    70-200 Testaments of the Twelve Patriarchs

    73-200 Mara Bar Serapion

    80-100 2 Thessalonians

    80-100 Ephesians

    80-100 Gospel of Matthew

    80-110 1 Peter

    80-120 Epistle of Barnabas

    80-130 Gospel of Luke

    80-130 Acts of the Apostles

    80-140 1 Clement

    80-150 Gospel of the Egyptians

    80-150 Gospel of the Hebrews

    80-250 Christian Sibyllines

    90-95 Apocalypse of John

    90-120 Gospel of John

    90-120 1 John

    90-120 2 John

    90-120 3 John

    90-120 Epistle of Jude

    93 Flavius Josephus

    100-150 1 Timothy

    100-150 2 Timothy

    100-150 T-itus

    100-150 Apocalypse of Peter

    100-150 Secret Book of James

    100-150 Preaching of Peter

    100-160 Gospel of the Ebionites

    100-160 Gospel of the Nazoreans

    100-160 Shepherd of Hermas

    100-160 2 Peter

    4. Jesus Database, –”The JESUS DATABASE is an
    online a-nnotated inventory of the traditions concerning the life and teachings
    of Jesus that have survived from the first three centuries of the Common Era.
    It includes both canonical and extra-canonical materials, and is not limited to
    the traditions found within the Christian New Testament.”

    5. Josephus on Jesus

    6. The Jesus Seminar,

    – books on the health and illness during the time of the NT

    8. Economics in First Century Palestine, K.C. Hanson and D. E. Oakman,
    Palestine in the Time of Jesus, Fortress Press, 1998.

    9.The Gnostic Jesus

    (Part One in a Two-Part Series on Ancient and Modern Gnosticism)

    by Douglas Gro-othuis:

    10. The interpretation of the Bible in the Church, Pontifical Biblical

    Presented on March 18, 1994

    11. The Jesus Database- newer site:


    12. Jesus Database with the example of S-u-pper and Eucharist:


    13. Josephus on Jesus by Paul Maier:

    13. Historical Jesus Studies

    14. The Greek New Testament:

    15. D-iseases in the Bible:

    16. Religion on- Line (6000 a-rt-ic-les on the
    hi-story of religion, churches, theologies,

    theologians, ethics, etc.

    The New Testament Gateway – Internet NT

    Writing the New Testament- existing copies, oral tradition etc.

    19. JD Crossan’s c-onclusions about the
    a-uthencity of most of the NT based on the above plus the c-onclusions of other
    NT e-xege-tes in the last 200 years:

    20. Early Jewish Writings- Josephus and his books
    by title with the complete translated work in English

    21. Luke and Josephus- was there a connection?

    22. NT and beyond time line:

    23. St. Paul’s Time line with discussion of
    important events:

    24. See for a list of JD
    Crossan’s books and those of the other Jesus Seminarians: Reviews of said books
    are included and selected pages can now be viewed on Amazon. Some books can be
    found on-line at Google Books.

    25. Father Edward Schillebeeckx’s words of wisdom
    as found in his books.

    27. The books of the following : Professors Gerd
    Ludemann, Marcus Borg, Paula Fredriksen, Elaine Pagels, Karen Armstrong and
    Bishop NT Wright.

    28. Father Raymond Brown’s An Introduction to the New Testament, Doubleday, NY,
    1977, 878 pages, with Nihil obstat and Imprimatur.

    29. Luke Timothy Johnson’s book The Real Jesus

    30. the studies of Armstrong, Rushdie, Hirsi Ali, Richardson and Bayhaqi

    Let us know when you finish perusing for added recommendations:

  37. He should, he definitely should…..

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