For Mormons, Succession Drama Is Against Their Religion
Posted January 3, 2018 8:56 p.m. EST
There will be no white smoke from a chapel chimney. There will be no church convention, no lobbying and no election.
Mormons don’t do succession drama. When the head of their church dies, as Thomas S. Monson did Tuesday, the next leader is chosen from the top ranks based strictly on seniority. The system is intended to avoid any hint of instability or intrigue, but it practically guarantees that the president will be elderly — even very elderly.
Monson was 90 and had served as prophet and head of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints for nearly 10 years. Following a tradition that dates from the church’s early years, he is to be succeeded by the longest-serving member of a church governing body known as the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles.
Right now, that man is President Russell M. Nelson, a former heart surgeon, who is 93. Next in line after him is Dallin H. Oaks, a former president of Brigham Young University and state Supreme Court justice. He is 85. You have to pass four more people in the line of succession before you get to someone born after World War II.
“It seems very predictable and regular, and there’s a certain comfort that comes from that level of stability,” said Brian Q. Cannon, past president of the Mormon History Association and director of the Charles Redd Center for Western Studies at Brigham Young University, the Mormon church’s flagship college.
Nelson is unlikely to deviate much from Monson’s conservative course, Cannon said. The two men are of the same generation, molded in the same culture. But Nelson’s priorities in office may be somewhat different, given his background in medicine, his experience training heart surgeons in China and his fluency in Mandarin.
“I don’t foresee any radical changes, any revolutionary changes, but there could be differences in emphasis,” Cannon said.
Nelson has already used his position as the church’s senior apostle to endorse the teachings of Monson as divinely inspired. Mormons believe that the president of their church is a living prophet who receives revelations from God.
In an address to Mormon millennials in 2016, Nelson defended a controversial church policy set down by Monson that declared gay Mormon couples to be apostates and barred their children from most religious rites until they turn 18.
“Prophets see ahead — they see the harrowing dangers the adversary has placed, or will yet place, in our path,” Nelson said. “Prophets also foresee the grand possibilities and privileges awaiting those who listen with the intent to obey.”
Monson’s funeral has been scheduled for Friday, Jan. 12, in Salt Lake City.
Over the church’s 187-year history, the president has always been succeeded by the longest-serving member of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles (who is not necessarily the oldest apostle), church historians said in interviews.
The first time was rocky. When Brigham Young succeeded the church’s founder, Joseph L. Smith, in 1847, he assumed the presidency only after a three-year power struggle. But over time the succession process became codified to avoid anything like that happening today, church historians said.
According to the church’s website: “The appointment of a new president of the Church happens in an orderly way that — remarkably in today’s world — avoids any trace of internal lobbying for position or rank. Viewed by members as a divinely revealed process, it is devoid of electioneering whether behind the scenes or in public.”
The gerontocracy at the top of the church has the advantage of experience, but there are also obvious disadvantages. Some Mormon bloggers have commented in recent years that Monson appeared to be disoriented or gave rambling speeches in public appearances. The church announced in October that he was no longer coming into the office, and he did not appear that month at the church’s semiannual international gathering, its general conference.
Nelson is older than Monson was, but observers say he is physically and mentally strong for a man of his years. “President Nelson is remarkably healthy,” Eric Hawkins, a spokesman for the church, said. “As recently as last season, he was still snow skiing.”