KUNM

The Private Prophet: Mormon Church President Thomas Monson Dies At 90

Jan 3, 2018
Originally published on January 4, 2018 9:24 am

Thomas S. Monson, president and prophet of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, died Tuesday night at the age of 90.

In a statement, church spokesman Eric Hawkins wrote that Monson died at 10:01 p.m. in his home in Salt Lake City surrounded by family.

Monson had been at the helm of the 16 million-member Mormon church for nearly a decade and will be remembered as much for his personal ministry as for his aversion to grand pronouncements. He was a traditionalist without a bold agenda whose presence as a church leader faded as he aged. In recent years, he remained quiet as the church grappled with issues like ordaining women and baptizing children of gay couples.

A storyteller

Monson was a storyteller. Many of his stories involved following an inner prompting from the Holy Spirit.

"On one occasion many years ago I was swimming laps at the old Deseret Gym in Salt Lake City when I felt the inspiration to go to the University Hospital to visit a good friend of mine," Monson said during the October 2012 General Conference.

"I later learned from my friend that he had been utterly despondent that day and had been contemplating taking his own life," Monson continued. "I had arrived at a critical moment in response to what I know was inspiration from on high."

A native of Salt Lake, many of his anecdotes took place there. Whether that was visiting the 80 widows that lived in his downtown congregation as a young bishop or dropping in to see someone at just the right time.

Monson was a young man, only 36, when called to be a full-time apostle for the church, part of the second-highest governing body. That would be unheard of today.

"He really spent most of his life serving in the church," says William Walker, a former general authority for the church who worked closely with Monson for many years.

Walker and Monson would often travel together on assignment and during those trips, he says, Monson would always make time to meet and shake hands with as many church members as he could.

Walker remembers one time in particular when Monson had just spoken to a large gathering. Following the closing prayer, he leaned over to the church leader and said, "If we slip out the side door, I can get you back to the hotel very quickly and get you some rest."

Monson looked at him and responded, "If Jesus was here, do you think he would slip out the side door?" Walker decided to never make that suggestion again.

On church practice and policy, Monson didn't seem to have much of an agenda. He was a traditionalist.

"I often heard him refer to the previous leaders of the church and he wanted to follow precedent," says Walker.

One big change he will be remembered for is lowering the age for full-time missionary service. Women are now able to serve at age 19 instead of 21. This change led to a dramatic increase in the number of missionaries serving worldwide.

But in recent years, Monson had scaled back public appearances and speeches. His health was declining and he was reportedly suffering from memory loss.

"President Monson had such a prodigious memory," Walker says. "He could remember everybody and everything. So as [he] had to deal with that as [he] got older, that had to have been extremely challenging and difficult for him."

A private prophet

Monson's ill health came at an inopportune moment for the church.

"I feel like in the almost 10 years that he's been president, it's been a time of real turmoil for the church," says Kristine Haglund, a Mormon writer and former editor of Dialogue magazine.

Haglund points to one recent time in particular as a stress point for church members. In November 2015, the church declared that the children of gay couples could no longer be baptized.

It was a shock for many, confusing for most and seemed to contradict a growing acceptance of LGBT Mormons. But most confusing of all was that Monson was nowhere to be found. He said nothing publicly about the decision.

"It wasn't controversial to suggest that President Monson wasn't necessarily in charge," says Haglund.

Haglund says that as Monson became less and less involved in church governance, it wasn't clear who was steering decisions like this one. He also remained quiet during a movement to ordain women that gained national attention.

During the nine years he served at the head of the church, Monson only held one press conference soon after he was called. Much of what he felt or thought about current issues was left entirely to speculation.

"Mormons generally like certainty, they like to testify of things that they know," Haglund says. "They like to feel certain that the prophet will never lead them astray and will tell them what they should do in an uncertain time and in an uncertain world."

For some, the past few years have been uncertain times. But, Haglund says, that's the price of having leaders who serve for life and this likely won't be the last time a Mormon prophet retreats during their final years.

"We have to get used to this kind of leaderlessness, or at least the diluted sense of a leader's presence," Haglund says.

The church has not announced who will take Monson's place as president. A successor will not be chosen until after his funeral, a spokesman said.

But tradition is that the senior-most church apostle is called to be the next president. In this case, that would be Russell M. Nelson, a former heart surgeon who at 93 seems to be in good health.

Copyright 2018 KUER 90.1. To see more, visit KUER 90.1.

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

The president of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints died last night. Thomas Monson was 90. As church president, he was revered as a prophet by Mormons worldwide. Lee Hale of member station KUER reports that Monson will be remembered for what he said as well as what he left unsaid.

LEE HALE, BYLINE: Monson served as the top Mormon leader for nearly 10 years. For the almost 16 million church members worldwide, Monson was seen as the closest link to God's guidance and revelation and the primary source for spiritual instruction.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

THOMAS MONSON: Never let a problem to be solved become more important than a person to be loved.

HALE: Monson was known as an engaging storyteller. He told stories from his life that often involved responding to nudges from the Holy Spirit, like one instance when he felt inspired to visit an old friend in the hospital. Monson later learned his friend had been contemplating suicide.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MONSON: I had arrived at a critical moment in response to what I know was inspiration from on high.

HALE: Monson was given a lot of responsibility in the church at a very young age. In his early 20s, he was called as a bishop to lead a congregation in Salt Lake City. He became an apostle, a member of the second-highest governing body in the church at age 36.

WILLIAM WALKER: He really spent most of his life in - serving in the church.

HALE: William Walker is a former general authority for the Mormon Church, a senior leader who worked closely with Monson for many years. They would often travel together on assignment. And during those trips, he says Monson would always make time to meet and shake hands with as many church members as he could. Walker remembers one time in particular when Monson as a newly called prophet had just spoken to a large gathering. Following the closing prayer, he leaned over to the church leader and said...

WALKER: If we slip out the side door, I can get you back to the hotel very quickly and get you some rest. And he looked at me, and he said, if Jesus was here, do you think he'd slip out the side door? (Laughter) I thought, well, I'm never going to make that suggestion again.

HALE: Last spring, the church announced Monson would no longer be attending daily meetings. His health declined. His memory was failing.

WALKER: That had to have been extremely challenging and difficult for him.

HALE: Walker says Monson was known for having a nearly photographic memory, often recalling the smallest details from his past. Monson's decline in activity came at an inopportune time according to Kristine Haglund, a former editor of Dialogue, a magazine that addresses Mormon issues.

KRISTINE HAGLUND: It's been a time of real turmoil for the church.

HALE: Haglund cites one time in particular as a stress point for church members. In November of 2015, the church declared children of gay couples could no longer be baptized without special approval. The new policy came as a shock for some, confusing for others and a break in what seemed to be a growing acceptance of LGBT Mormons. Monson did not make a public statement about the policy.

HAGLUND: It wasn't controversial to suggest that President Monson wasn't necessarily in charge.

HALE: Another controversy Monson did not address were the growing calls for more female leadership in the church - in particular, an ordain women movement. During the nine years he served as prophet and leader, Monson held one press conference - the day he was called. His predecessor, Gordon B. Hinckley, would often speak to reporters. Much of what Monson felt or thought about current issues was left entirely to speculation. Haglund says that absence of information can be difficult for the faithful.

HAGLUND: They like to feel certain that the prophet will tell them what they should do in an uncertain time and uncertain world.

HALE: Haglund says uncertainty might be the unavoidable price for elderly leaders with lifetime appointments. Since the beginning of the church, it is the most senior apostle who serves as president. Although no formal announcement has been made, it's widely expected that Russell M. Nelson will take Monson's place. Nelson is a former heart surgeon who is 93 years old and still keeps a full schedule as a church leader. For NPR News, I'm Lee Hale in Salt Lake City.

(SOUNDBITE OF IMAGINED HERBAL FLOWS' "BEYOND THE SUN") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.