What happens if the LDS Prophet Should become Mentally Incapacitated?

Note: The following was originally printed in the November/December 2015 edition of Mormonism Researched. To request a free subscription, please visit here.    

By Eric Johnson

Ezra_Taft_BensonA drawback to having the office of “prophet, seer, and revelator” be a lifetime position in the Mormon Church is when the leader’s poor health limits his effectiveness. For instance, Ezra Taft Benson, the thirteenth president who was born in 1899, had his duties designated to other general authorities in the early 1990s. Those who were close to President Benson claimed that, while he was able to listen, he did not say very much and had “difficulty saying more than a few words” (Salt Lake Tribune, January 16, 1993, pp. C1-C2). Former Brigham Young University historian D. Michael Quinn explained,

When the Mormon prophet is mentally diminished, that is a personal tragedy. For these men to be stricken with mental confusion after a lifetime of dedication to the church is an existential crisis for believers like me. But institutionally it is a nightmare and can be a challenge to the faith of millions (Ibid).david-o-mckay-mormon-prophet-161561-gallery

Another president who had debilitating health issues is ninth President David O. McKay, who was 96 when he died. According to Quinn, McKay had a short-term memory loss and “would forget within minutes after a decision was made.” In 1970, Joseph Fielding Smith became the LDS president at 93, suffering from confusion and memory loss until he died in 1972. Spencer Kimball became the twelfth president in 1973 at the age of 78, later becoming incapacitated mentally after suffering a subdural hematoma in 1982. He remained in this state until his death in 1985.

The idea of an incoherent prophet who is supposed to be the direct link between man and God is offensive to many, including writer Lavina Fielding Anderson. She said, “News photos of counselors helping him [Benson] to wave or hold a shovel are deeply distressing.” In order to “perpetuate the myth,” the Salt Lake Tribune reported that Benson’s “photo sessions are managed closely to make the president appear younger and more vigorous. The church bureaucracy—including the president’s counselors—recycle earlier speeches, Christmas messages, and even photos to complete the portrait” (January 16, 1993, C-2).

Along with others, Anderson would like to see aging prophets be allowed to retire “so the LDS Church can continue its business.” Criticism of LDS Church policy and doctrine led to the excommunication of Quinn and Anderson in September of 1993. In what was believed by many to be a “purge” encouraged by Apostle Boyd K. Packer, four other outspoken dissidents were also disciplined at that time.

President Benson’s grandson, Steve Benson, resigned from the LDS Church in late 1993, accusing LDS Church leaders of “destroying the spirituality of the very souls of its members” and of purposely misleading the Mormon people concerning the prophet’s health (Salt Lake Tribune, “Grandson of Prophet Asks to Be Removed From LDS Church Rolls,” October 12, 1993, D-1). A Pulitzer Prize-winning editorial cartoonist for the Arizona Republic newspaper, Benson decided to speak out when his thirteen-year-old son asked him, “Dad, why do they call him prophet when he can’t do anything?” Benson said it had been some time since his grandfather could participate in church affairs, “although that is an image that people deeply, almost desperately wanted to believe” (Salt Lake Tribune, July 10, 1993, p. E-3).

He explained,

I believe the church strives mightily to perpetuate the myth, the fable, the fantasy that President Benson, if not operating on all cylinders, at least is functioning effectively enough . . . to be regarded by the Saints as a living, functioning prophet (Salt Lake Tribune, October 12, 1993, D-1).

Quinn, Anderson, and Benson have a point, especially if it is true that a direct connection to God and His will for humanity are supposed to come through this man, as is taught over and over again in the church’s official teachings, including authorized correlated manuals. For example, the 2009 manual Gospel Principles states,

No person except the chosen prophet and President can receive God’s will for the entire membership of the Church. The Lord said, ‘There is never but one on the earth at a time on whom this power and the keys of this priesthood are conferred’ (D&C 132:7) (p. 41. Also see Teachings of the Living Prophets Student Manual Religion 333, p. 20).

Page 226 of the manual Teachings of Presidents of the Church: Joseph F. Smith quotes the sixth president as saying,

The Latter-day Saints hold as a principle of their faith, that . . . the President of the Church is recognized as the only person through whom divine communication will come as law and doctrine to the religious body; that such revelation may come at any time, upon any subject, spiritual or temporal, as God wills; and, finally, that, in the mind of every faithful Latter-day Saint, such revelation, in whatsoever it counsels, advises or demands, is paramount (Ellipsis in original).

Eighth President George Albert Smith added “that the President of this Church has been officially designated as the pilot of the Church here in mortality to represent the Master of heaven and earth” (Teachings of Presidents of the Church: George Albert Smith, p. 116).

If the president of the church is the “only person through whom divine communication will come” and his counsel is “paramount,” what happens if he becomes mentally incapacitated? If this is thomas-s-monson-largea possibility, it should concern Latter-day Saints that the current LDS leadership continues to get older. Current LDS President Thomas S. Monson (b. 1927) has publicly looked confused, even disoriented, at several public speaking events; some have speculated that he may be suffering from the early stages of Alzheimer’s disease. A few years ago, Monson spoke at a temple dedication session where he confusingly repeated the same story three different times. The incident was broadcast live on a satellite feed to congregations all over the world.

Still, the church’s public relations arm wants to minimize any perceived problems. A church statement from April 2015 reads,

President Monson is 87. It’s natural that he and others in church leadership are feeling the effects of advancing age. However, he spoke publicly at General Conference [last] month and attended all the meetings. He comes to the office every day, attends all First Presidency and committee meetings, leads the discussion and makes decisions  (“At 87, Mormon leader Thomas S. Monson ‘feeling the effects’ of his age, LDS Church says,” Salt Lake Tribune, May 1, 2015).

There will come a time—perhaps in the next few years—when the 88-year-old Monson will pass away and his position will be replaced by someone older than he. In mid-2015, the two apostles with the most seniority passed away: Boyd K. Packer (90) and L. Tom Perry (92). (Also passing away in September 2015 was Richard G. Scott, 87, who was fourth-in-line.) Had Monson died in the past year or two, neither would have been capable of fulfilling a prophet’s duties due to poor health, which would have likely caused an awkward situation for the church’s hierarchy.

Monson’s current successor-in-the-wings is Russell M. Nelson (b. 1924), the current President of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles. While he appears to be in good health, how long will this last? In fact, just how many 91-year-old men have the energy and stamina to become the CEO of a religious empire?

After Nelson, the next three men in line to succeed the prophet are octogenarians:

  • Dallin H. Oaks (83)
  • Russell Ballard (87)
  • Robert D. Hales (83)

When it comes to Monson’s potential successors, it is not until fifth-in-line Jeffrey R. Holland (b. 1940) that there is someone as “young” as 75. Therefore, the chance is very high that an LDS prophet could become mentally incapacitated in the next decade, as happened to Benson in the final three years of his term.

Is there a solution to this dilemma? Some have suggested that the top leaders ought to be subject to an emeritus status. According to the Salt Lake Tribune article,

The [LDS] church typically does just that for members of the First Quorum of the Seventy when they reach 70. LDS blogger John English, a technical project manager in Utah, has proposed making apostles emeritus at age 90.

However, the church statement that was released in 2014 said no changes in their policy is forthcoming. “Emeritus status is not a consideration for the First Presidency and Quorum of the Twelve,” it read (Salt Lake Tribune, May 1, 2015).

It will be interesting to see how President Monson is handled by the leadership should his ability is lead is compromised. Will his duties secretly be given to the other leaders, as appeared to be the case with Benson? As far as public appearances, Monson still shows up at the biannual general conferences but rarely (if ever) is he seen in public anywhere else. Other leaders are making trips to temple openings and other events that Monson typically made until the past few years.

One thing is for sure: If the LDS Church remains steadfast on this issue, it won’t be too long before Mormons will have to realize that a “living prophet” may not be guiding their religion.