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Aging leadership sets the stage for changes in the LDS church

by Sharon Lindbloom
10 November 2023

Last week several media outlets carried a story reporting on the health of M. Russell Ballard, one of the twelve apostles of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. President Ballard had been hospitalized for “respiratory issues” but, as many news sources reported, by November 2nd (2023) he had been released from the hospital and was then recuperating at home. 

News reports concerning the health of LDS leaders are appearing more frequently. As The Salt Lake Tribune notes

“Health issues, meanwhile, prevented fellow apostle Jeffrey R. Holland and church President Russell M. Nelson from attending [General Conference,] the biannual event held in downtown Salt Lake City’s Conference Center and broadcast or streamed around the world.”

Jeffrey Holland was prevented from attending both of the church’s 2023 General Conferences due to serious health challenges, while President Nelson did not attend the October General Conference because he was recovering from a fall.

These numerous health issues are not surprising considering the ages of LDS leadership. The top five church leaders are:

  • Russell M. Nelson, 99 (President of the church)
  • Dallin H. Oaks, 91 (First Counselor in the First Presidency)
  • Henry B. Eyring, 90 (Second Counselor in the First Presidency)
  • M. Russell Ballard, 95 (acting President of the Twelve Apostles)
  • Jeffrey R, Holland, 82 (Apostle)

In addition to health setbacks among these five LDS leaders, two have also had to endure the loss of their wives over the past five months: Pat Holland died in July at the age of 81, and Kathleen Eyring died in October at the age of 82.

The LDS church claims a “divinely inspired” succession procedure to ensure that “the church will move forward without interruption” following the death of a prophet. According to this procedure, Dallin Oaks, will become the church president if he survives President Nelson. If not, the next in line is M. Russell Ballard, currently 95 years old and experiencing health problems. Looking down the list of current church leaders in the line of succession, over the next few years the LDS church is bound to see a fair amount of turnover in its governing First Presidency.

And though the LDS church suggests that its “divinely inspired” leadership succession provides stability and continuity for the church, this is not necessarily so.

Each new president of the church has the potential to take the faith in a different direction. This might simply be a new emphasis on an established element of the church, as was Gordon B. Hinckley’s great emphasis on the importance of the Book of Mormon, or Howard Hunter’s emphasis on worthiness for temple attendance. Or it might be a de-emphasis of certain doctrines, as when Gordon Hinckley said of the established LDS doctrine that God the Father was once a man, “I don’t know that we teach it. I don’t know that we emphasize it…” (“Kingdom Come,” TIME, 8/4/1997). But historically, in many cases, new church presidents shake up the doctrinal foundation of the church.

For example, when Brigham Young was the LDS church president, he taught important new doctrines including that Adam is God the Father, that people of African descent could never hold the priesthood until after the resurrection, and that people must have their own blood shed to atone for some of their more serious sins. Subsequent church leaders have abandoned these doctrinal pronouncements; none of them are accepted in the LDS church today.

Brigham Young’s successor as church president was John Taylor. President Taylor recorded a revelation he said he received from God in 1886. It emphasized the eternal nature of the LDS church’s doctrine of plural marriage, stating that anyone who wanted to “enter into [God’s] glory” must engage in the practice and that this “law” would never be revoked. But John Taylor’s successor, Wilford Woodruff, put an end to the practice of Mormon polygamy. In doing so, President Woodruff abolished something previous church leaders taught was not only eternal but was required for achieving exaltation.

Outright reversals to accepted church doctrines are not limited to early LDS church history. More modern presidents of the church have also instituted dramatic changes. Revisions to the LDS temple endowment ceremony is one example. The first president of the church, Joseph Smith, claimed that God “set the ordinances to be the same forever and ever” (History of the Church 4:208), but in 1990, under President Ezra Taft Benson’s leadership, the church’s First Presidency instituted radical changes to the temple ordinances. Today, Latter-day Saints are told that “there will be no end to such adjustments.”

In 2015 then-president Thomas Monson declared “the mind of the Lord and the will of the Lord” that had been revealed to him by God: That LDS baptisms were to be denied to children who lived with a parent living in a same-gender relationship. Three and a half years later President Monson’s successor, Russell Nelson, reversed the 2015 prophetic pronouncement with a new one of his own.

Another recent about-face that came along with the installation of a new LDS president might be deemed primarily cultural in nature, but it does have spiritual implications as well.

Thomas Monson (LDS president from 2008-2018) presided over what has been dubbed the “Mormon Moment,” described by Newsweek as a “sudden proliferation of Mormons in the mainstream.” Under President Monson’s leadership the LDS church launched public initiatives to make the church more visible. Things like “Mormon Messages” (2008), the “Mormon Channel” (2009), the “I’m a Mormon” global ad campaign along with “” (2010), the “Mormon Newsroom” (2012), and the popular film “Meet the Mormons” (2014) all worked together to make Mormonism appear less mysterious and more mainstream in the eyes of the non-Mormon public. 

But when President Monson died in 2018, Russell Nelson became the new church president and soon decreed that the nickname “Mormon” would no longer be used. Suggesting that God Himself was the author of this “course correction for the name of the Church,” President Nelson declared that God is offended by the nickname “Mormon,” which, if true, would make use of the word a serious sin.

In these few examples, changes in the LDS presidency have brought about: a change to the identity of God, a change to what constitutes worthiness for the priesthood, a change in the nature of atonement for sin, a change to God’s requirements for exaltation, a change in necessary temple ordinances, a change in requirements for baptism, and the identification of a new, serious sin. Far from providing stability and continuity to the global LDS church, the church’s “divinely inspired” succession procedure ends up tossing the church “to and fro…by every wind of doctrine” (Ephesians 4:14).

Biblical Christianity is different. While there are influential Christians who come and go such as local pastors, authors, and educators, they don’t hold positions of leadership over the universal Christian church. Christianity’s revelation is the consistent, unchanging, eternal Word of God found in the Bible. Christianity’s leader is Jesus Christ, the same yesterday, today, and forever (Hebrews 13:8). This is true stability and continuity, which results in deep peace for God’s people.

In 2018, speaking of the ongoing restoration of the LDS church, President Nelson said, “There’s much more to come. Wait till next year, and then the next year. Eat your vitamin pills. Get some rest. It’s going to be exciting.” With the potential for so many changes in LDS church leadership immediately ahead, Latter-day Saints may want to buckle up. There’s no telling what reversals and revisions to established church doctrine these new leaders will impose.

To see Sharon’s other news articles, click here.

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