Thomas S Monson: President of the Mormon Church and ‘prophet’ who opposed same-sex marriage

Born in Depression-era America, Monson fought to retain the Church’s conservatism in an era of increased rights for, and social acceptance of, LGBTQ people

Harrison Smith
Tuesday 16 January 2018 16:12 GMT
Under Monson the Mormon Church distanced itself from the Boy Scouts of America after the latter decided to permit gay and transgender members
Under Monson the Mormon Church distanced itself from the Boy Scouts of America after the latter decided to permit gay and transgender members (Getty)

“I’ve always followed the philosophy, ‘Serve where you’re called, not where you’ve been or where you might be’,” Thomas S Monson said in 2008, shortly after being elected president of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints – better known as the Mormon Church.

During his 10-year tenure steering the organisation, Monson, who was regarded as a prophet by many of his Mormon devotees, dramatically grew the organisation’s missionary operations.

The church has nearly 15 million followers worldwide, with 6.6 million in America, where it was founded around 1830 by Joseph Smith, who claimed to have received messages from God and Jesus from the age of 14.

It is published in 188 languages. In the UK, the church has nearly 186,000 members. In Kazakhstan, there are 200, while South Korea has more than 87,000.

Monson upheld the Mormons’ longstanding opposition to same-sex marriage, despite the increasing acceptance of rights within and beyond the faith – in October, New Zealand’s 37-year-old Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern renounced her faith to highlight LGBTQ rights.

The preacher, who died aged 90, stopped attending regular leadership meetings in May.

A former advertising and printing executive at the church-owned Deseret News in Utah, Monson spent half a century as a top Mormon leader. He helped expand the church’s reach through ecumenical charity work and through the construction of Mormon temples from Peru to what was then East Germany, where religious groups faced hostility under Communist rule.

Monson assumed leadership of the church in 2008 after the death of President Gordon Hinckley, whom Monson had advised as First Counsellor – effectively second in command. While Monson was president in name, Mormons commonly referred to him as “the prophet” – the teacher who relayed messages from God to humanity.

His messages, whether spiritual or secular, were relatively few. Unlike his predecessor, an energetic speaker who jetted around the world well into his nineties, he maintained a low profile, calling few news conferences and rarely holding forth on Mormon doctrine.

Instead, he filled his public addresses with folksy parables that emphasised humanitarian service and care for others, an outlook that he said was rooted in his Depression-era upbringing in Salt Lake City.

“Time and time again those who were riding the rails came to our home. I think they had it marked,” he once told The Salt Lake Tribune, recalling the migrants who called on his family asking if they could work for food. “My mother would say, ‘You come right in and sit down; wash your hands over there in the sink.’ And then she’d make a sandwich.”

Monson sought to spread a Mormon message of charity at a pivotal time in the faith’s history. “He helped usher in the church’s transformation from a Western, American institution to one that’s more international,” said Matthew Bowman, author of The Mormon People: The Making of an American Faith.

The group grew from some half a million members at the time of Monson’s birth to about 16 million at his death, with the majority located outside the United States. The growth was spurred in part by the church’s missionary programme, in which young Mormon men are heavily encouraged to spend two years abroad spreading the faith or performing humanitarian work. Young women are encouraged to serve 18-month missions.

Monson presided over a significant expansion in the programme, announcing in 2012 that the church would lower the minimum age for missionaries from 19 to 18 for men and from 21 to 19 for women. The church subsequently expanded leadership opportunities for female missionaries, although it continued to bar women from the priesthood. Since the changes were enacted, the programme has grown from about 58,000 missionaries to more than 70,000, by church estimates.

Monson’s tenure coincided with what some observers christened a “Mormon moment“ – a period in which Mormonism was frequently at the centre of national news with the campaigns of former Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney, who is a Mormon. Amid its growing prominence, the church became embroiled in controversy during the debates in America over same-sex marriage.

In one of his first major acts, Monson oversaw a church lobbying against same-sex marriage in California in 2008. The church encouraged members to work with groups such as Protect Marriage, a principal backer of the ban; according to a New York Times report, as many as 90 per cent of the organisation’s early volunteers were Mormon, and about half of its hefty $40m (£29m) war chest was donated by Mormons.

Following a backlash, the church scaled back its efforts to oppose same-sex marriage rights, and threw its support behind legislation in the state of Utah that combined anti-discrimination provisions for gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people with protections for religious groups that oppose homosexuality.

After a 2015 Supreme Court ruling that legalised same-sex marriage across America, however, the church adopted new rules stating that Mormons in same-sex marriages would be considered apostates, and that the children of same-sex couples could not be blessed or baptised until the age of 18. Baptism could only occur, according to the new policies, once the individual no longer lived in a same-sex household and had disavowed the practice of same-sex marriage or cohabitation.

Mormons who supported LGBTQ rights reacted with dismay and confusion, prompting Monson to issue a tweet: “I plead with you to avoid anything that will deprive you of your happiness here in mortality and eternal life in the world to come.”

One week later, more than 1,000 members gathered for a mass resignation ceremony in Salt Lake City.

Thomas Spencer Monson was born in the late Twenties. His father worked in the printing industry, and the young Tom developed an interest in pigeons, which he raised and trained throughout his life.

He served in the US Navy towards the end of the Second World War and received a bachelor’s degree in business management from the University of Utah in 1948, later graduating with a master’s degree in business administration elsewhere.

​Monson joined the Deseret News in Salt Lake City as an advertising executive and went on to serve as chairman of the church-controlled Deseret News Publishing Co. He became a member of the Quorum of the Twelve, the church’s second-highest governing body, in 1963 – aged 36 he was one of the youngest men to ever hold the position.

Monson also served on the board of the Boy Scouts of America and maintained its close link with the Mormon Church, which accounts for about 20 per cent of the organisation’s members.

The church distanced itself from the Scouts in May, withdrawing its participation in some programmes for teenagers. It said the separation was unrelated to the Scouts’ decision to admit gay and transgender Scouts and to allow gay men to serve as troop leaders.

Monson’s wife of 65 years, the former Frances Johnson, died in 2013. The couple’s survivors include three children, Thomas Monson, Ann Dibb and Clark Monson; eight grandchildren and 12 great-grandchildren.

Thomas S Monson, President of the Mormon Church, born 21 August 1927, died 2 January 2018

© The Washington Post

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