Russell M Nelson: Who is the new Mormon president? Will he reform Church of Latter-day Saints?

93-year-old former heart surgeon reaffirms expectations he will likely uphold traditional church teachings

Samuel Osborne
Wednesday 17 January 2018 13:02 GMT
Russell M. Nelson addresses Mormon church after being appointed President

Russell M Nelson has been named as the new president of the Mormon Church following the death of Thomas S Monson, who led the religion for nearly a decade.

The 93-year-old former heart surgeon, who is the second-oldest man to assume leadership of the 16-million member church, is now considered a “prophet, seer and revelator” by Mormons.

Speaking to reporters after he was officially chosen to become 17th president of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Mr Nelson reaffirmed expectations he will likely uphold the church's traditional teachings.

Who is Russell M Nelson?

Russell M Nelson, 93, has been officially chosen to become President of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints to Thomas S Monson after his death a of couple weeks ago (George Frey/Getty Images)

Born in Salt Lake City, Utah, in 1924, Mr Nelson converted to Mormonism at the age of 16 and became a doctor by 22.

He served a two-year Army medical tour of duty during the Korean War, before resuming his medical career, which included being director of thoracic surgery residency at the University of Utah.

Mr Nelson fits the common profile of his generation of church leaders as someone who was successful in the private sector before leaving behind his career to help guide the faith.

He took the post following a longstanding succession plan that aims to keep the faith on course with a minimum of upheaval.

What will Russell M Nelson do as president?

Russell M Nelson, the new president of the Mormon church, has his picture taken with family members after a press conference to announce him as 17th president of the church (George Frey/Getty Images)

Mr Nelson will lead the church, supposedly through divine revelation from God, along with two counsellors and members of the Quorum.

The president sets policy, rules, and manages church programmes, as well as oversees the church’s businesses, which include real estate, farms, publishing, life insurance, non-profits, a Polynesian cultural centre in Hawaii and upscale outdoor shopping centre in Salt Lake City.

Although the church doesn’t disclose or discuss its finances, the Mormon historian D Michael Quinn estimated it brought in $33bn (£24bn) in contributions and an additional $15bn (£11bn) from its for-profit businesses in 2010. Much of that estimated $48bn (£35bn) is likely spent to operate church buildings, temples and programmes, Mr Quinn said in a book published last year.

Church presidents serve until they die.

Who did Russell M Nelson choose as his two counsellors?

 Russell M Nelson (C), the new president of the Mormon church, with his First Counsellor, Dallin H Oaks (L), and his Second Counsellor, Henry B Eyring (R), answer questions from the press 
 (George Frey/Getty Images)

Mr Nelson will share responsibility for the faith’s religious and business interests with his two top counsellors and members of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles.

A new president usually chooses his two counsellors them from the Quorum, which is modelled after Jesus Christ’s apostles.

Mr Nelson kept Henry B Eyring as a counsellor and chose Dallin H Oaks as the second.

Being counsellors does not put them ahead in line to become the next president, who is always the longest-tenured member. However, Mr Oaks happens to be next in line. The 85-year-old is a former Utah Supreme Court justice who joined the Quorum in May 1984, one month after Mr Nelson.

What is Russell M Nelson’s approach to LGBT issues?

Discussing his approach to LGBT issues, Mr Nelson said he understands there are “challenges with the commandments of God, challenges to be worthy.”

“God loves his children and we love them and there’s a place for everyone,” he said. “Regardless of his challenges.”

At times, the church has empathy and told members to be welcoming to LGBT people while also strictly defending opposition to same-sex marriage and all homosexual relationships.

Mr Oaks, one of Mr Nelson’s counsellors, said leaders have the responsibility to teach love but also God’s commandments.

“We’ve got the love of the Lord and the law of the Lord,” he said. Mr Nelson called doing so a “balance.”

What is Russell M Nelson’s approach to women’s issues and diversity?

The church faces some pressure to diversify leadership to add women, non-whites and people from countries outside the United States.

Mr Nelson did not mention changing any roles for women, instead emphasising their importance within the current church structure, which includes an all-male priesthood. “We need their voices, we need their input and we love their participation,” he said.

All the Quorum members are white and were born in the US, except for Dieter F Uchtdorf, who was born in Czechoslovakia and is a naturalised US citizen.

Mr Nelson said the “Lord is in charge” of picking top church leaders and acknowledged its highest leadership councils are not a “representative assembly.”

“We’ll live to see the day when there will be other flavours in the mix, but we respond because we’ve been called by the lord,” he added.

Additional reporting by Associated Press

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