At 94, President Nelson proves himself open to change

Apr 5, 2019, 4:10 PM | Updated: 4:37 pm
President Russell M. Nelson fast pray...
FILE - In this Oct. 6, 2018, file photo, President Russell M. Nelson and his wife, Wendy, wave as they leave the morning session of a twice-annual conference of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in Salt Lake City. (AP Photo/Rick Bowmer, File)
(AP Photo/Rick Bowmer, File)

By BRADY McCOMBS Associated Press

SALT LAKE CITY (AP) — At 94, the president of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has proved a far more vigorous and transformative figure than scholars expected when he took office a year ago, pushing through a flurry of surprising changes on such matters as gay members and the name of the faith.

Russell M. Nelson made his biggest move yet Thursday when he rescinded rules banning baptisms for children of gay parents and branding same-sex couples apostates subject to excommunication. Those 2015 policies had generated widespread backlash.

He has also launched a campaign calling on people to stop using the shorthand names “Mormon” and “LDS,” severed the faith’s ties with the Boy Scouts of America after a century, shortened Sunday worship by an hour and revised a sacred temple ceremony to give women a more prominent role.

His vigor has surprised many scholars and church members who thought he would be more of a caretaker after becoming the second-oldest man to lead the faith, said Matthew Bowman, an associate professor of history at Henderson State University in Arkadelphia, Arkansas.

“He has been a more transformative president than anybody expected he would be,” Bowman said. “He has an expansive agenda.”

As members gather Saturday for a twice-annual conference in Salt Lake City, they are bracing for more changes by the former heart surgeon who leads the Utah-based faith with 16 million adherents worldwide.

“Nelson has made it appointment viewing for people,” said Brandt Malone, a church member from Detroit who hosts the Mormon News Report podcast.

President Nelson’s visibility and vibrancy set him apart from his predecessor, Thomas S. Monson, who kept a low profile and was in failing health for part of his presidency. Church presidents serve for life, and President Monson died in January 2018 after leading the faith for nearly a decade.

Since ascending to the post, President Nelson has given speeches to tens of thousands at stadiums in Seattle and Phoenix and visited 15 countries. He met with Pope Francis at the Vatican in March in what the church called the first meeting between a pope and a president of the faith.

President Nelson hasn’t altered church doctrine but has approved changes that scholars say seem designed to improve the religious experience for an increasingly global membership.

President Nelson’s energy and swift changes serve to distract members and outsiders from criticism about stagnated membership growth, crises of faith and the secondary role of women in the religion, said Patrick Mason, a religion professor at Claremont Graduate University in California.

“The best way to deal with your problems is to have a really positive, proactive agenda,” Mason said.

President Nelson’s tenure has been marked by “an unusual degree of change in an otherwise very cautious institution,” said Kathleen Flake, a professor of Mormon studies at the University of Virginia.

“He has both the confidence and the temperament to act decisively. As a surgeon, I think he’s used to taking charge,” Flake said. “But I think he’s been very clear that he would not have done any of this if he didn’t feel catalyzed by his spiritual authority.”

President Nelson has also been uncommonly open about the church’s belief that presidents are living prophets who receive revelations from God. That, too, has set him apart from most of his predecessors, scholars say.

The church said President Nelson and other leaders engaged in “fervent, united prayer to understand the will of the Lord” before reversing the LGBTQ policies. But it said the church still opposes gay marriage and considers same-sex relationships a “serious transgression.”

In explaining his decision to urge people to stop using nicknames for the faith, President Nelson said that the Lord impressed upon him the importance of the full name and that leaving it out was “a major victory for Satan.”

He then changed the name of the world-renowned Mormon Tabernacle Choir to the Tabernacle Choir at Temple Square and renamed church websites, social media accounts and employee email addresses to strip out references to the terms “Mormon” and “LDS.”

Mason said President Nelson’s embrace of revelation has energized many church members who consider the president to be a modern-day Moses or Peter.

To others, it raises eyebrows and can be seen as awkward, especially when cited in connection with something such as the church name, which seems minor to some people, Bowman said.

Malone, the church member, said that it is nice to hear a president confirm he is receiving revelation but that it limits the amount of healthy scrutiny of changes.

“It carries a lot more weight for Mormons,” Malone said. “It’s a conversation-ender for some people.”

We want to hear from you.

Have a story idea or tip? Send it to the KSL NewsRadio team here.

Today’s Top Stories


quit their jobs...
PAUL WISEMAN AP Economics Writer

US added a strong 517,000 jobs in January despite Fed hikes

The Fed is aiming to achieve a "soft landing" — a pullback in the economy that is enough to tame high inflation without triggering recession.
2 days ago
Thousands of fraudulent nursing diplomas  were dispersed in Florida. (Canva)...
Associated Press via Miami Herald

Fake nursing diploma scheme in Florida; 25 arrested

The defendants each face up to 20 years in prison.
3 days ago
Microsoft is cutting 10,000 workers, almost 5% of its workforce, in response to "macroeconomic cond...
MATT O'BRIEN, Associated Press

Job cuts in tech sector spread, Microsoft lays off 10,000

Microsoft said in a regulatory filing Wednesday that had just notified employees of the layoffs, some of which begin immediately.
18 days ago
exxon mobil sign pictured...

Study: Exxon Mobil accurately predicted warming since 1970s

Exxon said its understanding of climate change evolved over the years and that critics are misunderstanding its earlier research.
24 days ago
FILE - Protesters, supporters of Brazil's former President Jair Bolsonaro, stand on the roof of the...
The Associated Press

Brazil and Jan. 6 in US: Parallel attacks, but not identical

RIO DE JANIERO, Brazil — Enraged protesters broke into government buildings that are the very symbol of their country’s democracy. Driven by conspiracy theories about their candidate’s loss in the last election, they smashed windows, sifted through the desks of lawmakers and trashed the highest offices in the land in a rampage that lasted hours […]
26 days ago
President Joe Biden pictured...
ZEKE MILLER AP White House Correspondent

DOJ reviewing potentially classified docs at Biden center

Special counsel to the president Richard Sauber said “a small number of documents with classified markings” were discovered at the offices of the Penn Biden Center.
27 days ago

Sponsored Articles

Banner with Cervical Cancer Awareness Realistic Ribbon...
Intermountain Health

Five Common Causes of Cervical Cancer – and What You Can Do to Lower Your Risk

January is National Cervical Cancer Awareness month and cancer experts at Intermountain Health are working to educate women about cervical cancer, the tests that can warn women about potential cancer, and the importance of vaccination.
Kid holding a cisco fish at winterfest...
Bear Lake Convention and Visitors Bureau

Get Ready for Fun at the 2023 Bear Lake Monster Winterfest

The Bear Lake Monster Winterfest is an annual weekend event jam-packed full of fun activities the whole family can enjoy. This year the event will be held from January 27-29 at the Utah Bear Lake State Park Marina and Sunrise Resort and Event Center in Garden City, Utah. 
happy friends with sparklers at christmas dinner...

15 Easy Christmas Dinner Ideas

We’ve scoured the web for you and narrowed down a few of our favorite Christmas dinner ideas to make your planning easy. Choose from the dishes we’ve highlighted to plan your meal or start brainstorming your own meal plan a couple of weeks before to make sure you have time to shop and prepare.
Spicy Homemade Loaded Taters Tots...

5 Game Day Snacks for the Whole Family (with recipes!)

Try these game day snacks to make watching football at home with your family feel like a special occasion. 
Happy joyful smiling casual satisfied woman learning and communicates in sign language online using...

The Best Tools for Deaf and Hard-of-Hearing Workplace Success

Here are some of the best resources to make your workplace work better for Deaf and hard-of-hearing employees.
Team supporters celebrating at a tailgate party...

8 Delicious Tailgate Foods That Require Zero Prep Work

In a hurry? These 8 tailgate foods take zero prep work, so you can fuel up and get back to what matters most: getting hyped for your favorite
At 94, President Nelson proves himself open to change