Two weeks after the death of leader Thomas S. Monson, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has a new president.
93-year old Russell M. Nelson will take the helm as the 17th president of the Church, LDS leaders announced via live broadcast Tuesday. Nelson’s “setting apart” was no surprise—the LDS Church operates according to a fairly predictable hierarchy, and as first counselor to President Monson, Nelson was expected to take his place.
In a live broadcast available to the public, Nelson accepted his call and named Dallin H. Oaks and Henry B. Eyring as his first and second counselors.
“I declare my devotion to God our Eternal Father, and to his son, Jesus Christ,” Nelson said. “I know them, love them, and pledge to serve them—and you—with every remaining breath of my life.”
At 93 years old, Nelson is the second-oldest president to be set apart in LDS Church history. Nevertheless, many Mormons anticipate that Nelson will bring renewed energy to the position.
“It will be a different experience for many Latter-day Saints to have a president whose health and inclination predispose him to action and comment,” Mormon historian Matthew Bowman told The Salt Lake Tribune.
The nonagenarian skill snow skis, helps his neighbors with yard work, and sends handwritten birthday cards to each of his 57 grandchildren and 116 great-grandchildren—two of whom were born just this month. Having graduated from medical school at age 22, Nelson pioneered an artificial heart-lung machine and performed the first open-heart surgery in the state of Utah. Nelson is also a Korean War veteran and is fluent in Mandarin.
As the new figurehead of the 16 million-strong Church, Nelson will have to reckon with shifts in both the composition of the worldwide LDS Church and in cultural priorities. Church membership continues to grow in Africa and China, while numbers have stagnated in the United States and Latin America.
Mormon studies professor Melissa Inouye told The Salt Lake Tribune that the Church will have to think strategically about its future directions in light of its global reach.
“We build Utah-style buildings with basketball courts and big parking lots in African towns, where people play soccer and don’t own cars,” Inouye said. “We have allowed American politics and culture wars to dictate the agenda for the global membership residing in over 100 countries with their own distinctive, pressing political and cultural issues.”
Among American Mormons, however, questions around gender, race, and sexuality continue to hold salience for the Church, which has lost members over its continuing stance against ordaining women and new exclusionary policies regarding LGBT people in the Church.
While former president Thomas S. Monson had a reputation for “floating above the fray” of controversy, Nelson has more directly engaged with cultural questions in the past. When the Church instituted new guidelines that excluded the children of same-sex parents from participating in the Church sacraments, Nelson characterized the change as a revelation from God.
When asked about how the Church will handle LGBT issues, Russell delivered a status-quo answer, saying, “God loves his children and wants them to have joy,” but noting that some have “challenges with the commandments of God.”
Russell was similarly circumspect regarding questions about increasing diversity in the top levels of Church hierarchy, every position of which is currently filled by a white, American man. Asked about plans to increase representation of women in Church leadership, Russell responded, “I love ‘em. I have a special place in my heart about the women,” but failed to follow up with any specific plans regarding women in leadership.
Russell’s first counselor, Dallin Oaks, noted that he tries to dissuade fellow Mormons from thinking about diversity in leadership in terms of gender and race.
“It’s dangerous to label [oneself] as of a particular nationality, geographic origin, ethnic circumstance or whatever it may be, because the most important thing about us is that we are all children of God,” Oaks said during Tuesday’s press conference. “If we keep that in mind, we’re better suited to relate to one another and to avoid a kind of quota system, as if God applied his blessing and extended his goodness and love on the basis of quotas that I think he does not recognize. So we shouldn’t.”
Nelson responded that the Church’s top quorums of 12 and 70 are chosen by God, and thus questions of diversity are secondary to God’s will.
“We are white and we are American,” Nelson said. “Somebody’s going to be left out but it doesn’t matter because the Lord’s in charge, and we’ll live to see the day when there will be other flavors in the mix. But we respond because we’ve been called by the Lord. Not one of us asked to be here.”
For Nelson, one of the most pressing issues facing the Church is the number of members who have either officially resigned or drifted away from active participation.
“Whatever your concerns, whatever your challenges, there’s a place for you, Nelson said Tuesday. “Return to the covenant path.”
--by Caroline Matas