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After The Death Of The Mormon Church's President, What's Next For The Church?


Thomas Monson, the president of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, the Mormon church, died this past Tuesday. He spent nearly a decade at the helm of the 16 million member church. Now, per church tradition, 93-year-old Russell Nelson will fill the vacancy. But we were wondering what this change could mean for the church, and could it signal any shifts in church policy? We called Matthew Bowman to talk about that. He's Professor of History at Henderson State University and author of "The Mormon People: The Making Of An American Faith." He was kind enough to join us in our studios in Washington, D.C. Professor Bowman, thanks so much for joining us.

MATTHEW BOWMAN: Thank you for having me.

MARTIN: First of all, would you just tell us about the office itself? I mean, the president also has another title, which I'm going to ask you to tell us what it means.

BOWMAN: Sure. So his official title is president of the churches of Christ of Latter Day Saints or presiding high priest of the priesthood of the church, but he's also sustained by the membership of the church as a prophet. That is somebody whom God will speak to. That is not actually an ecclesiastical office. He is not ordained to that office the same way, say, the pope is. But it is an office and he is accepted by the members of the church's holding.

MARTIN: Well, could you tell us a bit more about what distinguished Thomas Monson's tenure? And is there some way you could point to that Russell Nelson might either continue it or change it?

BOWMAN: Sure. Thomas Monson was president of the church for nearly 10 years, but he had been in church leadership as an apostle for 50 years before that. He was known for a long, long time as someone who really emphasized the importance of service. It's under his tenure, for instance, the church led in a massive effort to aid refugees from Syria. He added care for the poor and needy to the official mission of the church as something that should be done.

His tenure has also, though - was also very marked by disputes in the church, especially over issues of gender. One of the first things that happened after he became president of the church was that the church got involved in California's Proposition 8 in an effort to make same-sex marriage illegal in California. Since then, there have been other such disputes, especially over women's issues as well.

MARTIN: But isn't it also true that under his leadership the age that women could go on mission was lowered to 19, I believe?


MARTIN: And that is what allows more women to go on mission. Isn't that - was that seen as a liberal move?

BOWMAN: Yes, absolutely. Well, and one that will probably bring more women involved into church leadership.

MARTIN: So tell us about the expected new president, Russell Nelson.

BOWMAN: Nelson interred church leadership relatively late. He was a heart surgeon before he joined the highest ranks of church leadership. Nelson has recently given talks in the church's conference encouraging women to get more involved in the church, encouraging male leaders to listen more to women. But he also recently spoke out in defense of a policy enacted in November of 2015 in which the church made up policy that same-sex couples who got married would be excommunicated and their children cannot be baptized until age 18, until they were legally and adults. Nelson has been the most visible defender of that policy.

MARTIN: So are there specific things, specific to the Mormon church, that he's got to confront?

BOWMAN: Sure. Well, one that we haven't mentioned yet is the continued transformation of the church. The majority of Mormons actually do not live in the United States. Some live outside the United States, predominantly in Latin America and in Africa. Activity rates, participation in the church in those areas has been rather low. And there are a lot of reasons for that, but one commonly assumed is that the culture of the church, the policies of the church are very much marked by the American West and the culture of kind of the middle class in the United States. And one thing that Nelson will have to do is to think harder about that.

MARTIN: That's Matthew Bowman. He's a professor of history at Henderson State University. Professor Bowman, thank you so much for speaking to us.

BOWMAN: Thank you for having me.

(SOUNDBITE OF EXPLOSIONS IN THE SKY'S "POSTCARD FROM 1952") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.