The president of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has generated buzz in his first year by becoming one of the most visible, active and decisive presidents in modern church history and implementing a number of big changes, including repealing rules directed at same-sex couples and their children.
Russell M. Nelson’s uncommon openness about the church’s belief that presidents are living prophets who receive revelations from God also has set him apart from most of his predecessors, scholars say.
Nelson, 94, made his biggest move yet Thursday by ending a ban on baptisms for children of gay parents and saying same-sex couples would no longer be labeled as sinners eligible for expulsion. Those 2015 policies had generated widespread backlash.
He also has 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, revised how leaders handle closed-door interviews with youth and changed rules to allow missionaries to speak with their families more often.
His vigor has surprised many scholars and church members who expected him to be more of a caretaker president 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.
Nelson’s visibility and vibrancy contrasts with his predecessor, Thomas S. Monson, who kept a low profile and dealt with failing health for part of his presidency. Church presidents serve for life, and Monson died in January 2018 after leading for nearly a decade.
Since ascending to the post, 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.
Nelson hasn’t altered church doctrine but has green-lighted changes that scholars say seem designed to improve the religious experience for an increasingly global membership.
He shortened Sunday worship by one hour and shifted the emphasis to home-based worship. He also has revised a sacred temple ceremony to give women a more prominent role.
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 who studies the faith at Claremont Graduate University in California.
“The best way to deal with your problems is to have a really positive, proactive agenda,” Mason said.
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.
She believes many of the changes were considered by past presidents and studied by a governing body called the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, of which Nelson was a member.
“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.”
Nelson’s comfort with publicly discussing how revelations from God influence his decisions differs from his predecessors, who weren’t as open despite the church’s belief that presidents are “prophets, seers and revelators.”
The church said Nelson and other leaders engaged in “fervent, united prayer to understand the will of the Lord” before reversing the LGBTQ polices Thursday. But it said it still opposed gay marriage and considers same-sex relationships to be a “serious transgression.”
In explaining his decision to urge people to stop using nicknames for the faith, Nelson said the Lord impressed upon him the importance of the full name and that removing it from titles is “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 Mormon and LDS.
Mason said 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 for something such as the church name, which seems minor to some people, Bowman said.
Malone, the church member, said it’s nice to hear a president confirm he’s 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.”