Buddhism declares that change is a constant in life and Mormonism preaches the necessity of continuing revelation, but in recent years neither notion seemed obvious in the LDS Church — change came rarely and slowly — until now.
Russell M. Nelson’s first 20 months at the helm of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints brought a wave of adjustments that departed from what the faithful had come to expect from their aged presidents, especially not one of the oldest to ever ascend to the vaulted position.
It could be that the prophet-president just turned 95 — though he appears to be a walking advertisement for healthy living — and the ever-ticking clock is pushing him toward speed.
It might also reflect the man’s training and temperament. Nelson was, after all, a heart surgeon, which requires quick thinking, steady reasoning and confident life-and-death movements.
Last year, his wife, Wendy Watson Nelson, said her husband had been itching to take action long before he took the church’s reins.
“It is as though he’s been unleashed,” she said in an official church video. “He’s free to finally do what he came to earth to do. … He’s free to follow through with things he’s been concerned about but could never do. Now that he’s president of [the church], he can do those things.”
Nelson himself alerted members to expect more of the unexpected.
“If you think the church has been fully restored, you’re just seeing the beginning,” he said in a church video last fall. “There is much more to come. … Wait till next year. And then the next year. Eat your vitamin pills. Get your rest. It’s going to be exciting.”
Many of the institutional revisions had been discussed and debated for years — the move to shorter Sunday worship services was a persistent rumor — but it was Nelson who pulled the trigger.
By the time he was sustained as the faith’s 17th president at the spring 2018 General Conference, it was clear that a new day had dawned. Even the schedule for that meeting was not what it had been for decades. Routines were revised, elements added, specific topics assigned. Nelson was off and running — and surprising.
At this point, the stream of reforms, revisions and rescissions has become so relentless that members are buckling down just to try to keep up. A new kind of energy about what’s next seems to feed their every conversation. The reality of change has sunk in, even become expected.
It is as-yet unclear what these moves say about the man’s overall priorities or what they portend for the faith’s future. But it may at least be time to call Nelson “an activist.”
For much of recent Latter-day Saint history, most significant alterations in policy or practice have been announced at one of the semiannual General Conferences held each spring and fall.
Nelson certainly has continued, if not amplified, that tradition, turning the gatherings into must-see TV for members. But he also has rolled out meaningful modifications with little to no regard for the calendar. Here are some samples:
• October 2018 — Cut the three-hour Sunday block to two hours.
• January 2019 — Revised temple ceremonies, increasing gender equity.
• February 2019 — Allowed missionaries to call home weekly instead of twice a year.
• April 2019 — Rescinded the controversial LGBTQ exclusion policy.
Of these, many observers agree the most distinctive and important ones were the move toward greater gender equity in the temple, the push to eschew “Mormon” and the about-face on the divisive LGBTQ policy.
The latter was extraordinarily speedy, says historian Claudia Bushman, a sign of Nelson’s “velocity.”
“I am not aware of rescinding anything [that prominent] in the past, at least not in a few years,” says Bushman, who lives in New York with her husband, Joseph Smith biographer Richard Bushman.
She wonders if some of Nelson’s impetus comes from “his unusual route to the top of the church.”
Many Latter-day Saint leaders come from the ranks of church employees and spend years working inside the institution, she notes, while Nelson was moved up to an apostle just as his medical career was winding down.
“He had different training for church service and didn’t serve a mission,” says Claudia Bushman, who added that she and her husband have been friends with Nelson for more than six decades and watched his rise with awe.
Richard Bushman says Nelson was in the Big Apple just before he became president, talking to young adults.
“There is something almost childlike and sweet in his remarks,” the historian says. “He tells humble stories about his life as an effort to be human and not so remote.”
Nelson is a “fairly stern person who can lay down the law,” Richard Bushman says, “but that is balanced by this kindness.”
Building a world religion
All Nelson’s travels — he’s visited every continent save Antarctica as president — have signaled his desire to walk among and greet far-flung members, says Ross Trewhella, a lay bishop in England.
“As a global faith, it’s important that church leaders are seen among the members more than just twice a year at General Conference,” Trewhella says. “The fact that President Nelson is doing it with the energy of somebody a third his age is inspiring.”
For the British bishop, Nelson’s main messages have been “an increasing emphasis in having faith in Jesus Christ and giving more opportunities for church members to receive personal revelation.”
While those clearly have been the priorities, he says, Nelson “has removed some of the cultural inertia that has been in place.”
As an example, Trewhella cites the move to “ministering” from prescribed “home teaching” — monthly member-to-member visits — as “compelling many to properly focus on looking after their fellow members rather than an end-of-the-month [checklist] exercise.”
James Jones, a black musician in Boston, grew up as a Latter-day Saint during the presidency of Gordon B. Hinckley (1995-2008) and served a two-year mission to South Africa during Thomas S. Monson’s tenure (2008-2018).
“I was used to everything being the same as before,” says the 31-year-old Jones. “I didn’t anticipate President Nelson doing so many things so quickly. I have seen more changes in the past 18 months than I had ever seen in my whole life.”
Like Trewhella, Jones views Nelson’s travels as promoting a global faith. “He sees members in all their different circumstances,” Jones says, “and that everybody matters.”
Of all Nelson’s acts, the one that stands out for Jones is the president’s outreach to the NAACP, which began in May 2018 and culminated with his speech this summer to the annual convention of the nation’s oldest civil rights organization.
The Latter-day Saint leader is telling members to “be more effective ministers to the black members we have,” says Jones, who co-hosts the “Beyond The Block” podcast on Mormonism, “and be better missionaries to black people when we bring them in.”
As a result, Jones says, he is “seeing a greater relationship” between church members and the black community.
Conservative or progressive?
It’s hard to pinpoint exactly where to place Nelson on the question of preserving orthodoxy or pushing into bold, new territory.
“What has surprised me is that I have always thought of him as among the conservative brethren, who didn’t want to step outside the typical bounds of protocol,” Richard Bushman says. “But he has been approving changes that might have taken years under someone else.”
Some of the measures promoted gender equality and others addressed sexual orientation.
Rescinding the ban on baptisms of children of gay parents was widely considered a win for LGBTQ members, one that few anticipated so quickly. At the same time, though, Nelson has steadfastly supported the church’s opposition to same-sex marriage.
It is difficult to find “a consistent pattern in the shifts,” says Laurie Maffly-Kipp, a religion professor at Washington University in St. Louis and the author of the forthcoming “Making Zion: A Global History of Mormonism.”
Some of them seem like “practical accommodations that reflect generational shifts and grassroots pressures,” she writes in an email.
Such accommodations include “more emphasis on online teaching, transition to a two-hour block in favor of more home instruction, letting missionaries call home weekly, allowing female missionaries to wear pants, a new seminary curriculum and LDS history [the multivolume “Saints”] that presents more forthcoming versions of church teachings and history. And there has been clear concern about disaffiliation by younger church members, particularly women.”
Many of these changes, says Maffly-Kipp, who is not a Latter-day Saint, appear to be “responding to contemporary needs in a more transparent way.”
At the same time, some mandates did not spring from the rank and file. The insistence to drop “Mormon,” she says, “is probably the best example of this.”
Erasing the Mormon moniker, for many, “has been perceived as a needless and legalistic shift that goes against much of the most visible institutional branding of the last 20 years and forces a lot of bureaucratic busywork,” Maffly-Kipp says. “I believe that many are also aware that, from the outside, it looks like an arbitrary and illogical gesture that confirms outsiders’ sense that church members simply ‘follow the prophet’ in all things, no matter how nonsensical.”
So Nelson’s initiatives are not easily categorized as “conservative” or “progressive,” she says. “In this sense, his presidency is reminding me of that of Gordon B. Hinckley — lots of public outreach and international visibility, a sense of leading changes that respond to current social realities and needs but, at the same time, a commitment to certain foundational principles.”
Just as the affable Hinckley “opened up the church in all sorts of ways,” Maffly-Kipps says, “he also pronounced the Proclamation on the Family — a document that seemed to many only to cement a very regressive view of gender roles that was out of touch with women of the 1990s.”
Matt Bowman, head of Mormon studies at Claremont Graduate University in Southern California, also sees parallels between Hinckley and Nelson.
The right way to think about Nelson “is less as a break from the past than a consummation of it,” says Bowman, author of “The Mormon People: The Making of an American Faith.” “The changes he’s implemented or approved are rarely out of the blue but rather the logical result of the direction the church in particular and religion in the modern West have been going for the past few decades.”
Nelson comes to the fore at a time the world is “grappling with the fragmentation of institutionalized religion (not religion in total; just institutional churches), the continuing pressures of a society that values religious diversity; the shifting of the vital center of modern Christianity from the Euro-American West to the global South,” he says. “Nelson certainly deserves credit for his decisiveness, but some of these changes, I think, have been brought on by the need for greater decentralization evident for quite a while.”
In that sense, his presidency might end up comparable to that of Hinckley, Bowman says, “one in which the church took decided steps toward accommodating to modernity and finding a place for itself in a rapidly diversifying, globalizing and culturally deinstitutionalizing Western world.”
‘Right prophet for our time’
Latter-day Saints believe that each church president emerges on the scene with a personality and skills to match the day’s needs.
Susan M. Hinckley, an artist and writer in Phoenix, has come to see that Nelson might be “the right prophet for our time,” she writes in an email, despite her “inability to understand many of his choices in message and focus.”
In less than two years, he has “ushered in an era where change is not only accepted but anticipated and welcomed,” Hinckley says. “This is important, because we had become completely change averse. Nothing had appreciably changed in decades. Even our smallest policies and practices had become mired in a bizarre perception of being somehow God’s will or way.”
The writer expects “big, BIG changes” in the future, she says. “It’s not if; it’s when.”
To pave the way, Latter-day Saints and their leaders “needed desperately to learn to accept and expect change,” Hinckley says. “We needed to be reminded that continuing revelation might actually mean just that.”
Buddhists would agree.