By any measure, Russell M. Nelson’s first five years as prophet-president of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has been historic.
A former heart surgeon, Nelson was ordained Jan. 14, 2018, at age 93 as the 17th president of the Utah-based faith, and surprised everyone by directing and announcing changes to the international organization at a pace rarely seen since the church was created in a modest cabin in 1830.
Sunday services shortened. Men’s priesthood quorums merged. Home and visiting teaching dropped. “Ministering” enacted. Weekly missionary calls home adopted. A hotly disputed LGBTQ policy (deeming same-sex couples “apostates” and barring their children from baptism) dumped. An alliance with the NAACP formed. Centurylong ties with the Boy Scouts severed. Temple ceremonies modified. The “Mormon” nickname shelved.
As the nonagenarian Nelson — the second oldest man to ascend to the church’s top post and now, at 98, the oldest ever to hold it — galloped across the globe and into members’ hearts, many in the nearly 17 million-member faith embraced the revisions.
“Eat your vitamin pills. Get some rest,” Nelson promised the faithful. “It’s going to be exciting.”
It felt like a new energy drink had awakened a staid and sleepy church.
Barely two years into Nelson’s presidency, though, came a nearly unprecedented global pandemic. Temples and chapels were shuttered. General Conferences were beamed virtually, even as more and more new temples were announced.
With a “home centered-church supported” slogan and the unveiling of an individualized way to study scriptures (the “Come, Follow Me” curriculum), Nelson seemed to anticipate the isolation. He signaled a desire to push members toward more individual righteousness, more reliance on personal revelation, more temple worship, and more responsibility on mostly nuclear families.
To many, he seemed, well, prophetic.
“He set out to bring the church into a new era,” says Marcus H. Martins, a sociologist and former dean of religious education at Brigham Young University-Hawaii, by being “more focused in teachings and practice on its foundation in the gospel of Jesus Christ.”
The church now is “less concerned with cultural uniformity internationally,” says Martins, a Brazilian and the first Black missionary after the faith’s priesthood/temple ban ended in 1978. “It is increasingly more inclusive toward women and minorities, and increasingly more mindful to LGBTQ members’ needs.”
Many Latter-day Saints have loved the reforms, but others are less enthusiastic. They mourn what they see as a loss of community, especially for single members, a failure of the new youth programs, a dumbing down of scripture study, whiplash on women’s issues, the end of “live” temple ceremonies, gutting of the Salt Lake Temple and a shift away from the once-heralded “Mormon” identity.
No one, however, can deny Nelson’s vigor.
“It’s clear that the church craves dynamic leadership,” says Patrick Mason, head of Mormon history and culture at Utah State University, “and has gotten it with President Nelson.”
Race and vaccines
A central part of Nelson’s legacy “will be the ways that he personally stepped into some of the biggest debates of our time,” Mason says, “specifically on racial justice and the global pandemic.”
Unlike any of his predecessors, Nelson has spoken repeatedly about the problems of racism in the country and in the church from its most prominent platform: General Conference.
He reached out to the NAACP and put the church’s money where his mouth was, dedicating millions to programs for Blacks in this country as well as helping set up a fund to send young Black Americans to Ghana to learn about the former slave trade.
“As the mantle of leadership settled up on his shoulders, President Nelson provided a steady, responsive hand, addressing racism directly, in a way no previous church leader had,” says Darius Gray, one of the founders of Genesis, a support group for Black Latter-day Saints. “There has been no equivocation, no hesitation speaking to the scourge of racism as servants of Christ.”
As a physician and man of science, Nelson also set an example for members during the pandemic by modeling, heeding and heralding international health guidelines like wearing masks and getting vaccinated.
“I personally give him high marks on both fronts … because I happen to agree with the positions he has taken,” Mason says. “But the fact is that he has not been able to bring the church along with him. If you ask most members about President Nelson’s teachings, very few will mention his anti-racism teachings.”
And his position on masks and vaccines “led to a backlash from far-right members,” he says, “while not scoring him enough points with progressives to counterbalance the church’s continued rejection of same-sex marriage and full LGBTQ acceptance.”
Speaking of LGBTQ issues, in the waning years of his presidential predecessor, Thomas S. Monson, Nelson defended the church’s 2015 policy labeling LGBTQ couples “apostates,” calling it the “will of the Lord.”
Three years later, as president, Nelson rescinded that policy, citing “continuing revelation” from on high.
In November, the church stunned many insider and outsiders by endorsing the recently enacted federal Respect for Marriage Act, which codified same-sex marriage while providing religious exemptions.
Nelson has been “anything but the caretaker president I predicted,” Mason says. “It’s not clear to me that the church is in a demonstrably stronger position than it was five years ago. I don’t think that’s President Nelson’s fault. He has been remarkable. It’s only to say that we can’t simply define movements by their leaders.”
‘A metaphor for health’
Latter-day Saint author and editor Rachel Rueckert heard Nelson’s “take your vitamins” comment less as a call to action, than as a “metaphor for health.”
Is the church “healthier now, five years later?” wonders Rueckert, editor-in-chief of Exponent II and author of “East Winds:A Global Quest to Reckon With Marriage.”
To Springville resident Frank Staheli, the answer is a resounding yes. Nelson has led the church in a more Christlike direction, Staheli writes on Facebook.
More temples means it is not only “easier for members of the church to attend temples and learn about returning to the presence of God,” he notes, “but also to provide a needed proxy service for those who died without receiving these ordinances.”
Reducing time in Sunday meetings gives members “more time in their homes studying the gospel as families,” Staheli explains, and moving from home teaching to ministering teaches members “to care for each other” and helps them shed guilt for not teaching “a gospel lesson” to those they serve.
In the end, he believes, these are new ways to “find great joy, growth and maturity as we take responsibility for our own gospel learning.”
Nelson’s initiatives are working in her Virginia congregation, too, Becky Reid Linford, states in another Facebook post.
“Ministering is popular, the two-hour schedule is great, the Young Women have the best and brightest young married women as leaders,” Linford writes, “and personally I was pleased that Nelson’s medical background seemed to align with the [Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s] safety protocols regarding church services.”
Real gains, real losses
From Rueckert’s vantage, Nelson’s efforts carry positives and negatives.
“With change, there is usually a real cost as well as something to be gained, depending on the perspective,” she says. “For example, I see a real loss in accountability from the shift away from visiting teaching but, at the same time, I see more innovative approaches in my own community about ministering as pods rather than awkward one-on-one encounters.”
Rueckert sees real loss when it comes to “teaching/discussion opportunities by taking away an hour of church,” she says, “but I also see more efforts to support home-centered learning and — as someone with social anxiety — I admit that Sundays are easier for me now.”
There also is loss with “what happened to the Salt Lake Temple in an attempt to modernize things,” the writer says, “but I also see — in the flurry of temples being announced — the people I have spent time with in other countries (such as India, where folks once had to travel as far as Hong Kong to do temple work), and how much they will appreciate this even if I have concerns.”
To others, some changes have been detrimental.
“The original church offer of [founder] Joseph Smith was a ‘Zion Society,’ where everyone gathers and supports each other and such,” says Matthew Hosford, a former bishop who now attends church in Hong Kong. Those in the international church “are precisely the ones that need that gathering.”
In Utah, where the church is dominant, members “might gather a bit less frequently so it gives them time to be more neighborly or write in their journals or whatever,” Hosford says. “But 100 or so members in some second-tier city in China (6 million to 7 million residents) need the fellowship of gathering and breaking bread and bearing one another up.”
Indeed, some say, even some in the American’s West’s so-called Mormon Belt miss the community feeling they once had.
More preaching, less fun
Many members say they miss the “fun” parts of the faith — the pageants, the temple celebrations, the Boy Scouts, the roadshows, the basketball tournaments.
To some Latter-day Saints, their congregation has become just people they see at church, rather than an extended family.
Mason, the USU historian, especially bemoans the absence of “casual conversations that used to happen in [church] hallways.”
Now attendees “rush from sacrament meeting to their one class, and then go straight home, without much lingering and talking,” Mason says. “That may be different in different congregations, so I would hesitate to argue for any kind of general trend. But ‘hall church,’ as much as local leaders often tried to clamp down on it, was one of the great community-building aspects of the three-hour block.”
He also sees the new “ministering” program as “a step backward from home and visiting teaching.”
The change is “based on solid principles, but most people don’t live according to their own best ideals, so there’s something to be said for duty, clear expectations and formal guidelines,” Mason says. “A duty-bound monthly visit is more likely to produce a real relationship over time than an occasional ‘how are you’ by text.”
At the same time, the youth programs have been “deprogrammed,” allowing the teens themselves to plan activities and set their own goals.
“I like the recognition that there is more to human flourishing than just spiritual indoctrination,” the scholar says. “But the lack of a program means that you’re relying on the leadership skills and energy level of the adult youth leaders in the ward, because teenagers simply don’t have the capacity to run their own program week in and week out.”
Jenny Smith, a Latter-day Saint in Stafford, Va., has seen “some baby steps forward but also many unforced errors.”
“My children, who have far less church experience, see only backwards movement and no benefits to church participation as young adults,” Smith writes on social media. “Like most their age, they’re leaving.”
She worries that “this graying of Mormon pews might be what Nelson is remembered for.”
Even so, Smith remains optimistic.
“I hope that we are clearing the plate for something new (the old systems no longer serve us),” she writes, “but I don’t see movement that way myself.”
What about women?
From the outset, Nelson assured women that they matter to him.
“We need your strength, your conversion, your conviction, your ability to lead, your wisdom and your voices,” he said in a 2018 sermon. “We simply cannot gather Israel without you.”
But women have seen “only breadcrumbs under his leadership,” says Susan Hinckley, co-podcaster of “At Last She Said It.” “We can witness baptisms, check temple recommends at the desk, and be stake auditors, for instance. These kinds of changes matter, and I celebrate them, but I haven’t seen changes that I feel might help keep today’s young women in the church.”
For example, there aren’t more women speaking in General Conference, Hinckley notes, “and women don’t take any larger role in weekly sacrament meetings.”
It’s going to require “bigger changes for our daughters’ church experiences to align with their opportunities in other settings,” she reasons. “And from what I am hearing from young mothers, young Latter-day Saint girls are beginning to ask why.”
Hinckley is “still hoping for more from President Nelson, and also from whoever comes into leadership next,” she says. “If our voices matter, we need more ways to use them.”
Moving responsibility for scripture study to families and individuals and reducing the time in religious classes suggest the church is backing away from “substantive engagement with the scriptures,” says Latter-day Saint scholar Michael Ing, who teaches religious studies at Indiana University.
“We’re living in a time where you can literally look at an original version of a revelation on your phone, click links to biographies about people involved in a revelation, read essays on the historical context, take a virtual tour through a church site, etc., but I imagine only a fraction of members actually even read the manual regularly, and only a fraction of a fraction ever make it to those resources,” Ing writes in an email. “This, to me, is a good snapshot of the problem. We’ve committed to what the leadership thinks will create more active members of the church rather than committing to what makes us who we are — a shared history rooted in a sacred canon. Instead of this history being put front and center, it becomes a footnote to ‘record your impressions,’ which is literally how every ‘Come, Follow Me’ lesson starts.”
Historian Thomas Alexander, professor emeritus at church-owned BYU, also notes a decline in members’ understanding of scripture.
“I would like to go to Sunday school every week instead of twice a month,” says Alexander, author of “Things in Heaven and Earth: The Life and Times of Wilford Woodruff.” “I grew up in a home with a father who was not active in the church. We did not have any teaching of the gospel in our home. I wonder how the current emphasis on teaching in the home affects families like mine today where gospel teaching in church is deemphasized.”
And, by its own admission, more than half the faith’s adult members are single or in part-member families. How can home study replace learning together?
The end of ‘Mormonism’?
When Nelson announced that continuing to use the “Mormon” term was a “major victory for Satan,” critics mocked him, joking that the prophet himself was now a “former Mormon.”
Though the most of the faithful try valiantly to use the full name of the church, or Latter-day Saints when referring to members, it remains a hard sell with scholars, politicians, journalists, even worldwide members.
Members in Russia are uncomfortable calling themselves “Saints,” and others, like retired BYU professor Wilfried Decoo in Belgium, complain that avoiding the Mormon moniker “disrupts easy communication with outsiders and makes it challenging for outsiders to write about the church.”
This edict “does not have nearly the same sway outside the U.S. as inside,” Hosford says, “so ‘Mormon’ in English and other languages is still commonly used.”
Still, Nelson may have an even more ambitious aim — to mold the nearly 200-year-old faith known as Mormonism into something new, something fresh, something that may emerge long after he is gone.
Martins, for one, sees more evolution in the institution.
“His leadership has opened the door,” the sociologist says, “for many additional changes to enter the realm of possibility.”
The current president also keeps hinting that end times are near. Nelson employed “a bold and overtly prophetic, perhaps even ‘apocalyptic’ rhetoric,” Martins says, “when less than one year into his administration he said: ‘Time is running out.’”
Or, at the end of 2022, when Nelson declared: “In coming days, we will see the greatest manifestations of the Savior’s power that the world has ever seen.”
As he approaches the century mark, the Latter-day Saint leader may live to see such manifestations or to lead the faithful as they watch and wait.
The president’s conviction that Christ is returning soon may have driven his first five years, Mason says in The Salt Lake Tribune’s latest “Mormon Land” podcast, and could help explain all the temple building.
“He feels a sense of urgency,” the historian says, “... that Jesus is coming, and we have work to do.”
Nelson is “putting ‘latter days,’” Mason says, “back in the Latter-day Saints.”
Emphasis on the “latter.”