Mormon church President Thomas S. Monson — known for private visits to the needy and public declarations of faith — dies at age 90

(Tribune file photo) President Thomas S. Monson reads a talk in 1994 by President Ezra Taft Benson when Monson was serving as second counselor in the faithÕs First Presidency.

Even as he ascended to the pinnacle of a worldwide faith, Thomas S. Monson never stopped being a Mormon bishop.

He was the same affable leader, folksy preacher and care-taking friend after becoming the LDS Church’s 16th president in 2008 as he was during his more than five decades as one of the faith’s 12 apostles.

During Monson’s nearly 10-year presidential tenure, which ended with his death Tuesday night at age 90 of causes incident to age, Mormonism faced some of the most intense public scrutiny in its history — from a divisive vote over gay marriage to high-profile Mormon candidacies for president, and a hotly debated policy for same-sex couples and their children. Still, the private prophet stayed largely behind the scenes, showing up unexpectedly at funerals, comforting the bereaved, visiting the sick and, before her death, caring for his wife, Frances.

“With tender feelings we announce that Thomas S. Monson, president and prophet of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, died this evening at 10:01 p.m. in his home in Salt Lake City,” church spokesman Eric Hawkins wrote in an email Tuesday at 11:39 p.m. “He was with family at the time of his passing.”

Explore the life of Thomas S. Monson

A public viewing is scheduled for Jan. 11 at the Conference Center in downtown Salt Lake City. The funeral will be Jan. 12 in the center followed by a private burial at the historic Salt Lake City Cemetery.

A bear-hugging kind of guy, Monson — considered a “prophet, seer and revelator” by nearly 16 million Mormons worldwide — drew heavily on his experiences of six decades earlier as a 22-year-old bishop of a needy LDS congregation (with more than 80 widows) on Salt Lake City’s west side.

“He doesn’t act as if he is an administrator who has to get through all of the issues,” Mormon apostle Neil L. Andersen told Monson biographer Heidi Swinton. “He acts more like a shepherd. That’s who he is, someone whose impact on people is more important than are his calculations or strategies for the church.”

Under Monson’s leadership, “the threefold mission of the church was modified to include a fourth element, emphasizing outreach to the poor and less fortunate,” noted Stuart Reid, a former state legislator from Ogden. “More than anything else during a lifetime of ministry, President Monson will be known for his charitable acts.”

With his inimitable style, Monson as president once told Mormons young and old all he wanted for his birthday was an act of kindness — and they gave it to him by the millions year after year.

Pamela Atkinson, an advocate for the homeless, called Monson “a great humanitarian.”

“In some of his talks I’ve heard or read, he emphasizes again and again reaching out to others,” Atkinson said in 2009, “not just to members but to every single person in need.”

Such emphasis and style came to be seen as Monson’s calling card — one identified with a time when Mormonism had fewer than a million members and an individual could phone an apostle.

The church felt comfortable in an America that was “largely white, Protestant, premised on monogamy and Victorian sexual norms,” historian Matthew Bowman said Wednesday. “It’s a world that Monson talked about, but one that no longer exists.”

Monson tried to keep it alive with his sweet-toned rhetoric and inspirational stories, even as he was instrumental in building a global faith that relied more on policies and procedures than on personal connections.

The late president was the first Mormon apostle to earn a master of business administration degree, Bowman noted, and the last one to be present when then-President Spencer W. Kimball announced an end to the church’s long-standing ban on black men being ordained to the all-male priesthood and on black women attending a Mormon temple.

The bridge to the past Monson exemplified is gone.

Conflicting causes

In some ways, Bowman said, the late Mormon prophet resembled Ronald Reagan, a figure who had a definite tone and a clear message, but who was not personally branded with the controversies that happened while he was in charge.

Monson, the historian observed on The Salt Lake Tribune’s “Mormon Land” podcast, “floated above the fray.”

That fray included questions of equality, gay rights and race.

The most significant change that Monson introduced as the top LDS leader was lowering the age of full-time missionaries, from 19 to 18 for young men and from 21 to 19 for young women. The historic October 2012 announcement shook up the social dynamic between the sexes, dramatically boosted the number of missionaries (especially among young Mormon women), altered college enrollments throughout Utah and spawned nearly 60 new missions across the globe.

Though the younger age galvanized Mormon women everywhere to sign up for missionary service, the issue of gender equality in the LDS Church continued to divide the faithful throughout the Monson era.

In spring 2013, a group of LDS believers formed Ordain Women to push for opening the faith’s priesthood to both sexes. Hundreds peacefully marched on Temple Square in Salt Lake City, asking to be seated at the church’s priesthood session of LDS General Conference. They were rebuffed.

Barely a year later, Ordain Women co-founder Kate Kelly was excommunicated from the church.

“Like nearly everything Mormon-related, I have such bittersweet feelings about the passing of President Monson. It’s strange to think that, though distant, he knew my name and he was the one who ultimately denied my excommunication appeal,” Kelly said Wednesday. “That ordeal was so incredibly painful for me on a personal level, but holding him accountable for the information that many Mormon women do want the priesthood made it worth it. The men in the highest echelons of the Mormon hierarchy could no longer pretend that all women were satisfied with their second-class status.”

At the same time, Kelly said, she has “fond memories of growing up with him as an apostle and then prophet. I remember his comical, simple stories of service.”

Under Monson, the church took steps to include women on top decision-making committees, enhanced their visibility at General Conference, added their photos to the charts of top LDS leaders and invited them to pray during the twice-yearly conferences.

Health struggles

In May 2015, the LDS Church announced that its prophet-president was "feeling the effects of advancing age,” and he began cutting back on his public appearances and addresses.

A month before, the gregarious LDS authority skipped a Salt Lake City meeting with then-President Barack Obama, saying he was preserving his energy for the General Conference due to begin the next day.

In October of that year, though, Monson called three new apostles to the faith’s Quorum of the Twelve — the first time since 1906 that body had seen so many new faces at once.

But a slow, physical decline had begun for the once-ebullient Monson, who reduced the number and length of his conference addresses.

In September 2016, the smiling but frail leader joined hundreds of dignitaries as the University of Utah named a recently renovated historic building at the former LDS Business College in his honor.

A U. alumnus, Monson did not speak at the Salt Lake City event, but, as he exited, he waved to the crowd and, in an ode to the U. fight song, said to all within earshot: “I am a Utah man, sir.”

During the April 2017 General Conference, he delivered two short sermons (announcing plans to build a handful of Mormon temples, including one in Saratoga Springs) but did not attend half the sessions.

At the time, a spokesman said Monson was “weary but well.” A day later, the aging LDS leader ended up being admitted to a hospital for a couple of nights complaining of fatigue. On his release, the church stated that he planned to “resume his normal schedule and duties.”

Those day-to-day duties did not continue for long. In May, the church announced that, due to “limitations incident to his age,” Monson no longer went to the office or attended meetings regularly but rather conferred and communicated with his counselors “as needed.”

He did not appear at any sessions of the fall 2017 General Conference — a first in his 54 years of full-time church service.

When current U.S. President Donald Trump came to Utah last month, Monson was not among the Mormon leaders to greet him.

Yet, Trump offered kind words Wednesday about the man and his legacy.

“While serving for over half a century in the leadership of his church, President Monson demonstrated wisdom, inspired leadership and great compassion,” Trump said in a statement. “ … His message was one of optimism, forgiveness and faith.”

Even during Monson’s silence in the public arena, however, his church made significant policy changes, particularly in the realm of gay rights.

In November 2015, he and other Mormon authorities unveiled a new policy labeling same-sex LDS couples “apostates” worthy of possible excommunication and generally forbidding their children from baptism and other religious rites until age 18. The edict unleashed a firestorm of criticism not only from gay-rights advocates and progressive Mormons but also from lay leaders and conservative Latter-day Saints who viewed the stance, especially with the children, as mean-spirited and un-Christlike.

For their part, church leaders called the change compassionate. D. Todd Christofferson, the first apostle appointed by Monson as president, explained in a 10-minute video interview that “it originates from a desire to protect children in their innocence and in their minority years.”

LDS leaders “don’t want the child to have to deal with issues that might arise where the parents feel one way and the expectations of the church are very different,” he said, noting that “nothing is lost to them in the end” if these children join the faith when they become adults.

Russell M. Nelson, 93 and next in line to lead the church, said in a speech in January 2016 that Monson had proclaimed the policy was “the mind of the Lord and the will of the Lord.”

A real trooper

In May 2017, the LDS Church took a major step toward ending its longtime alliance with the Boys Scouts of America by dropping the Varsity and Venturing programs for boys ages 14 to 18. The faith already had announced that it was developing its own program to serve all the faith’s young people — girls and boys — around the world.

These moves came even though Monson was a lifelong Scout. He earned Silver Beaver, Silver Buffalo, Silver Fox and Bronze Wolf honors, and a national state-of-the-art Scouting leadership complex under construction in West Virginia will bear his name. A 23,000-square-foot Scout lodge in eastern Utah’s Uinta Mountains is also named after Monson.

The Mormon president’s commitment to Scouting reflected “his views on masculinity and what men in the church should be like,” Bowman said. “The ideal Mormon man is one who would have walked across the Plains. Scouting is an attempt to offer that proxy pioneer experience.”

Monson embraced that model and desired it for other Mormon men.

All the while, racial tensions simmered beneath the surface and then erupted in the past few years.

Though the LDS Church rarely speaks out on civil rights, it did issue a stern condemnation in 2017, pointedly disavowing groups that promote white supremacy.

After citing verses from the Bible and the faith’s foundational scripture, the Book of Mormon, the church said in a statement, “White supremacist attitudes are morally wrong and sinful, and we condemn them.”

Mormons who “promote or pursue a ‘white culture’ or white supremacy agenda,” it warned, “are not in harmony with the teachings of the church.”

Black Latter-day Saints, including some Monson admirers. celebrated the forceful statement.

“Long before he was the president of the church, President Monson was everyone’s grand ol’ grandpa.” said Tamu Smith, one of the “Sistas in Zion” writers. “His stories seem to transcend time and race. He drew me in with his ability to tell a story. I was so caught up in the tale that I accidentally got taught a lesson.”

Smith, co-author with Zandra Vranes of “Diary of Two Mad Black Mormons,” felt a kinship with the man she revered as a prophet.

“His personality was much like my grandfather’s, and his teachings were fun and gentle reminders of eternal truths,” she said. “He will be remembered by me and my journal writings as the ‘no pressure prophet.’”

Extending Hinckley’s legacy

Beyond these actions and the landmark missionary-age shift, Monson extended the efforts of his immediate predecessor, Gordon B. Hinckley, building and dedicating temples, expanding the Perpetual Education Fund and Temple Patron Fund for needy members, celebrating the faith’s welfare program and continuing to promote LDS youth activities.

Hinckley was “such a towering figure,” said Bowman, who teaches at Henderson State University in Arkansas, that the charismatic Monson will be viewed as a “caretaker of Hinckley’s legacy.”

More than Hinckley, though, Monson faced a new era of doubt as Mormons, especially young people, increasingly came across troubling tidbits on the internet about their religion’s past. Partly to counter the flood of information — and sometimes misinformation — the church published online essays that confront and explain some of the stickiest theological and historical issues surrounding Mormonism, including early LDS polygamy, the faith’s former racial ban and the belief in a Heavenly Mother.

In addition, the church expanded its flagship Missionary Training Center, in Provo, and similar facilities around the globe. It unveiled new standardized interview questions for prospective missionaries, and widened temple service opportunities for older single men, recently divorced members and teenage boys and girls. It also loosened the dress code and bolstered parental leave benefits for church employees. LDS Church-owned Brigham Young University even began selling caffeinated colas on campus.

One of the most notable decisions Monson made was among his first — choosing German apostle Dieter F. Uchtdorf as his second counselor in the governing First Presidency. The charismatic Uchtdorf — dubbed the Mormon Pope Francis — represented the church at Obama’s inauguration, discussed immigration with the U.S. president at the White House and soon became the face of Mormonism in many quarters.

By choosing Uchtdorf, Monson clearly signaled his interest in making the church seem less American and more global (though the three apostles he selected in October 2015 all were white Utahns with multigenerational LDS roots). Monson maintained friendships across countries, churches, ages and political parties.

“When I look at his life, he was a member of the church everyone could relate to and everyone could feel comfortable in his presence,” Uchtdorf said in a news release.“At the same time, when he walked with kings, with prime ministers, with presidents, with representatives of nations, it was the same way. They all felt that he was their friend.”

Under his leadership, Monson directed numerous collaborations with other faiths on causes such as homeless shelters, food banks, nursing homes and disaster-relief efforts in the United States and abroad. He sent his first counselor, Henry B. Eyring, to the Vatican for an interfaith meeting on families and for a historic encounter with Pope Francis.

Monson once urged the LDS Church to give its outdated 25th Ward meetinghouse in Salt Lake City to the Salvation Army, Swinton reported, then organized members to reroof and paint the interior. The church supplied an organ, piano, pews, chairs, silverware, dishes and tables from the former Hotel Utah.

Such connections with those of others faiths were legion.

On the Saturday in April 2008, when Monson was sustained as president, Monsignor J. Terrence Fitzgerald of Salt Lake City’s Catholic Diocese took some newly ordained priests to lunch at Little America in downtown Salt Lake City. As they were eating, a hand reached over the side of the booth to tap the monsignor on the shoulder — it was Monson’s.

“My goodness, President Monson,” Fitzgerald said in amazement. “What are you doing here?”

The newly sustained church president simply grinned and exchanged pleasantries with the surprised cleric.

It’s important, Monson said the following Monday, that Mormons “eliminate the weakness of one standing alone and substitute for it the strength of people working together.”

A divided flock

Controversy during Monson’s presidency stretched beyond the faith’s policy on gays.

In his first year, the new president formed an alliance with other faiths to push California’s Proposition 8, a ballot measure defining marriage as exclusively between a man and a woman. Monson signed a letter to all California Mormons, urging them to donate time and money to the effort. Latter-day Saints overwhelmingly responded, eventually raising about $20 million and helping the measure pass. But it left many Mormons divided and alienated from their church and triggered a national backlash by gay activists, including widespread protests at LDS temples.

Eventually, the church supported trailblazing Salt Lake City laws protecting gays from housing and employment discrimination, but the scars to church unity prompted some mending. LDS leaders unveiled a mormonandgay.org website — reaching out to same-sex attracted members and their loved ones. They successfully lobbied for a landmark nondiscrimination law protecting the rights of gay and transgender individuals in housing and the workplace throughout Utah while safeguarding some religious freedoms. And this past summer, the church endorsed a rock concert in Orem to raise funds for at-risk LGBTQ youths.

Perhaps more divisive was the LDS Church’s support for undocumented immigrants.

The Utah-based faith has been baptizing such immigrants for decades, allowing them full access to the rites and responsibilities of all Mormons. During Monson’s administration, though, immigration debates erupted across the country and within the faith.

The church endorsed the so-called Utah Compact, calling for more humane immigration policies, keeping families together and finding a path to citizenship. It also supported a Utah guest-worker law that would allow undocumented immigrants to live and work in the Beehive State.

Some politically conservative members found themselves on the opposite side of their church on the issue. They asserted that the statements came from LDS public-relations personnel, not Monson, even though the church’s positions were “approved at the highest level.”

The Mormon president remained silent; the immigration battles raged on.

That happened at the same time as the LDS Church stepped into the national limelight like never before — even during the 2002 Winter Olympics in the heart of Mormondom.

Television shows such HBO’s “Big Love” and TBS’ “Sister Wives” created confusion about Mormonism and polygamy, a practice the faith abandoned more than a century ago. That was exacerbated when the offshoot Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints ran afoul of the law, and its leader, Warren Jeffs, was convicted of child sex abuse.

A Tony-winning Broadway musical, “The Book of Mormon,” mocked LDS teachings and its missionary efforts, and two members of the faith, Mitt Romney and Jon Huntsman Jr., ran for president — the former becoming the Republican nominee and then losing to Obama — while the LDS Church launched a nationwide media campaign, “I’m a Mormon,” to combat misconceptions and to say, essentially, “We are not weird.”

Neither the publicity nor the controversies seemed to touch the Mormon president, who maintained his focus on enriching members’ lives, temple-building and missionary outreach.

After all, he had years of preparation for the office.

Prophet in training

Long before he became a counselor to President Gordon B. Hinckley, Monson was well-schooled in the way of Mormon prophets and well-known to the LDS faithful.

Monson spent his entire career in the service of the LDS Church, working alongside every president since 1963, when he was named one of the 12 apostles at age 36.

Tall with a big grin, Monson was “a robust, buoyant, whirlwind of a man who might have been a superb basketball player in his youth had it not been required of him ... [to] forgo the pleasure of extracurricular school activities in order to work at his father’s side in the printing business,” fellow apostle Jeffrey R. Holland wrote in a biographical essay.

Soon after college, Monson joined the church-owned Deseret News in 1948, where he worked as an advertising executive at the Newspaper Agency Corp. Later, he became general manager of the Deseret News Press, a commercial printing firm.

At age 22, he was called as bishop of Salt Lake City’s Sixth-Seventh Ward and became noted for visiting elderly widows — a practice he never gave up.

Five years after being named a bishop, Monson became a counselor in the three-man presidency of Salt Lake City’s Temple View Stake, followed by a stint as head of the church’s Canadian Mission.

In 1963, then-President David O. McKay elevated him to the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, making him one of the youngest men in the 20th century to join that powerful body.

During the ensuing decades, Monson worked in every area of the vast LDS bureaucracy, from missionary work to welfare services, education to genealogy. He represented the church on the boards of KSL, Mountain Bell, Commercial Security Bank, Beneficial Life Insurance Co., the Boy Scouts of America and President Ronald Reagan’s Task Force for Private Sector Initiatives.

Monson often acted as a Mormon envoy, dealing with governments wary of the LDS presence in their nations and the legal tussles involved. His two decades of quiet diplomacy in Eastern Europe culminated in the announcement of an LDS temple in Freiberg, Germany, then behind the Iron Curtain.

He also took on ecumenical and welfare issues. He enjoyed regular meetings with leaders of Utah’s other faiths and developed friendships with then-Bishop George H. Niederauer and his direct predecessor in the Catholic Diocese of Salt Lake City, Bishop William K. Weigand.

Monson had an “impact on the nonmember world and especially the Catholic Church in really telling them we are Christians and want to cooperate with them,” wrote LDS general authority Gene R. Cook, as quoted by Swinton, “and yet still firmly hold to what we believe and know to be true.”

The future Mormon prophet worked hard to maintain that balance.

Steady but stern

Monson was no pushover.

During an earlier decade, when the Boy Scouts were embroiled in a lawsuit for refusing to allow gay leaders, Monson, as the church’s Scouting point man, spoke unequivocally for the organization.

He was “not shaken by the confrontations, nor did he step back when the arguments were taken to the press and bitter public attacks ensued,” Swinton writes. “His steady position ... kept the discussions focused on principles and preserved the purpose of Scouting.”

Eventually, the Boy Scouts of America opened its ranks to girls and openly gay boys. The LDS Church, the BSA’s largest sponsor, is sticking with the group for its younger boys and is keeping its current programs for girls.

The BSA also did an about-face and allowed openly gay men to serve as leaders. Gay men are allowed to serve in some Mormon leadership roles, including working with a congregation’s Scouting troop, if they do not act on their same-sex attractions.

Monson also took on the inertia of young single men. Stop dawdling and get married, he admonished young Mormon men during the April 2011 General Conference. He then directed a massive overhaul of worship services for young single adults.

Even as president, Monson continued to enjoy the occasional fishing trip with his longtime pal Jon Huntsman Sr. and remained an avid sports fan, showing up at Utah Jazz basketball games, even if, as one LDS blogger affectionately put it, he was “dressed like an undertaker.” He also visited the Utah State Fair with his daughter, checking out the pigeons.

Charming and personable, Monson emphasized the personal over the programmatic. In the 1990s, he was assigned to review the church’s new instruction manual, called “Preach My Gospel,” for use by would-be missionaries. His criticism: It needs more personal stories of faith and successful conversion.

From his earliest church service, Monson was a homespun orator known for his compassion and fondness for modern-day parables of struggle and spiritual triumph.

The veteran storyteller was also playful — in one of his sermons to young men, Monson wiggled his ears to make a point — often using irony or understatement as a punchline, or drawing on quotes from playwrights, lyricists and novelists.

The talks grew naturally from his own relationship style.

A band of brothers

As a member of the LDS First Presidency under Hinckley, Monson divided up the task of appointing new mission presidents with the other counselor, James E. Faust. Faust finished the assignment in half the time, Swinton writes, while Monson took more than an hour visiting with each couple.

“He [was] never too busy to pick up the phone to call a friend from high school who just lost her husband, never too busy to sit by the side of a friend as he passes on, never too busy to write a letter of encouragement to one of his friends with a note at the bottom, ‘It’s time to come back’ [to church activity],” Swinton writes. “President Monson is never too busy to reach out to rescue.”

He treated associates and members as treasured friends. When Holland was named an apostle, Monson, then a counselor in the First Presidency, gave the newcomer a “special flint marble” he had won in a fifth-grade marble championship. It was a cherished memento he had not even been willing to loan to friends who asked, but he willingly handed it over to his new colleague.

Among the apostles, Holland wrote, Monson was “an eager and quick learner.”

Swinton notes that he once asked Howard W. Hunter why his shoes always remained tied, when Monson’s routinely came undone as the two sat together in meetings.

Easy, replied Hunter, LDS president at the time. Hunter used a square knot, and Monson tied a granny. Hunter then reached down and tied Monson’s shoes for him, showing him how to navigate a square knot. From that day on, Monson followed Hunter’s knot-tying habit.

Then-President Spencer W. Kimball referred to Monson as “truly a ‘do it’ man,” Holland wrote. Late apostle Bruce R. McConkie called him “a genius in church government.”

The late senior apostle Boyd K. Packer, who sat at Monson’s side through their years in the Quorum of the Twelve, had said, “If I needed someone to steer a sensitive matter carefully through the councils of the church, Thomas S. Monson is the man I would pick for the task.”

Humble, happy beginnings

Monson was born Aug. 21, 1927, to G. Spencer and Gladys Condie Monson, who lived in a tiny house on Salt Lake City’s west side. The family would eventually include six children.

It was his childhood during the grips of the Depression that helped forge his twin virtues — relentless optimism and the desire to help others.

“I remember that time and time again those who were riding the rails came to our home. I think they had it marked,” Monson told The Tribune in 1998. “I can see [a hobo] now, holding his cap in his hand. He asks, ‘Is there something I can do to earn a sandwich?’ My mother would say, ‘You come right in and sit down; wash your hands over there in the sink.’ And then she’d make a sandwich.”

Monson would never say, however, that he suffered great deprivations, but rather that he enjoyed the typical pleasures of youth, including sports, fishing, hiking, reading, pranks and pets.

During his first year at the University of Utah in 1944, the loquacious and charming Monson met Frances Beverly Johnson, a slender beauty who loved big bands and the outdoors. He was smitten.

It was during World War II that Frances told the future LDS leader, “You are tall and skinny, and I think you’d look better in a Navy uniform.”

So he promptly enlisted in the Naval Reserve.

After a couple of years, he was back at the U., where he graduated with honors in 1948 with a business degree. That same year, on Oct. 7, he married Johnson in the Salt Lake LDS Temple. They had three children and eight grandchildren.

Throughout his church career, Monson never neglected his family members, daughter Ann Dibb told The Tribune in 2008. But he did keep them waiting.

He was the last one out at church every week, had to shake every hand and greet every missionary. Once, he went to Primary Children’s Hospital to give a blessing to one child, Dibb said, and ended up visiting nearly every sickbed on the floor.

Sometime in the mid-2000s, Frances Monson fell and hit her head. She was in a coma for three weeks. Monson moved his office to the hospital so he could keep up with his work. He never left her side as she recovered. She died in May 2013.

“His life seems something of a sacred manuscript upon which the Holy Ghost has written ... ” Holland wrote, “one remarkable message after another.”

Editor’s note • Paul Huntsman, owner and publisher of The Salt Lake Tribune, is a son of Jon Huntsman Sr. and a brother of Jon Huntsman Jr.