New Mormon leader Russell Nelson pledges to serve God until his last breath, shuffles leadership by replacing Dieter Uchtdorf

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Russell M. Nelson addresses members of the LDS church, Tuesday January 16, 2018. Nelson was named the 17th president of the nearly 16 million-member Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

Three men sat behind a table in the LDS Church Office Building lobby in downtown Salt Lake City on Tuesday, taking turns fielding questions from reporters, building on one another’s comments and shooting their colleagues smiles of approval.

The man in the middle was 93-year-old Russell M. Nelson, who was ordained and set apart two days earlier in the Salt Lake LDS Temple as the 17th president of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

On his right: Dallin H. Oaks, 85, next in line for leadership of the faith and tapped to be the first counselor in the new governing First Presidency. On his left: Henry B. Eyring, 84, who previously was the first counselor and is now Nelson’s second counselor.

“This is [Christ’s] church and we are his servants,” Nelson declared, adding that his dedication was to God and Jesus. “I know them, love them and pledge to serve them and you with every remaining breath of my life.”

The process of Mormon succession from Thomas S. Monson, who died Jan. 2 at 90, to Nelson was predictable, following a pattern set more than 170 years ago.

What was noteworthy at the news conference, however, was the fact that all three men responded to questions rather than just the “prophet, seer and revelator” at the top.

The mutual affection and rapport, especially between Nelson and Oaks, was palpable.

Oaks appeared utterly at ease as Nelson’s right-hand man. The former Utah Supreme Court justice leaned forward in his chair and quickly added his voice to Nelson’s on nearly every question.

After all, the two were called as apostles on the same day in 1984, but Nelson was ordained a month earlier.

“I have sat beside President Nelson in the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles for almost 34 years,” Oaks said. “… I know his love of the Lord and Jesus Christ and his commitment to our Heavenly Father’s plan of salvation. I know his love of people. I know of his wisdom.”

The two seem to “share a general worldview and have worked closely together for more than three decades,” Mormon historian Patrick Mason said, “so it’s only natural for Nelson to want a like-minded individual as his first counselor.”

Longtime Sen. Orrin Hatch, who is Mormon, said Nelson is “a powerful force for good in this world.”

“I have watched him lead by example over many decades of dedicated service, and I am confident that he will continue to touch the hearts of millions,” the Utah Republican said. “I am also grateful to President Nelson for his efforts to promote religious liberty.”

Uchtdorf’s new place

Elevating Oaks into the First Presidency and retaining Eyring returned the popular Dieter F. Uchtdorf, 77, who was Monson’s second counselor, to his place in the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles.

The last time a counselor was dropped from the First Presidency occurred in 1985, when an ailing Marion G. Romney went back into the quorum upon the death of Spencer W. Kimball. Before that, in 1970, Hugh B. Brown was released when Joseph Fielding Smith took the church’s helm.

Uchtdorf, a German, was lifted into the presidency when Monson took over in 2008. For many Mormons worldwide, he became the face of a global faith — dubbed the “silver fox” because of his full head of white hair — and a favorite speaker.

One clear effect of this change is that members likely will hear those Uchtdorf sermons they so eagerly await and embrace far less often at twice-yearly General Conferences (down from as many as three speeches to perhaps only one).

Nelson thanked Uchtdorf for his service in the previous First Presidency, adding that “he has already received numerous assignments to which he is uniquely qualified.”

Asked Tuesday what his “big assignment might be,” the apostle smiled and said, “Big assignment? You’ll see.”

Uchtdorf then said in his first year in the presidency, he gave a speech titled “Lift Where You Stand,” suggesting that Latter-day Saints should do whatever and serve wherever they are asked.

And that, he said, is what he plans to do.

Uchtdorf said he is enjoying his return to the camaraderie of his fellow apostles. That showed during the news conference as he chatted and chuckled at times with Jeffrey R. Holland.

But what does replacing the genial German, sometimes dubbed Mormonism’s Pope Francis, with the lawyerly Oaks, the religious-freedom warrior, mean for the nearly 16 million-member faith?

A right turn

Nelson, who found renown as a heart surgeon, is the second-oldest apostle in Mormon history to assume the presidency (Joseph Fielding Smith, the church’s 10th prophet, was a few months older) and the first physician.

With these moves, M. Russell Ballard, 89, became the acting president of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, because Oaks is serving in the First Presidency.

“This is a great time in the history of the church,” Eyring said. “Prophets of the past have said that ‘the best is yet to come,’ and it has proved true. That is so because it is the Lord who leads his church … and he qualifies and calls his servants to lead in inviting God’s children to come … to him.”

Still, some observers see the leadership shuffle as a definite turn toward retrenchment.

“President Nelson is seen as a conservative, and Elder Uchtdorf as a centrist and even potentially a reformer, so many people will see this as sending a message about the direction of the church under President Nelson’s leadership,” Mason said. It may “indicate, and almost certainly will actually represent, a rightward turn in the First Presidency.”

Steve Taysom, a Mormon who teaches philosophy and comparative religion at Cleveland State University, echoed that sentiment.

Uchtdorf has been “an important symbolic presence for liberal-minded Mormons, and he clearly did not share President Nelson’s and Elder Oaks’ views on social activism in general and LGBTQ issues in particular,” Taysom wrote in an email. “This is going to be an administration characterized by social and ecclesiastical retrenchment, and the touchstone for this retrenchment appears to be the 1995 family proclamation, which, of course, Oaks spoke about in the last General Conference.”

It is worth noting that “several apostles, especially Holland and Uchtdorf, have been preaching a Christology that heavily emphasizes grace and the boundlessness of God’s love,” Taysom wrote, while Nelson and Oaks “take a more legalistic approach to salvific doctrine.”

At the news conference, the members of the new presidency were asked how they — three white, American males — could bring “women, people of color and international members into the church’s decision-making.”

Nelson acknowledged that the “Twelve and the Seventy are not a representative assembly of any kind,” but he said they are called of God.

Nelson added, though, that he believes “we will live to see the day when there will be other flavors in the mix. … We respond [to callings] because we’ve been called by the Lord. Not one of us asked to be here.”

As for the place of women in the church, Nelson noted that “we have women on our councils, women administering ordinances in the temples. … We depend on their voices.”

“I love [women],” he said. “I’m the father of nine beautiful daughters. … Those girls are now mothers of their own … and grandmothers. We need their voices, their input and we love their participation with us.”

The church’s all-male priesthood precludes women from holding governing offices in the faith — and the new leaders offered no signs of that changing.

Eyring conceded that there is concern about women not getting recognition in the church, but “in terms of influence, the Lord has already given it to them [as mothers]. I think [there is] no greater influence [that] exists in the kingdom.”

Those answers failed to satisfy some Mormons.

On women and other issues

“The new First Presidency does not understand how those of us who are not white, not male, not old, not heterosexual, and not from the United States long for a face and a voice that represents us,” said Bryndis Roberts, a black Mormon in Atlanta and head of Ordain Women, a group seeking female entrance into the LDS priesthood. “To say that the representation occurs at the local leadership level ignores the reality that many of the concerns members have and the changes members seek cannot be addressed at the local level. As such, it is imperative that all levels of church leadership reflect the diversity of the church.”

Further, Roberts said, “it was painful to hear my value as a woman be limited to my ability to bear children and the terminology ‘more flavors in the mix’ did not capture the gravity and importance of the issues of diversity and gender equity.”

Nelson soon will have another chance to change the face of the faith’s top brass: There are two openings in the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles after Nelson’s rise to president and the October death of Robert D. Hales.

Mormon writer and editor Emily Jensen found Nelson’s comments on women “contradictory.”

When asked, “What about women?” Nelson joked, “I love ’em.’”

But when the new president talked about his nine daughters, he mentioned only that they were “mothers and granddaughters whose value is gained by the fact that they raised children and grandchildren ‘strong in the faith,’” Jensen said. “What kind of message does this send to a worldwide membership that includes women who are single, childless, divorced, or with children who are not strong in the faith.”?

The new Mormon leaders also spoke:

On LGBT members • “There are commandments of God [and] challenges to enter his holy presence,” Nelson said. “… There is a place for everyone who wishes … to be with us [in the church].”

In November 2015, Mormon leaders adopted a policy that deems same-sex LDS couples “apostates” and forbids their children from religious rites until they turn 18.

A few months later, Nelson proclaimed the policy came as a revelation from God.

“As leaders of the church, we have a responsibility to teach love and also the commandments of God and the high destination he has for his children,” Oaks said. “It’s the love of the Lord [balanced with] the law of the Lord.”

On losing millennials • A number of Latter-day Saints left the church in the wake of the policy on same-sex couples.When asked about those departures, Nelson said that “every member needs to know the difference between what’s doctrine and what’s human. We have both elements to work with.”

Nelson and Oaks noted that millions of Latter-day Saints remain faithful and pointed to marriage as one key to retaining them.

“Young men and young women are stronger when they marry [and are in a relationship] that the Lord ordains,” Oaks said.

“Partnership. Partnership, that’s the secret — and one plus one are more than two,” Nelson added. “[They] can do things together that they cannot do by themselves.”

On infallibility • “Give your leaders a little leeway to make mistakes, as you hope your leaders will give you a little leeway to profit by your errors,” Nelson advised. “Don’t be offended by what may have been said, or what may have transpired. Make sure you are square with your Heavenly Father.”

Said Oaks: “We don’t believe in the infallibility of our leaders.”

At the end of the news conference, Nelson’s family — dozens and dozens of men, women and children — came in to hug and congratulate him.