Many Mormons want more Dieter F. Uchtdorf. Now, they’ll get less.
For the past decade, the German “silver fox” has been a kind of latter-day superstar, ever since President Thomas S. Monson catapulted him into the LDS Church’s governing First Presidency.
Sure, there had been a couple of non-American apostles before then-President Gordon B. Hinckley, in 2004, picked him (mostly Canadians), but he was the first one in a long while from another continent to join that elite group.
Thus, Uchtdorf became the symbol of what so many hoped would be seen as an increasingly global faith.
Now, many of those same Mormons who felt a jolt of excitement with Uchtdorf’s rise are mourning his departure from the more visible governing First Presidency and his return to the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles.
They had been moved by Uchtdorf’s words and his life. He talked about twice being a refugee — once while leaving Czechoslovakia and again when fleeing then-East Germany to West Germany — which helped members identify with today’s generation of seekers. He talked about being a pilot (so often that it became a standing joke). He mentioned using iPhones and drinking a “diet soda that shall remain nameless,” which endeared him to younger members.
But it was more than his silver hair, his accent and smooth manner than endeared Uchtdorf to the masses. Believers loved his finely crafted but straightforward sermons, with profound messages of love and hope, grace and goodness, leaders’ humanity and the value of doubt — with faith in Jesus always making an appearance.
“President Uchtdorf set a special tone in his conference talks,” Ogden resident Aaron Nelson wrote on Facebook. “It was an open and respectful tone. He is a beloved leader.”
Mette Harrison, a Layton writer, remembered calling “a dear friend while Uchtdorf was speaking in General Conference about mistakes the church leadership had made.”
Harrison told her friend, “I can’t believe someone is saying this in General Conference.”
Uchtdorf’s “call to return, that the church had a place for everyone, was one of the main reasons I felt able to stay for so long,” she said. “Not sure what the future holds for me.”
Others worry about losing the European’s appeal to rising generations.
“He has such a connection to our youth,” Lorraine Azain Matagi wrote from Hawaii. “His spirit of optimism and hope closely aligns with that of President [Gordon B.] Hinckley. Others may preach humanity; President Uchtdorf exudes it. He was the closest thing to diversity there is in the Quorum [of the Twelve Apostles].”
LDS historian Ardis Parshall appreciated Uchtdorf’s inclusive rhetoric.
“He consistently speaks of and to women as individuals, rather than as a mass of presumed wives and mothers,” the Salt Lake City woman said. “I so much need that encouragement now and hope he can continue to deliver that hope.”
Even non-Mormon Jeri Cartwright appreciated the LDS leader’s speeches.
“When I first heard Uchtdorf speak, I was driving my car. I didn’t know what radio station I was listening to. I heard a charismatic voice speaking in a marvelous, healing tone,” Cartwright wrote from Arizona. “Who was this man? What program was I listening to? I was enthralled. When I discovered that I was listening to LDS Church Conference … it was a ‘wow’ moment.”
She’s sure he “helped heal many hearts.”
Other Mormon devotees do not see the move in such dire terms, noting that he remains an apostle who will jet to other nations and speak to the worldwide church.
“Elder Uchtdorf is a great man of the people,” Brian Neff wrote. “Having him out of the office and back traveling the world is a great move, and one that — as I see it — is orchestrated through revelation.”
Yes, Neff said, Mormons will miss hearing from Uchtdorf more.
“But if you believe in the work, as he surely does,” he said, “you’ll know that mixing with the people of the world will be a much richer calling for him. And much richer for the rest of us.”
Correction • Jan. 17, 7:45 a.m.: Lorraine Azain Matagi’s last name was misspelled in an earlier version of this story.