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 tenure, which ended with his death Tuesday night at age 90, 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 pm in his home in Salt Lake City,” church spokesman Eric Hawkins wrote in an email Tuesday just before midnight. “He was with family at the time of his passing.”
A bear-hugging kind of guy, Monson — considered a “prophet, seer and revelator” by nearly 16 million members of the Utah-based Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints — drew heavily on his experiences of 60-plus years 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.
Homeless advocate Pamela Atkinson 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.”
At the following October conference, Monson appeared to grow weak and his voice trailed off during one of his speeches. He concluded the sermon and was assisted to his seat.
During that conference, 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 news faces at once. Ronald A. Rasband, Gary E. Stevenson and Dale G. Renlund joined the quorum after the deaths of longtime apostles, and Monson colleagues, L. Tom Perry, Boyd K. Packer and Richard G. Scott. He also oversaw other top leadership shuffles.
A U. alum, 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.”
At the time, a spokesman said that Monson was “weary but well.”
A day later, the aging LDS leader ended up being admitted to a hospital for a couple of nights after complaining of fatigue and exhaustion. On his release, the church stated that he planned to “resume his normal schedule and duties.”
He did not attend any sessions of the fall 2017 General Conference.
Still, significant policy changes took place in Monson’s final years as president.
In November 2015, he and other top 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.
These moves came even though Monson was a lifelong Scouter. 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 Uintas is also named after Monson.
Beyond these moves and the landmark missionary-age shift, Monson extended the efforts of his 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.
During Monson’s presidency, the church also published essays that confront and explain some of the stickiest theological and historical issues surrounding Mormonism, including early LDS polygamy, the faith’s former ban on black men and boys holding the all-male priesthood and the belief in a Heavenly Mother.
One of the most notable decisions Monson made was 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 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.
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 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 recently closed Hotel Utah.
Such connections with those of others faiths were legion.
On the Saturday in April 2008, when Monson was sustained as president, Monsignor 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.
“My goodness, President Monson,” Fitzgerald asked in amazement. “What are you doing here?”
The newly sustained church president just 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.”
Controversy during Monson’s presidency extended beyond the faith’s gay policy.
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 California 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 needed mending. LDS leaders unveiled a mormonandgay.org website — reaching out to same-sex attracted members and their loved ones. They also successfully lobbied for a landmark nondiscrimination law protecting LGBT rights in housing and the workplace throughout Utah while safeguarding some religious freedoms.
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 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.
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 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.
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 and its leadership to openly gay boys and men. The LDS Church, the BSA’s largest sponsor, is sticking with the group for its younger boys.
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 a Utah Jazz basketball game, 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 for would-be missionaries called “Preach My Gospel.” 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 punch line or drawing on quotes from playwrights, lyricists and novelists.
The talks grew naturally from his own relationship style.
As a member of the LDS First Presidency under Hinckley, Monson divided up the task of appointing new mission presidents with the other counselor, the late 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 willingly handed 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. He 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 [LDS] 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 [LDS] Church, Thomas S. Monson is the man I would pick for the task.”
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, which 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 Salt Lake 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, 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 eventually 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.”