SALT LAKE CITY – At 94, the president of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has proved a far more vigorous and transformative figure than scholars expected when he took office a year ago, pushing through a flurry of surprising changes on such matters as gay members and the name of the faith.
Russell M. Nelson made his biggest move yet Thursday when he rescinded rules banning baptisms for children of gay parents and branding same-sex couples apostates subject to excommunication. Those 2015 policies had generated widespread backlash.
He has also launched a campaign calling on people to stop using the shorthand names “Mormon” and “LDS,” severed the faith’s ties with the Boy Scouts of America after a century, shortened Sunday worship by an hour and revised a sacred temple ceremony to give women a more prominent role.
His vigor has surprised many scholars and church members who thought he would be more of a caretaker after becoming the second-oldest man to lead the faith, said Matthew Bowman, an associate professor of history at Henderson State University in Arkadelphia, Arkansas.
“He has been a more transformative president than anybody expected he would be,” Bowman said. “He has an expansive agenda.”
As members gather Saturday for a twice-annual conference in Salt Lake City, they are bracing for more changes by the former heart surgeon who leads the Utah-based faith with 16 million adherents worldwide.
“Nelson has made it appointment viewing for people,” said Brandt Malone, a church member from Detroit who hosts the Mormon News Report podcast.
Nelson’s visibility and vibrancy set him apart from his predecessor, Thomas S. Monson, who kept a low profile and was in failing health for part of his presidency. Church presidents serve for life, and Monson died in January 2018 after leading the faith for nearly a decade.
Since ascending to the post, Nelson has given speeches to tens of thousands at stadiums in Seattle and Phoenix and visited 15 countries. He met with Pope Francis at the Vatican in March in what the church called the first meeting between a pope and a president of the faith.
Nelson hasn’t altered church doctrine but has approved changes that scholars say seem designed to improve the religious experience for an increasingly global membership.
Nelson’s energy and swift changes serve to distract members and outsiders from criticism about stagnated membership growth, crises of faith and the secondary role of women in the religion, said Patrick Mason, a religion professor at Claremont Graduate University in California.
“The best way to deal with your problems is to have a really positive, proactive agenda,” Mason said.
Nelson’s tenure has been marked by “an unusual degree of change in an otherwise very cautious institution,” said Kathleen Flake, a professor of Mormon studies at the University of Virginia.
“He has both the confidence and the temperament to act decisively. As a surgeon, I think he’s used to taking charge,” Flake said. “But I think he’s been very clear that he would not have done any of this if he didn’t feel catalyzed by his spiritual authority.”
Nelson has also been uncommonly open about the church’s belief that presidents are living prophets who receive revelations from God. That, too, has set him apart from most of his predecessors, scholars say.
The church said Nelson and other leaders engaged in “fervent, united prayer to understand the will of the Lord” before reversing the LGBTQ policies. But it said the church still opposes gay marriage and considers same-sex relationships a “serious transgression.”
In explaining his decision to urge people to stop using nicknames for the faith, Nelson said that the Lord impressed upon him the importance of the full name and that leaving it out was “a major victory for Satan.”
He then changed the name of the world-renowned Mormon Tabernacle Choir to the Tabernacle Choir at Temple Square and renamed church websites, social media accounts and employee email addresses to strip out “Mormon” and “LDS.”
Mason said Nelson’s embrace of revelation has energized many church members who consider the president to be a modern-day Moses or Peter.
To others, it raises eyebrows and can be seen as awkward, especially when cited in connection with something such as the church name, which seems minor to some people, Bowman said.
Malone, the church member, said that it is nice to hear a president confirm he is receiving revelation but that it limits the amount of healthy scrutiny of changes.
“It carries a lot more weight for Mormons,” Malone said. “It’s a conversation-ender for some people.”