By any measure, the new Mormon prophet is an optimist.
In a move at once audacious and somewhat inexplicable, for example, 93-year-old Russell M. Nelson stood at the pulpit at the conclusion of his first LDS General Conference as the faith’s 17th president and declared that a temple would be built in Russia — even though a city, let alone a site, has yet to be determined.
Yes, Russia, that nation where the Utah-based church is no longer allowed to proselytize, where would-be missionaries cannot wear their iconic name tags and must say they are merely “volunteers,” and where the membership of 23,000 is stagnant and may even be slipping.
That announcement capped a weekend of historic changes — choosing the church’s first Chinese-American and South American apostles, revising how the all-male adult priesthood quorums organize themselves and creating a new way for members to look out for one another.
On Tuesday, Nelson is scheduled to jet off on an 11-day world tour, addressing members in London; Jerusalem; Nairobi, Kenya; Harare, Zimbabwe; Bengaluru, India (which is getting its first Mormon temple); Bangkok, Thailand; Hong Kong; and Hawaii.
With these moves, Nelson has infused a new energy into the 16 million-member Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints with an eye fixed on its future as a truly global religion, reforming and restructuring the institution so that it functions better not so much in Mormon-dominated Utah but more so throughout the world, in places where it may be shrinking or surging.
“He seems to be a president who is seizing the wheel and who wants to leave an imprint on the church,” LDS historian Matthew Bowman says on a recent Salt Lake Tribune “Mormon Land” podcast.
“He has a vision of where the church is going, and he wants to push it in that direction,” adds Bowman, author of “The Mormon People: The Making of an American Faith.” “And it is the international church that is the engine of where the church will end up.”
Nelson is willing to “reach big and to go big,” Bowman says, “and try to make a big impression.”
In that, he clearly succeeded.
The church’s just-completed conference was “electrifying,” says Matt Martinich, an independent Mormon demographer who charts global LDS growth. “President Nelson had an amazing ability to make those watching feel like they are part of an international family … a feeling I would say I have never had watching conference over the years.”
Divine revelation • On Easter Sunday, Nelson followed a string of speakers representing the international church and gave his first major sermon to all Mormons as the man they revere as God’s mouthpiece.
He described his monumental appointments of Gerrit W. Gong, who has vast international and diplomatic experience, particularly in China, and Ulisses Soares, a Brazilian, to the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles.
Nelson sought God’s will in prayer, he told the faithful, and the Lord “inspired the call of … Gong and … Soares.”
The former heart surgeon shared his own biography and laid out his views of the communication between God and humanity.
Nelson proclaimed that “in coming days ‘each of us’ would have opportunities to progress and contribute, and that Christ ‘will perform some of his mightiest works,’” notes Mormon scholar Melissa Inouye of the University of Auckland. “To me, this sounds like a prophet who is not trying to get away with as little change as possible, but open to making big alterations to the status quo if they are needed.”
The LDS president’s statement that “‘good inspiration is based on good information,’” she says, “suggests that he doesn’t consider himself omniscient and omnipresent, but is open to hearing a variety of perspectives and views.”
This line of thinking, Inouye says, emphasizes “church members’ ability to access divine revelation and thus judge for themselves what is true and who is worthy of trust.”
Nelson’s sermon was not a “stop whining and get in line” talk, she says, but about “how each person, including himself, can and must take individual initiative to seek divine help.”
And that approach, the New Zealand-based professor says, will allow members in far-flung regions to be more flexible in how they implement LDS programs.
Compassionate adaptability • The LDS Church’s shift from “visiting and home teaching” to a “ministering” model, Inouye says, can be “more easily adapted to a variety of different social situations.”
The former longtime program — in which priesthood men and boys, along with women of the Relief Society, were assigned to visit several members’ homes every month — did not fit well into many social and cultural contexts found in LDS congregations around the world.
In Hong Kong, for example, female Mormons visiting the homes of nonfamily members is a big deal because Chinese culture directs that the hostess ensure her guests are comfortable (serving something to drink and perhaps fruit) and that the visitors bring a gift. Also, Hong Kong residents often live in crowded living spaces, not conducive to formal hosting. Finally, unlike LDS wards, or congregations, in Utah, members’ houses are often far away from one another. Since people already spend long hours at work or at school, it is hard to coordinate schedules and spend time visiting.
Mormon women in Hong Kong have long adapted visiting teaching to fit their own context, Inouye says. “In a ward I attended in Hong Kong, sisters did visiting teaching after church on Sunday, at the chapel, and at more sporadic intervals than every month. … In short, this move in some ways simply encourages people to continue what they may already be doing in various contexts around the world that differ substantially from the American context in which visiting teaching and home teaching were first introduced.”
Likewise, merging the adult male priesthood quorums into one is common outside of Utah and the Intermountain West’s so-called Mormon Belt.
Some congregations may have only a handful of men in their high priest group (which generally is made up of older men) and in the elders (usually for younger men). This shift allows them to meet together, freeing up some of the men to serve in other positions.
These changes hopefully will have “a positive impact on the church globally by reducing the administrative burden in small units through reducing the number of meetings to be held and callings to be filled,” says Ross Trewhella, a Mormon bishop who has been serving for more than nine years in Cornwall, England, “as well as offering flexibility in how they can best meet the needs of their membership.”
Expanding abroad • The LDS Church long has seen itself as an international faith, but it really is more of a Western Hemisphere one with the vast majority of membership (86 percent) located in the Americas and the Pacific, says Martinich, the Colorado-based demographer.
In addition to the proposed temple in Russia, Nelson named six other locations: Bengaluru, India; Managua, Nicaragua (that country’s first such Mormon edifice as well); Salta, Argentina; Cagayan de Oro, Philippines; Richmond, Va., and Layton (to become Utah’s 19th LDS temple).
“With these new temple announcements, nearly 70 percent of the world population now lives in a country with at least one temple announced, under construction or in operation,” Martinich says. “India’s population accounts for 17.3 percent of the world’s population, and therefore the new temple announced in India has largely driven up this statistic.”
Of course, there are fewer than 14,000 Mormons in India — the globe’s most-populous Hindu nation — so this move is more about future possibilities than current reality.
The first three months of Nelson’s presidency (he took the church’s reins in mid-January) have brought about many changes, Martinich notes, including the announcement of the “closure of the Spain and Chile Missionary Training Centers, restructuring of missions in many areas of the world (19 mission closures, five new missions to be created this July), seven new temples, change in ward/branch/stake priesthood organization, change in formal member fellowship programs.”
The new LDS leader “is really laying the groundwork for the church to expand and mature internationally, but without leaving the church in the United States behind in the dust,” Martinich says. “I anticipate more changes and developments in the foreseeable future such as more temple announcements in Latin America and Africa, and additional reallocation of mission resources from less productive areas to more productive areas.”
More change ahead? • Bowman sees Nelson’s changes as “the beginnings of decentralized control” in terms of Western-style worship and culture imported to so many countries.
European hymns, men in white shirts and ties, women in dresses and skirts, and a style of worship that is “calm, sedate and placid,” he says, is not the way much of the world expresses spirituality.
For the LDS Church to grow in these places, he says, it will have to adapt — as “Catholicism has, as Islam has, as have most religions that have become true global religions.”
For her part, LaShawn Williams, a Mormon who teaches social work at Utah Valley University, applauds the new president’s direction.
“I’m excited about the shift toward ministry as the membership’s collective work,” Williams says. “I was simply tickled by his temple announcements at the end of conference — versus the beginning — and how much of a kick he got out of surprising the membership.”
Top Mormon authorities “obviously listen and are aware of U.S. membership concerns regarding diverse representations,” she notes, pointing to the choice of two apostles who are “ethnically diverse.”
However, the UVU professor describes Gong and Soares as “white-passing from communities impacted by colonialism and colorism.”
Not a “perfect fit by any means,” says Williams, who is African-American, “but it is a movement, and it is marginally inspiring.”
Still, she is willing to keep speaking up and welcoming change.
“We are a church of continuing revelation,” she says, and “thus, continuing improvement.”
Trewhella, too, looks forward to the “sprightly prophet’s” next move.
“New international apostles and sweeping changes to priesthood quorums and ministering, will likely motivate and inspire church membership,” the Mormon bishop says. ”I hope we can keep up this momentum of change.”
He wonders, he says, what surprises Nelson “springs on us next.”