NPR logo Thomas Monson Likely to Lead Mormon Faith

Thomas Monson Likely to Lead Mormon Faith

Tradition dictates that Thomas Monson, a 44-year veteran of the Mormon hierarchy, will become the faith's next president and prophet. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints hide caption

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The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints

Tradition dictates that Thomas Monson, a 44-year veteran of the Mormon hierarchy, will become the faith's next president and prophet.

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints

There's no speculation about who will replace Gordon B. Hinckley as president and prophet of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Hinckley died Sunday at age 97 and after a dozen years as the Mormon faith's religious and administrative leader.

Mormons believe that leaders of their church ascend the hierarchy in a process guided by God. The man (and it's only men), whom God permits to serve and survive the longest, becomes the Mormon "prophet, seer and revelator" when the group's president dies.

That makes 80-year-old Thomas Monson the likely successor to Hinckley. Monson is a veteran administrator in business and in his church, where he has spent 44 years as one of the highest-ranking leaders. He was the right-hand man for Hinckley and two of his predecessors.

"There is no jockeying for position or politicking," says Robert Millet, a professor at Mormon-owned Brigham Young University. "The Lord has his own way of dealing with this and that is, if a man lives long enough to become the senior apostle, he becomes the president of the church."

Traditionally, the senior Mormon leadership meets after the funeral of the late president. Hinckley's funeral is scheduled Saturday in Salt Lake City. The leaders pray for guidance and then vote. Mormons believe they may be divinely inspired to choose someone other than the heir-apparent but that would be unprecedented in modern times.

Monson has worked by Hinckley's side and in his shadow for close to 13 years.

"President Hinckley is a hard act to follow, because he was so beloved," notes Jan Shipps, an emeritus professor of history at Indiana University-Purdue University at Indianapolis. "And he was so effective as a spokesman for the church and he was so able to control the message that the church wanted to put forth to the world."

Shipps notes that Hinckley managed the Mormon public-relations effort since he was 25 years old. Monson, on the other hand, spent many years managing a church publishing arm.

"That means he was trying to figure out how many books to print. … He was a manager of things, not of information or people," Shipps says.

Some of the people who have worked with Monson believe he has the same instincts Hinckley had for reaching out to people, especially non-Mormons. Pamela Atkinson is a non-Mormon and advocate for the homeless, who worked with Monson on community social service projects in Salt Lake City.

"Monson will build on the legacy left by President Hinckley in reaching out to everybody," Atkinson predicts. "He includes everybody and he's very much at ease with anybody of any faith."

This is a critical skill as the Mormon faith faces more scrutiny than ever. That's due to the presidential campaign of Republican Mitt Romney, who hails from a prominent Mormon family. Public opinion polls consistently show that a quarter of those surveyed, and more, are reluctant to put a Mormon in the White House. Many evangelical Christians consider the Mormon faith an un-Christian cult. They hurt Romney's quest for votes in Iowa and South Carolina.

Monson once described how his work with people of other faiths can help win over skeptics. "When you work together, and you serve together, you understand each other," he told reporters at a rare news conference three years ago. "And all of the animosity people think exists evaporates."

Monson's admirers, Mormon and non-Mormon alike, say humor is another attribute he shares with his predecessor. He likes to joke with the faithful. Last fall, he told a gathering of Mormon women, "I'm reminded of the man who walked into a bookstore and asked the clerk, a woman, for help. 'Have you got a book titled 'Man, the Master of Women'? The clerk looked him straight in the eye and said sarcastically, 'Try the fiction section!'"

That drew a lot of laughs. But in the same speech, he didn't have hopeful words for some Mormon women, who look for more meaningful roles in their patriarchal faith. Monson told the group that women should devote themselves to community service, child-rearing and education.

Education was important, Monson said, because "statistics reveal that at some time, because of the illness or death of a husband or because of economic necessity, you may find yourself in the role of financial provider."

That may sound archaic to some women, but it indicates that no earth-shattering changes are likely as Monson takes the helm. He has been heavily involved in the vast expansion of the Mormon faith overseas, even negotiating entry into East Germany while it was still a Communist bloc nation. Managing a growing church with close to 13 million members in 160 countries will be one of Monson's biggest tasks.

"He has been a seatmate with Gordon B. Hinckley for a long time," notes Millet of Brigham Young University. "And I would not expect a radical departure from the course the church has taken."