ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:
The president of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints died last night. Thomas Monson was 90. As church president, he was revered as a prophet by Mormons worldwide. Lee Hale of member station KUER reports that Monson will be remembered for what he said as well as what he left unsaid.
LEE HALE, BYLINE: Monson served as the top Mormon leader for nearly 10 years. For the almost 16 million church members worldwide, Monson was seen as the closest link to God's guidance and revelation and the primary source for spiritual instruction.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
THOMAS MONSON: Never let a problem to be solved become more important than a person to be loved.
HALE: Monson was known as an engaging storyteller. He told stories from his life that often involved responding to nudges from the Holy Spirit, like one instance when he felt inspired to visit an old friend in the hospital. Monson later learned his friend had been contemplating suicide.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
MONSON: I had arrived at a critical moment in response to what I know was inspiration from on high.
HALE: Monson was given a lot of responsibility in the church at a very young age. In his early 20s, he was called as a bishop to lead a congregation in Salt Lake City. He became an apostle, a member of the second-highest governing body in the church at age 36.
WILLIAM WALKER: He really spent most of his life in - serving in the church.
HALE: William Walker is a former general authority for the Mormon Church, a senior leader who worked closely with Monson for many years. They would often travel together on assignment. And during those trips, he says Monson would always make time to meet and shake hands with as many church members as he could. Walker remembers one time in particular when Monson as a newly called prophet had just spoken to a large gathering. Following the closing prayer, he leaned over to the church leader and said...
WALKER: If we slip out the side door, I can get you back to the hotel very quickly and get you some rest. And he looked at me, and he said, if Jesus was here, do you think he'd slip out the side door? (Laughter) I thought, well, I'm never going to make that suggestion again.
HALE: Last spring, the church announced Monson would no longer be attending daily meetings. His health declined. His memory was failing.
WALKER: That had to have been extremely challenging and difficult for him.
HALE: Walker says Monson was known for having a nearly photographic memory, often recalling the smallest details from his past. Monson's decline in activity came at an inopportune time according to Kristine Haglund, a former editor of Dialogue, a magazine that addresses Mormon issues.
KRISTINE HAGLUND: It's been a time of real turmoil for the church.
HALE: Haglund cites one time in particular as a stress point for church members. In November of 2015, the church declared children of gay couples could no longer be baptized without special approval. The new policy came as a shock for some, confusing for others and a break in what seemed to be a growing acceptance of LGBT Mormons. Monson did not make a public statement about the policy.
HAGLUND: It wasn't controversial to suggest that President Monson wasn't necessarily in charge.
HALE: Another controversy Monson did not address were the growing calls for more female leadership in the church - in particular, an ordain women movement. During the nine years he served as prophet and leader, Monson held one press conference - the day he was called. His predecessor, Gordon B. Hinckley, would often speak to reporters. Much of what Monson felt or thought about current issues was left entirely to speculation. Haglund says that absence of information can be difficult for the faithful.
HAGLUND: They like to feel certain that the prophet will tell them what they should do in an uncertain time and uncertain world.
HALE: Haglund says uncertainty might be the unavoidable price for elderly leaders with lifetime appointments. Since the beginning of the church, it is the most senior apostle who serves as president. Although no formal announcement has been made, it's widely expected that Russell M. Nelson will take Monson's place. Nelson is a former heart surgeon who is 93 years old and still keeps a full schedule as a church leader. For NPR News, I'm Lee Hale in Salt Lake City.
(SOUNDBITE OF IMAGINED HERBAL FLOWS' "BEYOND THE SUN")
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.