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Latter-day: When Reverence For Mormon Church Leaders Creates An Aura Of Infallibility

Illustration of Church President.
Renee Bright / KUER

At a time when many long-held Mormon values are being challenged, KUER’s new series “Latter-day” examines how Mormon culture is — and isn’t — changing in response.

The current president of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Russell M. Nelson, doesn’t shy away from the limelight. During his 18 months at the helm, he’s toured the world, filling up sports arenas with Latter-day Saints eager to see him speak. In June, Nelson spoke to a group of 15,000 at a stop in Orlando, Florida. In the crowd you could see banners with the words, “Follow the Prophet” in big bold letters. 

Patrick Mason, a Mormon historian and a professor at Utah State University, said he isn’t surprised by this. 

  • Lee Hale: When you see these types of gatherings, what comes to mind? 

  • Patrick Mason: This goes back a long way. I mean, one of the core claims is that you not only have God in His heavens but that he actually calls prophets and apostles here. And so the way the Latter-day Saints would put it — they'd say, “look, if Moses were on earth wouldn't you want to hang out with him? Wouldn't you want to not only listen to him on the radio but if he was in a stadium — wouldn't you want to be there? Isn't there some kind of reflected aura that comes off of him because he does communicate with the divine in some kind of special way?”

  • LH: How did early Mormons revere Joseph Smith, the Church’s founder? 

  • PM: For most of Mormon history when people said “the Prophet,” they meant Joseph Smith. Even long after he was dead. It wasn't until the mid 20th century with David O. McKay who was president of the Church in the 1950s and 60s — and did have a kind of aura about him. He seemed very much a 20th-century embodiment of a modern prophet. Then members of the Church started talking about the prophet in the present tense. So actually this phrase “follow the prophet” that gets used a lot in contemporary Mormonism, that is a contemporary phrase

As the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints grew, so did the aura surrounding Church leaders. They were no longer men who lived in your community and would visit your chapel. With membership in the millions — most Latter-day Saints only see these leaders on TV or at very large gatherings. They’re like celebrities — celebrities who basically can do no wrong.

  • LH: How do you think Latter-day Saints today view their leaders? 

  • PM: I think most Latter-day Saints — and this is probably a deeply human thing —I mean they want to trust their leader. There's something attractive about a strong leader who has a message and who gives this sense of authority and charisma. And Latter-Day Saints want to believe that there is a prophet on the Earth that God talks to regularly in something like straight dictation. And that when that prophet speaks that they can they say “Wow. That's the voice of God given to us.” And so I think that the culture — that the dominant sensibility within the contemporary Church is a very strong sense of — if not prophetic infallibility — something just shy of that.

For Latter-day Saints who have felt harmed by church policy, this is not a comforting view. For example, black members who were kept out of LDS temples until the late 70s or LGBTQ Mormon couples who until recently couldn’t baptize their children.
Some say it’s much more logical to accept that imperfect men were responsible for these policies, not God. And some think church leaders should apologize for the pain they’ve caused. 

  • LH: Could you imagine a future when Latter-day Saint leaders do apologize?

  • PM: I think that the theology would certainly allow for it to happen. Repentance is a pretty core part of the theology. But Dallin H. Oaks is the first counselor in the First Presidency. He's been very public about the notion that we don't apologize for things and he hasn't really explained what that means or what's behind that. But I do think that at some point, some president of the Church will be able to use the word apology and even use the word repent.
Lee Hale began listening to KUER while he was teaching English at a Middle School in West Jordan (his one hour commute made for plenty of listening time). Inspired by what he heard he applied for the Kroc Fellowship at NPR headquarters in DC and to his surprise, he got it. Since then he has reported on topics ranging from TSA PreCheck to micro apartments in overcrowded cities to the various ways zoo animals stay cool in the summer heat. But, his primary focus has always been education and he returns to Utah to cover the same schools he was teaching in not long ago. Lee is a graduate of Brigham Young University and is also fascinated with the way religion intersects with the culture and communities of the Beehive State. He hopes to tell stories that accurately reflect the beliefs that Utahns hold dear.
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