How does the Mormon Church pick its prophet?

Mormon questions, Mormon answers
Jan. 30 2008 3:42 PM

Who's the Next Mormon President?

No, not Mitt Romney …

Thomas S. Monson. Click image to expand.
The next Mormon president?

Gordon B. Hinckley, the president of the Mormon Church, died in Salt Lake City on Sunday evening. The 97-year-old leader of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, as the Mormon Church is formally known, had served as president since 1995. During his tenure, he oversaw a notable expansion of the church's membership and physical presence around the world. How does the Mormon Church choose its next president and prophet?

By seniority of service. Though it is an unofficial policy set down in no Mormon scripture, the church has always chosen the longest-serving member from its highest realm of leadership—an "apostle"—to become the next church prophet. A triumvirate known as the First Presidency—comprising the prophet and his two counselors—lead the church, along with a group called the Quorum of the 12 Apostles. All apostles serve for life once appointed. When a church president dies, the First Presidency disbands and his counselors join the Quorum, which then takes interim control of the church until a new president is named.

Selecting a leader becomes the Quorum's most pressing task, and its now-14 members gather to do so in a private room within the Salt Lake City temple after the former president's funeral. The group must reach a unanimous vote, as with all major decisions. After the vote, the new prophet will sit in a chair as the remaining men stand around him and place their hands on his head while a prayer of blessing is offered. If tradition is followed, the new Mormon prophet will be Thomas S. Monson, first counselor to Hinckley and an apostle since 1963. Mormon faithful will later "sustain," or ratify, Monson's elevation to the presidency at April's General Conference—the semiannual meeting of the church—in a special session known as a solemn assembly. There, Latter-day Saints, in descending order based on the extensive hierarchy of the church, will stand in groups to sustain their new president.

The tradition of promoting the longest-serving member of the Quorum goes back to 1847, when Brigham Young replaced Mormonism's founder, Joseph Smith Jr., as the prophet. Such a method predisposes the Mormon Church to continually select men who have already lived long lives, leading some critics of the church to refer to its leadership as a "gerontocracy." Monson is 80, and the next most senior apostle, Boyd K. Packer, is 83. (The current youngest apostle, David A. Bednar, is 55.)

Like the adherents of many religions, Mormons believe their president to be more than merely an administrative head. The president's unofficial title as "Prophet, Seer, and Revelator" speaks to the quasi-divine natureof the role. As prophet, Hinckley was (and Monson will be) regarded as God's human representative on earth, capable of receiving revelations to direct the church. "A growing church … that is spreading across the earth in these complex times," Hinckley explained in a 2005 article for a Mormon publication, "needs constant revelation from the throne of heaven to guide it and move it forward." Monson will now receive those revelations as he leads the Mormon Church into the years ahead.

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Neil J. Young is a writer and historian in New York. He teaches at Princeton.

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