Mormon Church president wasn't always chosen easily

Associated Press/February 2, 2008

Salt Lake City - In the days after Mormon Church president and prophet Gordon B. Hinckley is laid to rest today, the men who served as his closest advisers will begin the process of choosing a successor.

But the deliberations will not hold the intrigue of the election of a Roman Catholic pope, during which geography, politics and other factors combine in a process that ends with white smoke puffing from a chimney.

At least in modern days, choosing the leader of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has come down to the simple matter of who is next in line for an office unique among religious traditions.

Hinckley died Sunday night at age 97 after shepherding the 13 million-member church through a period of tremendous growth. Following Mormon church tradition, the next-most senior church apostle will probably succeed him - in this case, Thomas S. Monson, 80.

Although there is no formal timetable for choosing a successor, the group of 14 church apostles is not expected to meet until early next week to allow time to honor Hinckley's memory.

Succession was not always so neatly decided, said Mike Quinn, a Mormon historian who was excommunicated from the church. Church founder Joseph Smith never laid out a plan for the process, and more than three years passed from the time he died until Brigham Young took over the church.

"You had different people saying different things about the way to go," Quinn said.

When Young took control of the church, only about half its members followed him to Utah. Gaps of two or more years between presidencies continued - with senior leaders arguing against seniority as the sole basis.

"Age was a factor," Quinn said. "They didn't want to create a gerontocracy. There was a power struggle, or you could say, prophetic disagreement."

Ultimately, church leaders decided that an uncluttered, unquestioned process of succession would be best for the church.

"Now you don't have a succession crisis," Quinn said. "It's a very uniform pattern. It's trustworthy."

The system also means that Mormon presidents are bound to be well beyond standard U.S. retirement age. Since 1945, only one church president has been younger than 75 when he took office. To some, that's troubling.

"There ought to be some kind of vehicle established that takes into account that individual condition, mentally and physically," said Steve Benson, grandson of former church president Ezra Taft Benson, who died in 1994. "I don't see what the problem is. This is done in all kinds of corporations."

Hinckley himself had answered that kind of criticism. In 1996, when confronted by Mike Wallace of 60 Minutes with the claim that the church "is run by old men," Hinckley replied:

"Isn't it wonderful? To have a man of maturity at the head, a man of judgment, who isn't blown about by every wind of doctrine?"

Hinckley's successor will inherit a job like none other.

The head of the Mormon Church is not only leader of a worldwide church, but also a prophet, living testament to the LDS belief that divine revelation continues to this day and can reshape church teaching.

"Normally, we think of priest and prophet as two roles - one is a part of the organizational structure, the other is a voice in the wilderness," said Richard Bushman, who wrote a biography of church founder Joseph Smith. "From the very beginning, it was a stroke of genius on Joseph Smith's part to combine a bureaucratic and a prophetic role."

The Mormon Church also differs from most other religious groups in that it relies not on professional clergy, but on unpaid lay leaders.

Most high-ranking LDS officials have extensive business experience, including Hinckley's likely successor, Monson. The 80-year-old has a master's degree in business administration and was formerly general manager of the church-owned Deseret News.

"These guys are generally not theologians," said Richard N. Ostling, co-author of "Mormon America: The Power and the Promise" and former religion writer for Time magazine and The Associated Press. "They are businessmen, and they need to be because it's like running a multinational corporation, and all the key decisions are tightly held at the top."

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