With Rising Lifespans of Mormon Prophets Come Increasing Dementia and Leadership Dilemmas

By R.B. Scott

San Francisco, CA - Through the 1950s the average lifespan of presidents of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints was around 80 years. As the average rose to more than 90 years so too did the rate of dementia and the need for their counselors to run the church for increasingly longer periods of time.

 John Hancock 
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      Artist's conception of a group portrait of all of the presidents of the Mormon Church since its founding in 1830. The setting is the temple in Salt Lake City.

Artist's conception of a group portrait of all of the presidents of the Mormon Church since its founding in 1830. The setting is the temple in Salt Lake City.

Such is the case today as more and more of the day-to-day duties of running the worldwide church fall to the counselors of Thomas S. Monson, the 88-year-old 16th president of the church who has long suffered from diabetes and, more recently, from age-related dementia.

Mr. Monson is not the exception. All presidents but Harold B. Lee, who died unexpectedly of a pulmonary hemorrhage at the age of 74 in 1973, and Gordon B. Hinckley, who remained mentally sharp until days before his death at the age of 97 in 2008, have been severely incapacitated in their final years of life. The challenges presented by physical and mental limitations are likely to increase in virtual lockstep with rising American life expectancy rates.

While administrative adjustments to cover for an incapacitated president of the church are in place and well understood, leaders like Hinckley, who as first counselor stood-in for three sidelined presidents before becoming president himself, once mused in frustration that some decisions simply required the prayerful intervention of the prophet himself.

Observers then suggested that counselor Hinckley

felt unauthorized to restrain Apostle Boyd K. Packer, who had been directly commissioned by the famously conservative president of church, Ezra Taft Benson, to deal with troublesome academics, feminists and liberals, several of whom were forced out of the church in the early 1990s. One of them, Lavina Fielding Anderson never let her own excommunication interfere with church attendance. A few excommunicants who were included in the purge then have since regained church membership.

By contrast, another surrogate president, the liberal Hugh B. Brown, first counselor to the egalitarian president David O. McKay during his final years, steered the church in directions that often infuriated more conservative members of the Quorum of Twelve, most notably its acting president Harold B. Lee. The contretemps between the two men has been offered as an explanation as to why Lee replaced Brown as first counselor after McKay passed away in 1970 and the incapacitated Joseph Fielding Smith became president.

Large corporations have dealt with similar governance issues by establishing mandatory retirement ages for senior executives and board members. Pope Benedict XVI took matters into his own hands when he stepped aside in 2013, and was succeeded by the younger and more vibrant Pope Francis, who in turn pledged to voluntarily resign when the time comes.

Years ago, the Mormon Church itself dealt partially with the growing senility problem when it imposed 70 as the age limit for all general authorities except apostles and the prophet, who continue to serve until death.

Developing a similar policy for apostles and the prophet is fraught with thorny customs and dilemmas, the most significant of which is the firm belief among Mormons that God should play the most decisive role in selecting the next prophet of the church. In more worldly terms, the deeply-seeded seniority and “until death” traditions are said to preclude political maneuvering.

Even in retrospect, few would suggest that the church would have been well-served if the forward-leaning and mentally adroit Hinckley had been compelled to abdicate at age 80, or even 90. Yet, the traditions that allowed the vigorous Hinckley to carry on also permitted the ascension of Smith in 1970 and Howard W. Hunter in 1994. Smith was severely ill throughout his two year presidency. Hunter succumbed after nine months in office.