The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints makes the remarkable claim that its presidents have been and are prophets in the tradition of and possessing the same divine authority as Biblical prophets. The current Church President is Thomas Spencer Monson. In this and subsequent posts, we shall look at the background of President Monson, how he came to be the president of the Church, and just what it means to be a prophet.
Thomas Monson is a remarkable individual. He has served for virtually his entire adult life in important leadership positions in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. He is the 16th man to serve as the Church’s president since the Church was officially organized, pursuant to the laws of the state of New York, on April 6, 1830. Mormons, as members of the Church have been frequently called for 180 years, sustain Thomas Monson as a Prophet, Seer and Revelator. Future articles will feature explanations of the meaning implicit to Latter-day Saints for each of these prophetic titles. We shall also focus on areas of his ministry given special attention by President Monson.
First, however, some background is in order. Thomas Monson will celebrate his 83rd birthday on August 21. He was born and raised in Salt Lake City. He attended Salt Lake City’s West High School, 1940 – 1944. President Monson then matriculated in the fall of 1944 at the University of Utah.
Shortly before the end of World War II, 17-year-old Thomas enlisted in 1945 in the United States Naval Reserve. He was sent to San Diego for training and anticipated service in the Pacific theatre. Even though the war was officially over within a few weeks of his joining the Navy, President Monson served for a full year before being discharged from active duty. He continued his service in the Naval Reserve and was among the last group of reservists discharged before the outbreak of the war on the Korean Peninsula.
In 1948, President Monson graduated with honors from the University of Utah with a degree in business management. He taught classes thereafter at the University while working on a graduate degree. In 1974, he received his masters degree in business administration (MBA) from Brigham Young University (BYU), thus hedging his bets on both sides of the “Holy War” – the annual football game between BYU and the University of Utah.
On October 7, 1948, two months after receiving his undergraduate degree, Thomas Monson married Frances Beverly Johnson. They will shortly celebrate their 62nd wedding anniversary. President and Sister Monson are the parents of three children — two boys and a girl.
In the same eventful year of 1948, Thomas Monson commenced his professional career by accepting a position with the advertising division of the Church-owned daily Salt Lake newspaper, Deseret News. During the next eleven years, he rose to become the sales manager and later served from 1959 to 1962 as general manager.
Important Church responsibilities also began almost immediately. By the time he turned 22, President Monson had served as a ward clerk, a superintendent of the young men and young women’s Mutual Improvement Association, and a counselor in a bishopric. On May 7, 1950, in his 22nd year, Thomas Monson was ordained a bishop of a large Salt Lake City ward, which had more than 1,000 members, including 85 widows. His loving and compassionate care for, and service to, the members of his ward, especially, but not exclusively, to the many widows, as a young 22-year old bishop, had a profound impact on his life. President Monson has frequently spoken about these sacred pastoral experiences.
Five years later, Thomas Monson, 27, was called to serve as a counselor in a stake presidency. A stake, for those not familiar with Mormon terminology, is an ecclesiastical unit compromised of a number of wards or congregations. It is presided over by a stake presidency, which is composed of the stake president and two counselors. During his service as a bishop and as a counselor in the stake presidency, President Monson continued his full-time employment with Deseret News. That situation changed dramatically in his 32nd year.
In 1959, when Thomas Monson was 32 years old, he was called to serve as President of the Church’s Canadian Mission, which then included the provinces of Ontario and Quebec. In this calling, he presided over a number of full-time missionaries, elders and sisters, in their late teen years and early 20s who were devoting several years of their time to bear witness to the divinity of the Lord Jesus Christ and of the restoration of priesthood authority to the earth through the instrumentality of the Prophet Joseph Smith. It was during President Monson’s administration that missionary activities were inaugurated among the French-speaking residents of Quebec and Ontario.
At the conclusion of his three-year presidency of the Canadian Mission, Thomas Monson returned to his home in Salt Lake City and his employment with Deseret News. Things changed dramatically for President Monson the very next year. On October 4, 1963, at the 133rd Semiannual General Conference of the Church, when members from around the world gathered in Salt Lake City to receive inspiration and instruction from the leaders of the Church, Thomas Monson was called and sustained by the Church membership as the newest member of the Quorum of Twelve Apostles, which, along with the First Presidency of the Church, constitute the governing quorums. He was ordained an apostle on October 10, 1963, by then Church President, David O. McKay.
President Monson’s call to the apostleship was occasioned by the death of Henry D. Moyle, a counselor in the presidency of the Church. Upon the death of President Moyle, N. Eldon Tanner, a member of the Quorum of the Twelve was called to serve as a counselor to President McKay. The calling of elder Tanner left a vacancy in the Twelve, which was filled by the calling of Thomas Monson to the apostleship.
President Monson served as a member of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles for 22 years before being called to serve as a counselor to Church President Ezra Taft Benson on November 10, 1985. Subsequently, he served as a counselor to Church Presidents Howard W. Hunter and Gordon B. Hinckley. Shortly after the death on January 27, 2008, of President Hinckley at age 97, the First Presidency was reorganized and Thomas Monson became the 16th President of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints on February 3, 2008.
The two-plus years of President Monson’s service has seen remarkable growth in the Church, increased emphasis on the Church’s missionary and humanitarian outreach, a vigorous defense of the family and traditional marriage, and the sharing of his powerful witness of the saving power of the atonement of Jesus Christ.
In other articles, we will examine these topics.