Thomas S Monson is the new president of the Mormon Church. After the death of Gordon B Hinckley on January 27th 2008, Monson’s appointment was announced on 4 February to a world overwhelmingly indifferent to all things Mormon; although the church prefers to think of us as all waiting with baited breathe. He was announced as “the new world leader of the church” on that date and more recently sustained as “prophet, seer and revelator” at the 178th Annual General Conference in April and now heads the, nominally 13 million strong church. He has issued the traditional invitation to “the less active, the offended, the critical, the transgressor” to come back and “feast at the table of the Lord and taste again the sweet and satisfying fruits of fellowship with the Saints.”
The response has been the traditional stampede of indifference as people who have once walked in the light of the Son prove reluctant to return to the shadows of Mormonism, while those with grievances, from liberal-minded progressives to frustrated fundamentalists, along with a large number of the cold and indifferent see nothing to attract them back to a religion that epitomises conservatism, and micro-management.
Thomas S Monson has the distinction of being the first Mormon president to have been born after the war – the First World War that is. The Mormon Church has the distinction of being probably the best established gerontocracy in the world, making even the leadership of China look increasingly youthful by comparison. The previous five presidents were all born within 20 years of each other, before or around the turn of the twentieth century, from Harold B Lee (b.1899) through Spencer W Kimball (b.1895); Ezra Taft Benson (b.1899); Howard W Hunter (b.1907) and Gordon B Hinckley (b.1910).
This last president, Gordon B Hinckley, was the man who, in his dotage, guided the Mormon Church into the 21st century, but he is only following in the footsteps of the man who effectively guided the Mormons into the 20th century, Joseph F Smith (b.1838). If you have ever wondered why those nice young missionaries seem so steady, carrying themselves as though they enjoyed wisdom beyond their years (which of course they really don’t have) you need only look to the leaders they strive to emulate. That is not gravitas they are copying, its arthritis and the cautious gait of old age.
So what sort of leader will the new man be? One word that has been used a lot to describe him is ‘folksy’. He is said to have a speaking style that favours anecdotes and down-home story-telling that has a lesson for life. A look at his inaugural “First Presidency Message” as president in the April Ensign magazine gives a good flavour of the man. Under the heading “Treasures of Eternal Value” he offers us an insight into what he calls a “three part treasure map to guide you to your eternal happiness”. In a rambling and “folksy” message he takes us from the radio programme he used to listen to as a boy – Jack Armstrong, the All-American Boy (those were the days), through a “romantic and fanciful ballad from years ago”, his naval training towards the end of the Second World War and the Christmas cards he and his wife exchanged for fifty five years with their good friends Bob and Grace.
The proverbs are there in abundance: “Fear is the enemy of progress”; “Success is the progressive realization of a worthy ideal”; “you pile up enough tomorrows, and you will find you’ve collected a lot of empty yesterdays” (this from The Music Man); “never put off ‘till tomorrow what you can do today”; “the bitterest tears shed over graves are the words left unsaid and the deeds left undone”. Yes, the proverbs are there and he cites sources as varied as the 1957 Broadway musical The Music Man, R L Stevenson’s Treasure Island, a 1930’s radio drama, a popular ballad by Buddy DeSylva (who wrote for Al Johnson), and the (19th c.) author Harriet Beecher Stowe, as well as personal anecdotes.
He mentions Jesus twice, cites the Bible once and says nothing, absolutely nothing about the Christian gospel. Nothing about the purposes of God in Christ; nothing about the inherent sinfulness of man; nothing about the effectual nature of Christ’s sacrifice on the Cross; nothing about the need for us to turn to God for mercy; nothing about grace; nothing about the sure hope of the gospel and nothing about the sure promises of God to those who love him. His three pieces of the map to guide you to your eternal happiness are:
1. Learn from the past
2. Prepare for the future
3. Live in the present
It is a self-help message of which Samuel Smiles, Dale Carnegie and Norman Vincent Peale would have been proud. I have a similar message on my study wall on a “precious” poster my wife gave me years ago. It reminds me:
1. Learn from yesterday
2. Live for today
3. Look to tomorrow
4. Rest this afternoon
I prefer the Snoopy version. I don’t think we can look to this man for any substantial doctrine, prophetic outlook or insightful teaching, indeed I think The Gospel According to Snoopy will probably prove more challenging.