LDS General Authorities and Ageism.

With the sorrowful passing of two Apostles, once again the subject of age of the leadership has been brought up. The calling of one Prophet or Apostle to replace another is accompanied by the term gerontocracy. This is the idea that the leadership is much older than the general population. Yes this is true, but the attitude expressed by those reporting it often has a critical tone. This criticism does at times become a mocking accusation that none of them are fit for the position. There is a thinly veiled stereotype of sickly isolated curmudgeon set in their ways.

Reporters and those outside of Mormonism aren’t the only ones who think negatively of the ages. Many critics inside the LDS Church, and especially those who want to see a more lenient or worldly moral and theological change, feel the General Authorities are too old. They argue that the higher ages stifle innovation and perhaps keep revelation to a minimum. Younger leadership, they often argue, would see things differently and more expansive.

A pastime for both the faithful and those who aren’t as orthodox is to guess how many years a General Authority has to live and then who will take their place, Whole charts have been developed to see who is oldest and youngest among them, and then make educated guesses who will make it to the Presidency of the Church. Death of the leadership has become something of an obsession.

There were times when the President of the LDS Church was too incapacitated for daily participation. Pres. Spencer W. Kimball had long stretches where he couldn’t function and actually wished to be released, although the Lord had other plans. His own two counselors were feeble enough that Gordon B. Hinckley, who would later become President, was called to assist them. His successor Pres. Ezra T. Benson also had many years of inactivity due to age, with a semi-famous grandson who resigned membership saying his grandfather was taken advantage of by using his name. Currently an unsubstantiated rumor has been floating around that President Monson has mental difficulties because of age, with the implication he can’t perform his calling as prophet. These examples are not always what happens as the Prophet’s grow older. Many of them work hard right up until the end of life when they suddenly pass away. The Presidents Lee and Hunter had short administrations with little expectation they wouldn’t live longer.

Perhaps most of this ageism comes from the Western ideal that youth and beauty are to be celebrated. The saying “you can’t teach old dogs new tricks,” has the meaning that the older someone is then the less likely they are to understand the knewest knowledge. Instead of showing respect and dignity for the older years, there comes shame at wrinkles and hiding seniors away in “old folks homes” to await death. Studies have found that the life expectancy of an older person in these “homes” is lower than direct family care. Yet for families who can’t or most likely don’t want to be responsible for aging parents, it becomes necessary to have them taken care of somehow. Often they end up neglected, forgotten, and poorly treated by minimum wage caretakers.

During the long running science fiction series Star Trek: The Next Generation there was an episode where an old scientist reaches the age of life retirement. This isn’t where they give up whatever occupation they have, but are expected to commit suicide. Feeling he had much more to accomplish to save his world from dying, and with Captain Picard agreeing, the older gentleman accepts asylum for a time. In the end the man returns to his planet knowing that all his research will do no good. His people wouldn’t accept the research no matter how much it might save them, because they insist seniors are a burden on society.

There are other cultures where low opinions of old people are rare. Many Native American tribes see the Elders as a fountain of knowledge able to pass down to the younger generations. Asian cultures are taught to respect those who are older and take them in to care for them in the way they did their own children. To abandon aging parents is a dishonor to the person who shoves them aside. In India the grandfathers and grandmothers are considered the head of the home. They are sought out for advise and final life decisions. Western history isn’t always consistent with old age disrespect as ancient Roman considered them wise and worthy of leadership positions, so long as they had a virtuous life. Some of this has changed in the modern age as the negative Western attitudes about seniors has taken root.

Other than to those who believe that drastic and necessary change is desired, the history of LDS leadership proves that age doesn’t keep the Church held back and in turmoil. There are many fail safes built into the Priesthood organization, starting at the top with the First Presidency. Inspired “committees” are formed to act as support among each member. The Prophet is supported by two counselors, who are followed by 12 men known as Apostles holding the same keys if the other three are incapacitated or dissolved. There are the Quorum of the Seventies comprising of Area Authorities who report to the other higher office holders. A scaffolding is in place to make sure all Church ecclesiastical and other business are well maintained. Above all, it isn’t the President’s or the Apostle’s Church. It is under the direction and protection of the Lord Jesus Christ who died and now has Eternal Life. The Priesthood itself is without beginning of days or end of years and therefore will survive long after everyone grows old.

28 thoughts on “LDS General Authorities and Ageism.

  1. “But the Lord said unto Samuel, Look not on his countenance, or on the height of his stature; because I have refused him: for the Lord seeth not as man seeth; for man looketh on the outward appearance, but the Lord looketh on the heart.”

    Those who call for an apostle to be of any age, race, or culture (or that the apostle not be of any specific age, race, or culture), would be well served to ponder the word of the Lord on such matters.

  2. I’m proud to belong to a rare organisation that still celebrates the wisdom of elderly sages.

  3. I love this post. As an undergraduate I took an anthropology class with a professor who had spent years in rural India studying aging. It was fascinating to see how different their views on aging were and how much more integral a role the elderly played.

  4. The very fact that so many complain about our leaders’ ages suggests to me that elderly leaders are exactly what we need.

    You’re spot on here: society’s rejection of the aged is linked to their worship of youth. What better way to wean the Saints away from the current fashion for youth-cult idolatry than by leaders who are as far from it as possible? Hypothetically, a world that gave undue focus to age might need young leaders.

    This is just another example of the Lord giving us a system meant to distance us from worldliness and focus on things of substance and eternity. Thank the Lord for our ages apostles!

  5. Steve Benson is actually President Benson’s grandson. He believes that his grandfather would have taken the Church in a different direction than how the counselors did, and was very vocal in saying so.

    Our nation, as with Europe, have developed a disdain for lives that seem useless. We abort useless babies that we do not want. We genetically test them to see if they will have genetic problems worthy of abortion. Some abort children that are the “wrong” sex, and more are now looking at genetically manipulating the fetus to be male/female, or to have blue eyes, etc.

    We hold the same attitude towards the elderly. We put them away, so we are not burdened by them. Some states are allowing end of life suicide. Discussions are now going on to discuss just how much medical care should we give someone of a certain age (should 85 year olds receive a new heart?).

    With our disdain for life that does not meet our definition of useful, we now seek reasons to eliminate it. Prophets are not modifying their definition of marriage, so they obviously must be too old and dotty to realize where the world (and therefore, God) are going.

  6. It seems funny to me that some people think having younger apostles and prophets would mean the church would have a different outlook on the world than it currently has. I’m a young person and I recognize that being too permissive is more harmful than helpful.

    Also, It would seem to me that people who think we need younger apostles and prophets don’t actually grasp the nature of those offices: Prophets and Apostles are mouthpieces of the Lord, so ultimately they don’t set policy.

    It also seems that these people forget that when a new Apostle is called they start out comparatively young. I remember when Bednar was called and I over heard my Mom talking with someone else about his age. The person my mom was speaking to (younger than my mother) was expressing surprise at how young Elder Bednar was. My Mom assured her that most of they Apostles were called at a similar age.

    I think I’ll stop rambling now.

  7. After Pope Benedict XVI announced his resignation, I remember attending a “study group” that discussed the LDS leadership structure, including an examination of the difference possible options for succession after the death of Joseph Smith.

    This is a study group that often discusses the edge of Mormonism, featuring in past sessions such matters as John Dehlin’s survey on why people leave the LDS faith, a presentation from the general authority who left the church, and in this case attempting to figure out ways that the leadership structure and succession practices might be changed to be more inclusive. It was in the context of this study group that I first heard the rumor that President Monson was an enfeebled old dottard.

    At any rate, this discussion of succession options and leadership structure occurred in 2013, before I had written my series on Joseph Smith and polygamy, along with the accompanying additional study of the conspiracy to kill Joseph Smith and the measures Joseph took to ensure the priesthood authority could survive intact even in the event of his death.

    The beauty of having an experienced cadre of individuals, trained across the decades to know and trust one another, is that you get the benefit of collective centuries of experience with the focus of one. Within the first century of the Church, it occurred that one or more of the apostles went off the rails (the most recent apostle to be excommunicated was Richard R. Lyman, who began his adulterous “plural marriage” with Anna Jacobsen Hegsted in 1925 – before Lyman, the three most junior apostles went off the rails in 1900, two of them sons of former Church presidents).

    Beyond the formally acknowledged leadership of the Church, there are the dozens of general officers and general authorities of the Church from all continents, along with their spouses. Add to the mix those individuals who were formerly in positions of active participation in Church leadership who have been released, but who remain close friends and confidants of others who are formally in positions of authority.

    Those who use the press and blogs to mawk at Church leadership betray their lack of “skill” and knowledge by the very use of such puerile and stupid tactics. It’s as asinine as the full-page ads and barrage of white roses the women’s rights protesters used in the 1980s.

    At any rate, my current understanding of Nauvoo history circa 1840-1846 leaves no doubt that keeping leadership in the hands of the twelve apostles and the first presidency is a right thing to do and the only right thing possible for Joseph circa 1844. And if ever there were to be a time when the leadership structure should change, it is this body that is the only body who can make such a change.

  8. Reminds me of a conversation I read between a church member and Elder Harold B. Lee. President McKay had just passed away and the man heard that Joseph Fielding Smith would be next in line. “How can that be? I can’t believe that,” he said. “How can we sustain Joseph Fielding Smith? He’s 93 years old. Why, he’s so old I’m not sure he is really quite with it.”

    Elder Lee responded, “My good brother, do you know what it takes to be a prophet of the Lord?”

    The man said, “Well, I guess I really don’t know exactly.”

    “Well,” said Elder Lee, “what do you think it would take?”

    The fellow then said, ” Well, I suppose he’d have to know all about genealogy, the missionary program of the church, and all the missionaries and what they’re doing and how to supervise them. He would need to know about the Primary and the Relief Society and the building and construction programs.” He named quite a few other major functions of the Church.

    When he finished, Elder Lee said, “That’s all wrong. Shall I tell you what it takes to be a prophet? There’s only one capacity; just one. And that is to be able to hear the voice of the Lord. That’s all. He’s got the rest of us doing the work. He just has to do one function. Do you suppose that this great living Apostle, who has been sustained a prophet for six decades, longer than any other man on earth, might be able to do that?”

    He continued, “Do you suppose that Joseph Fielding Smith who was a home teaching companion of President Wilford Woodruff might know something about that?” By this time the man, in some humility, was on the retreat. (Goates, B. (1988). He Changed My Life, pp. 32-33.)

    With this perspective, I am content to know the longest living Apostle, who has undergone years of spiritual training and preparation, regardless of age, is the most qualified individual, as a prophet, to respond to the voice of the Lord and act on it. And Elder Lee is right; that’s all that matters.

  9. The next two candidates for leader of the church are both outstanding in the fields they spent their life in before becoming apostles. President Nelson, who was a leading innovator in heart surgery, is a man who would be acknowledged as a fitting leader in any society but the most frivolous and youth obsessed.
    Experience and study have led me to believe that the spirit grows in capacity with increasing years. I have never heard one of our apostles or prophets say anything over the pulpit that would lead me to believe that they were no longer receiving the spirit. I have heard people forecast that something dreadful might occur, particularly when Joseph Fielding Smith and Ezra Taft Benson were next in line. However President Benson brought the Book of Mormon front and center and affirmed it. Under Joseph Fielding Smith, women who were married to nonmember or inactive men were allowed to receive temple recommends, which was not previously the practice unless a woman had been endowed in order to serve a mission while single. In a very real sense this meant that they were allowed to participate in Priesthood. Many of my fellow temple workers were single or married to men who could not hold recommends.
    The Lord leads the Church but he chooses servants who are ready, even gifted, for the task. I trust the process.

  10. I received an impression from the Lord this past General Conference. The Lord told me through the voice of His spirit that “the life of my servant is in my hands.”

    The Lord knows who His prophets are. Whom He has called, He qualifies.

  11. With respect to ageism one aspect of the dynamic is that societies which transmit information through primarily oral means tend to value older folks very highly while those with extensive written records (and bodies of knowledge which far exceed one person’s capacity to learn) tend to not place as high of a value of aged members of society. (There are also likely a million other factors, but this is one which has been identified.)
    The LDS Church is an interesting mix, obviously we write a lot of stuff down, but we rely on a lot of oral/functional traditionism as well. For instance President Packer often mentioned that much of what we do as a Church is not written down.
    I think as a group we tend to try to involve the elderly more than many other groups (and benefit from their experience).
    I view the selection process of members of the Quorum of the Twelve – and as a result the eventual presidents of the church as a test of faith. We have to have faith the initial selection into the Quorum is inspired by God, and then we have to have faith that God will control which of the Quorum members becomes President. It seems like an inspired system overall in the sense of if one can’t accept it then one likely can’t accept very much at all of “Mormonism”.

  12. I think the broader point is the church is pretty much guaranteed never to have a Zions Camp or Nauvoo exodus with aged leaders. Publishing a new book of scripture received by revelation? Perhaps. But most non-administrative revelation is unlikely with old leaders at the top.

    We can’t on one hand praise the Josephs, Brighams, etc who spent their prime as heavily influential leaders for generations and claim to prioritize the wisdom of age now. We don’t need age to lead the church, we need revelation.

    Lest there be any confusion, I’m fully committed and in awe by the chain of authority that the lifetime of service creates as those “youthful”(competitively) early church leaders are able to have maximum impact this way.

  13. “Hypothetically, a world that gave undue focus to age might need young leaders.”

    Maybe that puts Enoch’s exclamation “I am but a lad” into better light. People around him were living several hundred years, as I understand it.

  14. I think what is often ignored is that even if new leaders were picked which were younger (20-40), they would be member’s who already align themselves with the brethren. Thus, the only difference would be that the Lord would have to work through less experienced leaders.

  15. Again, the cry of the Lord working through inexperienced leaders rings hollow to me. While I appreciate the counter-culturalism in celebrating youth over age, I think in the case of the church it’s a false dichotomy. How else can we explain a God who supposedly prizes age-attained wisdom, and yet reveals himself to a 14year old boy, rather than an earnestly seeking 40year (70?) old man; of which history surely has had many.

    We can’t condemn the vices and follies of youth, to borrow a phrase, without also condemning God’s choice in Joseph.

    The order of succession is something I have no qualms with. But what matters is not the age (as many have pointed out) but whether or not a person is listening to and acting on revelation.

  16. Given that succession is conducted not by policy but by inspiration, there is nothing that prevents the next apostle from being a teenaged boy, nor is there anything that would prevent the quorum from elevating a previously teenaged boy to the status of prophet.

    However unless there is a strong reason to elevate a young boy to that position, I suspect that we will tend to see the past practices continue. Thus I expect that we’ll see two individuals with outstanding previous career/leadership accomplishments elevated to the quorum of the twelve. At such a time as President Monson passes away, I would expect to see the senior apostle assume the mantle of Church leadership.

    For every Mormon (the general and prophet) and Joseph Smith there has been a Tubaloth (see Helaman 1) and a William Smith.

  17. The idea that older apostles are better since they can call on a lifetime of experience is to suggest that their leadership is shaped, in part, by their experiences, and not 100% by inspiration. If that is the case, wouldn’t it be well to call younger apostles who have more relevant experience to the new world around us and who can call upon their more recent experiences and not the memories from a world long gone.

  18. “If that is the case, wouldn’t it be well to call younger apostles who have more relevant experience to the new world around us and who can call upon their more recent experiences and not the memories from a world long gone.”

    Wow, just like the teenager that is sure that he is smarter than his parents.

    As if older people no longer have relevant experiences in the real world? They are all just stuck crocheting in the old folks home watching their Matlock?

    These men are out ministering constantly. They are not locked away in some ivory tower. They clearly have their fingers on the pulse of the world, and their words and actions show that they are inspired and see what is coming long before many acknowledge it. The Family: A Proclamation to the World is just one example of this.

    Should a young apostle be called, I have no problem with it. But don’t call someone young just for the sake of being young. The Lord will call whom He wants. That is the qualifier.

  19. I do agree that the U.S and perhaps other western cultures are guilty of ageism. I am not sure exactly to which detractors this author is responding, but while I do hope for greater diversity in leadership, it isn’t because I don’t think that these wise older men have nothing to offer. I just don’t think they can offer *everything* that is actually needed. In the end, it is up to God, but I would be excited to see people contributing to revelation for the whole church that have markedly different experiences than one another (while that does occur on a smaller scale among current prophet and apostles, it could happen on a much larger and hence more productive scale if we pursued greater diversity). This would only enrich what the LDS church has already become. This does not imply that an older white male born and raised in the U.S doesn’t have just as important of a contribution as someone else, but frankly at work, school and within church callings, I have seen the benefits POVs that can approach a question at multiple angles. It often dispels prejudice, socialization and lack of experience.

  20. Another possibility is that Joseph was by and large inspired to call his peers and the Brethren do the same now. It is interesting that Joseph called his peers as apostles and yet his elder Father who would obviously make an ideal apostle in terms of time, being able to follow the spirit, etc. was called to an elderly statesman-like position as Patriarch. Joseph obviously valued his father as a leader but for some reason felt he shouldn’t fill the role out an apostle.

    Brigham called men who were in their 30s and mostly 40s. As the leadership trended older based on the stability of the quorum, calls went to older brothers who were closer in age to the current crop.

    It does bring a smile to my face imagining a 35 year old sitting with all the current members. I imagine he’d have a lot of nicknames like young pup and whippersnapper, etc.

  21. The original Quorum of Twelve faltered significantly. It wasn’t until the majority of the post Missouri Twelve served together in England without Joseph Smith’s direct supervision that they came together as leaders who knew how to follow God and work with one another.

    If we look beyond the Twelve to general Church leadership, there was another massive hemorrhaging around the time of Joseph’s death.

    While I don’t expect we’ll see a woman called as one of the apostles, I wouldn’t be terribly surprised if the individuals called to fill the vacancies in the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles fail to qualify as the standard white male. I do expect that they will be accomplished and seasoned leaders, a state which usually cannot be attained at a young age.

    There is one particular individual who I suspect might be called as an apostle. But since there are so many delightful possibilities, I prefer to remain mum and exclaim with excitement when the actual individuals are announced, whether or not the particular individual I would like to see in the Quorum is one of those two.

  22. “I am not sure exactly to which detractors this author is responding.”

    For the record no one in particular, but many that seem to have a low opinion of aged leadership both in and outside the church. One non-Mormon who co-wrote a mainstream book on Mormonism (with many inaccuracies) wrote on a blog that having such an old prophet was dangerous. He never explained why. Others simply made fun of the concept while we all know members who think they are out of touch. It was the quantity of such sentiments that brought me to write about this topic.

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