The Next Three Years

In his talk Sunday morning, Gordon Hinckley read from a journal his experience with the death of several apostles half a century ago.

In a three year period from August 8, 1950 to December 13, 1953, five members of the Quorum of the Twelve died: George F. Richards, Joseph F. Merrill, John A. Widtsoe, Albert Ernest Bowen, and Matthew Cowley. In addition, Church President George Albert Smith died on April 4, 1951 (his birthday), and Stephen L. Richards left the Quorum to serve as David O. McKay’s counselor. The dead took with them 448 years of life, 172 years as apostles, and also George Albert Smith’s almost 6 years as President of the Church. In six of eight consecutive General Conferences, the Church sustained new apostles: Delbert L. Stapley, Marion G. Romney, LeGrand Richards, Adam S. Bennion, Richard L. Evans, and George Q. Morris.

Unlike the once middle-aged Brother Hinckley, I have no personal acquaintance with any members of the Church’s presiding quorums. So I applied the impersonal spirit of probability to consider the coming three years. When the Church meets in April 2009 for its 179th Annual General Conference, the chances are:
Current members of the First Presidency and the Quorum of the Twelve will all be alive, 1.8%;
one dead, 9.3%;
two dead, 20.8%;
three dead, 26.7%;
four dead, 22.0%;
five dead, 12.5%;
six dead, 5.1%; and
seven or more dead, 1.9%.

Not a lot can be said as to which of those fifteen men will have died. Gordon Hinckley has a one in three chance of living another three years; Joseph Wirthlin is slightly more likely than not to still be alive then; Tom Perry and James Faust each have a two-thirds chance of still being with us then; Jeff Holland and Dieter Uchtdorf have almost eight-ninths probability of both living another three years. Collectively, though, those fifteen will leave several vacancies. I haven’t run the numbers, but it appears that the membership of the First Presidency and the Quorum of the Twelve as it will be composed seven years from now will be little changed over the subsequent two decades.

[Probabilities were calculated using Table 5: Life table for white males, United States, 2002 on pages 15-16 of United States Life Tables, 2002, National Vital Statistics Reports, Vol. 53, No. 6, November 10, 2004 produced by the Center for Disease Control. Ages of the Church leaders were rounded to whole values. No other information was used in this analysis. Information concerning health was not used, only age and the statistical death rates for white males in the United States.]

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About John Mansfield

Mansfield in the desertA third-generation southern Nevadan, I have lived in exile most of my life in such places as Los Alamos, Baltimore, Los Angeles, the western suburbs of Detroit, and currently the northern suburbs of Washington, D.C. I work as a fluid dynamics engineer. I was baptized at age twelve in the font of the Las Vegas Nevada Central Stake Center, and on my nineteenth birthday I received the endowment in the St. George Temple. I served as a missionary mostly in the Patagonia of Argentina from 1985 to 1987. My true calling in the Church seems to be working with Cub Scouts, whom I have served in different capacities in four states most years since 1992. (My oldest boy turned eight in 2004.) I also currently teach Sunday School to the thirteen-year-olds. I hold degrees from two universities named for men who died in the 1870s, the Brigham Young University and the Johns Hopkins University. My wife is Elizabeth Pack Mansfield, who comes from New Mexico's north central mountains and studied molecular biology at the same two schools I attended. We have four sons, whose care and admonition, along with care of my aged father, require much of Elizabeth's time. She currently serves the Church as Mia-Maid advisor, ward music chairman, and choir director, and plays violin whenever she can. One day, I would like to make shoes.

20 thoughts on “The Next Three Years

  1. But, do these numbers take into account that fact that LDS General Authorities seem to live far longer than ‘average’ white males? After all, statistically speaking, shouldn’t Pres. Hinckley been dead decades ago?

  2. To the extent that 95-year old general authorities live longer than other 95-year-olds, the tables do not take that into account. But neither do they assume that because those general authorities have already exceeded the life expectancy of an average white male, they will die in the next year.

  3. I know that these are the kinds of discussions life insurance people and mathmaticians have all the time, but it still seems kind of ghoulish to me. I guess, like many people, I just don´t like to think about the possibility people I care for will soon be gone. I know I will see at least some of them on the other side, but still…

  4. Of more interest to me is that I found your non-use of middle (or occassional first) initials to be greatly disruptive to reading your post. I’m so conditioned to those initials!

  5. It also doesn’t take into account though, known health problems of people like Pres. Monson.

  6. Because Mormon high priests turn up on the lists of those who are longest lived among US white males, and because the brethren you mention are 1) more likely to have lived all of the Word of Wisdom principles; 2) because they are exceptionally well disciplined in everything they do; and, 3) because the Lord may well preserve them beyond their physical characteristics, I think your numbers are way off.

    If I were a betting man, I would wager the over on those odds.

  7. While we are all aware of the mortality of the Brethren, I think this post is unnecessary. I know that I wouldn’t want my life reduced to numbers and probablity in a context like this one. I hope you will consider taking this post down.

  8. #7 – that’s true Julie, this post should be removed because it might determine the odds of us all dying at some point in the next few years because you could actually die tomorrow for all we know and what are the odds of that? Perhaps we don’t need/want to know, but it is an interesting question…let us know, Julie, if you make it through the next 3 years, and we can then chalk it up to probability, not the fact that your life’s work will be still ongoing at that point! C’mon, Julie, beat all the odds, we’re rooting for you! (pssst: I think Mr. Mansfield’s foray into the ‘Real’ numbers may have skewed his vision of what is ‘chance’ and what is ‘Real’ — what are the odds of that?!?!)

    I say take this popst down, it’s too uncertain!

  9. Is the life expectancy of prophets and apostles greater than that of other men their age? This is an interesting question and a tricky one to examine since life expectancy of almost every age group has increased even over the last thirty years. I’ll give it some thought and see if I can come up with a correct measure across the decades.

    Some are uncomfortable with this topic. In favor of discussing it, I’ll point out that President Hinckley brought it up. Writings about death are common enough in these Mormon web logs. Numerical analysis is a significant way by which I think about things.

    Since 1950, twenty-eight have been ordained apostles, an average of one every two years. I think another cluster of deaths and callings, such as the one President Hinckley read about to us, is coming, to be followed by a fairly static compostion of leadership for a period exceeding the one after Gordon Hinckley became Church President.

    I’ll point out another period, 1900 to 1911, when ten apostles were ordained, including George Albert Smith, David O. McKay, and Joseph Fielding Smith. Which raises another question: How many future Church Presidents are currently in the succession line up? A question for another day.

  10. I’ve seen bloggernacle posts written for lawyers, artists, computer geeks, philosophers and SAHM’s. This is the first actuarial post I’ve read.

    As pension actuary, I do these kinds of studies all the time. I haven’t checked the details of what John posted, but the results seem realistic. I would have used table that goes to 110 instead of 100, but the results wouldn’t be all that different.

    I’ve often thought about the mortality spikes among the brethren. I think it’s a cycle that we’ll be stuck in forever unless they vary the age at which they call the new ones. If you call three fifty year-olds, chances are, 40 years later you’ll call three more. Also, I think that the tightness of the 15 as friends and coworkers affects their mortality as well. That would be hard to quantify.

    Thanks for bringing this up.

  11. John I agree. And personally I think both your posts this week were among my favorites.

    What’s interesting is to think about what changes to the Church this changing of the guard might bring. Realize that Pres. Hinkley and his “peers” grew up in a time when probably many people in his ward were still polygamists. While he didn’t know them, probably many of the adults he grew up around were familiar personally with Wilford Woodruff and even Brigham Young. Pres. Hinkley grew up before the rise of the modern era of America and the Church. It was the time prior to WWII. It really was a radically different world – especially in the Utah region. I think few of us would recognize that world.

    Contrast this with the Apostles called the past 20 years. Most have technical backgrounds and just a very different set of life experiences than those who’ve been our leaders the past 40 years. This could introduce as big a change in the Church as the rise of those who didn’t have connections to Joseph Smith or even the early days of Utah.

  12. #7 has been a participant in numerous discussions in the bloggernacle through the last couple years that some would consider unnecessary and reduced the sanctity of church doctrine. Glass house and rock throwing analogy aside, please keep this post online.

  13. pssst, i was being cynical about Julie’s remarks (Go Julie!). Odds are interesting and numerical analysis has it’s place more than we probably realize, but i really hope that we do not try and regress these results to determine some sort of forecasting model as to when prophets and apostles pass on from this life given the number and ages of the current set of apostles; now that would be ludicrous and way to quantitative a result to pursue given that the actual results of this study probably fit into the qualitative realm of answers such as quality of life, sanity of mind, and spiritual awareness of a preserving God that is all-merciful to the preservation of those that seek his will and are his ensigns to the nations!

  14. “I’ve often thought about the mortality spikes among the brethren. I think it’s a cycle that we’ll be stuck in forever.”

    I’m skeptical. There is too much variation in age of death to have such a cycle persist very long. I strongly suspect that if you analyzed death dates of apostles, the data would look very much like a poisson arrival process, in other words a series of independent events. You will always get some clusters just by chance, and it’s human nature to attribute order to what is essentially random, as has been demonstrated by many studies.

  15. I agree that at if you looked at day or month of death, you’d have a Poisson process. The deaths are independent enough. However if you look at the data in 3-5 year buckets, I think a pattern will show up. They lose their independence at that level because of the homogeneity of the gene pool in Mormon leadership, the lack of variation in the age at when the men are called and the psychological effects of having people close to you die.

    Also the “Poisson”-ness of the deaths of any group of humans is built in to the mortality table. In theory, the CDF of a human death is that table.

    Of course, any mortality forecasts for a group of less than 200 should be taken with a pillar of salt. The tables are better suited for larger cohorts.

  16. I sort of agree with Julie here. There’s something of the hyena looking at how soon someone is going to die. It seems disrespectful.

  17. My sisters and I sometimes worry about what it’ll be like when Pres. Hinckley and the majority of the current Quorum of the 12 pass on; we were inactive off and on, with a long stretch of inactivity, until 1995 — the current church leadership is therefore, for us, pretty much the only way it’s ever been. It’s a big deal to us, but in ways that are hard to express, so we substitute “and then they’ll have to change the song!” Referring, of course, to #134 in the Children’s Songbook:

    Latter-day prophets are: number one,
    Joseph Smith; then Brigham Young;
    John Taylor came third, we know;
    Then Wilford Woodruff; Lorenzo Snow;
    Joseph F. Smith (remember the F);
    Heber J. Grant; and George Albert Smith;
    David O. McKay was followed by Joseph Fielding Smith,
    Then Harold B. Lee, Spencer W. Kimball,
    Ezra Taft Benson, Howard W. Hunter.
    Gordon B. Hinckley shows the way.
    We hear and follow his words today.

    I don’t think we’re trying to be disrespectful when we complain that they’ll have to change the song, or that they’re running out of music (since the list will keep getting longer) — it’s one of those “approaching the issue in an oblique fashion” coping techniques. I’m not surprised or appalled that people who think about and use actuarial tables and probability and all the rest of it, use those tools as a way of approaching something that is difficult to discuss.

    (now they’re teaching a new ad-hoc song, matching the names of the current Quorum of the 12, plus the First Presidency, to the tune used for “The Books in the Book of Mormon;” our whole Primary will be learning a different version of that song every time one of those fifteen men passes on — their favorite name is Uchdorf, which I suppose they’ll get to keep singing for a while.)

  18. They have already changed the song. It used to go:

    David O. McKay was followed by Joseph Fielding Smith,
    A modest man was Harold B. Lee,
    And now we’ve named past prophets, you see,
    Our prophet today is loved by all,
    It’s Spencer W. Kimball.

  19. Somehow I misremembered the adjective the song applied to Harold B. Lee. He was a “mighty man.”

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