The new president and prophet of the Mormon church is in some respects a throwback, an 80-year-old man with a fondness for talking in parables and quoting Charles Dickens.
But Thomas S. Monson is also described as a student of a fast-changing world and his faith’s place in it. He oversaw the building of a Mormon temple behind the Iron Curtain and was at ease visiting the Roman Catholic cathedral in Salt Lake City, friends say.
Monson was named on Monday as the 16th president of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and immediately declared the 13 million-member denomination would not veer significantly from the course set by his predecessor, Gordon B. Hinckley, who died Jan. 27 at age 97.
He takes over at a time when the church is undergoing rapid growth around the globe and coming under close scrutiny because of Mormon Mitt Romney’s campaign for the White House.
“There will be no abrupt changes in the courses we’ve been pursuing,” Monson said at an introductory news conference. “Although procedures and programs may be adjusted from time to time, the doctrine is constant.”
Monson pledged to continue building bridges with people of other faiths and held up young Mormons as “beacons of goodness” in “a world of shifting values and standards.”
The very fact that Monson held a news conference — and fielded questions — dispelled predictions that he might be more reserved than the media-savvy Hinckley.
Plans to travel
Asked about his health, Monson said his diabetes is “under control totally,” and would not prevent him from traveling extensively, as Hinckley did. He looks far younger than his 80 years.
As the longest-tenured of 14 apostles who served the church president, Monson was all but assured of taking over the presidency, in keeping with long-standing church practice.
The president of the Mormon church is revered as a “prophet, seer and revelator.” Because the church believes in continuing revelation, past church presidents have changed church teachings, outlawing polygamy in 1890 and lifting a ban in 1978 on black men holding the Mormon priesthood.
Jon Huntsman Sr., a billionaire philanthropist who has known Monson for 35 years, described him as a church leader with a strong personal touch. He said Monson was often late for their fly-fishing outings because he would stop at a hospital to visit an ill church member.
A Navy veteran of World War II, Monson holds a master’s degree in business administration from the church-owned Brigham Young University in Provo. At 22, he was called as a bishop — the Mormon equivalent of a pastor. He would bring plump dressed chickens from his own coop to widows at Christmas.
Monson later served as president of the church’s Canadian mission and at 36 was called to the elite Quorum of the Twelve, giving him a good chance of becoming church president one day.
On Reagan-era interfaith panel
But his wasn’t a sheltered existence; Monson often was the voice of Mormonism to outsiders, serving on a Reagan administration interfaith panel.
Dieter Uchtdorf, who later joined Monson on the Quorum of the Twelve, said that Monson is a hero in Germany for prophesying the fall of the Berlin Wall and for building a Mormon temple in the former East Germany before the wall fell.
Uchtdorf called Monson “a man of great courage, a man of great wisdom, of deep love, of deep spiritual power and warm sensitivity for the individual like no one else.”
“People often say, ‘Well, he tells stories,”’ Uchtdorf said. “Well, no, I think he talks in parables, like the savior did. He shares it in a way my grandchild can understand it.”
Monson freely quotes from the Bible but also from Dickens, one of his favorite authors. In a 1991 article in a church magazine, Monson cited a passage from “A Christmas Carol” to illustrate his point that children “are most perceptive and often utter profound truths.”
On Monday, Monson announced he had promoted Uchtdorf, 67, a Czech-born former German airline executive, to the church’s First Presidency, a three-man body that includes Monson.
Most Mormons now live abroad
The selection of the sole apostle born outside the U.S. could signal that Monson is aware of the challenges facing what has become a global enterprise. About 55 percent of all Mormons now live outside the U.S., and some countries are experiencing problems retaining believers.
Emma Lou Thayne, 83, who served on the board of the church-owned Deseret News with Monson for 17 years, described Monson as a business-minded intellectual who is compassionate and willing to listen to all points of view.
Thayne, a poet and self-described feminist, said Monson heeded her prodding to stop referring to female employees as girls.
“I’d say, ‘Tom, these are women. You would not call the men who came in here boys,”’ she said. “He’d accept it and say, ‘That’s good to know.’ Then he’d forget the next time and I’d remind him again. But he was never acerbic. That’s a good quality to have.”
If Monson’s lifetime appointment as church president is marked by the same acts of kindness he likes to talk about in public, it could serve the church well as it continues to seek its place in the American mainstream, said Richard Bushman, a Mormon scholar.
“If you get down to fundamental acts of goodness, it sort of reduces the doctrinal matters — all the concern about whether Mormons are crazy in their beliefs,” Bushman said. “I look forward to this, to get back to basics.”