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Mormon Church Names Russell M. Nelson As New Leader

Russell M. Nelson, speaking at a funeral last October, has been named leader of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
Welden C. Andersen
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints
Russell M. Nelson, speaking at a funeral last October, has been named leader of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, better known as the Mormon church, has named 93-year-old Russell M. Nelson as its new president.

"I express my deep love for you — love that has grown over decades of meeting you, worshipping with you and serving you," Nelson, a former surgeon and longtime church leader, said in a live video announcement Tuesday morning from the Salt Lake Temple in Utah.

Former Church President Thomas S. Monson died earlier this month after nearly a decade leading the faith of some 16 million members.

Since 1984, Nelson has been a member of the Mormon church's Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, a group of men that oversees the "orderly progress and development of the global Church." He has been that group's president since July 15, 2015.

"Two days ago, my brethren of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles laid hands upon my head, ordained me, set me apart as president of the church. It was a sacred and humbling experience," Nelson said at a news conference. "We live in the most vibrant era in the history of the world."

Nelson is expected to continue in the leadership tradition of the church's previous president.

"What they prize in their transition is continuity of the tradition. And they choose a man who is most experienced ... the most mature in terms of experience in the system," Kathleen Flake, a religious studies professor at the University of Virginia who focuses on the Mormon church, told Morning Edition.

The power structure is designed to create that continuity. Flake added that she thinks the person "who sits at the top of the Mormon church operates less as a sole actor than people realize. He is always acting within a consular model that demands unanimity among 15 people."

The previous president, Monson, reaffirmed the church's opposition to same-sex marriage. When asked about his position on the issue, Nelson said: "God loves his children and he wants them to have joy." He did not explicitly denounce same-sex marriage but stressed that there is a need to find balance between the "love of the Lord and the law of the Lord."

The Mormon church is led by white men from the U.S., and Nelson stated that "we'll live to see the day when there are other flavors in the mix." He added that the current leadership is a product of who was called by the Lord. "Not one of us asked to be here." He added that the church depends on women's voices and participation.

During his career as a heart surgeon, Nelson "performed the first open heart surgery in the state of Utah and pioneered advancements for coronary artery disease," KUER's Lee Hale reported.

Nelson has visited some 133 countries, according to the church. As Hale reported, "one of his first assignments involved overseeing the church's presence in the former Soviet Union and he's had similar assignments in Africa and Central Asia."

Hale added that Nelson recently "defended the controversial church policy that forbids the children of gay parents to be baptized without special approval. Speaking to students at the church-owned Brigham Young University-Hawaii, Nelson said the policy was a result of revelation and reflected the will of the Lord."

Nelson named two other church leaders — 85-year-old Dallin H. Oaks and 84-year-old Henry B. Eyring — to serve as his counselors in the church's highest governing body.

Nelson is believed to be in good health. His family looked on and waved at the camera during the announcement, including some of his 116 great-grandchildren.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit

Corrected: January 16, 2018 at 12:00 AM EST
A previous version of this story said Russell M. Nelson has 116 grandchildren. In fact, Nelson has 116 great-grandchildren. Additionally, we also quoted Russell M. Nelson as saying, "Two days ago, my brethren of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles laid hands upon my hands." In fact, Nelson said "laid hands upon my head."
Merrit Kennedy is a reporter for NPR's News Desk. She covers a broad range of issues, from the latest developments out of the Middle East to science research news.
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