Imagine: An Honorable Release

John NilssonMormon, prophets 49 Comments


General Conference, April 2008

President Thomas S. Monson steps to the pulpit and says:

“Brothers and sisters, thank you for your prayers. They have sustained me as I have wrestled with the feelings of inadequacy which naturally beset one who is called to this office. After prayerful discussion with my brethren of the First Presidency and Quorum of the Twelve, we have determined that out of consideration for the personal well-being of the individuals involved, those ordained as apostles will serve until the age of 85, at which time they will be given General Authority Emeritus status. They will continue to enjoy the rights and privileges which accrue to the other emeritus General Authorities, including a living allowance, attendance at our monthly temple meeting, and appropriate Church service. It is expected that in five years I will thus become the first president of the church to receive emeritus status and allow one of my younger brethren to preside.

At this time we would also like to grant emeritus status to Elders L. Tom Perry and Joseph B. Wirthlin, who have worn out their lives in the Lord’s service. We are gratified that they will now be able to pass on their faith and insights gained from apostolic service to their posterity.

It is hoped that in this way, the Lord’s pattern for calling the leader of His Church on the earth will no longer be the subject of speculation, and that members of the Church may continue in firm faith that the Lord is in complete control of succession in the presidency. We will now be pleased to hear from Elders Perry and Wirthlin. Elder Perry…”

Discuss, my friends:

Comments 49

  1. Great idea. Only you should add elder Packer, Scott & Hales who have all passed their prime, to that list. But keep Perry going because he’s still healthy and witty.

    Next time I see Jesus I’ll suggest this! 🙂

    But in reality I doubt they will give up all the power and prestige for some permanent R&R. Next one to be too sick and senile is……

  2. I don’t mean to offend, but…Lame, Lame, Lame…I just find the idea so…uncool. What’s really the motivation here?

  3. John Nilsson, I would not have a problem with this at all considering how hard these guys work. They say that the number of doctors who die right after retirmement is staggering. I wonder if the same might be the case for the apostles if 85 were to be the retirement age. Any life changing event like retirement brings with it chances of depression and life shortening.

    I wouldnt have a problem with it and would welcome the change if it were to happen. Perhaps they should put it to the membership for a vote? What do you say John Hamer?

  4. Post


    I mentioned Elders Perry and Wirthlin because they have both passed the age of 85. 85 was a fairly arbitrary age, but then so is 70, which is the age around which most General Authorities are currently emeritized. Having a standard age for emeritus status removes the possibility of favoritism and politics coming into play, the same way death now acts as an impartial selector in the presiding quorums. I like all of the top fifteen men for one reason or another, so I would be sad to see any of them go.

    Paul W,

    Why is this idea lame? I deliberately used language from General Conferences past wherein emeritus status was introduced for most General Authorities “out of concern for the well-being of the individuals involved”. That’s my motivation as well. Do you think that the Seventies and Presiding Bishopric should serve for life too?

    Stephen W,

    I considered the impact emeritus status would have on life expectancy, but you must remember that just like professors, emeritus status can be a very active stage of life. One is actually not released the same way members of the Presiding Bishopric and Second Quorum of the Seventy are. Emeritus General Authorities continue to be vitally involved in the life of the church as temple presidents, church spokesmen, directors of church initiatives like the Perpetual Education Fund and LDS Humanitarian Services, etc. What they are taken off of is the grueling stake and regional conference assignment schedule, mission tours, and endless committee and administrative work. Elders Marion Hanks, Hartman Rector, Alexander Morrison, and John Carmack are just a few examples of emeritus General Authorities who continue to make their presence felt in meaningful ways.

    It’s also more merciful to the individuals and their families!

  5. Stephen W (#3): A counter example is the LDS church’s Emeritus Presiding Patriarch, Eldred G. Smith. He was released to emeritus status in 1979, and he is still alive today at age 101. In the Community of Christ, which has a long tradition of allowing apostles and prophets to retire in old age, Prophet Emeritus Wallace B. Smith (released 1996) is still alive today. He will address JWHA’s Restoration Studies Symposium next month.

  6. I can’t see why that would be a bad idea. There have been general authorities who have become ill and basically had the younger ones running the show for them in the last stages of thier lives. Why not just simplfy ahead of the inevitable? Why not let these men spend the last years of thier lives with thier families, able to take part in church leadership in a more low key way?

  7. I like the idea that the members of the 12 can retire and have the emeritus status. However, instead of a manditory age limit, I would like to see them choose when and if they step aside. I do not see any reason to make all of them serve until they pass. When they feel like they cannot contribute to the work that is apointed unto them, they should be allowed to step aside. The church should let them.

  8. Stephen W (#3,6): Whereas I myself do think that in a church God’s will is most effectively expressed, on average, through the medium of personal inspiration to all the individual members who then choose their leaders through theodemocratic principles, I absolutely don’t think the LDS leaders should announce a policy shift like that next conference. I know that you’re eager to get voting, but massive/abrupt institutional changes are jarring. Jarring change can be worse than no change.

    John N: Although I do think that it would be very helpful for the LDS church as an institution to address the problem of its aging leadership, I don’t think it would be helpful to announce a manditory retirement age from the pulpit next conference. Instead, I think that the 15 apostles should internally agree to term limits (without publically telling the membership). A possible solution would be a 12 year term limit within the Quorum of Twelve to which can be added up to 6 years in the First Presidency. (E.g, if you had been an apostle for 10 years, then spent 3 years as a Counselor in the First Presidency, if you then succeeded to be President you would retire after 5 years or less.)

    For apostles already “maxxed out,” they would begin retiring to Emeritus status on a semi-annual basis each conference, in order of seniority. That way, the only announcement you would have in conference is Elder Packer’s honorable retirement, followed by Elder Perry’s next fall. Only after this system has been operating for 5 (or better yet 10) years, should church spokespeople confirm that this system is the way things are done and always have been.

  9. However, instead of a manditory age limit, I would like to see them choose when and if they step aside.

    Do you really think that any of them would? The idea of being a member of the Qo12 for life is so ingrained, I can’t imagine any of them actually choosing to retire.

    Only after this system has been operating for 5 (or better yet 10) years, should church spokespeople confirm that this system is the way things are done and always have been.

    I found this quote to be quite humorous and subversive, whether you intended it to be or not. Is our institutional memory that short? Maybe this subtle, behind the scenes, action is the way to go. But then there will be the problem 25 years from now when some members say, “I never learned this in primary. Why wasn’t I told that apostles used to serve until death?!?” We really don’t want to cause others to loose their faith. So I guess we should make a clean break and announce the policy change up-front.

  10. “Do you really think that any of them would? The idea of being a member of the Qo12 for life is so ingrained, I can’t imagine any of them actually choosing to retire.”

    When they were called to the 12, they accepted the calling with the mindset that it is where they are going to be until they die. It is all we have ever seen or known. Maybe if that changed, then the new members, and there will be about 8-10 of them in the next 10 years, may not be so ingrained.

    If they get really sick and feeble and can no longer function this gives them a way to step aside and not hold up the work. I cannot imagine having to be paraded about as they try to fullfill their calling, or not able to work but expecting it from yourself, is very fun. If they are too prideful to retire when they can no longer function, then it is the same now. Maybe when the new ones come in with this policy in place it would be easier for them.

  11. Post

    John H,

    You raise some substantive points about how to introduce change. There have been cultural changes in the past announced from the pulpit (all General Authorities in the LDS Church essentially served for life until President Tanner announced emeritus status in October 1978 General Conference), so that was announced from above. The following year the troublesome office of Church Patriarch, not just it’s officeholder, Eldred Smith, was retired, and I didn’t hear of disaffection in the rank and file (although there have been some grumbles from the Smith family.)

    Why do you think it would be jarring? Announcing President Packer’s emeritus status would be jarring in and of itself, as it is without precedent.

  12. The Apostles are men of faith. They feel that God has extended this calling to them and they will serve faithfully in that capacity to the extent of their abilities. Therefore no such retirement scheme will be implemented unless they all feel that that is indeed God’s will.
    Now a quick suggestion: Perhaps the church benefits from having ailing apostles as a visible symbol of a specific aspect of service – that illustrated by the widows might.
    As they are men of faith I doubt they’d find arguments about how it would make their lives much easier to be persuasive.

  13. If this happens we will have the same problem when Nixon, Ford, Carter, Reagen, Bush, & Clinton were alive at the same time. There was too much money being spent on live former and present presidents. This would cast a financial inquiry upon the church. It would also mean almost every year there would be new appointments. A new prophet every 2 to five years would be standard.

    In my opinion this step would be one of many trends that would send the Church into a ‘Watering Down’ of doctrines.

    Jamie Trwth

  14. Well then, we should probably grant emeritus status to the three Nephites and John the Beloved as well…

    Or maybe, we could stop trying to steady the ark.

  15. Post


    I hadn’t thought of the symbolic value of having ailing apostles. I’ll have to think about that!

    I think the real purposes of extending the emeritus status to all General Authorities would be to: 1) prevent speculation of who will die when, who will live long enough to inherit the church presidency (maybe I am the only one who has ever speculated about these things); 2) eliminate the possibility of a very public decline in physical and mental capacity on the part of the top quorums.

    A thought for discussion: When President Tanner introduced the concept in General Conference 30 years ago, why weren’t the First Presidency and Twelve included?

    (I say this knowing that Hugh B. Brown had proposed emeritus status around 1968 for the apostles, offering himself as the first to be emeritized.)

  16. John N (13): I think your proposed change would feel jarring because of the intense focus LDS people have on their leadership and because, in terms of historical precedent, mandatory retirement would actually be a massive change. You’d be going from almost nobody in the leadership retiring ever to everyone being forced to retire. Massive changes are jarring, especially for a churches, more especially for highly conservative churches.

    People have a perception of LDS leaders in their minds now. Obviously, that perception (whatever it is) doesn’t include a mandatory retirement age. If you add that new fact, it may upset their thinking. That kind of new fact may not seem consistent with their old perception. Again, that could lead to dissatisfaction with change itself for some believers.

    Also, a lot of people don’t believe in set retirement ages because effectiveness in old age varies so much from person to person. (I have several historian friends in their 80s who are extraordinarily active — Jan Shipps and Biloine Whiting Young come to mind immediately. I know other people in their 70s who seem much older than either of those ladies.) If they already don’t like retirement ages, they also won’t like the change.

    That’s why I would suggest term limits instead of age limits and I’d suggest that any limits be introduced behind the scenes rather than in public.

    Kari (11):

    Is our institutional memory that short?

    Effectively, yes — in terms of softening the effects of change. BTW, that’s just for the PR folks to start confirming it. It would be another 5 or 10 years before it was talked about on the pulpit, and 10-15 more years after that (i.e., about 30 total years) before it was looked upon as doctrinal.

  17. Post


    Good financial point. Let me ask you this, who assumes the administrative burden of a current member of the Twelve or First Presidency when they are “ailing”? Does someone else in the quorum fill in on the requisite committee, or does it not get done? I hadn’t thought of this either.


    I am merely pointing out a possibility of future expansion of an existing Church category. I am not even necessarily calling for this to happen. If you would like to categorize that as steadying the ark, feel free. I will say that most of what you encounter on the Bloggernacle will likely fall into your apparently broad definition of ark-steadying!

  18. #7 Heather,

    Why? imo its about power and no one is as powerful in our church as an apostle. They are also running for the biggest prize as senior apostle.

    It’s interesting that Eldred G. Smith was granted emeritus status in 1979 but is still alive at 101.

    I think that what the Community of Christ does is a good idea because of what happened with Pt Benson, and Kimball, as well as Romney who was ‘called’ and set apart as Pt of the Twelve when he was just simply senile. Pitty they didn’t wheel him out for the press conference.

    But I doubt we will ever see a change, the apostles themselves wont allow it although they do ‘retire’ the seventy at 70.

  19. How about 72, when the Savior “retired” the 9 disciple/apostles on the American Continent? (3 Ne 28:3) But, then again, most GA’s are just warming up at 72.

  20. Post


    I like suggestions with scriptural precedent! Thanks.

    John H,

    I agree that this change would be a problem for some. Which raises the issue, what does having apostles who serve until death DO for us? Does it perform a symbolic function analogous to a monarchy? Does it make the leaders seem wiser, more permanent?

  21. That would have limited the term of GBH to ? one year, if that policy had been in place? I think of that time as a remarkable era, and missing out on his leadership skill for that decade would have been regrettable. Just my opinion.

  22. Post


    Not really! If introduced earlier, it may have extended his presidency. It depends on when the policy would have been introduced. Presidents Hunter, Benson, and Kimball would have had shorter tenures, and President Hinckley may well have been President of the Church since the early 1980’s…but I like that folks are considering the implications of this.

    Whose leadership are we missing out on now because they are only a couple of years younger than the current prophet? (is another way to frame the question).

  23. While I can see the perks of an idea like this, there are some drawbacks. I really dont see how they could do this after just witnessing the presidency of Gordon B. Hinkley. You could argue that his tenure from 85-97 were some of the 12 most productive years in church history.

  24. I guess if this happened it would take all sepeculation out of which apostles would become prophet since it would be known the monent they were called to be apostles. Would the calling change to “we would like to an extend a calling to you to be an apostle of the Lord Jesus Christ and then prophet in 2025?”

  25. Post


    People can still be taken home by the Lord at any time, you know. But yes, in essence, it becomes as predictable as when a Seventy will retire.

  26. There is the concept that the Lord is the one who decides when these brethren retire. If He wanted them out earlier, He could just let them die. I believe it was President Kimball who said that the Lord decides who His Prophet is and He uses death as the tool. It was mentioned earlier that we may have not gotten the real benefits of the leadership of the Presidents of the Church if they were to have retired early.

    After all, you don’t want an inexperenced 70 year old as Church President, do you?

  27. Elder Marion Hanks … you do know he longed for a release. He served from such a young age, was away when his children were born, and served so very well.

    The real question is when do people cease to be productive and who are their peers? Most of the twelve have their social circle and their peers as the quorum and they are engaged in the work they care to do. Many contribute even when mostly disabled.

    The ideal is a sense of brotherhood in the quorums. But this was an interesting post.

  28. All these comments reveal a side of the church that I dislike, but is ubiquitous, sometimes seemingly more than the spirit. That being the political, business-like atmosphere mixed in with the Gospel. It just seems to me that the idea of “term limits” should not be needed in the gospel.

  29. Mike Wallace: There are those who say, this is a gerontocracy, this is a church run by old men.

    Gordon B. Hinckley: Isn’t it wonderful? To have a man of maturity at the head, a man of judgment, who isn’t blown about by every wind of doctrine?

    Mike Wallace: Absolutely, as long as he’s not dotty. [Laughs.]

    Gordon B. Hinckley: [Laughs] Thank you for the compliment.

  30. This kind of reminds me of the Israelites pestering Samuel and the Lord about having a king. They wanted one because all their neighbors had one. Do some want “younger” leadership because most other churches do? Most other corporations? Wasn’t Moses 80 when he started his ministry? King Benjamin retired and gave up his kingdom to Mosiah, but I don’t believe Alma retired from the ministry. I’m trying to think of a prophet that retired, but I can’t think of one out of hand. Maybe someone can comment on that.

  31. I’m not really seeing the benefit of doing this. Consider that with that rule we would have missed the administration of GBH, who seemed enirely capable of fulfilling his calling up until a couple of days before he died.

  32. Umm… why are we bothering with suggesting such a change?

    It’s not our place to suggest such a change.

    If God wants this to be changed in such a fashion I’m sure he can tell President Monson himself.

    I also don’t see the benefit of “ending speculation”. How is that important to God? Not that I think such speculation is a good thing, but I just don’t see it as being all that important.

  33. I say this with my tongue firmly in cheek: Am I to understand that the Lord saw fit to deprive the church of its executive leadership for the bulk of the 1960s and 1980s?

    After reading about the power struggles and the panic that resulted from David O. McKay’s, Spencer W. Kimbell’s (with Marion G. Romney AND N. Eldon Tanner) and finally Ezra Taft Benson, I can only conclude that ensuring those in charge withdraw gracefully is much better than division among the leadership and/or senile rants at Temple dedications (a la President Benson).

    This is a serious issue for a number of reasons. I am puzzled that this wouldn’t be a member’s business – it is the Church of the Latter-Day Saints too, isn’t it?

  34. Maybe we can let God decide each apostle and prophets term limit. They can stay in office until God removes them. Oh wait, that’s what the current policy is!

  35. Post

    Amen, John H. God decided in 1978, along with allowing blacks to have the priesthood, that most General Authorities could eventually retire. He could decide someday that the apostles are included in that benefit.

    Some folks apparently haven’t caught on that the title of this post is IMAGINE. What I sketch out here hasn’t happened nor is likely to anytime soon, nor am I advocating the particular policy I introduced above.

    I did want to explore reactions to this, reasons why we release most leaders except for a few. I haven’t really got any good reasons, and I’m not surprised. I have received some enlightening feedback on other matters, however.

  36. God selects his prophet through attrition. “At the time one is ordained as an apostle and a member of the Quorum of the Twelve, he is given, in a suspended form, all the authority necessary to lead the Church, conditional upon two events—that he survive to become the senior living apostle and that the other living apostles join to ordain him as the prophet and President of the Church.”
    (Francis M. Gibbons, Spencer W. Kimball: Resolute Disciple, Prophet of God page 301)

  37. “While I can see the perks of an idea like this, there are some drawbacks. I really dont see how they could do this after just witnessing the presidency of Gordon B. Hinkley. You could argue that his tenure from 85-97 were some of the 12 most productive years in church history.”

    Yes, one could make that argument, I suppose. But it would be a difficult argument for which to marshall a substantial amount of supporting evidence. One could also argue that the Hinckley administration was a huge wasted opportunity to expand the vision and reach of the church. In my opinion, there is more evidence supporting the latter proposition than the former.

  38. I doubt that I can provide any really good reasons, John, but for the sake of discussion, I will throw some more out on the table!

    1) Being an Apostle or Prophet perhaps requires a greater decree of consecration than any other calling. One must totally give their life to service to receive the humility needed to receive revelatory inspiration for the church. D&C 4 would apply that they must serve with all their might etc, to “stand blameless before God at the last day.” Where greater light is given, there is also the potential for greater condemnation. The reassurance that you can work until God takes you may be part of the mantle that comes with the calling.

    2) If one has a set term to be the prophet, would that limitation affect the ability for the revelatory process to yield fruit? i.e. the unfolding of the initial inspiration of drawing a small temple on a napkin to the ambitious project to double the number of temples worldwide. If one had foreknowledge that they were in a “lame duck” year and that a new prophet would take over, would one see a bold and ambitious inspiration through? One might tend to look at the known successor and envision exactly when he would fill the office and have the mindset drift toward that transition. If the new prophet came in and reversed a project while the prior prophet was an emeritus prophet, what kind of questions would that create?

    3) You mentioned in #24 that the presidency of GBH may have begun earlier if term limits had been in place. He certainly would have been a capable President at that time. Nevertheless, it is also possible that the crucible of being in a presidency with ailing leadership shaped his vision of what needed to be accomplished during his years as a prophet in a way that no other experience could have.

    4) It is a test of the faith of the membership to have an ailing leader. It was hard to turn on conference and hear those words, “President Kimball is watching the session from his apartment” and realize there would be no conference address forthcoming. If God’s power could remove leprosy from a person, could it lift the veil of dementia if it was necessary for His will to be made known? People have left the church in response to their personal answer to that question. The unique vibrancy of GBH was like a reward to the faithful who waited patiently through the difficult years. Now we are likely “spoiled” by having multiple addresses by a prophet at every general conference for the past decade. Should the church have an infirm leader for lengthy period, I suspect the tone of this type of thread would be much different. I like to have faith that the principle of prophetic succession is not so much bound that if it were God’s will to call an alternate Apostle rather than an infirm senior apostle, that the revelation would come in that manner.

    There. I’ve put it out there John. Torpedo away!

  39. Post


    Thanks for some systematic argumentation. I have no interest in torpedoing what you have written!

    I like that you have thought about the issue instead of reflexively defending the status quo.

    I also like some of John Hamer’s ideas, but I think emeritus status based on age rather than term limits would have more support in LDS culture, as there is a thirty year old precedent.

    Bottom line, as Stephen Marsh has noted with regards to Elder Marion Hanks, I think it’s kinder to the General Authorities and their families to let them off the hook a bit when they’ve worn out their lives in service…I know it’s not in any of our hands, but it’s interesting to think about the repercussions.

  40. I think its funny that we want to change gods way of doing thing and subscribe to mans way of doing things…. 🙂

  41. John,
    I agree that Rigel’s comment is great and that he “thought about the issue instead of reflexively defending the status quo.” I can only point out that I also thought about the issue as well. I was surprised that no one else had made the comment that God does have the power to strike us down in death at any point to release us from our current callings.
    I don’t personally buy the “its kinds to the GA’s and their families to let them off the hook a bit when they’ve worn out their lives in service.” Do you have any personal experience to back this up?

  42. Post



    People can still be taken home by the Lord at any time, you know”

    I made the comment above that God has the power to take any of us home when he wants.

    Stephen Marsh said above: “Elder Marion Hanks … you do know he longed for a release. He served from such a young age, was away when his children were born, and served so very well.”

    Elder Hanks was a General Authority.

    Why don’t bishops serve until they die, jks? I mean, they have counselors to fill in for them if they get old and sick, too, right?

  43. John N,

    Congratulations for this post. After re-reading the comments I’d say that you have managed to show the clear divide in the current church between those who could accept change and ask why it doesn’t happen and the ultra conservatives who insist on the ‘let the Lord decide’.

    The Mormon liberal seem to say ‘well, its a good idea if they change’ but the conservatives reply with ‘They can stay in office until God removes them’.

    I wonder though if there is actually a difference between the senile dementia stage that both president’s Benson and Romney reached and actual death? I mean when they ordained Romney the man would not have even been aware that they were doing it. And the final years of Benson only served to take time away from Pt Hunter -who was also very aged and weak. Hinkley didn’t face this problem so we can’t say that they had to retire him but when they are incapacitated…..well……

    If we were in the ’60s we would be taking side on the blacks/priesthood issue as they did amongst the twelve. Seem even the church is susceptible to the liberals v. conservatives battle -the war on earth.

  44. Can anyone provide factual evidence that Marion G. Romney was ever set apart as President of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles? I know he was sustained as such, but I have never been able to find documentation regarding his setting apart. If this can not be provided, please stop using him as an example.

  45. I second #31 and remember that interview. It would have been a shame to not have Hinckley as president. He did many good things.

    Do the GAs not have the option to ask for a release from a calling? Everyone else does and they’re all said to be called by the Lord so why not? Cultural tradition?

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