Thoughts on President Monson

Christopher Bigelowchurch, President Monson, prophets 36 Comments

I was recently asked by a journalist for my observations on the new Mormon prophet, Thomas S. Monson, and I thought I’d share my responses here and inquire what others would say in answer to the same questions:

1. Have you ever met President Monson and, if so, do you have any lasting impressions from that meeting? What’s he like in person?

While I never encountered President Hinckley up close and personal, I’ve encountered President Monson several times. At a wedding, he was kind and complimentary toward my toddler son, who was just learning to walk. In a business setting, however, he can be more gruff and bossy. When I picked up some photos from him at his office one time, he frowned at me and warned me not to let the rain ruin the photos, without giving me any of the warm fuzzies of his pulpit persona. When I worked at the Ensign magazine, he was probably the highest-maintenance General Authority in terms of approving material, making requests, and so forth.

I find it refreshing how President Monson seems to enjoy pop culture. I once saw him eating junk food at the Disney Ice Capades at the Delta Center. My good friend who is his nephew informed me that President Monson maintains a collection of James Bond movies at his vacation home in Midway, Utah. And he quoted the movies Field of Dreams and Home Alone in his general conference talks, thus making those movies part of Mormon scripture.

On the other hand, he doesn’t always take teasing well. At a wedding reception, he and his wife were sitting alone at a table, and my parents decided to sit next to them. “You scared everyone away,” my dad quipped, but President Monson just frowned and looked away.

2. When you think back on President Monson as a speaker, what stands out about his style? Are there themes that you associate with him?

President Monson always seems to have a story about helping a widow or some other person in need. He also draws upon a seemingly endless supply of charming, folksy anecdotes from his childhood. I think in recent years he’s gotten more loose and funny in his talks, often telling fairly uproarious stories that can be quite entertaining. In fact, sometimes his style is a bit hammy. He’s the Hallmark card of general authorities, fairly sentimental and appealing to the lowest common denominator, widely beloved by both young and old but also a little cheesy for some. I find him an interesting mix of ego and compassion.

3. President Monson is beloved for his stories. Do you have a favorite story that you’ve heard him tell?

For some reason, the story that stands out most in my mind is the one he told at general conference in 2002 about his son’s water snake, because it was such an entertainingly bizarre story that didn’t make any apparent gospel point:

“…an event occurred in my life with our youngest son, Clark.

Clark has always liked animals, birds, reptiles—anything that is alive. Sometimes that resulted in a little chaos in our home. One day in his boyhood he came home from Provo Canyon with a water snake, which he named Herman.

Right off the bat Herman got lost. Sister Monson found him in the silverware drawer. Water snakes have a way of being where you least expect them. Well, Clark moved Herman to the bathtub, put a plug in the drain, put a little water in, and had a sign taped to the back of the tub which read, “Don’t use this tub. It belongs to Herman.” So we had to use the other bathroom while Herman occupied that sequestered place.

But then one day, to our amazement, Herman disappeared. His name should have been Houdini. He was gone! So the next day Sister Monson cleaned up the tub and prepared it for normal use.

Several days went by. One evening I decided it was time to take a leisurely bath; so I filled the tub with a lot of warm water, and then I peacefully lay down in the tub for a few moments of relaxation. I was lying there just pondering, when the soapy water reached the level of the overflow drain and began to flow through it. Can you imagine my surprise when, with my eyes focused on that drain, Herman came swimming out, right for my face? I yelled out to my wife, “Frances! Here comes Herman!”

Well, Herman was captured again, put in a foolproof box, and we made a little excursion to Vivian Park in Provo Canyon and there released Herman into the beautiful waters of the South Fork Creek. Herman was never again to be seen by us.”

4. Do you have a favorite story that you’ve heard told about him?

Here’s a little story I love that shows his practical, frugal side: Someone I know once saw President Monson pull into the driveway of his Midway vacation home, mow the lawn in his white shirtsleeves, and then get back into his car and speed away, presumably back down to church headquarters in Salt Lake.

5. As a leader, what do you expect from President Monson? What things, if any, do you think he’ll approach differently than President Hinckley did?

I think that following President Hinckley as prophet must be every bit as challenging as succeeding LaVell Edwards as BYU football coach. I expect that he’ll largely stay the course established by President Hinckley—after all, President Monson helped set that course too, as a long-time member of the First Presidency.

I remember that in the years right after President Hinckley became prophet, it seemed like he made an exciting announcement at every general conference, such as small temples and the Perpetual Education Fund, but gradually these announcements tapered off. It would be fun if President Monson stirred things up like that again for a few years, but I don’t expect any major shakeups.

6. In the same way that President Hinckley emphasized temples and retention of converts, are there church programs that you think President Monson will be focused on?

He’s very big on service, so I wouldn’t be surprised if he focuses more on welfare and humanitarian assistance. I believe he’s also big on building bridges to other faiths and communities, so I expect to see more overtures along those lines. With his compassion and concern for the needy, he will be an ideal president if we enter a period of prolonged economic difficulty and large numbers of people need extra aid. In fact, I find the timing of President Hinckley’s exit interesting, as we appear to now be entering a new difficult phase that perhaps President Monson has been groomed to help see us through.

7. President Hinckley was noted for his openness with the media. What do you think will be some of the defining aspects of President Monson’s public persona?

I don’t think he’s as comfortable or effective speaking directly with the media as President Hinckley was, judging by the simplistic answers he gave to reporters at the press release announcing his presidency. I expect that his public role will be more along the lines of an example than a Hinckley-esque spokesman, with many opportunities to participate in charities and community outreach efforts. I predict he will come across more as a public doer of good works than as a public communicator.

8. President Monson was asked at his initial news conference about whether he had a message for people who are on the outs, so to speak, with the church, and his response was that the church needs those people and would like them to come back. Do you think those people will feel than anything has changed? Will anyone respond to that invitation?

I think disaffected Mormons largely see the Monson presidency as less tolerant of alternative viewpoints than the Hinckley presidency. President Monson has a more conservative, lowbrow persona than President Hinckley did. He’s certainly not as polarizing as President Packer would be, but I think he’s viewed as less intellectual and culturally enlightened than President Hinckley was. I see President Monson as reaffirming the status quo and the lowest common denominator rather than taking any fresh, frank approach on addressing issues and nuances that alienate people from the Church.

—Check out some provocative, unconventional, yet ultimately faith-affirming Mormon books at and/or check out my personal blog.

Comments 36

  1. Very interesting, Chris, thanks for sharing. (I don’t really have any direct experience with the man to inform my thinking.)

  2. I saw Craig Jessop speak at a fireside after he had just retired from the AF was about to move to UT for the choir gig. He mentioned his experiences interviewing with Hinckley and Monson. He said he was expecting to encounter the Monson he saw in conferences. He was intimidated at the prospect of meeting Hinckley. Instead he found Hinckley was very friendly and he put him at ease. He echoed your comments about Monson’s demeanor in a business setting. No warm fuzzies.

    I remember the snake story. He shared it in a ces fireside, too.

  3. President Monson always seems to have a story about helping a widow or some other person in need. He also draws upon a seemingly endless supply of charming, folksy anecdotes from his childhood.

    I must confess that even when I was a nearly-fanatical TBM, Monson’s repetitive stories irritated me to no end. He retold the same stories, in soothing pulpit-voice and passive voice, over and over again. I kept wishing the man would stand up in general conference, and say: “Story #7, in the name of Jesus Christ, Amen” and sit down!

  4. Christopher: I think President Monson will surprise a few people in the coming years. Every Church President does, I think. It’s hard to predict how he will do it, but I would guess that some people might be surprised by the amount of doctrinal understanding and elucidation he will offer. He possesses it already, as anyone who has heard him speak on doctrinal subjects can attest. But it might come out more now that he presides over the Church. That would be my guess, anyway. (By the way, after reading your response to question #1, I see that you and I have something in common. I agree with what you say, as far as that goes.)

  5. I’ve always enjoyed President Monson’s style. It seems more aware of pop culture and is closer to the President McKay human-centered model of speaking than most folks we have at the pulpit, if you count Les Miserables and the Music Man as acceptable substitutes for Bobby Burns!

    Friends in my ward encountered him in the Salt Lake temple and they report that he has an incredible memory. He had visited their grandparents in Europe while they served as mission president there and Monson remembered when told their names, some of the specific plants and landscape details in the mission home’s backyard.

    It’s my impression that he is at his best when speaking from the pulpit. He may be effective at business administration, but it may not make him a happy person. Helping people, and then speaking to us letting us know he has helped them, apparently does.

    I will say he gave the same speech at the U of U’s commencement as he gave at General Conference (“look backward, reach outward, press forward”) and that Church security whisked him away as soon as he marched out of the processional, although folks like Orrin Hatch hung around to mill with the graduates.

    He was very relaxed at a regional conference in Washington State and told all kinds of self-deprecating stories which made the audience roar with laughter. No gospel point was being made, but we all enjoyed ourselves.

    The only time I’ve seen him was when I was driving by his home and saw him get in the back seat of his car while his security agent/driver got in the front. Apparently he was off to a dinner. He looked like a normal Joe living in a normal neighborhood, except for the security guy and the very well-maintained yard.

  6. He spoke a few times in my ward growing up – he was close friends with somebody there who had some kids going on missions. Both times he stayed out in the foyer afterwards and chatted with people. He seemed very friendly.

  7. One thing I would like to ask everyone about is his style and comments since becoming president. At the press-conference, I was so underwhelmed, it was amazing. This was not just my thoughts, but others as well. We’ve gotten to know the “pulpit-Monson” so well, that when he just read his statement, and then had simple canned responses for all the other questions, I got the feeling of either “Deer caught in the headlights”, or “Having problems with the onset of responsibility”. The 2nd one doesn’t really hold out for me as he is known for his business-like mode, and would have known for years that this mantle of authority would fall upon him.

    I read a few comments following the leadership meeting that was held a few weeks ago that people were finding him very stuffy all of a sudden.

    The shock of going from our beloved Pres Hinkley to Pres Monson is going to be very tough. I’ve talked about it several times with my Seminary class. There was a love for Pres Gordon that I don’t see Pres Thomas filling. One of my students actually had a comment of “Pres Thomas (is he up to the task) Monson”.

    Time will tell.

  8. I think that following President Hinckley is going to be a challenge. I know we are not going to get the deep doctrinal talks such as Elder Maxwell, but what I always liked about President Monson’s stories was they were about doing the Savior’s work. Service to others.

    I think his assension to the Prophet was a bit overwhelming for him. I remember watching him before the start of President Hinckley’s funeral and thinking he looked like the weight of the entire world was upon his shoulders. But after he started to give his talk and at the cemetary, he was back to his old self.

    I am anxious to see what happens in the near future.

  9. It’s been interesting to read all the comments on President Monson. I have had several occasions to talk to him, and came away with mixed reactions.

    August 15, 1964, he came to the Northern California Mission and spent the day with us at the Multi-Stake Center next to the Oakland Temple (which was being built then). He interviewed each missionary, and when my turn came, he asked how long I had left and I replied that I had a month; he said, “Then make it the best month of your mission!” The highlight of the day came during the question and answer period in the afternoon, when Elder McCann (from South Australia) asked him if an apostle had to have a personal witness of Christ to be an apostle; he answered that he didn’t have to, to be one, but that they were to live so that they could; then he smiled his big, wide smile, and he seemed to glow as he said, “Brethren, it’s true! We don’t talk about it because it’s sacred to us.” Then he added, “The Church is true,” which carried more power of the Spirit than that phrase normally does.

    I sang in the Tab Choir from 1976-1996, and got to hear him talk many times; only once did he use the teleprompter, as the rest of his talks were memorized, which is quite a feat. His talk delivery style isn’t my favorite style, as I like longer phrases; but, so what? That’s his style.

    President Monson had been friends with my mission president, and when he died, he came to speak at his funeral. When he came into the chapel and saw me on the stand, he came straight to me and said, “I see we’re going to have some good singing today!” which surprised me, as I didn’t know he’d remember me from the choir.

    He’s been through the line of elimination for this position and is the man for the job and will do what is needed. I have no idea what he’ll do, or what he’ll change, but it’ll be what’s needed as long as he’s there. There is no need to worry about how we’ll get by without President Hinckley.

  10. Monson is pretty well known for his memory. If I recall correctly, he is an eiditic, or close to and there are rumors that he has stated that if a person will memorize a verse of scripture a day they can soon develop similar memory skills. I don’t have a source for this, but the rumors don’t seem to want to die either, so take that for what you will.

    What will Monson do as Prophet? Who knows? I rather suspect that he is still figuring this out. You will all note that, at least for those of us outside SLC area, things have been VERY quiet in terms of church news since Monson took on the Presidency. I have a feeling that he has been very busy getting plans together and trying to understand exactly what his role is to be in the coming years. I wonder if he has laid things out in full just yet…

  11. In fact, sometimes his style is a bit hammy.

    A bit? Dude, he’s the king of ham. He is the guru of ham.

    I’ve never met President Monson but I have met President Eyring. He spoke at our stake conference in 1994 before he became a General Authority. He brought the Spirit with him and it was on that day that I made my decision to go on my mission. In fact I felt so strong a confirmation from the Spirit that day that I needed to get going now! I thanked him briefly on his way out. And that was that.

  12. I have no idea what he’ll do, or what he’ll change, but it’ll be what’s needed as long as he’s there.

    Aye, there’s the rub. Despite officially denying any doctrine of presidential infalliability, modern faithful LDS certainly tend to operate from such a viewpoint. A president of the LDS church simply can’t do anything “wrong,” because what he does is right by definition. His behavior defines what is good and right in faithful LDS culture, because of the degree of confidence (dare I say, in some cases, idolatrous worship?) they place in the person and office. To think otherwise causes cognitive dissonance. Ergo, whatever Monson does will be “just what the LDS church needed at this time.”

  13. My comment keeps disappearing! (just in case I post twice)

    Terrific post. Thank you for the honesty and insight into Pt Monson whom I’ve never meat nor seen up close.

    Great story about going to mow his grass in a business shirt; tops. Also liked what Dan Knudsen wrote.

    Nick #4,

    I also got fed up once with Pt Monson style until I started looking for the hidden message, the moral of the story, and then I started to appreciate them more and see more ‘revelations’ and ‘prophesy’ in them. Even this snake story (eg when nothing wrong is done still some things belong in their own homes and not in ours) have several different messages which each person interprets in a way that the spirit nudges us to.

  14. #13–My comments were made in the spirit of support of the office, not in the spirit of infallibility of the prophet. President Monson is a hard worker and will do his best to fulfill his calling, whether we like him or not, and our support helps. Joseph Smith seemed to always know what was going to happen, until the end when he was called a coward for crossing the river to go out west; after that he didn’t seem to know as much of what was going to happen because of the lack of support of the church (this idea was mentioned in a class from Hyrum Andrus back in the late 60s). The Lord determines who is to be His prophet through the training and experiences he receives in preparation, and through eliminating the others who were ahead of him in line of authority–whether we like who He has chosen or not.

  15. “and through eliminating the others who were ahead of him in line of authority”

    Wow, and some people think it’s only the Old Testament God who is a ruthless murderer of innocents. Looks like the modern Mormon God is still following that pattern, eh?

  16. >> In fact, sometimes his style is a bit hammy.

    A bit? Dude, he’s the king of ham. He is the guru of ham. <<

    In 2006, Pres Monson spoke at a Utah County-wide area conference, two sessions in the BYU Marriott Center. In both sessions, he spent 15-20 minutes reading from some of the goofy letters that members (and children) send to the First Presidency. He’d read one, then pull a face and wait for the audience to laugh. It was like a comedian trying out new material, and his mugging was tedious and went on way too long. In the morning session, he never did seem to get to a sermon, just chatted aimlessly. In the afternoon session, he demonstrated his ability to wiggle his ears.

    The experience was confusing. This is the next prophet of the Church?

  17. I find President Monson endearing. He did the same trick at a regional conference I attended, reading letters to the First Presidency from kids who wanted to know if it were OK to kill starlings if they became a nuisance and other such things. He then read his replies which were hilarious, especially considering how serious these letter-writers were probably expecting the answers to be.

    The experience was fun and a chance to see someone held in unnaturally high esteem as approachable and human. He that has ears to hear let him hear…

  18. It’s a good thing–in more ways than one–that a lot of us were never in the Tab Choir, all those years when Elder Hinckley came to their Christmas parties and had everyone rolling on the floor with laughter, because we’d have been complaining, “That’s the next prophet?” The neat thing about it is that it’s possible to find something amiss with each prophet throughout history, because none of them were perfect–so what? The fact is that the prophets have all worked hard in fulfilling their callings, probably more so than the rest of us, who are at least alert enough to complain about the weaknesses that we see (or maybe even imagine) in them. There is more to the world, and the Church, than what we see with our limited vision and understanding. And, you know, I see things all the things that need to be corrected, and it makes me so mad that the Lord doesn’t come and consult me before telling His prophet what to do–I’ve got all these great ideas that would make it all so much easier for everyone!

    #15–Equality: You forgot to add something else about God murdering innocent people–the billions of innocent young children who’ve died. God is in charge of everything, so He did that, too; if He were all-loving, and believed in Equality, they’d have been allowed to live a normal life span like we get to live. And, that’s not just the Mormon God doing that, as He was doing that long before Mormons were around. Have you ever been eliminated from something for which you were in line? How cruel that someone did that to you, or anyone else–but wasn’t it actually God who did it, since He didn’t prevent it?

  19. I think Monson’s pulpit personality is a bit phony, in that I’ve seen his business persona, and have friends in publishing that have experienced his business side: he’s pretty gruff around the edges, and can be quite cool and aloof. That said, I do believe people can change if they want to. One hopes the mantle of leadership for an influential organization like the LDS church could change him so his favorite pulpit topics of service become more than quaint and charming stories, and transition to the church being known even more for genuine, authentic and wider inter-faith and humanitarian services. (So far, as a proportion of income, the LDS church’s humanitarian arm could still be more robust.)

    Even knowing Monson can have (or at least has had) a nitpicking and demanding side I liked his story of his inaugural press conference about his favorite color yellow. As a publishing professional, I liked how he addressed the importance of yellow in how it is so vital to the liveliness of flesh tones and beauty in pictures. That said, yellow couldn’t sustain the life of press-printed images without the other 3 (or more) colors. Here’s to hoping that he works intentionally to bring more balance and improvement to the style of interface the church has with critics, media and its international believers.

  20. I’ve heard and read about all that Monson did when he was placed as Bishop of a ward with numerous widows. He was very young and reportedly got a lot accomplished. He may be a lot done as president. Can’t imagine his as dynamic or personable as Hinckley but that risk would apply to anyone following GBH.

    If Henry B Eyring ever made it to that office I’d be half tempted to rejoin. I have more respect for him and consequently his testimony than any other GA I’ve heard. Hearing his testimony makes me want to believe. Though that’s not enough, I do respect him for it.

  21. As far as the rumor about memorizing a scripture a day as a missionary I have heard President Monson himself admit that he never has taught such a thing. At a missionary meeting in Toronto Canada where I was serving he brought the subject up and said that while he is sure that memorizing a scripture a day would certainly improve one’s memory he had never promised nor did he believe it would result in a photographic memory.

    I was devestated.

    1. Hey! Memorizing a scripture a day will help you improve your memory and you will have the beginnings of a photographic memory. If you do it for 2 years, you will remember many things easier.

  22. “Dude, he’s the king of ham.” And L.Tom Perry is generally acknowledged to be the cheesy one. I think we may have the makings of a casserole. Which one is like Campbell’s cream of mushroom soup? Which one is like crushed potato chips?

  23. Trying again:

    Terrific post. Thank you for the honesty and insight into Pt Monson whom I’ve never meat nor seen up close.

    Great story about going to mow his grass in a business shirt; tops. Also liked what Dan Knudsen wrote.

    Nick #4,

    I also got fed up once with Pt Monson style until I started looking for the hidden message, the moral of the story, and then I started to appreciate them more and see more ‘revelations’ and ‘prophesy’ in them. Even this snake story (eg when nothing wrong is done still some things belong in their own homes and not in ours) have several different messages which each person interprets in a way that the spirit nudges us to.

  24. 18: Dan, isn’t it also possible that allowing all these children to die is not God’s will? Isn’t it possible that He expects us to do something about it? Without the voluntary obedience of His subjects, His purposes aren’t accomplished. In other words, heaven won’t exist unless we build it ourselves, with his help, of course. Here are Brigham Young’s sentiments:

    “You may now be inclined to say, ‘O, this is too simple and child-like, we wish to hear the mysteries of the kingdoms of the Gods who have existed from eternity and of all the kingdoms in which they will dwell; we desire to have these things portrayed to our understandings.’ Allow me to inform you that you are in the midst of it all now, that you are in just as good a kingdom as you will ever attain to, from now to all eternity, unless you make it yourselves by the grace of God, by the will of God, by the eternal Priesthood of God, which is a code of laws perfectly calculated to govern and control eternal matter. If you and I do not by this means make that better kingdom which we anticipate, we shall never enjoy it. We can only enjoy the kingdom we have labored to make.” (JD 3:336)

  25. What’s up with Eyering’s smirk he frequently has at press conferences? It’s like he’s in on the joke, and his body language can’t help but give it away…

  26. I’ve had a hard time (for several years now) reconciling my support of the church with my personal distaste for Pres. Monson. He’s just not my cup of tea. I really miss Neal A. Maxwell, though I know others could hardly endure what they thought of as alliterative tedium (though the ones who didn’t like him probably wouldn’t have had the vocabulary to call it that). Eyring, Bedanr, Oaks – give me more! Holland and Scott, not so much, but THAT’S JUST ME.

    And that’s the point. With several million of us to please twice a year, it’s great that there are so many different approaches and styles. Pres. Hinckley may have been a bit unique with his almost universal appeal. The test for me now is to see how I react when a “non-favorite” is at the helm.

    Just about the only thing I actually worry about is the further entrenchment and canonization of the cult that scouting has become within our culture. But that isn’t THAT much of a big deal. I’ll be a little less jazzed to listen to the last talk of Priesthood Session, but I can deal with that.

  27. I have been visiting this blog site for the past couple of days. While I generally enjoy LDS blog sites and individual incites on the LDS faith and culture, I’m surprised at the hyper-critical nature of the essays I’ve read. As I once explained to my agnostic father: I’m not aware of any church that requires members to be perfect in order to join, or any church that claims it will instantaneously perfect its members.
    We are only allotted so much time upon this earth, we should never waste it. For the majority of those who have spent time whining in this format, please apostatize now, don’t stretch out the process. Get on with life you’ve been given.

  28. Dale (33): Many essays here are not “hyper-critical”, whether of church or of “non-members”. Now the ensuing discussions, well sometimes that’s true, but I think most strive for useful dialogue. Let’s not let the “No True Scotsman” fallacy color the argument for those LDS here who reasonably, productively, and thoughtfully explore and grapple with their relationship to LDS culture, doctrine, hierarchy, and practice– each separate categories for discussion. As for me, well I’m a former Mormon Christian-convert, so please feel free to criticize me for “apostatizing” and getting on with my life in God’s Grace. 😉

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