Thomas S. Monson, who as president of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints since 2008 enlarged the ranks of female missionaries, but rebuffed demands to ordain women as priests and refused to alter church opposition to same-sex marriage, died on Tuesday at his home in Salt Lake City. He was 90.
His death was announced on the church’s website.
Facing vociferous demands to admit openly gay members to the church and to recognize same-sex marriage, and weathering demonstrations at church headquarters by Mormon women seeking the right to be ordained as priests, Monson did not bend. Teachings holding homosexuality to be immoral, bans on sexual intercourse outside male-female marriages, and an all-male priesthood would remain unaltered.
Monson displayed a new openness to scholars of Mormonism, however, allowing them remarkable access to church records. But as rising numbers of church members and critics joined the internet’s free-for-all culture of debate and exposé, his church was confronted with troubling inconsistencies in Mormon history and Scripture. The church even found itself at odds with an old ally, the Boy Scouts of America, which admitted gay members and gay adults as scout leaders.
On Monson’s watch, the church enlarged its global missionary force to 69,200 from 52,000 and doubled the number of young women in its missionary ranks, to 18,400, by lowering the minimum age for service, starting in 2012, to 18 from 19 for men and to 19 from 21 for unmarried women.
“That sent shock waves through the church,” said Richard Lyman Bushman, a Columbia University historian. At 21, he said, many Mormon women were married and not free for missionary work, while lowering the age to 19 let them become missionaries soon after high school.
“It changed the whole view of what women would do: that they would go just like the men,” Bushman said. “There was a great surge of readiness. It changed their mentality.”
Two years of missionary work abroad or in the United States are a rite of passage and a duty for able Mormon men, a preparation for service as priests in a church operated by its male laity. Women’s missionary service is 18 months and optional. The surge of female volunteers after the age limits were lowered suggested that many had long been eager to go.
“Sisters always had that little thought of serving a mission, but by the time 21 comes, you’re married or onto something else,” Shoushig Tenguerian, a student at Southern Virginia University, a private Mormon college, said in 2012. “This age change changes everything.”
Despite persistent demands for change on another feminist issue, Monson — who as president was considered by adherents to be God’s “prophet, seer and revelator” — did not open the door to women in the priesthood. Critics say the ban on female priests has no explicit basis in church Scripture, but efforts to overturn it were sometimes dealt with harshly.