SALT LAKE CITY (AP) — Thomas S. Monson, considered a prophet by nearly 16 million Mormons worldwide, has died at the age of 90 after a nearly a decade as church president. He expanded the church’s reach and its transparency and was known for promoting humanitarian causes despite leading a divisive fight against gay marriage.
Monson died Tuesday night at his home in Salt Lake City, according to church spokesman Eric Hawkins.
Monson spent more than five decades serving in top church leadership councils — making him a well-known face and personality to multiple generations of Mormons.
A church bishop at the age of 22, the Salt Lake City native became the youngest church apostle ever in 1963 at the age of 36. He served as a counselor for three church presidents before assuming the role of the top leader of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in February 2008.
As president of the nearly 16 million-member religion, Monson was considered a prophet who led the church through revelation from God in collaboration with two top counselors and members of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles.
The next president was not immediately named, but the job is expected to go to the next longest-tenured member of the church’s governing Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, Russell M. Nelson, per church protocol.
Monson’s presidency was marked by his noticeably low profile during a time of intense publicity for the church, including the 2008 and 2012 presidential campaigns of Mormon Mitt Romney. Monson’s most public acts were appearances at church conferences and devotionals as well as dedications of church temples.
Monson will also be remembered for his emphasis on humanitarian work; leading the faith’s involvement in the passage of gay marriage ban in California in 2008; continuing the church’s push to be more transparent about its past; and lowering the minimum age for missionaries.
Mormons considered Monson a warm, caring, endearing and approachable leader, said Patrick Mason, associate professor of religion at Claremont Graduate University in California. He was known for dropping everything to make hospital visits to people in need. His speeches at the faith’s twice-yearly conferences often focused on parables of human struggles resolved through faith.
He put an emphasis on the humanitarian ethic of Mormons, evidenced by his expansion of the church’s disaster relief programs around the world, said Armand Mauss, a retired professor of sociology and religious studies at Washington State University.
“President Monson always seemed more interested in what we do with our religion rather than in what we believe,” Mauss said.
President Donald Trump, religious leaders and well-known Mormons mourned Monson’s death Wednesday and remembered his life of service.
Trump said in a statement that Monson “demonstrated wisdom, inspired leadership, and great compassion” and delivered a message of “optimism, forgiveness, and faith.”
Romney, entertainer Marie Osmond and conservative talk-show host Glenn Beck were among those tweeting memories and condolences. Romney said in a statement that he’ll remember Monson’s compassion for the downtrodden. Osmond tweeted a picture of her embracing Monson, saying he was always there for her family. Beck recalled Monson’s kindness and humility.
Condolences also came in from Arizona Sen. Jeff Flake and Utah Sen. Orrin Hatch, who said of Monson, “Service was his motto and humility his hallmark.”
The Mormon church was founded in 1830 in upstate New York by Joseph Smith, who claimed he was visited by God and Jesus while praying in a grove of trees and was called to found the church. Members are known as Mormons because of the faith’s keystone scripture, the Book of Mormon.
A World War II veteran, Monson served in the Navy and spent a year overseas before returning to get a business degree at the University of Utah and a master’s degree in business administration from the church-owned Brigham Young University.
Before being chosen to join the faith’s governing Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, Monson worked for the church’s secular businesses, primarily in advertising, printing and publishing including the Deseret Morning News.
Monson married Frances Beverly Johnson in 1948. The couple had three children, eight grandchildren and 11 great-grandchildren. Frances died in 2013 at the age of 85.
Throughout his life, Monson was an avid fisherman who also raised homing pigeons, specifically, roller pigeons who twirled as they flew. He was known for his love of show tunes, Boy Scouts and the Utah Jazz.
Monson’s legacy will be tied to the church’s efforts to hold tight to its opposition of same-sex marriage while encouraging members to be more open and compassionate toward gays and lesbians as acceptance for LGBT people increased across the county.
One of the most memorable moments of Monson’s tenure came in October 2012, when he announced at church conference that the minimum age to depart on missions was being lowered to 19 from 21 for women; and to 18 from 19 for men. The change triggered a historic influx of missionaries, and proved a milestone change for women by allowing many more to serve.
The man expected to take Monson’s seat, the 93-year-old Nelson, has been a church apostle since April 1984. Out of respect for Monson, his successor will not be officially named until after his funeral services on Jan. 12.
In keeping with tradition, the successor will choose two counselors from the Quorum of the Twelve to join him to form a three-person “presidency” that is the top of the church’s governing hierarchy. If he elects not to keep Monson’s two counselors, Henry B. Eyring and Dieter Uchtdorf, they would go back to being regular members of the Quorum.
Being one of the president’s two counselors doesn’t push them to the front of the line to become the next president. That is always reserved for the longest-tenured member of the Quorum. Once Nelson assumes the presidency, that distinction will fall to 85-year-old Dallin H. Oaks, a former Utah Supreme Court Justice who was named to the quorum in May 1984, one month after Nelson.
Monson’s death also means there are now two openings on the Quorum, which will likely be filled at the next church conference in April. The other opening was created when leader Robert D. Hales died last October.
AP writer Michelle A. Monroe in Phoenix contributed to this report.