The Mormon church surprised many outside religious scholars when none of its three picks for the top governing body were representatives of the church’s growing influence in Latin America or Africa.
Three new members of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, all from Utah, were appointed Saturday at a conference in Salt Lake City.
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has more than half of its 15 million members outside the United States. In Latin American countries deeply-rooted with Catholicism, the church has established a strong footing and boasts more than 1 million church members in Mexico and Brazil.
The Mormon church appointed Ronald A. Rasband, 64, a former CEO of the Huntsman Chemical Corporation, Gary E. Stevenson, 60, the co-founder of an exercise equipment manufacturing company and Dale G. Renlund, 62, a cardiologist and directed a cardiac transplant program. They were announced Saturday at a church conference in Salt Lake City.
Although Rasband, Stevenson and Renlund are fine men who will make great leaders, the church missed an opportunity to make an important statement to Latter-day Saints of color or those from other countries, said Ignacio Garcia, a professor of Western and Latino history at Mormon-owned Brigham Young University.
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"Saints of color always have to respond to: 'Why do belong to that white church?'" Garcia said. "It becomes harder and harder as we go further into the 21st Century: We still can't point to a more diversified leadership."
Patrick Mason, associate professor of religion at Claremont Graduate University in California and Howard W. Hunter Chair of Mormon Studies, pointed out, though, that Renlund and Stevenson have held major leadership positions with the church in foreign countries: Renlund in Africa and Stevenson in Japan. That may suggest that the church felt they could infuse international experience without having members who are from those countries, he said.
The announcements marked a rare moment in church history. It had been six years since a new quorum member was chosen, and more than a decade since the leadership council had two openings. The last time there were three openings at the same time was in 1906.
Quorum members serve until they die, and three recent deaths created the unprecedented void. Modeled after Jesus Christ's apostles, the group serves under the church president and his two counselors.
The new members of the quorum are the 98th, 99th and 100th members of the governing body since the religion was formed in 1830.
The new appointees start as junior members, but they could someday become church president because the group's longest-tenured member ascends to president when the current one dies.
Rasband, of Salt Lake City, will enter the quorum with seniority over the other two because he was the first to be informed of his selection earlier this week, church officials said. All three had previously been members of a lower-level l leadership council called the Quorum of the Seventy that has served as a farm system for the governing body.
With their appointments, the last 12 men selected for the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles dating back to 1985 had previously served in the Quorum of the Seventy or a group just below it.
After the names new leaders were announced to about 20,000 Mormons in attendance and millions more watching anxiously on live broadcasts, the three new leaders spoke briefly and answered a few questions at a news conference.
They said they were each informed of their "callings" separately on Tuesday in meetings with Church President Thomas S. Monson, considered the religion's prophet. Monson told each that the Lord had chosen them to serve.
Stevenson called it a "knee-buckling" experience. Renlund said he was so shocked, he could only murmur an acceptance as he struggled to maintain his composure. "I was somewhere between apoplectic and catatonic," said Renlund, a cardiologist. Rasband fought back tears as talked about the magnitude of being chosen to help lead a religion his family has belong to for six generations.
None of them were told who the two other choices were, having to wait like everyone else until Saturday. Their extended families didn't know either. Their children, their spouses and grandchildren hugged and cried when they saw them for the first time after the news conference.
The decisions were made by Monson. Though Monson didn't speak at the news conference, church spokesman Michael Otterson described the selection process as a "profoundly sobering and deeply spiritual" experience. He said other members of the quorum were invited to suggest names, but there was no lobbying, advocacy, debate or argument — with Monson settling on the right choices after much prayer and contemplation.
The new leaders, who will give speeches at the church conference Sunday morning, talked only briefly in the news conference about issues facing the religion or doctrine, spending most of their time discussing in in general terms about how seriously they take being chosen by the Lord as living apostles to send teachings and guidance.
Stevenson, though, mentioned keeping children anchored in righteous principles is a key challenge to focus on. They didn't delve deep into the lack of diversity on a quorum that still only has one person from outside the U.S. — Dieter F. Uchtdorf of Germany — but they vowed to be, "apostles to everybody."
"The Quorum of the Twelve travels throughout Europe and proclaims the name of Christ, bears witness of Him everywhere to members and non-members," Rasband said. "To be a special witness of the name of Christ is our premiere and foremost calling."
Based on reporting by the Associated Press.