To his church, he was a “prophet, seer, and revelator.”
To his detractors, he was a barrier to progress.
But when thousands of Mormons line up next Friday on Salt Lake City’s Temple Square to pay their final respects to Thomas S. Monson, the late president of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, who exactly will they be saying goodbye to?
In the days since Monson’s death, much of the press coverage has couched the LDS leader’s legacy in the context of culture war, or politics, or institutional infighting. The New York Times obituary, for example, defined his life’s work by the things he didn’t do—such as his refusal to alter the church’s stances on same-sex marriage and female priesthood ordination.
Other reminisces take stock of his accomplishments in institutional terms. Monson is remembered as the man who helped steer the faith out of obscurity during the so-called “Mormon moment”; who ushered in a new era of historical transparency for the church; who enacted policy changes toward the end of his life that flooded the global missionary ranks with young women.
But ask the average Mormon to paint a picture of their prophet, and what you’ll hear first are stories that stress his commitment to personal ministry: those of the perennial widow-visitor; the bear-hugging bedside minister; the man who was known to drop everything on a busy day so he could sit in the hospital room of an ailing friend who needed someone to talk to.
Monson’s commitment to this kind of ministering took root early in his adulthood. At the unusually young age of 22, he was assigned to serve as a lay bishop, presiding over a large congregation—or “ward,” in Mormon-speak—that contained more than 1,000 worshippers. According to Monson’s biographer, 23 of the congregants were fighting in the Korean War at the time, and so he made a point of writing weekly letters to each of them. He also took particular care of the more than 80 widows in his flock, and continued to stay in touch for decades after his formal bishop duties ended—giving them Christmas presents, visiting them in rest homes, and eventually speaking at each woman’s funeral. In the popular Mormon imagination, these are the stories that define Monson—not political forays, or vast, abstract programs, but quiet acts of Christian kindness.
Often, in the years before he became too sick to appear in public, Monson would recount these experiences himself in televised “general conference” sermons—his hulking frame perched behind a podium, his voice taking on a signature sing-song cadence. The point was less self-aggrandizement than to remind his church of the communal ethic that has shaped Mormonism from its founding—that wholly unoriginal, but increasingly endangered, ideal that people should take care of each other without compulsion, pay attention to each other without reminder, and love each other without condition.
As a lifelong Mormon, I know as well as anyone how often members of Monson’s church fail to live up to this standard. Monson, no doubt, fell short, too. But Mormonism is at its best when it’s reaching for that ideal—whether it’s building one of America’s largest private welfare systems, or organizing refugee relief efforts, or just inspiring a busy young dad with a demanding job to set aside a couple hours every week to help people who have less than he has.
In a 2012 essay for the New Republic, erstwhile Mormon Walter Kirn wrote entertainingly about falling in with a group of LDS friends in Los Angeles decades after he’d left the church. “I’d forgotten that social life could be so easy,” he observed. “I’d forgotten that things most Americans do alone, ordinary things, like watching television or listening to music or sweeping a floor, could be done in numbers, pleasantly … At Beverly Zion, that’s how it worked: pitch in, help out, cooperate, cooperate. Divide the labor, pool the fruits.”
In a country plagued by atomization—where ever more isolated people are growing ever more suspicious of their fellow citizens—Monson’s was, in its own way, a radically countercultural message.
“Often we live side by side but do not communicate heart to heart,” he said in 2009, imploring church members not to let “the busyness of our lives” get in the way of Christian charity. “We are surrounded by those in need of our attention, our encouragement, our support, our comfort, our kindness—be they family members, friends, acquaintances, or strangers.”
Those simple lines probably won’t make it into the annals of great oratory. But Monson’s point was that deeds mattered more than words. His stances on hot-button issues like Proposition 8 and female ordination will continue to be debated, but his other legacy will play out more quietly, within families, among friends, and in homes around the world.