(SALT LAKE CITY) — The Mormon church appointed a 93-year-old former heart surgeon Tuesday as its new president, following a longstanding succession plan that aims to keep the faith on course with a minimum of upheaval.
The selection of Russell M. Nelson was announced during an address broadcast from Salt Lake City to Mormons around the world. Nelson called on Mormons to stay true to their faith and “keep the covenant path.”
“If you have stepped off the path, may I advise you with all the hope in my heart to please come back,” Nelson said. “Whatever your concerns, whatever your challenges, there’s a place for you in this, the Lord’s church.”
The announcement came after Nelson was chosen as the religion’s 17th president during a private meeting of the church’s Quorum of the Twelve Apostles leadership body in a temple, per church tradition that makes the longest-tenured member of the Quorum the new president. Nelson is now considered a “prophet, seer and revelator” by Mormons. Nelson succeeds Thomas S. Monson, who died Jan. 2 at age 90.
Nelson announced that his two counselors will be Dallin H. Oaks, 85, and Henry B. Eyring, 84, both members of the Quorum. Eyring was also a counselor for Monson, while this marks the first time Oaks will serve as a counselor to a church president. Oaks is the next-longest tenured member of the Quorum, making him next-in-line to become the next president.
Nelson is the second-oldest man to assume leadership of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, which is based in Utah and counts nearly 16 million members worldwide. He will oversee the religious and business interests of the faith in collaboration with two top counselors and members of the Quorum, one of the faith’s top governing bodies.
Nelson’s record during his three decades in church leadership suggests he will make few changes as he upholds church teaching and seeks to draw new members.
Among the challenges he faces is adapting to the increasingly global nature of the church, which was founded in 1830 in the United States and now has nearly six in 10 members living in other countries.
Still, the rate of growth overall in membership has slowed in the past few decades, despite efforts to spread the faith including the lowering of the minimum age for those serving as missionaries.
Nelson takes the top position amid increased scrutiny of church teaching in the internet age, which has made more information on doctrine available. Under Monson, leaders released a series of essays explaining some controversial areas of Mormon history, including early polygamous practices and a past ban on black men in the lay clergy.
The church also faces some pressure to allow greater leadership roles for women, including those who want to be admitted to the priesthood.
Nelson also will have to navigate the issues raised by the LGBT rights movement. The church, at times, has expressed empathy and told members to be welcoming to LGBT people while also strictly defending opposition to same-sex marriage and all homosexual relationships.
Last year, Mormon leaders partially cut ties with the Boy Scouts of America, which in 2015 ended its blanket ban on participation by openly gay adults. The LDS church, which has been the biggest sponsor of troops, said the move wasn’t about that decision.
Nelson fits the common profile of his generation of church leaders as someone who was successful in the private sector before leaving behind his career to help guide the faith.
Born in Salt Lake City in 1924, Nelson converted to Mormonism at the age of 16. He was a doctor by 22. He served a two-year Army medical tour of duty during the Korean War before resuming a medical career that included being director of thoracic surgery residency at the University of Utah.
Nelson learned Mandarin after church president Spencer W. Kimball challenged church leaders in 1979 to learn the language. The next year, Nelson spent a month in Jinan, China, working with doctors there as a visiting professor of surgery.
In the spring of 1984, he joined the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles.
The final surgery Nelson performed was the next year in China, when he operated on Chinese opera star Fang Rongxiang at the request of a doctor who knew and trusted Nelson, according to a church biography.
Nelson was scheduled to answer questions from reporters later Tuesday morning.
His past speeches offer some clue to how he will lead.
In October 2015, during a period of intense discussion about the role of women, Nelson spoke of women’s unique contributions.
“My dear sisters, whatever your calling, whatever your circumstances, we need your impressions, your insights, and your inspiration,” Nelson said. “Married or single, you sisters possess distinctive capabilities and special intuition you have received as gifts from God. We brethren cannot duplicate your unique influence.”
That year, when the U.S. legalized same-sex marriage, Mormon leaders declared people in same-sex relationships “apostates,” meaning they could be excommunicated, and banned baptism for children living with gay parents until the children reached age 18. The policy caused an uproar among gay rights activists within and outside the church. Nelson told a group of young adults in 2016 that the rules came from a revelation received by Monson and other leaders that gave “spiritual confirmation” for their stance.
Last October, in an address to the church general conference, Nelson implored members to closely read and understand the faith’s keystone scripture, the Book of Mormon.
“When I think of the Book of Mormon, I think of the word power,” Nelson said. “The truths of the Book of Mormon have the power to heal, comfort, restore, succor, strengthen, console, and cheer our souls.”