When Prophets Die

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From my mission call, dated 5 July 2011

I’ve spent enough time over this past year researching prophetic successions in various branches of Mormonism that this morning’s news really should’ve seemed academic. Thomas Monson died, so the Quorum of the Twelve took charge of the Church, following a long pattern of apostolic interregna in LDS tradition. Soon Russell Nelson will don the prophet-president mantle, and Latter-day Saints will sustain him as their God-given leader at April’s General Conference. The pattern’s pretty predictable nowadays, though it hasn’t always been, and other off-shoots of Mormons—like the Community of Christ—do things differently. I could tell you all about it, just like I told a roomful of folks in October at an academic conference where Mormon succession was the crux of my paper. And throwing in fancy terms like “apostolic interregna”—did you catch that?—will either a) make you think I actually know what I’m talking about, or b) convince me that this master’s degree in theology is actually paying off. Maybe both. Or probably neither.

But none of that is the point. The point is that when I read about President Monson’s death, I cried. Theological terminology and historical tradition didn’t cross my mind for at least forty minutes after my eyes caught the first headline, which I then scrambled to confirm. In a moment when my academic interests could have been foremost on my mind, sentimentality prevailed instead.

Honest to goodness, my first thought was, But he signed my mission call! as if that somehow exempted the poor fellow from release from his disease-laden body. As if my emotional attachment issues grant folks immortality. As if thousands of other missionaries haven’t already bid farewell to the prophets who signed their mission calls, and as if mine were the only letter President Monson had signed.

I’m a reasonably rational person, but even so, something stung in that realization, which was quickly followed by the recollection that President Monson’s signature is on my BYU diploma too. Never mind that those documents were probably signed by machine and not by the prophet’s own hand (or were they?). They were connections to him and, now that he was dead, memorials to him. The scrawling swoops of his cursive made real to me a man I never met, although I sure talked about him a lot.

As a high school senior I aided a special-needs seminary class where we learned the brand-new, official ASL signs for the recently-sustained President Monson (one of the signs fused M and story, a nod at his iconic sermon techniques), and I spent time teaching the class to flick out the sentence, “I know Thomas Monson is a prophet.”

Later, for a year and a half I trudged through ice, then mud, then humid heat, then ice again to deliver that same message to Ukrainians, this time in broken Russian.

During the first semester of my master’s program the teaching assistant for my Hebrew Bible course asked the class if we believed in modern prophets, and I raised my hand and said, “Yeah, there’s one alive now, and his name is Thomas Monson.”

To the thirty-ish kids in the congregation where I serve in the children’s ministry, I talked about President Monson in a buildup of hype for October’s General Conference, even though I knew the prophet was already too sick and wouldn’t be there in person.

Each of those experiences—and others like them—resulted similarly: A warm excitement energized my pulse, and I smiled. That’s happened so often throughout my life that I’ve learned to recognize it as one of the ways the Holy Spirit reaches out to me to confirm that I’ve done a good deed or spoken a truth or heard a message from Deity. In Latter-day parlance, we call the accumulation of those Spirit-hugs testimony, and the oftener we share them, the stronger they seem to become.

But now the prophet I spoke of so often—the one who accompanied me through my entire adult life, including a mission and an education which literally bear his mark—is dead.

This isn’t the first time I’ve witnessed these kinds of events. I’ve lived through the deaths of four Mormon prophets now, and have even attended some of their viewings. Most vividly, I recall Gordon Hinckley’s 2008 passing, and I remember joining many of my fellow believers in wearing Sunday-best to school following the news of his death—our small sign of thanks and of honor. If you add to my life experience the things I study, then, as I said earlier, historical memory traces back over two-hundred years, and lots of prophets have lived and died in that timeframe. Plus, most Latter-day Saints saw this death coming; he’s been sick for so long that it was only a matter of time. There was nothing new in President Monson’s passing, and the scholar in me is grateful the Church handles succession more smoothly these days, and the human in me is grateful that such a jolly person lived a 90-year life and now gets pain-free rest, and the Mormon in me is grateful that Tommy and Frances are together again. So no, there was nothing surprising, nothing unprecedented, and if you consider the overall arc of the Plan of Salvation, nothing even sad about President Monson’s death.

Even still, I sat on the edge of my bed in Boston and clutched my iPhone and cried because Thomas Monson had died, But he signed my mission call!

It wasn’t exactly a rational thought but it was as genuine as they come, not unlike grieving for a person I’ve never met, or believing in a God who selects special spokesmen, or leaving home to testify to strangers in an unknown tongue, or reading scriptures someone dug up from the ground, or any of a number of other tenets that shake my insides with the tremor of truth. I’m not an unthinking believer; my faith and my intellect both demand of me a rigor I strive to satisfy every day. But sometimes the heart leaps before the mind has time to kick in. And sometimes that’s perfectly fine.

So when my heart leaped this morning and its initial thrust was not to evaluate the socio-cultural implications of theological developments in the context of LDS succession history, that was okay. My heart was okay. My faith was okay. And I was okay, even under the grief. I let my heart lead those first moments of morning mourning. I let it sting and sink until I was still. Then I brushed away tears, cleared my throat, and knocked on the bathroom door to break the news to my showering husband.

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