Thomas Monson, president of the Mormon Church; at 90

Rick Bowmer/Associated Press/File

Mr. Monson during an April 2017 church conference in Salt Lake City.

By Robert D. McFadden New York Times  

NEW YORK — Thomas S. Monson, who as president of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints since 2008 enlarged the ranks of female missionaries but rebuffed demands to ordain women as priests and refused to alter church opposition to same-sex marriage, died on Tuesday at his home in Salt Lake City. He was 90.

Facing vociferous demands to admit openly gay members to the church and to recognize same-sex marriage, and weathering demonstrations at church headquarters by Mormon women pleading for the right to be ordained as priests, Mr. Monson did not bend. Teachings holding homosexuality to be immoral, bans on sexual intercourse outside male-female marriages, and an all-male priesthood would remain.


Mr. Monson displayed a new openness to scholars of Mormonism, however, allowing them remarkable access to church records. But as rising numbers of church members and critics joined the Internet’s free-for-all culture of debate and exposé, his church was confronted with troubling inconsistencies in Mormon history and Scripture. The church even found itself at odds with an old ally, the Boy Scouts of America, which admitted gay members and gay adults as scout leaders.

On Mr. Monson’s watch, the church enlarged its global missionary force to 69,200 from 52,000 and, in what students of church affairs called a major achievement of his tenure, doubled the number of young women in its missionary ranks, to 18,400, by lowering the minimum age for service, starting in 2012, to 18 from 19 for men and to 19 from 21 for women.

“That sent shock waves through the church,” Richard Lyman Bushman, a Mormon scholar and Columbia University historian, said. At 21, he said, many Mormon women were married and not free for missionary work, while lowering the age to 19 let them become missionaries soon after high school.

“It changed the whole view of what women would do, that they would go just like the men,” Bushman said. “There was a great surge of readiness. It changed their mentality.”

Two years of missionary work abroad or in the United States are a rite of passage and a duty for able Mormon men, a preparation for service in a church operated by its male laity. Women’s missionary service is 18 months and optional. The surge of female volunteers after the age limits were lowered suggested that many had long been eager to go.


“Sisters always had that little thought of serving a mission, but by the time 21 comes, you’re married or onto something else,” Shoushig Tenguerian, a student at Southern Virginia University, a private Mormon college, told The Times in 2012. “This age change changes everything.”

Despite persistent demands for change on another feminist issue, Mr. Monson — who as president was considered by adherents to be God’s “prophet, seer and revelator” — did not open the door to women in the priesthood.

As the 16th president of the Latter-day Saints, succeeding Gordon B. Hinckley, Mr. Monson opened the church archives, allowing historians access to church documents and records to a remarkable degree. In allowing such access, students of church policy said, Mr. Monson presided over an unprecedented era of openness about church history, while reassuring the faithful that theirs was the one true, unerring faith.

The church’s historic partnership with the Boy Scouts of America, which dated from 1913 and prepared Mormon boys for missionary work and adulthood as lay priests, was threatened late in Monson’s tenure. For a century, nearly all Mormon boys became scouts, and the church became scouting’s largest sponsor. By 2011, Mormon-sponsored packs and troops represented one-third of the nation’s 421,000 scouts.

But the church and the Boy Scouts found themselves at loggerheads in 2014, when scouting admitted gays for the first time, and a year later, when it accepted gay adults as scout leaders. Mr. Monson said nothing publicly, and the church did not withdraw its support for scouting, as a church lawyer had threatened to do in a 2000 Supreme Court hearing on exclusionary scouting practices. While calling homosexuality immoral, church policy said “nonpracticing” gays could have the same rights and privileges as other church members.

It was clear, however, that a rift over sexual orientation had been laid bare. For years, the church treaded lightly on the subject. In 2009, it supported a Salt Lake City ordinance banning discrimination against gays in jobs and housing.


But in 2015, Mr. Monson responded to the Supreme Court’s decision legalizing same-sex marriage with a letter read in Mormon churches saying that sexual relations outside heterosexual marriage “are contrary to the laws of God.” And, further drawing the line, the church declared same-sex couples to be apostates and restricted their children from baptisms and other rites.

“Restrictions on the children of gay parents who are faithful church members struck some Mormons as severe,” Bushman said. “That was a tough one. It’s not just an abstraction — it affects people’s lives. It bothered a lot of Mormons.”

After the declaration, more than 1,000 people, many of them with deep ties to Mormonism, staged a rare public protest against the restrictions outside the church’s spired temple in Salt Lake City, and demanded that their names be stricken from the church’s membership rolls. A church spokesman said later that 1,500 resignations had been received.

Mr. Monson posted a message for the wavering faithful on Twitter: “I plead with you to avoid anything that will deprive you of your happiness here in mortality and eternal life in the world to come.”