A new poll by USA Today and Gallop show that Thomas S. Monson, prophet and president of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, is the tenth most admired man. The poll is taken by telephone calls to people in the United States. Members of the church President Monson leads are often nicknamed Mormons. Although the presidents of the Church often get mentioned, this is the first time a Mormon president has made the list.
Thomas S. Monson is best known for his compassion for others. Raised during the depression, he remembers his mother feeding what were then called hobos. These young men, who rode the rails across country, marked the fences of people who were known to feed the homeless. Each man who knocked at her kitchen door received a hot bowl of soup and was asked only to contact his mother and let her know he was safe.
At Christmas time, the family took gifts to those in need. President Monson remembers delivering food and toys to homes, and once, as a child, provided one of his own beloved birds to give a friend a Christmas dinner.
This childhood training in compassion led to President Monson becoming as compassionate as his parents in adulthood. When he was only twenty-two, he was called to be the bishop of his congregation. A bishop is a lay pastor—the Mormons don’t use paid clergy—who does all the work of a paid minister, but has a family and secular employment at the same time. He was unusually young for a bishop, and his congregation was particularly challenging due to being larger than usual, with 1050 members, and having 85 of those members be widows.
Mormons have programs to help care for their church members who are in need. It is called a welfare program, and is administered by the bishop, usually in conjunction with the president of the women’s Relief Society. Bishop Monson, as he was then known, oversaw a congregation whose boundaries ran alongside the railroad tracks. Mormon congregations have specific boundaries and people attend a congregation based on where they live. Many people lived in basements, back rooms, or falling apart houses and it was his job to track them all down and make certain they were not hungry, sick, or in need. J. Reuben Clark, a high level church leader who helped train Bishop Monson, focused on ways to help the widows. President Monson said of this training:
“Knowing that I was a new bishop presiding over a difficult ward, he emphasized the need for me to know my people, to understand their circumstances, and, in the spirit of tenderness, to minister to their needs. One day he recounted the example of the Savior as recorded in Luke, chapter seven, verses eleven through fifteen:
“And it came to pass … that he went into a city called Nain; and many of his disciples went with him. …
“When he came nigh to the gate of the city, behold, there was a dead man carried out, the only son of his mother, and she was a widow. …
“And when the Lord saw her, he had compassion on her, and said unto her, Weep not.
“And he came and touched the bier. … And he said, Young man, I say unto thee, Arise.
“And he that was dead sat up, and began to speak. And he delivered him to his mother.” [Luke 7:11–15]
When President Clark closed the Bible, I noticed that he was weeping. In a quiet voice he said, “Tom, be kind to the widows, and look after the poor.’” (See Thomas S. Monson, “The Bishop, Center Stage in Welfare,” October 1990 General Conference Address.)
Each year he took a chicken, obtained from a local farm, as his personal gift to each of the widows for their Christmas dinner. He promised to speak at each of their funerals, and he did, even though by the time some died he was an apostle and constantly traveling the world for the Church.
President Monson’s sermons frequently dwell on the importance of individual responsibility toward those in need. He advises church members to look for ways to serve without waiting for an assignment. This focus on service is one of the reasons he is so highly admired, both within and without the church.
President Monson was unusually young for a bishop and he was also unusually young for an apostle. Apostles are called to their position for life, just as they were in the time of Jesus Christ. Thomas S. Monson was only thirty-six years old when he became an apostle. The Church has twelve apostles, following the pattern established by Jesus, and a First Presidency, consisting of the prophet, who is also the President of the Church, and two counselors. The senior member of this group becomes the new prophet on the death of the current prophet. He selects his own counselors.
President Monson first served in the First Presidency in 1985, giving him many years of experience under three presidents before becoming the prophet in February of 2008. He is the sixteenth president of the church.
Mormon leaders are, as mentioned earlier, lay leaders, so they have private sector experience in most cases. President Monson graduated from the University of Utah in Business Management. He taught there as well and later received an MBA from Brigham Young University. He served in the Navy near the end of World War II. He was a General Manager for Deseret Printing until he became an Apostle.
President Monson is married to the former Frances Johnson and has three children, eight grandchildren, and seven great-grandchildren.
President Monson has served in many capacities in the secular world and in 1981, he was appointed to the President’s Task Force for Private Sector Initiatives, serving under President Ronald Reagan. He remained on the task force until its work was complete. He has also been a member of the National Executive Board of the Boy Scouts of America.
In April 2008, shortly after becoming the prophet, Thomas S. Monson offered the following promise to members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints:
“With all my heart and the fervency of my soul, I declare that God does live. Jesus is His Son, the Only Begotten of the Father in the flesh. He is our Redeemer; He is our Mediator with the Father. He loves us with a love we cannot fully comprehend, and because He loves us, He gave His life for us. My gratitude to Him is beyond expression….
I pledge my life, my strength in serving Him and in directing the affairs of His Church in accordance with His will and by His inspiration.” (Thomas S. Monson,” Looking Back and Moving Forward,” Ensign, May, 2008.)
Terrie Lynn Bittner
The late Terrie Lynn Bittner—beloved wife, mother, grandmother, and friend—was the author of two homeschooling books and numerous articles, including several that appeared in Latter-day Saint magazines. She became a member of the Church at the age of 17 and began sharing her faith online in 1992.