Latter-day Saint gerontocracy on display as Jeffrey R. Holland replaces the late M. Russell Ballard as acting president of church's 12 apostles. | Opinion | Salt Lake City Weekly

Latter-day Saint gerontocracy on display as Jeffrey R. Holland replaces the late M. Russell Ballard as acting president of church's 12 apostles. 


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On Nov. 12, the acting president of the Latter-day Saint church's Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, M. Russell Ballard, passed away at the age of 95.

He'd been suffering from various respiratory challenges and declining vision, the latter of which he noted in his most recent General Conference talk when he expressed difficulty reading the teleprompter. Ballard was a car salesman and business owner by profession, possessing a down-to-earth, relatable image among many doctors, lawyers and academic administrators. As a church leader, Ballard will be remembered for his gentle-mannered, straightforward sermons on topics like family, service and missionary work.

The timing of Ballard's passing has tied part of his legacy to the ballooning controversy surrounding Tim Ballard (no relation), former CEO of Operation Underground Railroad. I discussed the mounting allegations against Tim Ballard and OUR in more detail in a Sept. 28 column. To summarize, OUR is an anti-trafficking nonprofit that conducts rescue missions around the world. In recent years, however, news outlets like Vice and American Crime Journal have meticulously documented OUR's tendency to embellish and, in some cases, fabricate rescue statistics and anecdotes.

Even more serious, a steady stream of women who participated in OUR sting operations have accused Tim Ballard of sexual coercion and assault, including shocking accounts of him manipulating women into sleeping in the same bed and showering with him as part of an undercover "couples ruse." These controversies ultimately led to his stepping down as CEO earlier this year.

When OUR was gaining momentum in the 2010s, Tim Ballard and President M. Russell Ballard formed a friendship and subsequent business association as partners in an LLC called Slave Stealers. But in September of this year, the LDS church issued a bold public statement condemning Tim Ballard's "morally unacceptable" behavior and stating that President Ballard "withdrew his association."

However, there remain unanswered questions about the proximity of their partnership, including President Ballard's role in supporting and promoting OUR. Despite some uncertainty, there is strong evidence that President Ballard was a significant shareholder and beneficiary in Tim Ballard's business endeavors.

Jeffrey R. Holland, Ballard's successor as acting president of the quorum, is another leader not without controversy. Called as an apostle in 1994, Holland has earned an esteemed reputation across the church for his charismatic, accessible and eloquent sermonizing.

He has the remarkable ability to appeal to conservative, orthodox members through impassioned, pulpit-pounding defenses of the faith, while also appealing to progressive sensibilities through his consistent emphasis on inclusion, forgiveness and love. He has also devoted many speeches toward combatting perfectionism and reassuring members that they "are doing better than [they] think they are."

In addition, Holland has courageously spoken out on issues that have traditionally stayed in the shadows, such as his pioneering "Like a Broken Vessel" talk in 2013, which tackled the subject of mental illness with a compassion and sensitivity that only he could embody.

Two years ago, however, Holland took many Latter-day Saints by surprise when he delivered an unforgettably controversial speech at Brigham Young University in Provo, lamenting the fading away of BYU's conservative past and calling on faculty to take up "musket fire" in defense of LDS teachings around heterosexuality and traditional marriage. The address sent ripples of pain, anger and confusion across the church, especially among LGBTQ+ members who felt betrayed by an apostle who had long spoken with kindness toward marginalized groups.

Earlier this year, Holland was scheduled to be the spring commencement speaker at Cedar City's Southern Utah University, located not far from where he grew up. But the lingering controversy from his "musket fire" address led to widespread student protests that ultimately prevented him from speaking.

Not unlike Ballard, Holland himself faces significant health challenges. In his speech at President Ballard's funeral, Holland candidly described his "recent five-week hospital stay, three weeks of which were spent in an unconscious journey to the doorstep of death." On top of mounting physical ailments, Holland must also endure the psychological pain of losing his beloved wife, Patricia, who passed away several months ago.

Leaders in frail health replacing other leaders in frail health is a phenomenon core to the structuring of power in the LDS church, as apostles serve in their calling until death. This gerontocratic system has attracted significant scrutiny in recent decades, especially in this fast-paced, social-justice-oriented era that moves farther and farther away from the World War II sensibilities of many apostles.

Furthermore, some argue that a younger core leadership would lead an increasingly global church with greater effectiveness and vigor. Hugh B. Brown, an outspoken and progressive LDS apostle of the 20th century, advocated for the retiring of all general authorities at age 70. While his efforts were successful for the lesser Quorums of the Seventy—which have since given members emeritus status at age 70—the First Presidency and the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles chose not to implement Brown's suggestion into their governing bodies.

Considering that changes to church policies and teachings occur gradually and at the discretion of its senior leaders, the gerontocracy will most likely endure for decades to come. Thus, we can only hope that the newly appointed President Holland, in his tremendous position of power, will focus more on messages of equality and inclusion than on divisive messages that denigrate LGBTQ+ individuals and other marginalized groups.

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Keith Burns

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