On April 1, 2018, the usually stolid hierarchy of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints descended into upper room chaos not present since the 1877 death of Brigham Young.
The cause was the addition of two men to the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, men Latter-day Saints regard as prophets, seers, and revelators who hold the earthly keys to the Kingdom of God. I wrote about the changes to LDS leadership in a piece for the Wall Street Journal, but new details have since emerged.
Church President Russell M. Nelson selected as new apostles Elder Ulisses Soares and Elder Gerrit W. Gong, who became the church’s first non-white apostles. Elder Soares is from Brazil and signifies the rapid growth of Mormonism in Central and South America. Elder Gong is an American of Chinese descent, one half of an interracial marriage, and he reflects the church’s increased presence in Asia.
Most Latter-day Saints hailed the replacement of old white apostles with non-white and slightly younger men. Indeed, Elder Gong’s selection proved uncontroversial. Elder Soares’s appointment, however, opened fissures among high-ranking church leaders for a reason overlooked in most media accounts: he lacks a middle initial.
Since the church presidency of Joseph F. Smith, the church has required all apostles to have and use their middle initial (or, in a few special dispensations, use a first initial and middle name). A quick glance at LDS General Authorities provides verification.
The last apostle to not use an initial was LeGrand Richards, but in that case church president David O. McKay had not done his due diligence. McKay believed that Elder Richards’s full name was Le Grand Richards and presumed that upon his elevation he would refer to himself as L. Grand Richards or Le G. Richards. Note that Elder Richards lived to the age of 96 without ever becoming church president, apparently disqualified by his inadequate name.
“There isn’t anything sinister about this policy,” stated Richard E. Turley, Jr., managing director of the church’s Public Affairs Department. “We simply have so many Smiths, Youngs, Cooks, Kimballs, and even Turleys that church members need to be able to distinguish among them.”
Why then did President Russell M. Nelson contravene more than a century’s worth of precedent in choosing Elder Soares? Did he make a McKay-like error and believe that he had chosen U. Lisses Soares? Was it a revelation? Does he want to return the church to the time of leaders such as Brigham Young, John Taylor, and Wilford Woodruff, all highly regarded leaders who lacked middle names entirely. Does Nelson himself plan to drop the public use of his “M”?
There have been no whispers of dissent among Soares’s now-fellow apostles, who have closed ranks around their prophet and around their new colleagues. Other General Authorities, however, are bitterly divided. It turns out that many of the church’s international GAs themselves lack middle initials or boldly eschew them: Edward Dube of Zimbabwe, Mathias Held of Columbia, and Takashi Wada of Japan are three examples. “The elevation of Elder Soares gives the rest of us hope,” commented one, who did not want to use his initial-less name on the record.
Conservatives, however, were outraged by Nelson’s deviation from what they understand as an unpublished revelation from Joseph F. Smith, rumored to be kept in the vault of the First Presidency. Many warned that the move could lead to other unwanted changes. An anxious member of the church’s Presidency of the Seventh warned that Nelson’s decision to make middle initials optional for apostles suggests he may also exhibit flexibility on issues such as same-sex marriage and the ordination of women. “This looks like the initial end of the wedge,” he lamented. Conservatives hold out hope that Ulisses Soares may have a son or male ancestors with the same name, in which case he could restyle himself Ulisses Soares, Jr. or Sr. (Ulisses Soares III is out because of the negative example of Joseph Smith III). Conservatives insisted that despite their disappointment they remained obedient to the new prophet. “If he asked me to drop my middle initial I would do so without hesitation,” promised one stalwart.
Most distressed of all was Gérald Jean Caussé, the church’s French-born Presiding Bishop. He dropped the use of his “J” many years ago, having grown wearing of beloved church president Gordon B. Hinckley referring to him as Gérald “Jean Valjean” Caussé after the Les Misérables protagonist. A number of years ago, late church president Thomas S. Monson planned to select Elder Caussé for an opening on the Quorum of the Twelve, only to be talked out of it by shadow right-winger Dieter F. Uchtdorf. Elder Caussé is certain that the “missing middle initial” was a red herring floated by Elder Uchtdorf, whose true motivation was to preserve his own immense popularity by blocking the appointment of the handsome Frenchman. “Uchtdorf is more a ‘sly fox’ than a ‘silver fox,'” the Elder Caussé simmered. No word on what the similarly silvery Elder Caussé made of President Nelson’s decision to reassign Elder Uchtdorf out of the First Presidency.
“There is no truth to rumors of rancor among the brethren,” reassured Turley. “We simply ask that Latter-day Saints, journalists, and historians continue to honor the middle initials of those General Authorities who have and choose to use them.”