Pope Benedict’s announcement of his age- and health-related retirement raises the question of whether an LDS Church President—regarded to be a living prophet of God by most LDS Church members—ever retire due to health issues?
“It’s unlikely,” says historian Matthew Bowman, author of The Mormon People: The Making of an American Faith (2012).
“The first reason is the same reason it’s been six hundred years since a pope resigned: the office is perceived to be more than merely administrative, but sacramental, a place of mediation between God and human beings, and thus, as with biblical prophets like Amos or Jonah, the role is understood to be not entirely voluntary.”
“Also, the church’s government is conciliar, which means there’s a bit of slack built in,” says Bowman. “Even the president of the church has two counselors to assist him, to step in and cover when he is indisposed, and so on. The church is quite capable of functioning when the president is not.”
LDS Church President Ezra Taft Benson was incapacitated by health problems during the last years of his tenure (1985–1994). In his final years, Benson’s health did not permit him even to attend LDS Church General Conferences, high visibility semi-annual events broadcast to membership around the world. But his level of incapacitation was never publicly acknowledged by Church officials.
Nor have LDS Church officials acknowledged incapacitation or health challenges impacting Church presidents since Benson.
But historically the case has been otherwise for Mormon women leaders, says Rachel Hunt Steenblik, a doctoral student in religion at Claremont University.
“LDS General Relief Society President Emmeline B. Wells (1828–1921) was released due to age,” Steenblik says, “even though LDS Church founder Joseph Smith set up the Relief Society to be parallel to the priesthood hierarchy and said that no General Relief Society President would be released prior to her death, excepting apostasy. Wells was so distraught that she had a stroke a few days later, and died shortly thereafter. She had been in relatively good health and was still attending her church meetings.”