The twice yearly general conference of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS) is not usually an eventful occasion.

It normally provides an opportunity for Mormons from around the world to reunite with family and friends, and listen to uplifting talks from their leaders. Major doctrinal announcements are rare and controversy on the floor unheard of.

This month’s conference, however, has drawn attention because of imminent changes in the Mormon leadership. At the end of conference it was announced that senior Church apostle Robert Hales had died aged 85. More significantly, Church president Thomas Monson, who is 90 and in frail health, missed the conference for the first time in his decade-long tenure.

The LDS president is not merely the Church’s presiding officer; in Mormon theology he is “prophet, seer and revelator”, the final authority on Church affairs and the one man who can announce changes in doctrine. Mormons regard their president with much the same respect as Catholics have for the Pope.

Although the LDS Church is a strongly hierarchical religious group, its hierarchy often works in strikingly different ways from Catholic norms. Most obviously, since the Church leader is ailing, there is no Mormon counterpart to the drama and unpredictability of a papal conclave.

The reason for this lies in the Church’s succession crises of the 19th century. When Mormon founder Joseph Smith was assassinated in 1844, his brother and designated successor Hyrum was killed alongside him. There followed a period of confusion with numerous claimants to the leadership, ending with Brigham Young winning over most of the faithful by his force of personality.

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