When President Monson was in the First Presidency, I rarely took notes on his talks. Other speakers at General Conference would get a paragraph or so in my notebook, where I’d jot down the scriptures, doctrinal points, inspirational quotes, and directives given by each.
But President Monson would usually just smile and tell cute stories that illustrated a simple principle (usually service). He might frame a talk around a few basic imperatives (kneel down to pray, go forth to serve, etc.), but the bulk of his talks were just charming narrative. When he’d come up, I’d set my notebook aside and just listen and enjoy.
I loved the way he worked. His style had its own value—he seemed content to leave the heavy stuff to the other guys, and he’d come in and be the coach pumping us up, motivating us by building desire to follow the examples in his stirring stories.
But I think there’s been a big change in him in the last three years since he became president of the church. I first noticed it in his closing remarks to the April 2009 General Conference. He added to what I considered the standard concluding thoughts by injecting stern commentary on several issues, in a tone so frank that I wondered if he’d departed from his prepared notes:
On the other hand, however—and extremely alarming—are the reports of the number of individuals who are utilizing the Internet for evil and degrading purposes, the viewing of pornography being the most prevalent of these purposes. My brothers and sisters, involvement in such will literally destroy the spirit. Be strong. Be clean. Avoid such degrading and destructive types of content at all costs—wherever they may be! I sound this warning to everyone, everywhere. I add—particularly to the young people—that this includes pornographic images transmitted via cell phones.
I certainly already knew, from the rest of my testimony, that he legitimately held a divinely-appointed office in the Lord’s true church, but during that talk I had a spiritual confirmation of it: I remember feeling in my heart at that moment that this man really was a prophet.
He’s given other talks since then that seem to be more strict and demanding than the kinds of talks he used to give. Consider, for example, his most recent priesthood address; in addition to other frank counsel, he shared this rare insight into the stresses that must trouble the hearts of prophets:
Now, brethren, I turn to another subject about which I feel impressed to address you. In the three years since I was sustained as President of the Church, I believe the saddest and most discouraging responsibility I have each week is the handling of cancellations of sealings.
This isn’t to say that he used to be a cheerleader and now he’s a dour doom-monger—far from it. An article in the Ensign earlier this year urged us to be optimistic, and President Monson is a great example of maintaining a positive disposition while honestly engaging the essential darkness of much of life—a quality I know I’d do well to develop. Even in his more seriously didactic talks these days, he evinces an unflagging dedication to being basically happy.
Am I wrong about the shift in President Monson’s tone and focus? Of course he’s given some clear admonitions and critical commentary in various talks throughout his career, but have they really become more frequent in the last three years, or am I just noticing it more? On one hand, maybe I’m just paying closer attention now that he’s the president. On the other, maybe a great, cheerful apostle has been led by the mantle of an even greater office to speak stronger warnings than ever before.