LDS apostle Elder Russell M. Nelson turns 90

Credit: Matthew Reier
Dr. Russell M. Nelson was a world-renowned heart surgeon at the time he was called to the Quorum of the Twelve in 1984. Credit: Courtesy Elder Russell M. Nelson
As a lieutenant, Russell M. Nelson, second from left, visited every mobile army surgical hospital in Korea. Credit: Courtesy Elder Russell M. Nelson
Credit: Gerry Avant
Russell and Dantzel Nelson cut their wedding cake on Aug. 31, 1945. Credit: Courtesy of Nelson family
Capt. Russell M. Nelson served at the Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, D.C., in early 1953. Credit: Courtesy Elder Russell M. Nelson

Lessons, principles and habits learned in childhood remain vivid in memory for Elder Russell M. Nelson, who turned 90 on Tuesday, Sept. 9.

The fundamental principles of honesty, integrity, courtesy and concern for others, which he learned from his mother and father, still stand as life’s guideposts. Those principles set him on the path that led him to become a world-renowned heart surgeon before he was called in 1984 at age 59 to the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles.

Born in Salt Lake City to Marion C. and Edna Anderson Nelson on Sept. 9, 1924, just five years before the stock market crash of 1929, Russell Nelson grew up a child of the Depression. He remembers asking for permission to eat a banana, a costly item for his family’s food budget, and merging a finger-sized soap remnant into a new bar of soap to keep from wasting it. He has retained the soap-saving habit.

At age 10, feeling a bit grown up, he began working as an errand boy in his father’s advertising agency, a job that brought him much satisfaction and gave him an opportunity to meet people.

“My father wanted me to come into his business,” Elder Nelson said. “That’s a desire of any father’s heart, to have his son take over what he has built.”

However, in high school, Russell discovered he liked chemistry and biology, and he realized he had a love for people. “I remember the conversation so well when I told my mother and father that I really didn’t want to go into advertising, that I wanted to be a doctor so I could help people. I could see the hurt in my father’s eyes but he didn’t let on. He said, ‘Son, your mother and I will do everything in our power to help you do what you want to do.’ ”

With his wife, Dantzel White Nelson, whom he married in 1945, by his side, he pursued his career in medicine, which included receiving doctoral degrees from the University of Utah and University of Minnesota, and additional advanced work in Massachusetts and Washington, D.C. He helped pioneer the development of the artificial heart-lung machine, a means of supporting a patient’s circulation during open heart surgery. This development made open-heart surgery possible; he performed the first surgery of that kind in Utah in 1955.

Father of nine daughters and one son, he was serving as a Regional Representative at the time of his apostolic call in 1984; previously, he served as Sunday School general president (1971-79) and as a stake president.

He and Elder Dallin H. Oaks, Utah State Supreme Court justice and former BYU president, were sustained during the same session of the April 1984 general conference. It was the first time in 40 years that two new apostles were named at the same time, and the first time in nearly 21 years that anyone had been called directly into the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles without having first served in the ranks of the General Authorities. The last so called was Elder Thomas S. Monson in October 1963; prior to his call he was general manager of Deseret Press.

Elder Nelson had become not only a surgeon of renown but also a teacher in the international medical community. He shared knowledge with surgeons throughout the world, including India, South America, China and what was then the Soviet Union. The First Presidency encouraged him to fulfill his obligations as a surgeon, researcher and lecturer.

A few days after he was sustained to the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, he told a Church News reporter, “You’re only happy in life if you’re rendering service. Whether I’m a surgeon or an apostle, all I need to know is that I’m doing what the Lord wants me to do” (Church News, April 22, 1984). For the next 21 years, Elder Nelson fulfilled his apostolic assignments with the companionship of his wife, Dantzel. Then, on a Saturday afternoon while seated beside him on the sofa in their home, “the Lord took her in the twinkling of an eye,” Elder Nelson said of her sudden and unexpected death. They had been married more than 59 years.

In 2006, he married Wendy L. Watson in the Salt Lake Temple.

Elder Nelson said that as his family began making plans to celebrate his 90th birthday, Sister Wendy Nelson asked him to make a list of highlights during his 30 years as an apostle. When the Church News interviewed him in hopes of writing a “life story,” Elder Nelson waved off details about his personal interests (including his love of music and proficiency as a pianist and organist) and wanted to talk instead about the Church itself over the past three decades.

He commented on:

1. Church growth

The Church has more than doubled in size during the past 30 years, from 5.6-plus million members in 1984 to more than 15.2 million, as of the end of July. In 1984, there were 1,500 stakes; now there are more than 3,000; there were 180 missions then and 406 now.

When he was called to the Quorum of the Twelve, Regional Representatives were assigned to help the Apostles. Today, Regional Representatives no longer exist, and international area presidencies have been authorized to work in each area. “We now have 328 ordained Seventies in eight quorums. Eighty-eight are General Authority Seventies and 240 are Area Seventies. These Seventies go where we cannot go. We are truly grateful for them.”

2. Apostolic declarations

“Two important apostolic declarations have been made in that 30-year period. ‘The Family: A Proclamation to the World’ in 1995, and ‘The Living Christ’ in the year 2000. The topics of these documents have eternal significance. The latter declaration is a testimony of the First Presidency and Quorum of the Twelve Apostles of Jesus Christ.

3. Temple and Family History Executive Council, 1990-2007

Elder Nelson has spent 17 years on the temple and family history executive council. The number of temples has increased from 26 in April 1984 to 143. More are coming.

“Family History work has also changed in those 30 years. We now have much more member participation. Family History Centers, which were so vital 30 years ago, are becoming less necessary as more and more research work can be done via our personal computers at home. There is a good shift in the ratio of names brought to the temple for ordinance work. In 1984 most of the names were supplied from resources of the Church. Now, the vast majority of ordinances are done for names submitted by individual members of the Church. This is a remarkable change.”

4. Priesthood Executive Council, 1984-90; 2007-10

“There has been a strong broadening of the Church curriculum, both in content and method. With the advent of the Internet and distance learning, we can see the day when the teaching of the Church will no longer need to be centered in our Church buildings. Teaching could easily be done at home. Technology assisted learning can be effectively implemented in the home with such marvelous aids as the Bible Videos and other products.

“The unity of the Relief Society, Young Women and Primary and responsibility of our sister leaders is continuing to bless the Church in greater measure than ever before. We counsel with the sisters at headquarters. They are part of the team, every bit as much as the priesthood bearers.”

5. Missionary Executive Council, 2010-present

“There were 27,000-plus missionaries in 1984. Before the announcement in 2012 about the age change, we had 58,000 missionaries. Now we are over 87,000. We expected a big bump. We also expected a drop after two years’ supply of men were taken care of in one year and more than that for the women. But we’re not seeing that drop that we had anticipated because these missionaries are having such a fabulous experience that they are telling their younger brothers and sisters to get ready to go on missions.”

6. Church Educational System

Elder Nelson has served on the Church Educational System Board of Education and is now chairman of the board’s executive committee.

“We have called a wonderful commissioner of education and presidents of our universities and LDS Business College. These men are outstanding. “The impact of distance learning is very important, not only for the seminaries and institutes but for our universities.”

7. Church History

For many years Elder Nelson served as the adviser of the Church History Department. The advent of the Joseph Smith Papers project, he said, is an example “that shows you how much more we are learning about the history of the Church and the contributions of the Prophet Joseph Smith.

“That output has provided greater accessibility to the history of the Church than we’ve ever had. People with questions about the gospel can go to the Internet and find answers to their gospel questions with greater accuracy and facility than they ever had before.”

8. Assignment to open the doors of Eastern European nations, 1985-1990

In 1985, when President Ezra Taft Benson became President of the Church, he assigned Elder Nelson to direct the affairs of the Church in all of Europe and, for a time, Africa, “with a specific responsibility to open the doors of nations under the yoke of communism. In the five years that I had that assignment we opened Hungary, Czechoslovakia, Romania, Bulgaria, Russia, Ukraine and Estonia, following up on the great work of President Monson in the German Democratic Republic and Poland. I made 27 trips to Europe in five years, to 31 countries.”

9. Worldwide travel

In the 30 years he has served in the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, Elder Nelson has traveled to 129 nations, some multiple times. He has participated in the dedication of 30 countries, including six Balkan nations in four days in 2010.

10. Other specific assignments.

• 1993, he represented the Church at the Parliament of World Religions, held in Chicago, Illinois.

•1997-99, he served on the U.S. State Department of State Committee on Religious Freedom Abroad

• In the 30 years he has been an Apostle, he has created 24 stakes, called 153 stake presidents, performed 277 temple sealings, and written 16 pamphlets and books.

To see a video on Elder Nelson’ s life and service, go to go to

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