All eight great-grandparents of Elder Russell M. Nelson, converted to the Church in Sweden, Denmark, Norway and England, immigrated to Utah and came to Ephraim between 1855 and 1863.
Thus it was that Elder Nelson of the Quorum of the Twelve felt honored to return to this southern Utah community for the annual Scandinavian Days festival held May 23-25.
He addressed a devotional on the campus of Snow College May 23. Later, he and his wife, Sister Wendy Nelson, observed the Memorial Day weekend by visiting ancestors’ graves in cemeteries in Ephraim and neighboring Manti, Utah.
“The mathematical probability of eight converts coming from four countries in Northern Europe, all coming to live in Ephraim, is remote indeed!” Elder Nelson observed in his address. “Can you imagine the language barriers that must have existed among those early residents of Sanpete County?”
Returning to Ephraim brings happy memories, he said, because his mother was born there, and the house in which she lived was located on property where a Snow College building stands. His father was born in Manti and lived in a home not far from where the Manti Utah Temple now stands.
Elder Nelson related stories of his ancestors, including John A. Jensen, born near Frederikstad, Norway. Christened Johan Andreas Jensen, he became a ship’s captain and visited many parts of the world.
“In 1849, he became intensely interested in religion and was so deeply impressed by the Christian doctrine he had learned that he distributed most of his worldly goods among the poor,” Elder Nelson recounted. “He also felt compelled to call the residents of Norway to repentance, including King Oscar of Sweden-Norway. Johan’s unpopular zeal ultimately cost him his freedom.”
He was introduced to the Church by two Mormon elders consigned to the same jail where he was incarcerated as punishment for preaching.
“In that jail, in addition to their praying and reading scriptures, the elders sang the songs of Zion,” Elder Nelson said. “The Spirit of the Lord was evident during their meeting with Johan who suddenly began to weep and declare that the message the missionaries had brought to Norway was indeed true.”
The elders, Christian J. Larsen and Svend Larsen, serving under mission president Erastus Snow, baptized Brother Jensen in the nearby Gláma River on Feb. 25, 1854.
Elder Nelson spoke of the importance of Snow College, which began as a Church school, Sanpete Academy. Its name was changed to Snow Academy and ultimately Snow College, in honor of Church President Lorenzo Snow and Erastus Snow. Today it is administered by the state of Utah.
“Of course, the crowning jewel of this area is the holy temple in Manti,” Elder Nelson said. “It was dedicated in 1888. It was my privilege to participate with President Gordon B. Hinckley, when the renovated Manti Temple was rededicated in June 1985.”
He added: “Fortunately the spirit of pioneer dedication lives on. It is part of the heritage of Ephraim, Manti and Sanpete County. The precious legacy can become a part of the personal platform on which each of us may now stand.”
At the cemetery in Ephraim, in a conversation with KSL-TV news reporter Sam Penrod, Elder Nelson expressed “great reverence and personal indebtedness” toward his ancestors, though he did not learn much about them until he undertook research in his adulthood.
“Thank goodness for [former Assistant Church Historian] Andrew Jenson, who wrote the history of the Church in Scandinavia,” he said. “Much of what I know came from his research and his writings.”
He noted that Elder Steven E. Snow, current Church Historian, is a direct descendant of Erastus Snow, and that his own ancestor, Johan Andreas Jensen, was converted by two missionaries serving under Erastus Snow. “So I feel pretty close to the Snow family.”
Noting that everyone has parents, grandparents and great-grandparents, Elder Nelson said, “There’s a rich treasure of information with each one. Some are converts to the Church, some have never known about the Church, but the marvelous thing is that the Lord, before the foundation of the world, knew that there would be those who died without a knowledge of the gospel, and He made provision for them to have all of the blessings that come to those who do know about the gospel and who do have access to the ordinances and covenants. And that blessing is called eternal life.”
In the same conversation, Sister Nelson said, “For the last five months, as my husband knows, my ancestors have been letting me know how eager they are — actually we now say how desperate they are — for the saving ordinances. They are receiving the gospel from missionaries on that side of the veil just as my husband has been helping with missionary work on this side of the veil.” (Elder Nelson is chairman of the Missionary Executive Council.)
— Sam Penrod of KSL-TV contributed to this report