Getting to know President M. Russell Ballard, Acting President of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles

His great-great-grandfather, Hyrum Smith, was martyred at Carthage with the Prophet Joseph. His grandfather, Elder Melvin J. Ballard of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, recorded a dream in which the Savior appeared to him in a room in the Salt Lake Temple and embraced him.

He has a rich family legacy, and President M. Russell Ballard has built upon it with his own ministry spanning 42 years as a General Authority, 32 of them as a member of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles.

Now, he leads that quorum, having been appointed as its acting president on the occasion of the recent reorganization of the First Presidency.

“When I was a young missionary in Hucknell, England, and read Grandfather’s testimony, I wept,” he recounted in a 1986 Church News interview. “A spirit came over me that confirmed his testimony was true. Ever since then I have felt I have known the Lord very intimately through Grandfather’s experience.”

It was while on that mission in England in 1950 Elder Ballard called upon the publisher of the Newbury Weekly News. His family history had included an account from Elder Melvin J. Ballard, who was a boy of 11 in Logan, Utah, when two elderly strangers approached his sisters, handed the eldest a newspaper, and told her to take it to her father quickly. The newspaper contained an article that included valuable family history information for the Ballards.

That newspaper issue had been printed on May 15, 1884, and, miraculously in those days before air travel, it was delivered to the Ballard family only three days later.

Later, as a missionary in England, Elder M. Russell Ballard wished to see a copy of that issue. After some persuasion, the publisher took him to the newspaper “morgue,” and allowed him to take a picture with his own camera of that newspaper issue. He still has that photo in his possession.

M. Russell Ballard was born Oct. 9, 1928, to Melvin R. and Geraldine Smith Ballard in Salt Lake City, where he attended East High School and enrolled at the University of Utah in 1946.

That was where he met Barbara Bowen after returning from his mission in 1950. In an experience that paralleled that of President Thomas S. Monson and Sister Frances Monson, he met her at a “Hello Day Dance.”

“A friend of mine thought I ought to meet her, so he tagged in to dance with her, danced over to where I was, introduced me, and I danced with her 30 seconds before I was tagged out,” he recalled later. “That was the beginning of a courtship of 11 months.”

They were married in the Salt Lake Temple on Aug. 28, 1951, and shortly thereafter, he was called to serve in a bishopric of the Monument Park 13th Ward in Salt Lake City.

Later, he would be the bishop of the ward, and it was after that service that he became adviser to the priests quorum in the early 1970s.

“He was just wonderful,” one of the priests, Steve Holbrook, recalled at a reunion with President Ballard in January 2004. “He would take each of us out to lunch when we would get our mission calls. It was at Fred’s Burger Chalet, which was right next to his office.”

Former Explorer adviser Chip Smith recalled at the reunion that if President Ballard came to class on Sunday and found that some of his priests were absent, “he’d be on the phone in the hall, and he’d call every one of those boys to come.”

Soon thereafter, he was called to preside over the Canada Toronto Mission from 1974 to 1977. It was during that service that he was sustained to the First Quorum of the Seventy on April 3, 1976, continuing his duties as mission president until the term of service was up.

On Feb. 21, 1980, he was called as a member of the Presidency of the Seventy, where he served until his call as an apostle on Oct. 6, 1985.

During his ministry as an apostle, President Ballard has become known for memorable teachings and events.

He has been, for example, an energetic advocate of the council system in the Church stretching as far back as October 1993, when he talked on that subject in general conference for the first time.

A subsequent April 1994 general conference sermon was expanded into a book titled Counseling with Our Councils, published in 1997 and revised in 2010.

Perhaps due in part to his ancestral heritage and family relationship to the Prophet Joseph Smith, President Ballard has championed the preservation and commemoration of Church history.

He chaired the council that organized the Church’s worldwide Pioneer Sesquicentennial of 1996-97, the centerpiece of which was a wagon train and handcart trek from Nauvoo, Illinois, to Winter Quarters, Nebraska, ending up at the mouth of Emigration Canyon in Salt Lake City, the point where President Brigham Young and the 1847 Mormon pioneers gazed at and descended into the Salt Lake Valley.

The canyon was the site of a gala celebration in July 1997 to welcome the commemorative wagon train, held at This Is the Place Heritage Park in Salt Lake City and attracting some 50,000 spectators.

The park, which memorializes the arrival of the pioneers in 1847 and includes a living-history village among its attractions, has been a pet institution of President Ballard over the years.

In 2007, the Mormon Historic Sites Foundation bestowed its Junius F. Wells Award upon President Ballard for his contributions to the memorialization of Church history.

Based in part on experiences in his ministry, President Ballard wrote a compassionate, informative and hopeful article, “Suicide: Some Things We Know, and Some We Do Not,” published in the October 1987 Ensign.

“I believe the Lord will consider each case separately and judge the circumstances of each individual,” he wrote in that article. “I have sincerely sought direction from our Father in Heaven to help me understand the nature of suicide. And I have come to know, as well as anything else that I know from God, that these people have a place in the kingdom of our Father, and it is not one of darkness or despair, but one where they can receive comfort and experience serenity.”

President Ballard has been keenly aware of the development of technology and its potential impact in the lives of the Latter-day Saints for good or ill.

In speeches in 2007 and 2008 given to graduating students at BYU-Hawaii and BYU-Idaho, he urged them to become involved in the worldwide conversation about the Church that was transpiring via the Internet.

As social media grew more and more pervasive, he admonished young people to let it be their servant and not their master. Speaking at a May 2014 worldwide satellite broadcast emanating from San Diego, California, and delivered to college-age Church members, he expressed concern about excessive text messaging and use of social media that supplant talking directly with one another and talking in prayer to God.

“Too often, young people find themselves in the same room with family or friends but are busily communicating with someone not present, thereby missing an opportunity to visit with those nearby,” he remarked.

The spiritual welfare of the Latter-day Saints has been an ongoing concern of President Ballard during his ministry.

In a memorable October 2014 general conference sermon, he spoke of challenges that at times confront them, including “physical and mental health issues, the death of a loved one, dashed dreams and hopes and — for some — even a crisis of faith when faced with life’s problems, questions and doubts.”

He employed a metaphor used by President Brigham Young, “the Old Ship Zion,” to represent the Church of Jesus Christ.

“Given the challenges we all face today, how do we stay on the Old Ship Zion?” President Ballard asked. “Here’s how. We need to experience a continuing conversion by increasing our faith in Jesus Christ and our faithfulness to His gospel throughout our lives — not just once but regularly.”

“Stay in the boat and hold on!” would be a theme he would return to repeatedly in coming years.

The opportunities and responsibilities of teachers to help young people do that were emphasized in his Feb. 26, 2016, address in the Salt Lake Tabernacle to Church Educational System religious educators.

“Gone are the days when a student asked an honest question and a teacher responded, ‘Don’t worry about it!’ ” he remarked. “Gone are the days when a student raised a sincere concern and a teacher bore his or her testimony as a response intended to avoid the issue. Gone are the days when students were protected from people who attacked the Church.”

In the face of 21st century challenges, CES teachers must “love the Lord, His Church and your students,” he admonished. “You must also bear pure testimony sincerely and often. Additionally, more than at any time in our history, your students also need to be blessed by learning doctrinal or historical content and context by study and faith accompanied by pure testimony so they can experience a mature and lasting conversion to the gospel and a lifelong commitment to Jesus Christ. Mature and lasting conversion means they will ‘stay in the boat and hold on’ throughout their entire lives.”