A historical perspective on President Nelson’s #GiveThanks invitation and other messages on gratitude

At a time in history when a disease has brought the world to its knees, the President of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is a renowned medical doctor. 

That is one of several reasons why President Russell M. Nelson’s recent message to the world on gratitude is “particularly interesting” and “quite inspirational” to historian Richard E. Turley Jr. 

“What makes his invitation interesting is that he says, ‘As a medical doctor, I’m interested in what’s happening to try to resolve this pandemic. But I’m going to offer you a solution that may be a little bit counterintuitive,’” said Turley, a retired managing director of the Church’s Communications Department and former assistant Church historian and recorder. 

“It’s that invitation, the invitation towards gratitude, that makes this one unusual. It is a simple remedy — and that’s the power of his invitation.”

In a video message on Nov. 20, President Nelson issued two invitations to embrace “the healing power of gratitude”: First, turn social media into a gratitude journal with posts using #GiveThanks. Second, thank God through daily prayer. 

“No matter our situation, showing gratitude for our privileges is a fast-acting and long-lasting spiritual prescription,” President Nelson said. 

During a Church News podcast released Nov. 24, Turley provided a historical perspective on President Nelson’s message and highlighted similar invitations from Church leaders. 

A historical perspective

Church leaders in the past have issued invitations to the world. “But there has been no invitation quite like the one that President Nelson gave,” Turley said. 

“There are elements of his invitation that have appeared in other presentations in the past, but the combination of what he says about the history, and also the perspective that he gives, together with the prayer at the end, are unique.”

Podcast: What Richard Turley Jr. says about President Nelson’s #GiveThanks message and other prophetic invitations

One aspect of President Nelson’s invitation that separates it from invitations issued by previous Church presidents is the direct encouragement of social media use — a 96-year-old Prophet asked the world to post every day and use a hashtag. 

“Those of us who have spent a lot of time around President Nelson know that he is what you call ‘an early adopter of technology,’” Turley said. “He has stayed very much in tune with technology as it’s developed over his lifetime. So it’s not unusual to have him referred to social media or to pull out his iPhone or to look at apps.”

During his first year as President of the Church, President Nelson asked audiences of youth and women to fast from social media as part of an invitation to help gather Israel. “He recognizes that we can allow technology to consume our lives. … Now he’s told us to take technology and turn it to a good use by making it a journal of gratitude,” Turley said. 

Assistant Church Historian and Recorder Richard E. Turley Jr. displays historical documents during a press conference Sept. 4, 2013, announcing the release of the latest volume in the Church's ongoing Joseph Smith Papers project in Salt Lake City,
Assistant Church Historian and Recorder Richard E. Turley Jr. displays historical documents during a press conference Sept. 4, 2013, announcing the release of the latest volume in the Church’s ongoing Joseph Smith Papers project in Salt Lake City, Credit: Ravell Call, Deseret News

President Nelson’s message on gratitude is reflective of other invitations he has issued since he was sustained as Prophet in January 2018. 

Referencing President Nelson’s invitation in the October 2020 general conference to “let God prevail,” Turley said, “I think this current invitation is very much an echo of that plea on his part. … He points out to us that we need to count our blessings and not recount our difficulties.”

President Nelson has repeatedly encouraged Latter-day Saints to increase their spiritual capacity and seek to hear the voice of the Lord — “Hear Him.” With this most recent invitation, “he’s given us a tool to do that,” Turley said. 

Earlier this year, President Nelson twice invited Latter-day Saints and those of other faiths to fast and pray for “physical and spiritual healing” in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.  

During the 1918 influenza pandemic, Church meetings were also canceled or postponed, people were encouraged to wear masks and many families suffered. “In 1918, the First Presidency designated a day of fasting and prayer for Church members,” Turley said. The purpose was “for the arrest and speedy suppression by Divine Power of the desolating scourge that is passing over the earth.”

Other notable messages from Church leaders on gratitude

In President Nelson’s 11-minute address, he referenced specific challenges he has faced, including the loss of his wife Dantzel and his two daughters

“He’s not just asking us to do something here. He’s asking us to do something that he reflects in his own personal life,” Turley said. “In my associations with him over the decades, I have found him to be an extremely upbeat and positive man who looks at the happy and wonderful things that the Lord has given to him, more than he looks at the negative.”

Similar sentiments of gratitude and positivity amid hardship can be found in statements by President Joseph F. Smith, President Howard W. Hunter and President Gordon B. Hinckley.

President Joseph F. Smith served as President of the Church from 1901-1918.
President Joseph F. Smith served as President of the Church from 1901-1918. Credit: Intellectual Reserve, Inc.

President Smith, who served as sixth president of the Church, lost 13 children during his lifetime. He said, “The spirit of gratitude is always pleasant and satisfying because it carries with it a sense of helpfulness to others; it begets love and friendship, and engenders divine influence. … The grateful man sees so much in the world to be thankful for, and with him the good outweighs the evil. Love overpowers jealousy, and light drives darkness out of his life” (Joseph F. Smith, “Gospel Doctrine,” 1939).

When President Hunter was president of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles prior to becoming 14th president of the Church, he spoke in a Church Educational System fireside for young adults at Brigham Young University in February 1993

President Howard W. Hunter served as President of the Church from 1994-1995.
President Howard W. Hunter served as President of the Church from 1994-1995. Credit: Intellectual Reserve, Inc.

Just as President Nelson began his invitation with a description of what he has seen during his nine and a half decades of life, President Hunter said, “In my lifetime I have seen two World Wars plus Korea plus Vietnam and all that you are currently witnessing. I have worked my way through the depression and managed to go to law school while starting a young family at the same time. I have seen stock markets and world economics go crazy and have seen a few despots and tyrants go crazy, all of which causes quite a bit of trouble around the world in the process.”

President Hunter continued, “I am frank to say tonight that I hope you won’t believe all the world’s difficulties have been wedged into your decade, or that things have never been worse than they are for you personally, or that they will never get better. I reassure you that things have been worse and they will always get better. They always do.”

As first counselor in the First Presidency before serving as 15th President of the Church, President Hinckley said during a BYU devotional in March 1994, “We still hear much talk of economic depression. Some of you here tonight may be unemployed or struggling to make it. Things could be worse. Heaven forbid that we should ever slip again into the kind of monetary quagmire through which we struggled in the 1930s. 

President Gordon B. Hinckley served as President of the Church from 1995-2008.
President Gordon B. Hinckley served as President of the Church from 1995-2008. Credit: Intellectual Reserve, Inc.

“I was there then,” President Hinckley continued. “I graduated from the University of Utah in 1932. The unemployment rate was more than 30 percent. Those were days of long soup lines, of suicides that came of discouragement, of a bleakness of life that few of you can understand. But somehow we survived and made it.”

One advantage to having Church leaders with long life experience “is they’ve seen a lot, and therefore they have a perspective,” Turley said.

“That’s one thing that President Nelson gives us in this invitation, is a perspective. And calling on us to be grateful, is a way of offsetting the sometimes overly negative attitudes that we adopt when bad things happen to us.”