Sitting on the rostrum off to the side and behind the speaker’s podium, Elder Jeffrey R. Holland didn’t have the best line of sight to see the face of President Russell M. Nelson as the prophet spoke to Latter-day Saints in eight member devotionals spread over two weeks and three continents in April 2018.
So Elder Holland did the next best thing — something he calls “the visitor’s vector.”
“When President Nelson was at the pulpit, an easier angle than looking at him directly was to look out at the audience and watch them looking at him,” said Elder Holland, the member of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles who accompanied President Nelson on his inaugural global ministry tour last spring. “That triangle of looking at the devotion on their faces, the adoration, the tears gave me my impressions of him, my feelings about what he was saying as I saw what it meant to them, as I saw the look on their faces.”
“I loved looking at the people looking at him, watching him and listening to him,” he said.
As President Nelson and his wife, Sister Wendy Nelson, have traveled across four continents in the last five months, much has been written about the impact these devotional meetings have had on the tens of thousands of Latter-day Saints meeting with him in the first year of his tenure as Church president.
But what have these devotional trips meant to him and to the Apostles traveling with him?
Impact on President Nelson
President Nelson himself answered that question in a media interview in Montreal, Quebec, following the Aug. 18 devotional there. He labeled them “broadening” experiences.
“We enjoy meeting the people — they energize us,” he said. “We learn their names, their culture, their language.”
Like this story? Read a memorable moment of how President Nelson interacts with children during his travels.
In fact, President Nelson became the first Church president to speak extensively to a large gathering of members in a language other than English as he spoke in Spanish — the native language of the Dominican Republic and Puerto Rico — during devotionals there Sept. 1-2.
“It’s the desire of the Lord for us to be with people and help them in their challenges as they apply the teachings of the gospel in their lives,” President Nelson continued in the Montreal interview. “No matter what the problems are, we can help them. So we love to meet with them, to help them, to lift them, to love them and to learn more about them.”
President and Sister Nelson are scheduled to participate in a pair of devotionals in Seattle, Washington, and Vancouver, British Columbia. They will be joined by President Henry B. Eyring, second counselor in the First Presidency.
And the four Apostles who accompanied the Nelsons on the prophet’s first devotional trips — Elder Holland, Elder Neil L. Andersen, Elder Ronald A. Rasband and Elder Dale G. Renlund — still bask in the singular experiences as they reflect on the impact of those travel and speaking assignments on them and their wives.
In the prophet’s presence
The four are the first to acknowledge they have the privilege of knowing President Nelson more closely and interacting with him more frequently than most Church members, given the proximity of their Church Administration Building offices and the Brethren’s interactions in administrative meetings.
“But I am a member of the Church like every other member, and Russell M. Nelson is my prophet as well as theirs,” Elder Holland said. “I’m as adoring as they are because he is my prophet, he is my president.”
He called two weeks of listening to President and Sister Nelson teach “a rare privilege” for him and his wife, Sister Patricia Holland. “The members in each of those locations had that experience one time; Pat and I got to have it more than a half-dozen times in sequence. In that sense, we were very much like every other member who heard them — it’s just that we had more of a ringside seat, heard them more often, and loved every minute of it.”
Elder Andersen repeatedly invoked the Oliver Cowdery phrase “days never to be forgotten” — as found in the Joseph Smith History footnotes — when he spoke to members during the mid-August weekend in which he and Sister Kathy Andersen joined the Nelsons in central and eastern Canada.
“For Kathy and me, it was a unique experience that we’ll remember all our lives, to travel three days with the Lord’s prophet, to be at his side and to be able to testify of him and of the inspiration and revelation that he receives,” Elder Andersen said.
First on the agenda for the trip to the western Canada province of Alberta for Elder Rasband and his wife, Sister Melanie Rasband, was to join the Nelsons in an endowment session at the Edmonton Alberta Temple, with President and Sister Nelson taking family names for proxy ordinance work.
“He was not only, as the prophet, ministering to those on this side of the veil, he was literally ministering to those on the other side of the veil as well,” Elder Rasband said. “You can see how that would be a wonderful thing for me, as a partner on this trip, to tell the members, ‘You’re going to hear this great message (from President Nelson), and you’ve already heard words about the covenant path and the gathering of Israel — I want you to know that we went and did that on our first day in western Canada.’
“I just thought it exemplified Russell Nelson — he’s not just a talker of the word, he’s a doer of the word. And it gave me my message for those days in whatever setting I was in — that we started at the house of the Lord,” Elder Rasband added, saying it reminded him of how President Nelson started his presidency by broadcasting his first message in January from the Salt Lake Temple Annex and spoke the words “we want to begin with the end in mind.”
“So we did on our trip — we began at the temple.”
Before accompanying President Nelson earlier this month to the Caribbean, Elder Renlund and Sister Ruth Renlund had never been with the prophet in visiting any congregation outside the Conference Center in Salt Lake City.
“He appears tireless and desirous of blessing the people,” Elder Renlund said of accompanying President Nelson. “Being with him made us want to become better people. President Nelson exerts a Christlike influence on those around him to try hard, to be kinder and to be more devoted to the Savior and His work. This influence occurs because President Nelson is himself a genuine disciple of the Savior.”
And Elder Renlund personally saw that influence in action. “Sensing that my wife might have been a little chilled on the flight from San Juan, Puerto Rico, to Salt Lake City, President Nelson procured a blanket from the flight engineer and gave it to my wife to use,” he said. “I asked myself afterwards, ‘Why am I not that thoughtful towards my wife?’ ”
Elder Renlund watched President Nelson as he greeted several mothers and children while exiting a meetinghouse in the Dominican Republic. He held one in his arms without the child getting alarmed, then knelt by an elderly woman in a wheelchair to help buoy her spirits.
“In this ministering, he appeared completely unrushed,” Elder Renlund said. “Time seemed to slow down as he took all the time he needed to bless and lift others. In every encounter though, he directs people to the Savior and the Savior’s love.”
Elder Andersen witnessed of what he saw as President Nelson spoke to Canadian Saints.
“The people were on the edge of their seats because there was a spiritual strength that was coming, and the Lord was magnifying the president,” he said, adding, “it was very powerful to me to see the Lord’s mantle upon him, the president of the Church and the prophet of the Lord. I’ll never forget it — it was marvelous.”
One of Elder Rasband’s takeaways from the trip was President Nelson’s message of love and thanks coupled with invitations for commitment. “President Nelson loves Heavenly Father’s children, wants them to know it, wants to thank them for all they’re doing to build up the church — and then give them serious invitations: ‘We've got to do better on gathering Israel on both sides of the veil, we need to be inviting people to get on the covenant path if they're off it.’
“He’s not hesitant to extend invitations, and I love that,” Elder Rasband added. “It’s one thing to get up and give a great speech, it’s another thing to give a great speech and a stern invitation. And Russell Nelson does that — and it helps me in my ministering.”
A lifelong example
Consider the pace of President Nelson’s devotional travels so far: the first with stops in London; Jerusalem; Nairobi, Kenya; Harare, Zimbabwe; Bengaluru, India; Bangkok; Hong Kong; and Laie, Hawaii. That’s eight sites for public meetings in 14 days and a total round-trip distance of nearly 30,000 miles, well more than the 24,901-mile circumference of the earth.
Then add the others: the June trip to Alberta, with nearly 1,800 flight miles in a three-devotionals-in-as-many-nights weekend, followed by three evening devotionals in a central and eastern Canada swing that covered more than 4,000 miles and the recent Caribbean visit with two days of meetings and a nearly 6,300-mile distance.
All this from President Nelson, who turned 94 on Sunday, Sept. 9.
“Clearly it means a lot to him to be doing this,” Elder Holland said, adding “I think he’s conscious that in recent years, the presidents of the Church haven’t always been able to get out, haven’t always been with the people — but he is vigorous enough, he is healthy enough to do that. ...”
“We know and acknowledge that we won’t always have access to every president of the Church for every moment of his administration. Some of those limitations might come from ill health or the incidence of age. But while President Nelson can get out to the people, I know that he wants to do exactly that — and it’s clearly what the members want him to do. They want to see him and hear him personally.”
Elder Andersen said travel assignments — such as these devotional trips — are “energizing,” as he recalled a conversation long before being called as a General Authority when asking then-Elder Dallin H. Oaks of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles if traveling worldwide to meet with the Saints was exhausting.
“I remember him saying, ‘It’s just the opposite. It’s the going out that energizes us and makes us able to handle the things during the week. It’s being with the Saints, seeing their faith. ”
Elder Rasband said the increasing number of devotionals reminds him of President Gordon B. Hinckley’s time as Church president, “when it was almost like, ‘OK, I’ve got to come into the office and take care of some administrative business, but get me on that plane and get me out in the world.’ ”
President Nelson, he added, has that same philosophy, wanting to go, be with and minister to the people by shaking hands, giving blessings, offering apostolic blessings and lifting others. “His message about ministering is his life,” Elder Rasband said. “That’s his life — thats who he is.”
Ministering to the masses
Often when the General Authorities travel on assignment, they seek for opportunities to meet privately with a handful of individuals or families in “ministering to the one.” But when the devotionals run on a daily schedule and travel is required to get from one city to the next, it’s more “ministering to the masses.”
And yet the Apostles have watched President Nelson make it as personal and individual as possible.
“One of the things you’ll see President Nelson do is he’ll sit up in his chair, and he’ll look,” said Elder Andersen. “He’ll look around as if he’s looking at everyone, and then he’ll speak to the one. He’s speaking to everyone, but he sees in a face something that stirs a certain impression, a certain inspiration. So it’s true there’s a certain largeness to it, but there’s a personal nature to it as well.”
Elder Renlund noted the prophet’s speaking in Spanish in the Dominican Republic and Puerto Rico as connecting in a personable way. “By the look on the faces of the congregants (in Santo Domingo), each seemed to feel President Nelson was speaking directly to him or her,” he said.
“When he shifted from English to Spanish in San Juan, pronouncing an Apostolic blessing in Spanish, tears began to flow for many in the congregation. I suspect that if they were asked, they would have individually felt that they were ministered to.”
Although speaking to a large group, the Apostles recognize the individual impact provided by the Holy Ghost.
“We are able to speak to many, while knowing that the Holy Ghost will customize the impact of the message to the needs of the individual member,” said Elder Andersen.
On these devotional trips, as well as after any type of address given, Church leaders have had members come up, saying “that talk was just for me.”
Said Elder Holland of such incidents: “You have no idea who that person is or what their unique need was and you certainly didn’t prepare a talk for just one person, but that is how the Spirit works, turning a congregational experience into a one-on-one, more personal moment.”
As they arrived at the public meetings, the Apostles and their wives walked with the Nelsons, usually a respectful step or two behind. The Apostles and their wives spoke in the meetings before the Nelsons, often testifying of his prophetic calling and encouraging members to listen and learn just as they themselves do. And while the Nelsons taught later in the meetings, the Apostles and their wives listened intently and took notes, later sharing their impressions in subsequent speaking assignments or on the Apostles’ social media pages.
“We learned, too. We were eager students sitting at his feet,” Elder Holland said, underscoring the messages of President and Sister Nelson of family, temples, covenants and following divine inspiration.
“They talked about family, so Pat and I would go back to the hotel room and talk about our family. Some of the things they said, we would say ‘That’s an overlay on our situation. That fits with what we want for our children and our grandchildren.’ So in addition to being fellow travelers with them on the trip and at the pulpit, we did have our own takeaways — those little nuggets in the talks given that applied powerfully to us. ...
“In that way,” summarized Elder Holland, “we were exactly like everyday, garden-variety members of the Church who were thrilled to be with the prophet of God.”