CONCEPCION, Chile — President Russell M. Nelson turned 94 in September and recently has taken delight in a numerical quirk:
He now is half the age of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, which was founded 188 years ago.
The rush of changes announced since he took over leadership of the Church in January has left its membership breathless. Count his wife among them.
"I cannot get him to act his age," Sister Wendy Nelson said in Chile as the couple was completing a staggering tour of five South American countries in nine days.
A day after she said that, President Nelson amiably issued an equally startling promise as he prepared to leave Chile: He won't slow down, and neither will the Church.
"Wait till next year. And then the next year," he said, smiling broadly and laughing delightedly along with surprised reporters in a press conference immediately after dedicating the Concepcion Chile Temple. "Eat your vitamin pills. Get your rest. It's going to be exciting."
Year One has set a high bar.
In his first year, President Nelson has announced overhauls of the Church's Sunday worship schedule, its priesthood quorums, the name of its landmark choir and its youth activity and home ministry programs.
And, in six international trips across in little more than six months, President Nelson has visited 16 countries and 22 cities.
He said he plans to continue traveling in coming years.
"We're a bit frustrated because we want to go to every country," President Nelson told reporters during his latest trip to five South American nations — Peru, Bolivia, Paraguay, Uruguay and Chile. "That means all the others are left out. But, hopefully, little by little, year by year, we'll be able to reach a larger number of people. We will still speak directly to a small fraction of the 16 million population of the Church."
On the trip's final day, he added, "There are 200 countries in the world and more. Five is such a small drop in the bucket. We'll get around, but we'll still miss more than we'll touch. But we'll try. We won't give up just because it's a big job."
In South America, he spoke at five devotionals, three mission conferences, two press conferences, a temple dedication and a sacrament meeting. He also met with the president of Peru, sat for an interview conducted by the biographer of Pope Francis in Uruguay and hosted a luncheon for national and local government leaders in Chile.
President Nelson had been in each country before, but not as the President of the Church. For example, this was his 11th trip to Peru, but most of the previous visits came when he worked with and trained others as a heart surgeon.
"To come in a different way, to be a servant of the Lord and meet with people who have the commitment to keep the commandments and the joy that comes with that is just a real thrill," he said. "To watch them prosper, they're really doing very well in these countries; not necessarily temporally, although that's true, but the spiritual progress they are making is so remarkable."
We won’t give up just because it’s a big job.
During the trip, he repeatedly noted that when he was born in 1924, the Church did not exist in South America. Within his lifetime, Church membership on the continent has gone from zero to more than 4 million.
"If you add President Boyd K. Packer's lifespan and my lifespan together, that equals the number of years that the Church has been a legal entity in the world," he said. "So it's a young church. Two people's lifespans? That's not very old.
"So we're witnesses to a process of restoration. If you think the Church has been fully restored, you're just seeing the beginning. There is much more to come. … The Lord said, 'I will hasten my work in its time,' and He makes good on His promises."
He also responded to a question about a prophecy he made in April as he presided over his first worldwide general conference of the Church and was sustained as the faith's 17th prophet. At that time he declared, "Jesus Christ will perform some of his mightiest works between now and when He comes again. We will see miraculous indications that God the Father and His Son Jesus Christ preside over this Church in majesty and glory."
He expanded on that during a press conference in Chile.
"We're fulfilling that prophecy of Paul's to Timothy to the letter," he said. "We are in those latter days, and the Lord will prevail, but these are perilous times. We will be persecuted, and we have to be strong."
"It'll be a good future," he added, "although it will be characterized by a lot of opposition. … So, we will be persecuted. There will be a great sifting in the days that follow, but we're on the Lord's side, and we will prevail."
Elder Gary E. Stevenson, who with his wife, Sister Lesa Stevenson, accompanied the Nelsons on the tour, said one major takeaway for him was the connection between President Nelson and the more than 225,000 people who saw him speak on the trip.
"We've seen members of the Church, Latter-day Saints, who love their prophet," he said. "They've manifested it in so many ways. And we've seen a prophet who loves the members of the Church, and he's manifested it in so many ways.
"It's really … a blessing to be able to watch and participate."