A sneak peek into Sheri Dew’s new book, ‘Insights from a Prophet’s Life’

Each prophet’s mortal schooling is singular, writes Sheri Dew in the preface of “Insights from a Prophet’s Life” — a new book on the life and personal experiences of President Russell M. Nelson.

“In studying a prophet’s life, we see how the Lord molds, prepares, and tutors a man so that at the appointed hour, he is able, worthy, and ready to be His mouthpiece and to lead His people,” said Dew, executive vice-president and chief content officer of Deseret Management Corporation.

“Like those who have preceded him, President Russell M. Nelson is no ordinary man. His professional accomplishments as one of the earliest pioneers of open-heart surgery are well documented. His contributions to the Church as a General Authority and General Officer now span four decades. His personal attributes are exemplary. He is exceptional in so many ways.

Dr. Russell M. Nelson during an operation.
Dr. Russell M. Nelson during an operation. Credit: Courtesy of Nelson family

“And yet he, like King Benjamin and every other prophet who has ever lived, has felt pain, made mistakes, fallen short at times, and been called upon to do things that at the time looked impossible. These experiences have led to one of President Nelson’s favorite phrases — that the Lord uses the unlikely to accomplish the impossible, and he has often used himself as a perfect example of that truth.”

This week the Church News shares brief excerpts from “Insights.”

The one thing he did late was get baptized

Russell Nelson was a standout in anything he touched, and he seems to have done almost everything early. He graduated from high school early, went to the university early, graduated from medical school early, and so on. The one thing he did late was get baptized.

He was sixteen years old and a senior in high school when he was baptized and confirmed a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and received the gift of the Holy Ghost. Curiously, though, throughout his growing-up years, Russell had continued to attend church — usually alone. His closest friends were not in his ward, he wasn’t wowed by the lessons, and he thought the music conductor was intimidating. “He had a baton,” Russell remembered, “and he loved to shake it at my nose and at the other boys as well. ‘Master, the Tempest Is Raging’ was a favorite, and he was quite energetic with that baton of his during that song.”

I knew the gospel was for real.

Something inside, however, kept him going. At the time of his baptism, Sterling W. Sill, who would later serve as a General Authority, was his bishop, and Bishop Sill took a special interest in the teenaged Russell. “By that point, I had a testimony. I knew the gospel was for real,” Russell said.

It would be decades before his parents would become active in the Church. “As I matured and began to understand the magnificence of Heavenly Father’s plan, I often said to myself, ‘I don’t want one more Christmas present! I just want to be sealed to my parents’” (Nelson, “Revelation”).

Lieutenant Nelson

As it turns out, at least some of what would later be depicted in the popular television sitcom M*A*S*H wasn’t all that far from the truth. Television doctors Hawkeye Pierce and B. J. Hunnicutt didn’t know one end of a rifle from the other, and neither did Dr. Nelson. On the flight from Tokyo to Taegu, Korea, a superior officer handed him a rifle and told him to carry it. When Lieutenant Nelson protested, saying he’d never used a rifle and had no idea how to fire one, he was instructed, “Carry it anyway.” One day, while he was walking through a Korean village, guerillas in surrounding hills started shooting at him. He couldn’t see where the shots were coming from, and he didn’t know how to use the gun anyway. “I sensed that my rifle was more of a hazard to me than a protection,” he said (Nelson, “From Heart to Heart,” p. 77).

His research team was charged with determining why soldiers died once they entered the military’s medical care system. …

As a lieutenant, Russell M. Nelson, second from left, visited every mobile army surgical hospital in Korea.
As a lieutenant, Russell M. Nelson, second from left, visited every mobile army surgical hospital in Korea. Credit: Courtesy Elder Russell M. Nelson

Lieutenant Nelson also learned something else: that foxholes invite serious introspection. One evening the M.A.S.H. unit where he was working came under attack. He and Dr. Simeone shared a foxhole for most of the night. “Dr. Simeone, a devout Catholic, and I, a devout Latter-day Saint, prayed unitedly in our foxhole that our lives might be preserved,” he recalled. Lieutenant Nelson reflected later how much it meant to face life-threatening danger with a man of faith whose beliefs may have differed from his but who looked to the same Source for comfort and strength. Their combined faith was a boon to both that stressful night.

At another M.A.S.H., Russell met a young Latter-day Saint soldier who had been paralyzed by a gunshot wound. He wondered how to comfort the young man and ended up being the one comforted when the soldier said, “Don’t worry about me, Brother Nelson, for I know why I was sent to the earth — to gain experiences and work out my salvation. I can work out my salvation with my mind and not with my legs. I’ll be all right!” Russell recorded afterward that “the faith of that young man has motivated me ever since” (Nelson, “From Heart to Heart,” p. 79).

Dantzel's vision

It was early fall in 1957 when Dantzel woke Russell in the middle of the night to tell him about a vivid dream she’d just had. With some exuberance, she announced that she and Russell were going to have a baby boy. “During the night, I had a vision,” she said. “It was more than just a dream. I saw a baby boy. He had a round face and lots of hair and he looked just like you. I had a wonderful visit with him.”

Russell was interested, to say the least. Dantzel was pregnant with their sixth child, and after five daughters, the prospects of having a son were exciting. They adored their daughters — Marsha, Wendy, Gloria, Brenda, and Sylvia — but also loved the idea of having a son. When Emily, their sixth daughter, was born shortly thereafter, they both wondered about Dantzel’s nighttime experience but were quickly smitten with their newest baby girl.

Sixteen months later, they had another child — a girl, Laurie. And then three years later, another girl, Rosalie. And then three and a half years after that, another girl, Marjorie. Following Dantzel’s first vision of the chubby-faced, dark-haired little boy, the Nelsons made four more trips to the hospital to deliver babies and returned home each time with a precious bundle wrapped in pink.

Curiously, throughout this entire expanse of time — the better part of a decade — Dantzel’s nighttime experiences with the boy continued. “I saw him again,” she would tell Russell in the morning. “He’s such a sweet and a special young boy.”

Dantzel Nelson with fourth daughter, Brenda.
Dantzel Nelson with fourth daughter, Brenda.

They now had a large family by anyone’s standards — nine daughters — and Dantzel’s age had become an issue. With each successive pregnancy, she had found it increasingly difficult to both carry and deliver their babies. Stopping was not an option, though. Her experiences with the little boy were so vivid that she felt certain their family was not yet complete.

So, despite the fact that she would be forty-six when she delivered this baby, she became pregnant a tenth time. It had been more than five years since she had delivered Marjorie, their youngest daughter.

While in Sun Valley, Idaho, speaking at a meeting of the Idaho Heart Association, Russell awoke in the middle of the night with the clear impression that this time Dantzel was carrying the son she had been seeing for years. And he also had the impression that the little boy’s name should be Russell Marion Nelson Jr. With each previous pregnancy, Russell and Dantzel had selected both a girl’s and a boy’s name, but they’d always shied away from labeling a son as “Junior.” This time, however, it felt different.

When Dantzel went into labor, pitocin was given to strengthen her contractions. But then her blood pressure soared. Russell was at her side and became increasingly nervous as her labor did not progress. When her blood pressure hit 220/120, he insisted that her obstetrician take the baby by cesarean section. On March 21, 1972, Dantzel delivered a beautiful, twelve-pound, twenty-three-inch bundle of joy — a dark-haired, chubby-faced baby boy!

As Dantzel awakened from the anesthesia and Russell handed her bundled son to her, she exclaimed, “He’s the one! He’s the one I’ve seen and known for all these years.” Finally the Nelsons had a son, and, as Russell would quip later, “Our home was like a girls’ dormitory until our one and only son came along. Poor boy! He didn’t know who his real mother was for his first couple of years” (Nelson, “Faith and Families”).

Old family photo of President Russell M. Nelson.
Old family photo of President Russell M. Nelson. Credit: Courtesy of Nelson family

Called as an apostle

On January 11, 1984, a year to the day after the passing of Elder (LeGrand) Richards, Elder Mark E. Petersen of the Twelve passed away. Now there were two vacancies in the Twelve, and, if anything, the situation was more critical. President Kimball’s health had deteriorated even further, and his mind was less dependable. To make matters worse, those privy to the situation knew President Kimball was in no condition to receive the revelation to extend such calls.

One of those persons was Dr. Nelson. The week before the April 1984 general conference, Russell’s surgical nurse, Jan Curtis, mentioned how excited she was for the upcoming conference because two new Apostles would be called. Russell tried to gently tell her that it wasn’t going to happen. “I was his doctor, and I knew it wasn’t feasible, that President Kimball was not well or coherent enough to do it. I explained to her that calling an Apostle is the prerogative of the President of the Church and that President Kimball was simply in no condition to do that.”

Elder Dallin H. Oaks (right) gestures to President Gordon B. Hinckley as President Hinckley passes him and Elder Russell M. Nelson while leaving the Salt Lake Tabernacle on Temple Square following the afternoon session of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints' 177th Annual General Conference March 31, 2007.
Elder Dallin H. Oaks (right) gestures to President Gordon B. Hinckley as President Hinckley passes him and Elder Russell M. Nelson while leaving the Salt Lake Tabernacle on Temple Square following the afternoon session of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints’ 177th Annual General Conference March 31, 2007. Credit: Deseret News archive, Deseret News archive

For months, President Gordon B. Hinckley, the only healthy member of the First Presidency at the time (President Marion G. Romney’s health had also deteriorated), had left standing instructions with President Kimball’s caregivers that if his mind ever cleared, they were to call him immediately, regardless of the hour. Month after month passed with no call. From time to time, President Hinckley looked in on President Kimball, but an opportunity to discuss such a spiritually sensitive topic as calls to the Twelve never presented itself.

Then, at about 2:30 a.m. on the Wednesday morning prior to the April 1984 general conference, the phone rang at President Hinckley’s home. President Kimball was alert and would like to talk to him. President Hinckley rushed downtown to President Kimball’s suite in the Hotel Utah, where the issue of vacancies in the Twelve was raised. President Kimball said simply, “Call Nelson and Oaks to the Quorum of the Twelve, in that order.”

Two days later, on Friday morning, President Hinckley summoned Dr. Nelson from the regional representatives’ seminar in process. He asked Russell just one question: “Is your life in order?”

When he responded that it was, President Hinckley replied, “Good, because tomorrow we’re presenting your name to be sustained as one of the Twelve Apostles” (Dew, “Go Forward with Faith,” p. 402). With that, President Hinckley embraced the stunned Russell M. Nelson, and both men wept. “You have permission to go home and tell your wife,” President Hinckley said.

‘I have the best job in the world'

From day one, the new First Presidency found themselves in sync and working together hand in glove. President Nelson’s background in medicine, science, and research, combined with President Oaks’s legal background and President Eyring’s training as a professor of business at both Harvard and Stanford — not to mention the more than ninety combined years the three had served in the Quorum of the Twelve or First Presidency — made for rich, informed, enlightening discussions and deliberations.

President Russell M. Nelson the 17th President of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints sits with his counselors President Dallin H. Oaks, first counselor, (left) and President Henry B. Eyring, second counselor (right) at a press conference in Salt Lake City Utah on Tuesday, Jan. 16, 2018.
President Russell M. Nelson the 17th President of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints sits with his counselors President Dallin H. Oaks, first counselor, (left) and President Henry B. Eyring, second counselor (right) at a press conference in Salt Lake City Utah on Tuesday, Jan. 16, 2018. Credit: Scott G Winterton, Deseret News, Deseret News

President Nelson found their diversity of experience supportive and sustaining. “I’ve been asked if I have experienced the loneliness of leadership since becoming President of the Church. No, I haven’t,” he said. “I have not felt lonely at all. I have great counselors, and when we pray about something and are unified, we move forward. I literally have not felt the loneliness of leadership.” …

See videos of President Nelson's ministry here.

“I have the best job in the world,” President Nelson said, pushing aside the suggestion that he carries heavy burdens. “I get to approve temples and make other determinations that will bless people’s lives and move the work forward. And I have the privilege of feeling the love that the Lord has for His children — for all of His children. Could there be anything better than that?”

Something never been seen before

The campus of Church headquarters spans several blocks in downtown Salt Lake City that include Temple Square, the Conference Center, and the Church History Library as well as the block containing the Joseph Smith Memorial Building, the Lion House, the Church Office Building, the Relief Society Building, and the Church Administration Building. These blocks are connected by an intricate series of underground tunnels that make it possible for Church leaders to move easily between buildings without respect for weather or crowds.

The official portrait of the First Presidency of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints: President Russell M. Nelson, President Dallin H. Oaks, and President Henry B. Eyring.
The official portrait of the First Presidency of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints: President Russell M. Nelson, President Dallin H. Oaks, and President Henry B. Eyring.

The distance underground from the Church Administration Building to the Salt Lake Temple isn’t far — perhaps a few hundred yards. But for men in their eighties and nineties who at times deal with the physical limitations induced by age, the distance is farther than some have felt able to walk. Golf carts have been the answer, with a line of them available to whisk the Brethren over to the temple each Thursday morning for the weekly meeting of the First Presidency and Quorum of the Twelve, and then waiting to bring them back at the conclusion of the meeting followed by their lunch together. A team from Church Security always handles the transportation.

The second week President Nelson presided over the meeting of the First Presidency and Quorum of the Twelve in the temple, the security officers waiting with a line of carts afterward saw something they had never seen before. President Nelson emerged from the temple walking with both of his counselors, and every member of the Twelve walking behind them — fifteen prophets, seers, and revelators walking back from the temple to the Church Administration Building. “For the first time in anyone’s memory,” said Alan Parker, an officer with Church Security, “the carts came back empty.” If the Church’s ninety-three-year-old President could walk, everyone could walk.