SALT LAKE CITY –– President Russell M. Nelson surprised the audience during his 95th birthday celebration with a pre-recording of him playing Chopin’s “Prelude in C Minor.” It was the icing on the cake after an awe-inspiring program of musical performances and tributes to President Nelson.
Other unexpected moments during the event were a “Happy Birthday” song from the audience led by a grandchild in the Bonner Family and a story from host Elder S. Gifford Nielsen about how President Nelson almost accidentally paid his power bill sent to Church headquarters (both their wives are named Wendy).
President Nelson, the 17th president of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, was all smiles during his 95th birthday celebration in the Conference Center on Friday, Sept. 6. The Tabernacle Choir and Orchestra at Temple Square were joined by Donny Osmond, The Bonner Family, Nathan Pacheco, Jenny Oaks Baker & Family Four and GENTRI for an unforgettable lineup on a stage featuring bright, colorful lights and a jovial atmosphere. More than 20,000 attended and the event was broadcast live in seven languages.
Hosts Elder Nielsen — a General Authority Seventy, former sportscaster and professional football quarterback — and Ruth Todd, a former television news anchor, referred to the 95th birthday celebration as “a landmark in the life of President Nelson.”
“If I have learned anything certain in my 95 years of life, it’s that Jesus the Christ is the Son of God. His Church has been restored in these latter-days to prepare the world for His Second Coming,” President Nelson said as he closed the event with his testimony. “He is the light and life of the world. Only through Him can we reach our divine destiny and eventual exaltation.”
‘My testimony was fortified’
At the end of the program, President Nelson expressed sincere appreciation to the performers. He also acknowledged his parents; his late wife, Dantzel; his current wife, Wendy; and the General Authorities and general officers of the Church. He then thanked Church members and friends not of the faith.
“It is a great privilege to serve beside you throughout the world. These colorful flags represent the many nations where our members reside,” President Nelson said of close to 150 flags lining both sides of the stage. “Everyday I thank my Heavenly Father in the name of Jesus Christ for the gift of life and the privilege of serving His children.
“Jesus the Christ is literally my Savior, my Redeemer, my exemplar and friend. In this celebration tonight, efforts have been made to depict the influence of the Lord in my life,” he continued. “I acknowledge timely and generous help from heaven.”
He then extended a powerful invitation: “I invite all of God’s children on both sides of the veil to come unto their Savior.”
“I definitely feel my testimony was fortified. I cried a couple of times,” said Sarah Phelps, who attended the event and is from Austin, Texas. “I feel like music is one of the best ways to feel the Spirit, and in a setting where we’re celebrating something so awesome, it definitely was touching.”
Robert Nunn, from Harrisville, Utah, said the he felt the Spirit in the Conference Center on Friday evening and President Nelson’s message was inspiring. “It’s always such a spiritual thing to be in there and it always feels good to be there. Especially to hear President Nelson talk. I kept hoping he would,” he said.
‘A heart healer’
Since becoming prophet, President Nelson has traveled more than 90,000 miles, visited 28 countries and met with more than 100 world and religious leaders, hosts Elder Nielsen and Todd said.
He has brought happiness and hope to more than 1 million members and friends in audiences he has spoken to all around the world, they added.
“He’s just remarkable. He not only loves us, he sees the best in us,” President Eyring said.
“He’s good at understanding the impact of decisions on a variety of different people,” President Oaks said. “We love that, the way he unifies people of different points of view and different levels of experience and maturity.”
He put aside saving hearts, President Oaks said, to reach out to the whole word in service to the Lord in changing hearts. “He’s a heart healer.”
During a video presentation highlighting President Nelson’s lifelong ministry for the Savior, Elder Gerrit W. Gong said President Nelson has a unique ability to “speak to the one and the ninety and nine at the same time.”
President M. Russell Ballard spoke of the “immediate brotherhood” that was felt as he witnessed the meeting between President Nelson and Pope Francis when the Brethren were in Rome this past March. “He loves the people,” President Ballard said.
Elder Jeffrey R. Holland commented on the personal love he has felt from President Nelson: “I know he loves me and I want to be that way. I want to convey that to other people.” It’s that genuine love, Elder Holland said, that marks President Nelson as a true prophet and disciple of Jesus Christ.
Other video presentations during the event highlighted President Nelson’s family life and professional accomplishments. Rosalie Ringwood, one of nine Nelson daughters, said he made the children feel important. He always made time for them and was “never too busy to be our father.”
In 1956, President Nelson performed the first open-heart surgery in the state of Utah. At the time, Utah was the third state to do open-heart surgery. President Nelson was a “master surgeon” who was at the forefront of the technology for the heart-lung machine.
A prophet for the world
The Bonner Family received a standing ovation from President Nelson and the audience for their original arrangement “Hallelujah, the Prophet’s Medley.” The medley featured parts of the well-known Latter-day Saint songs “We Thank Thee, O God, for a Prophet” and “Follow the Prophet.”
During an interview before the event, Debra Bonner, mother of the Bonner family, shared her thoughts on her family’s opportunity to perform for the prophet.
“We are an African American family in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and we say ‘we thank God for a prophet’ … I hope that others will take a look at that and say, ‘Oh, could he possibly be a prophet for the world?’ I hope that message will go across through all the world, that we have a prophet today and they have a prophet. Every one of us in the world has a prophet today.”
Ken Hux, from Mississippi, met Debra and Harry Bonner at the Genesis Group in Salt Lake City. The Bonner Family’s performance touched him on Friday evening.
“To see them sing, to see the family unified, it just makes you feel the Church is true,” he said. “And that the gospel is forever, through testimony and through music.”
Donny Osmond, who is currently working on his 62nd album, sang “You Raise Me Up” and later performed “The Prayer,” from “Quest for Camelot” in a duet with Nathan Pacheco — a performance that received a standing ovation and the hosts deemed as “electric.” Pacheco also performed a solo Giacomo Puccini opera piece titled “Nessun Dorma.”
Jenny Oaks Baker and Family Four performed a medley from “The Sound of Music.” Baker played the violin, while her three daughters joined on the violin, piano and cello, and her son on the guitar. GENTRI, the Gentlemen Trio, performed “Come, Thou Fount of Every Blessing.”
Among the songs performed by the the Tabernacle Choir and Orchestra were “Press, Forward Saints,” “His Voice as the Sound,” “It Is Well with My Soul,” “Alleluia,” “Softly and Tenderly” and “Guide us, O Thou Great Jehovah.” The choir and orchestra were conducted by Mack Wilberg and Ryan Murphy, with Richard Elliott and Andrew Unsworth at the organ.
At the end of the program, all the performers stood and sang with the Tabernacle Choir to close the evening with “Let Us All Press On.”