In his first public address as the 17th President of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints delivered almost three years ago, President Russell M. Nelson humbly directed attention away from himself to Jesus Christ and then characteristically looked forward.
“The Lord always has and always will instruct and inspire His prophets,” he declared. “The Lord is at the helm! We who have been ordained to bear witness of His holy name throughout the world will continue to seek to know His will and follow it.”
Speaking in a live telecast from the annex of the Salt Lake Temple on Tuesday morning, Jan. 17, 2018, President Nelson spoke of beginning his tenure as President of the Church with “the end in mind.”
“The end for which each of us strives is to be endowed with a power in a house of the Lord, sealed as families — faithful to the covenants made in a temple that qualify us for the greatest gift of God, that of eternal life.”
As millions across the globe — both inside and outside of the Church — focused on President Nelson, he expressed gratitude for the Lord, for his Brethren and for the prayers of Latter-day Saints. He spoke with a humility that would in every way define his leadership.
Instead of sharing his impressive and broad resume, he invited Church members to think about “the majestic manner by which the Lord governs His Church.” Instead of quoting the educated or the famous, President Nelson quoted a 4-year-old boy who had prayed that he would “be brave and not scared.” And instead of directing the focus on Church members to a personal agenda or platform, he simply asked them to stay on or return to the covenant path.
“Your commitment to follow the Savior by making covenants with Him and then keeping those covenants will open the door to every spiritual privilege and blessing available to men, women and children everywhere.”
He concluded by declaring his devotion to the Father and the Son. “I know Them, love Them and pledge to serve Them — and you — with every remaining breath of my life.”
President Nelson, then 93, was set apart as the 17th President of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints on Jan. 14, 2018, after serving 34 years in the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles. He brought a lifetime of preparation to his new position. A world-renowned surgeon and man of perfect pitch that played the organ during quorum meetings, President Nelson had visited 133 countries — participating in the dedications of 31 of those countries and opening doors for the Church in Eastern Europe and China. At headquarters he had served as the chairman of each of the Church’s three governing committees — the Missionary Executive Council, the Temple and Family History Executive Council and the Priesthood and Family Executive Council.
“I have seen the Lord magnify him and bless him and shape him for this hour,” Elder Jeffrey R. Holland of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles said in a Church News interview. “He gave the Lord a wonderful package of raw material to work with, but I have seen the Lord bless him and mold him into becoming the prophet of the Lord that we sustain him to be.”
President Nelson, the leader of almost 17 million Latter-day Saints worldwide, has traveled extensively, changed Church organization, utilized technology, issued historic invitations and built bridges of understanding.
Certainly his fast-paced ministry took at least some outside the Church by surprise. A Jan. 3, 2018, Wall Street Journal headline, announcing the death of President Thomas S. Monson, added “Likely Successor Unlikely to Alter Church’s Course.”
The article could not have been more off the mark.
During his tenure as leader of the Church, President Nelson has addressed hundreds of thousands of Latter-day Saints — often in their own language — and called upon kings, presidents and prime ministers. He has comforted victims of crime and others who grieve, called children to him, and linked armed top leaders of the NAACP.
Through the Church’s council system and with the full support of the First Presidency and Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, he has also enacted multiple policy changes within the Church.
Under his leadership, Latter-day Saint leaders replaced home and visiting teaching with ministering, adjusted Sunday meetings schedule in order to accommodate home-centered, Church-supported gospel study and asked members to use the full and correct name of the Church. He changed a Church policy allowing the children of parents who identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender to be blessed as infants and baptized; discontinued a policy requiring couples who marry civilly to wait one year before being married or sealed in the temple; and established a policy allowing women to serve as witnesses of temples sealing and women, youth and children to serve as witnesses for baptismal ordinances.
“One of the things the Spirit has repeatedly impressed upon my mind since my new calling as President of the Church is how willing the Lord is to reveal His mind and will,” said President Nelson during the Church’s April 2018 general conference. “The privilege of receiving revelation is one of the greatest gifts of God to His children.”
Science and faith
First as pioneering heart surgeon and then as a worldwide religious leader, President Nelson has set his ministry as an example of understanding and following physical and spiritual laws. During an interview in Brasília, Brazil, in August 2019, he and his wife, Sister Wendy Nelson, spoke of the universe, of the human body, of gravity and airplanes and of playing the game of Scrabble.
“I want to know what the laws are,” he said. “If I can know the laws, then I can get the blessings.”
Divine law “is incontrovertible,” he explained. “Everyone receives a blessing from God because they were obedient to the law that pertained to that area. Our job is to teach people about these eternal laws. They’re called commandments, but they are just as true as the law of lift, the law of gravity, the law that governs the heartbeat.”
By simply following these laws, President Nelson continued, individuals receive a direct blessing of joy. “It becomes a rather simple formula. If you want to be happy, keep the commandments.”
In 2020, President Nelson approached the COVID-19 pandemic as both a man of science and as a man of faith.
As the coronavirus spread across the globe, Church leaders — desiring to be responsible global citizens — immediately took action, canceling Church meetings, closing the Church’s 168 dedicated temples and returning missionaries to their home countries.
Still, under the unique and difficult circumstances, Church leaders carried on, said President M. Russell Ballard in a Church News interview. “The work continues,” said the Acting President of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles. “The Lord has provided us with the technology for this time.”
Amid the pandemic, Church leaders looked forward with the faith that has defined President Nelson’s leadership.
Thousands of young Latter-day Saints accepted mission calls — all receiving missionary training from a home, virtual MTC, and many receiving temporary reassignments. The Church cautiously and carefully enacted a phased reopening of temples based on local circumstances and governmental restrictions; leaders also broke ground for 21 new temples in 2020. And Church leaders held two general conferences — broadcast worldwide from headquarters; reorganized stakes with the aid of video conferencing; extended the calling of new missionary training center presidents, temples presidents and mission presidents; and continued to speak publicly with the aid of technology.
Church leaders also celebrated the bicentennial of the 200th anniversary of Joseph Smith’s First Vision, not with a grand celebration, but by inviting Latter-day Saints across the globe to learn to hear the voice of the Lord better and more often. And the response of Latter-day Saint Charities to the COVID-19 pandemic became the largest in Church history, with aid being provided in more than 150 countries.
In a May 2020 interview with the Church News, President Nelson said “even through clouds of sorrow, there can be silver linings found.”
“The purpose of the Church is to bring the blessings of God to His children on both sides of the veil,” he said.
President Nelson titled his opening October 2020 general conference address “Moving Forward.”
“During the past few months, a global pandemic, raging wildfires, and other natural disasters have turned our world upside down,” he said. “I grieve with each of you who has lost a loved one during this time. And I pray for all who are currently suffering.
“Meanwhile, the work of the Lord is steadily moving forward. Amid social distancing, face masks and Zoom meetings, we have learned to do some things differently and some even more effectively. Unusual times can bring unusual rewards.”
‘All things are possible’
In a historic interview in Rome in March 2019, President Nelson called the dedication of the Rome Italy Temple “a hinge point in the history of the Church.”
He added, “Things are going to move forward at an accelerated pace. The Church is going to have an unprecedented future, unparalleled. We’re just building up to what’s ahead now.”
Sister Nelson said, in a press interview in Brasilia, Brazil, on Aug. 30, 2019, that the older her husband gets, the more President Nelson is “enchanted with the future.” He has a continual urgency about everything he is doing, she added. “Yes, there is an urgency.”
President Nelson said in the interview that he doesn’t spend much time looking back. “There are exciting things ahead,” he explained. “This work is moving forward at an accelerated pace. I can hardly wait to bounce out of bed each morning and see what the day will bring.”
President Nelson reflected again on the future of the Church on Nov. 21, 2019, in Jakarta, Indonesia, after speaking to a capacity crowd of 1,765. President Nelson described that it was: “One of those moments that you never forget. You can’t put words to it very well, but it is the Lord telling you that this is His work and He is directing it and we get to participate.”
Approaching his three-year anniversary as President of the Church, President Nelson continues this forward momentum, asking Church members to “let God prevail in their lives.”
“Are you willing to let God prevail in your life?” he said during October general conference. “Are you willing to let God be the most important influence in your life?,” he said during October 2020 general conference. “Will you allow His words, His commandments, and His covenants to influence what you do each day? Will you allow His voice to take priority over any other? Are you willing to let whatever He needs you to do take precedence over every other ambition? Are you willing to have your will swallowed up in His?”
In November 2020, he offered a surprising remedy — one that “flies in the face of our natural intuitions” — for all that ails the world: gratitude.
“Over my nine and a half decades of life, I have concluded that counting our blessings is far better than recounting our problems. No matter our situation, showing gratitude for our privileges is a fast-acting and long-lasting spiritual prescription.
“Does gratitude spare us from sorrow, sadness, grief and pain? No, but it does soothe our feelings. It provides us with a greater perspective on the very purpose and joy of life.”
And just weeks ago — reminiscent of his first public address as the leader of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints — President Nelson again directed the Church’s attention to Jesus Christ and promised that all things are possible through Him.
During this unprecedented year — when virtually every person in the world has suffered the effects of the global pandemic — “there is nothing more important we can do … than to rivet our focus on the Savior and on the gift of what His life really means to each of us…,” he said.
“From His example, He taught that we, too, can arise from the depths of our individual challenges — our sadness, weakness and worries, to reach the heights of our own glorious potential and divine destiny. All this is possible by virtue of His mercy and grace.”